Several people were injured and 45 others arrested in Colombo on Thursday night when more than 5,000 Sri Lankans tried to storm the house of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in protest against the worsening and crippling economic crisis plaguing the island nation.
Subsequently, a curfew was imposed in several parts of Colombo—North, South and Central, and Nugegoda, Mount Lavinia and Kelaniya Police Divisions—but was lifted by 5 am on Friday, NDTV reported adding that the government blamed an extremist group for the protest.
Security forces fired and used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters as they shouted “Lunatic, lunatic, go home” demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa and his brothers, according to AFP. The protesters set fire to an Army bus parked across a lane leading to his home in the capital’s Mirihana residential quarter and a police vehicle and pelted the troops with bricks.
“Forty-five people were arrested and five police officers injured following the protest in Mirihana, Nugegoda, last night. One police bus, one police jeep, two motorbikes were burnt and one water cannon truck damaged,” a police spokesperson told NDTV.
Tourism minister Prasanna Ranatunge said that “protests of this nature will hurt tourism and have economic consequences”, Reuters reported. At a press conference held in the capital, he said, “Our stance is that people have the right to protest but it should be constructive. What happened yesterday was the opposite.”
Protests, which were restricted to towns, erupted in Colombo due to the non-availability of diesel, which has led to 13-hour blackouts. The lack of diesel has paralysed transport. “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 told AFP.
Owners of private buses, which form two-thirds of the country’s fleet—are out of oil. “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,” Gemunu Wijeratne, the chairman of the private bus operators association, said.
The unavailability of diesel has forced the state electricity monopoly to switch off power for 13 hours a day. Reservoirs, which provide more than a third of electricity demand via hydropower plants, are at precariously low levels.
The blackouts have forced state-run hospitals to stop surgeries, affected mobile phone base stations and the quality of calls and the Colombo Stock Exchange.
Lankans blame Rajapaksa—whose elder brother Mahinda is the prime minister, the youngest Basil the finance minister and the eldest Chamal the agriculture minister—for the economic crisis, which started when Lanka banned imports in March 2020 to save forex to pay a $51 billion debt.
The decision caused a massive shortage of essential items, fuel and gas and inflation started skyrocketing. Retail inflation spiked to 18.7% in March 2022 over the same period a year ago. Food inflation peaked at a whopping 30.2% in March partly driven by a currency devaluation and the 2021 ban on chemical fertilisers, which was later reversed.
By February, forex fell to $2.31 billion—a 70% drop in the last two years—with Lanka to repay a debt of about $4 billion in the rest of this year, including a $1-billion international sovereign bond that matures in July.
According to several economists, badly timed tax cuts, COVID-19 and historically weak government finances caused the plunge in foreign exchange reserves.