Thu Mar 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

The Lankan Revolution

On the 9th of July, we witnessed inspirational sights. Millions of Lankan people, mobilized in struggle, stormed the presidential palace, forcing the incumbent president to flee. The economic collapse in Sri Lanka is the culmination of four decades of reckless neoliberal policies, brought to a fitting conclusion by an egomaniacal and Bonapartist leadership, in the form of the Rajapakse brothers, Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapakse. For three years now, the island nation of Sri Lanka has been reeling under a severe economic crisis, caused in the first instance by the easter Sunday bombings, and then exacerbated by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. What we are seeing today, is a culmination of this crisis, which is itself the result of decades of failed neo-liberal policies, and a fundamental failure of Sri Lankan capitalism.

By Adhiraj Bose – Mazdoor Inquilab India – July 13, 2022
The anger of the populace is directed presently, against the most visible manifestation of this failure and exploitation, the Rajapakse brothers and their rule. Still, at its core, it is a revolt against systemic exploitation and the failure of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie as a whole, which has spent most of its independent existence doing two things: consolidating its power through exceedingly brutal and militaristic means and benefitting from the exploitation of their island nation by imperialism. This has created a system where the rich are exceedingly wealthy, while the vast majority of the country is left with nothing.
The most stark scene of the July 9th uprising, was the sight of the average Lankan worker, who might be a carpenter, a bus driver, or factory worker, occupying the presidential palace, and using it as their own home. At the palace, the Lankan worker was first and most directly acquainted with the stark gulf between rich and poor. On the one hand was the lavish presidential palace, replete with luxuries, including a fleet of presidential cars, and on the other hand, the people of Lanka who had lost everything.
The political situation now
The uprising is the continuation of protests which began on April 9th, these were spontaneous protests not led by any political parties, but by the people themselves, and activists of various hues.
It brought together wide sections of Lankan society, from Buddhist monks, to celebrity athletes, to rural peasants and workers, and urban workers. The wide range of the protests gave the movement it’s numerical strength and momentum. However, it also gives rise to some of it’s most obvious limitations, the chief among this would be the lack of any coherent programme or political direction, beyond the most immediate ones.
The most immediate demand there is consensus on, is the removal of the incumbent president and his cabinet. From April 9th onwards, the relatively small and urban protest kept growing, till it became a national movement, that succeeded in forcing the erstwhile Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse (Gotabaya’s brother, and the controversial former president of Sri Lanka who presided over the genocide of Tamils in the second Eelam war), along with his entire cabinet. The inability of the Rajapakse government to handle the economic crisis, and their heavy handed chauvinistic, and deluded economic policies like the sudden ban on fertilizers which caused a collapse of the island’s plantation economy, have all contributed to wrecking the country’s economy and destroying the lives of millions of workers and poor.
Since the end of the Eelam war, the Rajapakses had been leading Sri Lanka down a debt trap, borrowing more and more money to pay for vanity projects like the Hambantota port, and then borrowing more to pay for the money they had borrowed. The IMF and ADB (Asian Development Bank) constitute the lion’s share of this debt, aside from these, China and Japan respectively hold 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt. India held 2% of Sri Lanka’s debt, but since then has lent nearly $4 billion in soft loans to keep the country’s economy in a barely functional state. Historically, India has been the only country to intervene militarily in Sri Lanka, and was one of the key supporters behind the Lankan army’s campaign against the LTTE in the second Eelam war, providing weaponry and intelligence.
Despite this history, India has stayed back, as has every other power that influences Sri Lanka. There is no visible presence of any imperialist intervention, though right wing voices in India are calling for it. No one wishes to take the risk of putting any support behind the Rajapakse government, which is universally hated across Sri Lanka. The Lankan armed forces, which were so active in massacring entire communities of Tamils during the Eelam war, were paralyzed for action when faced with the protests on the streets of Colombo. In desperation, militarized police forces opened fire on protesters on the 9th of July, all that did was aggravate the situation enough, that the protesters stormed the presidential palace, and burned down the residence of the now former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. The presidential palace continues to be an occupation site, and a library which was set up at the Galle face green protest site has been moved to the presidential palace.
As of now, Sri Lanka has no functional government, a situation that has more or less been the case since Mahinda Rajapakse’s resignation and dramatic departure in May. Reports suggested he was hiding at a naval base near Trincomalee in the North, which was notorious for being used as a torture centre. The current president’s exit left that post essentially vacant. Ranil Wickremasinghe, who resigned as Prime Minister, has now been made an interim president till a new president can be elected. For the bourgeoisie, these protests are a cause for alarm, the longer the movement persists, the people’s consciousness would increase, the more radical it would become, just as their economic condition worsens.
