Braving a blustery west coast morning, about 200 Sri Lankan-Canadians gathered in downtown Vancouver on Sunday, April 3, to call for the ouster of the government in their homeland, which they say has plunged the country into an economic crisis.
The rally participants also urged Canada to help solve the growing humanitarian crisis and human rights violations in Sri Lanka, where a defiant government has blocked access to social media platforms after declaring a state of emergency to quell street protests.
“The situation is unbearable in Sri Lanka, where people can’t even get enough food to eat because of the mismanagement and corruption of the Rajapaksa family,” Chamara Randunu Dewage, a Vancouver-based IT engineer at the protest told New Canadian Media.
“This clan has to go, starting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda, who is the prime minister.”
Canada is home to approximately 200,000 individuals of Sri Lankan descent and is a top source country for international students. Approved study permits for Sri Lankan students skyrocketed by 105 per cent from 2018 to 2019, according to a report by Applyboard.com. It is also listed as a top source country for irregular migration to Canada.
According to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), ethnic inequalities, human rights violations and economic instability are among the “push factors” forcing Sri Lankans to seek refuge in Canada.
“If tensions continue to rise, push factors will continue to be exacerbated, likely resulting in an increase in irregular migration from Sri Lanka,” the CBSA warned in its Refugee Claims Analysis Report last year.
Sri Lanka’s central bank has also placed stringent controls on the outflow of foreign currency, which is impacting the country’s international students in Canada.
“We are having a tough time getting our own money from Sri Lanka to pay our tuition fees and living expenses,” said Anjula Jayathunga, an international student at the rally.
“We hope the corrupt government is replaced as soon as possible.”
As the rally was going in Vancouver, news was breaking in Sri Lanka that the entire cabinet, except for the president and the prime minister, had submitted their resignations.
Media reports suggested the move was meant to clear the way for the all-powerful political clan to attempt to form an interim government with members of the opposition.
Two other brothers, Basil Rajapaksa, who was also Sri Lanka’s finance minister, and Chamal Rajapaksa, held the irrigation portfolio until Sunday.
Together with nephews, sons and other kin, Bloomberg estimates that about 75 per cent of the total budget of Sri Lanka is directly under the purview of Rajapaksa ministers in government.
The Rajapaksa’s administration in recent weeks has devalued the rupee, raised interest rates, placed curbs on non-essential imports, and reduced stock-trading hours to preserve electricity and foreign currency.
It is also seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and is simultaneously in talks with nations including India and China for bilateral aid, reported Bloomberg.
“The daily lives of Sri Lankans now are to stand in long queues for groceries, gas, and basic essentials…they also have to live with long power cuts and blackouts,” said Buwan Nawulla, one of the rally participants in Vancouver.
“We need to help people in Sri Lanka get their lives back.”
Canada is advising its citizens in Sri Lanka to keep supplies of food, water, fuel and medicine in hand.
“The economic situation is deteriorating in Sri Lanka. The crisis is leading to shortages of necessities including medicines, fuel, and food. There may be long line-ups at grocery stores, gas stations, and pharmacies,” said the advisory.
Human Rights Watch said the Rajapaksa’s administration is facing large demonstrations against economic mismanagement, which has caused severe shortages of essential goods and rampant inflation.
“Sri Lankans are in need of urgent international assistance as they confront food and fuel shortages, but the government needs to understand its friends and partners abroad are seeking genuine human rights reforms, and real steps to end abuses and bring justice,” the agency said.
Despite the mounting street protests in Sri Lanka calling for regime change, the Rajapaksa family still enjoys two-thirds majority support in parliament. National elections will be held in 2023, at the earliest.
The anger in Sri Lanka boiled over last week when crowds gathered outside the President’s residence to agitate against the escalating economic crisis in the country that is depriving residents of basic necessities, including essential medicines, food, cooking gas and electricity.
According to Amnesty International (AI), 54 individuals, including journalists covering the incident, have been arrested, and dozens more injured.
“Many of them have been assaulted and subjected to torture or other ill treatment in police custody,” said AI on its website.
“The Sri Lankan authorities must not use unnecessary or excessive force to disperse protesters who are suffering the consequences of an economic crisis that is spiraling out of control,” said Amnesty International’s South Asia Regional Director, Yamini Mishra.