Sri Lanka trade unions strike to pressure president to step down

Sri Lanka trade unions strike to pressure president to step down
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, and his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Kelaniya Buddhist temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aug. 9, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 April 2022

Sri Lanka trade unions strike to pressure president to step down

Sri Lanka trade unions strike to pressure president to step down
  • Workers say they will stage a larger protest on May 6 if their demands are unmet
  • Island nation is about to default on its debts amid worst economic crisis since independence

COLOMBO: Most Sri Lankan businesses and schools were closed, and public transport was interrupted on Thursday as workers joined a general strike calling for the president to step down over the island’s growing economic and political crisis.

Angry over skyrocketing inflation, stalled imports of fuel, medicines and food, and hours of daily power cuts, people across Sri Lanka have been protesting since last month, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government.

The United Trade Unions and Mass Organizations, which represents public and private sector workers’ groups, said in a statement on Wednesday that it was seeking the removal of the government, which had made “life difficult for the general public.”

Bankers, teachers, public transport workers and other professionals arrived at the main protest site next to the president’s office in the capital Colombo, where demonstrators have gathered for weeks.

“Today we embarked on a one-day token strike. We are made up of employees from 54 banking organizations,” Channa Dissanayake, president of the Ceylon Bank Employees Union, told Arab News.

“What began as an economic breakdown became a political breakdown, and now has become a social breakdown. The newly appointed governor of the central bank has temporarily halted debt servicing. Although no one wants to say it, what this means is that we are bankrupt. What is there left to talk about? We absolutely need a reformation.”

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948 and is about to default on its debts. The country of 22 million has suspended repayment on its foreign debts, $7 billion of which was due this year, and currently has foreign reserves of less than $1 billion.

Government officials say they have been discussing rescue plans and loan repayment with the International Monetary Fund.

According to bankers, it is too late.

“This is a great tragedy that has unfolded in the country. Economists warned for a long time that this would happen, but they didn’t listen. Economists said to go to the IMF, but they didn’t. Now everything has broken down,” Dissanayake said.

“As a responsible trade union, we have stepped in to say we want a system change.”

Medical workers also joined the strike, but did not suspend their services.

“Although we have decided not to stop work today, we are picketing and demonstrating, and are fully in support of trade union action,” Dr. Naveen De Soyza, assistant secretary to the Government Medical Officers Association, told Arab News.

Doctors went on strike only for two hours during their lunch break.

“The only reason we didn’t stop work is because it is the patients who will suffer. They are already facing shortages of medicines and other supplies. But if the government doesn’t listen to the people, we will have to consider the next option and make a hard decision,” De Soyza said.

“The government should listen to what the people are saying. The people want the government to step down.”

Striking unions have announced they will stage a larger protest on May 6 if their demands are unmet.

Rajapaksa reshuffled his Cabinet and offered a unity government in a bid to quell protests, but opposition parties refused to be part of a setup headed by the president and his brother.

The Rajapaksas are the country’s most influential political dynasty. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda, is serving as prime minister, while the younger brother, Basil, was finance minister until he resigned earlier this month.


Sri Lanka PM warns of looming food crisis

Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
Updated 21 May 2022

Sri Lanka PM warns of looming food crisis

Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
  • Last year’s ban on chemical fertilizer has affected rice production in the country
  • Island nation unable to pay for essential imports as it faces worst financial slump in decades

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s prime minister warned on Friday of looming food shortages, with the country unable to secure fertilizer for rice cultivation amid a devastating economic crisis.

The island nation of 22 million people is facing acute shortages not only of food, but also medicines and fuel, as its budget deficit climbs to $6.8 billion, or 13 percent of gross domestic product, leaving essential imports out of reach.

Denial of food security in the country cannot be taken by the common man, and it can lead to a severe uprising.

Dayan Jayatillake, Former ambassador

Many in Sri Lanka can hardly afford three meals a day, with the price of some essential food items, such as rice, having risen by 300 percent since the beginning of the year, according to the central bank’s estimates from April.

The country has already defaulted on its debts after missing a deadline for foreign debt repayments on Wednesday. The following day, it ran out of petrol, with no money coming and fuel ships remaining anchored offshore.

A man celebrates as a truck carrying domestic cooking gas cylinders arrives for distribution in Colombo on Friday amid Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. (Reuters)

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office after his predecessor resigned last week, said the looming food crisis was due to a lack of fertilizer for agricultural production.

“From August there is the possibility of a food crisis in Sri Lanka,” he said in a statement, adding that it remains to be seen how the county will survive.

