Protesters from Sri Lanka mark the New Year near the President’s office

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankans shared rice pudding and oil cakes to celebrate their traditional New Year Thursday opposite the president’s office, where they camped for a sixth day and called for his resignation amid the worst economic crisis on record.

Soldiers disabled in the island nation’s civil war lit a stove, Buddhist monks chanted religious verses, and others set off firecrackers to chants of “Victory to the people’s struggle!”

Demonstrators are occupying the entrance and surroundings of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office, blaming him for the economic situation. They are also demanding that his powerful family step down from power, accusing them of corruption and mismanagement.

“Other days our children go to their grandparents to celebrate the New Year, but today we brought them here to show them the real situation in the country,” said Dilani Niranjala, who is aged with her husband and two sons of 10 and 8 years participated in the protests.

“We don’t want to lie to them about what’s going on in the country and go to our village to celebrate the New Year. From an early age they should see the truth and live with the truth,” she added.

Niranjala’s husband, Usitha Gamage, who works as a taxi driver, said he was discouraged seeing the news of skyrocketing costs of living every morning.

“I’m so happy this fight is happening and it gives me renewed hope and energy,” he said.

“The new year – after we drive them out – is going to be great for us. I told my kids that,” he added.

The people of Sri Lanka have suffered from fuel and food shortages and daily power outages in recent months. Most of these items are paid for in hard currency, but Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy, burdened with dwindling foreign exchange reserves and $25 billion in external debt to be repaid over the next five years. Nearly $7 billion is due this year.

They have been forced to wait in long lines to buy cooking gas, fuel and powdered milk, and doctors have warned state hospitals are facing potentially catastrophic shortages of essential medicines.

Tharushi Nirmani, a 23-year-old student who helped distribute food to protesters, said the movement unites Sri Lankans from different backgrounds.

“For all these years, the New Year has only been celebrated by two ethnic groups – Sinhalese and Tamils ​​- but most of the people who were with us last night were Muslims,” ​​she said, referring to her comrades-in-arms. “There is an amazing togetherness.”

The government announced on Tuesday that it is suspending repayments of foreign debt, including bonds and government bonds, pending the completion of a loan restructuring program with the International Monetary Fund.

The government says the World Bank has provided $10 million to buy essential medicines and equipment, and the health ministry is negotiating additional funds with the World Health Organization and the Asian Development Bank. The government has also appealed to Sri Lankans living and working abroad to donate medicines or money to buy them.

The World Bank on Wednesday said it was concerned about Sri Lanka’s uncertain economic outlook and was working to provide emergency assistance to poor and vulnerable households to help them weather the economic crisis.

Much of the anger expressed in weeks of protests has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, who have held power for most of the past two decades. Critics accuse the family of borrowing heavily from the government to finance projects that have not brought in money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.

The President and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, remain in power despite their politically powerful family being the focus of public anger. The Rajapaksas have refused to step down, but the crisis and ongoing protests have prompted many cabinet members to resign. Four ministers have been sworn in as caretakers, but many key government departments remain vacant.

Parliament failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis after nearly 40 MPs in the ruling coalition said they would no longer vote according to the coalition’s instructions, severely weakening the government.

But as the opposition parties are divided, they have been unable to form a majority to take control of parliament.

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