Sri Lanka is facing a fuel crisis. But Canadian Tamil group says sanctions are keeping it from helping
Indian Ocean country has been battling economic crisis, street protests for weeks
Sri Lanka's consul general in Toronto is appealing for financial help as his country grapples with an acute fuel shortage, but a group that represents Canadian Tamils says it can't send badly needed aid because the Sri Lankan government has slapped it with sanctions.
"Sri Lanka is now in a difficult situation, so now we're expecting if the friendly countries can help Sri Lanka on the financial front because we want to re-energize [and] reactivate our economy," Thustara Rodrigo told CBC News Friday at the Sri Lankan Consulate.
Sri Lanka is now almost without gasoline and faces an acute shortage of other fuels as well. The government has been struggling to find money to pay for the importation of fuel, gas and other essentials in recent months as the Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy. A new government was sworn in last month after thousands took to the streets to protest against the economic crisis.
Rodrigo says his country has suffered a series of crises starting with the Easter Sunday bomb attack in 2019, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic — which shuttered the country's factories and forced Sri Lankan labourers who were working in the Middle East to return home after losing their jobs
"We lost all the foreign revenues during those two years because of the COVID. The increasing of the oil prices and some other regional matters made some impact on us," he said.
Rodrigo says Sri Lankans living in Toronto have been contacting the consulate because they want to help. But Ken Kandeepan, a member of the Canadian Tamil Congress advisory board, says the Sri Lankan government has made sending aid difficult.
"The Canadian Tamil Congress co-ordinated a substantial degree of relief at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic … [but] we cannot do that now because under this new government, they placed sanctions on the Canadian Tamil Congress and a number of the other Tamil organizations," Kandeepan said.
"So, we are unable to provide any assistance directly."
It's not clear why the new government would be targeting Tamil organizations abroad. But tensions between the country's Tamil minority and the largely Sinhalese-led government remain high, even though the bloody civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended 13 years ago, dashing the guerrilla group's hopes for an independent homeland.
Kandeepan says the Jaffna teaching hospital has sent out an appeal for medication, including rabies medication, and while his group wants to respond to the appeal, they can't.
"They don't have that medication and we are unable to supply that medication. So, it's very unfortunate that the government has not lifted those sanctions."
Rodrigo denies that there are sanctions. He says while it might be difficult to purchase medication to send to Sri Lanka, individuals and organizations have found a solution.
"No sanctions, there are no sanctions," the consul general said.
"Actually, there's a list given by the health authorities in Colombo. They said these are the medicines that are seriously needed … but it is difficult [for the community] to purchase such items from the pharmacies without the proper prescriptions, and that is the main problem."
Rodrigo says people have been collecting funds, which they send to their contacts in India who then purchase the medications and send them to Sri Lanka.
'A tremendous degree of sadness'
According to Kandeepan, "there is a tremendous degree of sadness and anger" in Sri Lanka.
"They are absolutely mad about this. They think that all of this could have been avoided."
Sri Lankan High Commissioner Harsha Navaratne, who is based in Ottawa, says his country is passing through "a real difficult situation."
But he says some of the shortages are being addressed.
"Two shipments [of gas] were landed and the diesel also coming from Indian assistance. So slowly, some of these areas are addressed," Navaratne told CBC News.
"But still, when it comes to the food and essential medicine items [these] are very much immediate needs. So, we have already discussed with Canadian government and they have already allocated funds for $1 million for essential medication."
Navaratne says there are discussions ongoing with Global Affairs Canada about sending fertilizer, gas and various food items. He says another meeting will be held next Tuesday to discuss some of the areas where Canada and Sri Lanka can work together.
Navaratne says both the high commission in Ottawa and the consulate in Toronto have been communicating with nearly half a million Sri Lankans in Canada.
"We had several rounds of meetings in Toronto and here and they are very much worried about [what's happening in Sri Lanka]," he said.
"They are organizing themselves to do some immediate humanitarian assistance and … we also invite them to send dollars in official funds from Canadian banks. Just use official channels and send as much as possible dollars, because that's the main issue in Sri Lanka."
"So, we are mobilizing the Sri Lankan Canadians here and their organizations to assist in this grave situation back at our former homeland," Navaratne added.
Fuel shortages not new for Tamils
Katpana Nagendra, spokesperson for the GTA-based Tamil Rights Group, says fuel shortages and power outages are not new for the minority Tamil population in Sri Lanka.
"We as a community have been facing this for 30 or 40-odd years with rolling power cuts in the north and east. But for the people of [the capital Colombo], this is new to them," Nagendra said.
"Now the majority Sinhalese population is taking to the streets and is protesting against these shortages and the mismanagement by the Sri Lankan government.
"People may say it's just because of the current economic or COVID-19 crisis, but if you dig a little bit deeper, a lot deeper, you'll see that it is mismanagement of government policies over decades that has led to the situation that we're in today in Sri Lanka," Nagendra added.
Nagendra says people are "feeling very desperate right now" and the immediate need is for fuel, electricity and life-saving medication.
But she says people are also of the feeling that there cannot just be a temporary solution for the economic crisis, such as a financial bailout or help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
"If there is no systematic change fundamentally to the government, an economic solution or a bailout or any of the conditions that the IMF is looking at right now is not going to solve this problem."
With files from The Associated Press