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Sri Lanka’s ‘Arab Spring’ moment uproots the Rajapaksas; economic revival remains uncertain

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from British rule in 1948, with a severe foreign exchange shortage hampering the import of essentials. Its foreign debt is over $50 billion with repayments this year falling to the tune of $7 billion. As the crisis emerged in March, a handful of individuals gathered in a small group holding placards to demand basic necessities like milk powder and a regular power supply. The Rajapaksa government declared bankruptcy in mid-April by refusing to honour its international debt. Within days, Sri Lankans were forced to wait in miles-long queues to get fuel and cooking gas and suffered from multiple hours of power outages. Some 20 people even died while waiting for their turn in the serpentine queues in scorching heat. The situation created a thriving black market where people paid to secure a place in the queue and fuel was sold 4 times higher than the legal retail price.

‘Aragalaya’ – named after the Sinhalese word for ‘struggle’ – calling for the resignation of President Gotabaya and his elder brother Mahinda. The slogan attracted students, activists, youths and people from all walks of life, who joined the protests. It was the dawn of the ‘Arab Spring’ moment, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been forced to quit after his supporters attacked anti-government protesters, triggering a wave of violence. His brother Chamal and his eldest nephew Namal were dismissed from the government earlier this year. Gotabaya tried to tackle the crisis for a few weeks along with the newly-appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe before being forced to flee his official residence in July.

Some mothers had to take their toddlers to the queues as they waited overnight to hear the news of stocks arriving. Shehan Perera, an IT industry middle-level executive, says the jobs have come under threat. While he languished in the petrol queue, his wife Sumali waited in the cooking gas line. This is sheer incompetence. They just don’t know how to manage the economy, says Shamal Jayaratne, a self-employed man. He says he closes his motorcycle battery and tyre selling business to join the queue. ‘Who takes responsibility for the deaths of nearly 20 people who have died in the waiting queues?’ asks Walter Peiris, a retired official.

Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the Middle East, Steven McKenzie, says the fuel crisis would have been even worse if not for the Indian Oil Company’s local operations. ‘Since the government can’t handle this, the IOC must be given the entire operation,’ he says. On July 13, President Gotabaya fled to the Maldives before landing in Singapore from where he sent his resignation letter. The following 72 hours saw protesters storm many iconic buildings, including the President and Prime Minister’s residences here. Sri Lanka’s Parliament held a special session on Saturday to start the process of electing a new president who will head the next government that has the arduous task of reviving the country’s bankrupt economy. While the public protest campaign organisers feel elated with Gotabaya’s ouster, the light at the end of the tunnel remains distant for those who still suffer in the fuel queues.

In June, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe told Parliament that the country’s debt-laden economy had ‘collapsed’ after months of shortages of food, fuel and electricity. He said it will take till 2026 to go back to the 2018 level of the economy. ‘If we make a determined journey along this road map, we can achieve an economic growth rate of negative one by the end of 2023,’ he said. Inflation in Sri Lanka is expected to rise to 60 per cent by the end of this year, according to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The World Food Programme has said that 6.3 million people (28.3 per cent) in the country are food insecure. It is unlikely that the future government will be able to provide economic relief in a short span.


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