After inspiring the world with a mobilization that toppled the hated Rajapakse regime, the revolutionary process in Sri Lanka has been stalling.
By Adhiraj Bose – Mazdoor Inqilab India
After the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapakse, a new government was formed led by the former Prime Minister, Ranil Wikremasinghe (whose house the protesters had earlier burned down and forced to resign), and Dinesh Gunawerdene, the son of famed Sri Lankan Trotskyist revolutionary Philip Gunawerdene.
The intensity and scale of the protests had put Sri Lanka’s prolific and cruel security apparatus on the back foot, and it could do so precisely because of the scale of mobilization and militancy of the protesters. However, once the new government was put in place, thereby fulfilling one of the key demands of the protesters, the movement began to wane. Once the mobilization lost its intensity, the security apparatus had momentum once more. Ranil Wikremasinghe began a campaign of repression against the protesters. This saw many of the leading figures of the movement arrested, like teacher’s union leader Joseph Stalin.
Faced with the organized repression of the state, the movement, which has been largely led by civil society activists and petty-bourgeois liberals, failed. The momentum was no longer there, and the revolutionary process that we witnessed in May has now started to wane.
The present ongoing economic crisis began with the Easter Sunday bombings in 2018 which affected the island nation’s tourism sector, which accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP. This in turn affected the country’s ability to finance its burgeoning debts. The external debt of Sri Lanka increased to $56 billion, representing 61% of the GDP in nominal terms. The situation with the country’s national debt appears worse, with the national debt to GDP ratio being 101% of GDP. The situation was only worsened by gross mishandling by the Rajapakse government. The government responded to the impending crisis by lowering taxes and thus cutting away at government revenues, and pushing through an ill-conceived and ham-handed attempt at making farming organic, which cut away at the tea plantation industry, one of the country’s biggest revenue earners. These compounded Sri Lanka’s problems, building up on mega dead-end projects like the Hambantota port, built with Chinese loans. To add salt to Sri Lanka’s wounds, the country found itself in the midst of the Covid pandemic which all but wiped out tourism revenues and threw an ailing economy into the abyss, which one is finding impossible to climb out of.
While the present crisis has its roots in the situation caused by the pandemic, we must not forget the economic and political history of Sri Lanka, which has been building up to the point where such a crisis would happen. This requires we go back to the nineteenth century and examine the economic system created by the British, with the sole aim to exploit Sri Lanka’s rich agricultural and mineral resources. Tea was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867 and in a relatively short time, Sri Lanka became one of the prime exporters of tea in the world, and remains so today. Rubber cultivation was started in 1876 and has remained one of the major cash crops of the island, and the backbone of the rubber industry in Sri Lanka.
Though it has been over a decade since the Tamil Eelam war ended, the economy has remained sluggish and prone to international crises. From 2008 onwards the world has been in a state of a long depression, and Sri Lanka remained trapped in unfavourable economic relations, which haven’t fundamentally changed since its independence. While little protection given by statist policies and Soviet aid in earlier decades no longer exists, neoliberal reforms, along with reactionary nationalist politics, have led the country to a dead end, and the two worked hand in hand. The government of Gotabaya Rajapakse and his brother, the Prime Minister and former president, Mahinda Rajapakse, epitomize the system of neoliberal economics and reactionary hate-filled politics. Eventually, the crisis came to a head owing to the mismanagement of the already ailing island economy, and after months of shortages, and sky-high inflation, the masses’ patience broke.
Throughout Sri Lanka, the masses mobilized. Protests happened every day, in some part of the island or another, and these have brought together every member of Sri Lankan society. The most prominent slogan visible on the streets is ‘Go Gotta Go’, calling for the resignation of the President of Sri Lanka and the removal of the Rajapakses from power. Public anger is focused on the ruling cabinet and the present government, whose mishandling and autocratic style have only worsened an already bad situation.
The protestors were not seen with banners of any political party, but rather with the national flag accompanied by placards with their demands written on them. Over April and May, many spontaneous protests erupted throughout the island, prompting the government to impose a state of emergency and even deploy the army. That was soon done away with as the protests only swelled in size. On the 28th of April, a day-long general strike was organized against the government. This was the first general strike in four decades and highlighted the acutely pre-revolutionary situation in Sri Lanka.
The mainstream oppositional parties, being as sold as they are on the same economic policies which have brought Sri Lanka to the brink, have little to show to give leadership to the people of Sri Lanka. The Lanka Samsamaj party which was once filled with revolutionary potential, is today barely different than most mainstream parliamentary left parties in South Asia, their politics almost mimicking that of the various Stalinist ‘Communist’ parties, seeking electoral alliances rather than focussing on revolutionary mobilizations.
