Sun, 03 Jul 2022

Sri Lanka's government finally began bailout talks with IMF officials this week after a crippling delay exacerbated a longstanding economic crisis. But as food prices soar amid an impending global food shortage sparked by the Ukraine conflict, Sri Lankans are paying a heavy price for the government's mismanagement, nepotism and lack of accountability, which went unchecked for decades.

Nethmi Rajawasam's dreams for the future appeared to go up in smoke from the firewood stove the family was forced to adopt as the economic crisis went from bad to worse.

Like most urban Sri Lankan middle-class families, the Rajawasams used cooking gas cylinders - a kitchen essential that everyone took for granted - to prepare their meals. But that was before the South Asian island nation suffered its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948.

As the government ran out of foreign reserves, it was unable to import cooking gas and other fuels, food and medicines. The daily power cuts grew longer, as did the lines at refill stations. With no fuel to run generators, an electric stove was not a viable or affordable option.

File photo of Sri Lankans waiting for a refill of their cooking gas cylinders in Colombo on Jan. 4, 2022.

And so the family reverted to a pre-industrial-age mode of cooking, placing a clay wood-burning stove on a tiny cement slab outside their house that now serves as their backyard-meets-kitchen in a suburb of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

"Cooking on a wood stove is a tedious task," explained the 21-year-old freelance journalist, who lost her full-time job when her news website ran out of donor funding. Rajawasam now juggles two to three, mostly copywriting, gigs at a time. This means her mother has to shoulder most of the cooking load.

Her parents also lost their jobs in the crisis. Since they are both in their mid-50s, Rajawasam explains, they're unlikely to find new private sector jobs due to the economic collapse.

The young freelancer has become the main breadwinner in the family, as she explained in a phone interview on a line that was frequently disrupted due to power and telephone cuts. "We have to earn to eat," said Rajawasam, matter-of-factly.

But the family meals are now compromised. "We used to have at least two meals with rice, now we have bread - it's more light and it doesn't have to be cooked," she explained.

Sri Lanka's inflation hit a record high of 45.3 percent in May, according to the latest government figures. Meanwhile, food prices in May leapt 58 percent from a year earlier, while transport costs jumped 76.7 percent. For many middle-class families, vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and carrots are now considered luxury food items.

The government, meanwhile, has announced a shortened work week for public sector employees to give them time to grow their own food: Around 1.5 million public sector workers are entitled to take a "Farming Friday" off, with pay. The move came as the UN last week warned that four out of five people in the nation of 22 million were now forced to skip meals.

Amid warnings of an impending global food crisis - driven by Russia's continued blockade of Ukrainian ports, preventing millions of tonnes of grain from being shipping to world markets - Sri Lanka is a cautionary tale of what could befall countries that are already chronically mismanaged.

US and EU officials have accused Russia of "weaponising food" while Moscow maintains the crisis is "the fault of Western regimes, which act as provokers and destroyers", according to a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman.

While Western and Russian officials trade blame, the Sri Lankan crisis depicts the grim social fallout of food shortages as the country grapples with unrest and increasing hardship for swaths of the population that are slipping into poverty.

'Kitchen laments' for those who can't afford the bus

The Sri Lankan government this week began talks with a visiting team of officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after months of delays when the government disregarded calls by experts and opposition politicians for an IMF intervention.

The nine-member IMF team held talks on Monday with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on how to structure what will be Sri Lanka's 17th loan programme with the global lender.

The complex talks are expected to last several months as public distress over the dire economic situation mounts. Police on Monday said they arrested 21 people for blocking the gates of the finance ministry, which adjoins the office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, where protesters have staged a sit-in since early April.

Protesters have been calling for Rajapaksa's resignation for months, with "Gota go home" chants turning into a rallying cry on the streets and social media. The sit-in - dubbed "GGG" for Go Gota Gama ("gama" is the Sinhalese word for village) by protesters - has drawn Sri Lankans across geographic, ethnic and religious divides.

The number of protesters at the sit-in outside the presidential office in Colombo declined after Rajapaksa supporters attacked tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators last month. But smaller demonstrations have erupted across the country, including "kitchen laments" in neighbourhoods where residents gather to bang pots and pans in spontaneous displays of discontent.

Rajawasam initially participated in mass protests in downtown Colombo, but following the crackdown, she says she lacks the time and means to join the sit-in. "I don't travel to Colombo now, it gets exhausting," she explained from her home in Athurugiriya, a suburb around 18 kilometres east of the Sri Lankan capital. "Bus fares have increased significantly and there are fewer buses on the road. There used to be a bus every ten minutes to Colombo; now there's one bus an hour and it arrives packed with people hanging from the doors."

With Sri Lankans struggling to make ends meet, the protests are dwindling even as the situation becomes more dire.

"There has been a depletion of numbers" at the Gota Go Gama protests, said Ambika Satkunanathan, former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. "People are struggling to meet basic needs and don't have the privilege to protest."

