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COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe has declared a state of emergency, which came into effect on Monday as the interim government tries to quell unrest ahead of a parliamentary vote later this week to choose a new leader.

The island nation of 22 million has been suffering from shortages of essential goods and days-long fuel queues for months, while foreign exchange reserves fell to almost zero and headline inflation hit 54.6 percent in June.

Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president on Friday after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled abroad last week after resigning after months of mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.

Sri Lanka’s Parliament convened on Saturday to begin electing a new leader who will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term. Nominations for the election will be heard on July 19 and a vote is expected to take place the next day.

The incumbent president ordered the state of emergency “in the interest of public safety, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community,” according to an official statement.

“There were elements within society that were trying to disrupt the peace in the country,” Wickremesinghe said in a televised statement on Monday. “They would be forbidden to disrupt the progress of the country.”

The government will engage “peaceful protesters with legitimate concerns” and work with them to find solutions, he added.

Wickremesinghe’s attempt to declare a state of emergency comes as protests demanding his resignation continued in different parts of the country. Previous exemptions have been used to use the military to arrest and detain people and to quell public protests.

“The current state of emergency is just to protect (the government) from the people and deny people their democratic rights,” said Dr. Ruvaiz Haniffa, social activist and former president of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, told Arab News.

“Why does it have to use an emergency as a punitive measure against the people it is meant to serve, unless it is aware that it has not and is not performing the service that people expect?”

Namal Jayaweera, one of the protest leaders, said that Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister to safeguard the interests of the Rajapaksas, whose family dynasty has ruled Sri Lankan politics for more than 20 years.

Wickremesinghe was only appointed prime minister in May after Gotabaya’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned following violent clashes between protesters and ruling party supporters in Colombo.

“When he took office as prime minister, he said his first priority was to give people three meals, get petrol and gas and electricity for the people,” Jayaweera told Arab News. “He failed and couldn’t keep his promises.”

“We will continue the fight until Ranil is also overthrown as we see him as a dealmaker and protector of the Rajapaksa regime.”

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