The potential for another revolutionary mobilization similar to the hartal of 1953 was present in Sri Lanka, and we saw this unfold live on TV. The pinnacle of the protests was undoubtedly forcing the resignations of Mahinda Rajapakse, who presided over the genocidal campaign against Tamils during the last Eelam war, and then the interim Prime Minister Ranil Wikremasinghe, and eventually the president Gotabaya Rajapakse himself. Power was on the streets, not in the corridors of power, not in the bourgeois institutions. Since then, the protests have waned, having left the presidential palace, and mobilizations having toned down. Though protests still continue and the island’s economy remains crisis-ridden, with inflation, and shortages of critical commodities like food and fuel continuing.
Strengths and weaknesses of the Sri Lankan protests
The Lankan protests were characterized by spontaneous mass mobilization, triggered by a singular act of defiance, by a protest started by an unemployed IT worker, protesting skyrocketing inflation and the crippling shortages of fuel and food. Soon, the Galle Face green protest site became a rallying point for the masses of the country, with the largest and most powerful mobilizations happening in Colombo, the capital city.
These protests were spontaneous and leaderless, but united wide sections of the populace, working class, peasantry, and petty bourgeois. Even some elements of the bourgeoisie like cricket star Sanath Jayasuriya came out in support of the protests. The unifying slogan came to be the slogan to remove the Rajapakses from power, ‘Go Gota Go’. This slogan was powerful in its simplicity as it directed collective rage against a hated autocratic regime, notorious for its corruption, and whom the people singularly blamed for the disastrous mismanagement of the economy, bringing it to the point of crisis it is in now.
There was no organized leadership at the start, and no political party came forward to assume leadership. Most bourgeois opposition parties hitched to the bandwagon, giving tepid support to the protests, or calling for calm. During the protests, none of the flags or leaders was present in any prominence among the protesters. Eventually, a committee did form, but it was informal and did not coordinate nationally. There was neither party structure nor clear-cut leadership or any visible democratic process to determine the leadership. The only thing that was clear about the protests was the mobilization itself, which was powerful enough to force the resignation of two Prime Ministers and eventually the president himself.
The world watched as dramatic scenes unfolded where protesters stormed the presidential palace and occupied it. This was the high-water mark of the protests and showed that the power was no longer in the corridors of power. The deadly security apparatus of the Sri Lankan state which kept the Tamil regions in a state of terror, notorious for making countless disappearances and had been the stuff of nightmares, simply melted away before the might of the mobilized populace.
Unfortunately, this was also the pinnacle of the mobilization, beyond which there was no effort for revolutionary change. Once the Rajapakses stepped down, the protest movement lost its main unifying agenda, and consequently, it lost its energy. There was a scaling down, which saw the protesters leave the presidential palace and vacate the Galle Face green protest site. The mobilizations ceased, and the protest started to wane. All the while, the economic crisis remained unresolved. The Sri Lankan bourgeoisie steadfastly pursued its one agenda of attempting an IMF bailout and sustaining itself on loans from India. This kept the Lankan economy from imploding completely and ensured a Venezuelan-style collapse would not happen. Had the Indian loans not come in, there was a possibility anger would have boiled over, and Sri Lanka’s beleaguered security apparatus would have collapsed entirely, in the absence of fuel, power, and food.
Thus, with a combination of absent leadership, no organization, limited demands, and Indian intervention, the mobilization which showed revolutionary potential, began to wane, and has now started to fizzle out.
Undoubtedly, the main strength of the protests was in the way they showed the power of mobilized masses. Spontaneity was both a strength and a weakness. While it caught the bourgeoisie unaware in its sweep, it also made it impossible to organize and therefore impossible to channel into a concrete set of demands which went beyond demanding the resignation of the Rajapakses. There was no agenda for repudiating the debt, no agenda for nationalizing the plantations, nor any agenda of taking over foreign-controlled ports. This is the result of a leaderless protest. Rejecting bourgeois leadership provided the protest movement with a unique power that could not be constrained by parliamentary bourgeois parties. However, neither did the movement receive revolutionary leadership, which could have channeled the raw anger towards a more concrete direction, with an agenda for a seizure of power. There was not, actually, a demand for the seizing of power by the working class; the only clear agenda was the removal of the president and his cabinet. This was achieved, but since then, nothing has moved forward.