"But there are different kinds of protests going on in multiple places," she observed. "The protests have been organic, they are not organised or controlled by political parties, and there have been different forms of protest - but they are all against the regime. The common demand is for the president to step down."

How to trigger an economic meltdown

Most Sri Lankans blame the Rajapaksas - a powerful political dynasty that once held the presidency, the prime minister's office as well as the finance, interior and defence portfolios - for mishandling the economy.

Since he assumed office in 2019 - and named his brother, Mahinda, prime minister - Rajapaksa has overseen a series of populist policies that read like a checklist on how to kickstart an economic meltdown.

Shortly after his election, Rajapaksa followed through on a campaign promise to make sweeping tax cuts, disregarding expert advice and depleting the state's coffers. Massive infrastructure projects undertaken with Chinese investment made the strategically located Indian Ocean island nation a textbook case for economists warning of a "Chinese debt trap".

With the president's nephew serving as agriculture minister, the government then implemented a blanket ban on chemical fertilisers, decimating Sri Lanka's critical agricultural sector. As foreign reserves plummeted, the government was unable to pay for food imports - including the national staple of a country that was self-sufficient in rice growing before the fertiliser ban.

When the pandemic struck, experts and opposition politicians urged the government to begin bailout talks with the IMF. The Rajapaksa administration, however, held its ground, waiting for a post-pandemic recovery of the tourism sector until a new finance minister, appointed in April, finally sought the IMF's help.

Today, after months of protests, the Rajapaksa dynasty is nearly dismantled. Following the resignations of two Rajapaksa brothers and two nephews from their ministerial posts, the family's "clan leader" Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from the prime minister's post last month.

But the president has refused to step down amid questions over whether Rajapaksa is clinging to immunity privileges against a series of lawsuits over alleged human rights abuses during a brutal 2009 crackdown on the Tamil Tigers insurgent group, when the current president was defence minister. The crackdown ended a decades-long civil war between the Tamil Tigers based in marginalised northern Sri Lanka and the Sinhala Buddhist power base in the south that killed an estimated 40,000 civilians.

Culture of impunity 'linked' to civil war

A majoritarian ethno-chauvinism has characterised the Rajapaksa reign since the family rose to national power in the mid-2000s. With overt displays of Sinhala Buddhist symbolism - including investiture ceremonies in sacred sites overseen by powerful monks - the Rajapaksas cast themselves as legendary heroes pitted against "terrorists" and "extremists" from minority groups, including the Hindu Tamils and a minority Muslim community.

"The corruption, the steady undermining of public institutions, the centralisation of executive power, the culture of impunity can all be linked to the root causes of the [civil] war and how successive governments dealt with them. Successive governments getting away with gross human rights violations meant an executive encroachment of the rule of law became normal, which is what got us here," said Satkunanathan.

The violations, including crackdowns on dissent, failed to alarm the Sinhalese majority electorate.

"Here, when we think about the role of the citizen, we only think of it as casting the vote. At no point have citizens held the government accountable," Satkunanathan explained. "In a sense, right now the people of Sri Lanka have realised what the duty of citizens in a democracy should be. There is a growing awareness of the need for and calls for accountability."

The current anti-government protests are the first major mass demonstrations by the Sinhalese majority. They have since been joined by Sri Lankans from all communities and walks of life, united, for the moment, in their discontent over the economic crisis.

But while many members of the disparate, leaderless protest movement are eager to stress the importance of unity, Sri Lanka's deep ethno-religious tensions remain unaddressed.

In an ominous development on Tuesday, a Sri Lankan parliamentarian and former minister warned a small Tamil opposition party "not to test the patience of Buddhists" in an address to parliament. The comments by politician Sarath Weerasekera sparked an immediate warning by Satkunanathan on Twitter. It showed that an unpopular government "is once again trying to stoke communalism to distract from their own failures", she tweeted.

Leaving Sri Lanka

Meanwhile, Sri Lankans have been migrating in record numbers and passport offices have witnessed long lines of citizens applying for the document that will enable them to flee the worsening crisis.

People wait to collect their passports at the Sri Lanka's Immigration and Emigration Department in Colombo, June 8, 2022. Picture taken June 8,2022.

Labour migration increased by a record 286 percent since the start of the year, primarily to Gulf nations, according to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment. The actual figures are believed to be much higher since government statistics do not record unofficial or illegal departures.

From her home in the Colombo suburb of Athurugiriya, Rajawasam reveals that she's been forced to abandon her dream of a higher education abroad. Savings from her first full-time job are now paying her younger brother's school fees and the application costs for overseas universities are unaffordable in her current situation, she explained.

The future for herself and her country does not look bright, she admitted, but the 21-year-old tries not to think about it. "The general perception here is not that the country will get out of the crisis, but that we need to get out of Sri Lanka. I'm not keen on the prospect of leaving, though - it's really hard for students to get out of Sri Lanka," she said.

"I've completely given up hope. I'm just focused on being happy with what I have now. If I think about the future that will only make me miserable."

Originally published on France24

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