A Buddhist monk looks on as police use tear gas and water cannon to disperse university students protesting to demand the resignation of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the country's crippling economic crisis, near the parliament building in Colombo on May 6, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Colombo, Sri Lanka: Diplomats and rights groups expressed concern on Saturday after Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and police used force against peaceful protesters amid the country’s worst economic crisis in recent memory.

The economic and political situation has triggered protests across the Indian Ocean island nation demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa and his powerful ruling family.

Rajapaksa issued a decree declaring a public emergency on Friday. He invoked sections of the Public Security Ordinance that allow him to make regulations in the interests of public security and preserving public order, and for the maintenance of essential supplies.

Under the emergency regulations, Rajapaksa can authorise detentions, seize possession of property and search any premises. He can also change or suspend any law.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung tweeted on Saturday that she is “concerned’’ by the state of emergency, adding that “the voices of peaceful citizens need to be heard.’’

“And the very real challenges Sri Lankans are facing require long term solutions to set the country back on a path toward prosperity and opportunity for all. The SOE (state of emergency) won’t help do that,’’ Chung added.

Canadian envoy David McKinnon said Sri Lankans have a right to peaceful protest under democracy and that it is “hard to understand why it is necessary, then, to declare a state of emergency.’’

The declaration of emergency came on the same day that shops, offices, banks and schools closed across the country heeding calls for a shutdown in protest against the president and his family. Trade unions have warned of continued strikes from May 11 if they do not resign by then.

The government said Saturday the emergency was declared to create political stability so that reforms can be implemented to help resolve the economic crisis.

It also said the emergency status would help create necessary conditions for negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and other agencies and countries for financial assistance and debt restructuring.

“The emotive protests organized in the capital and many parts of the country have become a threat to public safety,’’ a government statement said, adding that continued protests will only aggravate the economic difficulties.

Sri Lanka is near bankruptcy. It announced it is suspending repayment of its foreign loans and its usable foreign currency reserves have plummeted below $50 million. The country has $7 billion in foreign loan repayments due this year out of $25 billion to be repaid by 2026. Its total foreign debt is $51 billion.

Police used tear gas and a water cannon twice Friday at protesters near the Parliament who were criticizing lawmakers for not ousting the president and his government, whom they say are responsible for the economic crisis. Protesters are angry that lawmakers elected a government-backed deputy speaker of Parliament by a large majority when the protesters say they should be voting Rajapaksa’s government out of power.

Police first fired tear gas at a student-led protest that began Thursday after the election of the deputy speaker in what was seen as a key victory for the governing coalition. Separately, police dispersed more protesters with tear gas Friday night, also near Parliament.

The rights group Amnesty International said protests have been peaceful and the authorities have unlawfully restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Protesters have vowed to continue their demonstrations despite the emergency law, while an occupation of the entrance to the president’s office continued for a 29th day Saturday.