Sri Lanka: Is the ‘National People’s Movement’ a viable mass alternative?

Anti-government protest in Sri Lanka on April 13, 2022 in front of the Presidential Secretariat (Photo: AntanO)

“Go Home Gota” was the slogan with which a new wave of mass struggle started in Sri Lanka in April last year. This struggle then developed into a massive popular uprising, including huge strikes, that by July 2022 had spread across the country. Eventually, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was driven out of the presidency, and the entire Rajapaksa cabinet was forced to resign.

This people’s uprising changed the political landscape in Sri Lanka. One of the main changes was the collapse of all the traditional political parties. Not just the ruling party of Rajapaksa, but also the opposition bourgeois party, the United National Party (UNP), along with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Other Tamil and Muslim traditional political parties in the North and East are facing the biggest crises in their history. It is in this environment that the slogan “all 225 members of the parliament should go home” has emerged. This has become a common slogan among ordinary working people. This new situation clearly shows that the advanced layer of the working class and the youth are looking for new avenues politically to fill the political vacuum that has emerged since the mass struggle.

Although the vast majority of people are fed up with traditional political parties, they still have some hope in the electoral process. However, they have started moving away from established parties towards a new popular formation led by the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP – ‘People’s Liberation Front’) called the National People’s Movement (NPP). This is mainly due to the fact that there is no other viable mass alternative existing in the country.

The JVP did not play an actively mobilising role during the mass struggle. It is not an exaggeration to say that they have been onlookers and sideline participants of the struggle. They never enthusiastically engaged in the mass movement to build it or put forward a perspective to go forward. In fact, the JVP played a pernicious role in terms of the development of workers’ struggle taking centre stage. On the day that the mass struggle was developing (9 May  2022), the JVP tried calling a transport strike, creating an obstacle for people attending the mass gathering in Colombo. They were forced to call it off due to heavy pressure from other unions and socialists. But when the strike developed into a general strike, many militant unions were willing to continue the strike to support the mass movement and keep up the momentum. But through the trade unions that the JVP controls, they managed to call off the strike.

The JVP has managed to attract considerable mass support in a very short period of time. Given its rising popularity, the JVP opportunistically abandoned even basic ‘bogus’ leftist political policies they stood for in words. This is another key reason why the JVP has become attractive to urban middle-class and petit bourgeois circles. Now, the JVP has completely removed the word socialism from its vocabulary, which it has maintained at least as ceremonial phraseology up until now. Not only has the JVP abandoned socialism, but they have also removed the red shirt and red colour inherited from its past as a left-wing movement. They have very quickly moved to the right and adopted capitalist parliamentary politics. In an interview with ’Anidda‘ newspaper, Bimal Ratnayake, one of the main leaders of the JVP, stated the following: “Now there is no social force that will campaign for socialism in society. Now it’s time to find a way to get out of this crisis by painting some capitalist reforms. Considering the pit the country has fallen into, even that is not a bad thing.” (2018.09.09. Anidda Newspaper)

This is further confirmed by the statement made by Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who is the leader of the JVP, in a discussion with a group of independent intellectuals last month. In that discussion, he clearly stated that they have now abandoned building the fight for a socialist society. After all the journalists had left, Anura asked the meeting audience to switch off their mobile phones. He then told them that “there is no capitalist class in Sri Lanka and therefore their agenda is to maintain the capitalist system without corruption”.

Another parliamentary capitalist party

It is clear that the JVP has gradually become another parliamentary capitalist party. Another leader of the JVP, Nalinda Jayatissa, went further and made a public statement in a recent Rupavahini TV debate that they are not against the privatisation of education, especially universities, as long as it’s done under a JVP (NPP) government’s supervision.

Another important and fraudulent action of the JVP is their position on the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They have, so far, made no clear statement about borrowing from the IMF. In March 2022, when the economic crisis was at its peak, all parties except the ruling party were forced to come to the conclusion that the country should not pay back its debt as it had defaulted. Even then, the JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath insisted that the country should maintain repayment. This shows how far they have deteriorated towards neo-liberal policies.

It has now been confirmed that the JVP is ready to implement the IMF programme under their so-called supervision. The JVP has not only accepted the capitalist system economically but also politically. It has become a movement that champions Sinhala Buddhist ideology. JVP leader Anura Kumara’s visit to the main Buddhist leader, Malwatu Asgiri Mahanayake, in Kandy, to present the JVP manifesto, entitled “Deshaye Apksha” (Country’s expectation) shows their true form as Sinhala racists.

In their manifesto, they talk about creating a “Sri Lankan nation”, and they stand for “national security”. In fact, what has been stated in their document is not true – no such Sri Lankan nation has ever existed before, and enforcing such a one-nation theory will be a recipe for further bloodshed and division of the working class. One truth that cannot be hidden is that whenever the so-called “Sri Lankan nation” is mentioned, it really only refers to the majority Sinhala Buddhist identity. The Tamil peoples’ need for a new constitution had mentioned in their booklet ’National Unity and Reconciliation‘. In that booklet, put forward by their electoral front, they argue for “National Unity – One Country, United in Diversity and Equality – a Sri Lankan Nation”. This is, in some sense, offensive toward Tamil workers who are demanding democratic rights and their own distinct identity.

Furthermore, “National Unity and Reconciliation” fails to address the fundamental demands of Tamil people, including the basic request for the army to withdraw from the north or be confined to barracks. This omission underscores the limitations of the JVP’s understanding of the national question. In their special manifesto, “An Approach to Solving the National Question” , the JVP frames the issue in terms of a clash between Sinhalese and Tamil “racist” groups, and oversimplifies the complex question as follows: “On one side there are Sinhalese racist groups who say that the North wants provincial councils with the police powers and land powers, and on the other side there are Tamil racist groups who demand provincial councils with separatist organisations and individuals and the Indian capitalist government together with imperialists.” (An Approach to Solving the National Question 4 Page 2 of 2)

Further, it says: “As the solution to the national problem, the introduction in Sri Lanka of a division of powers through provincial councils has completely failed. It has only served the separatist forces and could not find the solution to the national question.” (JVP, An Approach to Solving the National Question – Last Page)

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

The statement above highlights that the JVP has failed to analyse the national question from a class perspective and instead views it from a Sinhala-dominant standpoint. The JVP attempts to conceal its Sinhalese racist stance through some phraseology towards Tamils, but the racist positions of their leaders have surfaced at times. Furthermore, the JVP wrote about the past when they conducted an openly racist campaign, denying the general understanding that exists on the left. They asked, “Is that a true history?” They answer this question as follows: “Who has directly invaded our country? It is India. Why can’t this truth be written in our history? Is it so ugly to write those words? Are they afraid or betrayers? Yes, we know it’s ugly. There is a real thing that happened in this country in 1987. It cannot be buried by telling a changed story – an identity card-added story. There was a patriotic struggle in this country then. There is something valuable that should be placed in the museum of Sri Lanka but is not there. The army of Sri Lanka was betrayed by JR Jayawardene. Only one gun of that army was fired against the invader. It was the gun that hit Rajiv Gandhi. That gun should be in the museum of Sri Lanka” (Lalkantha on 28.05.2013 Lankadeepa).

The above quote is enough to show the core of brutal Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that remains with JVP whatever the “new form” they take.

It is important to quote a statement written by Dr. Sumit Charminda, a political analyst, questioning JVP’s hidden racism. He points out (Ravaya newspaper on 13.09.2020):

”Recently, the lawyers of National People’s movement held a press conference about the 20th constitutional amendment. The news was reported by the Janata Vimukti Peramuna website with the headline ’Lanka Truth‘: ‘By removing the 7th Schedule related to the Oath from the 20th Amendment of the Constitution, the formation of a separate state has been subtly strengthened.’ “The news has been quoted by Sunil Vatagala, lawyer of the NPP.”

Sumit Charminda, the author of the article, raises the question of why the lawyers of the National People’s Movement are eager to present a particular interpretation of the national question. He then asks what this implies when considering Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s recent idea of abolishing provincial councils. This suggests that the NPP leadership has not been successful in building a common consensus for a pluralistic approach to the national question, and thus it has not become a central part of the democratic reform agenda. This lack of consensus highlights the unresolved nature of the national question. However, Harini Amarasuriya, a National List Member of Parliament from the National People’s Movement, recently stated that they are ready to implement the 13+ solution. It is noteworthy that the JVP has remained silent about Harini’s statement, which may indicate a lack of clarity or agreement among NPP leaders on this issue.

The JVP is simultaneously concealing information about the damaging activities of China in Sri Lanka, including the significant environmental destruction and economic challenges caused by China. This is consistent with the JVP’s development of a new iteration of their “Indian expansionism” theory, which originated during the Wijeweera period. The JVP appears to have no interest in elucidating the class-based nature of the crisis or the underlying geopolitical tensions.

During the conflict, the JVP fully supported the Rajapaksa regime in carrying out the war and contributed to fostering racism against the Tamils and Muslims in the Northeast. Instead of analysing the national question from a Marxist point of view and arming the left forces, including the working class, against the Indo-Lanka agreement, the JVP set Sinhalese society in the south on fire with racist propaganda.

In the mid-1960s, the JVP started by severely criticising the old left’s entry into the capitalist coalition government in 1964. But on the other hand, the JVP misled their own followers when they entered the coalition government as they helped to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa to power in 2004. They claimed that it was not a coalition but a probationary governmental arrangement. There was a lot of discussion within the JVP leadership at that time about how to enter coalition governments. The internal document submitted by Somawansa Amarasinghe, who was the party leader at that time, for the discussion that was held within the party before the 2005 presidential election, stated as follows: “At this time, our party has more advantages than disadvantages through the formation of a coalition government with United People’s Front. Our party’s journey to power can be accelerated through these advantages. There is now a situation in which our party can be maintained without undermining the capitalist class in a coalition government. On the other hand, our party has the ability to subdue the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to a certain level and even lead that party.” (Somawansa Amarasinghe’s internal document – No. 14)

This so-called “Marxist analysis” of the JVP is no different from that of the wrong theoretical analysis made by the leaders of the old Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s to justify joining coalition governments with the Sri Lankan Freedom Party. This shows that the Janata Vimukti Peramuna, like the old traditional ’leftist‘ parties, was never a Marxist party. It is important to understand how the JVP and the National People’s Movement are fast becoming an alternative capitalist parties, abandoning all the policies of socialism. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawega declares that the security of the country will be given to former army commander Sarath Ponseka in its future government. Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the National People’s Movement, who is a competitor to Sajith, recently announced after a discussion with retired military officers that a retired military officer would be appointed for the country’s security under its government. This clearly shows the direction that they are travelling.

Although not easily comparable, looking at the rise and fall of Podemos, a radical left-wing force in Spain, can also help to understand the decline of the JVP. In 2014, when Podemos (meaning ’we can‘) was formed, a serious political crisis began in Spain, along with the fragmentation of traditional parties. The 2017 independence movement in  Catalonia, an autonomous region in the Spanish state, was a “litmus test” of Podemos’ policies and vision. They did not accept the right of self-determination of the Catalan people and their firm position was that a solution should be reached according to the will of both parties. This position was also detrimental to the future of that party.

The people of countries like Sri Lanka have a lot to learn from the rise and fall of Podemos. We can learn from the Podemos movement that abandoning your own principles and adopting pro-capitalist policies with the aim of winning more popularity will never lead to success.

It can be concluded from their own statements that the National People’s movement and the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna are not an alternative to the existing capitalist system in any sense and that they have become the defenders of the capitalist system socio-economically and politically. Clearly, the JVP has made compromises with the imperialists in order to advance a neoliberal policy. It is further made clear from the discussions held by the leaders of that party with the American and British ambassadors. Understanding this reality, it should be emphasized that there are no shortcuts other than to fight for the overthrow of the capitalist system and to build a socialist alternative power without being fooled by the radical speeches of the JVP in the face of the crisis of the capitalist crisis in Sri Lanka.




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March 2023