Sri Lanka: Crisis deepens

Which direction Sri Lanka will take in the coming period? Will the establishment move towards consolidating its position, which was jolted by recent mass uprisings led by the youth? Or will the mass youth movement be able to chase away the corrupt capitalist leaders and come closer to building a new society? The latter is the aspiration of thousands of young men and women who have been braving the inclement weather for weeks now in the hope that the corrupt individuals ruling the country can be brought to book to answer the multitude of allegations of corruption and fraud of public money.

The establishment was in complete disarray after the 28 April general strike and 6 May Hartal, which brought the whole country to a halt. This paved the way for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign in disgrace. However, the Rajapaksa family rallied again with the help of former Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe of the right-wing UNP, and a few members from the Opposition who broke ranks for some perks and privileges, and were able to cobble up a government which seemed to be a stable one at the outset.

However with increasing shortages and skyrocketing prices of essential items such as rice, dhal, vegetables and also fuel and cooking gas, this government has lost any semblance of legitimacy; in reality, it never had any from its inception. The Prime Minister, who took office saying that he undertook this responsibility in order to feed people three meals a day, was now stating that he wants people to have at least two meals a day. Malnutrition among children under 5 years has increased rapidly and the nutrient food supplied to pregnant women, mothers and infants has been stopped for a whole year.

The youth struggle, which started as a response to the repressive measures of the present regime taken against people who were demonstrating in front of the residence of the President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on 31 March, took a new turn on 9 April with the commencement of a continuous occupation of the President’s Office in Colombo. The occupation, which has been popularly known as ‘the Struggle’, was able to attract most of the social strata. The trade union sector, which has been lethargic for so long, apart from the episodic teachers’ salary protest last year, was compelled by this rapid social upheaval, in which most of their members and workers in general were involved, to respond in a positive manner. The outcome was the hugely successful general strike that took place on 28 April. Then came the Hartal on 6 May, involving strikes, occupations and boycotts, which completely shut down the country. The ruling class was vacillating and unable to understand what was happening and what had to be done to control the situation.

An almost pre-revolutionary situation started to emerge. The working class was fully geared to fight. Almost all the oppressed masses were in a fighting mood. They all clamoured for the ousting of the President and all members of Parliament. The ruling class was in complete disarray and divided. Military leaders were not in a position to use lethal power. That meant that the objective conditions were there even for a revolutionary uprising. However, the subjective factor, i.e. a revolutionary party which can transform the struggle into a revolution, was not there to carry through this process.

A small lumpen clique around Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had other thoughts. Rajapaksa was to be the first sacrifice of the ruling class in order to save the day for them. But he was not ready to give up office and he called his supporters to his official residence on 9 May. There were speeches full of hate against the youth in Struggle, and at noon those Mahinda Rajapaksa supporters who really were goons of local politicians, bought for money and liquor, began to storm Struggle points in front of the Prime Minister’s and President’s offices. They attacked protesters with clubs mercilessly and destroyed tents and other creations such as banners and cut-outs. In response to this attack, local people got together and got hold of the buses on which the goons were travelling back, and assaulted them and pushed them into a lake in the city, destroying about 50 buses that had been used to transport those goons. By the evening of the same day outside of Colombo more than 100 houses and other properties belonging to ruling-party politicians were set on fire and a Member of Parliament was murdered. Such was the anger of masses which was hidden up until then. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had to resign in disgrace and was secretly airlifted to a naval base in Trincomalee in the Eastern Province.

With the resignation of the Premier, the Cabinet was automatically dissolved and there was a period of no government in the country. Many negotiations were held and deals were made between parties and politicians in the ensuing days, and finally, on 11 May, the leader of the right-wing United National Party, Ranil Wikramasinghe, who was defeated comprehensively in the last general election and came to Parliament through the back door via the so-called ‘National List’ (MP positions available for parties that get a certain amount of votes), was appointed as Prime Minister by President Gotabhaya. Ranil, who has no mandate from people to lead a government, is now effectively covering and protecting President Gotabhaya. Gotabhaya, who is hated by millions of people who voted for him, has now started negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to bail out the country, which has gone bankrupt for many reasons including mismanagement and looting of the economy by Ranil, Gotabhaya and all other capitalist leaders who have ruled the island nation in the last 74 years since independence from Britain.

So it seems that a process of counter revolution has taken place and been able to supersede forces in Struggle, and mass struggle has ebbed for the time being. Trade unions that mounted two very successful strikes in less than ten days are finding it difficult to gather a considerable number of workers for a picket line. The reason seems to be that a mentality has developed which thinks the President is not going (meaning not resigning). Most of them seem to feel that there is no purpose in struggle any more as they could not force the resignation of the President. Nevertheless people have been converging at the Struggle site on special occasions such as the Pride march on 25 June.

On the other hand, the working-class movement has also pushed back after the aforesaid two mass strikes. Those two actions were called and led by two trade union fronts, one led by the JVP. After the goons’ attacks on the Struggle, these two fronts again called a strike from 10 May, and workers responded very enthusiastically. However with the appointment of Ranil Wikramasinghe as Prime Minister on 11 May, the JVP- led trade union front unilaterally called off the strike on 12 May. The calling off of the strike, which could have toppled the regime, had a huge impact on the working class to the effect that working-class resistance could no longer be sustained in the face of Ranil Wikramasinghe becoming Prime Minister and the forming of a new government, even though it is evidently feeble.

Though the fighting mood of people has been taken aback for the time being, the anger against the rulers, including the President, Prime Minister, and other politicians including ministers, is very much there. Fuel, cooking gas, electricity and essential food items are in short supply and prices have skyrocketed and beyond the reach of vast majority. People are waiting for an opportunity to get rid of their present set of rulers; however they don’t trust any establishment parties or politicians.

Even with this situation the left parties, which are in a historically weak state, have not been able to come up with a credible programme which would attract the oppressed masses. The formerly Maoist JVP, which has become an establishment parliamentary party with a nationalist posture, is trying to reap this ‘protest harvest’ with a constant outcry against corruption that has engulfed the political establishment and bureaucracy, and it has gained a certain echo in society.

The United Socialist Party, though trying earnestly to break through the barriers to reach the youth in struggle and show them way forward to the Struggle, has not been successful yet. Our trade union wing is a part of the more left wing trade union coalition and it has been pushing the leaders of trade unions to relentlessly pursue a combative path and mobilize ordinary workers from the rank and file. We have called for the formation of workers committees in the factories, offices and other workplaces, and protest actions to be sprung from below so that those rank-and-file workers can not only participate but also can lead them.

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June 2022