SINGAPORE - Protests in Sri Lanka that have arisen from a dire economic situation are a strong statement from the people of the country, Mr Dilhan Fernando, chief executive of tea company Dilmah, told The Straits Times on Wednesday (April 6).

People have taken to the streets amid shortages of essential items like fuel, food and drugs that have lasted for weeks, and the crisis has led to the mass resignation of the country's Cabinet ministers.

Said Mr Fernando: "No matter who comes in next, there has been a line drawn - that the people are united. Politics in the past has focused on disunity for political advantage. But here, the people are making a very clear statement."

Dilmah is one of Sri Lanka's biggest companies with a value of about US0 million (S0 million), and Mr Fernando, who is in Singapore for the launch of its new bottled iced tea, did not shy away from speaking about the Sri Lankan business community's support for the desire for reform.

He said: "We will support this and we will demand that whoever comes in, it is Sri Lanka first. And there will be no question of saying, look, this is a party that values one language over another or one faith over another."

Street protests began a month ago and have intensified in recent days, with people defying the emergency and a weekend curfew .
On Wednesday, dozens of doctors, some in blue scrubs, stood in protest over the shortage of medicine, outside the national hospital in commercial capital Colombo.

Mr Fernando said protests have been generally constructive. He was happy to see people sweeping up after the protests and at the religious unity shown amid the turmoil, like when Buddhist protesters stood around Muslim protesters to guard them while they prayed.

He is thankful that the power cuts and fuel shortages have not had a heavy impact on his company. While costs have increased, Dilmah is operating at full capacity, with all 1,200 staff on the payroll.

However, many other businesses are reeling from the power cuts and fuel shortages.

He said: "You can't sit back and say, 'We are (in) an export industry, we have the dollars, therefore we are okay'... We are never okay when the guys down the road, your food suppliers, the people who operate the buses and so on (are affected). You can't be isolated in a situation like that. So it's been devastating."

For now, there are short-term issues in the country that need to be addressed, Mr Fernando said, which would include the building of an interim government and restructuring of the country's debt, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) being brought in.

He said: "Successive populist governments, recent tax reductions which were unnecessary and fiscal indiscipline contributed to a situation that was compounded by the pandemic.

"You have a perfect storm, you have an international situation with energy prices rising, a weakened treasury plus a weakened currency and you had the pandemic when our two primary sources of foreign exchange revenue dried up... This (current situation) could have been avoided by going to the IMF earlier during the pandemic."

Sri Lanka's two major sources of income are exports and tourism.

Mr Fernando has been helping to support the less advantaged in the country, and is also looking to grow Dilmah's business in the coming years.

But he has no plans to join politics.

He said: "My grandfather was a highly accomplished politician. But my belief is that you do what you know. People may think that I'm a good tea taster, and that I can produce, choose and market tea well.

"But I know nothing about politics, and I have no interest in politics, apart from using our business to serve humanity."

This article was originally published in The Straits Times

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