Interview with Bimal Rathnayake, a former parliamentarian and leading member of the progressive ‘People’s Liberation Front (JVP), on the new IMF loan, the nature and shape of power and the popular movement fighting for democracy, social justice and human rights in Sri Lanka today
There has been little international attention to events in Sri Lanka since huge protests last year that culminated in the popular occupation of the President’s House in Colombo, causing the incumbent head of state Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee. The backdrop was an economic crisis involving severe inflation, daily blackouts, and a shortage of fuel, domestic gas, and other essential goods. An economic crisis became a social and political crisis. Fast forward to last Friday, and Sri Lanka’s parliament voted for a four-year International Monetary Fund programme, supposedly to tackle the country’s economic woes. Just as we did last July, Liberation has once again caught up with Bimal Rathnayake, a former parliamentarian and leading member of the left-wing People’s Liberation Front (JVP), for an assessment of the current situation in Sri Lanka and to understand what progressives in Britain, Europe and US can do to support the people in their struggles for democracy, social justice and human rights.
What impact will the IMF deal have on the working classes and poorer sections of society?
This is the seventeenth time Sri Lanka has sought the assistance of an IMF programme. The last sixteen times it has not been used by Sri Lankan governments for the betterment of the working class or the marginalized people of the society. The IMF and World Bank have been guiding and controlling the economic policy and many decisions of the government since 1950, the year Sri Lanka become a member of these two organizations. Therefore, not only is the corrupt capitalist government of Sri Lanka but also the IMF and World Bank are responsible for the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy. The negative role played by IMF and World Bank are not highlighted enough due to the severe corruption and mismanagement of economy by the Sri Lankan governments.
We know that Sri Lanka is going through the worst economic crisis which eventually has become a political and a social crisis. If any ruler wanted to take advantage of the IMF programme it could have been done so with a proper negotiation of conditions which are better for Sri Lanka, but we do not believe that accepting the IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) while submitting solely to IMF conditions will improve the lives of the people. It is simply used by the President and government to gaslight people from reality and to a certain extent cover up the crisis, in order to control public anger [to enable] their political survival.
The IMF is going to make sure that no matter what happens to people the loan is paid back. However, neither the President nor the government of Sri Lanka have solid plans for economic recovery; their only plan is to survive in power as long as possible. The people of Sri Lanka are already pressurized with the high price of essential goods, high cost of utilities and taxes, as well as the lack of essential goods. Short term and long-term submission to IMF conditions can and will make the lives of people harder. Layoffs, further increases in taxes, higher prices of electricity, the privatisation of state-owned enterprises and welfare sectors such as education and health, enacting the so called Independent Central Bank law which decreases the accountability of public spending are only few of the adverse consequences to be faced in the coming years, but without any increase in income or opportunities to generate income.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe remains president; his appointment was deeply unpopular, his house was burnt to the ground by protestors and his decision to delay local elections as a cash-saving obligation has raised suspicions that Sri Lankan democracy will be the victim yet again. How strong is his hold on power?
Ranil Wickremasinghe’s political career had been weakening up until mid-2022. He was the only person who secured a seat in the Sri Lankan parliament from his party, the UNP. He was not voted by the people but nominated from the National List (1). Therefore, Ranil Wickramasinghe had no people’s mandate.
However, when the people’s demonstrations came to a peak and the economic crisis turned to a political crisis the situation of the powerful Rajapaksa family (2) were compromised. After the people’s uprising on July 9 the Rajapaksas and their government needed an escape route. The ideal person for the job was Ranil Wickramasinghe who had no visible political future or power.
Currently, the power of Ranil Wickramasinghe depends on the majority of the seats of the parliament which are in the hands of Rajapaksa loyalists and on the President’s executive powers, including the power to control Tri Forces [of the army, navy and airforce] and the police. However, he and the government has clearly lost the mandate of people which is the reason why they evade elections. Therefore, the hold of Ranil Wickramasinghe’s power is limited by the limit of the patience of the public.
