Sri Lankan authorities lifted a nationwide curfew on Sunday for an important Buddhist festival, but celebrations were muted as the island nation’s new premier struggled to find his footing and tackle a worsening economic crisis.
A countrywide stay-home order has been in place for most of the week after mob violence left nine dead and over 225 wounded, sparked by attacks on peaceful demonstrators by government loyalists.
Protesters across the Buddhist-majority nation have for weeks demanded the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over Sri Lanka’s worst-ever economic crisis.
Shortages of food, fuel and medicines, along with record inflation and lengthy blackouts, have brought severe hardships to the country’s 22 million people.
Sunday marks Vesak, the most important religious event on Sri Lanka’s calendar, which celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
The government has declared a two-day holiday and announced it was lifting the curfew for the day without saying when or whether it would be reimposed.
But the ongoing crisis prompted the government to cancel its plans to celebrate the festival, which had been scheduled at a temple in the island’s south.
“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 told AFP.
The official said Buddhists were free to hold their own celebrations, including the mass meditation and Buddhist sermons traditionally organized during the festival.
Worshippers usually set up soup kitchens, lanterns and “pandal” bamboo stages bearing large paintings depicting stories from Buddha’s life.
But Sri Lanka has been unable to properly stage Vesak for years, with the Easter Sunday attacks dampening celebrations in 2019 and the last two years affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everybody knows that it is Lord Buddha’s special day today,” said Chamila Perera, a housewife in the capital Colombo.
“We are hoping good things will happen,” she told AFP. “But I’m feeling very sad.”
Newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is struggling to form a unity government ahead of Tuesday’s parliamentary session, the first since he took office.
Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa has already formally rejected an overture to join the new administration.
“The demand from the streets is that President Rajapaksa should step down,” Premadasa said. “We will not join any government with him in it.”
But he added that his party would not block legitimate “solutions to the economic problems” in parliament.
Rajapaksa on Saturday appointed four new ministers, all from his own Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, but the all-important finance ministry remains vacant.
Official sources said the new prime minister could take the finance portfolio to spearhead ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for an urgent bailout.
Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician who was sworn in as prime minister for a sixth time on Thursday, has already met with diplomats from Britain, the United States, Japan, China and India to seek financial aid.
He said last week that shortages will get worse in the coming weeks, with reserves of usable foreign exchange needed to import essential goods falling below $50 million.
His appointment has so far failed to quell public anger at the government for bringing Sri Lanka to the brink of economic collapse.
“All these people are hand-in-glove,” Fareena, a resident of the capital Colombo, said of the new premier.
“When one goes, they bring another one of their guys in,” she told AFP. “But to us, they are all the same.”
Long queues stretched outside the few fuel stations that were still open on Sunday as motorists waited for rationed petrol.
Heavily armed troops are patrolling the streets with a state of emergency still in effect.