“As Sri Lanka has not had fertilizer for cultivation, the coming rice cultivation season will not have the full production.”

A decision in April last year by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban all chemical fertilizer has led to a fall in crop yields. Although the ban was lifted a few months later, no substantial imports have taken place.

The situation is compounded by the war in Ukraine, a leading global exporter of grain.

“The shortage of food in the country is likely not only because of the local production but also due to the scarcity of imports, which were affected by the Ukrainian war,” Prof. Palitha Weerakkody, from the Department of Crop Science of the University of Peradeniya, told Arab News.

“Rice is the staple food here and there will be around 30 percent reduction in its harvest in July since the farmers have not got their imported inputs to boost their cultivation.”

Dayan Jayatillake, Sri Lanka’s former envoy to the UN in Geneva, said the anticipated food crisis will be the “greatest tragedy in the annals of Sri Lanka.”

Jayatillake told Arab News: “The ban on chemical fertilizers has jeopardized not only the paddy cultivation but also our tea plantation, which is our cash crop. Our dollar income from the export of tea is also dwindling.”

He said:  “Denial of food security in the country cannot be taken by the common man, and it can lead to a severe uprising.”

Sri Lanka’s devastating economic crisis — the worst since independence in 1948 — has triggered widespread demonstrations across the country since March, with protesters demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa and his family, whom they blame for the worsening situation.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s elder brother, quit as prime minister on May 9, after clashes between government supporters and protesters left nine people dead and almost 300 injured.

 


International Muslim History Month returns to shed light on pioneers and sees quadrupled participation

(Twitter: @muslimhistorym)
(Twitter: @muslimhistorym)
Updated 21 May 2022

International Muslim History Month returns to shed light on pioneers and sees quadrupled participation

(Twitter: @muslimhistorym)
  • The organization told Arab News that the event, which is geared toward schools, universities, workplaces, businesses, organizations, and social settings, is a celebration for everyone, irrespective of ethnicity or religious backgrounds

LONDON: An annual initiative that celebrates Muslim accomplishments throughout history and confronts Islamophobia globally through education has grown significantly in popularity, with social media engagement quadrupling in just a year, organizers said.

International Muslim History Month, which was established by the New York-based World Hijab Day organization in 2021 and runs throughout May, aims to acknowledge and raise awareness of the Muslim trailblazers who helped to shape humanity.

The organization told Arab News that the event, which is geared toward schools, universities, workplaces, businesses, organizations, and social settings, is a celebration for everyone, irrespective of ethnicity or religious backgrounds.

BACKGROUND

International Muslim History Month, which was established by the New York-based World Hijab Day organization in 2021 and runs throughout May, aims to acknowledge and raise awareness of the Muslim trailblazers who helped to shape humanity.

More than 26 countries participated in the inaugural IMHM 12 months ago but this year the number has increased significantly, WHD said, with more individuals, organizations, businesses, and educational institutions taking part.

“In addition, we have seen a rise in awareness of IMHM on social media by individuals and academics, (and) our reach on social media has quadrupled from last year,” it added.

The organization — which founded World Hijab Day, held on Feb. 1 each year to spread awareness of the hijab and why it is worn — said its goal was for IMHM to be federally recognized nationwide within the US, and internationally, to help tackle Islamophobia worldwide.

New York adopted a resolution to recognize the month on May 4, 2021, “to pay tribute to those who foster ethnic pride and enhance the profile of cultural diversity which strengthens the fabrics of the communities of the New York State,” Andrew Cuomo, the governor at the time, said.

WHD has been calling on legislators worldwide to do the same. It is also urging individuals, organizations, and educational institutions to get involved and help raise awareness of the campaign.

The ways in which Muslims and non-Muslims can participate include social media engagement, petitioning government officials to recognize May as International Muslim History Month, supporting a Muslim business or donating to a Muslim organization, reading a biography of an influential Muslim figure and sharing their story, or calling out discrimination and prejudice against Muslims within their community.

The theme of this year’s event focuses on Muslim pioneers from the Golden Age to modern times in four categories: medicine; STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics); liberal arts; and discovery, including inventors, explorers, and innovators. Conferences have been organized each week to raise awareness of significant figures in these fields.

“In the first conference, the presenters discussed the examples of Ibn Sina, the father of early modern medicine, from the Golden Age, to Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci, the creators of BioNTech, a company focused on making personalized cancer vaccines,” WHD said. In partnership with Pfizer, BioNTech also developed a vaccine for COVID-19.

