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The crisis behind the popular uprising in Sri Lanka: empty warehouses, runaway prices and corruption | International

A queue of 'tuk-tuks' outside a gas station in Colombo on Thursday.
A queue of ‘tuk-tuks’ outside a gas station in Colombo on Thursday.ARUN SANKAR (AFP)

Daniel Bernard enters the tent that has been his second home for the last three months. On April 9, the Sri Lankan population said enough is enough and began setting up makeshift camps on the Colombo waterfront. This 45-year-old businessman joined the massive protests from the beginning due to the deterioration of living conditions on the island. Transformed into a popular uprising, “the struggle,” as they call it here, led to the flight and resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whom protesters blame for the worst economic crisis in the country’s history since its independence in 1948. Fuel shortages , which has altered the daily life of the population in recent weeks, has fueled a revolt that has also fed on society’s weariness with corruption, famine and inflation.

You can tell that Bernard wants to talk. “I have lost millions of rupees because of this government. That’s why I wanted them to leave”, says the man, who years ago, when Sri Lanka was sold to the world as a “paradise”, bet everything on tourism. Bernard travels more than three hours by car every week from Kandy, a World Heritage Site and pilgrimage site for Buddhists because it is supposed to house a sacred tooth of Buddha. For all these reasons, Kandy is also an obligatory stop for the traveller.

Bernard bought a fleet of 36 vehicles that he had to sell off because he couldn’t pay the loan to the bank. For him and his compatriots, everything began to go wrong in 2019, the year in which Rajapaksa – a member of a dynasty that has controlled the country for the last 20 years – came to power: the Easter Sunday attacks, which left 269 dead in churches and hotels in the capital, scared away the tourist, who disappeared with the pandemic. “The country stopped entering 4,000 million dollars a year,” says Umesh Moramudali, an economist at the University of Colombo.

But the international context alone does not explain the disaster. The economic management of the Executive has a lot to do with it and that is how the citizens have understood it. As soon as he became president, Rajapaksa “approved a significant tax cut that benefited the richest,” adds Moramudali. With less internal and external income, the country “was left without foreign currency for imports,” adds the expert. That is the origin of the fuel shortage. The rupee plummeted, inflation grew vertiginously (55% in June) and the Government embarked on loans that it could not pay and that in April led the country to bankruptcy.

The scene has been repeated for months: drivers queuing for miles and waiting hours, and even days, to refuel their colorful tuk tuks. Many have ended up dehydrated, some have died. The latest, a 53-year-old driver who suffered a heart attack after waiting overnight outside a gas station in Panadura, a suburb south of Colombo. Now they release gas at the minimum that they see a small slope to save, because the prices are through the roof. Three years ago, when Bernard was driving big ambitions, a liter of fuel cost 117 Sri Lankan rupees (0.3 euros); now it costs 480. There is a black market that, as several drivers have explained to this newspaper, works at night, through trusted distributors who obtain fuel from companies. A liter costs 2,500 rupees there, which is more or less the salary of an entire day for an average worker in a poor country of 22 million inhabitants.

Without fuel, ambulances don’t run or don’t run as fast as they should. This gets on Bhumi’s nerves, a 28-year-old law student who sits under the protection of one of the tents that are erected in the Galle Force, the park by the Indian Ocean that has been the epicenter of the protest. The occupation of the promenade, with its shops, its tents and the shared dream of a more just world, reminds one of the 15-M protests in Spain in 2011. There are industrial water drums, there are tuk tuks that they are ice cream parlors and there are Tamils ​​selling Sri Lankan flags; there is a stage from which there is always someone haranguing with a megaphone; there are sculptures and other samples of urban art; there are crows that bother as much as the pigeons of Barcelona; there is a symbol (a raised black fist, that of the Black Lives Matter movement) and there is an omnipresent motto: “drop go home” [por Gotabaya, nombre de pila del ya expresidente].

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Citizens queued to refill liquefied petroleum gas cylinders in Colombo on Thursday.
Citizens queued to refill liquefied petroleum gas cylinders in Colombo on Thursday. ARUN SANKAR (AFP)

Bhumi regrets episodes like that of a father who saw his baby die because the ambulance did not arrive and he himself could not get fuel to take him to hospital. Some medicines are also in short supply, and not all the food that should be arriving. “We have in fact been left without access to public health. Medications are available not in hospitals but in pharmacies, and at a price that most people here cannot afford”, explains the young woman.

