Sri Lanka bans social media as citizens protest against worst economic crisis in country’s history

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Image: The Guardian; Newsfirst Sri Lanka
  • An economic crisis years in the making has caused prices of daily necessities in Sri Lanka to skyrocket.
  • At least two people have died while lining up for hours just to buy fuel.
  • The turmoil has led to protests that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to declare a state of emergency last Friday and a curfew that lasted for three days.
  • To “maintain calm,” the Ministry of Defense then imposed a sweeping social media ban, which was lifted hours later after protests from the opposition.
  • The country is now negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout, but discussions are expected to last until the end of the year.

Sri Lanka has become the latest Asian country to ban social media in an attempt to quell protests against its government, whose alleged incompetence has reportedly led to the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.

The temporary ban, which restricted access to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp, was placed on Sunday under orders from the Ministry of Defense. Jayantha de Silva, chairman of the federal telecom regulatory authority, told Reuters that it was “imposed in the interests of the country and people to maintain calm.”

The move followed the government’s declaration of a state of emergency after protesters stormed outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home in Colombo to demand his removal. A nationwide curfew was subsequently enforced from Saturday evening to Monday morning.

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The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the island nation’s main opposition alliance, protested against the social media ban, which led to its lifting. “President Rajapaksa better realize that the tide has already turned on his autocratic rule,” SJB lawmaker Harsha de Silva told AFP.

Fueling the dissent is economic turmoil Sri Lanka has not seen since it gained independence from British rule in 1948. The crisis, according to experts, resulted from excessive foreign debt and economic blows brought by natural and man-made disasters.

Rajapaksa slashed taxes to help resolve the deficit, but the move only made things worse. Government revenue took a hit, which eventually led to loss of access to foreign markets.

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To pay off debts, Sri Lanka turned to its foreign exchange reserves, which then fell from $6.9 billion in 2018 to $2.3 billion in February. And in a sudden move last month, the government devalued the rupee by up to 15%, a move seen as a step toward getting help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The resulting hyperinflation has led to skyrocketing prices in food, medicine, milk powder and other necessities. At least two people have died while lining up for hours just to buy fuel.

Sagayarani, a housewife who waited in line for kerosene for at least five hours, told AFP that she saw three people faint at the time. She said she herself was supposed to be hospitalized.

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“I haven’t eaten anything, I’m feeling very dizzy and it’s very hot, but what can we do? It’s a lot of hardship,” she said.

The crisis has prompted mass resignations from more than two dozen cabinet members over the weekend. Rajapaksa consequently announced temporary replacements, but desertions have continued elsewhere in the administration.

Sri Lanka, which is scheduled to pay about $7 billion in foreign loans this year, is now negotiating with the IMF for a bailout. However, discussions are expected to drag until the end of the year, which could only mean long months of further struggle for ordinary Sri Lankans.

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