COLOMBO: Ordinary citizens and the opposition in Sri Lanka on Sunday defied a weekend curfew to demand President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over his handling of the economic crisis, as authorities lifted a short-lived social media shutdown intended to contain growing public dissent.
The South Asian country is facing severe shortages of essential supplies, including food and fuel, along with sharp price increases and crippling power cuts in its worst downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
A nationwide curfew is in effect until Monday morning since Rajapaksa imposed a state of emergency on Friday after protests outside his residence in the capital Colombo turned violent.
Authorities on Saturday night blocked access to online platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram in an attempt to prevent more protests blaming the government’s handling of the crisis, as calls mounted for Rajapaksa to resign.
The restrictions have done little to deter people in the country of 22 million, with internet users using virtual private networks to circumvent the social media blackout and small crowds holding peaceful demonstrations across Colombo despite the curfew.
“People’s rights are being suppressed in an undemocratic manner to protect just one family and their cronies,” Mayantha Dissanayake, an MP from the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party who went on a march on Sunday, told Arab News.
“There was a big citizens’ protest planned for today, so the government made all their moves to stop it. But we decided to get on the streets as a group of MPs from the opposition despite the curfew.”
Constitutional lawyer Gehan Gunatilleke said the imposed restrictions are infringing on people’s rights to freedom of expression.
“Every restriction … has to be legitimately in the interests of national security or public order,” Gunatilleke said in a tweet.
“The government cannot restrict the fundamental rights of the people for collateral purposes, such as preventing people from peacefully protesting.”
There has been at least one reported incident of authorities firing tear gas at protesters as soldiers with assault rifles and police manned checkpoints in major cities.
The government had lifted the block on social media platforms by Sunday afternoon after Sri Lankans online managed to trend #GoHomeGota and #GoHomeRajapaksas in countries like Singapore by using VPNs.
Minister of Information and Mass Media Dulles Alahapperuma was not available for comment, despite Arab News’ repeated attempts to reach him.
“The ban was turned around because there was major opposition in the country at large and from within the government,” Dr. Paikyasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Arab News.
“It was also clear that the immediate purpose of the ban pertaining to today’s demonstration no longer applies.”
The island nation is struggling with huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves. The country’s inability to pay for imports has led to shortages of basic supplies, and people have been queueing in long lines for gas, while power cuts have increased due to a lack of fuel to operate power plants.
As spontaneous, citizen-led protests erupted throughout the country in the past few weeks, things took a violent turn when police used water cannons and tear gas on citizens engaged in a demonstration outside the president’s home on Friday and arrested 53 people.