Sri Lanka is in the midst of the largest strike in the country’s history since 1980. Workers’ Voice expresses solidarity with the workers, youth, and masses in motion in Sri Lanka and amplifies their demands for the removal of the criminal Rajapaksa gang, the dissolution of the parliament, the return of the public funds stolen by the Rajapaksas, international medical assistance for Sri Lanka, subsidies for fertilizers—which the government had taken away to justify payments to international creditors—and for an end to the tax evasion that has been one of the defining features of the regime.

By A. Al Tariqi

Why the protests swelled

The protests, which have been ongoing for over a month, have swelled into a mass uprising, concentrated in the southern, majority-Sinhalese region of the country. They express mass anger over the government’s mishandling of the country’s worst financial crisis in nearly eight decades.

On Friday, May 6, millions of public and private sector workers went on strike. Banks, businesses, and transport in large cities such as Colombo were all closed. Doctors and nurses joined protests during their lunch breaks. During the weekend of 7-8 May, the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, “Gota,” declared a state of emergency, the second since the protests began.

Government mismanagement, global events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and runaway inflation have generated a deep crisis, leading to shortages of food, fuel, and medicines, along with repeated blackouts. In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, in a region that is the breadbasket for much of Asia and Africa, global food prices have skyrocketed. In Sri Lanka, the price of rice has more than doubled in the last year.

The government last month announced that it was defaulting on $US 51 billion in foreign debts after it ran out of U.S. dollar reserves. Interest on the debt is now higher than the national income. Inflation has climbed to the double digits during the last two years, and for basic goods like food, it has reached 50 per cent. The finance minister recently announced that economic hardships will likely last another two years. Sri Lankans are suffering 13 hours per day without electricity, and with day-long lines for petrol or natural gas.

On May 16, the prime minister announced that the country could run out of petrol in a day unless it could acquire $75 million in foreign exchange to pay for more. Container ships were waiting offshore and refusing to unload their cargo until they were paid.

The strike was called by trade unions and civil organizations. Strikers have called for Rajapaksa to resign. They have pointed to the Rajapaksa family’s corruption. The family has controlled the Sri Lankan government for almost two decades and has bankrupted it during the last two and half years. Prior to the current crisis, they had consolidated a base among the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority, deploying a chauvinist nationalism (about which, more below), though this base seems to be fraying.

Though he prevailed upon his brother, the prime minister, to resign—a pathetic sop to the uprising—Rajapaksa himself shows no signs of willingness to step down. The replacement that he appointed, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is himself a close associate of Rajapaksa and will help him maintain his hold on the presidency. There is also a state of emergency, declared by Rajapaksa, giving the military wider powers to arrest and detain people.

“Gotta go home”

As Don Samantha, an exiled Sri Lankan revolutionary socialist and member of the editorial board of the Pan-Asiatic socialist review Asia Commune told us in mid-April:

The government has no solution. If they go to the IMF they will be forced to comply [with] certain requirements like transparency. So the government prefers to go to private markets. The state is almost bankrupt. The government sold many assets to India or China, like the biggest harbours. The exploitation of forests was sold cheap to multinational companies.

The events of Monday, 9 May, as reported in The Guardian, are a turning point and led to the removal of the (now) former prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s brother. Pro-government supporters violently attacked protesters who had massed at the PM’s residence in the capital. These pro-government ruffians then attacked another nearby camp of protesters while police looked on.

This triggered widespread clashes, with the homes of several MPs along with the prime minister’s residence in the town of Kurunegala, set on fire. There were also reports of MPs opening fire on anti-government protesters. Shortly before the PM’s resignation, the president agreed to devolve power, until recently concentrated in his hands, back to parliament. Other members of the Rajapaksa family have stepped down from the cabinet, leaving “Gota” as the only family member to remain in power. He wants to form an all-party “unity government.” Despite calls from protesters of “Gota go home,” he is still refusing to leave power.

The question of revolutionary leadership

The mobilizations have been bottom-up and self-organized, with protesters setting up roadblocks and camping 24/7 in front of the presidential residence. “A lot of people are hostile to political parties,” says Samantha. This is in contrast to the last revolutionary situation that erupted in Sri Lanka, the 1953 General Strike or Hartal, led by the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja (LSSP) party. The 1953 Hartal occurred in a context of revolutionary ferment, overtures by Sri Lanka to revolutionary China, and Washington-led economic sabotage. The Hartal’s militancy and organization forced the sitting government to briefly flee the capital! Unfortunately, in the 1960s the LSSP joined a coalition government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a centrist capitalist party with Sinhala-chauvinist tendencies. This alienated the large Tamil and Muslim minorities, important social bases of the revolutionary movement. The degeneration of the LSSP, in other words, gravely damaged Sri Lankan revolutionary socialism.

