Sri Lanka: One year since the uprising. A contribution to the ongoing debate on the way forward-part3

Part 3

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A weakness of the Galle Face declaration is its calls for the existing parliament to reform itself by changing the way it operates, abolition of the presidency, and possibly enacting a few new laws (or a new constitution, as some would argue). None of this will be accepted by the ruling class, and, if it was, it will still fail to resolve anything. It will only return power to the elite who have been responsible for the plunder and profit-oriented policies. However, this is not the reason why sections of the opposition parties, the JVP, and a section of the middle class no longer want to endorse this declaration. In addition to demanding the establishment of an interim government, this declaration also calls for a refusal to repay all debts, capital controls, price regulation, and a few other similar actions. It is these demands that have become untouchable for the so-called left-leaning NDP, who now rely entirely on the urban middle class for their survival.

The CWI has published a small book in three languages that supports these and other key demands necessary to advance the mass movement and bring about the desired change (Read here for socialist programme, causes of the economic crisis in Sri Lanka ). It is not enough to simply take to the streets and demand an end to the regime. Equally important is putting forward an alternative and maintaining the power of the working masses to ensure that these demands are implemented. The demand for a democratically elected revolutionary constituent assembly, along with the proposal of an alternative emergency economic plan, is vital.

The prevailing notion that there is no alternative to suffering and profit must be challenged. The idea that the government has a ‘mandate’ to do whatever they like as they were ‘democratically’ elected by voters is also wrong. No capitalist government represents the interests of workers and oppressed sections. I the absence of workers party, the representatives of the capitalist class and the elite were the only choice provided for the masses in every so-called democratic election. Masses are force to choose between the Devil and Beelzebub to ‘represent’ them. Presenting the lack of choice as a real choice and democracy must also be challenged. While advocating for demands such as above, it is crucial to build a democratically organised mass party of workers, peasants and all oppressed sections that fights for a socialist programme. Without providing an organisational alternative, there is no real way to keep the demands of the masses alive. However, this mass party should not resemble the existing right-wing parties or top-down coalitions such as the NPP with a limited programme.

Despite being influenced by various reactionary forces, the trade unions have played a key role in instilling confidence in the masses for struggle and have been instrumental in the development of Aragalaya through general strikes, hartals, and other actions. Similarly, student federations have played a leading role alongside other young workers. Peasants, fishermen, hill country workers, and various other sections have come together during the time of Aragalaya.

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A new mass party should be democratically organised to involve all these sections. The CWI argues that committees of struggle should be built across the country and in workplaces. A number of local groupings were formed at the time of Aragalaya, and that can act as a basis for the development of such committees. The JVP’s electoral front, the NPP, however used the opportunity to just establish groups in some electoral constituencies with the aim of just doing election work. These are not real representative bodies, rather ‘election canvassing’ groups. People’s councils that emerged out of Aragalaya at the start represented and were inclusive of all those who were involved in the struggle. However they have become contracted to a group of individuals who meet in the capital.

The idea to build the people’s councils across the country was resisted by some who thought their role is to give ‘intellectual leadership’ and assistance, rather than actually engaging in building the organisational expression of demands and aspirations of the masses. The dedicated individuals and activists involved in the people’s councils should not abandon this idea to build truly representative committees.

The trade unions that are working with the people’s councils, such as the All Ceylon Teachers Union along with other militant unions, should be invited to play a central role. Unions should make decisive efforts to involve all its members in areas where they have a presence to come together or build democratically organised representative bodies. Local union branches, peasants groups, youth and student groups, socialists and other activists can come together to democratically decide what kind of demands and programmes they should advance.

On the basis of building support they could build the strength to be able to take decisions in terms of local governance including overseeing the control of prices and the distribution of essential commodities along with other measures to guarantee democratic and economic rights.

These committees can be brought together democratically at the national level to provide a genuine organisational alternative. Such an organisation would have the genuine interests of the workers and all oppressed sections at heart, and it would harness the power of the mass movement. Of course, such developments will be perceived as a threat by undemocratic forces, profit-driven capitalists, and their political representatives and parties. Therefore, a clear strategy must be developed to counter the attacks on fundamental democratic rights, and to protect the development and functioning of such an organisation.

A programme and strategy like this should include and involve socialists, and left-wing organisations, rather than adopting an ‘anti-party’ approach. The self-organising aspect of society becomes evident when the masses unite and find the strength to advance their own interests. However, it is important to recognise that self-organisation alone is not a solution or an automatic guarantee of success. The key lesson from Aragalaya is that the masses require organisational representation to maintain their power and protect their interests. These lessons should be part of the discussion to build a formidable fighting organisation. An organisation with a socialist programme and fighting to implement it should be built. The notion that “people co-operating as equals” will somehow empower them under capitalism is a flawed argument. A small minority of the ‘people’ holds repressive power over the majority through the state and other institutions. This power will not simply fade away without ending their rule. Divisions and discriminations, which are inherent aspects of capitalism, will persist as long as the system exists, hindering equal cooperation. Utopian ideas of this nature have been disproven by the experiences of mass movements and their aftermath, not only in Sri Lanka but also in other countries like Sudan, Myanmar, Lebanon, Chile, and so on.

