COLOMBO -- Sri Lankans frustrated with a deteriorating economic crisis are locked in a standoff with the government, which moved this weekend to block popular social networks and muzzle the masses.
The Ministry of Defense's order to suspend access to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube -- which was handed down on Saturday and took effect at midnight -- was part of a frantic scramble to stop an island-wide protest planned for Sunday against the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Hours earlier, the authorities declared a state of emergency and a 36-hour curfew across the country of 22 million people. Armed military personnel and tanks rolled into the streets of Colombo to thwart any uprising.
Even so, a large group of students from Peradeniya University in central Sri Lanka defied the curfew and carried out a demonstration, before police dispersed them with tear gas and water cannons. There were reports of smaller protests in other parts of the country as well, including Colombo.
Social networks had been the primary channel for spreading information about the planned #GoHomeGota protest and voicing anger over dire shortages of essentials including fuel and cooking gas, along with skyrocketing living costs and crippling blackouts lasting as long as 13 hours a day.
The Telecommunication Regulatory Commission announced Sunday afternoon that the social media restrictions were due to be lifted at 3:30 p.m. local time on the advice of the Defense Ministry. But President Rajapaksa's effort to smother the grassroots movement appears to have only infuriated some citizens more.
Activist Prasad Welikumbura accused the president of using his powers to suppress dissent. "It doesn't look like their strategy is working. What this is doing is, it's making people angrier and more impatient," he told Nikkei Asia.
A mother of two, Neela Weerasekara, echoed such sentiments. "For how long will they keep imposing curfew? Why is the president scared of us? He is using his powers as executive presidency to safeguard himself from the same people who voted for him," she said.
The Rajapaksa family -- which also includes Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Irrigation Minister and State Minister of Defense Chamal Rajapaksa, and Youth and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, the son of the prime minister -- has fast become unpopular.
President Rajapaksa, who swept to power in November 2019 with around 1.4 million votes more than his rival, has made a series of moves critics see as economic mismanagement. For example, his government banned chemical fertilizer, permitting only organic types -- a decision that has severely affected crop yields and food security.
A populist decision to reduce taxes in 2019, and heavy money printing by the central bank, are seen as contributors to the economic woes. The inflation rate in February hit 17.5%, up from 6.2% in September 2021.
The central bank's insistence on continuing debt repayments, despite advice by some economists to channel foreign reserves into purchases of essentials, is also blamed for shortages. In recent days, domestic gas supplier Laugfs announced that a ship containing 5,500 metric tons of much-needed liquefied petroleum gas was turned away because it was unable to gather the $4.9 million payment from a state bank.
By February, Sri Lanka's foreign reserves had dwindled to just $2.3 billion. The country faces debt payments of $6.9 billion this year alone.
N. Hameem, a fed-up engineer, vowed to join protests despite the threat of a crackdown. "These efforts by the government to try and intimidate us will not stop us by any means," he said. "My rights are violated, so despite the emergency being enforced, I will continue to engage in protests peacefully."
Human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka said that even with the state of emergency, the constitution recognizes the right to protest. An "emergency does not override the constitution," she said. "Nothing overrides the constitution. If this right is violated, then we have to challenge it, but my worry is what sort of force will be used against the peaceful protesters."
On Thursday, protesters clashed with police and special task force members outside President Rajapaksa's residence. Several journalists also sustained serious injuries, and there were allegations that the police had tortured some of the demonstrators they arrested. Many were bailed out after over 300 lawyers came to represent them pro bono.
The curfew announcement on Saturday prompted more chaos, with some residents rushing to stock up on vital goods while others scurried home. The declaration was made at just after 3:30 p.m., giving the public a little over two hours to prepare, resulting in long lines and panic buying at grocery stores.
The minority Muslim community, who make up around 9.7% of the country's population, were also upset over the short notice, as they were to start observing a monthlong fast on Sunday.
The curfew is scheduled to last until 6:00 a.m. on Monday, barring the public from roads, parks, recreation facilities, railways and the seashore. It was unclear whether the curfew would be extended. Meanwhile, many citizens were turning to VPNs to get around the social media curbs while they lasted -- restrictions the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka called a violation of human rights.
Colombo-based political analyst Sarinda Perera said that the growing scale of the protests appears to be unprecedented, especially against a president who has been in office for less than two and a half years.
"The state of emergency appears to have been called to maintain law and order. But it can also be used to curb and suppress dissent," Perera told Nikkei. "Therefore, it has dangerous implications for freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 14 of the constitution. This does Sri Lanka no favors in the international realm, especially at a time it is in need of bilateral and multilateral support."