COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Opposition leaders led a march of hundreds of protesters through Sri Lanka’s main city of Colombo on Tuesday as anger grows over a worsening economic crisis that has brought fuel shortages and spiraling food prices.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government said it will begin talks next month with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance, while Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa flew into New Delhi to sign a $1-billion credit line to tackle the situation.
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“Even after working about 14 to 16 hours a day, we still can’t make enough money to support our families,” said rickshaw driver Nissanka Gunewardena, one of those who marched on a tree-lined boulevard in central Colombo.
“How can anyone live like this?” added Gunewardena, 34, who has two young children and wore a black headband that read “Gota Go Home,” referring to the president.
Historically weak government finances, badly timed tax cuts and the coronavirus pandemic, which hit the lucrative tourism industry and foreign remittances, have wreaked havoc on the economy, leading to a currency devaluation last week.
Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen 70 percent in the last two years to about $2.31 billion, leaving the Indian Ocean island nation struggling to pay for essential imports, including food and fuel.
Last week’s devaluation stoked further inflation, inflicting more distress on Sri Lankans battling rolling power cuts and fuel shortages.
“We have told the government time and again to change their policies,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a leader of the opposition alliance, Samagi Jana Balawegaya.
The government, led by the Rajapaksa brothers, another of whom is Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has pushed Sri Lanka’s 22 million people deep into hardship, he added.
“This is the only country in the world where the president and the finance minister have no idea about economic management.”
After months of resistance to seeking IMF help, Rajapaksa’s government said on Tuesday it would begin talks with the multilateral lender next month after the cabinet authorized the finance minister to draw up proposals.
Cabinet spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said the government would firm up plans on IMF assistance in the next few weeks as the finance minister prepares to visit Washington in mid-April for the discussions.
In New Delhi this week, the finance minister will sign the $1-billion credit line previously agreed with India to bring in key imports of medicine, food and fuel. He will also meet India’s finance and energy ministers.
“Now we are all very disappointed,” said Gunewardena, the protester, adding that he had voted for Rajapaksa in the last presidential election in 2019.
“We think this government should go. We want change.”