COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka ordered troops to petrol stations yesterday as sporadic protests erupted among the thousands of motorists queueing up daily for scarce fuel.
The South Asian island nation is grappling with its worst economic meltdown since independence in 1948, with rolling electricity blackouts and essential goods such as food and cooking gas also in short supply.
Authorities said soldiers were deployed after angry crowds blocked a busy street in Colombo and held up traffic for hours because they were unable to buy kerosene oil on Monday.
“Tempers are getting frayed as queues get longer,” a top defence official told AFP on condition of anonymity. “A decision was made last night to call out soldiers to reinforce the police. This is to discourage any unrest.”
Footage of Monday’s incident shared on social media showed a group of angry women blockading a coach carrying tourists to protest shortages of kerosene needed for cooking stoves.
The troop call also follows the stabbing murder of a motorcyclist by another driver after a dispute over his place in a long queue for fuel outside the capital.
Three elderly people have dropped dead at fuel queues since last Saturday, police said, adding that numerous petrol stations saw people camping overnight to wait for diesel and gasoline purchases. Military officials said soldiers were deployed at pumping stations of the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corp, which accounts for two-thirds of the fuel retail business in the nation of 22 million people.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office announced a summit of all political parties last Wednesday to discuss the economic crisis, but opposition groups said they planned to boycott the meeting.
Sri Lanka’s financial crisis stems from a critical shortfall of foreign currency, leaving traders unable to finance imports. The Covid-19 pandemic throttled the island’s tourism sector – a key foreign exchange earner – and remittances from Sri Lankans working overseas have also declined sharply.
Rajapaksa announced last week that the country will seek an International Monetary Fund bailout.
Shortages have wrought havoc on almost every aspect of daily life, with authorities last week postponing term tests for millions of students because of a lack of paper and ink.