Crisis-stricken Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion external debt on Tuesday, calling the move a “last resort” after running out of foreign exchange to import desperately needed goods. The island nation is grappling with its worst economic downturn since independence, with regular blackouts and acute shortages of food and fuel. Sri Lanka’s finance ministry said in a statement that creditors, including foreign governments, were free to capitalise any interest payments due to them from Tuesday or opt for payback in Sri Lankan rupees. “The government is taking the emergency measure only as a last resort in order to prevent further deterioration of the republic’s financial position,” the statement said. It added that the immediate debt default was to ensure “fair and equitable treatment of all creditors” ahead of an International Monetary Fund assisted recovery programme for the South Asian nation. The crisis has caused widespread misery for Sri Lanka’s 22 million people and led to weeks of anti-government protests. International rating agencies had downgraded Sri Lanka last year, effectively blocking the country from accessing foreign capital markets to raise much-needed loans to finance imports. Sri Lanka had sought debt relief from India and China, but both countries instead offered more credit lines to buy commodities from them. The island nation’s reserves have slumped more than two-thirds in the past two years, as tax cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic badly hurt its tourism-dependent economy and exposed the government’s debt-fuelled spending. Street protests against shortages of fuel, power, food and medicine have gone on for more than a month. “We need to focus on essential imports and not have to worry about servicing external debt,” Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s governor, P. Nandalal Weerasinghe, told reporters. “It has come to a point that making debt payments are challenging and impossible.” Weerasinghe said the suspension of payment would be until the country came to an agreement with creditors and with the support of a loan programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sri Lanka starts formal talks with the global lender on Monday for emergency loans. The country has foreign debt payments of around $4 billion due this year, including a $1 billion international sovereign bond maturing in July. Two coupon payments are due on Monday. “It is a default. This was inevitable,” said Murtaza Jafferjee, the chief executive of brokerage JB Securities. “This is a positive for the economy because we were using scarce foreign exchange resources to service our debt when we could not afford to. This will release funds for our own citizens. It was displaced vanity at the cost of our population.” He said Sri Lanka’s decision covers about $25 billion in bilateral and commercial debt, which includes about $12 billion of international sovereign bonds. BlueBay Asset Management’s senior emerging markets sovereign strategist, Timothy Ash, said the “only surprise is that it took the administration in Colombo so long to come to terms with the reality on the ground”. “It’s logical to declare a payment moratorium until they work out a programme with the IMF and agree on terms with bondholders,” he said. Sri Lanka’s sovereign dollar-denominated bonds enjoyed healthy gains on Tuesday, with longer-dated issues up more than 1 cent in the dollar, Tradeweb data showed. Its hard currency bonds mostly trade at deeply distressed levels of just under 40 cents in the dollar while the bond maturing on July 25 last traded at just over 50 cents, according to Refinitiv data. Governor Weerasinghe said the call on repayment was being taken in good faith, emphasising that the country of 22 million people had never defaulted on its debt payments.