Police fired tear gas and water cannon at hundreds of protesters trying to storm the home of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the capital Thursday, demanding his resignation as their economic crisis worsened.
The crisis in Sri Lanka has caused massive discontent, with people unable to find gas for cooking, medicines, fuel and basic items of food such as milk powder because the country has run out of foreign currency to pay for imported goods.
A crowd of hundreds of people chanted for Rajapaksa and the entire cabinet to resign over his handling of the crisis. Videos circulating on social media showed the protesters shouting “lunatic go home.”
The Rajapaksa family rule the island. The finance minister, prime minister and agriculture minister are the president’s brothers. His nephew is sports minister.
The security forces fired teargas and water cannon to disperse the crowd. Near the presidents’ home in Mirihana, the demonstrators set fire to an army bus and police vehicle.
The violence prompted an overnight curfew, which was lifted on Friday, and the arrests of 45 people. Nearly 50 people, including some journalists, were injured and taken to hospital. Official sources told AFP that Rajapaksa was not at home during the protest.
Diesel shortages had sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, but the protests had so far been in towns and not aimed at any top leader, prior to Thursday.
“We are siphoning off fuel from buses that are in the garage for repairs and using that diesel to operate serviceable vehicles,” Transport Minister Dilum Amunugama said.
Owners of private buses, which account for two-thirds of the country’s fleet said they were already out of oil and that even skeleton services may not be possible after Friday.
“We are still using old stocks of diesel, but if we don’t get supplies by this evening, we will not be able to operate,” the chairman of the private bus operator’s association, Gemunu Wijeratne, told AFP.
People with serious medical conditions are struggling to find medicines and hospitals have cancelled operations as they have no diesel to operate the generators that act as back-up during blackouts.
To save electricity, the government has switched off street lighting. Mobile phones have been affected as the standby generators used at the phone base stations have run out of diesel.
“We make sure we charge our phones during the hours we have electricity but the internet is very patchy because the towers aren’t working properly. Supermarkets are shut as they have no electricity for lighting or the freezer compartments and we are paying two to three times the normal price for basic food items,” tourism official Zainoor Adnan told the Guardian before the WhatsApp connection failed.
This year, Sri Lanka must repay $7bn in foreign debt even though it does not have the foreign exchange to import milk powder. Of this debt, approximately 10% is owed to China.
India has recently extended a $912 million loan along with another US $1 billion line of credit for Sri Lanka to purchase food and fuel. Sri Lanka is also seeking more loans from China. The government has said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Civil society groups have called for further demonstrations and members of the opposition parties are expected to participate.
ARTICLE: PAUL MURDOCH
MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE
PHOTO CREDITS: KHALEEJTIMES.COM