Emergency in Sri Lanka ahead of parliament vote for new president

Ranil Wickremesinghe cites the need to uphold public order and security amid widespread social unrest over a deepening economic crisis.

Acting sri lanka president Ranil Wickremesinghe
Sri Lanka's acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe has declared a state of emergency [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Sri Lanka’s acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe has declared a state of emergency in the crisis-ridden island nation in an effort to head off unrest ahead of a vote in parliament later this week to elect a new president.

Wickremesinghe announced the measure “in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community,” according to a government notice released late on Sunday.

The specific legal provisions of the latest emergency are yet to be announced by the government but previous emergency regulations have been used to deploy the military to arrest and detain people, search private property and dampen public protests.

Sri Lanka’s beleaguered leaders have imposed a state of emergency several times since April, when mass protests started against the government’s handling of the economic crisis and a persistent shortage of essentials.

‘Arbitrary action’

Capital Colombo remained calm on Monday morning, with traffic and pedestrians out on the streets.

“Why is he declaring a state of emergency? In fear of people? Is there an emergency situation in the country? There is no emergency situation at all,” Jayamapthy Wickremeratne, an expert on constitutional affairs, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

“This is arbitrary action by the acting president. People in this country have a democratic right to convey their demands, peacefully, to their representatives. Therefore, this is an attempt by Mr Wickremesinghe to stop people from coming to the streets.”

Bhavani Fonseka, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, said declaring a state of emergency was becoming the government’s default response. “This has proven ineffective in the past,” she said.

Rev. Father Jeewantha Peiris, one of the leaders of the protest movement, said the sudden declaration of the state of emergency is meant to intimidate the protesters.

“We have been protesting peacefully for 100 days but there was no state of emergency. Then why now?” he told Al Jazeera.

“We see that Ranil Wickremesinghe is getting ready for oppression but our struggle would not be oppressed by these actions. We have a democratic right to protest and we will continue our struggle till we achieve our last demand.”

Sri Lanka crisis
Security personnel stand guard outside the parliament building in Colombo [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Wickremesinghe had announced a state of emergency last week, after overthrown President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country to escape a popular uprising against his government.

Rajapaksa flew to the Maldives and then to Singapore after hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Colombo and occupied his official residence and offices.

Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim leader on Friday. He has promised to follow the constitution and establish law and order after months of protests over crippling fuel shortages and soaring prices of basic goods.

Sri Lanka’s parliament met on Saturday to begin the process of electing a president for the next five years, as a shipment of fuel arrived to provide some relief to the crisis-hit nation of 22 million people.

Wickremesinghe, an ally of Rajapaksa, is a top contender to assume the presidency full-time. But protesters want him gone, raising the prospect of further unrest should he be elected.

Protest leader Melani Gunathilake says Sri Lanka needs a new leader “at least below the age of 60”, who is not accused of corruption and other misdeeds.

“I am glad that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is gone but we can’t enjoy or celebrate it as long as Ranil Wickremesinghe is in power,” she told Al Jazeera.

Additional reporting by Saroj Pathirana from Colombo, Sri Lanka

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies