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Sri Lanka clamps curfew after emergency declared

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Sri Lanka imposed a countrywide curfew starting Saturday evening until Monday morning, in addition to a state of emergency declared by the President, in an attempt to prevent more unrest after protesters took to the streets blaming the government for the worsening economic crisis.

The government’s information head Mohan Samaranayake said in a statement that the curfew is being imposed under powers vested with the President, even as hundreds of lawyers urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to revoke the state of emergency to ensure that freedom of speech and peaceful assembly are respected.

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“Under the powers given to the president, curfew has been imposed countrywide from 6 p.m. (1230 GMT) on Saturday to 6 a.m. (0030 GMT) on Monday,” the government’s information department said in a statement.

President Rajapaksa assumed emergency powers on midnight Friday amid calls for public protests throughout the country on Sunday, as anger over shortages of essential foods, fuel and long power cuts boiled over this week into calls for his resignation.

In the past, a state of emergency order allowed the military to arrest and detain suspects without warrants. The current restrictions were not immediately clear, said a rights’ lawyer.

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Shops opened and traffic was normal, while police remained stationed at some petrol stations.

Sri Lanka faces huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused a lack of basic supplies. People wait in long lines for gas, and power is cut for several hours daily because there’s not enough fuel to operate power plants and dry weather has sapped hydropower capacity.

Highlighting the severe shortage of foreign currency, a vessel carrying 5,500 metric tonnes of cooking gas had to leave Sri Lankan waters after Laugfs Gas, the company that ordered it, could not procure $4.9 million from local banks to pay for it.

The government has said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and is also asking for fresh loans from India and China.

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Rajapaksa said the state of emergency was necessary to protect public order and maintain essential services. The island nation’s economic woes date back a failure of successive governments to diversify exports, instead relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods.

The Covid-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the economy with the government estimating a loss of $14 billion in the last two years. Protesters also point to mismanagement — Sri Lanka has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around $7 billion for this year alone.

On Thursday, angry crowds demonstrated along the roads leading to Rajapaksa’s private residence on the outskirts of Colombo and stoned two army buses that police were using to block their path. The protesters set fire to one of the buses and turned back a fire truck that rushed to douse it.

Rajapaksa’s office blamed “organized extremists” within the thousands of protesters for the violence. Police fired tear gas and a water cannon and arrested 54 people. Dozens of other people were injured and some journalists beaten by police.

The emergency declaration by Rajapaksa gives him wide powers to preserve public order, suppress mutiny, riot or civil disturbances or for the maintenance of essential supplies. Under the emergency, the president can authorise detentions, seizure of property and searching of premises. The ongoing crisis has marked a sharp turnaround in fortune for Rajapaksa, who swept into power with a majority win in 2019 promising stability.

The powerful Rajapaksa family includes not only the president but his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Five other family members serve as lawmakers, including Sri Lanka finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, irrigation minister Chamal Rajapaksa and a nephew, sports minister Namal Rajapaksa.



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