Tue Mar 21, 2023
March 21, 2023

Sri Lanka | Ongoing revolution topples President Rajapaksa

A few days ago, an angry crowd seized the presidential residence in Colombo (capital of Sri Lanka) and forced the hated President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. It was the high point of a months-long process of strikes and mobilizations in protest against the terrible deterioration of living conditions aggravated by the government’s policies, which state repression could not stop [1].
By Alejandro Iturbe
The IWL-FI has watched closely how this process has unfolded [2]. In multiple articles, we have analyzed the modern history of Sri Lanka, the genesis of the current crisis and the process of struggle. Here, we will limit ourselves to present a brief synthesis of those elements, with the obvious limitations that distance and indirect participation impose on us.
The revolutionary process in Sri Lanka does not take place as an isolated event. It joins a list of ongoing mobilizations by workers and the masses responding to the attacks of capitalism. In the last weeks, almost simultaneously we witness the continuation of the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, the uprising of the Ecuadorian masses, the mobilizations of U.S. women in the face of the attack on the right to abortion, the strike of the British railway workers, the strike of the Norwegian oil workers, and the wave of strikes in Turkey.
A bit of history
Sri Lanka is a small island nation (it has an area of 65,600 km2), located south of India in the Bay of Bengal. It has 22 million inhabitants and is a poor country with its economy centered on agriculture, trade, and tourism, and with little industrial development. In 2021, its nominal GDP was estimated at $3,600 per capita (ranking it 120th in the world), although this estimate is “inflated” by the financial activity.
Between 1802 and 1948, Sri Lanka was a colony of Great Britain, which used it as a major tea producer and as a military air and naval base. In the wake of India’s independence and the Second World War, it obtained national independence in the framework of a series of strikes and mobilizations repressed by the British.
In the 1950s, the weak Sinhalese bourgeoisie began to promote a bourgeois nationalist project through the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) governments, which continued into the 1960s. This policy, without overcoming the limits of capitalism, promoted land reform, nationalized some industries and promoted others, such as electricity generation, oil processing, fertilizer and cement production. The leader of this project was the many times Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Within this framework, Sri Lanka was an important promoter of the Non-Aligned Movement, which grouped nations that followed similar projects.
The Sinhalese institutional system is based on universal suffrage to elect the parliament and the president (who holds considerable governing power). The president can appoint a prime minister who also has important functions. This “duplication” of executive power has allowed not only coalitions between bourgeois parties (another important bourgeois organization is the UNP – United National Party) but also between factions of the same party. Party structures are also made up of family political clans, like the one formed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike and his daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga, or that of the Rajapaksa brothers.
As an interesting historical fact, there is a party of Trotskyist origin in the country: the LSSP (acronym for Sinhalese for the Social Equality Party of Sri Lanka). Thanks to its leading role in the struggle for independence, it gained great weight in the working class and the masses and became the largest Trotskyist party in the world in those years. Unfortunately, it ended up capitulating to the bourgeois nationalism of the SLFP and entered its government, for which it was expelled from the Fourth International (in 1964, at its sixth congress) by transgressing what all Trotskyist currents still consider a principle: never to enter into a bourgeois government. Today, the LSSP is one more parliamentary force, a regular member of various bourgeois governmental coalitions.
The end of bourgeois nationalism
At the end of the 1970s (or even before) all the bourgeois nationalist experiences in the world lived a deep crisis for having maintained capitalism at the national level and for not having really fought imperialism at the international level.
Sri Lanka was no exception. The Sinhalese bourgeoisie initiated a turn to “modernize” capitalism, “open the country to the world,” and seek a new model of semi-colonial accumulation for the country. Thus, in 1979, the UNP government authorized the opening of foreign banks in the country with the aim of promoting it as an international financial center in South Asia, an “investment platform” of imperialism towards the maquilas and industries that were being installed in various countries, especially India.
This project came to a standstill. One of the main factors was the outbreak of a separatist uprising of the Tamil minority, led by the organization called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamils are an ethnic minority originating from the state of Tamil Nadu in India, with very ancient roots and their own language. In Sri Lanka, they represent between 15 and 20% of the population and are oppressed by the Sinhalese majority, with a policy driven by the bourgeoisie of this majority itself, even in the most “progressive” period of the SLFP.
The truth is that this bourgeoisie used this anti-Tamil sentiment to develop a war to crush the Tamil uprising and to strengthen itself against the Sinhalese workers and masses. It was in this process that the Rajapaksa clan developed: the present President Gotabaya gained a lot of political prestige because of the military role he played in the civil war. Subsequently, the Rajapaksa formed several successive political parties. The last one is the SLPP (Sinhala acronym for the Sri Lanka People’s Party), which won the elections in 2019.
At the same time, although the bourgeois democratic regime did not change, the Sinhalese bourgeoisie took advantage of the civil war to increase the militarization of the state in terms of troops and weapons. Currently, the armed forces of the country number 346,000 (not counting the police). This figure is equal in absolute numbers to that of Brazil, a country with a population ten times larger.
The “perfect storm” brewing
The civil war formally ended in 2009 but, in fact, the Sinhalese triumph had already taken place several years earlier. In its final years, the Sinhalese bourgeoisie took advantage of the war to justify the indebtedness of the state and thereby attempt to boost the capitalist economy. For example, between 2006 and 2008, Sinhalese nominal GDP grew by 7% per year.
This policy of indebting the State (and trying to boost some projects) continued in the following years. Since 2008, the construction of the port of Hambantota as a stopover on the Indian Ocean shipping route (with financing from China) [3], has been underway. One sector that managed to develop was tourism (mainly with travellers from India), which generated 12% of GDP in the pre-pandemic years.
But a policy of external indebtedness that fails to develop a viable capitalist accumulation project (even if semi-colonial) inevitably ends in a deep crisis. Currently, the country’s foreign debt exceeds its GDP (there is also an immense internal public debt). The state, even if it were to devote its entire budget to it, cannot pay the interest on the debt, let alone the “services” (instalments), and refinancing is becoming increasingly difficult. This basic situation was aggravated by the fall in tourism revenues during the pandemic.
One of the consequences of the lack of foreign currency is the difficulty in paying for essential imports. For example, the lack of fuel paralyzes industries, such as the food and textile industries, generates shortages of fertilizers for agriculture and causes 13-hour daily cuts in the supply of electricity to the population. At the same time, in addition to the suspensions in the companies, products sold by street vendors are not imported, decimation the population that lives from self-employment in street sales. Unemployment is accelerating: 200,000 jobs have been lost in the tourism sector alone [4].
In this context, the Rajapaksa government responded with adjustments and attacks against the workers and the masses. First, against the many state workers, and second with the objective adjustment represented by inflation and its erosion of the purchasing power of wages and incomes of the self-employed. At the same time, it reduced taxes, which essentially benefited the bourgeoisie.
Not all social sectors suffer equally from this deep crisis. An article from a direct source informs us that: “The 20% of the richest families in Sri Lanka receive about 53% of all income in the country, while the poorest 20% receive only 4.5%. The inequalities are violent…”[5]. The Rajapaksa clan itself became grossly enriched with properties in the country, abroad and by offshoring money: Gotabaya is one of the rulers appearing in the “Panama Papers” [6].
The revolutionary process explodes 
Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back and the patience of the workers and the people was the acceleration of inflation and shortages. This had already been going on for the previous year but increased due to the war in Ukraine, especially in energy and foodstuffs. This situation of intolerability began to express itself clearly at the end of March and the beginning of April with strikes in the education, health and electricity production sectors, and large demonstrations against the government. Rajapaksa responded by “banning” the strikes and repressing the demonstrations.
Women played a very important role in this struggle because they were affected as workers in the food and textile factories (where they constitute the majority of the labor force), as self-employed workers who ran out of products to sell, and, of course, as mothers, by inflation. The seizure of the presidential residence had even been preceded by a “women’s guard” on its perimeter, which was harshly repressed by the government.
However, the repression did not succeed in stopping the revolutionary process, which continued, grew and radicalized until Rajapaksa was forced to resign. It was the first important triumph of this revolutionary process. We speak of a first triumph (or a partial triumph) because the root causes of this situation remain intact: that is, semi-colonial capitalism and its institutions.
On this institutional issue, Gotabaya handed in his resignation to the bourgeois parliament. At the same time, the parliament did not accept the resignation of the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe (whose house had been set on fire by the masses). On the contrary, the majority of the parliamentary benches asked him “to take the reins of government and continue talks with the International Monetary Fund” while “a government of national unity”[7] is formed.
Power remains in this bourgeois institution of semi-colonial capitalism whose policy is to maintain this capitalist semi-colonization (the “talks with the IMF”), now with all the bourgeois parties together. At the same time, these parties will try to convince the masses that, with the departure of Rajapaksa, “things are solved.”
