Sri Lanka Opposition Rallies Thousands to Protest Economic Woes
(Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of supporters of Sri Lanka’s main opposition party rallied in the capital Colombo to protest the nation’s economic struggles, the first major campaign against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government since it swept to power last August.
Defying heavy sporadic rains, tightened Covid-19 guidelines and court orders, supporters of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya -- led by party head Sajith Premadasa and other leaders -- marched toward the president’s office in Colombo on Tuesday, carrying placards and shouting slogans against spiraling prices and shortages worsened by a foreign exchange crisis that’s led to import controls. Those converging to the capital from other provinces were turned back by police.
Participants included farmers, a key vote bank for the ruling party and opposition, who have been protesting a government decision to ban imported chemical fertilizers as key crops, including tea and paddy, start to fail.
The protests pose no immediate threat to Rajapaksa, whose government commands a two-thirds majority in parliament. His government last week said the opposition’s decision to call for street protests may lead to an increase in coronavirus infections and the country could “be shut down again.”
Sri Lanka this week halted crude processing at its only refinery to conserve its foreign exchange reserves -- which are at the lowest since 2009 -- for importing essential goods. The South Asian nation faces $1.5 billion of debt maturities next year even as efforts to shore up the pile through foreign investment haven’t yet succeeded and earnings from sectors such as tourism and remittances have been hit by the pandemic.
“This is a serious crisis, people are not sure what is going to happen,” said Jehan Perera, executive director at the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “It shows that people are willing to come out to show their displeasure even knowing that this government has three more years.”
The government, which has curbed imports from milk powder, sugar and cement to conserve foreign exchange, leading to shortages, has said it’s working on other measures to increase dollar inflows.
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