However, it seems that Ranil Wickremasinghe is trying to align with the USA, other western powers and India as well. These days the extraordinarily undemocratic attitudes shown by Ranil Wickramasinghe are not due to any mass support from the Sri Lankan people towards him but because of the guaranteed support of the international masters of the establishment.
Early this year there were high profile official visits from India and the USA to Sri Lanka. These included US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and a secret mission of leading CIA officials, led by Jedidiah Royal, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs: 20 military and civil persons arrived in two US air force planes; their names were not revealed and the visit bypassed immigration authorities.
The need to tie Sri Lanka to West [rather] than to China can clearly be observed. The USA and India are busy using the economic crisis of Sri Lanka to pull Sri Lanka into a perpetual debt and political trap of the imperialist powers. They see this crisis as a golden opportunity to make Sri Lanka a prisoner of imperialist block politics. The USA, in particular, wants to prevent Chinese economic and political engagement with Sri Lanka. When Sri Lanka is under constant and mandatory IMF supervision, the USA can decide the rules of the game of the Sri Lankan economy. That’s why the so-called fathers of democracy, the USA and other pro-IMF powers have neglected to consider the democratic interests and fundamental rights of the people of Sri Lanka. They ignore the demands of the people, that the President and government having no people’s mandate, the continuous postponing of the elections. They just seem interested in the President kneeling before the west, entrapping Sri Lanka by IMF conditions.
According to all the opinion polls and surveys in any election there is a very big possibility that Sri Lanka’s largest Left party, the People’s Liberation Front-JVP would be elected as the majority party, with a huge lead over capitalist parties. At present the local capitalist class is much weaker [and unable] to prevent that kind of people’s victory.
Therefore, their international masters have come to the rescue of the capitalist rulers of Sri Lanka, who had been chased out [of power] by the people just a few months ago and who are unable to fool Sri Lankan citizens any more. Keeping silent on open violations of the constitution of Sri Lanka by suppressing the peaceful protests and postponing elections, violating the judgements of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka are real evidence of the hypocrisy of many imperialists and their satellite states and organizations. They want to prevent victory of the people lead by JVP Sri Lanka at any cost.
Last July a corrupt family dynasty that had held an iron grip over Sri Lanka for more than a decade was overthrown. What forces now hold real power in Sri Lanka?
When the Rajapaksas ruled the country with the majority of the people’s mandate it is true that they had an overwhelming power. But when the corruption and nepotism started swallowing up the future of the country, the popularity of the Rajapaksas declined. This is what happened in the Presidential Election 2015 when the people defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa.
What allowed the Rajapaksas to regain power in Sri Lanka was the terrorist attack took place on Easter Sunday in 2019, betraying the peoples mandate to punish the corrupt Rajapaksa clan and the huge corruption they carried out, including the Central Bank bond scam (3) by Ranil Wickramasinghe’s government, economic mismanagement, taking out US $ 13 billion loans through international money markets within four years and creating a huge debt burden to the economy. A huge propaganda campaign took place to improve the image of Rajapaksas as the ones who can protect country from terrorism. Who the real masterminds behind the Easter attack are remains unclear.
In 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as President and in 2020 the Rajapaksa party and loyalists elected as the government. Soon after the election people once again saw the real colors of corruption, nepotism and the irrational governance of the Rajapaksas. Therefore, the people eventually ousted Rajapaksa, less than three years into his term. Ultimate power to choose who will be in and out of governing rests on people. But in order to exercise that choice either there should be election, or another uprising.
On the face of it President Ranil Wickremesinghe has the executive presidential powers in order to run the country. Though there are controversies, the majority of the Parliament who are Rajapaksa loyalists are rooting for Ranil Wickramasinghe. The Rajapaksa family are also running the government behind the scenes.