The doubts about organisations, and setting up a mass party, stem from the suspicion that the organisation itself is inherently repressive and will become a repressive tool once it attains power. While this may be true for right-wing parties that represent a small number of capitalists and the elite, a democratically organised mass party will be different. Organisation per se is not inherently wrong. What matters are what the organisation stands for, its perspectives, strategy, who it represents, and how the interests are represented within the party. How the party is democratically organised, its programme and political positions are crucial questions to consider.

Some individuals elevate themselves above the masses, considering themselves to be the ‘messiah’ who offers ‘help’ and ‘leadership’ to the masses. This is as undemocratic as the assumption that the masses will know what they want to do and don’t need any ‘help’ from any organisation. The argument that “we don’t need to tell them what to do” may sound ‘sacred’ and like a truly democratic approach, but it is erroneous. The mass of the population does not possess the knowledge of advancing society collectively by default. Development in consciousness can take place through revolutionary collective action. And such a mass consciousness will thrive to advance society. However, the gathering of numbers in itself will not automatically result in knowing what is necessary to take the struggle forward.

In fact, society is divided along class lines and other identities. These divisions can be exploited by the establishment to maintain control and profit. Various parties formed in society often mobilise their own class or section of society to elevate themselves to power, thereby perpetuating such divisions. Naive trust in the inherent ability of the masses will not overcome this.

A clear advancement of a revolutionary socialist programme and building a mass party based on that programme will be an essential requirement to wage a united struggle to advance society. Deciding on the demands that need to be articulated does not automatically emerge but stems from objective conditions and the misery the masses face. For example, why can’t all organisations adopt a clear policy of non-payment of debt? Sections of the masses, including the active layer and the union leadership, may need to be ‘convinced’ to take up such demands. Leaving it to fate with the argument of ‘we can’t dictate demands’, will only favour the ruling elite, who dictate their policies on the wider masses despite their discontent and disagreement. However, it is important to reiterate that this does not mean that an active layer should see themselves as above society and act as if they ‘know better’. Any individuals or organisations that assume they are above the masses will not advance mass interests.

Therefore, it is crucial to emphasize the democratic construction of mass organisations. This involves actively involving local workers’ groups and other bodies, enabling them to engage in democratic debates and decision-making processes regarding policies. Furthermore, it is important to collectively elect representatives who can come together at the national level to form a representative and powerful democratic body. To ensure democratic accountability, it is vital to establish mechanisms such as the right to recall representatives, transparency in financial matters and organizational policies, and representatives only accepting workers’ wages. Revolutionary change does not solely arise from a mere rejection of capitalism or similar ideological convictions; it requires taking radical actions. Therefore, strike actions, including general strikes by workers, should play a central role in the struggle to shift the balance of power in our favour.

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Aragalaya has compelled many youth and workers in the South to confront the demands of the Tamils, including their right to self-determination. However, more effort needs to be made to reach out to Tamils who feel that they are subjected to greater state brutality and repression than the rest of the population. The so-called Tamil leaders, who wasted no time in re-establishing close relationships with Ranil’s regime, now stand exposed. With the exception of perhaps TNPF (Tamil National People’s Front), none of the Tamil leaders have truly expressed the aspirations of the Tamils, despite the worsening situation in Tamil areas.

According to one report, more than half the population in the Kilinochchi area in the north lives below the poverty line. Yet, we often hear from politicians in the north that Tamils are faring well. It is these politicians who are mostly benefiting from the perks and privileges they receive from the southern parliament. While it is true that remittances from the diaspora play a significant role in providing some support, the benefits are limited and only a small population, particularly cantered around Jaffna town, benefit from them. The notion of a ‘buffer economy’, which shields the Tamil population from feeling the full impact of economic hardship, as argued by some on the left, does not exist. The reality is that the Tamil population, particularly in the north, is more accustomed to suffering than the rest. The entire population still bears many scars from the past and has not fully recovered from the genocide they have endured. Numerous signs and symptoms in society indicate that the trauma of the past has not been fully addressed. The state has failed to implement a post-war health or recovery mechanism. Instead, there has been a further repression of democratic and cultural rights, including restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