When the protest movement waned, the Sri Lankan state found the opportunity to reorganize and deploy its repressive apparatus again, with deadly effect. The acting president Ranil Wikremasinghe wasted no time declaring another state of emergency. This was soon followed by a nationwide crackdown, which resulted in several key leaders of the protest movement being arrested. The mobilization in Sri Lanka bears some parallels with the Quit India movement in 1942, which was robbed of any organized leadership when the British arrested Gandhi and most of the Congress party. The Quit India mobilizations saw much heroism from the masses, with some fantastic successes in the form of self-ruling republics which were declared over the course of the uprising. For the first time since 1857, it seemed like British rule would be ended. Still, a largely petty bourgeois-led protest without any organized national leadership, while capable of great displays of heroism and powerful mobilizations, would always fail in the face of a committed and organized enemy. The British Raj had a vast and sophisticated repressive apparatus in the form of the police, the CID, and secret services, which Sri Lanka also possesses today. When faced with such repression, the Quit India movement fell apart, and now the Sri Lankan protests appear to be going the same way. It is worth remembering what the BLPI wrote about the Quit India movement:
The basic reason for the August movement not outstripping in any significant manner the bounds of the bourgeois perspectives was the failure of the working class to move into a militant class action on a decisive scale. This failure was due principally to the absence of a revolutionary working-class party to lead the workers. No doubt, the Communist Party acted as a brake upon the working class. And no doubt there was working-class suspicion of the bourgeois leadership, particularly in Bombay. But in view of the fact that the working class did demonstrate its solidarity by an actual widespread stoppage of work, there can be little doubt that they would have gone into militant action had there existed a working-class party to provide it with an alternative and militant leadership. As it was, with the lack of militant working-class participation, the movement was bound to fail.
It failed disastrously. The movement was violent but the government met it with a Himalayan display of organized violence unexampled in India since the great Mutiny of 1857. The movement rose in places to revolutionary heights, e.g., Bihar; where little statelets were actually thrown up for little periods like foam on the crest of a rapidly advancing wave. And the very height to which the struggle arose resulted, in complete defeat, in the depth of the subsequent fall. Above all, the petty bourgeoisie who led and the petty bourgeoisie who fought – it was mainly a petty-bourgeois uprising – lacked the leadership of the working class with its consistent revolutionary perspectives, and were bound by the bourgeois perspective of “pressure politics” as distinct from revolutionary politics, bound up, that is to say, by a narrow horizon of violent action without clear revolutionary aim, fell away from the struggle on its defeat, nonplussed and confused. Passing from a sense of frustration to a feeling of futility, he ultimately fell away from the struggle and politics itself. In other words, the petty bourgeoisie became generally demoralized.
These lessons hold true even today, especially in the situation we find in Sri Lanka, where similar dynamics have played out once again.
What must be done now?
In an earlier article, we stated that:
“The chief agenda for any revolutionary force in Sri Lanka today must be to wrench the island nation out of the hands of imperialist finance. This means nationalizing essential infrastructure and repudiating the external debt. Only on the foundations of these economic conquests, can the major political and social conquests be achieved.“
This stands true even now. The fundamental contradictions which had created the crisis in Sri Lanka remain unchanged, and the objective conditions which gave rise to the revolutionary mobilization remain. However, the task of building up revolutionary leadership becomes even more critical now, and ever more difficult under the conditions of reaction that we now find ourselves. The arrest of activists, the return of disappearances, and harsh policing measures are a sign of the tide turning against revolution.
In the face of renewed repression, revolutionaries must adapt. The mobilization showed the limits of repressive force when faced with an organized and mobilized populace, unafraid of fighting the state forces, violently if need be. Despite the main mobilizations waning, we do see struggles breaking out on the island, particularly from the militant teacher’s union, and workers’ strikes. Discontent among the population remains high, and while they have withdrawn after the resignation of the Rajapakse cabinet, there is no love lost for Ranil Wikremasinghe (whose house the protesters burned when he became the Prime Minister).
Now the son of Philip Gunawerdene, the founder of the BLPI, has become the new Prime Minister, carrying the leadership of the party his father had built. However, there is no revolutionary potential in the MSP, which, like Philip Gunawerdene himself, had long since turned its back on Trotskyism and on the idea of a socialist revolution. This move may have pacified the masses for now, but as long as the objective conditions persist, the possibility of another uprising cannot be ruled out. At that moment, it is critical that revolutionary forces be ready to challenge for leadership of the protests and plant the agenda for a socialist revolution.
REPUDIATE THE DEBT!
NATIONALIZE THE PORTS AND THE PLANTATIONS!
LONG LIVE THE WORKERS OF SRI LANKA!
OUT WITH THE IMPERIALISTS! NO TO IMF! NO TO ADB! NO TO INDIA OR CHINA!
FOR A SOCIALIST SRI LANKA IN A SOCIALIST SOUTH ASIA!