Speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament warns crisis could lead to famine

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Colombo (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s crippling economic crisis threatens to bring starvation to the island nation of 22 million, while acute shortages of essentials and debilitating power cuts will worsen, the Speaker of Parliament warned on Wednesday.

Scarce food and fuel supplies, along with record inflation and electricity rationing, have inflicted widespread misery during the country’s most painful recession since independence from Britain in 1948.

Public anger is at a fever pitch, with crowds trying to storm the homes of several government figures – including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – and large protests elsewhere.

Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana told lawmakers that more difficulties were ahead as the country appeared on the brink of a political stalemate.

“We are told this is the worst crisis, but I think this is just the beginning,” Abeywardana said at the start of a two-day debate on worsening economic hardship.

“Shortages of food, gas and electricity will worsen. There will be very acute food shortages and famine.”

The parliamentary session was twice interrupted when opposition lawmakers shouted slogans denouncing members of the powerful Rajapaksa ruling family and demanding their resignation.

But Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando promised the president would remain in office to guide the country through the crisis.

“We are saying very clearly that he will not resign under any circumstances,” Fernando said, drawing boos from opposition MPs.

Security forces dispersed protests with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, but the state of emergency imposed by the president last week to quell protests was lifted at midnight.

Hundreds of medical students stormed and occupied the Ministry of Health in the capital Colombo on Wednesday as spontaneous protests were reported across the island where people lined up to buy fuel.

More than 60 people have been arrested in connection with the unrest and many said they were tortured in police custody.

Minority government

Lawmakers had pushed for a debate on the emergency decree during this week’s parliamentary session, where the government lost its majority after political allies deserted – several of whom have since called for Rajapaksa’s resignation.

Opposition parties had already rejected the president’s overture to form a unity administration after nearly the entire cabinet resigned on Sunday night.

But so far, there has been no clear signal that opposition lawmakers will attempt a no-confidence motion to overthrow the Rajapaksa administration.

A critical shortage of foreign exchange has left Sri Lanka struggling to import essential goods as the pandemic torpedoes vital income from tourism and remittances.

Rating agencies have warned of a potential default on Sri Lanka’s $51 billion external debt, and authorities are unable to raise more commercial loans due to credit downgrades.

Economists say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of piled up borrowing and misguided tax cuts.

Agriculture Ministry Secretary Udith Jayasinghe warned in December that the country could face famine due to the government’s decision to ban imports of agrochemicals last year.

The decision, taken in an apparent effort to shore up foreign currency reserves, saw farmers leave their fields barren instead of toiling over crops without the aid of fertilizers and pesticides.

Jayasinghe was fired hours after issuing his warning.

Sri Lanka has said it will seek an IMF bailout to weather the crisis, but negotiations have yet to begin and the country’s newest finance minister resigned on Tuesday after just one day in office.