COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s crippling economic crisis risks causing starvation across the island nation of 22 million while acute shortages of essentials and debilitating blackouts will get worse, the head of the legislature warned on Wednesday.
Scarce supplies of food and fuel, along with record inflation and electricity rationing, have inflicted widespread misery in the country’s most painful downturn since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.
Public anger is at a fever pitch, with crowds attempting to storm the homes of several government figures — including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — and large demonstrations elsewhere.
Parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana told lawmakers that more hardships were to come as the country appeared on the brink of a political impasse.
“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 the worsening economic woes. “The food, gas and electricity shortages will get worse. There will be very acute food shortages and starvation.”
The parliamentary session was disrupted twice as opposition lawmakers shouted slogans denouncing members of Rajapaksa’s once-powerful ruling family and demanding they step down.
But Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando vowed that the president would stay in office to shepherd the country through the crisis.
“We say very clearly that he will not resign under any circumstances,” Fernando said, drawing loud catcalls from opposition members of parliament.
Security forces have dispersed protests with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets, but a state of emergency imposed by the president last week to quell demonstrations was lifted at midnight.
Hundreds of medical students stormed and occupied the health ministry in the capital Colombo on Wednesday while spontaneous protests were reported from across the island where people were queued to buy fuel.
More than 60 people had been arrested in connection with the unrest and many have said they were tortured in police custody.
Legislators had pushed for a debate on the emergency decree during this week’s session of parliament, where the government has lost its majority after the desertion of political allies, 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 the resignation of nearly the entire Cabinet on Sunday night.