Sri Lankan security forces deployed in capital after day of protests and unrest
Security forces were deployed in the Sri Lankan capital on Friday after protesters tried to storm the president’s house angered by the country’s worst economic crisis since independence.
The South Asian nation of 22 million is facing widespread shortages of essential goods and steep price hikes, weighed down by huge debt.
Colombo police said they arrested 45 people after Thursday night’s unrest, in which a man was seriously injured.
An overnight curfew was lifted early Friday morning, but police and military presence was stepped up around the city, where the burnt-out wreckage of a bus still blocked the road to the president’s house Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
On Thursday evening, protesters set fire to tires to barricade a main road leading to the capital.
Hundreds of people, rounded up by unidentified social media activists, marched on Rajapaksa’s home to demand his resignation, torching two military buses and a police jeep and using bricks to attack officers.
Security forces fired into the crowd and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. It was not immediately clear whether they were using live ammunition or rubber bullets.
Rajapaksa was not at home during the melee, according to official sources, but senior military officials met to discuss the crisis.
Live coverage of the protest by a private television station abruptly ended after what journalists described as government pressure.
However, videos shared on social media showed men and women shouting “crazy, crazy, go home” and demanding that all members of the powerful Rajapaksa family step down.
The president’s older brother, Mahinda, is prime minister while the younger, Basil, holds the finance portfolio. Elder brother Chamal is Minister of Agriculture while nephew Namal holds the post of Minister of Sports.
Sri Lanka’s predicament was caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which torpedoed tourism and remittances.
Many economists also say it has been exacerbated by government mismanagement and years of accumulated borrowing.
Colombo imposed a broad import ban in March 2020 in a bid to save the foreign exchange needed to service its $51 billion foreign debt.
Out of gas
Diesel shortages have sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, but protests have taken place in various cities and have not targeted any senior leaders.
But on Thursday, diesel was not available at stations on the island, according to officials and media.
The state electricity monopoly said it had imposed a 1 p.m. blackout from Thursday – the longest on record – because it had no diesel for generators.
Public transport is paralyzed, as diesel is the main fuel used for buses and utility vehicles.
“We are siphoning off fuel from buses that are in the garage for repairs and using that diesel to run roadworthy vehicles,” Transport Minister Dilum Amunugama said.
Reservoirs, which supply more than a third of electricity demand via hydroelectric plants, were also at dangerously low levels.
Several public hospitals have stopped performing surgeries as they have run out of essential life-saving drugs.
The government said it was seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund while asking for more loans from India and China.
IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters in Washington on Thursday that those talks should begin “in the coming days”, with Sri Lanka’s finance minister expected in the US capital.