‘We’re finished’: Sri Lankans pushed to the brink by financial crisis | Sri Lanka

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As thousands of angry shouts and anti-government slogans filled the streets of the Sri Lankan city of Colombo on Saturday, Chanda Upul stood quietly nearby, desperately pushing her wares of soft drinks and bottled water on the protesters. But in his heart he sang with them.

Sri Lanka has entered its worst financial crisis since independence, with food, fuel, medicine and electricity becoming increasingly scarce, and is calling on the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa – often referred to as Gota – to step down. And Upul, 50, who lives in a poor northern suburb of the city, is among those pushed to the brink of survival.

Sri Lanka

As petrol became scarce and expensive, Upul was no longer able to pay reimbursements for his rental rickshaw and lost his only means of income. Today, he and his four children survive on rice and water. Vegetables and powdered milk are just too expensive these days.

“The only thing we can do now is drink poison, we’re finished,” Upul said. “I voted for Gota thinking he was a lion, now I can see he is worse than a dog. I love my country but I don’t know if it will remain a country for my children.

The impacts of Sri Lanka’s financial collapse have barely spared a corner of the country. There are the power cuts that darken homes and storefronts for up to eight hours a day and force people to cook on salvaged wood while mile-long queues form outside gas stations . School exams and newspapers have had to be canceled because the government and the media cannot afford the paper to print them on. Doctors have declared a medical crisis as pharmacies and hospitals are empty of essential medicines, and warnings have been issued that starvation could be imminent for the country’s 22 million people as food supplies dwindle. In Colombo, police stand at intersections as traffic lights have been extinguished.

But nowhere can the seismic shift in the country be felt more than on the streets. In recent weeks, protests unprecedented in Sri Lanka’s history have taken place across the country, driven not by an organized movement, but rather by a collective rage against politicians they accuse of leading their country in the ground, causing many to describe it. as “Sri Lanka’s Arab Spring”.

Protesters in Colombo demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Photography: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

Many of those taking to the streets belong to Sri Lanka’s younger generation, furious at what they see as their own future inflamed by the divisions and incompetences of the older generation. Vasi Samudra Devi, a 26-year-old artist, said she was “incredibly scared of what might happen”.

“It’s everyone’s duty to protest, the situation here is so grim for young people,” Devi said. “These corrupt politicians stole our money and destroyed our future. We deserve better than that.

Jehan Perera, executive director of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council, described the scale and scope of the protests as “absolutely unprecedented”.

“The way people from all communities come out on the streets, I’ve never seen before,” he said. “And it’s happening organically, there’s no mastermind or political party behind it. It’s very youth oriented, but you have middle class people, old people, wealthy business people, families, people who have never protested before.

“The anger and the enthusiasm don’t fade away,” added Perera. “These protests are not going to end anytime soon.”

The anger of protesters across the country has mainly targeted Rajapaksa, the country’s strongman who was elected in 2019 on the back of a fierce nationalist agenda. A member of Sri Lanka’s most powerful family and in charge of the army during the final years of the civil war – during which he is accused of committing war crimes – he was for a long time the most dreaded by national politics.

Over the past two years, he has amended the constitution to strengthen his own executive powers, and five members of his family have held senior government positions, including his brother Mahinda, who is prime minister.

But the devastating economic decisions of his government since coming to power – including scrapping austerity measures when he came to power, cutting taxes to just 8% of GDP, printing large sums of money driving up inflation, the refusal to restructure the country’s growing external debt and the use of all foreign reserves – have made him the most ridiculed man in Sri Lankan politics. The protesters’ rallying cry was “Gota go home”, a reference to his dual American citizenship.

His entire cabinet resigned last week and more than 40 politicians defected from his ruling coalition to become independents, with a warning that “if we don’t act now, there will be a river of blood in the country “. But Rajapaksa insisted he had no intention of quitting.

“Obviously he cannot run a government,” said Thiyagaraja Waradas, 35, a lecturer at the University of Colombo attending a rally organized by the LGBT community. “The president must leave: it is the only way.

A protest near the official residence of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo
A protest near the official residence of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo. Photograph: Dinuka Liyawatte/Reuters

Waradas gestured towards the crowd, where national flags mingled with LGBT rainbow banners and union signs, to demonstrate the diversity and non-partisan nature of the protests, highly unusual in a country still sharply divided according to ethnic lines. Nearby, Buddhist clergymen stood in their orange robes solemnly calling for political accountability, and farther on, hundreds of IT workers could be heard shouting “error 404: democracy not found.” Later in the day, the LGBT protest would merge with a Muslim-led rally where rainbow flags flew as Muslim families broke their Ramadan fast and handed out samosas.

“The nature of this crisis is that no one is spared,” Waradas said. “Most of my friends are struggling to pay their rent, they have lost their jobs, they have no food or medicine. They almost left our people to die.

Charu, a 24-year-old student, also expressed his anger at the Rajapaksa dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka intermittently since 2002. “It’s all the fault of the Rajapaksas, with their toxic nationalism and bad governance,” said he declared. mentioned. “People are starving, we are in terrible debt because of him and we can’t even turn on the lights. But he does not take responsibility. Like others around him, Charu was shaking his head sadly as he talked about the future. “I have no hope,” he said.

Many fear that Sri Lanka faces a political stalemate because according to its system, Rajapaksa cannot be thrown out of parliament. However, the main opposition party is preparing a motion of no confidence against his party in parliament. The opposition’s goal is that, with the president in a weakened position, he either resigns or agrees to legislation that will reduce his powers, allowing them to form a new government out of his grasp.

“Gotabaya has lost the trust and legitimacy of the people, it is impossible for him to continue,” said Shanakiyan Rasamanickam of the opposition Tamil National Alliance party.

On Saturday, thousands of people turned out for one of the biggest protests in Colombo to date, lining the sidewalks along the promenade where many luxury developments, now considered unaffordable monuments to pride, have been built in recent years.

Friends Nelum Leanage, 69, and Manel Rajakaruna, 72, stood among the crowd wrapped in Sri Lankan flags. “We want the president to return all the money he stole from us, then resign from politics and leave this country,” Leanage said.

“He has no business here, yet he has stolen billions from us, he has a life of luxury while we have nothing. Unlike him, with his American passport, we have no other country to go to.

Rajakaruna nodded vigorously in agreement. “Even during 26 years of war, things have never been so bad,” she said. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in the country.”

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