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Christians bat for new government in Sri Lanka

The elite-oriented economy that has left the pearl-shaped island nation a virtual pauper needs to recover fully

Sri Lankan people wait in a long queue to refill their liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders in Colombo on June 15

Sri Lankan people wait in a long queue to refill their liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders in Colombo on June 15. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 15, 2022 10:29 AM GMT

Updated: June 15, 2022 10:41 AM GMT

An elected government let down Sri Lankan Christians in the probe on bombs that exploded inside churches on Easter Sunday three years ago. Another elected government put the entire nation on the path to bankruptcy. The troubles are far from over for the tear-drop-shaped island nation and its Christians.

Church officials are part of a nationwide campaign seeking fresh elections, hoping a new government will pull the country out of the economic crisis. They also believe it could ensure justice by ending the cover-up in the Easter bombing case.

Since April, the nation has been experiencing 10-hour power cuts due to shortages of diesel and furnace oil. Sri Lanka's fuel purchases are totally dependent on the US$700-million credit line offered by India, which caretaker Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said is the only nation providing money. 

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"We are expecting the last diesel shipment under ILC [Indian Line of Credit] on June 16 and the last petrol shipment on June 22," caretaker Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera told reporters.

After a month-long impasse, Sri Lanka has started to see light at the end of the tunnel. In a goodwill gesture, international agencies led by the US, India and China have started efforts to keep afloat the cash-starved strategic Indian Ocean nation by promising financial assistance.

With total foreign debt amounting to an astronomical $51 billion, Sri Lanka is also facing an acute shortage of essential items like food, medicine, cooking gas and fuel, toilet paper and even matches.

Despite being on the path to recovery, hundreds of protesters have been occupying the entrance to the office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for more than 50 days demanding his ouster

To address this acute shortage, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, met his US counterpart Julie Chung in Colombo this month.

The meeting comes at a time when PM Wickremesinghe expressed inability to tap the $1.5-billion credit line from China, which has also earmarked humanitarian aid worth $73 million.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has already started efforts, with its administrator Samantha Power holding talks with Wickremesinghe last month.

India has provided $55 million to import fertilizers to help Sri Lanka tackle its food scarcity.

The forex debt-ridden nation has started talks to secure an International Monetary Fund bailout package and the results are expected by the last quarter of the year.

Russian oil, made cheaper due to the sanctions imposed by the US and EU, has come in handy for Sri Lanka in these trying times. The country recently bought a 90,000-ton shipment of Russian crude to restart production at its only refinery. Its neutral position on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has helped it to do business with Russian energy firms.

The interim prime minister informed parliament recently that Sri Lanka needs $5 billion to ensure a normal life for 21.41 million people for the next six months.

Despite being on the path to recovery, hundreds of protesters have been occupying the entrance to the office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for more than 50 days demanding his ouster. The Church has supported the ongoing protest.

Some of the protesters want the abolition of the executive presidential system, which they allege helps to concentrate power in an individual. Since independence from Britain, Sri Lanka has been ruled by members of elite families.

Three years after the bombings, the masterminds are still at large, while the high-profile government officials named initially in the probe have gone scot-free

According to experts, an elite-oriented economy with huge money and muscle power has left Sri Lanka virtually a pauper.

The protests forced the elected government of Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign on May 9. Basil Rajapaksa, former finance minister and a member of South Asia’s most powerful political family, also resigned from parliament for his alleged role in dragging the country into the worst financial crisis since independence in 1948.

Addressing a press conference last month, Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, director of the National Catholic Center for Social Communications and spokesperson for the Church, asked President Gotabaya to step down.

When Mahinda started his tenure as prime minister after polls in November 2019, the Sri Lankan Church and its leader Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo had placed all their hopes on the new government to nab all the culprits of the Easter bombings, which claimed 279 lives and left more than 500 wounded on April 21, 2019. 

For devastated Christians, the new government of Mahinda offered a promise of security amid fears of renewed violence. But as the probe made tardy progress, the Church realized that the Rajapaksas were capitalizing on the Easter attacks to grab power. Three years after the bombings, the masterminds are still at large, while the high-profile government officials named initially in the probe have gone scot-free.

The Church is now pinning hopes on fresh polls. A senior Catholic priest, Father Anura Perera, was part of the delegation of religious leaders that met the poll commission on June 9 seeking to create the right environment for holding elections.

Their demand to put a cap on poll expenditure by candidates came on the same day that Basil Rajapaksa put in his papers as an MP.

The proposed economic recovery should complement welfare measures to avoid yet another humanitarian crisis in the island nation.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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