Colombo (Sri Lanka): The crisis in Sri Lanka is showing no signs of abating and on Saturday (APril 1), President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency in the island nation. This came a day after violent protests over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.
President Rajapaksa invoked sections of the Public Security Ordinance, which gives him authority to make regulations in the interests of public security, preservation of public order, suppression of mutiny, riot, or civil commotion or for the maintenance of essential supplies. Under the emergency regulations, the president can authorize detentions, take possession of any property, and search any premises. He can also change or suspend any law.
On Thursday hundreds of protesters clashed with police and military outside President Rajapaksa’s residence in a suburb of the capital, Colombo. Police arrested around 54 people and imposed a curfew in and around Colombo on Friday to contain sporadic protests that have broken out over shortages of essential items including fuel and other goods. Dozens of people were also injured in the protest. “The main issue Sri Lanka is facing is a forex shortage and protests of this nature will hurt tourism and have economic consequences,” Tourism minister Prasanna Ranatunge said.
The protesters blame Rajapaksa for long power outages and shortages of essential goods. Sri Lanka has huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused shortages. People wait in long lines for fuel, and power is cut for several hours daily because there’s not enough fuel to operate generating plants and dry weather has sapped hydropower capacity. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa’s office blamed “organized extremists” within the thousands of protesters for violence during Thursday night’s demonstration, where police fired tear gas and a water cannon.
What led to the economic crisis?
Experts point out that Sri Lanka’s economic woes can be blamed on successive governments not diversifying exports and relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments, and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods. The Covid-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the island nation of 22 million people’s economy, with the government estimating a loss of $14 billion in the last two years.
Sri Lanka also has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around $7 billion for this year alone. According to the Central Bank, inflation rose to 17.5% in February from 16.8% a month earlier. It’s expected to continue rising because the government has allowed the local currency to float freely.