Police in Sri Lanka have announced a 36-hour curfew ahead of planned mass anti-government protests against worsening shortages of food, fuel and medicine in the South Asian island nation.
The curfew will go into effect at dusk on Saturday and be lifted on Monday morning, police said a day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa imposed a state of emergency giving authorities sweeping powers in the wake of mass protests against the unprecedented economic crisis.
The curfew and state of emergency, which gives the army authority to act alone, including arresting civilians, in the country of 22 million came as social media posts called for protests on Sunday.
“Do not be deterred by tear gas, very soon they will run out of dollars to re-stock,” said one post encouraging people to demonstrate even if police attempt to break up gatherings.
The ire of a mob in the near-bankrupt country was directed on Saturday at a woman identified as a soothsayer frequently consulted by Rajapaksa in the northern town of Anuradhapura.
Rights activist and former opposition legislator Hirunika Premachandra led dozens of women to storm seer Gnana Akka’s shrine and residence, but armed police stopped them.
“Why are police protecting a shaman?” she asked a senior officer who physically blocked her march, as seen on a Facebook live video, verified by AFP as authentic.
“Thief, thief, Gota thief,” the crowds chanted after armed security personnel stopped them.
“Think of the country and let us pass,” another woman activist pleaded.
“#GoHomeRajapaksas” and “#GotaGoHome” have been trending for days on Twitter and Facebook in the country, which is battling severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
The coronavirus pandemic has torpedoed tourism and remittances, both vital to the economy, and authorities have imposed a broad import ban in an attempt to save foreign currency.
Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing, and ill-advised tax cuts.
US ambassador Julie Chung warned: “Sri Lankans have a right to protest peacefully – essential for democratic expression.
“I am watching the situation closely, and hope the coming days bring restraint from all sides, as well as much needed economic stability and relief for those suffering,” she tweeted.
Former colonial power Britain’s envoy expressed similar concerns, while the European Union mission said it “strongly urges Sri Lankan authorities to safeguard democratic rights of all citizens, including right to free assembly and dissent, which has to be peaceful”.
Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Colombo, said the government says the emergency measures will lead to an uninterrupted supply of goods and services.
“But the concerning factor is that the emergency regulations will grant sweeping powers to authorities,” she said.
The opposition parties fear that authorities will use the sweeping powers to crack down on the protests and stifle dissent.
They have expressed the need to rescind the emergency regulations. The island nation has seen unprecedented anti-government protests in recent weeks.
“A number of protests were organised by opposition parties, but unlike before, ordinary Sri Lankans with no political affiliations have taken to the streets. And that is something that is concerning the president,” the Al Jazeera correspondent said
‘Lunatic, go home’
Travel trade specialists say the state of emergency could be a new blow to hopes of a tourism revival as insurance rates usually rise when a country declares a security emergency.
“There are reports of sporadic attacks on the homes of government politicians,” a security official told AFP, adding that a ruling party legislator was hit with eggs at a public event in the central district of Badulla on Friday.
In the nearby hill resort of Nuwara Eliya, protesters shouted anti-Rajapaksa slogans and blocked Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife Shiranthi from opening an annual flower exhibition.
Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home saw hundreds of people demand he step down.
Protesters chanted “lunatic, lunatic, go home”, before police fired tear gas and used water cannons.
The crowd turned violent, setting ablaze two military buses, a police jeep and other vehicles, and threw bricks at officers.
Police arrested 53 protesters before 21 of them were released on bail Friday night, court officials said. Others were still under arrest but had yet to be charged.