Sri Lanka at the crossroads


The Sri Lankan economy is declining further and the joint Sirisena-Wikeramasinghe administration is showing that they are incapable of developing the economy as promised during the 2015 election period. All their hopes of getting foreign investment have turned into a total failure. Financial management is in complete disarray. Sri Lanka presently is totally dependent on IMF and World Bank loans. The trade deficit reached a massive US$2.5bn in the first three months of the year. If trade performance continues like this, the year’s deficit could exceed US$ 10 billion.

“The large trade deficits have been a serious economic concern in recent years. They have weakened the external finances of the country and contributed towards a balance of payments crisis. Imports have been much higher than export earnings for many years.

The inability to contain imports when exports were faring badly resulted in massive trade deficits of US$8.3 billion in 2004, US$ 8.4 billion in 2015 and US$ 9.1 billion this year.” (Sri Lankan ‘Sunday Times’, July 2nd 2017) 

A further look at the huge loans taken by the Sri Lankan government in the recent past will give a full picture. In 2014, the total was Rs.7,391 bn. By the end of 2016, total loans were Rs. 9,387 bn. – an increase of 27%. To face the serious economic crisis the present government’s only answer is to sell all the major remaining government enterprises like Sri Lankan Airlines, the Trincomalee oil tanks, the state banks, electricity, petrol and the Hambantota ‘Rajapakse Port’.

Masses on streets

The Hill Country town of Bandarawela came to a standstill on June 28. A sit-down ‘hartal’ campaign has been organised to urge the government to repair the damage caused by the tunnel built at Umaoya. This is a huge project started during the Rajapakse regime, disregarding the local people’s protests to stop it because it would damage their livelihoods and the environmental pattern in the Hill Country.

The US$529 million Umaoya project constructed in 2009 conveys water to the Handapagala and Lunugam Wehera reservoirs in southern Sri Lanka for drinking, irrigation and industrial purposes. According to media reports, 80 million litres of water have been leaking daily. More than 6,000 householders are complaining of big cracks developing in their houses.

More than 20,000 people took part in the protest. Shops and markets were closed and transport was completely stopped.
There have been many protests taking place all over the country during the past few months. Poor peasants have been involved in a continuous campaign over not receiving their vital fertilizer subsidy. In the south of the country, the people of Hambantota area are in a campaign against land being given to a Chinese company for so-called development.

Fishermen in the Negombo area (near Colombo) are in a continuous campaign against the port city project being constructed by the Chinese government. It will cause huge damage to the sea pattern of this area and the fishery harvest will die.
Postal workers, electricity workers and petroleum workers are in one strike after another. Mainly these strikes are against the privatisation programme of the present Maitri-Ranil government which is implementing the neo-liberal economic programme of the IMF and the World Bank. The students’ struggle against privatisation continues. (See earlier article on this site.)

False promises

Some of the key promises made by the Maitri-Ranil duo during the last election time were on eliminating corruption and a proposal for constitutional reform to abolish the dictatorial executive presidential rule.

Mega corruption during Rajapakse rule developed under the powerful Executive Presidency. But mega corruption cases, including the Central Bank bond issue and many others, have taken place under the present ‘Unity’ government. During its two and a half years’ rule, corruption has surpassed that of the first three years under Rajapakse. The promised ‘neat and clean government’ if Rajapakse was ousted from power has become a big joke. The proposal to abolish the Executive presidency does not go down well – it has no logic and no rationale – in a country like Sri Lanka with deep links to neo-liberal economic policies and huge pressure from the majority Sinhala Buddhist ideology.

No hope for Tamil people

The situation in the predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east of Sri Lanka is very volatile. The government has not fulfilled a single promise given to the people there in respect of returning their land, investigating the disappearances arising from the war, releasing political prisoners or finding a political solution based on a new constitution. Not only that, it is now wavering on every single issue affecting Tamil people because of the surge in Sinhala chauvinism led by the Buddhist monks with their feudal mentality and ideology.

One of the major promises made to Tamils by Maithripala Sirisena during his presidential election campaign was to give back the lands occupied by the security forces during the war. Even eight years after the end of the war, only a small fraction of the more than 5,000 acres occupied – just 6% – has been returned to the people. That’s also only after much agitation.

Maithripala and Premier Ranil Wikramasinghe made a number of promises with regard to the disappearances which took place during and in the immediate aftermath of the war. Pledges were given to the international community including the UN Human Rights Council. However, no tangible action has been taken by the government to inquire into those disappearances which have been well documented by now. Nowadays, in the central town of Kilinochchi, in Vavuniya in the north and Trincomalee in the east, parents and other relatives of the missing are in continuous protests demanding the government to take realistic action to trace or tell the truth about those disappeared and to punish the culprits in cases where criminal action has been committed in respect of those missing.

More than a year ago, the government obtained parliamentary approval to establish an Office of Missing Persons. But still it has not come into being. Recently the government submitted a bill to the Parliament to give effect to the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances. However, it was withdrawn after Sinhala Buddhist groups, led by an influential section of Buddhist monks, protested to the president.

