Autorickshaws wait in a long queue for fuel amid the country's economic crisis Autorickshaws wait in a long queue for fuel amid the country's economic crisis  (AFP or licensors)

Church in Sri Lanka providing support amid economic crisis

The Director of Caritas Sri Lanka, Fr Mahendra Gunatilleke speaks about the plight of people in the country, many of whom live below the poverty line, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigns from office.

By Lydia O'Kane

Decades of rule by the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka came to an end on Friday when the speaker of the country’s parliament formally accepted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's resignation.

He stepped down after fleeing the island nation to escape a popular uprising brought about by a severe economic crisis in the country.

Rajapaksa is now in Singapore, having fled to the Maldives early on Wednesday on a military jet.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will act as the interim president; however, protesters have also called for his resignation.

The economic crisis has seen Sri Lankans facing rising prices and a shortage of basic goods including food, fuel, and medicines.

The conflict in Ukraine has also worsened the situation, as Sri Lanka exports 18 per cent of its tea to Ukraine and Russia, and imports 45 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine.

The people blame the former president and the government for the current situation.

In Sri Lanka, half the population live below the poverty line, and support for education, health and other social services has steadily fallen. 

The Catholic aid agency, CAFOD, has worked in Sri Lanka for over 30 years. Through its Church network, it is providing much-needed food relief for families affected by the severe food and fuel crisis.

It is also working with local organisations supporting peaceful calls for urgent improvements to the lives of Sri Lankans.

Father Mahendra Gunatilleke is National Director of Caritas Sri Lanka. Speaking to Vatican Radio, he said the current political and economic crisis marks a “very precarious moment in the history of Sri Lanka.”

Listen to the interview

Humanitarian crisis

“Right now we are going through a humanitarian crisis and this is turning out to be a disaster… There are long queues for fuel, gas, and so on, and people cannot reach their working places…people are finding it extremely difficult to survive,” he said.

According to statistics, over one million people in the country have lost their jobs. The United Nations also estimates that out of a population of 22 million, over 5 million are in need of food aid.

Accountibility and trust

Fr Gunatilleke explained that the root of the current protests stems from a lack of trust and accountability in the government and president as a result of bad decisions they made which has brought the economy to its knees.

Economic collapse and its roots

Asked if the war in Ukraine has had a negative impact on Sri Lanka’s current economic woes, Fr Gunatilleke said the country had already had four bad years.

“In 2019 we had the Easter Sunday bombing, and the severe psychosis that crept into society virtually brought society to a standstill.” He went on to say that it was not possible to go to school or work which had a knock on effect on the economy.

He also said that the Covid-19 pandemic during 2020 and 2021 didn’t help matters. The Caritas director noted that the war in Ukraine has had an indirect effect on the Sri Lankan economy, particularly on oil and gas coming into the country. However, he emphasised that economies in other South Asian nations, such as Bangladesh, are doing well, arguing that the government and former president must take responsibility for the mismanagement of the country.

Church support

As people continue to face economic hardship, Fr Gunatilleke said the Church is mobilising all its resources to help those in need. He added that Caritas Sri Lanka has been providing meals and sanitation services. The Catholic Church is also working with other religious communities, including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims to provide aid to the population.

15 July 2022, 14:40