Sri Lanka’s consul general in Toronto is appealing for financial help as his country grapples with a severe fuel shortage, but a group that represents Canadian Tamils says it cannot send the aid it needs he needs it so much because the Sri Lankan government has hit him with sanctions.
“Sri Lanka is now in a difficult situation, so now we are waiting if friendly countries can help Sri Lanka financially because we want to revitalize [and] reactivate our economy,” Thustara Rodrigo told CBC News on Friday at the Sri Lankan consulate.
Sri Lanka is now almost without gasoline and also faces a severe shortage of other fuels. The government has struggled to find money to pay for the import of fuel, gas and other essentials in recent months as the Indian Ocean island nation teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. A new government was sworn in last month after thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the economic crisis.
Rodrigo says his country has suffered a series of crises beginning with the Easter Sunday bombing in 2019, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic – which shuttered the country’s factories and forced Sri Lankan workers who worked in the Middle East to return home after losing their jobs
“We lost all foreign income in those two years due to COVID. Rising oil prices and other regional issues impacted us,” he said.
Rodrigo says Sri Lankans living in Toronto have contacted the consulate because they want to help. But Tamil Canadian Congress advisory board member Ken Kandeepan says the Sri Lankan government has made it difficult to send aid.
“The Canadian Tamil Congress coordinated a substantial degree of relief at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic… [but] we cannot do it now because under this new government they have imposed sanctions on the Canadian Tamil Congress and a number of other Tamil organizations,” Kandeepan said.
“We are therefore unable to provide direct assistance.”
It is unclear why the new government would target Tamil organizations overseas. But tensions between the country’s Tamil minority and the majority Sinhalese-led government remain high, even though the bloody civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended 13 years ago, dashing the hopes of the guerrilla group from an independent homeland.
Kandeepan says Jaffna University Hospital has appealed for medicine, including rabies medication, and although his group wants to respond to the appeal, they cannot.
“They don’t have these drugs and we are not able to provide them with these drugs. So it is very unfortunate that the government has not lifted these sanctions.”
Rodrigo denies there are penalties. He says that while it can be difficult to buy medicine to send to Sri Lanka, individuals and organizations have found a solution.
“No sanctions, there are no sanctions,” the consul general said.
“In fact, there is a list given by the health authorities in Colombo. They said that these are the drugs that are badly needed… but it is difficult [for the community] buy such items from pharmacies without the proper prescriptions, and that is the main problem.”
Rodrigo says people collect funds which they send to their contacts in India who then buy the drugs and send them to Sri Lanka.
“An immense degree of sadness”
According to Kandeepan, “there is an enormous degree of sadness and anger” in Sri Lanka.
“They are absolutely mad about it. They think this whole thing could have been avoided.”
Sri Lankan High Commissioner Harsha Navaratne, who is based in Ottawa, says his country is going through “a really difficult situation”.
But he says some of the shortages are being resolved.
“Two deliveries [of gas] were landed and the diesel also coming from the Indian assistance. So slowly, some of these areas are being addressed,” Navaratne told CBC News.
“But still, when it comes to food and essential medicines [these] are very immediate needs. So we have already discussed with the Canadian government and they have already allocated funds for 1 million dollars for essential drugs. »
Navaratne says discussions are ongoing with Global Affairs Canada about sending fertilizers, gasoline and various food items. He said another meeting will be held next Tuesday to discuss some of the areas where Canada and Sri Lanka can work together.
Navaratne says the high commission in Ottawa and the consulate in Toronto have contacted nearly half a million Sri Lankans in Canada.
“We’ve had several rounds of meetings in Toronto and here and they’re very concerned [what’s happening in Sri Lanka],” he said.
“They are arranging to provide immediate humanitarian aid and…we also urge them to send dollars in official funds from Canadian banks. Just use official channels and send as many dollars as possible because that is the main problem in Sri Lanka.”
“So we are mobilizing Sri Lankan Canadians here and their organizations to help with this grave situation in our ancient homeland,” Navaratne added.
Fuel shortages are nothing new for Tamils
Katpana Nagendra, spokesperson for the GTA-based Tamil Rights Group, says fuel shortages and power outages are nothing new for the minority Tamil population in Sri Lanka.
“As a community, we have been dealing with this for 30 or 40 years with power cuts in the north and east. But for the people of [the capital Colombo]it’s new for them,” Nagendra said.
“Now the predominantly Sinhalese population is taking to the streets and protesting against these shortages and the mismanagement of the Sri Lankan government.
“People can say it’s just because of the current economic crisis or the COVID-19 crisis, but if you dig a little deeper, much deeper, you’ll see it’s the mismanagement of policies. over the decades that led to the situation we are in today in Sri Lanka,” added Nagendra.
Nagendra says people are “feeling very desperate right now” and the immediate need is for fuel, electricity and life-saving medicine.
But she says people also feel there can’t be a temporary solution to the economic crisis, like a financial bailout or help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“If there is no systematic fundamental change in government, an economic solution or a bailout or any of the conditions that the IMF is considering right now will not solve this problem.”