Sri Lankan protesters celebrate New Year near the president’s office
COLOMBO – Sri Lankans shared rice pudding and oilcakes on Thursday to celebrate their traditional New Year’s Eve opposite the president’s office, where they camped out for a sixth day to demand his resignation amid the worst economic crisis in 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 we chase them away – 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.
They were forced to wait in long queues to buy cooking gas, fuel and powdered milk, and doctors warned there was a potentially catastrophic shortage of essential medicines in public hospitals.
Tharushi Nirmani, a 23-year-old student who helped distribute food to protesters, said the movement united Sri Lankans from different backgrounds.
“All these years the new year has only been celebrated by two ethnic groups – the Sinhalese and the Tamils - but most of the people who were with us last night were Muslims,” she said, referring to his fellow volunteers. “There is an incredible bond.”
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 government says the World Bank has provided $10 million to buy essential drugs and equipment, and the health ministry is in talks with the World Health Organization and the Asian Development Bank for additional funding. The government has also called on Sri Lankans living and working abroad to donate drugs or money to buy them.
The World Bank said on Wednesday it was concerned about the uncertain economic outlook in Sri Lanka and was working to provide emergency assistance to poor and vulnerable households to help them weather the economic crisis.
Much of the anger expressed over the weeks of protests has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, which has held power for most of the past two decades. Critics accuse the family of having the government borrow heavily to finance projects that have not brought in money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
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.
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