Australia must do all it can to help

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For many Australians, Sri Lanka is associated with cricket or conjures up images of beautiful beaches, hilltop tea plantations and culinary delights. After 2009, when the nearly three-decade-long civil war ended between majority Sinhala and Tamil, the island nation became an economic success story and a popular tourist destination.

This pink image has been replaced by images from the capital, Colombo, showing anti-government protesters occupying the presidential and prime minister’s residences after months of protests. Shortages of food, cooking gas, fuel and life-saving medicine have left many struggling to survive, sparking social unrest and violence sparked by the country’s worst financial crisis since its independence from Great Britain. Britain in 1948.

A protester takes cover after soldiers fired tear gas during street violence in Colombo last week.Credit:Getty Images

Much of the blame for Sri Lanka’s economic collapse is directed at the ruling Rajapaksa family dynasty, which has dominated Sri Lanka’s politics for the past 20 years. The Gotabaya brothers and Mahinda Rajapaksa are credited with ending the civil war, but faced allegations of human rights abuses at the time.

During Mahinda’s presidency from 2005 to 2015, the nation incurred huge debt to develop infrastructure which, overall, brought little or no economic benefit. China has carried out several major projects, such as a new, barely used airport in the home Rajapaksa constituency of Hambantota and a 269-hectare area of ​​reclaimed land in the capital that has been touted as a new financial hub for rival Singapore and Dubai but is still just a building site. Other bad policy decisions have rocked the country, as our correspondent Chris Barrett recently wrote, including populist tax cuts that stripped the government of a quarter of its revenue, followed by an ill-conceived ban and overnight artificial fertilizers which drastically reduced exports. income from agricultural products.

When the pandemic hit, tourism revenues evaporated and the country’s economy stagnated, leaving it with few means to repay the $51 billion it owes overseas. The Sri Lankan rupee fell and inflation rose above 40%. With the nation effectively bankrupt, it was no longer able to purchase essential supplies such as energy and food.

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While the Rajapaksa brothers have been in and out of power, in recent years they have held the two most powerful positions: president and prime minister. Gotabaya was forced to flee the country this month and resigned as president after his residence was overrun by protesters. Mahinda resigned in May as prime minister.

To avert the worst of the economic collapse, several countries have offered financial assistance, including Australia, which last month donated $50 million for urgent medical and food supplies. But he must do more.

The Australian Border Force and the Sri Lankan Navy have arrested at least 10 ships in recent times as Sri Lankans try to flee deteriorating financial conditions. Home Secretary Clare O’Neil visited Sri Lanka last month to meet senior government officials to discuss the fight against human trafficking. O’Neil said Australia would give the Sri Lankan Navy priority access to fuel and was ready to expand intelligence sharing and border protection assistance, including installing tracking devices on more than 4,000 Sri Lankan fishing vessels.

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