Sri Lanka flag Sri Lanka flag. Photo: Nimal Skandhakumar / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked below article

Following the mass resistance of Sri Lankan people, the President fled and has officially resigned. John Clarke analyses this triumph of working people and the struggles ahead

I have no doubt that I am only one of many millions across the world who have been inspired by the powerful fightback that has emerged in Sri Lanka over recent months. The sight of people facing impossible increases in the cost of life’s necessities storming the presidential palace and defiantly taking the plunge in his luxury swimming pool, struck a chord and seemed to symbolically point the way forward. After all, this is a time when the idea of settling scores with the architects of austerity and exploitation is an inviting one.

Following the invasion of his personal citadel, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that he would resign from office and turned his attention to avoiding personal accountability. He finally sent in his official resignation after thwarted attempts to escape to Dubai, then on a military aircraft to Maldives and finally settling in Singapore. His fall from grace and his highly undignified departure are attributable to the refusal of working-class people to tolerate the conditions that he and his regime were imposing on them.

On learning of Rajapaksa’s departure, ‘thousands of people took to the streets of Colombo.’ As they approached the office of Prime Minister and ‘acting president’ Ranil Wickremesinghe, police used tear gas against the crowd ‘but they managed to storm the office and other state buildings’ anyway. Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency and ordered the military to do ‘whatever is necessary to restore order’ but his bruised regime is clearly up against a formidable and determined challenge.

Broad based movement

The present struggle has unquestionably mobilised a broad based movement of people. The political left and trade unions have been involved. There have been massive workplace actions, including a national strike in May that involved millions of workers. Poor and dispossessed people have been drawn into it but also sections of the middle class. It is by definition a dynamic social mobilisation, that points to huge possibilities, though it is also certainly not without its contradictions.

There is no doubt that the immediate catalyst for the protests is the playing out within Sri Lanka of the present global cost of living crisis. Demonstrations began in March, in response to record levels of inflation, shortages of food and fuel and power blackouts. It has been ‘Sri Lanka’s most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.’ The failure of the government to respond effectively and alleviate the suffering led to an explosion of anger. This, coupled with a deeply held contempt for a corrupt regime that serves the interests of only the richest in society, produced a strong and tenacious movement on the streets.

The economic grievances that underlie the present protests, however, have been accumulating for much longer than the last several months. Sri Lanka has been fully integrated into the neoliberal world order and has faced the impacts of its regressive agenda, compounded by the global crisis that has emerged since the onset of the pandemic.

The standard array of international loan sharks has greatly compounded the hardship that ordinary people face. ‘Western banks, financial institutions and hedge funds, held over 40% of Sri Lanka’s external 2021’ and ‘ ratings agencies downgraded Sri Lanka amidst the pandemic, effectively reducing the government’s ability to increase spending or borrow funds to provide relief amid a pandemic-induced recession.’ These institutions have continued to squeeze the country, even as its governments dutifully implemented the destructive ‘reforms’ demanded of it by the IMF. As in many parts of the world, the so-called ‘debt crisis’ translates into the demand that hard-pressed working-class people go without the necessities of life in order to pay off bloodsucking bankers.

The movement that has taken to the streets in Sri Lanka shares many of the characteristics that mark similar upsurges across the planet. It has developed a stunning momentum and thrown those in power into a political crisis. However, as in so many other situations, those political leaders will work to contain it with a variety of tactics, including the selective use of repressive power and, where necessary, tactical concessions. The president has bolted for cover but the ruling establishment as a whole has a great deal of fight left in it yet.

In an interview with Counterfire, Nirmala Rajasingam suggested that the vital question is for left and progressive forces, which she says are strong within the present movement, to press demands and advance concrete goals that challenge this inevitable strategy of stabilisation and containment. She pointed out that the interim ruling structure must now be confronted with a demand to scrap the highly authoritarian constitution of the country that has ‘wreaked injustice and violence’ on the people for so long.

The challenge to the reactionary constitution will, of course, need to be complemented by demands that seek the complete reversal of neoliberal austerity and debt bondage. Public services must also be greatly strengthened and workers’ rights expanded.

For this to take place, the stranglehold of international finance capital must be broken. In this regard, there is a real role for solidarity from the left internationally, especially in the imperialist countries. The demand for the cancellation of Sri Lanka’s debt must be taken up. It is far more important for working-class people in that country to have access to the necessities of life than for a cocktail lounge full of bankers to get their interest payments.

Working-class unity

For the movement to advance and defeat all efforts to contain it, there is no more important consideration than working-class unity. In this regard, Sri Lanka faces an especially dreadful legacy of British colonialism’s infamous strategy of ‘divide and rule.’ The Tamil and Muslim minorities have faced appalling levels of oppression and Tamil resistance has been crushed with murderous state violence. The ruling class and their international backers have benefited from Sinhala chauvinism and no united movement can be built without challenging it decisively.

It is only thirteen years since the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end and the repression that was imposed on the Tamil population in its wake is far from over. The deep divisions and bitterness that have been generated are still very much part of political life. This has been evident in a strong level of ambivalence towards the uprising among Tamils and in continuing manifestations of Sinhala chauvinism within the protest movement.

A wide ranging alliance of Tamil organisations issued a statement in May that expressed its full support for the protest movement, calling for it to go beyond ‘the narrow goal of removing Rajapaksa family members from office’ It also pointed out, however, that ‘The idea of Sinhala-Buddhist pride nurtured among the Sinhalese people has always been used by those who benefit from it to protect their interests and existence.’ It went on to stress that ‘They fear that these protests by the people in the South may lead to real change that may affect their own interests or to revolutionary radical change.

In the same spirit, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka quoted a young Tamil who addressed a rally in Colombo with these words:

“These rulers got their power through racism. Once these problems are solved, they will come after Muslims and Tamils again. You are young people. Don’t let them do that. Please support us just as we support you.”

It can only be obvious that such unity, based on full respect for the rights of the country’s oppressed minorities, is the only way forward for the struggle in Sri Lanka.

The powerful and inspiring events unfolding in Sri Lanka represent a vital challenge to the effort to impose the costs of the present crisis of global capitalism on working-class people and hard-pressed communities. The movement faces enormous challenges but it has forced a ruthless enemy onto the defensive. The strikes and protests have been magnificent but, in Sri Lanka and across the world, they are an indication of much greater struggles to come.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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