Sri Lanka plunged into economic and political crisis

Sri Lanka, gripped by an acute economic crisis, faces famine, the South Asian country’s parliament speaker warned, agitated by protests demanding the president’s departure. Gotabaya Rajapaksasince March 31.

The island of 22 million inhabitants is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, with shortages of essential goods (food, fuel, medicine), long daily power cuts and record inflation.

The Islamist attacks of Easter 2019, then the Covid-19 pandemic dried the foreign exchange reserves revenues from tourism and remittances from the diaspora. These foreign currencies are essential for the country to buy imported products on which Sri Lanka depends, and to maintain its stocks.

Violence, state of emergency and curfew

The political crisis shaking the country started on the night of Thursday 31 March to Friday 1 April. Hundreds of protesters then tried to storm the president’s residence in Colombo, the capital, and demanded his resignation. At least two protesters were injured by police gunfire and 53 were arrested.

On Friday, April 1, anti-government protests spread across the country, particularly in Nuwara Eliya (center), where protesters blocked the opening of a flower exhibition by the prime minister’s wife.

The president, who enlisted the help of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to get out of the crisis and then declared a state of emergency. The following day, a 36-hour curfew was introduced, but hundreds of people defied it by demonstrating in several cities across the country. The army was deployed in support of the police to crush the demonstrations.

Resignation from the government

On Sunday, April 3, the government will resign en bloc, with the exception of the president and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube and Instagram are being made inaccessible across the country. This censorship was lifted a few hours later, after the Human Rights Commission declared it illegal.

The curfew will be lifted on Monday 4 April. More than 60 people were arrested During these 5 days, some claimed to have been tortured by the security forces. The opposition then turned down the president’s invitation to form a national unity government. The following day, Sri Lanka’s ruling Podujana Party (SLPP) coalition suffered a series of defections, depriving President Rajapaksa of his parliamentary majority.

Finance Minister Ali Sabry announces that he will resign from office the day after his appointment. The government rejects the opposition’s request to vote the extension of the state of emergency and abruptly shortens the parliamentary session, which has been postponed to April 6.

‘Deficits will get bigger’

The session of parliament opened on Wednesday morning. “We have been told this is the worst crisis, but I think this is just the beginning,” warned parliament speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana, who kicked off a two-day debate with MPs about the worsening economic crisis.

Shortages of food, gas and electricity will worsen“, continued the Speaker of Parliament, “there will be very acute food shortages and famineMr Abeywardana told Parliament that: the future of the country depended on the decisions what the legislature was going to do this week.

Sri Lanka’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, which has been damaged over the past two years. A weak recovery from the pandemic began late last year, with nearly 100,000 tourists in February, about 40% of the peaks in previous years. But Russian invasion of Ukraine stopped almost all tourism from the two countries, which represent the island’s first and third source of foreign visitors.

The island is severely short of foreign exchange and unable to import essential goods, leading to severe shortages ranging from life-saving medicines to cement, and a surge in commodity prices.

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