End silence on Sri Lanka at the College

Maya Prakash

I visited Sri Lanka in April 2022, at the beginning of the political and economic crisis that now threatens the very existence of the country and its people. A Sri Lankan family friend and I waited in fuel lines that extended for half a mile — people now wait for up to five days, with gas stations all but empty. And we were inordinately privileged: Tourists got first priority for fuel in a last-ditch effort to maintain the country’s tourism sector, upon which much of the economy depends. We drove past the toppled statue of disgraced former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his hometown of Tangalle the day after protestors burned his family home there and he resigned from office.

The country defaulted on its $51 billion worth of foreign debt two weeks prior to our arrival, for the first time in its history, which was mostly due to Rajapaksa’s disastrous economic mismanagement, dynastic corruption, and acquisition of foreign debt spent on vanity projects instead of development. His government had imposed a ban on chemical fertilizers in April 2021, which crippled Sri Lankan farming, a key industry. They also slashed taxes, severely decreasing government revenue. Then, when COVID-19 hit, Sri Lanka was in an economic storm with no cover, and the tourism industry all but came to a halt. By April 2022, the government simply did not have the money to pay back its loans, particularly to China, who refused to renegotiate terms. The currency took a nosedive, inflation skyrocketed, and foreign currency reserves depleted, which meant that Sri Lanka was running out of cash to import fuel (at a time when fuel prices were increasing due to the war in Ukraine). In June 2022, the country officially ran out of fuel.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to a bailout in September 2022, but it requires raising taxes on the population, further squeezing already-thin wallets. Not to mention that the results may not be seen for years. Sri Lankans are suffering immensely right now, and it gets worse by the day: Inflation is at 73.7 percent as of last week, food prices have increased 84.6 percent, and fuel is all but impossible to obtain.

I could not possibly claim to understand the crisis personally — I saw it from a bubble, knowing I was returning to my life in Singapore. But those scenes remain vivid. When I arrived at the College, I hoped that I would see some action on the crisis on campus. In our age of information, it is a shame that an entire country is about to go bankrupt, and the story is barely newsworthy. Why is there silence on this issue at the College?

For many other crises around the world, such as the floods in Pakistan or the political situation in Nicaragua, we have had teachins, administrative statements of support, coverage in school media, or discussions in classrooms. Respective interest groups have issued statements, signed open letters, and pledged both financial and moral support. Yet nothing of the sort has happened for the Sri Lankan crisis.

This could be for a variety of reasons. The Sri Lankan community on campus is small, certainly. The affinity group most likely to extend their support — the South Asian Student Association (SASA) — tends to be dominated by Sri Lanka’s bigger neighbors like India and Pakistan (I, too, am part of this majority). The administration is often much more responsive to political events in the United States than internationally, which is deeply unfortunate, given that global politics affects international students on campus, if not necessarily the College as a physical space. The troubles of the world make it into the Purple Bubble, whether we choose to educate ourselves or not.

The administration must better support Sri Lankan students and their well-being at this time — Integrative Wellbeing Services therapists and other caretakers, particularly deans and Junior Advisors, should be briefed on the crisis and how best to respond. SASA can issue a statement of support and create supportive infrastructure or teach-ins about the crisis. But most importantly, we must inform ourselves, if only for the goal of better empathizing with and supporting our Sri Lankan peers.

In his short story collection, Anton Chekhov once said that indifference is a paralysis of the soul, a premature death. We cannot allow ourselves to succumb to this, even in the face of news fatigue and overstimulation. We must have the courage to look long and hard at global crises. It is an act of empathy, not only with peers who may be struggling alone, but with the global community.

Maya Prakash ’26 is from Singapore and India.