Sri Lanka president warns of racial tensions amid economic crisis

Army members travel on armoured cars on the main road after the curfew was extended for another extra day following a clash between Anti-government demonstrators and Sri Lanka's ruling party supporters, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka’s president urged people on Wednesday to reject what he called attempts to foment racial and religious disharmony, as clashes broke out in many parts of the country over the government’s handling of a devastating economic crisis.

Violent street protests killed eight people this week and even the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother as prime minister and a curfew have failed to douse public anger. The government has ordered troops to shoot at anyone damaging public property or threatening lives. 

Sri Lankans have blamed the Rajapaksa dynasty for the economic meltdown that has left the country with only about $50 million in reserves, stalling most imports and leading to massive shortages of fuel, cooking gas, and other essentials.

In the family’s ancestral base in the south, protesters torched a museum dedicated to their father earlier this week. The place lay in ruins on Wednesday, the exhibits looted and smashed.

“This is the time for all Sri Lankans to join hands as one, to overcome the economic, social & political challenges,” Rajapaksa said on Twitter.

“I urge all #Srilankans to reject the subversive attempts to push you towards racial & religious disharmony. Promoting moderation, toleration & coexistence is vital.”

It was not immediately clear what prompted the president to issue the warning. However, Sri Lanka has a long and bloody history of ethnic tensions.

Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned as prime minister on Monday, were in key government positions when a 26-year civil war ended in 2009 after security forces overcame militants from the minority Tamil community.

Sinhalese Buddhists are the majority in the country of 22 million which also has Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities.

A police spokesperson said two shooting incidents were reported on Tuesday night, including one in the southern town of Rathgama that wounded four people.

“The situation is now calm,” Nalin Thalduwa said.

In Weerakettiya, the southern town that is home to the Rajapaksas, police and military patrolled the streets, with shops and businesses shut due to the curfew.

Where’s the money?

Sri Lanka has sought urgent loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after receiving financial and other support from neighbour India as well as China. The lack of a government following the resignation of the prime minister, however, could complicate negotiations over further foreign assistance.

The IMF said on Tuesday it was concerned about the violence and that virtual technical talks with Sri Lankan officials that started on Monday would continue “so as to be fully prepared for policy discussions once a new government has been formed”.

Sri Lankan opposition parties have rejected calls for a unity government and have sought a complete ouster of the Rajapaksas.

A cabinet spokesperson said the president planned to meet opposition politicians with the expectation of forming a new government within days.

India, meanwhile, said it was “fully supportive of Sri Lanka’s democracy, stability and economic recovery”, but deniedsome reports that New Delhi was planning to send troops to restore order on the island.

Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe and Alasdair Pal; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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