Sri Lanka’s president declared a state of emergency on Friday, granting sweeping powers to security forces a day after hundreds of people tried to storm his home angry at an unprecedented economic crisis.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked strict laws allowing the military to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without trial as demonstrations calling for his ouster spread across the South Asian country.
In a declaration, he said a state of emergency was declared in order to “protect public order and maintain supplies and services essential to the life of the community.”
The country of 22 million people is facing severe shortages of necessities, sharp price hikes and blackouts in its worst decline since independence from Britain in 1948.
Police reimposed a nightly curfew on Friday in the Western Province, which includes the capital Colombo, to expand the restricted area since the previous night.
Earlier in the evening, dozens of rights activists carried handwritten signs and oil lamps in the capital as they demonstrated at a busy intersection.
“Time to withdraw from Rajapaksas,” read one banner. “No more corruption, come home to Gotha,” another said, referring to the president.
In the high-rise town of Nuwara Eliya, police said, activists prevented the opening of a flower exhibition by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife Shiranthi.
The southern cities of Galle, Matara and Moratuwa also saw anti-government protests, and similar demonstrations were reported in the northern and central regions. All this hindered traffic on the main roads.
“You crazy, go home” Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home led to hundreds of people calling for him to step down.
“You madman, you madman, go home,” people chanted, before police fired tear gas and used water cannons.
The crowd turned violent, setting fire to two military buses, a police jeep, two patrol motorcycles and a three-wheeler car. They also threw bricks at the officers.
At least two protesters were wounded. Police said 53 protesters were arrested, but local media organizations said five news photographers were also arrested and tortured at a local police station, a charge the government said it would investigate.
The military and police presence was beefed up on Friday.
Two government ministers said a major intelligence failure had put the president and his wife’s life at risk on Thursday.
“The president and his wife were at home when the protests were going on,” Health Minister Kihelia Rambukwila told reporters in Colombo, ruling out earlier allegations that they were abroad at the time.
“We had information about a demonstration, but nothing to suggest it could turn violent. This is a major intelligence failure.”
Transport Minister Dilum Amunugama said “terrorists” were behind the unrest.
Rajapaksa’s office said Friday that the protesters wanted to create an “Arab Spring” in reference to anti-government protests in response to the corruption and economic stagnation that has gripped the Middle East for more than a decade.
Mahinda, one of the president’s brothers, is the prime minister while the youngest, Bassel, is the finance minister. His older brother and nephew also hold ministerial positions.
Sri Lanka’s predicament has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has torpedoed tourism and remittances.
Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement and years of borrowing.
Record inflation The latest official data released on Friday showed that inflation in Colombo reached 18.7 percent in March, the sixth consecutive monthly record. Food prices rose by a record 30.1 percent.
Colombo imposed a broad import ban in March 2020 in a bid to provide the foreign currency needed to repay nearly $7.0 billion this year to service its $51 billion debt. The diesel shortage since Thursday has sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, causing protests over empty pumps.
The state electric company said it is imposing a daily 13-hour blackout from Thursday – the longest on record – because there is no diesel for generators.
Many government hospitals, facing a shortage of life-saving medicines, have halted routine surgeries.
The government said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund while requesting more loans from India and China.