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Sri Lankans protest near president’s residence

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Sri Lanka police fired tear gas and a water canon to disperse several hundred people protesting near the private residence of the country’s president

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka police fired tear gas and a water canon to disperse several hundred people protesting Thursday near the private residence of the country’s president, against the economic hardships faced by them.

Protestors demonstrated, shouted slogans condemning the long power cuts and shortages of essentials , along the roads leading to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Mirihana, on the outskirt of the capital Colombo.

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A foreign exchange crunch in Sri Lanka has led to a shortage of essential goods such as fuel and cooking gas, and power cuts now last up to 13 hours a day.

Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves are dwindling at a time when it faces huge debt obligations. The country’s struggle to pay for imports has caused shortages of medicine, fuel, milk powder, cooking gas and other essentials, with people waiting in long queues to get fuel.

Residents are enduring daily power cuts due to a shortage of fuel to operate the generating plants and dry weather has sapped hydropower capacity.

Sri Lanka’s economic woes are blamed on successive governments not diversifying exports and relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to Sri Lanka’s economy, with the government estimating a loss of $14 billion in the last two years.

Sri Lanka also has a severe foreign debt problem after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around $7 billion for this year alone.

According to the Central Bank, inflation rose to 17.5% in February from 16.8% a month earlier. The numbers are expected to rise even further in the coming months because the government has allowed the local currency to float freely, resulting in higher prices for fuel and other goods.

Separately on Thursday, the country’s Catholic bishops called for unity among the country’s politicians, warning that the island is fast becoming a failed state amid its most severe economic crisis in memory.

“All successive governments to date are responsible in varying degree for the present state of affairs,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka said in a statement, adding that “the present government as well as those in the opposition … must adopt a conciliatory not a confrontational approach” and they should not “play the blame game.”

“The country is fast approaching the precipice of a failed state that will in its wake inflict irreversible injuries on the people,” the statement added.

The bishops called on Catholic institutions and individuals to provide assistance to the most affected groups.

Roman Catholics comprise about 6% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, while the majority Buddhist Sinhalese make up more than 70%. Though small in numbers, the church has traditionally been active and vocal in social issues as well as in education, welfare and the arts. Church officials are generally influential and respected by the country’s leaders, who are mostly Buddhists.

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