Bankrupt Sri Lanka closes schools and government services

University students shout slogans during a protest march, calling for the resignation of the president over his alleged failure to tackle the economic crisis, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2022. Chamila Karunarathne, EPA-EFE/file

Sri Lanka closed schools and halted all non-essential government services on Monday, beginning a two-week shutdown to conserve rapidly depleting fuel supplies as the International Monetary Fund opened talks with Colombo over a possible bailout .

The country of 22 million people is in the grip of its worst economic crisis after running out of dollars to finance even the most essential imports, including fuel.

On Monday, schools were closed and state offices worked with reduced staff as part of the government’s plans to reduce travel and save precious petrol and diesel. Hospitals and the main seaport in Colombo were still functioning.

Hundreds of thousands of motorists remained in mile-long queues for gasoline and diesel, even though the Department of Energy announced they will not have new fuel stocks for at least least three days.

The country defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in April and went to the IMF.

The first in-person talks with the IMF over Sri Lanka’s bailout request began in Colombo on Monday and will continue for 10 days, the lender and the government said in brief statements.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was also due to meet Australian Home Secretary Clare O’Neil to “deepen cooperation and assist Sri Lanka as the country goes through very difficult economic times,” Canberra said in a statement.

He said O’Neil will also discuss strengthening the commitment against transnational crime, including human trafficking following an increase in the number of potential illegal immigrants by boat over the past month.

Sri Lanka is facing record inflation and long blackouts, all of which have contributed to months of protests – sometimes violent – calling on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.

Police arrested 21 student activists who blocked all doors of the presidential secretariat building after declaring Rajapaksa’s 73rd birthday on Monday a “day of mourning”.

The shutdown order came last week as the United Nations launched its emergency response to feed thousands of pregnant women facing food shortages.

Four out of five people in Sri Lanka have started skipping meals because they cannot afford to eat, the UN has said, warning of a ‘serious humanitarian crisis’ looming with millions in need of food. assistance.

Ashley C. Reynolds