COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's president declared a state of emergency Friday giving him broad authority amid widespread public protests demanding his resignation over the country's worst economic crisis in recent memory.
The decree issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invokes sections of the Public Security Ordinance that allow him to make regulations in the interests of public security, the preservation of public order, the suppression of mutiny, riot or civil commotion, or for the maintenance of essential supplies.
Under the emergency regulations, Rajapaksa can authorize detentions, take possession of any property and search any premises. He can also change or suspend any law.
Police used tear gas and a water cannon twice Friday at protesters near the Parliament criticizing lawmakers for not ousting the president and his government, whom they say are responsible for the economic crisis. Protesters are angry that the lawmakers have elected a government-backed deputy speaker of Parliament with a big majority when the protesters say they should be voting Rajapaksa's government out of power.
At first police fired tear gas at a student-led protest that began Thursday after the election of the deputy speaker in what was seen a key victory for the governing coalition, which was seeing defections and uncertain of a clear majority in Parliament.
Separately, police dispersed more protesters with tear gas Friday night also around Parliament.
Sri Lanka is near bankruptcy having announced it is suspending repayment of its foreign loans and its usable foreign currency reserves plummeting below $50 million. It has $7 billion foreign loan repayments this year out of $ 25 billion to be repaid by 2026. Its total foreign debt is $ 51 billion.
Rajapaksa's announcement comes as protesters occupy the entrance to the president's office for a 28th day, demanding Rajapaksa, his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the rest of the powerful ruling family to quit.
Similar protests have spread to other locations, with people setting up camps opposite the prime minister’s residence and other towns across the country.
Leaders at the protest opposite the president's office said they will continue their demonstrations despite the emergency declaration.
“Suppression is not the answer to these protests but the consideration of the people's demands, and they are ‘President leave immediately, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa leave immediately, and the government go home,'” protest leader Lahiru Weerasekara told journalists.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the country's lawyers' group demanded that the president explain the reasons for declaring emergency and urged that it be revoked. The association also asked authorities to ensure the people's freedom of expression, publication and peaceful assembly.
For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad. Shortages of hard currency have also hindered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which surged to 18.7% in March.
As oil prices soar during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Sri Lanka’s fuel stocks are running out. Authorities have implemented countrywide power cuts extending up to 13 hours a day because they can’t supply enough fuel to power generating stations.
Shops, offices and schools were also closed across the country on Friday, transport came to a near standstill and widespread demonstrations took place against the government.
Opposition lawmakers raised objections in Parliament over the use of tear gas against the students, after which the speaker adjourned the session until May 17. Students withdrew from the protest site, warning that they will return when Parliament resumes and demanding that Rajapaksa resign before then.
Some other protesters blocked exits through which the lawmakers tried to leave Parliament and questioned them about what they had achieved for the people in many meetings.
Factories, banks and government offices were also closed Friday, with employees demonstrating in front of them. Black flags were displayed at some shops in response to a call from trade unions and other organizations, and many protesters wore black T-shirts.
Protesters also hung undergarments by a road leading to Parliament and chanted, “This is all we are left with!”
“People have been telling this government to go home for a month,” student leader Wasantha Mudalige said at the Parliament protest. “They have endured big problems that have led to this demand.”
“There are discussions going on inside this thieves’ den called Parliament, and none of the people’s issues are discussed there. So the people’s decision is that the Parliament does not reflect their sentiments,” he added.
So far, the Rajapaksa brothers have resisted calls to resign, though three Rajapaksas out of the five who are lawmakers stepped down from their Cabinet posts in mid-April.
Sri Lanka has been holding talks with the International Monetary Fund to get an immediate funding facility as well as a long-term rescue plan but was told its progress would depend on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors.
Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get underway.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa also declared an emergency and blocked social media when protests started first early in April. But he withdrew them under local and international pressure.