Healthcare workers shout in a march during the national strike and protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 28, 2022. Image Credit: Bloomberg

COLOMBO: Many schools in Colombo were shut and several train stations deserted on Thursday as teachers and train drivers joined mass walkouts demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government quit over Sri Lanka’s worst financial crisis in decades.

Hundreds of employees from Sri Lankan state-run banks, most wearing black and carrying black flags, also joined other bank trade unions in a protest march to the presidents office as thousands of people took to the streets around the country.

The pandemic, rising oil prices, populist tax cuts and rapidly dwindling foreign currency reserves have left Sri Lanka without enough dollars to pay for vital imports of fuel, food and medicine. Sometimes violent street demonstrations have erupted this month as shortages and power cuts became acute.

“This government has ruined our country. Costs are increasing every day, businesses are closing, and people have no way to live. There is no fuel, when we go home there is no electricity and no cooking gas to make meals,” said Samanthi Ekanayake, 34 who works as a teller at a state-run bank. “We are tired of broken promises.”

The country’s trade union leaders have threatened an ongoing strike from May 6 if the president and the government do not resign.

Rajapaksa this week reiterated his willingness to form an interim government with a new prime minister and cabinet.

However, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is his elder brother, has declined to step down and insisted he continues to have a majority in the 225-member parliament.

Meanwhile, two Opposition parties, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have started the process to bring no-confidence motions against the president and prime minister in parliament.

“Political instability will only make it more difficult to provide solutions to the financial crisis. So it is imperative a strong government with a clear majority is established in parliament and the government is working towards this goal,” Cabinet spokesman Nalaka Godahewa said.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy with huge foreign debts and a lack of foreign currency, causing shortages of imported essential goods like fuel and food.

Protesters who have crowded the streets since March 31 hold President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family _ who have dominated nearly every aspect of life in Sri Lanka for most of the last 20 years _ responsible for the crisis.

Sri Lanka earlier suspended repayment on its foreign debts, $7 billion of which was due this year. It has foreign reserves of less than $1 billion, depleting available foreign currency. The resulting shortages of imported essentials like fuel, cooking gas, medicine and milk left people standing in lines for hours to buy limited stock.

Government officials have blamed Russia’s war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic for the debt crisis and say they have been discussing rescue plans and loan repayment with the International Monetary Fund, Chinese officials and others.

Rajapaksa reshuffled his Cabinet and offered a unity government in an attempt to quell protests, but opposition parties refused to be part of a government headed by the Rajapaksa brothers. The weak, divided opposition has been unable to show a majority and take control of Parliament on its own.