The president of Sri Lanka, Gotabhaya Rajapaksha, has completed two years in office. He came to power with huge public support from the south of the country, where Sinhala Buddhists predominate. He was defence secretary from 2005 – 2015 and won acclaim from the Sinhalese majority for militarily defeating the Tamil Tigers, ending a 30-year long war in the north of the country. At the same time, he has been blamed for the slaughter of more than 100,000 Tamil civilians in the process.
Ironically, Gotabhaya’s election programme of two years ago was entitled ‘Vistas of prosperity’. However, now, under his rule, Sri Lanka is in dire straits and the people are struggling to sustain their day to day life. It is one crisis after another and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel; there doesn’t even seem to be an end to the tunnel.
Although the Covid 19 pandemic has had a big impact and exacerbated the situation, most of the problems are rooted in an ongoing economic crisis, compounded by the total inability of the president and the small military clique around him. They see every social issue only from a military angle and their attempts to put forward military-type solutions to them have led to disastrous consequences.
The best example of this policy has been the fertiliser problem, which has been afflicting the country for close to a year now. Last April, the president forwarded a cabinet paper to ban chemical fertiliser and to use only organic fertiliser for agriculture from the next crop’s season onward. It was adopted without any public discussion. Immediately the chemical fertiliser which was left in stock went off the market and organic fertiliser was not available. Farmers were told to make their own! However, not only the farmers but even the apparatus of the state was not prepared for such a sudden shift. Every type of fertiliser was in short supply and farmers came out to the streets in their thousands in protest. The president arrogantly refused to budge and declared that if he wanted to, he could “get those striking farmers to the fields, dragging them by their ears”.
However, Gothabaya could not quell the farmers’ protests. He hurriedly imported stock of organic fertiliser from China which was then found to be not of the right quality. Later, liquid fertiliser was imported from India, and that was also found to be not suitable especially for paddy fields cultivation. In both these instances, huge corruption took place. Serious allegations have been levelled against the two ministers in charge of agriculture and fertiliser supplies. With all these dramatic developments and no subsidence of the farmers’ protests, President Rajapaksha had to yield to their demands and lift the ban on chemical fertiliser.
The military mindset of Rajapaksha is very evident in his recent appointment of a task force for green agriculture, with an army commander appointed to head it. This same commander was head of the National Centre to deal with the Covid pandemic and he has come in for much criticism for mishandling it. Gothabaya has been publicly ridiculed for appointing this same military big-wig to manage what is essentially a health issue.
The president has recently called on military personnel for active service all over the country. Many people have expressed concern as to why he has made such a move when no emergency situation has arisen requiring the military to be deployed.
While the government is making blunders after blunders, the mass of Sri Lanka’s people are undergoing unprecedented hardships. There are no supplies of rice, flour, vegetables, milk powder, sugar, gas and kerosene at affordable prices. Prices have sky-rocketed and, in a move that explicitly shows the incompetence of the regime, the government did away with price control measures that have been in place for more than 25 years. This has allowed unscrupulous traders to determine the prices of essential food and cooking gas. Long queues for buying food and other essential items – a hallmark of the 1970s – are back again. And those queues have become focal points where people release their anger. Even two utterly pro-Rajapaksha TV stations are now increasingly broadcasting the anti-government sentiments of the masses in order to maintain their ratings and survival.
Sri Lanka is heading for disaster economically. So far, the government is trying to get the country to survive by printing money. Though no official data are available, it is widely known that three trillion worth of rupees has been printed in the last one and a half years. However, the lack of foreign exchange for importing essential food and fuel has pushed the government to the wall.
Foreign reserves came down to $1.6 billion by the end of November, last 2021 – barely sufficient to pay for the imports of one month and a week. Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksha, the younger brother of the president, recently said that there are no dollars for importing milk powder – an essential component of children’s food. Dollar scarcity has now sent shock waves through the government leaders.
The finance minister hurriedly undertook a visit to India when his budget proposals were actually being debated in the Parliament. He sought the US $500 million in a currency swap to pay for immediate imports. There was no immediate response from India as to whether they have agreed to that swap, but India might grant it with stringent conditions. It is understood that India wants Sri Lanka to seek IMF assistance (again) to tide over its current foreign exchange/balance of payments problem.
The main concern vis-a-vis the economy in the next year will be paying off foreign debt. Fitch rating agency has downgraded Sri Lanka’s standing and there is talk of an impending (and unprecedented) debt default. Sri Lanka has to honour sovereign bonds amounting to US $500 million and 700 million in January and July of next year. The government is running here and there looking for currency swaps – from Bangladesh, Qatar and UAE – but nothing seems to be materialising at the moment.
