Winnipeggers rally to support Sri Lankans, who face worst economic crisis in decades

As Sri Lanka grapples with its worst economic and political crisis in decades, some Sri Lankans living in Winnipeg are rallying to send support back home.

'People cannot afford to buy the basic necessities,' says Sri Lankan studying at University of Manitoba

Dozens of protesters rallied near the Manitoba Legislature on April 9, 2022, calling for an end to alleged corruption by the government in Sri Lanka, which they blame for the country's economic crisis. (Shenaly Kuluppuarachchi)

As Sri Lanka grapples with its worst economic and political crisis in decades, some Winnipeggers are rallying to send support back home.

The situation in the South Asian country escalated on Monday, as Sri Lanka's prime minister resigned, setting off violent attacks on peaceful protesters in the capital, Colombo. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa was just one member of a political dynasty that includes his brother. Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains in power as president, but many are demanding he step down as well, including some Sri Lankans living in Winnipeg.

Shenaly Kuluppuarachchi is studying global political economics at the University of Manitoba. She misses her parents, whom she hasn't seen since before the pandemic, but the situation back home doesn't make for safe travel.

"We cannot focus on our day-to-day tasks," said Kuluppuarachchi. "The first thing I do is call my mom and find out if they're OK, when I wake up in the morning."

University of Manitoba student Shenaly Kuluppuarachchi is worried about her loved ones in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as the nation is gripped by an economic crisis and political unrest. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Her parents live in Colombo, a city now in crisis. Protesters were attacked this week by government supporters, with 23 sent to hospital. 

The protesters had camped outside the president's and prime minister's offices for a month, calling on them to resign.

Mahinda Rajapaksa's resignation Monday triggered violence and fires at politicians' homes.

WATCH | Sri Lankan PM resigns on Monday following protests:

Sri Lankan prime minister resigns after protests over economic crisis

3 months ago
Duration 2:02
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has resigned following weeks of protests demanding that he and his brother, the president, step down over the country's worst economic crisis in decades.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency last Friday, allowing him to authorize detentions, property seizure and the search of any premises.

He can also change or suspend any law in the interests of public security and for the maintenance of essential supplies. 

In Winnipeg, Kuluppuarachchi has been glued to the powerful online images of tanks and troops patrolling the streets of Colombo.

"I also saw the police and forces randomly shooting to disperse crowds, which I don't think is right," said the 25-year-old. "It's a basic violation of human rights."

A Sri Lankan government supporter carries a national flag after attacking the anti-government protesters outside president's office in Colombo on Monday, May 9. Government supporters attacked protesters who had been camped outside the offices of Sri Lanka's president and prime minster, calling on the president to step down over the country's worst economic crisis in memory. (Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

Kuluppuarachchi has helped organize recent protests here in Manitoba, including one at the legislature in April. She said she's proud to support Sri Lankans standing up in Colombo, including her parents.

They run a grocery store and are dealing first-hand with the shortages that sent Sri Lanka into crisis. The island nation imports much of its supplies, but its economy has practically collapsed.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad.

Inflation surged to 18.7 per cent in March, driven in part by a lack of hard currency, and it continued to rise in April, with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka reporting the consumer price index went up to 29.8 per cent in April, with food inflation at 46.6 per cent that month.

The protesters who have crowded the streets in Sri Lanka since March say the former prime minister and his family — who have dominated nearly every aspect of life in Sri Lanka for most of the last 20 years — are to blame for the economic crisis.

"The cost of living is skyrocketing," said Kuluppuarachchi. "And then there was a huge drop in the sales, which has affected my parents."

She said many of her parent's customers are in need of dry milk powder, a staple in a country with a hot climate and little refrigeration.

"People cannot afford to buy the basic necessities, and then there are no basic necessities available."

Kuluppuarachchi hasn't seen her family since before the pandemic and calls her parents in Sri Lanka every morning, as the country deals with political unrest. (Shenaly Kuluppuarachchi)

Medical supplies are also in short supply. The Sri Lankan Association of Manitoba is raising money for equipment and medication.

"If we could save at least a few lives at this difficult time, I think that's the best we could do," said Vajira Pathirana, the association's president.

With an estimated 800 Sri Lankan families now living in Winnipeg,  Pathirana says his association is considering a meeting for people in the community grappling with the unrest back home.

"This affects pretty much everyone, no matter what race, what religion, what language we speak," he said. "Everyone is in this together."

Sri Lankan Association of Manitoba President Vajira Pathirana is co-ordinating fundraising to send money back home for medical supplies and basic necessities. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The Sri Lankan Association of Manitoba continues to collect funds to help Sri Lankans struggling to get by.

Pathirana said the group has raised about $8,000 to help Sri Lankans deal with COVID-19, and more than $1,000 to help during the current crisis, but they haven't yet reached out to the greater Winnipeg community.

Winnipeggers rally to support Sri Lankans

3 months ago
Duration 2:02
Sri Lanka is in political turmoil, grappling with its worst economic crisis in decades. This week, peaceful protesters were attacked and the prime minister resigned. All of it is weighing on Sri Lankans in Winnipeg.


Emily Brass is a journalist at CBC Manitoba and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, U.K.