Sri Lanka: Solidarity with the protest movement!

Liberation statement of solidarity with the the people of Sri Lanka and interview with Bimal Rathnayake, a former parliamentarian and leading member of the left-wing ‘People’s Liberation Front (JVP)

Liberation is following with deep concern the spiralling political and economic crisis, and alarming general situation, in Sri Lanka. We stand in solidarity with the people of that country during these fraught and turbulent times and wholeheartedly support the demands of the popular protest movement of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is just one of the many countries around the world still grappling with the toxic legacy of colonial subjugation by the British Empire and its after-effects which have continually stunted its development since independence. This legacy is inseparable from the current state of Sri Lanka.

The devastation wrought by a bloody 26-year-long civil war (1983 – 2009) – a legacy of the classic divide-and-rule tactics employed by the British colonial authorities and the repressive dynamic left behind in the country when they departed – along with the continual gross mismanagement, human rights abuses, and endemic corruption, have left the country’s critical infrastructure severely weakened and acutely vulnerable to the convergence of pressures that has occurred over the last few months.

The immediate precursors to the current events in Sri Lanka arose in April when the effects of an economy already in freefall were sharply exacerbated by the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and its fallout around the world, particularly vis-à-vis the impact on international markets and the prices of commodities and basic goods. Since then, Sri Lanka has seen a state of emergency; mass resignations of government ministers; a default on the country’s $51bn foreign debt and an IMF ‘rescue’ package pursuant to the restructuring of that debt; as well as major fuel and food shortages, and food price hikes, leading to warnings from the UN of a dire humanitarian situation. The country’s schools and workplaces have shut while peoples’ protests in the streets are being met with violent, including deadly, responses by the security forces and pro-government thugs. This led over the weekend (9 – 10 July) to the protesters’ storming and occupation of the presidential palace, with the incumbent having apparently fled abroad, and the torching of the prime minister’s residence.

In April, amidst the initial escalation of the protests, The International magazine (a progressive publication based in India) carried an interview with Bimal Rathnayake, a former parliamentarian and leading member of the left-wing JVP (the ‘People’s Liberation Front’, a major political party in Sri Lanka), on his analysis of the developments there. Mr. Rathnayake was heartened by the galvanising of the general population in the face of the mounting crisis, heralding it as a true people’s uprising – whereas the struggle had been largely confined to certain political parties, student organisations, and the country’s trade unions, just a matter of months beforehand. “The positive aspect is that the present government [the Rajapaksa administration] came into power on a racist and sectarian platform, but the people have now realised that they were being used by the ruling party. So now we can see there is huge social solidarity among the masses,” said Mr. Rathnayake.

However, Mr. Rathnayake went on to contrast this positive development with the hardship and suffering being experienced by the people of Sri Lanka; “We have seen miles of queues for some diesel and petrol […] Gas is also an issue. There are shortages in milk powder, paper, and vital medicines – and there are electricity cuts and inflation, which is astronomical not just sky-high.”

When asked what he believed to be the main factors behind the crisis, Mr. Rathnayake responded by stating that, “Sri Lanka is a textbook example of how […] Imperialism can destroy a country through its predatory economic policies alone.” He cited in particular unchecked privatisation and deregulation as prescribed by the World Bank and IMF. This led to the abandonment of national industries and a re-orientation of the economy towards import-export business, as opposed to carefully managed production for local markets, and ultimately the loss of the country’s “food security and food sovereignty”. The same World Bank prescriptions encouraged the financing of this model via huge loans, enabling facilities to be provided for foreign investors but with minimal returns into the Sri Lankan economy and the country’s foreign currency reserves depleted all the while.

Mr. Rathnayake described how this situation was further exacerbated by the glaring incompetence of successive government administrations, particularly on economic matters. The COVID-19 pandemic and the additional strain placed on Sri Lanka’s import-reliant economy by the outbreak of the war in Ukraine essentially expedited the culmination of a crisis decades in the making. “So we can say that [the crisis] could only have been delayed. We could have managed the crash landing, but at some point we would have had to face this crisis.”