Traditional Tamil political leaders who are gathered in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have completely failed to give expression to the needs and expectations of Tamil people who are struggling to come to terms with bitter memories of a 30 year long brutal war which ended with massive loss of Tamil lives. They are going behind the capitalist government in a vain hope of extracting some relief in political terms for the north and east when a new Constitution is promulgated. But the two leaders in the government, Maithripala and Ranil, are increasingly wary of the emerging Sinhala Buddhist communal pressures. Even the mention of giving a political solution to the Tamil national question, which has plagued the country for 70 years since independence from the British, has come to a halt.

Sinhala chauvinism on rise

On the other hand, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist forces, who have been inactive or not very visible after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse in the 2015 elections, have regrouped and started a hate campaign targeting Muslims, who, apart from in the Eastern Province, mainly live in pockets among the majority Sinhalese. Their target seems to be the Muslim business community who own a considerable share of the trading and shops in the main towns of the country, including in the capital, Colombo.
A hard-line Buddhist extremist group – Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – has been spearheading this campaign since 2013 and in June 2014 Sinhala hooligans led by a maverick Buddhist monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasaara, ransacked the coastal south-western towns of Aluthgama and Dhargatown inhabited by Muslims. They set on fire shops and houses belonging to Muslims. Four Muslim people were murdered. However, no proper inquiry has been conducted into these atrocities and no perpetrators brought to justice. This is even after the present Maitri-Ranil government came to power riding on a solemn pledge of getting justice for Muslims who en masse voted for the present ruling parties twice – in January and August 2015. Due to the inaction of the government, the BBS has come to the fore again, attacking Mosques and setting fire to shops and business places owned by Muslims. More than 100 such incidents have been reported in the last two to three months.

This situation shows the danger of rising Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. Under the guidance of saffron-clad monks, who nominally preach compassion to all human beings, communalist forces seem to be regrouping for a showdown with the government. This is a government which, at the outset, made out to the world that it is going to enact a new constitution enshrining provisions to solve the Tamil national question. These communalist forces were considerably weakened by the resounding defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse in the elections of 2015. But they have made a come-back due to the government’s lackadaisical approach, the wavering and lack of any clear policy on any of the crucial issues affecting the Sri Lankan situation.

Dilemma over new constitution

Recently an influential section of Buddhist monks made an announcement opposing a new constitution of any sort, asking to maintain the status quo on every major issue without changes. The president, who comes from a remote rural area, succumbed at once to this announcement and hurriedly summoned a meeting of all the chief religious dignatories at his official residence in the Hill Country capital of Kandy. He was pressurised by those bhikkus (Buddhist monks) to come before them whenever a new constitution is being proposed and get their approval.

The so-called joint opposition, led by former president Rajapakse, has stepped up its campaign against enacting a new constitution; the bhikku force is the organised group they use to measure how much pressure they can put on the ruling party and to mobilise public support. This opposition is clearly bent on outright chauvinism and communalism in that they oppose any sort of power-sharing mechanism with the Tamil people in the north and east and any concession to minorities and their religious freedoms.

It is very clear that the government leadership has no clear idea of how to counter this growing trend of intolerance and the subjugation of other people’s rights by extremist Sinhala Buddhist elements led by an influential section of Buddhist monks. These monks are one of the most backward and feudal-type cliques, still maintaining their casteist hegemony.

By September this year, the Memorandum of Understanding between the ruling parties of the UNP and the Maitri-led SLFP will come to end. Already some ministers and MPs of the Maitri faction, who have been supporting the so-called national government, are openly talking about quitting the government. Most of this section has come under pressure from the rising communalist situation and the Rajapakse group.

Environmental (man-made) disasters

On the one hand, SriLanka has been facing tragedies one after another in the recent past. First landslides in Aranayaka (near Kegalle) in 2016 that killed 127 people and then Kelain river (main Colombo river) floods in the Colombo lowland area that killed 92 people. Next was the Meethotamulle (nearby Colombo) waste dump disaster which accounted for 23 deaths and nearly 1,000 houses were damaged. Then in May the Southern province and the Sabaragamuwa province had major floods and a death toll of over 300 people with another 75 people still missing.

A new factor in Sri Lankan society is that, at the present time, after the defeat of the dictatorial Rajapakse regime, working class people, peasants, students and the people of the North and East are openly coming out to fight for their demands. For nearly all of the last one and a half decades, the mass movement was completely inactive. The main reason was that during the war period, the state suppressed every activity in society. The working class was divided on communal lines. Another important development is that we can see the Tamil people coming out openly to campaign for their demands after nearly 35 years.

It is clear that the present government has failed on all fronts. But that does not mean the Rajapakse camp has a chance to come to power very soon. The tragedy of the left in Sri Lanka is that they have become either supporters of one or another section of the capitalist class. The ‘old left’ – the LSSP, CP and people like Vasudeva – are supporting the communalist Rajapakse. The NSSP (Bahu) and split-offs from the LSSP and CP are supporting the Maitri-Ranil government. Even the JVP is seen as supporters of the present government.

Trade Union leadership is still very weak decades after the defeat of the 1980 general strike. A few trade unions come together to celebrate May Day (the international workers’ day) but they have no programme to unite workers on class issues. To overcome this problem we put forward the demand to convene a democratic national convention of factory level leaders to discuss the problems faced by the working class.

There is a big vacuum in the political field in Sri Lanka, north and south. But the working class, poor peasants, students and the Tamil people in the North are showing their willingness to fight back in order to win their demands. In this situation, we need to build our CWI ranks and recruit new layers of youth to meet this challenging and developing situation in Sri Lanka.

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August 2017