Colombo: Over 6oo people were arrested in Sri Lanka’s Western Province on Sunday for violating a 36-hour nationwide curfew and trying to stage an anti-government rally to protest the country’s worst economic crisis.

Opposition lawmakers, led by their leader Sajith Premadasa, had set off on a march towards the iconic Independence Square in Colombo, defying a weekend curfew imposed by the government on Saturday, ahead of the planned protest for Sunday.

We are protesting the government’s abuse of the public security ordinance to deny the public’s right to protest, Premadasa said.

The protest was organised by social media activists against the ongoing economic crisis and hardships heaped on people due to shortages of essentials.

A total of 664 people were arrested in the Western Province on Sunday. A countrywide curfew was declared ahead of an Arab Spring-style protest scheduled to be staged on Sunday, Colombo Gazette reported.

In an apparent move to block the planned protest, the Sri Lankan government imposed a 36-hour curfew on Saturday. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a special gazette notification late on Friday night, declaring a public emergency in Sri Lanka with immediate effect from April 1.

In another regulation after his action to impose a state of emergency which followed an order to impose a nationwide curfew, Rajapaksa said no one should come out and visit public places without permission during the curfew hours.

I consider that it is necessary to maintain public order in the areas .direct that no person shall be on any public road, railway, public park, public recreation ground or other public ground or the seashore in such areas from 1800 hour of April 2, 2022, to 0600 hours of April 4, 2022, except under the authority of a written permit granted, he said.

The government on Sunday barred gatherings and ordered internet service providers to restrict social media access, tightening curbs amid planned demonstrations calling for President Rajapaksa’s ouster over soaring living costs and a foreign exchange crisis.

The move to block social media platforms has come in for criticism from the government’s own ranks.

Dialog Telecom, a leading service provider, said access to Facebook, Messenger, YouTube, WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, IMO, Instagram, Telegram, Snapchat and TikTok have been restricted.

Namal Rajapaksa, the sports minister and President Rajapaksa’s nephew, told reporters that the blockade was useless as many people would use VPNs to access social media sites.

The blockade came on a request from the defence ministry to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

The government’s blockade of social media platforms forced top government information communications technology official Oshada Senanayake to resign.

I am sorry I could not do more but circumstances are such and as I always said I would vehemently stand by my principles and ethos I believe in, he tweeted.

The island nation is undergoing the worst economic crisis in history which has led to a severe shortage of food and fuel as the country runs out of dollars to pay for imports. The public has been suffering for weeks with long lines for fuel, cooking gas, essentials in short supply and long hours of power cuts.

Rajapaksa has defended his government’s actions, saying the foreign exchange crisis was not his making and the economic downturn was largely pandemic driven.

Also read | India delivers 40,000 metric tonnes of fuel to Sri Lanka

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