However, what can be observed is that majority of the people have lost confidence in the President and the Government. At this point, the power to influence public opinion lies in the hands of political parties, pressure groups and the media. In short, we can say it’s like to some extent dual power existing in Sri Lanka. The military, state power of the ruling clique on the one hand and the power of the public opinion on the other.
It has been observed that during the Aragalaya (popular struggle against the regime) in July 2022, the official political parties and even the trade unions, who would normally have led demonstrations, had no substantial sway over events, it was a spontaneous and autonomous uprising. What is the current make up and dynamic within the opposition – political and social – to the current government and powers that be in Sri Lanka?
‘Aragalaya’ was not spontaneous or autonomous. Since 2020 there have been massive public protests organized by trade unions, students and youth organizations against the irrational decisions of the then President and the Government. There has been huge participation and support from the public in these protests. People were encouraged by these protests to start demanding their rights. The People’s Liberation Front and its affiliated organizations also organized massive demonstrations and protest movements.
When the pressure on the people had been rising around the country isolated public protests erupted demanding essential goods but thereafter protests took a new turn, calling for the former President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to step down. So there had been protests initiated by organizations as well as protests erupting from within the public itself. In the common struggle there were also several leftist political parties including JVP, trade unions and youth and students organizations. Therefore, ‘Aragalaya’ in its entirety was neither spontaneous nor autonomous. However, the events took place on 9th of May and 9th of July were unanticipated, uncontrollable and there were massive outbursts of public anger towards the government.
In summary, the composition of the political and social opposition to the current government is opposition political parties as well as trade unions, organizations of intellectuals, civil society organisations and a significant portion of the general public.
What can progressives do in the West in to support the popular movement in Sri Lanka?
Though the UK, EU, USA and other governments in the imperialist block shed crocodile tears harping on about human rights in Sri Lanka, no serious mediation or influence has occurred to make sure Sri Lankan people get their most basic democratic rights – the right to vote. They are ignoring the demands of the people, the fact that the President and government have no popular mandate, about the continuous postponing of the elections. India, for its part, is also seizing every opportunity to make Sri Lanka dependent on India.
We are thankful to the progressive people of all countries who have expressed and continue to express solidarity towards the people’s movement in Sri Lanka. We think it is very important that the people in the West are aware about the fact the Sri Lanka is being ruled by a government and a president who does not have a genuine popular mandate and keeps on evading elections, due to the fear of losing power. The people of Sri Lanka need the solidarity of progressives around the world and it would be good to urge respective governments to look into the Sri Lankan people’s will and desire to change the mandate-less regime.
We think progressive people in the West could ask their governments to demand an immediate withdrawal of proposed Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Anti-Terrorism Bill (4), which is neo-fascist in nature. They can urge the holding of elections with immediate effect. They can question the hypocrisy of some of their governments, for turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the undemocratic actions of the present unelected government of Sri Lanka, which they support.
We are optimistic that whatever the plots of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the imperialist powers to stop or to delay the people’s victory in Sri Lanka, the people of Sri Lanka shall overcome in the near future.
NOTES AND FURTHER INFORMATION
(1 ) A national list member of parliament (national list MP) is a nominated member of parliament who is appointed by a political party or an independent group to the Parliament of Sri Lanka.
(2) The Rajapaksa family was one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful families during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, when many members of the family occupied senior positions in the Sri Lankan state with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President and Basil Rajapaksa as finance minister. The extended Rajapaksa family is believed to have amassed a large amount of wealth and while the amount of and scale is unknown several members of the family have been revealed in international investigations such as the Pandora Papers to be using networks of shell companies and trusts to hide their wealth in offshore tax havens.
(3) A financial laundering scam which happened on 27 February 2015 and caused losses of more than US $ 11 million to the nation
(4) The bill has been described by Amnesty International as “failing on every human rights benchmark”
The views expressed in the articles published on this website do not necessarily represent those of Liberation
Photo: Creative Commons, protests, July 2022