08 April 2022

Sri Lankan business leaders demand end to political impasse

08 April 2022

Sri Lankan business leaders have called for an end to political instability amid public demands for the president to resign over alleged economic mismanagement, warning that failure to do so would lead to economic catastrophe.

Leaders from 23 business associations representing export, import and logistics companies told reporters in the capital Colombo that they want legislators to “act responsibly and resolutely to implement remedial solutions to halt and then reverse the rapidly deteriorating situation”.

The associations warned that their industries, which collectively earn around £12.8 billion annually through exports of merchandise and services, will come to a standstill if the situation continues.

Within a matter of weeks, if not days, emergency treatment will also not be possible. This will result in a catastrophic number of deaths

The Indian Ocean island nation is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long queues to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad and are paid for in hard currency. The fuel shortage has caused rolling power cuts lasting several hours a day.

The Sri Lanka Medical Association sent a letter to the president on Thursday warning that hospitals will soon be unable to provide even emergency services because of critical shortages of drugs and medical equipment.

It said that unless supplies are urgently replenished, “within a matter of weeks, if not days, emergency treatment will also not be possible. This will result in a catastrophic number of deaths”.

The extent of the crisis became clear when Sri Lanka could not pay for imports of basic supplies because of its huge debts and dwindling foreign reserves.

The country’s usable foreign reserves are said to be less than £300 million, according to experts, and it has nearly £5.3 billion in foreign debt obligations for this year alone.

Sri Lankans queue to buy kerosene (Eranga Jayawardena/AP) (AP)

Rohan Masakorala, director general of the Sri Lanka Association of Manufacturers and Exporters of Rubber, said business owners are worried because “something dangerous is heading towards us”.

“We need a stable political system,” he said, noting that confidence must be regained “before we completely fall off the precipice”.

Yohan Lawrence, secretary general of the Joint Apparel Association Forum, which represents the country’s garment industry, urged stakeholders to come up with a “viable and long-term solution”.

“We face a total economic collapse if nothing is done quickly,” he said.

The garment industry is Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign exchange earner, accounting for more than £3.8 billion in annual income.

Nationwide protests over the country’s economic troubles have expanded to include criticism of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his politically powerful family.

Thousands of people from all walks of life have been demonstrating this week, demanding a solution to the crisis and calling for Mr Rajapaksa to resign.

Police used tear gas and a water cannon to disperse about 1,500 university students who marched towards parliament on Friday.

Protesters block a highway in Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP) (AP)

Mr Rajapaksa has resisted the demands to step down, even after members of his own coalition joined them this week, with governing party legislators calling for the appointment of an interim government to avoid possible violence.

He earlier proposed the creation of a unity government, but the main opposition party rejected the idea. Cabinet members submitted their resignations on Sunday, and on Tuesday nearly 40 governing coalition legislators said they would no longer vote according to coalition instructions, significantly weakening the government.

This has turned the economic crisis into a political one, with no functioning cabinet, and parliament has failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis.

The president and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, continue to hold power, despite their family being the focus of public anger.

Five other family members are legislators, including finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, irrigation minister Chamal Rajapaksa and sports minister Namal Rajapaksa.

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