Other notable Muslims that were highlighted this year include 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, sixth-century Arab poet Imru’ Al-Qais, Pakistani-American neurosurgeon Dr. Ayub Ommaya, Palestinian-Jordanian molecular biologist Dr. Rana Dajani, Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, Turkish astronomer Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil, among dozens of others.

WHD has also partnered with different organizations including Majlis Ash-Shoura: Islamic Leadership Council of New York, an umbrella organization that represents more than 90 mosques and organizations.

“In the last two decades, Muslims in general have been painted negatively especially in the media,” the organization’s founder and chief executive officer, Nazma Khan, said.

Growing up in New York, she pointed out that her driving factor had been noticing the “minimal to no inclusion of Muslim-Islamic history across the general school curriculum.”


Fears abound at Afghanistan’s largest bird market that swansong is nearing

A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 20 May 2022

Fears abound at Afghanistan’s largest bird market that swansong is nearing

A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
  • Kah Faroshi, also Kabul’s oldest such market, sells thousands of species from around the world
  • Few Afghans can now afford the traditional pastime of bird fighting or to keep songbirds as pets

KABUL: Mohammad Zahir was sitting alone at his shop at the Kah Faroshi market in the heart of Kabul’s old city, surrounded by parrots, partridges, quails and other birds that used to attract crowds.

Not long ago, visitors would throng to the oldest bird market in the Afghan capital, where entering the narrow, congested lanes was like a journey two centuries back, to the city’s corners untouched by war.

But now the people are gone, as few can afford the traditional pastime of bird fighting, or to keep songbirds as pets.

For Zahir, who in the good times would earn as much as $70 a day, business has almost dried up.

“Sometimes, I don’t make any sales for several days,” he told Arab News.

An Afghan woman stands in front of a shop at Kah Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)

“I get embarrassed when beggars come to my door and ask for help, but I am not able to give them something as I don’t make any money.”

The 53-year-old — a former member of the national football team — started working at the market under the first Taliban regime, in power from 1996-2001. He said he was even briefly imprisoned during their rule for disobeying a ban on bird fighting, an ancient Afghan sport.

As the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last year, it is not the prospect of the ban being re-imposed that affects his sales, Zahir said, but a financial crisis that came with international sanctions slapped on the country since their return.

“The Taliban are not eating anyone,” he said.

“It’s the economic challenges that hinder people from continuing their hobby.”

Kah Faroshi, also the largest bird market in the country, sells thousands of kinds of birds from around the world, ranging in price from as little as $1 to as much as $1,000.

Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, it would see visitors come from across the country, as well as foreigners for whom it was a colorful tourist attraction, and a perfect background for social media posts.

“We had good sales every day before the economic situation worsened,” Mohammad Shafi, another seller, said.

“Now, we don’t make any sales on some days.”

The future of the market, which has outlived all Afghan governments, is now uncertain.

For Mohammed Marouf, who has been selling birds for nearly six decades, its downfall would end hopes that good times could return.

“I was seven when I started working at this shop with my father,” he said.

“I had the most comfortable life in the old Kabul.”

His sales have already been affected by the economic crisis, but his main customers — men who buy quails, partridges, cocks, and canaries for fighting — still allow him to stay afloat.

If a ban on the sport takes effect, he knows the business, into which he has already brought his three sons, would practically disappear.

“We will continue until it’s banned,” he said, closely inspecting the beak of a quail. “The day it’s banned, it’s banned.”

 

Related


Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways
Updated 20 May 2022

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways
  • The inhabitants of two of the blocks, which sit barely 100 metres apart across an overgrown lot, could be living in different worlds
  • Across the lot, where abandoned cats nose through the long grass and children once played around a set of rusting swings, the contrast in the conditions could not be more stark

SLATYNE, Ukraine: The only 10 residents left in the Commune, an apartment complex in the eastern Ukraine town of Slatyne, share the hardships of Russia’s invasion, from relentless shellfire and exploding rounds to a lack of power and running water.
But the inhabitants of two of the blocks, which sit barely 100 meters apart across an overgrown lot, could be living in different worlds.
Inside Vera Filipova’s gloomy, grimy home, blackened pots litter the messy kitchen and rumpled comforters sit on unkempt beds.
“It’s like hell,” the 65-year-old retired shop clerk told Reuters. She lives with her friend Nataliya Parkamento, a former shoe factory worker who moved in after her own home was destroyed.
This block is largely intact — unlike many buildings in Slatyne, the Commune has escaped a direct hit from the nearby fighting of a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has driven Russian troops away from the city of Kharkiv over the last two weeks.
But Filipova and Parkamento only have enough humanitarian aid to eat once a day. They cook outside on an open fire of shattered wood they pull from other destroyed homes, shielding the flames from rain with corrugated cement sheeting blown off a roof.
“I have nowhere to go and nobody to take me out of here,” said Parkamento, who fetches drinking water in a plastic bottle from a nearby well.
Across the lot, where abandoned cats nose through the long grass and children once played around a set of rusting swings, the contrast in the conditions could not be more stark.

