Years of growing tensions in Sri Lanka came to a breaking point last week when protesters forced their way into the home of the island’s president - taking over the roof, the rooms and even the pool.
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his home ahead of the anti-government protests and the speaker of Parliament announced that the president would step down Wednesday.
Conflict in Sri Lanka, an island about 900 miles off the coast of India, has been brewing for myriad reasons exacerbated by the pandemic, including a collapse in tourist dollars and recent tax cuts that minimized revenue.
Most recently, the country’s foreign currency shortage and rise in poverty sparked explosive protests.
Saloni Shah is a food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California. Shah focuses on the intersection of technology, the economy and the environment and has written extensively about the origins of the crisis in Sri Lanka.
Shah spoke to ABC News’ “Start Here” podcast on Tuesday about what the most recent developments mean for the Sri Lankan government and the protesters.
START HERE: First off, Saloni, could you give a sense of how widespread these protests were, and how they ended up with people in the president’s pool?
SHAH: Absolutely. You have a worsening economic and humanitarian situation which led to the eruption of massive protests back in March. People were relentlessly protesting for the past several months and these are widespread protests.
Over the weekend, you saw protests escalating to a breaking point.
People were pouring into the streets, confronting police at the point where they've managed to overpower the police and get into the president's official residence. And then we saw these striking images of people ransacking the president's room, swimming in his pool and they really took his home over. They've been increasingly upset with the food shortages and the worsening crisis in the country.
START HERE: Can you describe how all this kind of started, what are the underlying causes for this revolution?
SHAH: This is a tiny island nation that used to have a comfortable middle class. They had reached upper-middle income status a few years ago. But under the Rajapaksa ruling family, the government squandered the country's economy [leading to] potentially decades of financial mismanagement and corruption. Large tax cuts, a binge of infrastructure spending that yielded low-profits are part of the economic backdrop of what's been going on.
But then you have the pandemic, which hit back in 2020 and devastated the country's tourist sector, which is a key source of revenue for the government, which the country uses to buy food and gas and critical and necessary medical supplies.
So without tourist dollars, the country began looking for ways to cut costs.
In April of last year, the government passed an unusual ban on fertilizers and pesticides, along with other import restrictions on motor vehicles.
START HERE: Really, fertilizer? I would not think of that as like the thing that would start a crisis.
SHAH: Absolutely. People don't think of fertilizer as something that would start a crisis. But in fact, 75% of farmers in the country are dependent on fertilizers for key crops like tea and rice. These two crops are really important for both the economy and supporting people's livelihoods, but also food self-sufficiency for a tiny country.
There's hardly any money to import gas, cooking, oil, food [and even] toilet paper.
Middle-class people are forgoing meals because of severe food shortages. Grocery stores are rationing produce because there's not enough. And so agriculture, in some ways, is that backbone, that last sort of defense, against this worsening situation that they're dealing with.
They were projected to save $400 million by cutting these foreign fertilizer purchases. However, they had to import $450 million worth of rice on top of the subsidies for farmers that had suffered crop losses on top of this worsening economic situation. And so there is a complete breakdown in trust. Back in March, you saw people protesting, calling for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who finally resigned after they stormed his official presidential residence.
START HERE: So what’s next for these leaders? What happens next for anyone who tries to step in to govern this country?
SHAH: Because of the enormous breakdown in trust, it’s going to be really hard for that trust to be built back up and it’s going to be very difficult to bring this country out of the financial ruin that it’s in. It’s going to require a restoration in democracy from decades of corruption that this family has brought on.
The country needs $6 billion to stay afloat. And so you're going to need courageous leaders that are committed to democracy, that are committed to evidence-based policymaking to do right by their people.
START HERE: Saloni Shah from the Breakthrough Institute, thank you so much.