Sri Lanka’s defence ministry has ordered security forces to shoot anyone causing injury to people or property to contain widespread arson and mob violence targeting government supporters.
The order came after violent clashes on Monday left eight people dead and prompted the resignation of the prime minister, who is blamed along with his brother, the president, for leading the country into its worst economic crisis.
The clashes started after mobs supporting the government attacked peaceful protesters who had camped out near the prime minister’s residence and president’s office demanding their resignations, as police watched stood by.
Across the country, angry citizens responded by attacking government supporters and ruling party politicians.
Eight people including a ruling party legislator and two police officers were killed and 219 were injured in the violence, said Kamal Gunaratne, secretary to the Ministry of Defence. He said 104 buildings and 60 vehicles were burned.
Defying a 36-hour nationwide curfew, several hundred protesters continued to chant slogans against the government on Tuesday. Some people attacked the homes of government supporters, but the violence that raged on Monday had largely abated.
For months, people have been forced to stand in long queues to buy essentials because a foreign exchange crisis has caused imports of everything from milk to fuel to plunge, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts.
Doctors have warned of crippling shortages of life-saving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on 7 billion dollars in foreign debt due this year alone.
“The defence ministry has ordered the tri-forces to shoot at persons involved in theft of public property or causing damage to individuals,” the ministry said in a text message.
“There is an emergency and a curfew in force but we see sections of the youth breaking into homes committing arson, assault, killings and theft,” Mr Gunaratne said in a statement.
Despite the curfew, hundreds of protesters swarmed the entrance to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office in the capital Colombo for the 32nd day to demand that he follow in his brother’s footsteps and quit.
One of the protesters, software engineer Chamath Bogahawatta, said the government “did something very despicable by bringing in people to provoke us”.
“There will be more people joining us. How long are they going to rule a country under curfew?” he said.
Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was Sri Lanka’s president from 1994 to 2005, warned against violence, tweeting that “saboteurs may be used to incite violence in order to pave the way for military rule”.
President Rajapaksa is a former military officer who has loyalists within the forces.
With Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation as prime minister, the cabinet was also dissolved, creating an administrative vacuum. Even though the president has the most power under the constitution, a prime minister and cabinet are needed to manage the government.
The prime minister is also the next in line if the presidency falls vacant.
Religious leaders and the lawyers’ Bar Association of Sri Lanka were in talks with political leaders on the formation of a new cabinet.
Pressure on President Rajapaksa to step down has increased after his brother’s resignation, analysts say, and comes as the economy has dramatically fallen apart.
The president initially said the crisis was not created by him, laying the blame on global factors such as the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry and higher global oil prices caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
But unable to escape public anger, he and his brother have since admitted to mistakes that exacerbated the crisis, and conceded they should have sought an International Monetary Fund bailout sooner.
In March, after citizens had endured critical shortages of fuel, cooking gas and medicine for months, the president finally contacted the IMF.
Talks to set up a rescue plan are being held, with progress dependent on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors, but any long-term plan is expected to take at least six months to get under way.