As we saw, this is far from being the case, which means that this first triumph of the revolutionary struggle of the masses of Sri Lanka must be a springboard to continue that struggle and advance towards a total change of the institutions of the country and of the semi-colonial capitalist economic-social base.
What are the tasks ahead?
In formulating the tasks, we will be careful, as we pointed out at the beginning, because of the distance and the lack of direct participation. However, at the same time, there is a whole historical experience expressed in theoretical and programmatic elaborations of revolutionary Marxism we can apply.
Sri Lanka is a poor semi-colonial capitalist country that today lives a terrible economic-social situation (it cannot even buy the oil it needs) that increases to an intolerable level the daily sufferings of the workers and the masses. In these conditions, we see it necessary that, during the struggle, the masses of Sri Lanka form what in other countries has been called a Workers’ and People’s Emergency Plan which, on the basis of the available resources, sets priorities. The urgent needs of the workers and the masses (such as food and fuel) must first be met.
Among other measures that appear indispensable, this plan should start from the Non-Payment of the Foreign Debt and the end of the “talks” with the IMF. Sri Lankans must include the expropriation of the goods obtained legally and illegally by the Rajapaksa clan and the other bourgeois clans, the installation of progressive taxes on the bourgeoisie and demand the workers and popular control of the production and the commercialization chain.
Specifically, in the face of the oppressed Tamil minority, it is necessary that the Sinhalese workers and masses do not fall into the bourgeois trap of anti-Tamil nationalism and understand that this minority must have the right to self-determination. Within the framework of the recognition of this right, they can propose to them the constitution of autonomous regions forming part of a unified federation, freely constituted by the Tamil people.
Returning to the Workers’ and Peoples’ Emergency Plan, it is clear that the present semi-colonial institutions of the country are not willing to implement any of these measures. Perhaps, if the struggle forces them to do so, they will be obliged to partially implement some of them. But it will be to gain time and return as soon as possible to the “talks” with the IMF, that is to say, with imperialism.
A plan of these characteristics can only be applied in its entirety if the workers and the masses advance towards the seizure of power and the construction of a new state whose actions, like the plan itself, are aimed precisely at satisfying their imperative needs.
This poses a need both present and future. In the heat of the struggle, the workers and the masses need to build and centralize organizations which, with a functioning based on workers’ democracy, maintain and promote the struggle. In this process of struggle, they must advance in the consciousness of the masses to the degrees of the changes that are needed (the seizure of power to apply this Emergency Plan). By building these democratic organizations of struggle, the workers and the masses of Sri Lanka would be building the institutions that would constitute the bases of a new type of state.
At this point, it is necessary to expose two conclusions (proposals) that emerge from that historical, theoretical and programmatic experience to which we have referred. The first of them (which arises from the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917) is that in these processes, it is necessary to build a revolutionary party that consciously and consistently drives the struggle to the end, that is, towards the seizure of power and the construction of a new type of state.
The most radicalized of the political organizations promoting the mobilizations, and which has been gaining weight, is the JVP (acronym in Sinhalese for the People’s Liberation Front) which, according to a report already cited, is an organization of “nationalist, Stalinist and Maoist leftists” with a program and strategy totally limited to their visions of separation into “stages” of the revolutionary processes [8]. With organizations like the JVP, because of its active role in this process of struggle, it is very clear that unity of action would be proposed to promote it. But, at the same time, a profound debate on its conceptions, program and strategy is necessary.
Another issue of great importance is that Sri Lanka is a small and poor country. Even if it were to advance towards the construction of a workers’ state, if it remains isolated (even more so in the face of the inevitable attacks of all kinds by imperialism) and limited to national borders, the process will surely end in failure. For this reason, it would be necessary for this revolutionary process to consciously expand towards other countries, especially towards its gigantic neighbor, India.
[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-61976928
[2] See https://litci.org/en/peoples-second-victory-in-sri-lanka/ and https://workersvoiceus.org/2022/04/14/sri-lanka-an-economic-massacre/
[3] Puerto de Hambantota – Historia | KripKit
[4] https://capiremov.org/es/analisis/la-crisis-constitucional-en-sri-lanka-y-la-lucha-por-un-nuevo-gobierno/
[5] Ídem.
[6] https://www.antilavadodedinero.com/como-la-pareja-de-sri-lanka-acumulo-casas-de-lujo-obras-de-arte-y-efectivo-en-el-extranjero/
[7] https://www.asianews.it/noticias-es/Colombo:-la-oposici%C3%B3n-propone-un-gobierno-de-unidad-nacional-56234.html
[8] Ver https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janatha_Vimukthi_Peramuna

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