ARMED troops in Sri Lanka blocked an opposition march staged on Sunday (3) in defiance of an emergency curfew to protest the island nation’s worsening economic crisis after authorities imposed a social media blackout to contain public dissent.
The south Asian island nation is facing severe shortages of food, fuel and other essentials, along with sharp price rises and crippling power cuts, in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa imposed a state of emergency on Friday (1), the day after a crowd attempted to storm his home in Colombo, and a nationwide curfew is in effect until Monday morning (4).
The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Sri Lanka’s main opposition alliance, denounced the social media blockade imposed to quell intensifying public demonstrations, and said it was time for the government to tender its resignation.
Armed troops moved to stop a protest by more than one hundred opposition lawmakers and supporters attempting to march to the capital’s Independence Square from the home of opposition leader Sajith Premadasa.
“President Rajapaksa better realises that the tide has already turned on his autocratic rule,” SJB lawmaker Harsha de Silva said.
Fellow SJB legislator Eran Wickramaratne said the spiralling situation raised the prospects of martial law.
“We can’t allow a military takeover,” he said. “They should know we are still a democracy.”
Anonymous activists had called for mass protests Sunday (3) on social media before the ban order went into effect.
There was a heavy presence of troops elsewhere in the capital as the curfew was strictly enforced.
News photographers were denied access to Independence Square, a popular venue for demonstrations in Colombo.
Overnight, however, hundreds defied the curfew and staged small demonstrations in various Colombo neighbourhoods and dispersed peacefully, police and residents said.
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp were among the platforms shut down on Sunday on the orders of defence authorities, internet service providers told their subscribers.
Private media outlets reported that the chief of Sri Lanka’s internet regulator resigned after the order went into effect.
Cracks in the government have emerged, with the president’s nephew Namal Rajapaksa publicly announcing he had urged the government to reconsider the partial internet blackout.
“I will never condone the blocking of social media,” said Namal, also the country’s sports minister.
“The availability of VPN, just like I’m using now, makes such bans completely useless.”
The anti-government hashtags “#GoHomeRajapaksas” and “#GotaGoHome” have been trending locally for days on Twitter and Facebook.
A social media activist was arrested on Friday (1) for allegedly posting material that could cause public unrest. He has since been bailed.
Hundreds of lawyers have volunteered to represent any anti-government protesters arrested by the authorities. Sri Lanka’s influential Bar Association has also urged the government to rescind the state of emergency.
Western diplomats in Colombo expressed concern over the use of emergency laws to stifle democratic dissent and said they were closely monitoring developments.
A critical lack of foreign currency has left Sri Lanka struggling to service its ballooning $51 billion (£38.89 bn) public debt, with the pandemic torpedoing vital revenue from tourism and remittances.
The crisis has also left the import-dependent country unable to pay for sorely needed goods.
Diesel shortages have sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, causing protests at empty pumps, and electricity utilities have imposed 13-hour blackouts to conserve fuel.
Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing, and ill-advised tax cuts.
Sri Lanka is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.