by Amal Jayasinghe
Life usually comes to a standstill in Sri Lanka’s capital during the April holiday period, but with an economic crisis derailing traditional celebrations at home, downtown Colombo is teeming with frustrated crowds.
Sri Lankans ritually boil milk on the first day of the island nation’s New Year, but the commodity is one of many in short supply – along with the liquid gas and kerosene used to heat stoves in many Colombo households, and rice to serve family members.
This year, protesters have brought the custom out of their homes and heated clay pots over makeshift bonfires outside the capital’s presidential secretariat, underscoring the plight of households now forced to cook with firewood .
The seaside park near the neoclassical office has hosted an ongoing protest vigil since the weekend, demanding the resignation of the government over Sri Lanka’s worst financial crisis in memory.
“The economic situation is unbearable for many people,” Hemakumara Perera, who joined the protest from a small town south of the capital, told AFP.
Perera, his wife and two children camped at the site overnight to “show solidarity” with fellow Sri Lankans who are suffering through what is usually a joyful family celebration.
“We support their call for the resignation of the president and the prime minister,” he said.
Other New Year’s customs were abandoned, such as buying new clothes to symbolize a fresh start.
“We are not in the mood to wear new clothes and celebrate when we know how much people are suffering,” said Lakshika Gunawardena, who joined the protest carrying her five-month-old baby.
The Sri Lankan New Year is usually a private affair, with families sharing meals at home and offering sweets to neighbors as commercial activity comes to a halt.
The crowds now invading public spaces are an unusual sight for this time of year, as is the silence of the country’s beleaguered leaders.
The government skipped its usual photos of top politicians celebrating the occasion with their families.
And there was no sign of a greeting text message from Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, sent to every cell phone in the country in previous years.
He and his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa – the President of Sri Lanka – have been accused of mismanaging the economy and blindly driving the country into its current predicament.
The country has now defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt ahead of negotiations for an International Monetary Fund bailout, and authorities have pleaded with Sri Lankans abroad to send money home for help alleviate the crisis.
The president has not returned to his office since the protest began over the weekend, and a heightened security presence monitors the camp.
But interactions between police and crowds were jovial and even celebratory, with protesters chatting with officers and sharing traditional New Year’s food and sweets.
“The protesters won’t leave until the government leaves,” said a traffic cop who watched outside the building while sheltering from the scorching morning sun.
“And we can’t go until the two are gone,” he added.