“We had a single common goal”

“We have left our lives suspended to be here, but this is the place where we must ensure our future,” says Bhumi, who assures that if the revolt has triumphed – and it has done so in a mostly peaceful way – it has been because of unity. “We have known how to leave our agendas aside and focus on a single specific objective: to kick out the president.” They made it. July 9 is already marked in red in the history of Sri Lanka. More than 750,000 people surrounded the presidential palace and, in an image that evokes the assault on the Winter Palace of the Russian revolution, some of them entered.

Rajapaksa announced that he would resign, but he had a hard time doing so, which caused moments of vertigo and a vacuum of power, with a feeling that anything could happen. While power called for order and decreed a state of emergency, the street tightened and the prime minister’s palace was occupied for a few hours. On Thursday, after fleeing with his wife and two bodyguards (first to the Maldives and then to Singapore), the president resigned from office. The transition has already started through Parliament, which will appoint a new president in a week.

A Sri Lankan soldier, this Saturday near Parliament.
A Sri Lankan soldier, this Saturday near Parliament.ADNAN ABIDI (REUTERS)

The palace, a neoclassical mass, is this weekend a place of passage and celebration. In the landscaped entrance, the soldiers who protect the enclosure and the protesters coexist, who have covered the mouths of the statues of the fathers of the country. A boy tries to give a soldier a cupcake in a somewhat forced attempt by his parents to create a friendly atmosphere; but it doesn’t work, because the soldiers are on their feet, impassive. Going up the main staircase, in the lobby, there is the GGG Library. “It is the only place in the palace that is still occupied. We did it so that people would have a place to relax [hay ventiladores y sofás] and read”, explains Supun Jayaweera, responsible for the initiative and one of the leaders of the protest.

Jayaweera, 33, joined the mobilization because, as a lawyer in the Supreme Court, he had to assist detainees. He assures that “the participation of all communities” (the Sinhalese, majority and often privileged by power, but also the Tamil and Muslim minorities) is a milestone in the history of a country with a long history of ethnic and religious division, including a bloody civil war that lasted until 2009. But he agrees with Bhumi that the key factor for success has been unity for a particular purpose. “There are almost 70 groups or movements here; some politicians, others union, student. Here you find from the extreme left to a minority part of the extreme right; the only point in common is to kick out a corrupt president.”

A future between questions

“Give us back our money,” reads a wall next to the palace. In Sri Lanka there is a conviction that the fled president and his family have looted public coffers. After the storming of the palace, citizens were outraged at the luxury in which he lived, including a collection of high-end cars and, what most outraged them, a lot of accumulated fuel. They also took the opportunity to bathe and play in their pool. A brother of the president, Mahinda, led the country from 2005 to 2015 and earned a reputation as a “hero” for his triumph over the Tamils, as did the fallen Gotabaya.

“In 2019, [Gotabaya] he won an amazing victory. He has been the most powerful president in the country, but he has failed to provide the most basic needs. He has broken the social contract and has been overthrown”, explains Udith Erosh, social media activist and teacher. Erosh believes that days have been lived that will remain in history. “It will be said that Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, but also in 2022.”

The street is now quiet but on the lookout: no one wants to be the first to set up shop. The protesters are calling for “power to the people beyond Parliament” and fear that “the protest will be hijacked by politicians to win a few more seats” in the upcoming elections, in Bhumi’s words. Economic changes are urgent, they admit. Sri Lanka, a tear shed from India, is negotiating a plan with the International Monetary Fund and the aid of 4,000 million dollars from China, which is one of its largest creditors. But the political changes must be profound as well. “There has to be a paradigm shift in the political culture, they have to give more voice to new ideas and to young people. There are castes that have been in Parliament for 30 years and have done nothing,” says Erosh. It seems difficult, however, for the protests to bear fruit in a new political movement, in the style of what happened with the indignados and Podemos in Spain. “I see it impossible for them to form a party,” says Jayaweera, the lawyer, “they have walked together to kick out the president, but they are going in different directions.”

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