Sri Lanka: Socialist May Day in Colombo

Tamil and Sinhala Trotskyists march united against poverty and communalism


Over 200 Trotskyists -men in red shirts and caps, women in colourful saris – marched in Colombo’s fearsome afternoon heat behind the banners of the United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka).

This year’s theme is "A Socialist May Day" and the message is that even a small party, still swimming against the stream of political events can come to play a crucial role inside the country and in the wider world.

The mood is fervent. While many of the city’s other demonstrations are bigger, no one compete with the determination and fighting spirit of the USP’s overwhelmingly youthful May Day march. Chanting slogans against capitalist globalisation, coalition politics and communalism (inter-ethnic conflict), the march winds its way through shanty towns to a rally in the poor working class district of Grandpass Junction.

Tamil speaking party members and supporters from Pottuvil – devastated by December’s tsunami – have travelled twelve hours by bus to reach Colombo. They are a very young crowd, some wearing traditional Muslim headwear, others red baseball caps with the letters USP. A bus arrives from Galle, in Sri Lanka’s deep south, made famous internationally by the tsunami. A busload of Galle USPers disembark greeting their comrades from other parts of the country.

"We went to the tsunami people," party spokeswoman K.K. Dhammika explains in her address to the demonstration. "We didn’t have any money to give them, but unlike the other parties and the government, the USP listened to them and asked what they needed."

She explains that no other issue – four months later tens of thousands are still homeless – shows more clearly the need to end coalition politics and build a genuine working class alternative.

"The country is heading for a huge crisis, economically, politically and socially," warns Siri Jayasuriya. "Temporarily the government has a breathing space because of the tsunami money from international donors, but this won’t go far. The agricultural sector suffered a seven per cent fall in output last year, according to the latest central bank figures," he explains, pointing to the shockwaves in Ecuador and across Latin America where workers and the poor are rising up to challenge the neo-liberal politicians.

The atmosphere twenty four hours before the demonstrations has been tense. The brutal abduction and murder of a leading Tamil journalist, Dharmaratnam Sivaram, late on Thursday night (28 April) has cast a shadow over the whole political situation. Many fear a return to the communalist wave of assassinations of the late 1980s in which left parties, like the forerunner of the USP, were also targeted. Several journalists have been killed on the island in recent years without a single case being solved by police. With the peace process between the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the Colombo-based government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga stalled, and the fiercely anti-Tamil, ostensibly "left radical" JVP a junior partner in the government, the situation is extremely unstable. Left parties including the USP have called a vigil on Wednesday to protest against Sivaram’s murder and leaflets opposing the communalist gunmen were distributed at the USP’s and several other May Day demonstrations.

While yet unclear who was behind the killing, suspicion is inevitably falling on the military intelligence and the Eastern "Karuna" grouping which has split away from the LTTE, and diverse communalist forces. There aim is undoubtedly to undermine the shaky peace process and prevent Colombo making what they regard as unnaccepteble concessions to the Tamil-controlled north of the country.

The JVP fiercely denies any part in the Sivaram killing, and has spent lavishly on May Day to shore up its "left" image, severely tarnished by its role in a government which carries out World Bank edicts and has completely mismanaged the tsunami relief operation. Unlike last year when it participated together with the main government party, the SLFP, in a joint May Day procession, this year it spent a reported 20 million rupees on advertising its own event. That the party is rich, with its access to official coffers, there’s no denying. A USP member on route to Colombo passed a column of two dozen JVP buses from just one locality descending on the capital.

In what was both a threat and a provocation, the JVP paid for a massive six metre high billboard at the very junction where the USP rally was to be held. As a team of a dozen or so USP activists arrived on Saturday evening to erect the party’s stage and decorations they were greeted by the billboard which with some radical attacks on "recolonisation", railed against the "partition" of Sri Lanka (i.e. no right of self-determination to the Tamils). After some discussion, the USP team decided the best solution was just to erect the party’s towering backdrop – depicting a workers’ demonstration saving the world – directly in front of the JVP hoarding. By May Day morning the problematical billboard was invisible. This was an important symbolic victory, of a small socialist party relying only on the skills and dedication of its members and supporters over "Big Politics" using tax payers money and slick advertising agencies in an attempt to hide its support for a neo-liberal government agenda.

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May 2005