Sri Lanka opposition protests: crowds gather as police promises to act

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s main opposition the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) is crying foul at alleged government attempts to block its protest marches on Tuesday (16), with the police already having turned away many protestors and promising to act if the party goes ahead with a mass rally scheduled for later in the afternoon in Colombo.

Police spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Nihal Thalduwa told EconomNext Tuesday afternoon that some 100 people have gathered near the Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo. If the protest continues in violations of a court order, he said,police will act under the quarantine ordinance according to complaints received.

“Barricades and checkpoints are operating. The main objective is to prevent people coming from other districts into Colombo. All checkpoints in the country have been advised in this regard,” he added.

News footage aired on mainstream broadcast channels on Tuesday showed SJB rank and file confronting police officers at barricades set up at various entry points to Colombo. Footage showed police turning away busloads of party supporters before they could make it to the city.

MP Dr Harsha de Silva told EconomyNext that the government is acting out in fear.

“We are being stopped everywhere. The government is scared of the opposition, basically the people,” he said.

“They are trying to use a regulation issued by the deputy director general of the health services to stop the protests, but he doesn’t have the power to do that. There is no law. Nor could they get a stay order from the courts, so they have deployed cops to use whatever force necessary to stop us,” the MP claimed.

Health Services Director General Dr Asela Gunawardena on Monday (15) issued new regulations prohibiting public gatherings and meetings unless prior approval was obtained.

The opposition event was originally supposed to take the form of a number of protest marches from different parts of the country culminating in a mass rally at Hyde Park grounds, Colombo, against the rising cost of living, the government’s controversial decision to ban agrochemicals, a crisis brought on by dwindling forex reserves, and a host of other issues.

However, the public health department of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) last Friday (12) revoked an approval it had previously given the SJB for the Hyde Park rally, citing increased COVID-19 cases. Last Thursday (11), a gazette was issued with amendments to Sri Lanka’s quarantine ordinance, making it mandatory for event organisers to obtain prior approval from relevant authorities for any public gathering. The authorities were empowered to make decisions on venues, the number of participants and other particulars.

Police later sought court orders blocking the protest citing COVID-19 transmission.

Government claims of the protests leading to a spike in COVID cases have been questioned by opposition lawmakers and others who say the virus is more likely to spread at indoor events where there is no ventilation, such as weddings.

The SJB protests aim to capitalise on a series of protests organised by farmers islandwide who had been demanding fertilizer and chemical pesticides and weedicides. Analysts say the party hopes to ride a wave of general anti-establishemnt sentiment over the rising cost of living and long queues for cooking gas, fuel, sugar, rice, and cement. The government has also been facing a financial crisis with inadequate foreign exchange for imports, leading to much resentment, if social media feedback is anything to go by.

The government has claimed most of these protests are politically motivated, though others disagree.

“They have put spikes across the streets in certain places. Even during the war we didn’t have anything like this. But people will come, it will not be easy but whoever can come, will come,” said MP de Silva.

“It is an absolute double-standard; for the government and their cronies, there are no restrictions; only for us,” he added.

Related: SJB defiant: Sri Lanka opposition to go ahead with protest despite legal hurdles

(Colombo/Nov16/2021)

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