The imperial powers of the world are just as concerned, should Sri Lanka’s case be repeated in other developing countries, especially within South Asia. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, all have large debt burdens and weak, or faltering economies, of the smaller nations, only Bangladesh and Nepal appear to have some degree of stability, while Pakistan seems to be on the precipice. India has been pumping in money as if keeping the economy barely alive on life support, with the cynical aim of ensuring a refugee crisis like in Venezuela, did not erupt in Sri Lanka, while also keeping the people’s anger somewhat contained by ensuring supplies of essential commodities like food and fuel. However, much resources are diverted towards maintaining Sri Lanka’s bloated military and security apparatus, which is involved in the continued oppression of the Tamil population, especially in Eelam territories. For the Lankan bourgeoisie, this is an equal priority to the needs of the people.
The bourgeoisie are left with very few options. Repression is failing, they are unable to pacify with political grand gesturing, chauvinism has failed to divide the movement, and the island’s masses have generally stopped trusting political parties. It is why, even during the general strike on the 1st of June, they did not accept leadership from any political parties, not even leftist political parties.
As things stand today, the masses are still mobilized and energized into action, and the ruling class can’t rule. At the same time, there is no organ of parallel government or dual power. The people will not be ruled by the bourgeoisie, but neither are they in a position to take power for themselves. At the same time, the bourgeoisie, who nominally hold power, can’t exert their rule. In the aftermath of President Gotabaya Rajapakse’s dramatic exit, and resignation, the bourgeoisie is scrambling to cobble together an alternative government with the sole aim of negotiating an IMF bailout, something even the IMF is not interested in. No lender has any trust in Sri Lanka’s ability to repay it’s
debt, and seeing the scenes of the uprising and political collapse, has diminished their confidence further.
The political parties and their role
The Lankan bourgeoisie, like it’s counterparts across South Asia, is a byproduct of colonial rule. The island has been colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally the British. Before that, the island was at various times under the hegemony of Southern Indian empires, divided between different indigenous kingdoms, or briefly under Chinese Ming Dynasty hegemony. The history of the island speaks to it’s vulnerability, and geo-strategic importance. The Sri Lankan bourgeoisie evolved in this context.
Sri Lanka inherited an economy largely dominated by the plantation economy, focused on tea, rubber, and spices, with some limited shipbuilding and trading infrastructure. Over the course of independent Sri Lankan history, the bourgeoisie managed to diversify into textiles and tourism, while remaining dependent on rubber and tea. The bourgeoisie started from a weaker base than their Indian counterparts, which inherited extensive industries in the main urban centers. As such, even after 1948, when Sri Lanka received independence, it remained a Dominion of Britain, and largely dependent on the empire. The party also set the course towards Sinhala chauvinism which would define the island’s politics, disenfranchising Tamil plantation workers.
The first government formed under the first Prime Minister Don Stephen Senanayake of the United National Party represented the interests of the landed gentry and big business. The Senanayake family itself was invested in the lucrative graphite mining business, and worked to pursue a pro-dominion position rather than one of complete independence. His son, and Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, implemented cuts to rice subsidies which caused price rise for rice, which is a staple food of the island. This prompted island wide protests, and culminated in a general strike spearheaded by the Trotskyist revolutionary Philip Gunawerdene and the Lanka Sam Samaj Party. The Prime Minister had to flee his residence and seek refuge in a British warship, not unlike today when President Rajapakse fled the island on a military aircraft. The strike could have led to a revolutionary upsurge, but rather than guide the movement towards a seizure of power, the LSSP compromised. The strike ended in the partial resumption of the rice subsidy.
In 1956, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), an ostensibly left wing social democratic party led by a key figure in Sri Lankan politics, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, took power in the elections. Philip Gunawerdene leading the Viplavkari Lanka SamSamaj Party (VLSSP), was able to push some progressive reforms as minister for agriculture food and cooperatives, such as enacting the paddy lands act, which brought relief to tenant farmers, as well as nationalizing ports and bus transport, and established the cooperative bank. The united front with the SLFP would begin unravelling, beginning with the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1958, which was the first major such incident in independent Sri Lanka. Despite harbouring a progressive economic agenda, the SLFP ultimately pivoted to Sinhala chauvinism to hold power, not unlike their predecessor the UNP. The SLFP
government would fail, leading to another period of UNP rule, and in 1959, the VLSSP would dissolve.
Ultimately, both the SLFP and the UNP have revealed themselves to be two sides of the same coin. The UNP prefers aggressive right wing pro-capitalist economic agenda in addition to maintaining Sinhala chauvinism, while the SLFP dresses this in populist left sounding rhetoric. In 1978, Sri Lanka switched from a constitutional monarchy under the British monarchy, to an executive presidential system modelled on the French presidency. This concentrated power in the hands of a head of state who was also head of government. This was also the beginning of the militarization of the Lankan state and an increase in discrimination against Tamils. The first president of the island, J. R. Jayawardene, leading a United National Party government, pivoted away from India and the nonaligned movement (which the SLFP made Sri Lanka a part of) and toward the United States of America, and began the process of implementing neo-liberal reforms. Under the UNP, Sri Lanka became the first South Asian state to embrace neo-liberal policies. This went hand in hand with heavy repression of Tamil militancy, which was a direct reaction to sustained discrimination and pogroms by chauvinist Buddhist Sinhalas. Thus, the two great ills of modern Sri Lanka were birthed under the UNP government, neo-liberal economics and chauvinism.
