Sri Lanka Protesters, Driven by Economic Pain, Defy Government Curfew

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Protests popped up on Sunday across Sri Lanka’s capital and suburbs, and at a university in the central city of Kandy, driven by a crushing economic crisis and despite a state of emergency imposed to prevent them.

In the middle-class suburb of Rajagiriya, demonstrators defied the ban on public assemblies, protesting quietly to try to avoid provoking the security services and holding signs that read, “Enough is enough” and, “Go home, Gota,” referring to the nickname of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Some sang Sri Lanka’s national anthem, while others waved the country’s flag.

“Regardless of this emergency that they have put, we are having a silent meeting here to showcase that we know our constitutional rights,” said Uttunga Jayawardana, 31, a logistics business owner, who was taking part in the demonstration.

Rifle-armed troops and police officers were stationed at checkpoints around the largely empty streets of the capital, Colombo. Still, more than 100 people joined a march by opposition politicians toward the home of the opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa. They were stopped at barricades near Independence Square, a regular gathering place for protesters at the center of the city, where a large demonstration had been scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon.

Empty streets in Colombo on Sunday morning during a curfew intended to prevent planned demonstrations.Credit…Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

Mr. Rajapaksa had declared a 36-hour state of emergency on Saturday in hopes of preventing the demonstrations. The government also blocked social media access, a move that set off a rare show of dissent within the Rajapaksa family, which has stamped its name on the Sri Lankan government. Namal Rajapaksa, a cabinet minister and the president’s nephew, used a virtual private network, or VPN, to remark on Twitter that the ban was “completely useless.”

The government’s restrictions on internet access and public movement followed a protest on Thursday involving thousands of people outside Mr. Rajapaksa’s residence in suburban Colombo, an initially peaceful demonstration that turned violent when security forces deployed tear gas and water cannons, according to local news outlets.

Protesters responded by throwing stones and setting fire to buses used by the security forces. Two dozen police officers were injured. More than 50 people were taken into custody, including eight journalists, a government spokesman said on Friday.

Soon after the arrests, some of those in custody claimed that they had been tortured. In a display of support for the protesters, about 300 lawyers volunteered to represent those who had been detained free of charge.

Fliers distributed by protest organizers over the weekend urged people to defy the curfew and demonstrate as planned on Sunday. On Saturday, the police allowed some protests to take place, despite the emergency order.

Sri Lankan soldiers standing guard in Colombo on Sunday. Fliers distributed by protest organizers over the weekend had urged people to defy the curfew and demonstrate as planned. Credit…Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

The protesters say they are angry and frustrated over the dwindling standard of living in Sri Lanka as the country experiences a severe economic crisis, marked by power cuts that have lasted as long as 13 hours a day.

Pressure on Mr. Rajapaksa and his brothers, the prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and finance minister, Basil Rajapaksa, has been building for months as the stresses on the economy were made worse by a series of policy blunders, according to analysts.

Sri Lanka’s tourism-reliant economy was hit hard after the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019, which killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels. After Mr. Rajapaksa won elections that November, he introduced a sweeping tax cut, and the coronavirus pandemic that soon followed put pressure on the currency, the Sri Lankan rupee.

The central bank decided to peg the rupee to the dollar, rather than continuing to let it float. Analysts say that created a parallel black market and arbitrage opportunities that sent Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt into a precipitous fall. At the same time, the country’s foreign reserves dropped to dangerous lows, making it hard to purchase essential imports, including medicine, gas and fuel.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, second from right, at an Independence Day parade in Colombo in February. Pressure on him has grown after what many see as a series of economic missteps.Credit…Chamila Karunarathne/EPA, via Shutterstock

Allies of Mr. Rajapaksa, whose family has dominated Sri Lanka politics for many years, have rebelled. Several political parties in his governing coalition, which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, have demanded that he appoint a caretaker government consisting of all 11 parties represented in the legislature.

One coalition member, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, said at a meeting on Friday that it would abandon the coalition unless it took that step to “alleviate the economic crisis, after which an election must be called for,” a senior member of the party, Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, said in an interview.

How Mr. Rajapaksa responds to the public protests in defiance of his emergency order will be watched closely as a measure of how much, or how little, he has changed since his family was last in power.

Mr. Rajapksa was defense secretary and his brother Mahinda was president during the brutal final phase of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. The Rajapaksas were widely credited with bringing the war to a close. But they were also accused by victims supported by United Nations inquiries of war crimes and other abuses.

Demonstrators running away from tear gas used by the police near the residence of Mr. Rajapaksa in Colombo on Thursday.Credit…Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

The family had held power for a decade, until 2015, when they were voted out of office. Their last few years in government were marked by frequent abductions of opponents, who were often bundled away into white vans, never to be seen again.

After the devastating Easter terrorist attacks, security concerns were thrust to the forefront of public consciousness, creating an opening in the elections for Mr. Rajapaksa and his family to return to power.

In Rajagiriya, protesters said that what they most wanted from the Rajapaksas was some humility to recognize their missteps.

“They need to come to the streets and say, ‘We made bad decisions, but we hear you, we feel you. Let us come together and fix this problem.’ They’re not doing that. They’re showing a strong hand and suppressing the people,” Mr. Jayawardana, the protester, said.

Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, and Emily Schmall from New Delhi.

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