Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948. On July 9, thousands of demonstrators rushed to the presidential palace and occupied it, and the prime minister’s house was burned to the ground. I entered the chaotic Sri Lanka on June 19.
Until now, I had been able to fly directly from Narita Airport to Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, but the fact that I had to refuel at Chennai Airport in India due to fuel shortages was a testament to the country’s plight.
Around the official residence of President Rajapaksa in the center of Colombo, protesters from all over the country are overflowing, and they are in a standoff with the security forces guarding the residence. The protesters are demanding that the president and prime minister “resign immediately.
The people are dying because of shortages of food, fuel, medical supplies, and everything else, and prices are skyrocketing. President Rajapaksa is responsible for this terrible situation.
These young people have been protesting for more than 70 days. Bus services have been suspended, so many have come on foot from the countryside.
Atalariye Lassana Thero, an incumbent member of parliament and a Buddhist monk, said, “President Rajapaksa has been in office for more than 70 days.
Since President Rajapaksa took office, he has put his own people in the cabinet, provincial governors, and state-owned companies. The corrupt president and his associates continued to line their pockets. He has invested huge sums of money in infrastructure development that is useless to the people and has created the current economic crisis.”
In Hambantota, President Rajapaksa’s hometown in the south, he received loans from China to develop infrastructure such as a port and an international airport. However, when he could no longer repay the debt to China, the port was leased to a Chinese company for 99 years.
Sri Lanka’s state-owned oil company is heavily in debt and is unable to import fuel. All gas stations in the country are closed as there is no way to get gasoline and diesel fuel in stock. Long lines of people waiting to fill up were seen here and there, stretching more than three kilometers long. We spoke to a gas station owner who said, “The next shipment of fuel is expected to arrive in the next few days.
We have been waiting for three months for the next shipment of fuel, and I am physically and mentally fed up with the situation. Even if fuel comes in, we can only sell 10 liters each. We are asking soldiers to guard us for fear of arson.”
In Ukraine, where we visited in May, there was also a fuel shortage, but the situation in Sri Lanka is far worse.
We have been here for two days waiting for fuel. I can’t even work, so I have to sleep in the car.
The driver of a three-wheeled cab said with a look of exhaustion on his face. In some places, gasoline is not available even after waiting for five days. There have been a string of accidents in which elderly people have died of heat stroke in the hot cabs, and brawls have broken out between drivers who are struggling to wait their turn. Restaurants have been forced to close due to the lack of gas as well as gasoline, and households are now using firewood to cook their meals.
In the Ampara district of eastern Sri Lanka, where rice, vegetables, and tea cultivation is flourishing, farmers are also suffering from the economic crisis.
In the past, an acre of land could yield 3,000 kilograms of corn, but now it yields less than 500 kilograms. If this situation continues, we will starve to death.
Farmers who produce maize and pepper are voicing their grief. Rice farmers are also suffering from a lack of fertilizer, which has resulted in less than half the growth of their rice plants, and this year’s rice harvest is doomed.
As if to follow up on the damage to tourism caused by the COVID-19 crisis and the decrease in remittances from migrant workers abroad, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spurred a rise in the cost of living. The president, who is now said to be fleeing abroad for his life, and the prime minister have announced their resignations. There are fears of a humanitarian crisis due to the economic crisis, food shortages, and lack of medical supplies. The suffering of the people will continue.
From the July 29 and August 5, 2022 issues of FRIDAY
Photography and text by Toru Yokota (NSBT Japan)： Toru Yokota (NSBT Japan)