Sri Lanka’s beleaguered government lifted a nationwide curfew to allow the country’s Buddhist majority to observe the festival of Vesak on Sunday, which commemorates the birth, attainment of enlightenment, and mahaparinirvana of the historical Buddha. The authorities announced a two-day holiday for Vesak, without saying whether the curfew would be reimposed afterward.
The authorities put in place stay-at-home order on 9 May after days of deadly clashes that left nine people dead and more than 225 wounded, following attacks by armed government loyalists on peaceful anti-government demonstrators.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the island nation’s history, which has been characterized by record inflation, crippling power cuts, and severe shortages of fuel, food staples, and medicines. The Sri Lankan rupee has become the world’s worst-performing currency, dropping to a historic low in April and even underperforming the Russian ruble. Furthering the crisis, foreign exchange reserves have been depleted by some 70 per cent over the last two years, leaving the country unable to import basic necessities such as food or fuel.
The recent violence resulted in the resignation of prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on 9 May, leaving his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to rule on as president. President Rajapaksa swore in a new prime minister on 12 May and has called on lawmakers to work together to resolve the deepening crisis.
Meanwhile, the country’s new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has held the office on five previous occasions, has begun assembling a cabinet tasked with addressing the economic and political instability. According to media reports, Wickremesinghe has already held meetings with diplomats from China, Britain, India, Japan, and the United States to discuss financial aid. Last week, he forecast that shortages would become worse, with national foreign exchange reserves needed to import essential goods dropping below US$50 million.
While many ordinary Sri Lankans, already hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, are forced to hours waiting in lines in the hope of securing basic daily necessities, a senior Sri Lankan politician earlier warned of the imminent threat of starvation for the South Asian nation’s population of 22 million people, noting that the current turmoil is “just the beginning.” (The Guardian)
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets repeatedly in mass protests, outraged by the economic mismanagement and corruption of successive governments, and in defiance of a curfew order and a state of emergency declared by President Rajapaksa. The people have demanded that Rajapaksa resign and transfer control of their country away from his family, who have ruled Sri Lanka for several decades, to more qualified public servants.
Despite allowing Vesak observances to be held, the government canceled state plans for the festival, which had been scheduled at the ancient Kuragala Buddhist complex in the south of Sri Lanka.
“Given the economic situation of the government and other constraints, we are not having this year’s state festival at the Kuragala temple as planned,” a Buddhist Affairs ministry official explained. The official added that Buddhists were free to conduct their own celebrations, including the mass meditations and Dharma talks traditionally held for the occasion. (France 24)
Buddhism is the state religion of Sri Lanka, which gained independence from British rule in 1948, with 70.2 per cent of the population identifying as Theravada Buddhists, according to census data for 2012. Hindus made up 12.6 per cent of Sri Lankans, while Muslims accounted for 9.7 per cent, Christians 7.4 per cent, and others 0.05 per cent. As the state religion, Buddhism receives special privileges under the constitution, although the constitution also stipulates freedom of religion and right to equality for all citizens.
Curfew lifted for Buddhist festival in crisis-hit Sri Lanka, new PM picks cabinet (Reuters)
Crisis-hit Sri Lanka lifts curfew for Buddhist festival (France 24)
Sri Lanka lifts curfew; president calls on lawmakers to work together (Hindustan Times)
Sri Lanka president brings back five-time former PM in effort to ease crisis (The Guardian)
Sri Lanka facing imminent threat of starvation, senior politician warns (The Guardian)
Related news reports from BDG
Ajahn Brahm Calls for Restraint as Sri Lankans Protest Economic Upheaval