Economy

Sri Lanka economy crisis to get worse before it gets better, PM says

Sri Lanka’s new prime minister has told the BBC an economic crisis that has brought misery and unrest is “going to get worse before it gets better”.

The country is facing fuel shortages and soaring food prices, with some Sri Lankans forced to skip meals.

Anger over the government’s handling of the crisis has led to violent protests.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed in an attempt to defuse the protests. It is the opposition MP’s sixth stint as prime minister.

In his first interview since taking office, Mr Wickremesinghe told the BBC he would ensure families get three meals a day.

Appealing to the world for more financial help, he said “there won’t be a hunger crisis, we will find food”.

The new PM described the Sri Lankan economy as “broken”, but he said his message to Sri Lankans was to “be patient, I will bring things back”.

Mr Wickremesinghe was sworn-in by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday, but his appointment has largely been met with dismay, as he is seen as too close to the politically dominant Rajapaksa family.

In his interview, Mr Wickremesinghe said he agreed with the sentiment of protestors who’ve been calling for President Rajapaksa to resign, but said that would not happen. “Blaming won’t lead to action, I’m here to see people nourished,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s economy is in freefall. Food, medicine and fuel have run out or become unaffordable. Some people have died waiting at petrol stations to fill up their tanks.

It is the the island nation’s worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

“We don’t have kerosene, we don’t have petrol, we don’t have diesel, we don’t have cooking gas and we don’t even have access to wood-fired stoves,” a 68-year-old woman in the Sri Lankan capital Columbo told AFP.

“We are struggling everyday to feed our children. Food prices have tripled in the past few days. How are we supposed to manage?”

At the heart of Sri Lanka’s economic woes is that the country is heavily reliant on imports but has been burning through the foreign currency reserves it needs to pay for them.

The economy suffered in the Covid pandemic and tourism was hit by the 2019 church bombings. But experts have also blamed economic mismanagement too.

Sri Lanka: The basics

  • Sri Lanka is an island nation off southern India: It got independence from British rule in 1948. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim – make up 99% of the country’s 22m population.
  • One family of brothers has dominated for years: Mahinda Rajapaksa became a hero among the majority Sinhalese in 2009 when his government defeated Tamil separatist rebels after years of bitter and bloody civil war. His brother Gotabaya, who was defence minister at the time is now president.
  • Now an economic crisis has led to fury on the streets: Soaring inflation has meant medicine and fuel are in short supply, there are rolling blackouts and ordinary people have taken to the streets in anger with many blaming the Rajapaksa family and their government for the turmoil.

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