Gas pipes and scuffles: Sri Lanka faces a humanitarian crisis

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Chamila Nilanthi is tired of all the waiting. The 47-year-old mother-of-two spent three days queuing for kerosene in the Sri Lankan town of Gampaha, northeast of the capital, Colombo. Two weeks earlier, she had spent three days queuing for cooking gas, but she hadn’t come home.

« I’m sick of it, I’m sick of it, » she said. « I don’t know how long we have to do this. »

A few years ago, Sri Lanka’s economy was growing strong enough to provide jobs and financial security for most. It is now in a state of collapse, dependent on aid from India and other countries as its leaders desperately try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund.

The collapse sparked political unrest and protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe agreed to step down on Saturday as protesters stormed the president’s residence, saying he would leave office when all parties agree on a new government.

What is happening in this South Asian island nation of 22 million people is worse than the usual financial crises seen in the developing world: it is a complete economic collapse that has left people struggling to buy food, fuel and other basic necessities and led to unrest and violence.

« It’s really quickly escalating to a humanitarian crisis, » said Scott Morris, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

Such disasters are more common in poorer countries, in sub-Saharan Africa or in war-torn Afghanistan. In middle-income countries like Sri Lanka, they are rarer but not unheard of: 6 million Venezuelans have fled their oil-rich country to escape a seemingly endless political crisis that has devastated the economy.

Indonesia, once touted as an ‘Asian tiger’ economy, endured depression-level deprivation in the late 1990s that led to riots and political unrest and swept away a strongman who held power for three decades. The country is now a democracy and a member of the Group of 20 largest industrial economies.

Sri Lanka’s crisis is largely the result of staggering economic mismanagement combined with the fallout from the pandemic, which, along with the terrorist attacks of 2019, devastated its important tourism industry. The coronavirus crisis has also disrupted the flow of remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad.

The government took on big debts and cut taxes in 2019, depleting the treasury just as COVID-19 hit. Foreign exchange reserves have plummeted, leaving Sri Lanka unable to pay for its imports or defend its beleaguered currency, the rupee.

Ordinary Sri Lankans – especially the poor – are paying the price. They wait for days for cooking gas and gasoline in lines that can stretch for more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles). Sometimes, like Chamila Nilanthi, they go home with nothing.

At least 16 people have died so far while waiting for petrol. One was a 63-year-old man found inside his vehicle on the outskirts of Colombo. Unable to stock up on fuel, some gave up driving and resorted to cycling or public transport to get around.

The government has closed urban schools and some universities and is giving civil servants every Friday off for three months to save fuel and allow them time to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Food price inflation is 57%, according to government data, and 70% of Sri Lankan households surveyed by UNICEF last month said they had reduced their food consumption. Many families rely on government rice donations and donations from charities and generous people.

Unable to find cooking gas, many Sri Lankans turn to kerosene stoves or cook over open fires.

Affluent families can use electric induction ovens for cooking, unless there is a power outage. But most Sri Lankans cannot afford these stoves or higher electricity bills.

Sri Lankans, furious over fuel shortages, staged protests, blocked roads and clashed with police. Fights have broken out when some try to get ahead in the fuel lines. Police attacked unruly crowds.

One night in June, a soldier was seen assaulting a police officer at a petrol station in connection with a dispute over the distribution of petrol. The policeman was hospitalized. The police and military are separately investigating the incident.

The crisis is a blow for the Sri Lankan middle class, estimated at 15 to 20% of the country’s urban population. Until it all fell apart, they enjoyed financial security and a rising standard of living.

Such a reversal is not without precedent. In fact, it sounds like what happened in Indonesia in the late 1990s.

The US Agency for International Development – which runs aid projects for poor countries – was preparing to close up shop in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta; the country did not seem to need help. « As one of the Asian Tigers, he had worked his way off the aid list, » said Jackie Pomeroy, an economist who worked on a USAID project in the Indonesian government before. to join the World Bank in Jakarta.

But then a financial crisis – triggered when Thailand suddenly devalued its currency in July 1997 to curb speculators – swept through East Asia. Plagued by widespread corruption and weak banks, Indonesia has been particularly hard hit. Its currency has fallen against the US dollar, forcing Indonesian businesses to cough up more rupiahs to repay dollar-denominated loans.

Shops closed. Unemployment soared. Desperate townspeople returned to the countryside where they could grow their own food. Indonesia’s economy shrank by more than 13% in 1998, a depression-level performance.

The desperation turned into rage and protests against the government of Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia with an iron fist since 1968. « It very quickly turned into scenes of political unrest, » Pomeroy said. “It became a matter of political transition and Suharto. The dictator was expelled in May 1998, ending autocratic rule.

Despite living in a democracy, many Sri Lankans blame the politically dominant Rajapaksa family for the disaster. « It’s their fault, but we have to suffer from their mistakes, » said Ranjana Padmasiri, who works as a clerk in a private company.

Prominent Rajapaksas have resigned – former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa, who was finance minister. Protesters demanding that President Rajapaksa also step down have been camped outside his office in Colombo for more than two months.

Resignation, Padmasiri said, is not enough. « They can’t get away easily, » he said. « They must be held accountable for this crisis. »


Wiseman reported from Washington.

Bharatha Mallawarachi and Paul Wiseman, Associated Press


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