The spirited demonstration by Buddhist monks in Colombo on Monday was direly symptomatic of the grave crisis within. While the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has begun bailout talks, the island nation’s cabinet has cleared a critical constitutional amendment to dilute the powers of the President, hoping that this could mollify the protesters in the midst of the ballooning tension. The situation is virtually beyond control. On closer reflection, economic mismanagement and the Covid-19 pandemic have compelled Sri Lanka to battle its worst economic crisis in seven decades.
To that must be added the woeful dearth of foreign exchange that has stalled the imports of essentials, notably fuel, food and medicines. The initiative to reduce presidential powers is aimed at appeasing protesters. But there is a strident call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. Will he? Or won’t he? “The amendment was tabled and passed in the cabinet”, said the tourism minister, Harin Fernando, in a tweet, adding that the proposal will now be advanced to the country’s Parliament.
There is a groundswell of public opinion against President Gotabaya and his influential family. Both have been accused by the people of mishandling the economy. The people have gone against the ruling family, somewhat reminiscent of the Philippines in February 1987. Sri Lanka suspended payment of $ 12 billion of foreign debt in April and is seeking up to $3 billion from the IMF to bring its public finances on track and access what they call “bridge financing”.Efforts are on to structure Sri Lanka’s loan programme with the IMF.
While the fate of the constitutional amendment against the Presidency is as yet rather uncertain, public distress at the prolonged shortages is growing. Protesters blocked an entrance to the pivotal finance ministry and police had to help out officials to attend the IMF meeting. It is a measure of the public fury that the gates of the finance ministry near the office of the President were blocked. Outside the office, the protesters have staged a sit-in since early April.
Sri Lankans, angered by long queues for fuel (often overnight), had a face-off with security forces over the weekend. At two petrol stations, troops fired shots in the air to control the crowds, a military spokesman said. The country had only 12,300 litres of petrol and 4,000 tons of diesel in stock at the time. Sri Lanka’s central bank has since released $90 million to purchase two shipments.
Considering the tottering economy, it is open to question whether the truncated authority of the President will be able to turn the tide at this late hour. It is a torpid state of affairs, perhaps next only to Pakistan where Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has succeeded to a direly depleted economic inheritance.The fact that cannot but raise concern in Colombo and further afield is the absence of a blueprint for survival.