In Sri Lanka, inflation means food shortages, blackouts – and days-long queues for gas
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Instead of going to school, 12-year-old Susil Michael keeps his family’s car at a gas station in Sri Lanka’s capital.
His sisters and his parents take turns. They have been queuing for gas for four days, sleeping in their car. They’re actually not allowed to fill up for another day – Sri Lanka has a license plate-based petrol rationing system in place, similar to what parts of the US have made during the oil crisis of the 1970s – but the Michael family fell in line early. There are thousands of cars and rickshaws ahead of them.
“I don’t like it. It’s exhausting. It’s hot and we can’t afford to buy food,” says Susil.
Many countries are facing rising prices. Sri Lankans are among those who suffer the most. Inflation in the Indian Ocean island nation is now over 60%. Food prices have almost doubled. There are power outages, food shortages and political unrest.
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Sri Lanka was once a prosperous place
This is a sad turnaround for a country that until 2020 had been classified by the World Bank as an “upper middle income country”. It was relatively prosperous, with almost twice the gross domestic product per capita of its neighbor India.
“Sri Lanka is going backwards because of those who stole our money,” says Susil’s father, Christopher Michael, a 61-year-old interim. “Why did you mismanage the country?”
He blames the Rajapaksa family: Mahinda Rajapaksa served as Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2015 and also served as prime minister three times – most recently until May. His brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as president from 2019 until last month.
The two brothers recently resigned from their posts (Mahinda in May, Gotabaya in July) amid massive public protests accusing them of mismanaging the country’s finances and causing its economy to plummet. (Sri Lanka’s economy, fueled by tourism, was also devastated by a 2019 terrorist attack and the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Last month protesters occupied the presidential palace – swimming in its pool, cooking meals in the kitchen – then allegedly set fire to the prime minister’s residence. (The politicians had evacuated before the protesters arrived, and no one was hurt.)
After Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Singapore last month, the country got a new president – veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has the daunting task of trying to negotiate a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. But it is already unpopular and beleaguered. (Wickremesinghe’s office did not respond to NPR’s multiple interview requests.)
On Wednesday, Wickremesinghe delivered his first presidential address to parliament, in which he promised to meet some of the protesters’ demands: to amend the constitution to limit his own powers and form a multiparty government. He did not specify a time frame.
When economies collapse, does nationalism arise?
When an economy collapses, there are fears that nationalism, divisive populist politics or racism will manifest. Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country (about 70%) with a delicate mixture of minorities. There was a bloody 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009 – and the horrors of that are still in the raw. Deep divisions remain and could be exploited.
But there is no evidence of this in Colombo’s fuel lines.
“I’ve never felt such unity,” says Akeel Azwar, 18, who is Muslim – a minority community facing persecution.
He describes how he was sleeping on the ground next to his motorbike, waiting for fuel – when a stranger in the petrol line invited him to sleep in an air-conditioned car instead. Rich and poor, Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus – they are all in this lineage, says Azwar.
All ethnic and religious groups in the country are also represented in a massive protest camp on the Galle Face Green – a park on Colombo’s sprawling waterfront where protesters have erected tents, aid stations and a stage for demonstrations. musical acts and artists.
The clergy serve as a human shield
This is where anger over Sri Lanka’s economy has turned into a political movement – which has toppled one president and is now attacking another.
Some of the most iconic images from the months-long protests are of clergy from Sri Lanka’s various faiths marching arm in arm. Buddhist monks, Muslim imams and Catholic nuns shared food to break the Ramadan fast together. Christian priests and Buddhist monks prayed in unison.
Alongside the protest tents, Meerawatte Kashyapa, a bald Buddhist monk in a burgundy robe, sings in Sanskrit.
He is a forest monk, who normally spends his time meditating under the trees. A few months ago, he came out of the woods and joined the anti-government protests.
“We are like brothers and sisters here,” says Kashyapa, 52. “Some Catholic nuns joined too, and together we decided to act as human shields for the protesters.”
He describes what happened on the night of July 22, when the army intervened to try to evict protesters from the Galle Face Green area. Clashes broke out.
The monk shows scars on his neck. He says the soldiers attacked him with some kind of cable or whip.
A violent message to the majority
The Rajapaksas followed a Buddhist nationalist political ideology. Throughout the civil war, but also in recent years, Sri Lankans have become accustomed to seeing the state use violence against minorities.
But “it’s shocking when a Buddhist monk is attacked,” says Shreen Sarour, a human rights activist who attended the protests. “It sends a message to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority that they are not immune. People really felt their children were attacked.”
Attacking demonstrators may be a way for the Rajapaksas and their successor Wickremesinghe to impose order. But Sarour predicts this will backfire, further uniting the protesters.
For his part, the monk Kashyapa does not let himself be defeated. He vows to stay at the Galle Face Green camp – meditating and protesting – until the economic crisis is over.
But others can’t do that. They must return to the fuel line.
The fuel line as a great leveler
As darkness falls on Colombo, thousands of people prepare to spend another night sleeping in their cars, waiting for fuel. But on a recent evening, a cheer rises in the crowd at a gas station. The streetlights have just come on, after a power outage that lasted for hours. People burst into celebration.
“Whatever your social status, whatever your level of income, you have to queue. It’s unifying! says WA Wijewardena, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
The former bank official himself recently stood in line for 50 hours to buy 20 liters of gasoline.
“Nobody knew who I was, so they talked to me freely. We also shared food! Because when you queue for 10 hours, it’s a unifying element!” says Wijewardena. “There are a lot of different people.”
Across Sri Lanka, many different people line up for petrol. They are also waiting for solutions to a crisis that has brought their country to its knees. And many fear that the wait will last several more months or even years.
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