Sri Lanka: When socialist pioneers fought malaria and colonialism 

Philip Gunawardhana, who helped lead the fight against a malaria outbreak and colonialism in Ceylon, won one of two seats in the 1936 elections to the State Council for the Lanka Samasamaja Party, formed in December 1935 - an organisation which became a mass Trotskyist force (Wikimedia Commons)

In late 1934 and early 1935, parts of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) were plagued by an epidemic of malaria. This followed huge floods in 1934. The British colonial rulers and the ‘Ceylonese Council of Ministers’ were not prepared and equipped to face such disasters. In reality, it was poor people who were the main victims. 

At the time of the malaria outbreak, the Sooriya Mal Movement, initiated by left-wing activists, was in full swing. They were involved in fighting against the ‘Poppy Flower’ campaign of the imperial rulers, organised in aid of the colonial soldiers who had fought in the first world war. This movement’s activists were angry that the victims of the malaria epidemic were starving to death and the colonial rulers were not coming up with any proper relief measures. 

Leading activists of the Sooriya Mal Movement came forward to provide relief to those affected by the epidemic. Two pioneering left-wing leaders took a big initiative in this regard. Dr. N M Perera and Philip Gunawardhana, who had come back to Ceylon from England after completing their higher studies. They came forward to organise relief measures in an area called Thun Koralaya, around 50km southeast of Colombo. With the help of Dr. S. A. Wikramasinghe, a medical doctor who was a member of the then State Council, provided supplies of medicine and packets of the staple food – dahl (lentils) – to the poor masses in the area. These relief measures helped to raise the hopes and save lives amongst this section of people. ‘NM’ (Perera) came to be popularly known in that area as ‘Parippu Mahaththaya’ (‘Mr. Dhal’) . 

This humanitarian intervention by convinced socialists was instrumental in Dr. N. M. Perera and Philip Gunawardhana winning two seats from that area in the 1936 elections for the State Council. They were candidates for the Lanka Samasamaja Party formed in December 1935 – an organisation which became a mass Trotskyist force. At that time, there was a craving for independence from Britain. These left activists were seen as the radical fighters for freedom, unlike the local bourgeois leaders who had been collaborating with British colonial rulers to negotiate some kind of quasi-independence or ‘dominion’ status.

The activists of the Sooriya Mal (Flower) Movement engaged in that benevolent activity not purely as a welfare measure but to express the strong anti-imperialist mood emerging in the country. More and more youth were attracted to the Sooriya Mal campaign against the imperialist poppies, and the LSSP was the political expression of their anger.  

Today’s crisis

The present coronavirus epidemic is qualitatively different from the malaria outbreak in the colonial era and no left party has been able to take any action as they could in 1934/35. With the present ‘lock-down’, the responsibility of the left in the present crisis is to keep a watchful eye on the government. It is trying to further its own political objectives during the epidemic. To begin with, gripped by crises at the top in the run-up to a general election, the government moved far too slowly to prevent the spread of the disease in Sri Lanka. In this island nation, an immediate ban on all travel in and out of the country could have minimised risk of contamination.

Initially, the so-called relief measures of the government were mainly designed to assist the upper and middle class strata of society; the poor and other vulnerable sections of society were completely left out. Now, the government has been forced to announce some measures for these sections as well, but its priorities lie elsewhere.

The trade unions and left forces must find ways of fighting for the rights of workers and poor people in spite of the severe restrictions. Social media communications can be used to expose the major short-comings of the government and demand action to defend the poorest layers in society. The bankers and big companies should have their resources confiscated by the state in order to carry out emergency measures to save lives – equip, staff, and if necessary build hospitals, find safe accommodation for the vast numbers who live without adequate shelter. 

Capitalist measures no solution

Vast resources were poured into Sri Lanka after the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004, with NGOs rapidly building new homes, providing medicines and clean water. Much of the aid was scandalously used by the government and politicians like Mahinda Rajapakse to buy favour for the presidential election of 2005. The United Socialist Party and its international organisation – the CWI – rapidly shifted clothing and medical aid to the worst-hit areas in Sri Lanka. As in 1935, during the malaria crisis, local people were well aware of the contrast between what socialists with limited resources could do and the outright corruption of the capitalist representatives.  

This coronavirus crisis is world-wide and the task of socialists is to expose how unprepared are societies based on privilege and profit to deal with the sufferings of the mass of the population. Health services have been cut to the bone. The building of hospitals, the development of life-saving drugs and equipment have been left in private hands to make profits for the already rich. The people asked to work through the epidemic are amongst the lowest paid.

The system is rotten. Socialists can raise their voice on phone-in programmes and social media to voice their opinions, exposing the government and its cronies and championing the rights of workers, especially those forced to work during this emergency. It is our task to express what workers and poor people are feeling. We must help build their confidence to take to the streets at the first available moment against the lethargic manner the government faced this threat when it was looming.  It is our task to come forward and organise those still left out by a system that prioritises the international and local capitalist system, the banks, the multinationals and the local land-owners and capitalists. A fightback can develop rapidly when the real culprits in the present emergency situation are exposed. This international epidemic links the workers and poor of Sri Lanka and Asia with those of the whole world.

The ideals of the socialist pioneers in Sri Lanka of defeating not just malaria and colonialism, but capitalism on a world scale, could come to fruition well before the centenary of their campaign against malaria, because of a world-wide calamity created by the system of capitalism shown to be rotting from the top down. Down with the blood-sucking profit system; for a new, socialist world! 

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