COLOMBO: Police fired tear gas on students attempting to storm Sri Lanka’s parliament Thursday as the protesters demanded the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the country’s worst-ever economic crisis.
Protesters led by the Inter University Students’ Federation were about to pull down the yellow-painted iron barricades on the main drive leading to the legislature when riot police unleashed a barrage of tear gas.
The students had marched from a nearby university and closed in on the parliament building located on a man-made lake island when police moved in.
Even as the crowds dispersed, police kept firing tear gas canisters that hit shops in the nearby Diyatha Uyana park, witnesses said.
Police had earlier set up barricades around the sprawling parliament complex where a vacancy for the deputy speaker was being filled unopposed.
Sri Lanka’s 22-million population has been facing acute shortages of food, fuel and medicines for months, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets to demand the resignation of Rajapaksa and other members of his powerful ruling family.
The president and his family have made it clear that they will not step down despite escalating demonstrations across the island.
Sri Lanka’s trade unions have announced a one-day work stoppage on Friday.
The organisers of the strike have asked temples and churches to ring their bells for an hour on Friday morning in a show of solidarity.
Finance minister Ali Sabry warned on Wednesday that the country will have to endure its unprecedented economic hardships for at least two more years.
Sabry said the country now has less than $50 million in usable foreign exchange reserves, needed to finance essential goods to keep Sri Lanka’s import-dependent economy ticking over.
Official data shows reserves at $1.7 billion, but most of that figure includes a Chinese currency swap which cannot be used to pay for imports from other countries.
Sabry said the government faltered by delaying an approach to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis took hold after the coronavirus pandemic hammered income from tourism and remittances.
Last month, Colombo announced it was defaulting on its $51 billion foreign debt.