Protests in Sri Lanka Protests in Sri Lanka, Photo: AntanO, Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, linked at bottom of article

After months of mass protests, the people of Sri Lanka ousted the President. Shabbir Lakha spoke to London-based Sri Lankan activist Nirmala Rajasingam about the uprising and the continuing struggle

Could you tell us what has happened since the mass movement ousted the President?

A new wave of repression has hit the protest sites and streets of Sri Lanka as the parliament, together with the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe, have brought in wide ranging emergency powers to deal with the protesters. Lead left activists, student leaders and progressive clergy are being hunted down, many arrested, including prominent trade-union leaders. Some are simply abducted, interrogated and thrown out of vans. In a terrifying development, reminiscent of past states of extra-judicial summary killings, four dead bodies have been found, washed ashore from the sea or found in the suburbs of Colombo.

Protesters achieved major victories, forcing the resignation of corrupt political leaders. The new president has no mandate from the people, as he lost his own seat in the last election, but has been brought in through a parliamentary process, widely accepted as a corrupt deal between him and the Rajapaksas, who appear to be firmly in the saddle, even though out of office, because the SLPP, the Rajapaksas’ party, offers the majority the new president requires.

On his very first day in office, Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered a brutal crackdown on the Galle Face protest site, in the middle of the night on 22 July, on sleeping protesters, even the disabled ones. Access to lawyers and medical assistance was denied. The protesters believe that the attack was by a paramilitary group, while the armed forces maintained a cordon around the site, preventing the protesters from fleeing.   

This attack was launched despite the protesters publicly announcing that they were going to hand over the Presidential offices that they were occupying by 2pm on 23 July.

Will the protests continue? 

All indications are that the protests will continue. The protesters, left activists, civil-society actors, intellectuals, artists and clergy are gradually regrouping, and even though somewhat depleted in numbers, are carrying out protests, Satyagraha style sit-ins, in the capital and countrywide. They demand the release of arrested protesters. For the first time, events to remember the state-organised 1983 July pogroms against the Tamil community, which marked the start of the thirty-year civil war, were held in the South among the majority-Sinhalese at protest sites.

The protests will continue, because the dire economic situation is worsening by the day. Sri Lanka, which had achieved ‘middle-income’ status, is fast slipping into a situation of facing serious levels of malnutrition and starvation, with half the population expected to descend below the poverty line next month. Inflation at 80% is rising at an alarming rate daily, with basic essentials beyond the reach of working people and the poor.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, firm advocate of a neoliberal market economy, has no plan apart from the IMF bail-out, the negotiations for which may take another eight months or so, and is only about debt sustainability. IMF imposed austerity, privatisation and selling off public assets have already begun. The people will have to endure massive levels of deprivation and economic misery for the foreseeable future. These measures will also damage the economy irreparably.

As far as you know, what is the role and influence of the left in the movement and its direction?

The protest movement was politically very eclectic until now, with even centrist and some right-wing political parties joining the demonstrations to oust the Rajapaksas. After Wickremesinghe became President, there has been a change in the composition of the protest movement, with the more middle and upper-class, business-sector protesters leaving the protest stage, as Wickremesinghe is seen by these forces as someone with ‘contacts in the West’ and a ‘plan’. This will leave largely progressive left forces, trade unions and progressive social movements driving the protests for the moment, and shaping its demands.

How is the movement dealing with these new challenges and what are the main demands being made?

One of the key demands of the protesters is that the executive presidential system, which wields excessive powers and which was brought in to push through neoliberal reforms, be abolished. The executive presidency has wreaked havoc on the political landscape of Sri Lanka and its economy to disastrous effects.

The protesters demand that economic relief be organised forthwith for the suffering masses. Release of all arrested protesters, and political prisoners from the Tamil and Muslim communities are important demands. The protesters want the emergency to be withdrawn, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act to be repealed.

What do you think are the next steps for the movement to succeed and do you think it’s likely they will be able to?

Parliament is increasingly seen as a self-indulgent body, largely irrelevant to the deteriorating lives of the people. Government has not taken any steps to organise economic relief, or distribute food and essentials efficiently, since the crisis began. People see only jockeying for power and horse trading in parliament.

New structures of ‘People’s Power’ outside of parliament are being envisaged to discuss a new constitution, new governance structures, devolution, workers’ rights and economic policies that will strengthen the domestic economy. The protest movement hopes that once this people’s movement becomes stronger, the country could elect a new parliament with new faces who are drawn from these progressive forces and wish to drive through a transformation of Sri Lankan society, through grassroots initiatives.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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