Sri Lanka’s ‘Arab Spring’ moment uproots Rajapaksas, economic recovery still uncertain

What started as a small protest by a handful of individuals demanding basic necessities turned into a tsunami that uprooted the once-powerful Rajapaksa family in what was the time of Sri Lanka’s ‘Arab Spring’ , but the road to recovery from the country’s worst economic crisis in decades seems distant and painful.

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since its independence from British rule in 1948, with a severe shortage of foreign currency hampering the import of essentials including food, fuel and medicine. Its external debt stands at more than $50 billion with repayments this year falling to $7 billion.

When the crisis emerged in March, a handful of individuals gathered in a small group holding signs demanding basic necessities like powdered milk and a regular power supply.

Within days, Sri Lankans were forced to wait in mile-long queues for fuel and cooking gas and suffered hours of power outages. Twenty people even died while waiting their turn in the winding queues in the scorching heat.

Enough was enough for the people who waited every passing day for the government to respond, to respond positively. But the Rajapaksa government offered no solution and the suffering of the people did not stop.

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The government declared bankruptcy in mid-April by refusing to honor its international debt. The situation created a thriving black market where people paid to secure a place in the queue and fuel was sold for 4 times the legal retail price.

Endless for their suffering, people across Sri Lanka took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksas, a powerful dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for nearly two decades, have been blamed for the country’s economic ruin.

It was the dawn of the moment of the “Arab Spring,” a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that swept across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s.

Indifferent to the power wielded by the Rajapaksa family, people gathered at Galle Face Green in the heart of Colombo, brandishing the slogan ‘GoGotaGama’ in a peaceful protest.

These protesters were at the forefront of the grassroots movement “Aragalaya” – named after the Sinhalese word for “struggle” – calling for the resignation of President Gotabaya and his older brother Mahinda.

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The slogan attracted students, activists, young people and people from all walks of life, who joined the protests, overcoming the deep ethnic and religious divide in the country.

Under increasing pressure, President Gotabaya first sacked his older brother Chamal and older nephew Namal from the Cabinet in mid-April.

In May, Prime Minister Mahinda also resigned after his supporters attacked anti-government protesters, sparking violence against followers of the Rajapaksa family in many parts of the country.

Gotabaya tried to navigate the crisis for a few weeks with new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe before the president was forced to flee his official residence in the face of massive public protests in July.

“We are tired of the situation in the country. They don’t have a solution,” said Ananda Arunajith, a tuk-tuk operator.

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As he languished in the gas line, his wife Sumali waited in the cooking gas line.

Some mums had to take their toddlers to the queues as they waited all night to hear the news of the arrival of stocks.

Shehan Perera, a middle manager in the IT industry, says jobs are at risk due to the fuel crisis.

“Employees now seem to be looking to run businesses with minimal labor resources. This has forced us to work a lot harder to perform and show results,” he says while keeping his car in a long queue in the city.

“Our generation has been almost rendered useless by this fuel crisis. I pause at night in the fuel queue to get my scooter’s limited refueling,” says Yohan Perera, a young hospitality intern.

He waited in line multiple times for more hours, only to be told the pumps had dried up despite being within striking distance of the pump station.

“Who takes responsibility for the death of almost 20 people who died in the queues?” asked Walter Peiris, a retired civil servant.

He said his wife sent food and water to the fuel queue while he waited.

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The government has said the situation will get worse before it gets better.

“It’s pure incompetence. They just don’t know how to manage the economy,” says Shamal Jayaratne, a self-employed worker.

He says he is shutting down his business selling motorcycle batteries and tires to join the queue at least three days a week.

Steven McKenzie, who returned from the Middle East last year, says the fuel situation would have been even worse had it not been for the Indian Oil Company’s local operations.

“The unions objected when the Lanka IOC, a subsidiary of the Indian Oil Corporation, was provided with oil storage tanks in Trincomalee and granted permission to operate retail pumps . Now you see, it was the IOC who came to our rescue,” he said. said.

“Since the government cannot handle this, the IOC should be given the entire operation,” he said.

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On July 13, President Gotabaya fled to the Maldives before landing in Singapore from where he sent his letter of resignation. here.

While organizers of the public protest campaign rejoice in Gotabaya’s ousting, the light at the end of the tunnel remains by all means away from those still suffering in the fuel queues.

Sri Lanka’s parliament held an extraordinary session on Saturday to kick off the process of electing a new president who will lead the next government that has the daunting task of reviving the country’s bankrupt economy.

The economic crisis that has turned into political unrest has deepened fears that solutions to economic problems, such as aid from the International Monetary Fund, will be delayed.

In June, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe told parliament that the country’s debt-ridden economy had “collapsed” after months of food, fuel and power shortages.

“We are now facing a much more serious situation beyond just shortages of fuel, gas, electricity and food. Our economy has completely collapsed. This is the most serious problem we face. today,” he said.

Wickremesinghe, who is now the interim president, said it will take until 2026 to get the economy back to 2018 levels.

“If we make a determined journey along this roadmap, we can achieve a negative economic growth rate by the end of 2023,” he said.

On July 5, Wickremesinghe said that inflation in Sri Lanka by the end of the year will be over 50% and will reach 60% by the end of this year, mainly due to the rising prices of goods around the world and falling value of the rupee.

On Friday, the World Food Program said in a situation report that 6.3 million people (28.3%) in the country are food insecure and that this is likely to deteriorate as the crisis unfolds. .

The future government is unlikely to be able to provide short-term economic relief. The process of economic recovery seems distant and painful.

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