COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – When he was turned away from a gas station in the capital of Sri Lanka on Monday after queuing for six hours, Ravi Chandra, a tour manager, decided to return before sunrise the next day to see if his luck was out. would improve.
Tuesday was no better: Five hours later, the pump was still covered with “No Gas” signs and sealed with yellow tape. “They say they’re out of gas, and they don’t know when they’ll get more,” he said.
A day after Sri Lanka’s new prime minister warned that his first look in the government’s books had revealed an economic crisis worse than imagined, the island was out of fuel and the lives of its 22 million inhabitants were ruined. increasingly miserable.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took the role last week when widespread protests forced his predecessor into hiding at a military base, said on national television Monday the government couldn’t even find $5 million to import gasoline. With no money to pay for them, fuel ships anchored offshore in Sri Lankan waters, their cargoes out of reach.
“The next few months will be the most difficult of our lives,” Mr Wickremesinghe said in his address to the nation.
Despite years of warnings that the ruling Rajapaksa family was misruling the country, the dizzying pace of Sri Lanka’s economic collapse in recent months has led to economic despair that many believe is worse and more widespread than during the three-decade civil war of the United States. country. war that ended in 2009.
The country had continued to borrow beyond its means to meet the needs of a bloated system, a large military, and the vanities of a leadership that took on massive post-war construction projects with questionable economic logic. As pandemic restrictions dried up the flow of tourist dollars and debt piled up to unsustainable levels, leaders showed little urgency to find solutions or seek help.
Now much of the population struggles to get together three meals a day and gas cooking has been off for weeks. Hospitals are short of life-saving drugs because pharmaceutical companies have not been paid for months.
Weeks of protests have rid the government of all Rajapaksas except President Gotabaya. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister, left last week after inciting his supporters to attack peaceful protesters, unleashing a wave of violence and anarchy. Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with other family members serving in high government positions, was flown to the safety of a naval base.
Mr Wickremesinghe, 73, who became prime minister for the sixth time, said he had started gathering information on the state of the economy. The country will bring in much less revenue than the previous government had forecast, he said, causing the budget deficit to widen. He said he would be forced to print more money to pay government salaries, which will only further devalue a currency that has fallen about 40 percent against the dollar in recent months.
The most damning figure in his speech on Monday was the glaring admission of the decline in foreign reserves, which he says reached $7.5 billion when the Rajapaksas took power in 2019 after a five-year hiatus and have fallen to almost nothing since. had fallen.
Mr Wickremesinghe said he was seeking urgent help from allied countries. The government is also working with the International Monetary Fund to get aid and restructure its foreign debt, which it declared last month unable to pay. But the political crisis in Sri Lanka has undermined IMF negotiations, with officials and diplomats saying any tangible aid could take months.
The revelations about the poor state of the economy came on the second day of the Buddhist Vesak festival. In better times, families lit lanterns and gathered in parks and public places for festivities. Neighborhoods are said to be littered with Dansal stalls – offering food, drink and sweets to anyone who passed by.
On the first day of the festival, protesters who had camped for weeks outside the presidential secretariat marched by the thousands in Colombo to circle the barricaded residence of the new prime minister and continue their calls for the president’s resignation.
“Normally the country would close to celebrate,” said Manisha Balraj, a lawyer who had joined the protest. “But of course we can’t do that because of the fuel shortage and the economic crisis.”
Among the protesters was Piyal Dissanayake, 54, who had taken a morning bus with his family from the town of Mawanella, about 70 miles from Colombo. A Sri Lankan flag folded neatly over his arm, he marched with his wife and two children. He had reduced his staff from seven in his small restaurant to three, and the establishment remained closed most days.
The family had planned to take a bus home in the evening, but feared it would be difficult to find one due to the fuel shortage.
“This is the hardest time in my life,” said Mr. dissanayake. “Even during the war it wasn’t that hard,” he added.
Outside a government-subsidized milk dispensary behind the US embassy in Colombo, Saminda Manimperi stood in line for three hours on Tuesday in the shadow of a wall before it opened. He was a cashier at a coal-fired power station and was there for the five 400 gram packets of powdered milk that he gets for himself and his mother twice a week.
He said his salary had already fallen by about 30 percent since the start of the crisis, even as food prices have skyrocketed. In order to get milk at a discount, he would have to miss his job.
“I was marked absent, so that’s 2,000 rupees cut,” he said, from a salary that has dropped to 35,000 rupees a month, or about $100.