’WINDOWS ARE BEING SMASHED’
There, Larissa and the six other residents tend neat gardens of roses, peonies, carrots and spring onions. They wash with buckets of water drawn from Slatyne’s many wells. Laundry dries on lines outside their tidy apartments, beds draped with colorful covers, house plants growing in glassed-in balconies.
The conditions are just as challenging. “Windows are being smashed, walls are being destroyed and there is nothing we can do about it,” Larissa, 46, said. But she and the others in her block have tried to make the best of it.
The seven residents — none would give their last names – said they share the humanitarian aid delivered to the complex by volunteers from the nearby town of Dergachi, supplementing it with pickled vegetables stocked in a basement.
Alla, 52, who managed a subway station in Kharkiv, 28 km (17 miles) to the south down a remote, shell-blasted road, cooks for everyone in her kitchen on a stove powered by a gas bottle. When shellfire eases, she ventures out with her husband, Volodymyr, 57, a railway worker who acts as the block’s handyman, to an abandoned home to make meals on a brick grill.
No one in either of the blocks could say why their experiences were so different. “I don’t know,” Filipova responded when asked why she and Parkamento put up with their bleak living conditions.
When the war came, some just found the energy to organize and surmount the hardships together while others languished in despair.
“We’ve tried helping them,” said Anna, 66, a tenant of the second block who has lived for 19 years in the complex built in the early 1970s. “When the humanitarian aid deliveries arrive, we visit Vera and Nataliya to bring them their aid.”
She and some of the other residents said a key to their resilience was maintaining a strict routine, cooking enough food for two days of breakfasts and dinners, eating the former at noon and the latter at 4 pm.

’WE CARE FOR EACH OTHER’
In between, they said, they haul water, read, and tend their gardens and chat, sitting on sunny days at a makeshift table in the shadow of their block, trying to ignore frequent blasts and occasional far-off small arms fire.
“All of the people who have stayed here for the last three months are like family,” Anna said of her companions. “We have got close to each other. We care for each other.”
Gardening is especially calming.
“I love the soil,” said Alla, whose family hails from a farming village in a Russian-controlled area north of Slatyne. “My soul would ache if I could not plant anything in that earth. It distracts you. How is it not possible not to love your soil?”
For all the differences in how they cope, the war is ever present for the seven friends, Filipova and Parkamento, and Volodiya Stachuk, a 34-year-old tractor driver who lives in the basement of another block next to that of the two women.
None can forget being jarred awake the night that a Russian missile plunged into an adjacent house earlier this month.
The explosion blew out that building’s walls and roof, shattered many of the Commune’s windows and shredded Stachuk’s apartment with shrapnel, forcing him to move to his basement.
The blast also killed Filipova’s cat, Gina, she said, and left Alla with a memento of the exact moment of her brush with death.
“The explosion knocked a clock off my wall and broke it,” she recalled. “It stopped at 12:05 am.”


Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict
Updated 20 May 2022

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict
  • Shevchuk faces a maximum fine of $800 if found guilty
  • A case has been launched against him for "publicly discrediting the use of Russia's armed forces"

MOSCOW: Soviet rock legend and outspoken Kremlin critic Yuri Shevchuk has been charged with “discrediting” the Russian army after condemning Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine during a concert.
Shevchuk faces a maximum fine of 50,000 rubles (770 euros, $800) if found guilty.
A case has been launched against him for “publicly discrediting the use of Russia’s armed forces,” a court in the city of Ufa in central Russia told the RIA Novosti news agency.
RIA Novosti said the case would be transferred to Shevchuk’s hometown Saint Petersburg.
On May 18, the 65-year-old performer told his audience in Ufa that it “is not the president’s ass that needs to be licked and kissed,” according to videos posted online.
“Now people are being killed in Ukraine. Why? Our guys are dying in Ukraine. Why?” he told a cheering crowd.
The frontman of the 1980s Soviet rock band DDT, Shevchuk has over the years publicly criticized President Vladimir Putin and opposed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.