COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Diplomats and rights groups expressed concern Saturday after Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and police used force against protesters peaceful amid the country’s worst economic crisis in recent memory.
The economic and political situation has sparked protests across the Indian Ocean island nation demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa and his powerful ruling family.
Rajapaksa issued a decree on Friday declaring a state of emergency. He invoked sections of the Public Safety Ordinance which allow him to make regulations in the interests of public safety and the maintenance of public order, and for the maintenance of essential supplies.
Under emergency regulations, Rajapaksa can authorize detentions, seize possession of property and search all premises. It can also modify or suspend any law.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung tweeted on Saturday that she was “concerned” about the state of emergency, adding that “the voices of peaceful citizens must be heard”.
“And the very real challenges Sri Lankans face require long-term solutions to put the country back on the path to prosperity and opportunity for all. The SOE (state of emergency) will not help to do this,” Chung added.
Canadian envoy David McKinnon said Sri Lankans have a right to peaceful protest within the framework of democracy and it is “difficult to understand why it is then necessary to declare a state of emergency”.
The emergency declaration came on the same day as shops, offices, banks and schools closed across the country heeding calls for closures in protest against the president and his family. Unions have warned against continuing strikes from May 11 if they do not quit by then.
The government said on Saturday that an emergency had been declared to create political stability so that reforms could be implemented to help resolve the economic crisis.
He also said the state of emergency would help create the conditions for negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and other agencies and countries for financial aid and debt restructuring.
“The emotional protests staged in the capital and in many parts of the country have become a threat to public safety,” a government statement said, adding that continued protests will only worsen economic hardship.
Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy. It announced it was suspending repayment of its foreign loans and its usable foreign exchange reserves fell below $50 million. The country has $7 billion in foreign loan repayments due this year out of $25 billion to be repaid by 2026. Its total external debt is $51 billion.
Police used tear gas and water cannon twice on Friday against protesters near parliament who criticized lawmakers for failing to topple the president and his government, which they say are responsible for the economic crisis. Protesters are angry that lawmakers overwhelmingly elected a government-backed Deputy Speaker of Parliament when protesters say they should reject Rajapaksa’s government.
Police first fired tear gas at a student-led protest that began on Thursday after the vice president was elected in what was seen as a key victory for the ruling coalition. Separately, police dispersed other demonstrators with tear gas on Friday evening, also near Parliament.
Rights group Amnesty International said the protests had been peaceful and authorities had unlawfully restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
Protesters have vowed to continue their demonstrations despite the state of emergency, while an occupation of the entrance to the president’s office continued for a 29th day on Saturday.