COLOMBO (Reuters) -Protesters in the Sri Lanka’s largest city Colombo held numerous small, peaceful demonstrations over a severe economic crisis on Sunday, defying a nationwide curfew, while police used tear gas to disperse student protesters in the central city of Kandy.
A senior police official said officers used tear gas and water cannons to stop a protest of university students in Kandy.
“There were about 750 participants but no arrests were made,” said Nihal Thalduwa, a police spokesman.
Thalduwa said over 600 people who were arrested in the Western Province on Saturday night for breaking curfew orders were released on bail given by police and charges will be filed against them later.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on Friday as the Indian Ocean island nation grapples with rising prices, shortages of essentials and rolling power cuts. On Saturday, the government implemented a countrywide curfew after protests turned violent.
On Sunday afternoon the government lifted a block it had placed on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp hours earlier. Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Chairman Jayantha de Silva said the measure was carried out on instruction from the Defence Ministry and aimed to “maintain calm”. De Silva later told Reuters restrictions had been lifted.
While the block was in place, Minister for Youth and Sports Namal Rajapaksa, the president’s nephew, nonetheless sent a tweet in which he said he would “never condone the blocking of social media”.
Critics say the roots of the crisis, the worst in several decades, lie in economic mismanagement by successive governments that amassed huge budget shortfalls and a current account deficit.
The crisis was accelerated by deep tax cuts Rajapaksa promised during the 2019 election campaign and enacted months before the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out parts of Sri Lanka’s economy.
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In Colombo soldiers armed with assault rifles and police manned checkpoints to enforce the curfew, which is scheduled to run until till 6 a.m.(0030 GMT)on Monday.
Around two dozen opposition leaders protested at police barricades near the Independence Square, some shouting “Gota(baya) Go Home”.
“This is unacceptable,” said opposition leader Eran Wickramaratne referring to the curfew and other restrictions.
Others stood in small groups outside their homes or gathered in the street, some holding handwritten anti-government banners or waving the national flag.
“This government, we do not want them anymore. They have had years and years to show us that they could do change but there is nothing. The situation has just gotten worse by the day,” said protester Anjalee Wanduragala, 22, a student at the University of Colombo.
“We really need a change, we are stripped of our basic rights…people are fed up,” she said.
Emergency powers in the past have allowed the military to arrest and detain suspects without warrants, but the terms of the current powers are not yet clear.
Western and Asian diplomats based in Sri Lanka said they were monitoring the situation and expected the government to allow citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.
(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, William Mallard and Raissa Kasolowsky)