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Protests in Sri Lanka have turned violent amid power, food and medicine shortages

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Sri Lanka is in crisis. There are power blackouts and food shortages. Protests have turned violent. Amid this turmoil, last week, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned. His younger brother, Gotabaya, remains president.

Here to walk us through what's going on is journalist Sulochana Ramiah Mohan. She joins us from Wattala, Sri Lanka. Sulochana, welcome.

SULOCHANA RAMIAH MOHAN: Thank you very much.

FLORIDO: What are the conditions on the ground where you are? What are you seeing?

MOHAN: Things are not so great, although the curfew is imposed. People are struggling. Even during the curfew times, there were people gathered near fuel station for gas. The energy crisis is so huge here right now.

FLORIDO: Tell me about some of the violence. How bad did it get?

MOHAN: The violence went out of hand. In fact, they took everybody in surprise because there were these 2,000 people who are the fans of the prime minister. And they gathered at his official residence, and they started marching towards - in thousands towards the peaceful protest that was going on in the city of Colombo. And they destroyed those tents and the people who were gathered there, the priests, the monks. And they started hitting them so badly, and they ran helter-skelter.

These people, the protesters in Colombo caught them. They were so angry that the prime minister had instigated this violence, so they charged at his residence, and they set fire to the main gate of the prime minister's official residence. And then it turned out to be extremely bad. And they started attacking the current government. Nearly 36 government politicians' residence, offices and some hotels were all set on fire within overnight.

FLORIDO: Well, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week tried to quell a lot of this tension by finally accepting the resignation of his brother, the prime minister, and bringing in a former prime minister. Who is this new prime minister? And do you think that this move will help to ease some of this tension?

MOHAN: He's not a new face to the political scene - platform here. He was the five-times prime minister. And he's a very, very intelligent man. He is an economist himself, highly qualified. He knows his history. He knows the geopolitics. But this prime minister is a very close friend of the Rajapaksas, so this is why the people are opposing even the new prime minister.

FLORIDO: Sri Lanka had been an economic success story until just a few years ago. Walk us through what happened. When did the economic situation really start to decline?

MOHAN: The tourism was booming. Then the pandemic came in. It was a very bad situation and very unfortunate that Sri Lanka had to face the pandemic just while we were reviving tourism and the economy. And with the debt crisis that was already there, we didn't have single dollar left in the country. So this is the scenario that happened just about three months ago, when there was no dollar in the country for goods for Sri Lanka because we didn't have dollar to pay.

FLORIDO: So how do you think Sri Lanka can start to recover from all this?

MOHAN: This country is penniless. There is no money at the treasury. There is no money to buy food. There is no money to buy fuel. And people are starving. Even in my house, we don't have milk, and we are drinking just black tea these days. So everybody is alarmed and agitated and furious. And that's why the protest is continuing - because we have not found a solution.

Only solution is that we are getting some loans that has been awarded by the Indian government. And at the same time, the government has approached the International Monetary Fund, and there, we are speculating that we will get about 4 billion rupees. And all what we are doing right now is we are eating from the money that is lent to us. There is nothing other than that. This prime minister who has been appointed yesterday has to perform miracle to revive the economy.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with journalist Sulochana Ramiah Mohan. She's a journalist in Sri Lanka. Thanks for speaking with us, and thank you for covering this story.

MOHAN: Thank you, Adrian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.