(This article from “The Economist” appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Gota go”)
On paper, at least, Sri Lanka is one of the wealthiest countries in South Asia, ranked by the un on a par with much of eastern Europe in terms of development. Yet the country of 22m people is suffering severe food shortages, locked petrol pumps and power cuts lasting as long as 13 hours a day. The currency has lost nearly half its value against the dollar over the past two months. Foreign reserves stand at $50m, too little to cover even a day’s worth of imports and down from about $9bn in 2019. Last month Sri Lanka admitted it could no longer service its foreign debts. The country is broke.
Sri Lankans are furious. On May 9th protesters torched dozens of homes, most belonging to politicians, precipitating the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the once-beloved prime minister. Security forces evacuated him and his family to a naval base as a mob tried to storm his official residence. Vigilantes have set up checkpoints outside the country’s airports to prevent him and other officials from fleeing. A state of emergency is in force. The army has been ordered to shoot rioters and looters on sight.
How did it come to this? For an answer, look back to late 2019, when Sri Lanka was still picking itself up after a devastating set of terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday. Home-grown Islamists had targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing more than 250 people. Tourism, a big source of foreign exchange, took a hit, with arrivals falling from 244,000 the month before the attacks to 38,000 the month after.