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Sri Lanka protesters defy curfew after social media shutdown

COLOMBO (AFP) – Armed troops in Sri Lanka blocked an opposition march yesterday that defied a weekend curfew to protest the island nation’s worsening economic crisis, after authorities imposed a social media blackout to contain public dissent.

The South Asian nation is facing severe shortages of food, fuel and other essentials, along with record inflation and crippling power cuts, in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa imposed a state of emergency on Friday, the day after a crowd attempted to storm his home in the capital Colombo, and a nationwide curfew is in effect until today morning.

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Sri Lanka’s main opposition alliance, denounced a social media blackout aimed at quelling intensifying public demonstrations, and said it was time for the government to resign.

Troops armed with automatic assault rifles moved to stop a protest by opposition lawmakers and hundreds of their supporters attempting to march to the capital’s Independence Square.

Sri Lanka’s opposition Parliament members protest in Colombo. PHOTO: AFP

The road was barricaded a few hundred metres from the home of opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and the crowd engaged in a tense stand-off with security forces for nearly two hours before dispersing peacefully.

“President Rajapaksa better realise that the tide has already turned on his autocratic rule,” SJB lawmaker Harsha de Silva told AFP at the rally.

Fellow SJB legislator Eran Wickramaratne condemned the state of emergency declaration and the presence of troops on city streets. “We can’t allow a military takeover,” he said.

“They should know we are still a democracy.”

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp were among the platforms shut down yesterday on the orders of defence authorities, Internet service providers told their subscribers.

Private media outlets reported that the chief of Sri Lanka’s Internet regulator resigned after the order went into effect.

The streets of the capital stayed largely empty yesterday, apart from the opposition protest and long lines of vehicles queued for fuel at service stations.

Mass protests had been called on social media before the ban went into effect, and organisers have since postponed the rallies until after the curfew is lifted today. Small crowds defied the curfew on Saturday night to hold peaceful demonstrations in various neighbourhoods around Colombo which broke up without incident.

Cracks in the government have emerged, with the president’s nephew Namal Rajapaksa announcing he had urged the government to reconsider the partial Internet blackout.