Sri Lanka police fire tear gas to stop protests amid curfew

Sri Lankan opposition leader Sajith Premadasa (centre) and other members of parliament protesting in Colombo on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Demonstrators beating utensils as a sign of protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Police officers preparing to patrol the streets in Colombo after a curfew was imposed, on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
A deserted street in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo during the curfew imposed to curb protests against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesting students in central Sri Lanka on Sunday (April 3), a federal lawmaker said, as soldiers manned checkpoints in the capital to enforce a curfew imposed to curb public outrage triggered by an economic crisis.

Mr Lakshman Kiriella, Member of Parliament from the second-largest city, Kandy, said police used tear gas to scatter students protesting against the government near the University of Peradeniya.

“These students have come out in defiance of the curfew and police have fired tear gas to disperse them,” said Mr Kiriella, from the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party.

The university is on the outskirts of Kandy, where the students had been held back by police, he said.

A senior police official said officers used tear gas and water cannons to stop a protest of university students in Kandy.

“There were about 750 participants but no arrests were made,” said Nihal Thalduwa, a police spokesman.

Thalduwa said over 600 people who were arrested in the Western Province on Saturday night for breaking curfew orders were released on bail given by police and charges will be filed against them later.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on Friday as the Indian Ocean island nation grapples with rising prices, shortages of essentials and rolling power cuts.

On Saturday, the government implemented a countrywide curfew as protests turned violent. It is to run until till 6am on Monday (8.30am Singapore time).

Critics say the roots of the crisis, the worst in several decades, lie in economic mismanagement by successive governments that amassed huge budget shortfalls and a current account deficit.

The crisis was accelerated by deep tax cuts that Mr Rajapaksa promised during the 2019 election campaign and enacted months before the Covid-19 pandemic, which wiped out parts of Sri Lanka’s economy.

The island nation is undergoing a severe shortage of food and fuel as it runs out of dollars to pay for imports.

Inflation has accelerated to almost 19 per cent, the highest in Asia, and has played a major part in people taking to the streets to call for Mr Rajapaksa and his family to resign from government.

Social media restored

In the capital Colombo on Sunday, some two dozen opposition leaders stopped at police barricades on the way to Independence Square, some shouting “Gota(baya) Go Home”.

“This is unacceptable,” said opposition leader Eran Wickramaratne leaning over the barricades. “This is a democracy.”

Members of Parliament from Sri Lanka's main opposition shouting slogans as they protest in Colombo on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Small groups in Colombo were standing outside their homes to protest, some holding handwritten banners, others with national flags.

“This government, we do not want them anymore. They have had years and years to show us that they could do change but there is nothing. The situation has just gotten worse by the day,”said protester Anjalee Wanduragala, 22, a student at the University of Colombo.

“We really need a change, we are stripped of our basic rights...people are fed up,” she said.

In the afternoon, the government lifted a block it had placed on social media platforms hours earlier. Access to Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram had been blocked nationwide, said Internet monitoring organisation NetBlocks.

Minister for Youth and Sports Namal Rajapaksa, the president’s nephew, said on Twitter that he would “never condone the blocking of social media”.

Emergency powers in the past have allowed the military to arrest and detain suspects without warrants, but the terms of the current powers are not yet clear.

Soldiers with assault rifles and police manned checkpoints in Colombo on Sunday.

Mr Nihal Thalduwa, a senior superintendent of police, said 664 people who broke curfew rules were arrested by the police in the Western Province, the country’s most populous administrative division, which includes Colombo.

Western and Asian diplomats based in Sri Lanka said they were monitoring the situation and expected the government to allow citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.

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