The fears of four Sri Lankans sum up the country’s enormous challenges

Police use tear gas as protesters storm the compound of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office July 13, demanding his resignation.  Hours earlier, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had fled the beleaguered country.  (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
Police use tear gas as protesters storm the compound of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office July 13, demanding his resignation. Hours earlier, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had fled the beleaguered country. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Gotabaya Rajapaksa has left the building, a cheerful Sri Lankan wrote on Twitter after the country’s president resigned in absentia on Thursday. The island nation’s extreme economic distress and political chaos had sparked huge protests calling on ‘Gota’ to step down, and although his sudden departure put an end to those protests, he left the government in the hands of a unpopular acting leader and most people deeply concerned. on what comes next.

The signs of crisis are visible throughout the capital. Its streets are largely empty except for the endless queues for fuel. Schools and offices remain closed. Power outages obscure traffic lights. Rampant inflation – with the cost of vegetables like onions and potatoes having doubled in less than a year – means millions of people are in need of food aid.

Over the past decade, Sri Lanka has become a success story in South Asia. Then he quickly collapsed. The fears and even despair of many men and women are echoed in the experiences of four Sri Lankans who spoke to the Washington Post for the past few days. Conversations have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Imthiyaz Abubakr, 58, tuk-tuk driver

For 25 years, Abubakr has been roaming the streets of Colombo in his tuk-tuk a bright blue rickshaw – working hard to build a home for his family and educate his three children. He now spends his days waiting to buy gasoline. On Friday, it was No. 146 in a gas station line more than a mile long.

Today is my fifth day in this queue. I don’t know how many days it will take. There are more than 500 tuk-tuks in the queue, 300 bicycles and about 400 cars, but since yesterday no refueling has arrived at this gas station. There is no way to leave the queue as I have no fuel. I must continue to wait.

When it’s stiflingly hot, I get out of my back seat and sleep on the sidewalk. But mosquitoes make it impossible to rest. I would never have thought that at this age I would sleep on the sidewalks, far from my family. I go to a nearby mosque to use the toilets. Yesterday I asked another driver in the queue to take care of my vehicle so that I could go home for a night. I could. I needed a shower.

How can we not be angry? We weren’t well off [before Sri Lanka’s economic crisis], but life was comfortable and peace of mind. I worked hard and earned enough to provide three full meals for my family. We often ate chicken. Now all we can handle is rice and coconut sambol [a local condiment of chile, onion and grated coconut]. The price of rice and vegetables has skyrocketed. I survived on tea and egg sandwiches from a cheap canteen nearby.

The last few years have been difficult. First there was the covid, then Gota and his family robbed the country. That’s why there’s no more money.

I don’t know what else to do; I have to ensure the future of my children. If someone offered me a job abroad, I would go. I never wanted to leave, but there’s no point living here anymore.

Sanjana Mudalige, 39, former saleswoman

A single woman living on her own, Mudalige loved her job at one of Colombo’s biggest malls – helping people shop for the clothes. She dressed every day, put on make-up, and during her break from work, enjoyed a meal of nasi goreng at the food court. Such meals are just memories these days.

I pawned my first piece of jewelry – a gold bracelet – when prices started to rise in January. I had no idea things were going to happen so fast. I have since pawned jewelry worth $700, which I had bought by saving up little by little over the years. I don’t think I can ever get them back.

In May, my salary was cut in half. The commissions I made on sales had collapsed because there were no tourists. As transportation has become expensive [because of fuel price hikes]I finally quit because the trips cost more than my salary.

All aspects of life have been affected. Cooking gas has become scarce. When I couldn’t find gasoline for days, I started using firewood and kerosene. It is very tedious to collect wood from outside and cut it into pieces. There is a lot of smoke and it makes me cough. Now even kerosene is in short supply. I have half a bottle left.

I eat a quarter of what I used to eat. For now, I only have half a plate of boiled rice, some tea and a packet of biscuits. I go to demonstrations to get something to eat. The crisis forced me to become a beggar.

