Life of Vietnamese people in a bankrupt Sri Lanka

By Xanh Le, Huong Ly   July 28, 2022 | 02:00 am PT
Life of Vietnamese people in a bankrupt Sri Lanka
People eat at a community kitchen while others stand in a queue to receive food inside a church, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 25, 2022. Photo by Reuters
Vietnamese living in Sri Lanka are struggling to make ends meet and get food and fuel amid the raging economic crisis.

For nearly three months Chau, who lives with her family in a suburb of the capital, Colombo, has had to depend on her own garden and hoard groceries to survive. She grows vegetables like tomato and okra and has stocked 25-30kg of rice, some beans, flour, and dried fish.

"Only the rich can afford to buy fresh food. It is very stressful and depressing because we have no income but still have to pay for our children's schooling, electricity and water bills and food."

Chau had moved to the South Asian island nation about four years ago to live with her Sri Lankan husband.

She ran a fast food restaurant, but had to close it because of a shortage of materials. Her suppliers have no way to deliver goods to her because they cannot get fuel for their vehicles.

Since March Sri Lanka has been rocked by mass protests in response to an economic crisis, which has its roots in economic mismanagement and the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic on a tourism-dependent economy, Reuters reported.

In May the nation announced a debt default for the first time in its history. According to newswire AP, the country’s total foreign debt is US$51 billion.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was ousted from office over the economic collapse, and he fled to Singapore earlier this month.

The crisis has left the nation’s 22 million people without essential items like medicines, fuel and food.

The total drying up of incomes means Chau's middle-class family has become poor.

"In the past my family was not so poor since I had an income every day thanks to the restaurant. But now I am struggling to make ends meet. Those who were poor now have nothing to eat."

She says potatoes used to cost around 100 rupees a kilogram but now cost 250-300 rupees.

Chau says if any member of her family falls sick now, it will be a big problem due to lack of medicines.

"There are not enough medicines for patients and not enough fuel for ambulances."

According to AP, Sri Lanka lacks the money to pay for basic imports like food, fuel and medicines, which threatens to undo the huge gains it made in public health in recent decades.

Chau says a few months ago cars and autorickshaws used to be the most common vehicles on the streets but now people walk due to lack of fuel or to save it.

"There is almost no fuel. After waiting in line for six days people can get only three liters of petrol.

"They have to walk or ride bicycles to get food however far and long it is."

Tuyen, an officer at the Vietnamese embassy in Colombo, says he sees people lining up in front of gas stations day and night to buy fuel. Some even sleep in their vehicle because they do not want to lose their place in the queue.

It is most difficult for autorickshaw drivers while waiting in hot weather.

"Gas stations do not have enough fuel to sell regularly. Every time a fuel truck arrives, it is enough for about 100 people to buy. The others have to keep waiting. This is the situation at every gas station."

Minister for Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera said in a tweet on July 25 that "Due to foreign exchange issues, fuel imports have to be restricted in the next 12 months."

Tuyen says his life has not been affected much thanks to his privileges as an embassy official. But for Nam, a Vietnamese construction worker, life has turned upside down.

"There are 21 people living together in an apartment we rent. Electricity is not available while it is so hot here. I and some others go to the roof to get some cool breeze because it is very hot inside. We only return downstairs when the power comes back."

Every day Nam and his housemates eat at a different time because their mealtime depends on electricity. Gasoline is not available, and electricity is also cut off frequently. "We wait for electricity to cook."

He says he and many other foreigners do not want to go out for fear of riots and being robbed.

"If you go out in the daytime you can see police and military officers standing with guns on streets to maintain security and order."

Speaking to VnExpress, Tuyen describes a crowd of protestors going past his house.

"Have you seen Vietnamese soccer fans celebrating wins by our football team?

"They are marching that way here. They just yell and make a noise but do not damage anything."

On July 22, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new president, AP reports.

His government is taking the first steps to mitigate the crisis.

On July 26, Wijesekera said on Twitter that to resolve fuel shortages the nation is calling for expressions of interest from oil companies to import, distribute and sell petroleum products.

State-run Ceylon Petroleum Corp, which controls about 80 percent of the market, will offer a share of its resources and pumps to new entrants.

Colombo is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund about a bailout package worth up to $3 billion and seeking help from allies like neighbouring India and China, Reuters reports.

However, the future of the South Asian nation remains unpredictable.

Speaking to VnExpress International via Facebook, Vietnam’s ambassador, Ho Thi Thanh Truc, says her embassy in Sri Lanka has been actively monitoring the situation.

She says there used to be around 300 Vietnamese in Sri Lanka, but many returned home after the crisis began.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has instructed the embassy to keep in touch with the Vietnamese community, she adds.

Many people have been finding a way out of the country. Some Vietnamese are longing to return home.

Nam says: "We will try to hold out for the next few months. If the situation remains the same or worsens, we will ask the company to send us back to Vietnam."

Chau says: "If possible, I will return to Vietnam. Now everyone wants to go home, but I can't afford to go back. The Vietnamese embassy contacted us and offered to help in any way possible. Vietnamese people here have been helping each other too."

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