The response of the current government, headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,to the impending (and indeed forecasted) crash of the Sri Lankan economy was to downplay its magnitude, while manoeuvring primarily to prevent their own downfall – whatever the cost to the country and its people. Following weeks of protests by late March, in a calculated move, the Rajapaksa regime instructed its ministerial cabinet to resign. Thus, the president (Gotabaya) and prime minister (Mahinda) were left in place. An invitation was left open until mid-April for opposition parties to form an interim government, but one still overseen by President Gotabaya. Ministerial positions were even offered to ‘breakaway’ factions of the previous government and supposedly independent MPs, all of whom were still in fact loyal to the Rajapaksa regime and who would not press for the resignation of the president – despite it being one of the core demands of the protesters on the streets. A ‘new’ cabinet was appointed comprising of former state ministers, the sons of former state ministers, and other ‘opposition’ and ‘independent’ MPs coaxed with the promise of prestigious portfolios. Subsequently, Mahinda was encouraged by his brother, Gotabaya, to resign in an attempt to placate the increasingly restless protest movement. He was replaced by Ranil Wickremmesinghe of the centre-right United National Party. Mahinda has since been implicated in the incitement of his followers to attack protesters at Galle Face (Colombo’s seafront), which resulted in the deaths of several of them as well as an intensification of the anti-Rajapaksa mood throughout the country.

On Monday 11 July, in the wake of the storming of the presidential palace, President Gotabaya said he would resign in two days’ time (Wednesday 13 July). Meanwhile, protesters have stated their intention to continue to occupy the presidential palace until both the president and prime minister officially resign and immediate elections are called thereafter.

In a telephone interview with Liberation on Monday 11 July, Mr. Rathnayake explained what he sees to be the main currents within Sri Lanka’s protest movement and their principal demands. “There are now three main fronts in the Sri Lankan protest movement: 1) the bona fide opposition political parties that are operating at national level, and which the JVP has a major role in leading and organising; 2) the Trade Union Coordinating Centre (TUCC), a collective of around 2,000 trade union entities, the line and orientation of which closely follows that of the JVP; and 3) the Gall Face protests which has a much wider political composition – attracting an array of groups and interests from across society. Owing to this factor, as well as its perceived radical tendency in the streets, the Galle Face protest group has broader appeal to the youth and general public – particularly those who might not have been involved in political activity until now.

“There are some attempts underway in the protest movement to fashion an all-party coalition to take government after Gotabaya goes, which we have been invited to join and even take a leading role in. However, after deliberation within the JVP’s central committee, we have decided not to partake in this initiative despite the continual pressure to do so. There are some protest leaders who clearly have their own agendas and ambiguous designs, while there are others who believe the crisis should be contained and managed as opposed to comprehensively addressed. Some argue that the current crisis means that it is not the time for an election. However, we do not accept this and will continue to push for a vote and with the protests until the people’s demands are met… These are for the immediate official resignations of the president and prime minister; the holding of free and fair elections thereafter; the abolition of Sri Lanka’s executive presidency, which is no longer fit for purpose; the effective state delivery of essential goods and medicines; an end to neo-liberal economic policies, which have devastated the country; an end to the corrupt political culture; pursuit of an initiative for national unity and an end to racism, sectarianism, and discrimination; the recovery of misappropriated public assets, and the prosecution of those responsible; and an end to the privatisation of public assets.”

Liberation wishes to put on record our thanks to Bimal Rathnayake for speaking with us and we reiterate our solidarity with the Sri Lankan people in their struggle for peace, democracy, and social justice.

Watch the video messages from Bimal Rathnayake on our youtube site

Photo: Anti-government protest in Sri Lanka on April 13, 2022 in front of the Presidential Secretariat/Creative Commons

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