COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Opposition lawmakers and thousands of people angered by the government’s handling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis on Sunday marched to denounce the president’s move to impose a nationwide curfew and state of emergency, as protests over food and fuel shortages swelled.
Police used tear gas and water canons to attack hundreds of university students trying to get through the barricades around Kandy in India’s tea growing hills region.
Authorities blocked internet access for 15 hours, preventing Internet users from accessing Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on Sunday.
Due to increasing criticism, social media access was eventually restored. The platforms have been used to organize protests calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, saying he is responsible for the country’s deepening economic woes.
After Rajapaksa took emergency power at midnight on Friday, Sri Lanka has been under nationwide curfew through Monday morning. Protests continued throughout Sri Lanka on Sunday due to anger at people who waited in long lines for food, fuel, and endless power cut.
Many people took to the streets and other places, including their families, to express their anger at Rajapaksa and accuse him of abuse of power.
One man held a placard saying, “The power in people is stronger than people in power.”
Rajapaksa has the broad authority under emergency declaration to protect public order, stop riots and civil disorder, as well as for maintaining essential supplies. According to the decree, the president has the power to authorise detentions, property seizures and searches. He is also authorized to amend or suspend any law other than the Constitution.
In the capital, opposition lawmakers marched toward Colombo’s main square, shouting slogans and carrying placards that read “Stop Suppression” and “Gota go home.” Gota is a shortened version of the president’s first name.
Armed soldiers and police officers set up barricades on the road leading to the square, which was built to commemorate the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.
“This is unconstitutional,” opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told troops who prevented the lawmakers from walking to the square. “You are violating the law. Think of those who are in pain. Why are you protecting a government like this?”
Another lawmaker, Nalin Bandara, said: “How long can they rule under emergency? The first instance when the curfew is lifted, people are going to be back on the streets.”
Posts on Facebook showed large crowds singing anti-government songs and shouting slogans.
The European Union urged Sri Lanka’s government to safeguard the “democratic rights of all concerns, including right to free assembly and dissent, which has to be peaceful.”
U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung said “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 said in a tweet on Saturday.
Sri Lanka is facing huge debt obligations, dwindling foreign reserve and has struggled to pay imports.
The island nation’s economic woes are blamed on a failure of successive governments to diversify exports, instead relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods.
With the estimated loss of $14 billion over the past two years, the COVID-19 epidemic dealt severe damage to the country’s economy. Protesters also point to mismanagement — Sri Lanka has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t earn money. For this year, its foreign debt repayment obligations total approximately $7 billion.
The concentration of power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family — which also controls the post of prime minister and three other Cabinet seats — also drew the ire of protesters.
Last month, President Rajapaksa stated that he will seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund as well as other countries and agencies regarding deferring loan payments. China indicated last month that it is considering applying for $2.5 billion in loans, while India granted Sri Lanka a credit line of $1 billion to import food, medicine, and other necessities.
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