There is a general sentiment among Tamil youth that they will face even harsher repression if they join forces with Aragalaya. Given how the government viewed all Tamil youth as terrorists in the recent past, this fear is not entirely unfounded. However, it is also not entirely true that Tamil youth have refrained from participating in the protest movement. Many from the Hill country, East, and the South have actively taken part. The so-called Tamil leaders and their deceptive propaganda have acted as a significant barrier in the north against the protest movement that shook the country. While collaborating with the Sri Lankan government and creating illusions in the Indian government under Narendra Modi and the West, they preached against joining forces with the mass eruption that primarily cantered in the South, particularly in Colombo city. One of the arguments put forth was that it may dilute the national demand by subordinating the Tamils to the economic demands of the southern population. Not that they openly articulated national aspirations or prepared a strategy for independent struggle, but they often used it as a justification for their inaction and class collaboration with the regime. The national aspirations of the Tamils are used as a mere tool, mainly to deceive the Tamil population in the country and the diaspora, rather than as a sincere effort to build and deliver on such demands. A small section in the diaspora holds a similar position, arguing that Aragalaya is a Sinhalese struggle with no relevance to Tamils. Not only is such an argument false, but it is also incredibly short-sighted, insincere, and self-motivated. This argument condemns the Tamil population to endure all the suffering inflicted upon them by the Sri Lankan state. It also fails to understand that the demand for a separate state is intrinsically connected to creating better political and economic conditions for the Tamils.

The economic demands of the Tamil masses are not separate from their national demand; in fact, they are interconnected. Only one organisation in the diaspora, the Tamil Solidarity campaign, fully supported Aragalaya while also putting forward demands and perspectives aimed at not only achieving economic justice for all but also addressing the national demand of the Tamils (Tamil Solidarity appeal to Aragalaya https://www.tamilsolidarity.org/tamil-solidarity-appeal-to-the-aragalaya/). This, along with the collaboration of numerous Tamil youth in the struggle, is now helping to shift the understanding and approach that has prevailed in the South due to chauvinistic propaganda from the state and other organisations. The state’s celebration of Victory Day, marking the end of the war, is now being heavily questioned. There is a growing understanding, at least among a small section of Sinhala youth, that the Tamil demand for the right to self-determination is a legitimate one. It is through united struggle that such understanding is forged, and it is crucial for all Tamil youth and activists to develop the right strategy for this struggle.

Tamil leaders fail to present a strategic plan for the struggle; instead, they still hope that repressive institutions will deliver on behalf of the Tamils, as they directly benefit from these institutions. Various NGOs and funds are made available under the pretext of conducting ‘research’, aiming to divert Tamil youth from the path of struggle. The historical legacy of armed struggle disturbs those who seek to rule over the Tamils while they continue to suffer. Certain sections of the Tamils, including those in the diaspora who have now come to dominate, have in the past vehemently opposed all forms of struggle that emerged among Tamils. They vehemently opposed the LTTE in the name of democracy, but not with the intention of building a ‘better’ struggle for the Tamil masses. These very forces maintained their silence during the killings that occurred during the war, simply to witness the end of the Tigers. Some even justified the killings, arguing that the LTTE and the government should have allowed the population to leave the war zone before fighting it out. These forces are now attempting to organize Mullivaikal Remembrance Day while pretending to defend Tamil interests. This development among the Tamils is indirectly promoted by the Sri Lankan state, the Indian state, and the West collectively.

Among Tamils, particularly in the diaspora, there is a general understanding among all those who want to build the struggle that it is foolish to expect the Sri Lankan government to deliver the demands of the Tamils. However, there is still an illusion in international institutions such as the UN or western governments. This illusion exists mainly due to a lack of real political and geopolitical understanding. Regrettably, this mistaken illusion has led the diaspora to centre their activities on lobbying, dragging Tamil politics in Sri Lanka in the same direction. This trend, combined with the dominance of NGO and academic influence within the Tamil-speaking community, has effectively silenced the voices of tens of thousands of working-class youth. The so-called ‘moderate’ right-wing, lacking political clarity, dominates the diaspora and in Eelam. At this stage the new generation is primarily influenced by NGOs and academic individuals and organisations.

The offspring of privileged families and the existing political elite have essentially formed a ‘political caste’ opposing mobilisation in the struggle. Despite being a minority within the Tamil community, their ability and privilege allow them to assume dominant positions without actively working to mobilise and build the struggle among the wider population.

Unfortunately, it has resulted in grotesquely wrong tactics, such as mobilising support for former General Fonseka, who was responsible for genocidal slaughter, or backing former close ally and racist Maithripala Sirisena, and dictatorial Ranil Wickremesinghe, while demobilising and campaigning against Aragalaya, which effectively removed the Rajapaksa clan from power. This is just one example that reveals the existing rottenness in terms of developing proper political tactics.

We must change this situation.

Serious-minded Tamil youth who are committed to the emancipation of the oppressed Tamil masses, both economically and politically, must reject these disingenuous attempts and come forward to build a united struggle. Simultaneously, the Sinhala youth leading Aragalaya should make an effort to understand the history of repression and the struggle of the Tamil masses, and include their legitimate demands in their programme. Failing to address these demands will only push Tamil youth into the hands of their deceptive leaders, who will ultimately strengthen the repressive regime.

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It is crucial to engage in open debates and discussions on the way forward. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is an international organisation that brings together socialists from various countries across all continents. The CWI and United Socialist Party fight for the economic advancement of the working class and all oppressed sections, while also aiming to unite these struggles to eliminate repressive capitalism, which is the root cause of these injustices.

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