ECONOMYNEXT- Sri Lanka’s protestors banded together in a human chain from Temple Trees, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s official residence to the iconic ‘Gota go Gama’ in front of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office asking the two to step down as a currency crisis worsened.
Sri Lanka’s protests which reduced after Wickremesinghe was appointed are starting to gather pace as shortages continue with the central bank unable to restore monetary stability.
Protestors called for a ‘system change’ on Saturday as fuel queues lengthened and difficulties in paying for imported diesel, petrol and gas intensified amid continued money printing to pay salaries of state workers triggered forex shortages.
Sri Lanka went through three currency crises in rapid succession from 2015 under as money was printed under ‘flexible’ policies to boost growth (stimulus) and in 2019 taxes were also cut in a fiscal stimulus with state economists claiming that there was a ‘persistent output gap’ as growth fell from previous currency crises.
President Rajapaksa also banned chemical fertilizer imports to save 550 million US dollars in foreign exchange worsening the effects of the central bank crisis.
Failed President? Failed PM?
Saturday’s protest was largely focused on Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, under whom forex shortages have continued though interest rates have been raised by the central bank to smash economic activities which can reduce private credit and drive private savings to finance the budget deficit.
The central bank has again imposed a ‘guidance rate’ trying to enforce an exchange rate peg despite running out of reserves amid continued money printing.
The rupee fell 200 to the 360 to the US dollar in a botched attempt by the central bank to float the currency with a surrender requirement in place (forced sales of dollars to the central bank) and foods and basic essentials are now out of reach of the less affluent.
Malnutrition is also beginning to go up. A factory producing Triposha – a nutritional supplement aimed at combating malnutrition among children of low income families started in the 1970s when money printing and import controls were rife – is closed often without regular supplies of maize and soya beans.
Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister after the President’s Rajapaksa’s brother was forced to step down from the post following widespread protests.
The appointment is said to have diluted protests somewhat, but after a month since the appointment and a fall from bad to worse, protestors are saying that he must step down, and the country must go for an election.
“Ranil was brought in ‘for the rescue’, but we know the cynical intentions behind all of that. It’s just politics as usual, and not the system change we are asking for,” said Chaminda Dias.
Dias was part of organizing the human chain, and an active protestor since the #GoHomeGota movement started.
Many people waited for the Prime Minister’s more “diplomatic” and “international” approach to leadership in the hopes that he would help bring in much needed forex and international support to Sri Lanka.
However, the placards read different.
“Ranil is the International Face of the Rajapakshas” says one. “Ranil oyath fail” (Ranil you have failed too) says another.
“We cannot give up until Gotabaya goes with Ranil, because as long as these useless leaders [are here] we will not get any assistance…even [from] our own people (migrant workers) living overseas,” said social Activist Vishaka Thilakarathna.
Wickremesinghe, a six time Premier now, has not captured public confidence, and got into Parliament through the National List.
Protesters called his appointment “undemocratic” and demanded an election.
Leisha Lawrence, an active protestor who had brought her sons along said “If we have billions to spend on defense and other things, why can’t we spare five billion for an election?”
Youth at the Protests
“I brought my sons along today because this is their future we are standing up for and they need to know what’s going on,” said Lawrence.
“They need to be a part of the solution, they need to be a part of pressuring the government in the next steps that need to be done.”
Her sons, Aaron, Ethan, Kieran and their friend Abiru say that they are “angry with Gota” for his part in the crisis that is depriving them of education.
“Our school is closed a lot. We’re losing a whole year of our life because our O Levels are also getting postponed.”
Sri Lanka’s Covid lockdowns and power cuts severely impacted school children, who missed out on studies and interactions with friends.
Several schools and the country’s largest state university were recently shut down due as fuel shortages intensified.
The boys wanted to encourage more young people to participate in protests.
“Just come, just show up.”
Sri Lankan youth are continuing activism through social media, but the young protesters want more people to take to the street and physically show dissent.
“We’re living through a moment in history, come and do your part. You wanna be able to tell the future gen you did your part.”
Protesting is a Privilege
But showing up physically is not an option for many, who are stuck in Sri Lanka’s ever growing fuel lines, or simply struggling to survive.
Two people died in fuel queues on June 16, bringing the death toll in queues to 10. The protesters who moved to Galle Face beachfront towards the evening observed one minutes silence in their memory.
“Gota how many more lives do you need to send home?” read one placard.
On June 15, a woman threw her child off a bridge in Wattala, and was prevented from taking her own life.
In March, a father of four died by suicide after struggling to pay off a loan of 10,000 rupees.
“People are dying on the streets. Mothers are throwing their children into the river because they don’t want to face the indignity of begging for food,” says Dias.
“That is all [Gota’s] responsibility.”
Many protesters said they were taking part in the human chain in solidarity for those who could not make it.
Nigel Karunaratne was part of a crew of cyclists at the protest. He said that the movement might have “lost a little steam” but it was important to speak out.
“Whatever changes that have come are because of the protests at Galle Face. Without them we would still be with Mahinda, Basil and the other cronies.”
The organizers of the human chain however, were happy with the turnout considering the extreme difficulties of living in Sri Lanka at the moment. (Colombo/June19/2022)