Fridays used to be special for the three children of Akeela Fayaz, who would make them a special dessert when they came home from school. Now such luxuries are unthinkable.
Her middle-class household in Sri Lanka is rationing food and has cut out all but the most essential items, some of which have doubled in price since last month, if they can be found at all.
“You don’t get any milk powder, or to be honest, fresh milk on the shelf,” said Fayaz, 40, a freelance blogger from Colombo, the country’s commercial capital. “You need to know someone who knows someone to get it.”
Dwindling foreign reserves have sent this South Asian island nation to the brink of bankruptcy, leaving it unable to buy sufficient food, fuel and medicines. On Tuesday, the central bank governor said the country was suspending foreign debt payments for the first time in its history, saying it needed the money for imports. The government has reached out to India and China for financial help, and is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund that it had earlier resisted.
Public anger over the economic crisis has led to growing calls for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose powerful family has ruled for much of the past two decades. With near-daily demonstrations across the country and a small but growing tent camp near the president’s office in Colombo, the protest movement has united the country of 22 million across ethnic and religious fault lines.
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Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, who was elected in 2019, is the second member of his family to serve as Sri Lanka’s president. His elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, who is the country’s prime minister, was the president from 2005 to 2015.
Although the brothers were credited with ending Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war in 2009, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was his brother’s defense secretary, both have been accused of corruption and human rights violations.
They are finding themselves increasingly isolated amid the economic crisis, which spurred all other Cabinet ministers to resign this month. Among them were family members like Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, who said on Twitter that he hoped his resignation would push his uncle into making decisions “to establish stability for the people.”
Resisting calls to step down, Gotabaya Rajapaksa instead appealed for the formation of a unity government, an offer that was rebuffed by the opposition.
Mahinda Rajapaksa said this week that he was willing to talk with protesters, as the opposition said it was preparing a no-confidence motion in Parliament that could force the brothers to step down.
Sri Lanka’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, has suffered from the twin blows of the coronavirus pandemic and the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Colombo that targeted churches and luxury hotels. But experts say the country’s crisis also stems from years of economic mismanagement.
Since the former British colony gained independence in 1948, Sri Lanka’s foreign loans have exceeded its earning capacity almost every year. To pay them back, the government kept taking out additional loans, said Rohan Samarajiva, founder of LIRNEasia, an independent think tank based in Colombo.
“The underlying disease was this problem of the fiscal deficit,” he said. “We don’t export enough and we are reliant on imports.”
The country also borrowed millions from foreign banks for money-losing infrastructure projects like a little-used international airport that Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered built near his hometown and named after himself.
Experts say Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made two major economic missteps as president. The first was slashing taxes, which cut government revenue. The second was a ban last April on imports of chemical fertilizers, in an effort to encourage organic farming, as well as conserve foreign exchange reserves. Agricultural production fell as a result, hurting cash-raising exports like tea while at the same time requiring the country to import more food. The ban was lifted late last year.
Adding to Sri Lanka’s economic troubles, last year the government “started printing money like it was going out of fashion,” Samarajiva said, sending inflation rates soaring. In March, average food prices were 30 percent higher than a year earlier.
“Mainly we are eating bread for every meal,” Sahithyan Ambiharathina, a 20-year-old student from the eastern village of Kallady, said in a phone interview.
He said his family had reserved as much nutritious food as they could for his sister’s 7-month-old daughter. They had watched with concern in recent weeks as shortages affected the chubby child they knew: “She became so lean and became so weak.”
Both mother and baby are doing better as the family has more success buying food, he said, but the cost is a burden.
Fuel is also hard to come by, leading to widespread power outages that last up to 13 hours a day. Long lines snake out of gas stations, and police said last month that two men in their 70s had died after waiting for hours in two different parts of the country.
“When we ran out of fuel because we couldn’t pay for the fuel shipments, the power stations had to shut down,” Harsha de Silva, an economist and member of Parliament, said in a Zoom interview from Colombo.
The power cuts are manageable during the day, Fayaz said, but at night, “it is a different kind of torture. It is so hot and humid, but you can’t sleep and you are so tired.”
As the shortages and power outages upended their daily lives, people across Sri Lanka began taking to the streets in protest, venting their anger at the president with chants of “Go Home Gota.”
“There are people who are doing white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs, people who aren’t doing any jobs, housewives, mums, clergies, you name it, even university students,” said Fayaz, who has attended some protests. “Everyone is in the road, asking for the same thing.”
The protests have occasionally turned violent, including on March 31 as crowds outside Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s suburban Colombo residence set a bus alight and hurled rocks at police.
“The police came in with tear gas and water cannons. People ran away,” said Udith Erosh, 36, who was livestreaming nearby. “In the next instant, people were like, ‘We have nothing to lose,’ and they went back in. People are not afraid anymore.”