Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has declared a state of emergency in the country and dubbed widespread angry protests to be the work of “organized extremists” trying to create an “Arab Spring”.
The country has been facing large-scale protests in the backdrop of one of the worst economic crises in decades as people find it increasingly harder to get access to basic essentials and amenities.
The president’s office issued a statement on Friday branding several protesters “organized extremists” trying to “create anarchy in the country”, while Dilum Amunugama, a minister, sought to accuse several protesters of being “terrorists”.
The president’s statement also said protesters were trying to create an “Arab Spring” in the country.
At least 53 people were arrested in capital Colombo on Friday after hundreds of protesters had attempted to storm Mr Rajapaksa’s private residence, angry at the shortage of basic commodities, leading to at least 50 injuries.
The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests and uprisings that had spread across the Middle East and north Africa in the last decade, as a response to corruption and economic stagnation.
The president’s office said Mr Rajapaksa took the decision “in the interests of public security, the protection of public order, and the maintenance of supplies and essential services.”
In the course of overnight protests in Colombo, a mob of hundreds of people demanded Mr Rajapaksa and his cabinet resign, shouting “go home, Gota go home”. Several protesters stormed through barricades in Mirihana, on the outskirts of Colombo.
Police fired teargas and water cannons as they tried to disperse the protesters, who were accused by authorities of arson and stone pelting, pushing through the first line of barricades blocking the road to Mr Rajapaksa’s home.
Earlier reports stated Mr Rajapaksa was not at home at the time. Sri Lanka’s health minister, however, said Mr Rajapaksa and his wife of him were present there at the time of the protests and said it was “a major intelligence failure”.
“We had information of a demonstration, but nothing suggesting that it could turn violent. This is a major intelligence failure,” he was quoted as saying by news agency AFP.
Indian news channel NDTV reported that a ship carrying 40,000 tonnes of diesel under a $1bn (£762m) credit line given to Sri Lanka by India reached the country on Saturday morning.
The fuel will be distributed across the country this evening.
Underscoring the extent of the crisis, a vessel with 5,500 tonnes of cooking gas had to leave Sri Lankan waters after Laugfs Gas, the country’s second largest supplier that had ordered it, failed to get $4.9m (£3.7m) from local banks to pay for it, reported Reuters.
“People are struggling with an acute shortage of cooking gas but how can we help them when there are no dollars? We are stuck,” Laugfs Gas Chairman WHK Wegapitiya told the news agency.
Shops have opened in Colombo on Saturday as well, amid tight security.
“Sri Lankans have a right to protest peacefully – essential for democratic expression,” said Julie Chung, the US’s envoy to Sri Lanka.
“I am watching the situation closely, and hope the coming days bring restraint from all sides, as well as much needed economic stability and relief for those suffering,” she tweeted.
Earlier this week, Sri Lankans were informed to brace for 13-hour blackouts as the government on Thursday said power cuts were expected to continue till May. Two weeks earlier, the country had run out of printing paper, leading to the cancellation of several school exams.
Additional reporting by agencies
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.