August 13, 2022

Sri Lanka's acting president declares state of emergency amid protests

Sri Lanka’s acting president declares state of emergency amid protests

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s acting president on Monday declared a state of emergency giving him sweeping power amid growing protests calling for his resignation – just two days before the country’s lawmakers are set to elect a new president.

Ranil Wickremesinghe became acting president on Friday after his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled abroad and resigned after months of mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.

Wickremesinghe’s imposition of a state of emergency came as protests demanding his resignation continued in most parts of the country, with some protesters burning an effigy.

The Emergency Ordinance invokes the sections of the Public Security Ordinance that allow Wickremesinghe to make regulations in the interest of public security and order. Authorities can authorize arrests, seizure of property and inspection premises. Wickremesinghe can also change or suspend any law during an emergency.

Wickremesinghe said in a statement that negotiations on the rescue package with the International Monetary Fund are nearing an end while discussions on aid with foreign countries are progressing. There was no comment from the International Monetary Fund on Wickremesinghe’s assessment of the rescue talks.

He said relief has been provided to people and steps have been taken to solve the shortages of fuel and cooking gas.

However, Wickremesinghe claimed that “elements within the community” were trying to destabilize the peace in Sri Lanka. He did not provide details, but said the unrest would not be allowed to hinder the country’s progress.

Wickremesinghe said the government would deal with peaceful protesters who had legitimate concerns and find solutions for them. He also urged political parties to put aside differences and form an “all-party government that will allow the country to recover from the economic crisis.”

There was no immediate response from the political parties to his recent statements, but they are working to try to form a national unity government.

Lawmakers meeting on Saturday began the process of electing a new leader to serve the remainder of the term that Rajapaksa relinquished. Nominations for the election of the new president will be submitted on Tuesday. If there is more than one candidate, MPs will vote on Wednesday.

The Sri Lanka Bar Association said emergency laws “should not be used to suppress any legitimate expression of opinion about the election of the president or to suppress any opposition or disagreement over a particular candidate”.

The association also stressed that these laws should not be used “to stifle peaceful protests and dissent or to carry out arbitrary arrests and detentions.”

Sri Lanka has for months been short of funds to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizers, medicine and fuel for its 22 million people. The country’s rapid economic decline came as a surprise because the economy was expanding with a growing and comfortable middle class.

Sri Lanka is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but senior officials have said its finances are in such poor shape that getting a bailout has been difficult.

Economic hardships led to political unrest and widespread protests demanding the resignation of the Rajapaksa-led government. Despite the resignation of several ministers in April, Rajapaksa remained in power until last week, when he traveled first to the Maldives and then to Singapore.

The main protests erupted in the capital, Colombo, with large crowds occupying the president’s office for more than 100 days. Protesters stormed the president’s official residence and office on July 9, forcing Rajapaksa to flee.

Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of pulling money from government coffers and precipitating the country’s collapse through mismanagement of the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the economic collapse.