Sri Lankans have a message for their president: ‘Let’s go home’

Fridays used to be special days for Akeela Fayaz’s three children, who would make special desserts for them when they got home from school. Now such luxury is unthinkable.

Her middle-class household is in Sri Lanka is dividing food and has cut out all but the most essential items, some of which have doubled in price from last month, if they can be found.

“You don’t get any powdered milk, or to be honest, raw milk on the shelves,” said Fayaz, 40, a freelance blogger from Colombo, the commercial capital of the country. “You need to know someone who knows someone to get it.”

Dwindling foreign exchange reserves have pushed the South Asian island nation to the brink of bankruptcy, leaving it unable to buy enough food, fuel and medicine. On Tuesday, the central bank governor said the country has suspension of foreign debt payments For the first time in history the company said it needed money to import. The government has reached out to India and China for financial help, and is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund that it had previously resisted.

Police Special Forces try to stop protesters during a protest against the rising cost of living, outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's beachfront office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on March 18, 2022.
Police officers clashed with protesters during a protest against the rising cost of living in Colombo last month.Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP – Getty Images

Public anger over the economic crisis has led to growing calls for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose powerful family has ruled for the most part for the past two decades. With near-daily protests across the country and a small but growing camp near the presidential office in Colombo, the protest movement has united the country of 22 million people across religious boundaries. religion and ethnicity.

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, elected in 2019, is the second member of his family to hold the presidency of Sri Lanka. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, was the country’s prime minister, serving as president from 2005 to 2015.

Although the two brothers are supposed to end Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war in 2009, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was his brother’s defense secretary, both were accused of corruption and human rights violations.

They are increasingly finding themselves isolated amid the economic crisis that has forced all other Cabinet ministers to resign this month. Among them were family members such as Namal Rajapaksa, the son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who say on Twitter that he hoped his resignation would spur his uncle to make a decision to “establish stability for the people.”

Against calls to resign, Gotabaya Rajapaksa instead appealed form a unity governmentan offer was rejected by the opposition.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa presents his national declaration during the second day of COP26 on November 1, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resisted calls to abandon Sri Lanka’s economic crisis.Andy Buchanan / Pool via Getty Images

Mahinda Rajapaksa said this week he was open to talking to protesters, as the opposition said it was preparing a motion of no confidence in Parliament that could force the brothers to resign.

Sri Lanka’s economy, which is largely based on tourism, has suffered the double blows of pandemic caused by corona virus and Suicide Bombings on Easter Sunday 2019 in Colombo targeting churches and luxury hotels. But experts say the country’s crisis is also rooted in years of economic mismanagement.

Since the former British colony gained independence in 1948, Sri Lanka’s foreign loans have almost exceeded its income capacity every year. Rohan Samarajiva, founder of LIRNEasia, an independent consulting organization based in Colombo, said that to pay them back, the government continued to take out additional loans.

“The underlying disease is the fiscal deficit problem,” he said. “We don’t export enough and we depend on imports.”

The country has also borrowed millions of dollars from foreign banks for loss-making infrastructure projects such as a little-used international airport that Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered to build near her hometown and named after her.

People queue to buy liquefied petroleum gas in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 12, 2022.
People line up to buy gasoline in Colombo on Tuesday. Jonathan Wijayaratne / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Experts say Gotabaya Rajapaksa made two big economic mistakes as president. The first is tax cuts, which reduce government revenue. The second order was a ban on the import of chemical fertilizers last April, in an effort to encourage organic farming, as well as preserve foreign exchange reserves. As a result, agricultural production declines, affecting cash-rich exports such as tea, and requiring the country to import more food. The ban was lifted late last year.

Adding to Sri Lanka’s economic woes, last year the government “started printing money as if it were out of fashion”, Samarajiva said, sending inflation rates soaring. In March, food prices were on average 30% higher than a year earlier.

Sahithyan Ambiharathina, a 20-year-old student from the eastern village of Kallady, said in a phone interview: “Mostly we eat bread with every meal.

Protesters gather at the entrance of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's office while eating and sitting along a road in Colombo on April 14, 2022.
Protesters at the entrance to the presidential office in Colombo on Thursday.Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP – Getty Images

He said his family stocked up on as much nutritious food as possible for his sister’s 7-month-old daughter. They have been concerned in recent weeks as the shortage affects the chubby child they know: “She’s so thin and weak.”

Both mother and baby do better when families have more success buying food, he said, but the cost is a burden.

Fuel is also hard to come by, leading to widespread power outages lasting up to 13 hours a day. Last month, police said two men in their 70s had died after waiting for hours in two different parts of the country.

“When we ran out of fuel because we couldn’t pay for fuel shipments, power plants had to close,” Harsha de Silva, an economist and member of Congress, said in an interview. with Zoom from Colombo.

Fayaz says the power cuts are manageable during the day, but at night, “it’s a different kind of torture. It’s so hot and humid that I can’t sleep, I’m so tired.”

Protesters hold banners as they take part in a demonstration against the economic crisis in front of the gates of the presidential office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 10, 2022.
Protesters called for the president’s resignation in Colombo on Sunday.Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP – Getty Images

When their daily lives were cut short and without power, Sri Lankans began taking to the streets to protest, venting their anger at the president with chants of “Go Home Gota”.

Fayaz, who has participated in several protests, said: “There are people who are doing white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs, people who don’t do any jobs, housewives, mothers, salespeople. customers, even university students,” said Fayaz, who has participated in several protests. “Everybody is on the street, asking for the same things.”

Protests have sometimes turned violent, including on March 31 when crowds outside Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mansion on the Colombo suburb of Gotabaya Rajapaksa caught a bus and threw rocks at police.

“The police came in with tear gas and water cannons. People were running away,” said Udith Erosh, 36, who was live streaming nearby. “Soon, people say, ‘We have nothing to lose,’ and they come back. People are not afraid anymore.”

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