Sri Lanka police on Friday abruptly imposed a curfew in and around capital Colombo, ahead of mass anti-government protests that various citizens’ groups had planned to hold on Saturday.

In a statement issued late on Friday, barely an hour before the curfew came into effect at 9 pm, police said residents of Colombo and its immediate suburbs are “strictly advised to remain indoors” during the period of the curfew, which they said was indefinite.

The move comes as Sri Lanka witnesses a fresh wave of protests as its grave economic crisis deepens, putting citizens through enormous hardship. Daily survival has become a battle for scores of families, as they struggle to access essentials or wait in fuel queues for days together to buy a few litres of rationed petrol or diesel. Public transport has been badly hit, and city roads are empty, as if it were a lockdown.

Even as demonstrations go unabated at ‘Gota go gama’ (Gota go village) agitation sites in Colombo and across the country for months, university teachers and students held protest rallies on Thursday and Friday, in the run up to Saturday’s mass protests.

On Friday, police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesting students, a tactic they have often resorted to in the past, to restrict protests.

Earlier on Friday, the UN Human Rights Chief urged the government to “show restraint.”

“Ahead of what is expected to be a large demonstration in Colombo on Saturday, 9 July, we urge Sri Lankan authorities to show restraint in the policing of assemblies and ensure every necessary effort to prevent violence,” a spokesperson said in a statement issued from Geneva.

“Police have used tear gas and water cannon at times in an unnecessary and disproportionate manner. On occasions, armed forces have also fired live ammunition. All Sri Lankans have the right of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and the right to participate in public affairs, which are particularly important in critical phases of the nation’s life,” the UN official said.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, a professional body of lawyers, expressed “strong protest” at the imposition of a “purported curfew”. 

Observing that the country’s “Police Ordinance” did not provide for the imposition of such curfew, the Association said in a statement: “Such curfew is blatantly illegal and a violation of the fundamental rights of the people of our country who are protesting against President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and his government over its failure to protect their basic rights.” 

“Unlawful curfew”

Opposition lawmaker and senior lawyer MA Sumanthiran deemed the “curfew” unlawful.

“There’s nothing called a “police curfew” in terms of the law. This is an unlawful announcement to discourage people to gather tomorrow to protest against the government,” he said in a tweet.

Early in April, too, authorities declared a weekend curfew, ahead of mass protests planned by citizens’ groups challenging the government over its failed response to the crushing economic downturn.

Meera Sreenivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo