Sri Lanka: Prime Minister forced to resign but mobilises his support to attack protesters – trade unions call for indefinite strike in response

The Sri Lankan government’s attempt to defeat the movement against it has provoked a ferocious reaction from protesters. Just days before, on 6 May, trade unions organised the most successful Hartal (a general stoppage of work combined with the full shutdown of shops, etc.) for decades. Tens of thousands of workers turned up to mass protests that took place across the country. Ruling politicians’ homes and government offices were the main targets for these protesters. Significant and energetic protests held outside the parliament at that time tried to maintain a continuous protest by occupying the parliament area. However, they faced significant repression from the government. Protesters also showed increased militancy and fought back against the attack despite the heavy use of tear gas and water cannons. However, protesters later retreated. The occupation of this area also risked blocking the main road in Colombo, disrupting all travel for workers the next day – and that was one of the concerns of the protest leaders.

The strong Hartal and the clash at the parliament sent a decisive message to the government that the protests are not going to back down until the government resigns. They want the whole Rajapaksa family currently dominating the government to step down forever. The Rajapaksa government responded by declaring a state of emergency and started to mobilise their base. The Rajapaksa family has a history of sponsoring alcohol and food for their hooligan supporters and providing free buses to fill their public meetings. Whenever Mahinda Rajapaksa traveled to Jaffna – the main northern Tamil town – for example, it is often the case that 20 to 30 buses will accompany him to fill the public meeting place – mainly to avoid the embarrassment of not many turning up to these meetings. On Monday 9 May, when prime minister Rajapaksa announced his resignation, they also organized around 50 free buses to the Prime Minister’s Office (Temple Trees) and brought together a group of loyal hooligans. In a meeting held at the prime minister’s palace, Mahinda spoke to the crowd and clearly provoked them against the protesters. Following this, about a 1,000 of these so-called ‘supporters’ started the attack on the protesters who were outside the prime minister’s office. Then they marched to the president’s office and continued their attack. Armed with metal bars, knives, etc, they began vicious attacks against the protesters. It was noticeable that the police were slow to respond to this blatant violence. Given the emergency situation, there were also not enough protesters present at that time in Galle Face – now renamed ‘GotaGoGama’ after the popular demand that the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa returns to the US, to which he had migrated in 1998 before returning later.

But the Rajapaksas have completely underestimated the widespread anger that exists now. Despite the emergency, tens of thousands marched to the GotaGoGama to defend the place as the news of the attack spread. Protesters, armed with whatever they could find, fought back the hooligans. The nature of this vicious attack has led to an outburst of anger in several parts of the country. Government goons were chased around and the buses that brought them were also attacked. Some of them were thrown into the river near where the buses were found. Despite the curfew and severe repression, many protesters have also targeted parliamentarians’ houses. According to some reports over 50 houses of politicians were burnt down. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s house (the ancestral home of the Rajapaksas in Medamulana in Hambantota district) is among them. Properties and vehicles of politicians were also attacked. Police fired at the group of protesters who tried to storm the Temple Trees. Shootings also took place in other parts of the country. According to some reports, at least ten were killed and around 200 have been injured so far.

Following the news that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son Yoshitha had left the country, a section of the protesters moved to the airport with the intention of occupying it. Opposition party politicians were not exempt from the attacks. Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJP) turned up to GotaGoGama to capitalize on the situation, but faced with the outpouring of anger he was attacked. He quickly ran back to his car and fled the scene with the help of the police. Protesters are also now gathering outside the Novel base in the eastern port city of Trincomalee following the rumors that the Rajapaksa family has now taken refuge there with the aim of leaving the country.

Anger is running very high, as the attack on protesters is rightly seen as deliberate – a planned operation by the prime minister’s office. As one of the (Sri Lanka) Daily Mirror journalists put it: “Prime minister leaves office only after almost setting the country on fire”. But Mahinda did not ask the protesters to stop – instead he asked the general public to ‘restrain’ themselves, and declared: “Emotions are running high”. Presidents and prime ministers maintaining hooligan supporters and using them for their political aims is not something new in Sri Lanka. The pogroms against the Tamils in July 1983 were planned and organized by the then-president JR Jayewardene’s supporters. Later President Premadasa was also accused of using his hooligan base to deal with his political opponents. But this time was the first time in Sri Lanka that thugs were beaten back.

Though today protesters have registered their fearlessness and willingness to stand firm, it is still not clear how the protests will develop further. The military is now deployed at GotaGoGama and the government has indicated that they will continue the curfew. What the next stage of the struggle will be is the key question facing the movement. The Gotabaya-led government has not shown any indication of stepping down. Their attempt to use the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa to defeat the movement has backfired and been beaten back. However, further attacks on protesters and the arrest of its key leaders are still possible.

Unions that were involved in the general strike held on 28 April and the Hartal of 6 May have now called for an indefinite general strike. The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) was the first to declare that they will strike on Tuesday in response to what is widely seen as ‘state-sponsored terrorism’. The Joint Trade Union Action Group (JTUAG) declared that the government is bribing small groups to silence the protesters. They called for the punishment of Rajapaksa supporters who attacked the protesters and for Gotabaya to step down.

The general strike is likely to continue until Gotabaya steps down. This however is not enough. What will replace the current government is still not clearly articulated by the opposition movement. The idea of forming committees in workplaces and in villages and towns is beginning to get traction. Trade unions should take the lead and form committees in workplaces and communities to organise the protests and their defense. The movement also needs to take a clear position on all democratic demands and an emergency economic policy that needs to be implemented immediately.

Some still have illusions that a deal with the IMF or the West will somehow result in lifting the dark economic crisis. But a deal with IMF could see the further deterioration of economic conditions and the dismantling of public welfare. In addition, the movement should also take responsibility to win the support of Tamils, Muslims, hill-country workers, and other ethnic and religious minorities. It is not enough to reiterate that all sections are united in opposition to the Rajapaksa regime. Demands that are articulated by these communities must be taken up by the movement. The Rajapaksa family is responsible for the mass killings that took place in the North. Though Tamils, in general, support the struggle that is taking place, a section of them is still suspicious as to whether their demands will be accepted by the movement. There is a genuine fear that exists among many that national aspirations may be drowned by the current movement, with the emphasis on the promotion of a ‘united Sri Lankan nation’. The movement can, however, win the support of Tamils if it begins to articulate their democratic demands and address their national aspirations.

The demand for a separate nation is heightened by the ongoing repression and the Rajapaksa-led brutal war that killed tens of thousands and forced even more to disappear. Inevitably, a section of Tamils celebrated when they saw the Rajapaksa family home being burned down, as they recollected how many homes had been burned down in the north. But a strong movement with clear perspectives and demands can cut across the brutal past. Unity on the basis of taking up clear demands and perspectives is possible. It is such a unity that will be much stronger – and one that will be definably unshakeable by state forces.

Many also fear the return of divisive chauvinist elements to power. We have already started to see Buddhist chauvinist organizations that are linked to Gotabaya coming to the streets and launching attacks – particularly on the businesses of the minority Muslim population, etc. This could lead to more clashes. Unless these forces are decisively defeated and a government of workers and the poor is established, the danger of Mahinda’s family returning cannot be ruled out. Sri Lanka is at a crucial juncture. Though the current situation is dire for millions, it also presents an opportunity to form a government of workers and the poor that can serve in the interest of the people. This will be an enormous leap not just for Sri Lanka but will have a decisive impact in the region and beyond.

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May 2022