Financial assistance

Diplomats concerned about state of emergency in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Diplomats and rights groups expressed concern Saturday after Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and police used force against protests peacemakers demanding his ouster in the face of the country’s worst economic crisis.

Rajapaksa issued a decree on Friday declaring a state of public emergency. It empowers him to authorize detentions, seizures of property and searches of all premises. It can also modify or suspend any law in the interest of public safety and for the maintenance of essential supplies.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy. It has been rocked by months of street protests accusing Rajapaksa and his close family members, who have dominated politics for years, of economic mismanagement and debt that has created massive shortages of basic supplies, electricity and medicine.

The government suspended the repayment of its foreign loans and its usable foreign exchange reserves fell below $50 million. The country has $7 billion in foreign loan repayments due this year on a total external debt of $51 billion.

Police used tear gas and water cannon twice on Friday against protesters near the parliament building who criticized lawmakers for failing to overthrow the president and the government, led by his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Protesters are upset that lawmakers overwhelmingly elected a government-backed deputy speaker of parliament in what was seen as a key victory for the ruling coalition.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung tweeted on Saturday that she was “concerned” about the state of emergency, adding that “the voices of peaceful citizens must be heard”.

“And the very real challenges Sri Lankans face require long-term solutions to put the country back on the path to prosperity and opportunity for all. The SOE (state of emergency) will not help to do this,” Chung added.

Canadian Ambassador David McKinnon said Sri Lankans have a right to peaceful protest in a democracy and it is “difficult to understand why it is then necessary to declare a state of emergency”.

The emergency declaration came on the same day as shops, offices, banks and schools closed across the country for a shutdown in protest against the president and his family. Unions have warned against continuing strikes from May 11 if they do not quit by then. An occupation of the entrance to the president’s office continued for a 29th day on Saturday.

The government said on Saturday that an emergency had been declared to create political stability so that reforms could be implemented to help resolve the economic crisis.

He also said the state of emergency would help create the conditions for negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and other agencies and countries for financial aid and debt restructuring.

“The emotional protests staged in the capital and in many parts of the country have become a threat to public safety,” a government statement said, adding that continued protests will only worsen economic hardship.

Amnesty International said the protests were peaceful and authorities unlawfully restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.