Massive inflation, shortage, runaway chief… The crisis point that is shaking Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is facing one of the most violent crises in its history, since its independence in 1948. The inflation rate rose to 54.6% in June, stifling the population who also faced shortages of food, fuel and electricity. Since the end of March, demonstrations have been held in the country to demand the resignation of the President of the Republic and the government. From inflation to abandonment, “20 Minutes” takes a look at the crisis rocking Sri Lanka.

Why did the situation explode?

Protesters camped outside the presidential secretariat for more than three months, demanding the president’s resignation. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy. Sri Lanka is unable, due to a lack of foreign exchange, to finance the most important imports for a population of 22 million. Within two years in power, the president emptied state coffers that rose from $7.5 billion to $2.7 billion at the end of 2021.

Colombo defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in April, and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund over a possible rescue plan. Sri Lanka has almost exhausted its gasoline reserves. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce travel and save fuel. In six months, the price of diesel increased by 230%, and the price of gasoline by 137%.

In addition, the Covid-19 virus has exacerbated the situation. Usually, tourism accounts for 10% of the economy of the island located in southeast India. Visitors were already scarce after the wave of attacks that plagued the country in the spring of 2019. Now, the population is so poor that 80% of them do not eat meals, according to the United Nations.

What is the turn of the crisis this weekend?

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands gathered in the official housing area to express their anger. Several hundred managed to storm the palace, climbing up to the gates while the guards struggled to hold them back long enough to infiltrate the chief.

The prime minister’s home was set on fire in the evening, and three suspects were arrested on Sunday, according to police. These events are the culmination of the continuous and sometimes violent protests in recent months in the face of shortages. Residents blame the Rajapaksa clan, brothers who have shared power for over fifteen years, and accuse them of incompetence and corruption.

Protesters occupied not only the presidential palace, but also the prime minister’s palace and the offices of these two leaders, and the protesters secured a promise to resign from the head of state on July 13.

Where is the disputed president?

Meanwhile, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is desperately trying to leave the country. On Tuesday, the leader found himself stranded at Colombo airport after a humiliating face-to-face confrontation with immigration officials who turned him back. Since he has not yet resigned, which he promised on Wednesday for a “peaceful transition of power,” he has presidential immunity. He may want to take the opportunity to seek refuge abroad.

According to a high-ranking defense source, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s advisors are discussing the escape of the president and his entourage aboard a patrol ship. The Office of the Presidency does not communicate about his status, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still the commander-in-chief of the armies, and therefore has military means.

A navy ship had already been used to transport the head of state on Saturday from the besieged presidential palace to the northeastern port of Trincomalee. Then, the head of state joined Colombo International Airport by helicopter on Monday. “The best option now is to get out by sea,” the defense official said. “He could go to the Maldives or India and fly to Dubai.” Another option is to charter a flight from Mattala International Airport, the source added. Behind the scenes, however, the contested president’s escape is orchestrated.

Who will replace the future exile?

If the head of state resigns as promised, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be automatically appointed interim president, but protesters also object to him. Parliament will then have one month to elect a deputy who will exercise power until the end of the current term, i.e. November 2024.

Too long time given the crisis. The Speaker of Parliament also confirmed that the deputies will appoint the new president within a week. However, no candidate appears to have received a majority of the vote at the moment and the political crisis may continue.

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