Standing against these are the left wing parties of Sri Lanka, whose record leaves much to be desired. Of the major leftist parties, are the LSSP, which had compromised with its principles, and lost its leadership of the working class by 1964, the Janatha Vimuktha Peramuda (JVP), and the SEP.
Of these the JVP is significant for it’s role in leading two armed uprisings, both of which were brutally crushed. The first of these erupted in 1971 during the rule of the SLFP and the second in 1987 in the context of the Indian military mission to Sri Lanka. The JVP has since given up it’s tactic of armed insurrection to overthrow the government in favour of parliamentary politics. On several occasions, the party made united fronts with the right-wing United National Party, such as the 1987 election and the 2010 election. It is currently in all party talks to negotiate with the IMF. We see in the JVP an arc which began with failed voluntarism, and ended in reformism. This, along with LSSP failures, explains in part why there is a deep suspicion of leftist parties in Sri Lanka.
It would not be wrong to say, that the leadership of the parties failed to provide leadership to the Lankan working class when it needed it the most, and appear nowhere near leadership position in the present situation, now that Sri Lanka is heading towards a revolutionary situation.
What must be done?
An opportunity like what is seen in Sri Lanka comes once in decades. Failure to seize such
opportunities might push back the tide of class struggle for many decades. Sri Lanka came close to such a revolutionary situation first in 1953 with the general strike, and only now after nearly seventy years are we looking at a similar situation. The energy of the masses is undeniable, as are their anger and frustration with the country’s bourgeois leadership. Sri Lanka stands as a glaring failure of capitalism, and especially of neoliberalism, though it’s ideologues may live in denial of it. The example of Sri Lanka’s collapse is also a foreboding of what is to come to most semi-colonial nations in similar debt traps with similarly backward economies.
Given this situation, a successful revolution in Sri Lanka can serve as an example of how to liberate a semi-colonial nation from the jaws of imperialist exploitation. The first step without exception, must be A REPUDIATION OF ALL FOREIGN DEBT. The wealth of the nation must be made available to serve the needs of it’s people, not the greed of imperialist banks.
The next, must be the NATIONALIZATION OF THE COMMANDING HEIGHTS OF THE ECONOMY. In case of Sri Lanka, that means the tea plantations, rubber plantations, ports and transport infrastructure. These constitute the economic lifeblood of the island. Under almost fifty years of neo-liberalism, these have been slipping away from the hands of the country, into the hands of foreign powers which wish to exploit Sri Lanka’s resources and its geostrategic position. The revolutionary position, is that the wealth of the island belongs to it’s people.
Whilst the first two steps focus on securing economic command of the new state, no programme for Sri Lanka can be complete, without supporting the RIGHT TO SELF DETERMINATION FOR THE TAMILS. Much like Hindu-Muslim communalism in India is key to helping consolidate the power of the Indian and Pakistani bourgeoisie, the Lankan bourgeoisie relied on a policy of discrimination and oppression of the Tamil minority of the island, both to consolidate its power and to ensure the working class and it’s allies remain divided on ethnic and religious lines. A revolutionary program cannot be considered so, if it cannot recognize this. It is imperative that the Tamil people be given the right to self-determination, up to secession. Ultimately, the Tamil people must choose their destiny, whether they wish to remain within Sri Lanka and demand equal treatment and equal rights, or if they wish to have their own country in the hopes of gaining such equality with the Sinhala people. It is the duty of a revolutionary party to respect their wishes, in either scenario.
While we recognize this, we must also recognize how much this question connects to Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour India, where most Tamils live. Here, we are faced with the fourth most important need of the Lankan revolution, INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY. The workers and peasants and youth of Sri Lanka can overthrow capitalism on the island, it can make the bourgeoisie flee, but after that, defending this conquest of power, and then building socialism, all within the confines of the island, is an impossible task. In the least, one can imagine India intervening militarily, as it did in 1971 and 1987, to ‘bring back order’. Other powers follow India’s lead in this. For the Lankan revolution to survive, it must become part of an international revolutionary movement!
As of now, there is no revolutionary leadership for the Lankan protesters, there is no revolutionary agenda. Yet, that is exactly what is needed and what is most lacking now. The protesters may overthrow the Rajapakses, they may overthrow the SLFP, but if tomorrow, another bourgeois coalition comes into power and simply makes a deal with the IMF, perpetuating the very economics which drove Sri Lanka into the situation it is now, all the struggle, all the massive mobilizations, all the sacrifices would have been for nothing.
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