With inflation and high gas prices, Sri Lankans wait days in line for fuel Sri Lanka offers a cautionary tale for countries struggling with inflation. Anger over fuel lines spilled into the streets and toppled a government. Will nationalism surge, or unity prevail?

In Sri Lanka, inflation means food shortages, blackouts — and days-long lines for gas

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Sri Lanka is one of many countries around the world dealing with rising prices. The Indian Ocean island is experiencing inflation, which now tops 60%, in addition to rolling blackouts, food shortages and political unrest. The crisis is also having some surprising effects, as NPR's Lauren Frayer found when she joined a long line for fuel in the capital, Colombo.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Twelve-year-old Susil Michael should be at school, but instead she's guarding her family's car at this gas station in Sri Lanka's capital. Her sisters and parents are all taking turns. They've been in line for four days, sleeping in their car.

SUSIL MICHAEL: Because there is no petrol. We are in the line, but our numbers are in tomorrow.

FRAYER: Sri Lanka has a gas rationing system based on your license plate number like the U.S. did in the 1970s oil crisis. The Michael family's number isn't up until tomorrow, but they've lined up several days early. That's how long this line is.

SUSIL: I don't know. It's just - I don't like it, and it's just exhausted. It's hot, and we can't afford food.

CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL: Because, you see, I don't work, and I'm suffering a lot.

FRAYER: That's Susil's father, Christopher Michael. He's an office temp, so he only earns when he works. And he can't do that because he's stuck in this line. This is a country the World Bank used to classify as upper middle income. It was prosperous. And now food prices have nearly doubled.

MICHAEL: Sri Lanka is going backward because of those who have stolen our money. Why did you mismanage the country?

FRAYER: Anger like his has fueled months of street protests. The president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned and fled to Singapore last month, and his replacement, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is already beleaguered. At times like this, there are fears that the country's deep divisions could be exploited. Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, with a delicate mix of minorities, and the horrors of a recent civil war are still raw. But Akeel Azwar, who's a minority Muslim, a group that has faced persecution, says this crisis has actually united people.

AKEEL AZWAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He describes how he was sleeping on the ground next to his motorbike when a stranger in the gas line invited him to sleep in an air-conditioned car instead. Rich and poor, Sinhala and Tamil, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu - they're all in this line, Akeel says. All of the country's ethnic and religious groups are also represented at a massive protest camp on the city's sprawling seafront. This is where anger about the economy has morphed into a political movement which ousted one president and is now taking aim at another. Alongside the protest tents, I meet Meerawatte Kashyapa, a bald Buddhist monk in a burgundy robe, chanting in Sanskrit.

MEERAWATTE KASHYAPA: (Chanting in Sanskrit).

FRAYER: Meerawatte is a forest monk. He spends his time meditating under trees. A few months ago, he walked out of the forest, crossed highways on foot, and joined these anti-government protests.

KASHYAPA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: We're like brothers and sisters here, he says. Some Catholic nuns joined, too, and together we decided to act as human shields for the protesters, he says - human shields against the military, which has been trying to get these protesters to go home.

KASHYAPA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: So you're pointing to scars on your neck. What happened?

KASHYAPA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: The monk says last month soldiers attacked him with some kind of cable or whip. But he says he's undeterred. He will stay here meditating and protesting until the crisis is over. Others can't do that. They've got to head back to the fuel line.

The sun has set here. People are getting ready to spend yet another night in line. But a cheer just went up through the crowd because the streetlights just came on. So we're - we have rolling blackouts here.

Among those forced to join the line was W.A. Wijewardena, the former deputy governor of Sri Lanka's central bank.

WA WIJEWARDENA: Nobody knew who I was. Therefore, they freely spoke to me. We shared the food also because, you know, when you're standing in the queue for 10 hours - it was a unifying element. There are many different people.

FRAYER: People waiting in line for gas, but also waiting for solutions to a crisis that's brought their country to its knees. Many fear that wait could last months or even years.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in the line for fuel in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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