Nobody asked me these days how I was doing. You are the first. I pray to Lord Buddha to send me a saviour. I gave my passport to an employment agency to look for a job abroad.

The Rajapaksa family is responsible for this. They didn’t care about people. I went to see the houses of the President and the Prime Minister, and I was amazed at their grandeur. Did they ever think about inequality when they lived in such luxury?

Gotabaya would not have left without the uprising. We want a new face. But there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. Political parties all have the same ideas.

I cry to sleep most nights. The difference between my life yesterday and today is like the distance between heaven and earth.

Manodya Jayarathne, 23, student protester

A software engineering student, Jayarathne first lobbied for Rajapaksa’s ousting in his hometown of Kurunegala. He left for the capital this spring and began running a radio station for the “Gota Go Home” movement, settling in a tent in the middle of a sprawling protest site opposite the presidential office.

Last year in August, when I saw a huge queue for cooking gas in my hometown, I told my father that if people took to the streets to protest, I would join them .

It happened in April. I climbed to the top of a clock tower and addressed the assembly to explain why we had to protest. I got into the organization. We received a lot of pressure from the local police to shut it down and we were threatened with legal action. I told them that they were people who were organizing themselves.

My mother got scared and asked me to step back. The turning point for me was an encounter with an elderly lady. She had come for a restoration camp that we had set up. She asked, “You’re not going to chase these people away?” Shoot these people down. It was then that I decided to come to Colombo.

We have set up the radio channel to communicate directly with people. We gave a call to come together on July 9, to mark two months [since an attack on protesters by Rajapaksa supporters]. We weren’t expecting the crowds that turned out. There was hardly any space to move.

I was doing a Facebook Live near the presidential office when the police fired tear gas at the crowd. It was not intended to storm a building; the police action propelled the audience.

We quickly organized ourselves in all the buildings. We gave tours to the public, cleaned things, locked rooms to stop looting and vandalism. At the president’s, behind a shelf, we found a hidden staircase leading to a bunker. All bathrooms were air-conditioned. I’ve only seen these things in movies. One day I slept in the master bedroom.

I am impacted by the crisis, like everyone else. I am unable to live my life as I would like. My mother, a government nurse, has seen her salary cut and my father has stopped working as a jeweler because no one has any money.

I know the situation will not improve immediately. We have made changes and we will continue to act as a pressure group against policies harmful to the poor. I will stay to rebuild the country.

Harini Amarasuriya, 52, MP

Amarasuriya is one of the few women in Sri Lanka’s male-dominated politics, a former academic who in 2020 was nominated to parliament by a coalition of left-wing parties. She embarked on the organization of public meetings to open the debate on the way forward for the country.

I have heard so many stories of people going hungry. As an MP you are supposed to have power, but in reality I was able to do very little. I can mobilize some things, but it’s a drop in the ocean when you think of the number of people who need help.

I had problems with transportation. I had problems with cooking gas. I have an 83 year old mother who recently had a fall. What to do in an emergency ? It was very stressful. But I still eat three meals a day. My [problems] are absolutely sweet compared to what many others have to go through.

I joined politics because I believe in the broader struggle for social justice. I have this belief that the country can be fixed. What is needed is a group of people who put the country before themselves.

I was [at the protest] July 9 with some colleagues. As a group, we made the choice to be there.

When the protesters stormed the presidential house, I was like “wow”. At that time, it belonged to the people. Something really struck me watching the video of a scruffy man on the treadmill and the photo of an old lady sitting in a big chair grinning from ear to ear.

Politics in Sri Lanka is so removed from the lives of ordinary citizens. The Rajapaksas politics were about corruption, facilitating an oligarchy made up of senior military, business, media, politicians and religious leaders. There was a group that extracted the wealth of the country and held the power.

The consequences have been huge inequalities, rural poverty, a very precarious economic structure and the complete collapse of social protection sectors.

There is no easy way out. Parliament no longer has a mandate. We need a new election.

Hafeel Farisz contributed reporting.

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