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Street protests grip Sri Lanka as economic crisis escalates

(AFP)

Street protests gripped Sri Lanka Friday as demonstrators blocked main roads across the country, a day after hundreds tried to storm the president’s home in anger over an unprecedented economic crisis.

The South Asian nation is facing severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.

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Towns and cities across the country faced a fresh wave of protests Friday, according to police and local officials.

In the capital Colombo, dozens of rights activists carried handwritten placards and oil lamps while demonstrating at a busy intersection on Friday evening.

“Time to quit Rajapaksas,” said one placard. “No more corruption, go home Gota,” said another — referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In the highland town of Nuwara Eliya, activists blocked the opening of a flower exhibition by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife, Shiranthi, police said.

The southern towns of Galle, Matara and Moratuwa also saw anti-government protests, and similar demonstrations were reported in the northern and central regions. All held up traffic on main roads.

– ‘Lunatic, go home’-

Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home saw hundreds of people demand he step down.

People chanted “lunatic, lunatic, go home”, before police fired tear gas and used water cannon.

The crowd turned violent, setting ablaze two military buses, a police jeep, two patrol motorcycles and a three-wheeler. They also threw bricks at officers.

At least two protesters were wounded in police firing but it was not clear whether officers used live ammunition or rubber bullets. Four people were injured when a security vehicle ran over them.

Police said 53 protesters were arrested, but local media organisations said five news photographers were also detained and tortured at a local police station, a charge the government said it will investigate.

An overnight curfew was lifted early Friday morning, but the police and military presence was beefed up across the country as social media posts urged residents to demonstrate peacefully outside their homes.

– ‘Terrorists’ –

Two government ministers said a major intelligence failure had placed the lives of the president and his wife in danger on Thursday.

“Both the president and his wife were at their home when the protests were going on,” Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters in Colombo, discounting earlier claims that they were away at the time.

“We had information of a demonstration, but nothing suggesting that it could turn violent. This is a major intelligence failure.”

Transport Minister Dilum Amunugama said “terrorists” were behind the unrest.

Rajapaksa’s office said Friday that the protesters wanted to create an “Arab Spring” — a reference to anti-government protests in response to corruption and economic stagnation that gripped the Middle East over a decade ago.

A common theme of demonstrations was a demand for all members of the powerful Rajapaksa family to quit.

One of the president’s brothers, Mahinda, serves as prime minister while the youngest, Basil, is finance minister. His eldest brother and nephew also hold cabinet positions.

Sri Lanka’s predicament has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which torpedoed tourism and remittances.

Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement and years of accumulated borrowing.

– Record inflation –

The latest official data released Friday showed inflation in Colombo hit 18.7 percent in March, the sixth consecutive monthly record. Food prices soared a record 30.1 percent.

Colombo imposed a broad ban on imports in March 2020 in a bid to save foreign currency needed to repay nearly $7.0 billion this year to service its $51 billion debt.

Diesel shortages have sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, causing protests at empty pumps.

Since Thursday, diesel has been unavailable at stations across the island, according to officials and media reports. 

The state electricity monopoly said it was enforcing a daily 13-hour power cut from Thursday — the longest ever — because it did not have diesel for generators.

Several state-run hospitals, facing shortages of life-saving medicines, have stopped routine surgeries.

The government has said it is 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 talks should begin “in the coming days”, with the president’s youngest brother, finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, expected in the US capital.

Amal JAYASINGHE

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