Police fired tear gas and a water cannon at thousands of protesters outside the home of Sri Lanka's president Thursday, demanding he resign over the nation's worst economic crisis.
Police later enforced a curfew in suburbs of the capital because the protests wouldn't subside. The protesters blamed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for long power outages and shortages of essentials and shouted, “Go home, Gota go home.”
The crowds demonstrating along the roads leading to his private residence at Mirihana, on the outskirts of Colombo, stoned two army buses that police were using to block the protesters from entering the road leading to Rajapaksa’s residence. They set fire to one of buses and turned back a fire truck that rushed to douse it.
At least one person was severely injured in the leg when police fired tear gas cannisters directly at protesters to stop their attack on the bus.
Armed soldiers with assault rifles were stationed near the protest. Angry protesters also gathered around the Mirihana police station accusing the police of trying to protect the corrupt. Police there deployed tear gas.
Sri Lanka has huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused the shortages. People wait in long lines for fuel, and power is cut for several hours daily because there's not enough fuel to operate generating plants and dry weather that has sapped hydropower capacity.
Lamenting the power cuts that are up to 13 hours a day, protester Dulaj Madhushan, 30, asked: “How can people earn a living?”
“This is not a political one, but a protest led by people. They took people for granted. Now you can see peoples' power,” he said.
The protesters appeared voluntary and without a leader. Residents of a middle-class neighborhood including many women who would normally not participate in street protests were seen telling police that they were fighting for them, too.
Protester Asanka Dharmasinghe, 37, said he has been running a carpentry shed, employing four people and paying them each about $12 a day, but he is unable to cover the costs because he only has two hours of electricity to work.
“My daughter is sitting for exams, but there is no paper,” he said.
The curfew imposed in parts of Colombo and suburbs after the protests ended will last until further notice, police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said.
He asked people in the areas where the curfew was imposed to remain at home, warning that violations will be dealt with strictly according to the law. He also said motorists will not be allowed to travel through those areas.
Sri Lanka’s economic woes are blamed on successive governments not diversifying exports and relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to Sri Lanka’s economy, with the government estimating a loss of $14 billion in the last two years.
Sri Lanka also has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around $7 billion for this year alone.
According to the Central Bank, inflation rose to 17.5% in February from 16.8% a month earlier. Its expected to continue rising because the government has allowed the local currency to float freely.
Separately on Thursday, the country's Catholic bishops called for unity among politicians, warning that the island is fast becoming a failed state.
All governments to date are responsible in varying degree for the crisis, the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Sri Lanka said in a statement, adding that the government and the opposition must adopt a conciliatory approach without blaming each other.
The bishops called on Catholic institutions and individuals to provide assistance to the most affected groups.