One of the main reasons for the shortage of foreign reserves is the dwindling of foreign remittances from the Sri Lankans being employed in the Middle East and elsewhere, on top of the catastrophic effects of Covid on the island’s tourist industry. Foreign remittances have come down in the past several years. Now those employed overseas do not wish to remit their hard-earned money through the official banking system when they can obtain a higher return for their dollars from the street market. In an unprecedented move, the Sri Lankan Central Bank has directed that dollars sent by employees abroad should be transferred into rupees before a certain date and it has been roundly criticised.
Government in crisis
While the economy is falling over a precipice, the political front has also become utterly calamitous. The government has signed an agreement with an American company to take over the monopoly supply of LNG (liquid natural gas) along with a 40% share of government-held stocks in the venture that controls the relevant power plant.
This move has been greeted with condemnation from all over the country, if only because it has clearly violated all the norms in a business deal. Nobody knows how this company – New Fortress Energy (NFE) – came onto the scene. The government had called for open tenders for the supply of LNG and NFE did not even make a bid. Signing this agreement is a clear example of underhand dealing.
In an unprecedented move, three ministers of the government have openly come out against this agreement. They are ignoring the constitutional obligation of collective responsibility and have tendered affidavits stating that the relevant agreement was never approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. They are appearing in the Supreme Court against this deal, under which American interests are getting an unrestricted say in supplying power for the country. Sri Lanka would be totally subservient to American interests and have no say in procuring its energy supplies.
In the last two months, a number of gas explosions have taken place in households across the country in a bizarre manner. Nobody took it seriously at first, thinking it was all coincidental. However, now it has come out that the main reason for them has been the altering of the composition of the gas ingredients to get more profit by using cheap material. This illegal move was perpetrated by the government-owned gas company, headed by hand-picked henchmen of President Rajapaksha.
There has been one death and several people injured, and damage done to equipment in people’s households. Now, this issue has become a potentially ‘explosive’ one for the government. Ministers and ruling party politicians are trying to pass the blame on to gas company officials. Nevertheless, people correctly point the finger at the government’s mismanagement of the whole issue. Even at the time of writing, gas explosions are still taking place.
The utter silence and uncaring attitude of the president and other ministers in the face of this unprecedented chaos have led to them coming in for severe criticism; anger is growing among the mass of the population. Now it is getting difficult to find anyone who willingly admits they voted for this President and his ruling party.
There are two country-wide elections due next year – provincial council elections – that have been due for the last three years, and local government (council) elections that should be held next year. The government has, understandably, decided to postpone them using some provisions in the relevant election laws. If any election is held now, the ruling party will face huge defeat and the government is determined to avoid such a scenario.
Even when the ruling party is in such a mess, the opposition is not in a position to challenge the regime. The SJB (Samaji Jana Bulawegaya – United People’s Force) – a breakaway grouping of the traditionally right-wing United National Party (UNP) – has still not grown into a viable opposition, although it has been garnering support among the rural masses. The JVP, which claimed to be a Marxist party, has now transformed itself into a populist centrist party – basing itself on the urban-based middle class. It is trying to cash in on the situation where corruption is rampant and the disgust of the people for establishment politicians is at an all-time high. There is a possibility that the JVP can become a strong third force that can challenge the establishment parties in the electoral field.
However, people will face hardship whichever of these parties gains power. There is seemingly no solution for the day to day burning issues affecting the majority of people. The downtrodden masses are now barely surviving on one meal a day. The universities have been closed for nearly two years. The Covid 19 pandemic seems to be under control due to the effective measures taken in the health sector, thanks to the free health service keenly guarded by trade unions and progressive forces. Yet no general relief seems to be forthcoming for the ordinary masses.
In this context, trade union leaders have not been able to mount a unified campaign against this utterly unpopular and corrupt regime. There are trade union disputes taking place in almost every sector. Workers in the docks, the post, petroleum, electricity and health sectors are currently in the struggle against selling off the national assets to foreign powers and winning their long-standing demands.
The six months long teachers’ struggle has been one of these remarkable trade union struggles. It showed that united and determined action in the face of various attacks by the regime and pro-government small unions should be an eye-opener for the whole working-class movement. However, union leaders have not been taking it as a model or lesson to reinvigorate workers, in general.
Everyone agrees that there is no solution to this unprecedented mess into which the country has been pulled by the capitalist system. The left, which has been a strong force in the country’s politics for more than 50 years, has now become quite small. Nevertheless, the solution lies in the Marxist tradition and methods adopted by the Lanka Samasamaja Party in the thirties, forties and fifties, by advancing working-class mass struggles. We in the United Socialist Party, though small in numbers, are trying to re-ignite that path of mass struggle and policies based on socialism to resolve the burning issues afflicting the country.