Colombo, Sri Lanka (CNN) — Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has declared a national public emergency following violent protests outside his home over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.
The state of emergency came into effect on April 1, according to an official bulletin issued this Friday. The measure allows authorities to arrest and jail suspects without a warrant.
Rajapaksa said the decision to impose the state of emergency was made in the “interests of public security, protection of public order and maintenance of essential supplies and services for the life of the community.”
The island nation of 22 million people is facing an economic crisis that has forced people to stand in long lines for basic goods and endure blackouts for hours.
The statement comes after violent protests on Thursday night, in which angry protesters threw bricks and set fire to a bus outside the president’s private residence in the capital Colombo, Reuters reported.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up the protests, according to Reuters, as officers arrested dozens of people and imposed a curfew in parts of Colombo overnight, CD Wickramaratne, inspector general of police, said in a statement. release.
Reuters reported An official said at least two dozen police officers were injured in the clashes, but declined to comment on the number of injured protesters.
President Rajapaksa’s office issued a statement on Friday saying “organized extremists”, wielding iron bars, clubs and poles, incited protesters to “riot” outside his residence.
Hours later on Friday, Sri Lanka’s Community Policing Minister Dilum Amunugama called the protest an act of terrorism.
“I think the wrong terminology was used in the official statement. These were not extremists, they were terrorists,” he told reporters. “The government’s position is that if terrorism prevails, it must be defeated.”
The covid-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to the Sri Lankan economy in the last two years, including the tourism sector. And tourism minister Prasanna Ranatunge warned that the protests would further affect the economic outlook, Reuters reported.
“The main problem facing Sri Lanka is the shortage of foreign exchange and protests of this nature will affect tourism and have economic consequences,” Ranatunge said.
What is happening in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is experiencing a financial crisis as a result of a foreign exchange deficit, which has led to severe shortages of essential items such as food, medicine and fuel.
For weeks, residents have queued for hours to get basic supplies and faced power outages of more than 10 hours. Soldiers are stationed at fuel stations to calm customers, who wait for hours in the scorching heat to fill their tanks.
Foreign exchange reserves have plummeted 70% in the last two years to US$2.31 billion, Reuters reported. Sri Lanka has about $4 billion in debt to pay over the rest of this year, including a $1 billion international sovereign bond due in July.
Demonstrators have held peaceful protests over the situation for weeks, with some calling on the president to step down, but Thursday’s protests mark an escalation in the crisis.
Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, called on all groups for restraint.
“We are monitoring developments and are concerned about reports of violence in Sri Lanka,” he said in a tweet.
Journalist Rukshana Rizwie reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka. CNN’s Alex Stambaugh and Sophie Jeong reported from Hong Kong. Additional information from Reuters.