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Sri Lanka's President is worse than a Captain abandoning ship says CAFOD spokesperson

by Donna Birrell

A CAFOD spokesperson has described the President of Sri Lanka as being worse than a Captain abandoning a sinking ship.

Dr Sakuntala Kadirgamar was speaking after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa missed the deadline for resigning despite fleeing the country yesterday. A state of emergency has been declared in the country as protests continue over soaring food and fuel prices and a belief that government leaders have looted the economy.

Dr Kadirgamar who is also Executive Director of Sri Lanka's Law & Society Trust told Premier :

"Sri Lankans have got quite used to states of emergency. They have been declared at several periods in our history. So I think at this point, people are not overwhelmed by it. The protesters are out on the streets and they're not taking much notice of it, they're very determined. The people are not going to leave the streets until they have some answers."

The collapse of the Sri Lankan economy has seen citizens facing spiralling price rises and unavailability of basic goods including food, cooking gas, medicines and fuel, and power cuts of up to 13 hours per day. A sudden ban on chemical fertilisers in 2021, without any plan for the country to transition to organic methods, also led to a big drop in agricultural production and a hike in food prices, which has pushed many families to the brink. 

The conflict in Ukraine has worsened the situation, as Sri Lanka exports 18 per cent of its tea to Ukraine and Russia, and imports 45 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine. 

Dr Kadirgamar says this is the worst crisis in living memory : 

"We've had multiple crises and we've been through deprivations at various stages, but we haven't had these multiple collapses at the same time. We have no petrol or diesel, which means transport  comes to a grinding halt, food distribution networks are at a grinding halt, farmers who are already very badly affected by the fertiliser shortage crisis are not able to even use water pumps to irrigate their fields.

"Life without gasoline or petrol or energy is difficult to imagine in the 21st century, then on top of that, food is expensive. A lot of people have lost their jobs and have no money and no cooking gas.

"In Colombo and elsewhere people are just lined up there for hours, sometimes days on end to get petrol. How can you run an economy like this? How can you live lives like this ? Schools have been shut down because the teachers and the students can't get to school. We are in meltdown mode. It is unsustainable."

Just over two years ago Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President of Sri Lanka on the tide of a popular vote with a massive majority. The anger of the current protestors is rooted in the breakdown of systems of accountability and belief that government leaders - the President, his brother the former Prime Minster, Mahinda Rajapaksa (who resigned in May 2022), and their families - have looted the economy.

"President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has 100% power so he must take 100% responsibility, which of course, he has failed to take" says Dr Kadirgamar. 

"The manner of his departure is less than pathetic. How could anyone abandon the country in this way ? He is not even a captain abandoning a sinking ship - he is helping to sink it by leaving a lot of ambiguity and confusion as to what the next steps of transition should be. "

CAFOD has been working in Sri Lanka for more than 30 years. Through its Church network it is providing much-needed food relief for families affected by the severe food and fuel crisis, and is also working with local organisations supporting peaceful calls for urgent improvements to the lives of Sri Lankans.

Dr Kadirgamar says it's about building long-term sustainability:  

"We have to lay the groundwork of building relationships between communities and with communities, let people articulate their thoughts, their aspirations, have the self-confidence to dream about a better system of government and to build those relationships. It's about letting people find their voice  - it's like investing in human life." 


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