COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Instead of going to school, 12-year-old Susil Michael guards her family’s car at a gas station in Sri Lanka’s capital.
Her sisters and parents take turns. They have been waiting in line to fill up their gas tank and sleeping in their car for four days. They aren’t actually allowed to refuel for a day — Sri Lanka adopted a license plate-based gas rationing system, much like parts of the United States did during the 1970s oil crisis — but the Michael family lined up early. Thousands of cars and rickshaws are parked in front of it.
“I don’t like it. It’s exhausting. It’s hot and we can’t afford food,” says Susil.
Many countries are struggling with rising prices. Sri Lankans are among the victims. Inflation in the Indian Ocean island nation is now over 60%. Food prices have almost doubled. There are rolling power outages, food shortages and political unrest.
Sri Lanka was once a prosperous place
It’s a sad turning point for a country classified by the World Bank as an “upper-middle-income country” by 2020. It was relatively prosperous, with GDP per capita nearly twice that of its neighbor India.
“Sri Lanka is going back because of those who stole our money,” says Susil’s father, Christopher Michael, a 61-year-old temp worker. “Why have you mismanaged the country?”
He blames the Rajapaksa family: Mahinda Rajapaksa was President of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015 and served as Prime Minister three times – most recently until May. His brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as President from 2019 until last month.
Both brothers recently resigned from their posts (Mahinda in May, Gotabaya in July) amid massive public protests accusing them of mismanaging the country’s finances and driving its economy into the abyss. (Sri Lanka’s tourism-driven economy was also devastated by a terrorist attack in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Last month, protesters occupied the presidential palace – they swam in its pool, cooked meals in the kitchen – and then allegedly set fire to the prime minister’s residence. (Politicians were evacuated before protesters got there, and no one was hurt.)
After Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Singapore last month, the country got a new president – veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has the difficult task of trying to negotiate an International Monetary Fund bailout. But he is already unpopular and under siege. (Wickremesinghe’s office has not responded to multiple requests for an interview from NPR.)
On Wednesday, Wickremesinghe delivered his first presidential speech to Parliament, in which he pledged to meet some of the protesters’ demands: amend the constitution to limit his own powers and form an all-party government. He did not name a period.
Does nationalism rise when economies collapse?
When an economy collapses, there are fears that nationalism, divisive populist politics or racism could emerge. Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country (about 70%) with a fine mix of minorities. It had a bloody 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 – and the horrors of it are still looming. Deep divisions remain that could be exploited.
But there is no evidence of this in Colombo’s fuel lines.
“I’ve never felt such unity,” says Akeel Azwar, 18, a Muslim — a minority community that is being persecuted.
He describes sleeping on the ground next to his motorbike waiting for petrol – when a stranger in the petrol line invited him to sleep in an air-conditioned car instead. Rich and poor, Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus – they all belong to this lineage, says Azwar.
All of the country’s ethnic and religious groups are also represented in a huge protest camp on Galle Face Green – a park on Colombo’s sprawling seafront promenade, where protesters have set up tents, first-aid stations and a stage for musical performances and artists.
Clergy act as human shields
Here, anger at Sri Lanka’s economy has turned into a political movement – ousting one president and now targeting another.
Some of the most iconic images from the months-long protests show clergymen from Sri Lanka’s various religions marching arm in arm. Buddhist monks, Muslim imams and Catholic nuns shared food to break the Ramadan fast together. Christian priests and Buddhist monks prayed together.
Next to the protest tents, Meerawatte Kashyapa, a bald Buddhist monk in a burgundy robe, chants Sanskrit.
He is a forest monk who usually spends his time meditating under trees. A few months ago he left the forest and joined the anti-government protests.
“We’re like brothers and sisters here,” says Kashyapa, 52. “Some Catholic nuns also joined, and together we decided to act as human shields for the protesters.”
He describes what happened on the night of July 22 when the military moved in to try to evict protesters from the Galle Face Green area. Clashes erupted.
The monk points to scars on his neck. He says soldiers attacked him with some sort of cable or whip.
A strong message to the majority
The Rajapaksas followed a Buddhist nationalist political ideology. During the civil war and in recent years, the people of Sri Lanka have become accustomed to the use of violence against minorities by the state.
But “it’s shocking when a Buddhist monk is attacked,” says Shreen Sarour, a human rights activist who has attended the protests. “It sends a message to the majority of Sinhala Buddhists that they are not immune. People really felt like their children were being attacked.”
Attacks on protesters may be one way the Rajapaksas and their successor Wickremesinghe have tried to establish order. But Sarour predicts it will backfire by making protesters more united.
For his part, the monk Kashyapa is undeterred. He vows to stay at the camp at Galle Face Green – meditating and protesting – until the economic crisis is over.
But others cannot. You have to go back to the fuel line.
The fuel line as a large rectifier
As darkness falls over Colombo, thousands of people prepare to sleep another night in their cars waiting for petrol. But one last night at a gas station, the crowd cheered. The streetlights just came back on after an hour-long power outage. People break out in celebration.
“Regardless of your social status, regardless of your income level, you have to stand in line. That connects!” says WA Wijewardena, former Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Sri Lanka.
The former bank teller himself recently stood in line for 50 hours to buy 20 liters of gasoline.
“Nobody knew who I was and that’s why they spoke to me openly. We also shared food! Because when you stand in line for 10 hours, that is a connecting element!” Says Wijewardena. “There are many different people.”
Across Sri Lanka, many different people are waiting for petrol. They are also waiting for solutions to a crisis that has brought their country to its knees. And many fear the wait could be several months or even years.