By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI, Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Police imposed a curfew in Sri Lanka’s capital and surrounding areas on Friday, a day before a planned protest demanding the resignation of the country’s president and prime minister due to the economic crisis which caused severe shortages of essential goods and disrupted people’s livelihoods.
Hours before the curfew was announced, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of protesting students wearing black clothes, holding black flags, shouting anti-government slogans and wearing banners saying “Enough – now go”.
Protesters and other critics have blamed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the worst economic crisis since the country’s independence in 1948. They also blame Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister two months ago, for failing to delivered on its promises to end the shortages. .
Civic and opposition activists said thousands more protesters would gather in Colombo on Saturday. But the police announcement of the curfew said it took effect at 9 p.m. and will last until further notice in Colombo and its suburbs.
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The announcement of the curfew drew criticism from government opponents and the Sri Lanka Bar Association, who said “the curfew is manifestly illegal and a violation of fundamental rights”.
The bar association’s statement called on police to immediately withdraw what the association called an “unlawful order” imposing the curfew.
Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa called the curfew a “fraud”.
“Take to the streets tomorrow. Challenge the dictatorship and join the people to make democracy triumph. Yes we can,” he said in a tweet.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung called on people to protest peacefully and called on the military and police to ‘give peaceful protesters the space and security to do so’ .
“Chaos and force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now,” Chung said in a tweet.
Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy and has suspended repayment of $7 billion in foreign debt due this year. It has to repay over $5 billion a year until 2026. Its foreign exchange reserves are nearly depleted and it is unable to import food, fuel, cooking gas and medicine.
Lack of fuel to run power plants has led to long daily power outages. People have to queue for hours to buy fuel and gasoline. The country has survived mainly on lines of credit from neighboring India to purchase fuel and other essentials.
Due to the economic crisis, inflation has soared and the prices of basic necessities have soared, dealing a severe blow to poor and vulnerable groups.
Due to fuel and electricity shortages, schools have been closed for weeks and the government has asked state employees other than those in essential services to work from home.
The country is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout, but Wickremesinghe said this week the negotiations are difficult because Sri Lanka is effectively bankrupt. He said earlier that the country’s economy had “collapsed”.
The economic crisis has triggered a political upheaval, with numerous anti-government demonstrations. Protesters blocked major roads to demand fuel, and residents in some areas fought for limited supplies.
In Colombo, demonstrators have occupied the entrance to the president’s office for nearly three months to demand his resignation. They accuse him and his powerful family, which includes several siblings who until recently held Cabinet positions, of precipitating the crisis through corruption and mismanagement.
Months of protests have nearly dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
One of Rajapaksa’s brothers resigned as prime minister last month, and two other brothers and a nephew left their cabinet posts earlier.
President Rajapaksa admitted he had not taken steps to avert economic collapse soon enough, but refused to leave office. It is almost impossible to oust presidents under the constitution unless they step down on their own.
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