COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lankan authorities lifted a nationwide curfew on Sunday (May 15) for an important Buddhist festival, with celebrations muted as the island weathers a worsening economic crisis.
A countrywide stay-home order has been in place for most of the week after mob violence left nine dead and over 225 wounded, sparked by attacks on peaceful demonstrators by government loyalists.
In recent weeks, protesters across the Buddhist-majority nation have demanded the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in its history as an independent nation.
Shortages of food, fuel and medicines, along with record inflation and lengthy blackouts, have brought severe hardships to the country’s 22 million people.
Sunday marks Vesak, the most important religious event on Sri Lanka’s calendar, which celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
The government also announced it was lifting the curfew for the day without saying when or whether it would be reimposed.
But the ongoing crisis prompted the government to cancel its plans to mark the festival, which had been scheduled at a temple in the island’s south.
“Given the economic situation of the government and other constraints, we are not having this year’s state festival at the Kuragala temple as planned,” a Buddhist Affairs ministry official told AFP.
The official said Buddhists were free to hold their own celebrations, including the mass meditation and Buddhist sermons traditionally held during the festival.
Worshippers traditionally set up soup kitchens, lanterns and “pandal” bamboo stages bearing large paintings depicting stories from Buddha’s life.
But Sri Lanka has been unable to properly stage Vesak for years, with the Easter Sunday attacks dampening celebrations in 2019 and the last two years affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
This year’s event has been scaled down due to political instability brought on by the economic crisis.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is struggling to form a unity government ahead of Tuesday’s parliamentary session, the first since he took office.
Opposition parties have refused to join any new administration unless the president steps down first.