Sri Lankan President declares state of emergency to quell mass protests against austerity measures

Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapakse on Friday declared a state of emergency in response to growing anti-government protests in Colombo and across the country over fuel and cooking gas shortages, rising prices of essential food and long daily power outages.

A Sri Lankan man shouts anti-government slogans during a protest in front of the Sri Lankan President’s private residence in suburban Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, March 31, 2022 (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

The emergency is necessary, the statement said, “for public safety, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.” The reference to “maintaining supplies and services” makes it clear that the real purpose of Rajapakse’s state of emergency is not just to quell the current protests, but to stem the growing wave of working-class strikes and protests against the government’s austerity measures directs.

The Rajapakse government is facing a severe economic crisis due to sharp falls in export earnings, tourist visits, declining remittances and rising foreign debt repayments. This situation is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine.

In February, Sri Lanka only had foreign exchange reserves to pay for a month and a half of imports, which had a huge impact on supplies of fuel, gas and even medicines. Lack of fuel for power plants has led to power shortages and long fuel and gas queues are common in Colombo and the surrounding areas.

The government’s decision last month to take tough measures dictated by the International Monetary Fund — including further devaluation of the rupee, cutting subsidies and restructuring the public sector — becomes even deeper attacks on jobs, living conditions and wages lead the working class.

The current protests against the Rajapakse government are taking on an increasingly spontaneous and mass character. On March 31, around 100 protesters blocked the road leading to President Rajapakse’s private home in Mirihana, Nugegoda, on the outskirts of Colombo. Demonstrators attempted to storm the President’s home, chanting “Gota, go home” and demanding his resignation.

Fifty people, including Sanjeewa Gallage, a freelance videographer, were arrested by police. Gallage, who was attacked and injured by police, complained that police prevented him from going to hospital for treatment.

Two journalists, Nisal Baduge and Waruna Wanniarachchi, from the English daily daily mirrorwho covered the protest were seriously injured in the head and arms after receiving stones and other blunt objects. Three police officers, including a deputy police chief, were injured in clashes with protesters.

Of those arrested, 28 have been brought to justice and 22 have been released on bail, while six others have been remanded in custody until April 4. The others were treated in hospital for injuries sustained during the police crackdown.

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