Sri Lanka: New but uncertain period opens up

President Sirisena aims for clean government but will face difficulties

Much to the relief of western capitalist powers, after a narrow but momentous victory over Mahinda Rajapakse, the newly elected Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, has been sworn in. He has announced sweeping reforms to ‘clean up’ government in Sri Lanka and satisfy basic needs of many sections of the population. In what appears to have been a carefully managed transfer of power, Ranil Wickeremasinghe, the leader of the main opposition party, the UNP, has become prime minister and a number of other ministers in the Rajapakse government have been replaced.

The whereabouts of Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother, Gothabaya – former Minister of Defence whose hands are mired in blood and corruption – are unknown. He is said to have tried to prevent, with soldiers under his command, the announcement of Sirisena’s victory, but other sections of the army were already on the side of the victor! It is widely anticipated that former army commander Sarath Fonseka, a rival candidate to Mahinda Rajapakse at the last presidential election in 2010, will be given the job of defence minister after new parliamentary elections now scheduled for April. Fonseka, like the new president, was responsible for giving orders to Sri Lankan forces as they massacred the minority Tamils at the end of the civil war.

Nevertheless, because of pressure from below and in order to consolidate support, this new team is trying to give the impression they constitute a new broom to sweep away the remnants of the corrupt and dictatorial regime of the Rajapakse clan. They are promising a golden period of economic and political reform. Indeed, Maithri’s list of 100 measures to be achieved in 100 days is impressive.

Almost every section of the population is to benefit. Public sector workers’ wages will be increased and petroleum prices will be reduced. Teachers and pupils will enjoy an environment free of military control. Women will receive a better deal as will Free Trade Zone workers and the families of the many Sri Lankans working abroad. Education spending will go from 1.7% of the budget to 6%. The free health service will be overhauled.

The small clique at the top is to lose all its opportunities for graft and cronyism. Whether some kind of trial will be organised for Mahinda Rajapakse himself is not certain. The new president was, after all, a close collaborator in government and secretary of his party – the SLFP.

Parliamentary elections are to be held at the end of the 100 days (in April or May) supposedly on a reformed electoral system.

How far the new team will go in changing the politics of Sri Lanka and its international alliances is unknown. But it is clear that, because of its strategic position, western imperialist powers and India favoured a ‘regime change’, particularly to rein in the influence of the Chinese regime on Sri Lanka’s economic and foreign relations. It had given succour to Rajapakse financially and militarily, unencumbered by concerns for democratic rights, war crimes tribunals etc. Sri Lanka is strategically important as a base from which to guard China’s trade routes – the development of its ‘Maritime Silk Road’.

India’s Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to greet the victory of Sirisena, signalling a a “recalibration away from Beijing” , as the English Guardian put it on 10 January. A number of luxury building projects are being reviewed as well as the construction of a new port city near Colombo. Other Chinese investments – in roads, airports, harbours etc will no doubt go ahead but the US and European powers, as well as the IMF, will look at reviving trade, investment and loans.

The many pledges of the Sirisena programme in relation to press and media freedom, freedom of speech, ‘independence’ of the judiciary etc. are a welcome sign that, if implemented, trade unions and political parties of the left will be able to operate and organise without the vicious state repression of the recent period.

State sponsorship of white van abductions and of murderous racist thugs like the anti-Muslim Bodu Bala Sena may end and equal rights are promised for all races. No explicit promise is made to open the refugee and prison camps that still hold thousands of Tamil-speaking people but land and housing are seen as a priority for all displaced persons. Even the super-exploited Tamil tea-plantation workers are to have new homes to replace the infamous ‘lines’ in which they have been forced to live for generations. Small farmers, fishermen and trishaw drivers will have pension and other rights they have never enjoyed before.

This all sounds too good to be true. (And even the Pope is visiting the island this week, giving his blessing to the project!) But much of it may not be implemented. The economy has been going ahead at more than 7% in the recent period and defence spending could be dramatically reduced to finance the health and education spending increases. But capitalist economies world-wide are suffering a long-term crisis and China’s growth is slowing. Also a very strong camp of Sinhala chauvinism will not remain passive.

The United Socialist Party, having argued in the election for public ownership and socialist planning to assure jobs and welfare for all, has a unique opportunity now to explain the barriers that exist in a capitalist dominated society like Sri Lanka’s to the fulfilment of Sirisena’s promises and how the independent mobilisation of workers and young people is necessary to ensure the implementation of these promises and transform society.

In a record turn-out of over 81%, Maithre has been elected on the basis of large votes from Tamils and Muslims as well as swathes of the Sinhala majority population who wanted the Rajapakses off their backs. If he does not deliver on his promises, the Rajapakses, who still have a large layer of support in the Sinhala-dominated south, may yet try to make a come-back. Their astrologer-advisers will have to work harder next time round to get it right! Meanwhile the United Socialist Party has a unique opportunity to build on its support and get its socialist policies known country-wide.

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January 2015