COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lankans shared rice pudding and oilcakes to celebrate their traditional New Year on Thursday opposite the president’s office, where they camped out for a sixth day to demand his resignation in the face of the worst economic crisis of memory.
Disabled soldiers in the island nation’s civil war lit a fire pit, Buddhist monks chanted religious verses and others set off firecrackers amid chants of: “Victory to the people’s struggle!”
Protesters occupy the entrance and surroundings of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office, holding him responsible for the economic situation. They also call on his powerful family to step down, accusing them of corruption and mismanagement.
“Other days our children go to their grandparents to celebrate the New Year, but today we brought them here to show them the real situation in the country,” said Dilani Niranjala, who attended the the protest with her husband and two sons aged 10 and 8. .
“We don’t want to lie to them about what is happening in the country and go to our village to celebrate the new year. From an early age, they should see the truth and live with the truth,” she added. .
Niranjala’s husband, Usitha Gamage, who works as a taxi driver, said he was discouraged watching the news every morning about the skyrocketing cost of living.
“I’m so happy this fight is happening and it gives me new hope and energy,” he said.
“The new year – after chasing them – is going to be great for us. That’s what I told my kids,” he added.
In recent months, Sri Lankans have suffered fuel and food shortages and daily power outages. Most of these items are paid for in hard currency, but Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy, struggling with dwindling foreign exchange reserves and $25 billion in external debt to be repaid over the next five years. Nearly $7 billion is due this year.
The government announced on Tuesday that it was suspending foreign debt repayments, including bonds and government-to-government borrowing, pending the completion of a loan restructuring program with the International Monetary Fund.
The president and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, continue to hold power, despite their politically powerful family being the focus of public anger. The Rajapaksas refused to step down, but the ongoing crisis and protests prompted many Cabinet members to resign. Four ministers have been sworn in as guardians, but many key government portfolios are vacant.
Parliament failed to reach a consensus on how to handle the crisis after nearly 40 ruling coalition lawmakers said they would no longer vote under the coalition’s instructions, significantly weakening the government.
But with the opposition parties divided, they were unable to form a majority to take control of parliament.