The last general strike in Sri Lanka was in 1980, when unions at the time, as they are doing today, came together and helped lead the revolutionary process. The demands of the 1980 strike included pay raises, restoration of food subsidies, and retraction of anti-democratic, anti-union measures taken by the government at the time. The president, JR Jayawardene, echoing Rajapaksa’s and all other capitalist politicians’ manoeuvres, repressed those protests with the military, declared a state of emergency, and declared the strike illegal.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Venerable Tampitiye Sugatananda, a 32-year-old Buddhist monk and chief secretary of the Joint Health Workers Union, said, “Jayawardene crushed the 1980 strike, but today the trade unions have fixed their mistakes and are ready to move into the future. Since 1980, a lot of trade unions were formed by political parties, but in the past couple of years, this [trend] has shifted. Working-class people’s struggles have taken prominence, and today’s event has only reinforced this trend.” Millions of workers all over southern Sri Lanka have responded with alacrity and unity to the call for the strike.

This hostility to political parties should not be read as, necessarily, a hostility to revolutionary socialist political parties. We re-emphasize that the LSSP, when it practised principled revolutionary Marxism, led a general strike and a near-socialist revolution in 1953. It was its subsequent opportunism, adopting reformism and refusing to firmly reject the SLFP’s Sinhalese-chauvinist politics, that sealed its fate. During the last presidential and parliamentary elections, in 2019 and 2020 respectively, the LSSP was in coalition with other social-democratic, Stalinist, and centrist-capitalist parties as part of the Rajapaksa coalition! Obviously, the whole lot is rightly discredited.

Other socialist and communist parties are also showing reformist tendencies, according to Samantha. In a conversation with Workers’ Voice, he pointed out that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, or People’s Liberation Front), which styles itself a “Marxist-Leninist” party, has played a prominent role in protests over the past two years. They recently organized a mass protest in Colombo with a surprisingly high turnout. However, their main demand is that people vote for them, presenting themselves as better than the Gota regime at solving the crisis. Their other demand is to borrow money from the IMF(!)

At a crossroads

More concerning is the current strike’s timidity in reaching out to Sri Lanka’s minority groups, in particular the Tamils and Muslims. As recently as 2020, many in the Sinhala majority celebrated the Rajapaksa parliamentary victory, the culmination of a campaign that deployed anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim racism. “The Rajapaksa victory was almost absolute,” writes Sri Lankan commentator Mario Arulthas, “with the vast majority of the Sinhala vote going to their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which ran on a populist and racist platform, promising prosperity, splendour and the preservation of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy on the island.”

The vile acts of the Rajapaksa regime in recent years include increasing militarization of Tamil-majority areas, persecution of Tamil journalists and NGOs, forcible cremation of Muslim COVID victims, and the creation of a general climate meant to show Tamils and Muslims that they are second-class citizens. These are, moreover, only a continuation of Sinhala-centric economic policies that have been in place since independence in the early 1950s.

The current rebellion is, in short, marked by a central contradiction. The predominantly Sinhalese protesters now recognize that the ruling regime is no friend of the working class. This regime, in failing to fulfil the promises of “economic splendour” to their base, has engendered the hatred of their main voting bloc. They have always been hated by Tamils and Muslims for their ethnic chauvinism. They are now confronting a generalized collapse of legitimacy. However, “the limited inclusion” of Tamil demands for “political rights, demilitarisation of the Tamil-majority northeast, and accountability for war crimes in the protest demands has played a part in the relatively lukewarm participation of Tamils” (Arulthas).

May 18 is mourned by Tamil communities as Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day. In Sinhala-majority areas of the South, there are “victory” celebrations on this day. How will the anti-Gota protesters respond to this day? That will be a crucial moment: Will the current workers in motion move beyond economic grievances to a political analysis connecting capitalist exploitation by the Rajapaksa (and international capitalist) regimes to the racist divisiveness that is equally central to its rule? This is a key political question and will determine whether the current uprising will undermine itself in mere reformism or flower into a revolutionary movement.

Photo: Ishara S. Kodidar / AFP