COLOMBO, April 3 (Reuters) – Sri Lankan soldiers with assault rifles and police manned checkpoints in Colombo on Sunday as the government blocked social media platforms after imposing a curfew to contain public unrest triggered by the country’s economic crisis.
The latest restrictions come after the government on Saturday implemented a countrywide curfew as protests against the government’s handling of the economic crisis turned violent. The curfew will run till 6 a.m. (0030 GMT) on Monday.
“The social media block is temporary and imposed due to special instructions given by the Defence Ministry. It was imposed in the interests of the country and people to maintain calm,” Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Chairman Jayantha de Silva told Reuters.
Internet monitoring organisation NetBlocks said real-time network data showed that Sri Lanka had imposed a nationwide social media blackout, restricting access to platforms including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram as a state of emergency was declared amid widespread protests.
The country’s Minister for Youth and Sports Namal Rajapaksa who is also the nephew of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in a tweet he would “never condone the blocking of social media”.
“The availability of VPN, just like I’m using now, makes such bans completely useless. I urge the authorities to think more progressively and reconsider this decision.”
President Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on Friday, raising fears of a crackdown on protests as the country grapples with rising prices, shortages of essentials and rolling power cuts.
Emergency powers in the past have allowed the military to arrest and detain suspects without warrants, but the terms of the current powers are not yet clear.
It has also marked a sharp turnaround in political support for President Rajapaksa, who swept to power in 2019 promising stability.
Around two dozen opposition leaders stopped at police barricades on the way to Independence Square, some shouting “Gota (Gotabaya) Go Home”.
“This is unacceptable,” said opposition leader Eran Wickramaratne leaning over the barricades. “This is a democracy.”
Nihal Thalduwa, a senior superintendent of police, said 664 people who broke curfew rules were arrested by the police in the Western Province, the country’s most populous administrative division which includes Colombo.
Critics say the roots of the crisis, the worst in several decades, lie in economic mismanagement by successive governments that created and sustained a twin deficit – a budget shortfall alongside a current account deficit.
But the current crisis was accelerated by deep tax cuts promised by Rajapaksa during a 2019 election campaign that were enacted months before the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out parts of Sri Lanka’s economy.
At Colombo’s Pettah government bus stand, Issuru Saparamadu, a painter, said he was desperately looking for a way to go home to Chilaw, around 70 km away.
With public transport stalled since the curfew, Saparamadu said he spent the night sleeping on the street after working the entire week in Colombo.
“Now I cannot go back. I’m stuck,” he said. “I’m very frustrated.”
Western and Asian diplomats based in Sri Lanka said they were monitoring the situation and expected the government to allow citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations.
(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)