People in Sri Lankan capital Colombo, suffering for weeks under a terrible economic crisis, erupted in protest late Thursday evening. More than 5,000 people held a protest march in the Lankan capital near the President’s house demanding that he step down, and clashed with the police. The paramilitary police unit, a Special Task Force, had to be called in to quell the protests.
“45 people arrested (44 men and 1 woman ) and 5 police officers injured including an ASP and being treated at hospitals following the protest in Mirihana, Nugegoda last night. One police bus, 1 police jeep, 2 motorbikes burnt and one water cannon truck damaged,” a police spokesperson said.
The government said that the protests were organised by an extremist group. “Majority of the perpetrators have been arrested,” it said.
There has been a critical shortage of food and essential items, fuel and gas for weeks as the country grapples with the worst economic downturn since its independence.
On Thursday, diesel was no longer available, leaving the country’s 22 million people under a 13-hour power blackout and keeping transport off the roads. The blackout had spin-off effect on state-run hospitals which already had stopped surgeries due to shortage of medicines.
The electricity rationing hit mobile phone base stations and affected the quality of calls. The Colombo Stock Exchange had to limit trading by half to two hours, and offices asked non-essential staff to stay home.
Street lights were being turned off to save electricity, news agency Reuters reported, quoting a minister.
By evening yesterday, the people started converging on the road near the house of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, demanding that he and his family “Go home”.
The President’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa serves as prime minister while the youngest, Basil Rajapaksa, holds the finance portfolio. The eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa is agriculture minister while nephew Namal Rajapaksa holds the cabinet post for sports.
The trouble started when the police attempted to disperse the protesters, who were waving posters and shouting slogans. The mob threw bottles and stones at the police and the crowd could be controlled only with tear gas and water cannons.
Visuals from the spot showed the mob encircling two policemen on bikes. The slogan shouting was punctuated by sounds of shattering glass and crashing stones. A police bus was set on fire.
Mr Rajapaksa was not at home during the protests, reported Agence France-Presse quoting official sources.
Nandakumar, the Deputy Inspector General of Colombo, said the mob was “not unruly”. “It is fine… nothing to worry,” he told NDTV. Asked how they plan to disperse the crowd, he said, “We cannot say anything to them now”.
Since Wednesday, local television channels and NDTV have reported protests erupting in various parts of the country. In several towns, motorists blocked main roads.
The current crisis has its roots in the Lankan government’s move to ban imports back in March 2020. The move was meant to save foreign currency for the government’s $51 billion debt. But this led to a widespread shortage of essential items and skyrocketing prices.
The government has said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. It has also sought loans from India and China.