Regular citizens, exasperated by months of crippling economic crisis, occupied government residences after three months of protests.
Chiranthaka Palugaswewa was never involved in politics. But the last few months of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis have been testing even for the 29-year-old attorney. Just like hundreds of thousands of other Sri Lankan citizens, he made his way from the southern town of Tissamaharama to the capital Colombo over the weekend – the high point of three months of protests over the country’s worst economic crisis since independence.
“I wasn’t expecting so many people would take part,” he tells TRT World. “But it has cost us our basic necessities, and people are feeling it.”
Back in May, Sri Lanka defaulted on its sovereign debt after announcing in April it was suspending the repayment of foreign loans due to a shortage of foreign currency reserves. This left the country unable to import basic commodities such as fuel and medicine, leading to electricity cuts and a health crisis. Amid spiralling inflation, many families are increasingly unable to put food on the table as activists set up community kitchens to feed the poorest.
“I have to organise my work around power cuts. I have a car, but my car doesn’t have petrol, so I use public transport, but that is also very difficult,” he adds.
Queues of several hours and even days have been reported at petrol stations across the country, while fuel prices skyrocketed.
“At home, I use a small battery system, but it is not enough to run a computer or even a fan,” Chiranthaka says.
He was one of the thousands of people who stormed the residences of the country’s president and prime minister over the weekend, calling for the resignation of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
“There was no public transport, but people were walking, more than twenty, thirty kilometres [to Colombo] I know a friend who pawned his motorbike to get a bus,” Chiranthaka says, speaking on the phone from the capital, his voice hoarse from days of shouting slogans at the peaceful protest.
“People came on top of food trucks, gas trucks,” he continued, “the government stopped trains, but people took over the stations and demanded they should run.”
After occupying the leaders’ residences, hundreds of young people were seen lounging on the plush couches and swimming in the presidential pool.
“There were some people at the presidential palace who had never seen a pool before, so they took a dip,” Chiranthaka says.
In Temple Trees, the prime minister’s residence, the words “open to the public” were spray painted onto the wall of the compound, and protesters set up a communal kitchen.
At least 50 people, including policemen and journalists, were injured over the weekend, according to health officials.
President Rajapaksa confirmed his resignation on Monday, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reiterated in a video statement his intention to stay on until a new government is in place. The leaders of two opposition parties have begun consultations to form a new government. Protesters reject the idea of an all-party government and want to establish a new constitution that endorses people’s sovereignty.
“They took so many loans from other countries and wasted so much money,” the attorney continued, echoing the sentiment of the protesters who came from all over the country to oust the Rajapaksa dynasty, which they accuse of corruption, from power.
“And now they want us to foot the bill,” he says.
Thousands of people continued to stream into the presidential palace on Tuesday, after waiting in line for hours in line to visit the now-iconic centre of the protest.
“We are trying to protect the property, because it has a historical value,” Chiranthaka says, adding that about 400 people are permanently occupying the palace. “But we have to keep it open because with less people, the regime will try to take it back again.”
“We want to change the system and stay in Sri Lanka”
“Back in March, I was supporting the struggle, but I didn’t participate,” said Chaturanga, a 26-year-old science teacher who asked his full name be withheld out of security concerns.
“But in the last few days, we all took part, particularly students and young people,” he told TRT World on the phone from the capital, Colombo.
“There is no fuel, no electricity, no transport. I haven’t been able to work for more than two weeks now,” Chaturanga said. “We feel so much uncertainty because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, this week, or in the future,” Chaturanga said.
In late June, the government shut down schools and government offices amid the fuel shortage. The streets of the otherwise bustling Colombo have been deserted.
According to the World Food Programme, nearly five million people, more than 20 percent of the country’s population, are currently food insecure.
“Many people lost their jobs,” said Vihanga, a 22-year-old pharma company employee who also joined the mass protests last weekend for the first time.
“We want to change the system and stay in Sri Lanka,” he says, adding that those who can, are trying to leave the country.
“We can’t live here, and we can’t get out,” Vihanga said.
Images geotagged to Sri Lanka's President House in Colombo on Google Maps shows what looks to be a pool party in the residence pool, after protestors stormed the building and premises on Saturday. https://t.co/fBicAfLEnX pic.twitter.com/oNKizUsm0d— Benjamin Strick (@BenDoBrown) July 9, 2022
“No one can steal again"
The country’s total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry largely ground to a halt during the Covid-19 pandemic, depriving it of a much-needed supply of foreign currency. Remittances from foreign workers were also slashed.
Debt repayments outpaced inflows, resulting in bankruptcy and a political crisis that saw mostly young people take to the street in a series of anti-government protests that began on March 31.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other countries have urged Sri Lanka to fill the political vacuum in order to continue bailout negotiations. The government has to submit a plan on debt sustainability to the IMF in August.
Sri Lanka has been relying on foreign aid to meet its people’s basic needs.
“We have found temporary solutions to face the [medicine] shortages,” Dr Rukshan Bellana, president of the Government Medical Officers Forum tells TRT World. However, he adds, the crisis is far from over.
“Because of the Indian credit line, we have had a certain level of recovery,” he adds. “But sustainability remains a huge concern.”
“Sri Lankans are demanding a new era, but people are lost right now,” Chiranthaka, the attorney, tells TRT World.
“Right now, many of us with no political affiliation are demanding a constitutional reform, to make sure that no one can steal again and get away with it. Everyone, even the president, should be held accountable for their actions.”