COLOMBO (AFP) - Cash-strapped Sri Lanka's central bank hiked interest rates by a record 700 basis points on Friday (April 8) as police fired tear gas at hundreds of students protesting over the economic crisis.
Severe shortages of food and fuel, alongside lengthy electricity blackouts, have led to weeks of widespread anti-government demonstrations, with calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign.
The latest protests saw students try to march to the national Parliament on Friday.
Monks, who had largely rallied the Sinhala-Buddhist majority to elect Mr Rajapaksa in the November 2019 polls, were also seen joining demonstrations in the capital Colombo.
Demonstrators nationwide carried placards saying "Gota go home", demanding Mr Rajapaksa and his administration step down over the country's worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
The Central Bank of Sri Lanka said its benchmark lending rate had been raised to 14.5 per cent to "stabilise the exchange rate" after the rupee tumbled over 35 per cent in a month.
The rate for deposits was also increased by seven percentage points to 13.5 per cent as reports said Sri Lanka's rupee was the worst-performing currency in the world, edging out the Russian rouble.
The bank's newly appointed governor, Mr Nandalal Weerasinghe, said attempts to control foreign exchange markets and keep interest rates artificially low in the past year had contributed to the unprecedented economic chaos.
"We are now in damage control mode," Mr Weerasinghe said at his first press conference since replacing Mr Ajith Cabraal, who was virtually forced out on Monday as the country was on the brink of bankruptcy.
"We would not have had to make such a sharp increase if rates had been raised incrementally over a period of time," Mr Weerasinghe said, vowing to relax exchange controls introduced by his predecessor.
The bank said the shock-treatment rate hike was due to its belief that the embattled island's inflation, which is already at record levels, could get worse.
The Colombo Consumer Price Index rose 18.7 per cent in March, while food inflation stood at more than 25 per cent, but private analysts placed inflation at over 50 per cent in the month.
International rating agencies have downgraded Sri Lanka as fears grow that it could default on its US$51 billion (S$69.52 billion) external debt after foreign reserves fell below US$2 billion at the end of March.
This week, Mr Rajapaksa appointed a panel of experts to organise a restructuring of foreign debt.
His government is preparing for bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and finance ministry officials told AFP the panel will prepare a programme for sovereign bond-holders and other creditors to take a haircut.
"What Sri Lanka is keen to do is avoid a hard default," a source from the ministry who requested anonymity told AFP.
"It will be a negotiated restructuring of the debt with the help of the IMF."
Meetings with the IMF are set to begin by next week, but finance minister Basil Rajapaksa - the President's brother - resigned on Sunday night, along with nearly the entire cabinet.
The country is still without a replacement, with his successor Ali Sabry quitting after just one day in office.
On Friday, Mr Sabry told parliament that he was still in the job because no one was willing to accept the finance portfolio.
Colombo-based diplomats from European Union member states, which form a key export market for Sri Lanka, on Friday asked the government to immediately embark on reforms to revive the economy.
"We stress the extreme urgency of the situation, which requires the authorities to start in-depth discussions with the International Monetary Fund," the diplomats said in a joint statement.
Public anger is at fever pitch, and on Saturday, thousands of people are expected to take part in what likely will be the biggest protest since the crisis began.
In an apparent bid to head off more protests, the government on Thursday declared extra public holidays for next week to coincide with the traditional Sinhalese and Tamil New Year.
Opposition parties have rejected an overture from the president to form a unity administration and instead joined calls for him to step down.
The shortages of essentials have been caused by a wide-ranging import ban as Sri Lanka seeks to conserve its meagre foreign currency reserves to pay its debts.
In recent years, the vital tourism sector has also been hit hard by Islamist bomb attacks in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic, which dried up remittances from Sri Lankans abroad.
Economists say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing and ill-advised tax cuts.