Crisis-hit Sri Lanka declares 36-hour nationwide lockdown


Sri Lanka declared a 36-hour nationwide curfew Saturday and deployed troops backed with sweeping new powers under a state of emergency to quell protests against the president, his relatives and even his most trusted shaman.

The lockdown will go into effect at dusk Saturday and be lifted on Monday morning, police said - a period that covers planned mass anti-government protests against worsening shortages of fuel, food and medicines.

The order came a day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked a state of emergency following a violent attempt to storm his house, saying it was for the "protection of public order".

The ire of a mob in the near-bankrupt country was directed on Saturday at a woman identified as a soothsayer frequently consulted by Rajapaksa in the northern town of Anuradhapura.

Rights activist and former opposition legislator Hirunika Premachandra led dozens of women to storm seer Gnana Akka's shrine and residence, but armed police stopped them.

"Why are police protecting a shaman?" she asked a senior officer who physically blocked her march, as seen on a Facebook live video, verified by AFP as authentic.

"Thief, thief, Gota thief," the crowds chanted after armed security personnel stopped them.

"Think of the country and let us pass," another woman activist pleaded.

"#GoHomeRajapaksas" and "#GotaGoHome" have been trending for days on Twitter and Facebook in the country, which is battling severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.

The coronavirus pandemic has torpedoed tourism and remittances, both vital to the economy, and authorities have imposed a broad import ban in an attempt to save foreign currency.

Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing, and ill-advised tax cuts.

The curfew and state of emergency in the country of 22 million came as social media posts called for protests on Sunday.

"Do not be deterred by tear gas, very soon they will run out of dollars to re-stock," said one post encouraging people to demonstrate even if police attempt to break up gatherings.

In normal times, Sri Lanka's military can only play a supporting role to police, but the state of emergency gives them authority to act alone, including to detain civilians.

US ambassador Julie Chung warned: "Sri Lankans have a right to protest peacefully - essential for democratic expression."

"I am watching the situation closely, and hope the coming days bring restraint from all sides, as well as much needed economic stability and relief for those suffering," she tweeted.

Former colonial power Britain's envoy expressed similar concerns, while the European Union mission said it "strongly urges Sri Lankan authorities to safeguard democratic rights of all citizens, including right to free assembly and dissent, which has to be peaceful".