Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa today declared a state of emergency giving sweeping powers to security forces for the second time in five weeks to deal with escalating anti-government protests. A spokesman for the president said he invoked the tough laws to “guarantee public order” after unions staged a nationwide strike on Friday demanding his resignation over the worsening economic crisis.
Earlier today, police again fired tear gas and water cannons at students trying to storm Sri Lanka’s parliament as the country came to a standstill over a union strike demanding the resignation of the government.
Months of blackouts and severe shortages of food, fuel and pharmaceuticals have caused widespread suffering across the island nation of 22 million people.
Public anger has sparked sustained protests demanding the resignation of the government over its mismanagement of the crisis, Sri Lanka’s worst since independence in 1948.
Thousands of protesting students had camped out on the road leading to the legislature, which sits on an artificial island in a lake in the capital Colombo, since Thursday.
Officers fired a barrage of tear gas followed by water cannons from two trucks, but the crowd quickly gathered behind police barricades set up to block access to parliament.
It was the second time police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas, following an earlier failed attempt on Thursday afternoon.
Millions of workers were thrown out of work today in a strike organized by the country’s trade union movement, with all but one train service cancelled. Private buses were off the roads as industrial workers demonstrated outside their factories and black flags were hung across the country in an expression of anger at the government.
“We can identify the political mistakes of the president that led to this sorry state of our economy,” union leader Ravi Kumudesh said. “He must go.”
Private buses, which make up two-thirds of the country’s fleet, were also out of circulation, said the president of the Association of Private Bus Operators, Gemunu Wijeratne. “Today we do not provide services, but if groups of people want to join the anti-government protests within a radius of 20 kilometers, we will give them our buses for free,” Wijeratne told reporters in Colombo.
Rajapaksa has insisted he will not resign despite escalating demonstrations across the island, including a protest that has been camped out outside his waterfront office for almost a month.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis took hold after the coronavirus pandemic hit tourism revenue and remittances.
Unable to pay for fuel imports, utilities have imposed daily blackouts to ration electricity, while long lines of people snake around petrol and kerosene filling stations. Hospitals are short of vital medicines and the government has asked citizens abroad for donations.
Last month, Sri Lanka announced that it would default on its $51bn foreign debt, and Finance Minister Ali Sabry warned this week that the country will have to endure its unprecedented economic hardship for at least two more years.