Rolling power cuts, violent protests, long lines for basic issues: Inside Sri Lanka

Like his neighbors, he was frustrated by the more than 10 hours of power outages that plunged Colombo into darkness, and the lack of gas to cook with him made it difficult for his family to eat.

Then on Thursday – the fourth night – the protest turned violent.

The protesters of the protesters threw bricks outside the personal residence of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse’s personal residence and fired, because police used tear gas and water in order to break the protests.

“People were apparently angry, shouting,” said Upul, who was asked to mention only his last name for fear of repercussions. “Earlier (in the week) they demanded the resignation of the President, (Thursday) they were shouting and calling his name.”

For weeks, Sri Lanka has been battling its worst economic crisis since the island nation gained independence in 1948, with shortages of food, fuel, gas and medicine, and skyrocketing prices of basic commodities.

Shops have been forced to close because they cannot operate refrigerators, air conditioners or fans, and soldiers are stationed at gas stations to calm customers, who stand in line for hours in the sweltering heat to fill their tanks. Some have died while waiting.

But Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis escalated on Thursday night.

After the protests, police imposed a curfew and the president ordered a nationwide state of emergency, giving authorities the power to detain people without a warrant. On Saturday evening, Sri Lanka announced a nationwide 36-hour curfew, effectively disrupting the planned protests on Sunday – but the protests continued anyway on Saturday. In a statement on Sunday, police said they had arrested 664 people for violating the curfew.

Meanwhile, the government is seeking financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is leaning towards regional powers that may be able to help.

But there has been an uproar inside Sri Lanka – and experts warn that the situation could get worse before it gets better.

Days spent waiting in line

For weeks, life in Sri Lanka has been lined up for hours – just to get the basic necessities needed to survive.

Leaning on a dilapidated blue gas cylinder in the baking heat of Colombo, Malkanti Silva, 53, said, “Our daily lives have become like standing in a line, where he had already waited for hours for the propane he needed to cook. Feed his family. “When we need milk powder, there is a row for him. If we need medicine, there is another row for him.”

Although the situation is now particularly acute, it has taken years to create.

“30% is unfortunate. 70% is mismanagement,” said Murtaza Zafarji, chairman of the Colombo-based think tank Advocate Institute.

He said over the past decade, the Sri Lankan government has borrowed huge sums of money from foreign lenders and expanded public services. As government debt increased, the economy was hit by heavy rains that damaged agricultural production in 2016 and 2017, followed by a constitutional crisis in 2018 and a deadly Easter bombing in 2019.
Sri Lankans spend most of their day in line for fuel and gas as the country's economic crisis worsens.

In 2019, newly elected President Rajapaksa cut taxes in an effort to stimulate the economy.

“They misdiagnosed the problem and felt they had to make a financial incentive by reducing taxes,” Jaffarji said.

But President Rajapaksa was new to the role, he was not new to the government.

As defense minister, led by his older brother, Rajapaksa oversaw a 2009 military operation that ended a 26-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The United Nations launched an investigation last year into allegations of war crimes committed by both sides.

After winning the presidential election, Rajapaksa appointed his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister and, according to the United Nations, filled dozens of government roles with serving or former military and intelligence personnel. Their younger brother Basil Rajapaksa was later appointed Finance Minister.
In 2020, when the epidemic hit, Sri Lanka’s tourism-dependent economy came to a halt as the country closed its borders and imposed lockdowns and curfews. The government had a big deficit.
Opposition supporters chanted slogans during a protest outside the president's office in Colombo on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

Shanta Debrajan, a professor of international development at Georgetown University and former chief economist at the World Bank, said tax cuts and economic woes have affected government revenue, prompting rating agencies to lower Sri Lanka’s credit rating to almost default – meaning the country has entered foreign markets. .

According to an IMF briefing, Sri Lanka has lagged behind in its foreign exchange reserves to repay government debt, shrinking from 6. 6.9 billion in 2018 to 2 2.2 billion this year.

The cash crunch affected imports of fuel and other essentials, and in February Sri Lanka imposed a rolling power cut to deal with the energy crisis that pushed up prices, even before Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine triggered a global crisis.

Last month, the government floated the Sri Lankan rupee, effectively devaluing the currency against the US dollar.

