A country in pain: Voices of Sri Lankans reflect its desperate times

Imthiyaz Abubakr, 58, tuk-tuk driver. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Niha Masih

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Gotabaya Rajapaksa has left the building, one joyous Sri Lankan wrote on Twitter after the country’s president resigned in absentia Thursday. The island nation’s extreme economic distress and political chaos had triggered huge protests calling on “Gota” to quit, and while his sudden departure brought an end to those demonstrations, it left the government in the hands of an unpopular acting leader and most people deeply worried about what comes next.

The signs of crisis are visible throughout the capital. Its streets are largely empty except for endless lines for fuel. Schools and offices remain closed. Power cuts are keeping traffic lights dark. Spiraling inflation – with the cost of vegetables such as onion and potatoes having doubled in less than a year – means that millions of people need food assistance.

Over the past decade, Sri Lanka had emerged as a South Asian success story. Then it quickly collapsed. The fears and even despair of many men and women are echoed in the experiences of four Sri Lankans who talked to The Washington Post in recent days. The conversations have been edited lightly for clarity and conciseness.

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– Imthiyaz Abubakr, 58, tuk-tuk driver

 

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

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“Today is my fifth day in this queue. I don’t know how many more days it will take. There are more than 500 tuk-tuks in the line, 300 bikes and around 400 cars, but since yesterday, no fuel supply has arrived at this gas station. There is no way to leave the queue because I have no fuel. I have to keep waiting.

“When it’s suffocatingly hot, I take out my back seat and sleep on the pavement. But the mosquitoes make it impossible to rest. I never thought that at this age I would be sleeping on pavements, away from my family. I go to a nearby mosque to use the washroom. Yesterday, I asked a fellow driver in the queue to look after my vehicle so I could go home for one night. I was stinking. I needed a shower.

“How can anyone not be angry? We were not well-off [before Sri Lanka’s economic crisis], but life was comfortable and there was peace of mind. I worked hard and earned enough to provide three square meals to my family. We used to eat chicken often. Now all we can manage is rice and coconut sambol [a local condiment of chile, onion and grated coconut]. The price of rice and vegetables has skyrocketed. I have been surviving on tea and egg sandwiches from a cheap canteen nearby.

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

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

“I have lost all hope.”

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– Sanjana Mudalige, 39, former retail worker

Sanjana Mudalige, 39, former retail worker. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Niha Masih

A single woman living alone, Mudalige loved her job at one of Colombo’s largest malls – helping people shopfor clothes.She would dress up every day, put on makeup and on her break from work enjoy a meal of nasi goreng at the food court. Such meals are only memories these days.

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“I pawned my first piece of jewelry – a gold bangle – when prices began to rise in January. I did not know that things would unravel so quickly. I have since pawned jewelry worth $700, which I had purchased by saving bit by bit over the years. I don’t think I will ever be able to get them back.

“In May, my salary was slashed in half. The commissions I used to make on sales had crashed as there were no tourists. As transport became expensive [because of fuel price hikes], I ultimately quit the job because travel cost more than my salary.

“Every aspect of life has been affected. Cooking gas became scarce. When I could not find gas for days, I began to use firewood and kerosene. It’s very tedious to collect wood from outside and hack 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. Right now, all I have left is half a plate of boiled rice, a little tea and one packet of biscuits. I go to the protests to get food to eat. The crisis has forced me to become a beggar.

“No one has asked me in all these days how I am doing. You’re the first. I pray to Lord Buddha to send me a savior. I have given my passport to an employment agency to look for a job abroad.

“The Rajapaksa family is responsible for this. They did not care for the people. I went to see the president and prime minister’s homes, and I was amazed to see their grandness. Did they never think of the inequalities 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 any alternative. The political parties all have the same ideas.

“I cry to sleep most nights. The difference between my life then and now is like the distance between the sky and the earth.”

– Manodya Jayarathne, 23, student protester

Manodya Jayarathne, 23, student protester. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Niha Masih

A software engineering student, Jayarathne first pushed for Rajapaksa’s ouster in his hometown of Kurunegala. He left for the capital this spring and began running a radio channel for the “Gota Go Home” movement, setting up in a tent amid a sprawling protest site across from the presidential office.

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

“It happened in April. I got on top of a clock tower and addressed the gathering on why we needed to protest. I thrust myself into organizing. We received a lot of pressure from the local police to shut it down and were threatened with legal action. I told them that it was people organizing themselves.

“My mother was frightened and asked me to step back. The turning point for me was an encounter with an elderly lady. She had come for a food camp we had set up. She asked, “Aren’t you going to chase these people out? Take these people down.” That is when I decided to come to Colombo.

“We set up the radio channel to communicate directly with the people. We gave a call to gather on July 9, to mark two months [since an attack on protesters by Rajapaksa supporters]. We never expected the crowd that turned out. There was barely any space to move.

“I was doing a Facebook Live near the presidential office when the police tear-gassed the crowd. There was no plan to storm any building; the police action propelled the public.

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

“I am impacted by the crisis, just like everyone else. I am unable to live my life the way I would like. My mother, a government nurse, has seen a salary cut, and my father discontinued his jewelry business as no one has money.

“I know the situation will not improve immediately. We brought in change, and we will continue to act as a pressure group against policies detrimental to the poor. I will stay to rebuild the country.”

– Harini Amarasuriya, 52, member of Parliament

Harini Amarasuriya, 52, member of Parliament. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Niha Masih

Amarasuriya is one of the few women in Sri Lanka’s male-dominated politics, a former academic who in 2020 was nominated to the Parliament by a coalition of left-leaning parties. She has thrown herself into organizing public meetings to open up the discussion about the country’s path forward.

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“I’ve heard so many stories of people going hungry. As a member of Parliament, you’re supposed to have power, but in real terms I have been able to do very little. I can mobilize some things, but that’s a drop in the ocean when you think about the number of people who need help.

“I’ve had problems with transportation. I’ve had problems with cooking gas. I have an 83-year-old mother who recently had a fall. What do I do in an emergency? That’s been very stressful. But I still eat three meals a day. My [problems] are absolutely mild 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 conviction that the country can be fixed. What it requires is a bunch of people who put the country before themselves.

“I was [at the protest] on July 9 with some colleagues. As a party we made a choice that we had to be there.

“When the protesters stormed the presidential house, I was like “wow.” In that moment, it was owned by the people. Something really touched me watching the video of a scraggly man on the treadmill and a photograph of an old lady sitting on a grand chair grinning from ear to ear.

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

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

“There is no easy way out. The Parliament no longer has a mandate. We need a fresh election.”

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