Sri Lanka throttles social media, protests amid increasing unrest

  • April 3, 2022
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SRI LANKAN military officer lowers the national flag at the flag square in Colombo, Sri Lanka, March 23, 2021. — REUTERS

SRI LANKAN President Gotabaya Rajapaksa barred gatherings and ordered internet service providers to restrict social media access, tightening curbs amid demonstrations calling for his ouster over soaring living costs and a foreign exchange crisis.

Several dozen opposition lawmakers had set off on a march toward Independence Square in Colombo, AFP reported, defying a weekend curfew although they were stopped by armed troops. Access to several social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and WhatsApp have been restricted, according to notices issued by telcos including Dialog Axiata.

Calls made by Bloomberg to the Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Department went unanswered.

The tightening of restrictions came as Sri Lankans had taken to social media to call people to gather in Colombo and surrounding areas on Sunday afternoon to peacefully protest against the economic crisis.

The government declared a public emergency late on Friday after citizens protesting spiraling inflation and widespread power cuts clashed with police outside the Rajapaksa’s private residence. The declaration now gives Mr. Rajapaksa sweeping powers to suspend laws, detain people and seize property, which he said was essential for the protection of public order.

The slew of restrictions from Mr. Rajapaksa drew criticism from diplomats in the country. Germany’s envoy to Sri Lanka Holger Seubert said in a tweet that “people demonstrating for their rights are no emergency. It’s the emergency that brings them to the streets.”

British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton said she was concerned by reports of the use of force against journalists and protesters.

Police said they had arrested 664 people who had violated curfew in the Western province where the capital is situated, between 10 p.m. Saturday and 6 a.m. Sunday.

The island nation is undergoing a severe shortage of food and fuel as it runs out of dollars to pay for imports. Inflation has accelerated to almost 19%, the highest in Asia and has played a major part in people taking to the streets to call for Mr. Rajapaksa and his family to resign from government.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda serves as prime minister and Basil, the youngest, holds the finance portfolio, while the eldest Chamal controls the agriculture ministry and nephew Namal is the sports minister. In a possible sign of friction within the clan, Namal openly criticized the latest curbs involving social media.

The Rajapaksa family still enjoys two-thirds majority support in parliament. National elections will be held in 2023 at the earliest.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s administration in recent weeks has devalued the rupee, raised interest rates, placed curbs on non-essential imports, and reduced stock-trading hours to preserve electricity and foreign currency. He has also dropped resistance to seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is simultaneously in talks with nations including India and China for bilateral aid.

The IMF last month said Sri Lanka faces a “clear solvency problem” due to unsustainable debt levels, as well as persistent fiscal and balance-of-payments shortages. — Bloomberg