Zafar described the government’s move as “a series of mistakes.”

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told CNN on Saturday that the finance minister and his party were working around the clock to keep the economy afloat. He said it was wrong to say the government had mismanaged the economy – instead, Covid-19 was one of the reasons.

Earlier, the president said he was trying to resolve the issue.

“This crisis was not created by me,” Rajapaksa said in a speech to the nation last month.

Without gas, Sri Lankans are unable to cook food, and power cuts mean electric cookers are unusable.

An impossible situation

The Sri Lankan unfolding situation has made earning money incredibly challenging – even working can be a big obstacle for some.

Autorickshaw driver Thisara Sampath, 35, needs fuel to work so he can feed his family. But both fuel and food are being rationed, and prices are rising – the price of bread has more than doubled from Rs 60 ($ 0.20) to Rs 125 ($ 0.42), he said.

Ajith Perera, a 44-year-old autorickshaw driver, also told CNN that he could not survive on fuel rations.

“We can’t rent or make a living with the litter or two we get,” Pereira said with tears in his eyes. “Leave me alone to take care of my mother, wife and two children. I can’t pay my taxi installment to the finance company,” he said.

For many, this is an impossible situation – they can’t afford to work, but they can’t afford to join the long line for basic products.

Kanthi Latha, 47, who sweeps the streets to make a living feeding her two young sons, says she quit her job to join the small line for food before returning quickly.

“I can’t afford to take a vacation. If I do, I could lose my job,” Latha said.

Before the economic crisis, Shivakala Rajeshwari said her husband worked as a construction worker. But people are reluctant to do even basic construction work due to rising prices of construction materials, he said.

Rajeshwari, 40, said he could still make a living by working in people’s homes, but for the past few days he had no choice but to wait in line. “I didn’t get a chance to go anywhere and work,” he said. “When will this misery end?”

Even middle-class members are frustrated with savings.

The protester, Upul, received a decent wage in a professional job, but said he still could not access the things his family needed. For now, he has enough medicine to treat his daily headaches, pains and fevers, but he is worried about running out.

His family has moved to induction cooking to reduce gas consumption, but frequent power outages have been difficult.

“Neither I nor my family or every other person in Sri Lanka deserves it,” he said. “We were not so poor with all the money we saved and earned.”

Inflation is pushing up food prices, forcing people to make more money to cover basic expenses.

What happens next?

Sri Lanka is now seeking outside help to reduce economic instability – the IMF, India and China.

During last month’s speech, President Rajapaksa said he considered the pros and cons of working with the IMF and decided to pursue a bailout from the Washington-based organization – which his government was reluctant to do.

“We need to take steps to address this deficit and increase our foreign exchange reserves. To this end, we have started negotiations with our friendly countries, including international financial institutions, on the repayment of our debt installments, “Rajapaksa said on March 16.

At a news conference on Thursday, IMF spokesman Gary Rice told reporters: “Sri Lankan authorities have expressed interest in an IMF-backed financial program.

“We plan to start these talks in the coming days, and will include the expected visit of the Sri Lankan finance minister to Washington for our spring meeting in April.”

Sri Lanka has also requested help from China and India, New Delhi has already issued a $ 1 billion credit line, Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jayashankar tweeted March 17.

But that would be just “kicking the cane in the street,” said Zafarji of the Advocate Institute. “It’s prolonging the crisis.”

Pikeiasothi Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives, expressed concern that public frustration with the government could increase.

Sarvanamuttu said, “It must be very bad before it can be good. “There is a lot of hatred and resentment against the president and the cabinet. Government legislators are afraid to confront voters.

Troops have been deployed at the gas station to maintain peace as tensions rise.

There is still much uncertainty about what will happen next – according to the country’s central bank, national consumer inflation rose almost threefold from 6.2% in September to 17.5% in February.

“The prices of essentials are changing every day,” Silva said as he stood in line in Colombo. “The price of rice yesterday is not the price we will buy tomorrow.”

Thursday’s protest – and subsequent developments – raises the possibility of worse

Protesters Upul said he was protesting on behalf of all Sri Lankans. But the new emergency rules make him anxious.

“I am participating in this demonstration and although I was injured, I was not discouraged,” he said. “But now, with the new rules, I’m scared.”

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