Sri Lanka :« The political mobilisation [NT : Aragalaya (The citizens’ movement)] together with the economic crisis has the potential to reshape the Sri Lankan state and society ».

Stan Miller

2022 / 7 / 18

Since a couple of month a large mobilisation is taking place in Sri Lanka against high cost of living, shortages of basic supplies and nepotism. The Rajapaksa clan that includes the president, the prime minister and other ministers has been evicted from power. Gota the president was evacuated at the last minute. The army abandoned him and allowed protesters to storm both the presidential palace and the prime minister offices. The population was able to realize how much the political elite lived in a very luxurious way of life while most people live in poverty. We are interviewing Wilfred Silva, veteran socialist activist from Sri Lanka in exile in France and member of the panasiatic socialist website « Asia Commune ».

What is the current political situation in Sri Lanka ?

The people are happy that they ousted the Rajapaksa by their mobilisation. This movement is a lesson in democracy. The political mobilisation together with the economic crisis has the potential to reshape the Sri Lankan state and society. The political elite has no plan to resolve the situation The solution will depend on the continuous mobilisation of the masses. The ousting of the Rajapaksa made the people confident in their ability to change things. The mobilization started one year ago around issues of high cost of living and then the demands became political. There were mobilization of tea plantation workers and schoolteachers for higher wages, and mobilization of peasants because some essential fertilizer that used to be imported were banned by the state1. On the 31st of March these mobilizations were met by urban middle classes victims of global impoverishment with a demand : #gotagohome.

What is the current situation of the government ?

After the resignation and flight of Gota, the parliament has to elect a new president on the 20th. The population will not be fooled and they know that the new president will be a servant of the ruling classes so they remain watchful. All the parliamentarian political parties from the racist and nationalist right wing (SLFP, UNP, etc) to the left (JVP maoist nationalist with 3 seats in parliament) want to form a national unity government. The goal of this governement is to show the IMF that the country is stable so they can borrow money from them. Sri Lanka has a huge debt and cannot borrow money on private market anymore. This national unity government is advertised as the only one able to solve the economic crisis. Of course we know that the IMF never gives away money for free and that they will ask the population to make more sacrifices. The mobilization is organised by local committees which program is : economic relief for population -;- abolition of the presidential -function- (the president has a lot of power) -;- new constitution which will give a role to local committees.

What is the politics of the -union-s in this mobilization ?

After the defeat of the 1980 general strike the -union-s are weaker. In the beginning of 2022 the working class was in a passive state mostly. Despite the economic crisis the working class was wiling to fight the bosses and the state. The wages collapsed. There were some sectorial struggle : healthcare workers, schoolteachers, plantation workers, peasants. The class consciousness is very fragmented and diluted by years of defensive struggles. Trough promoting « sinhala buddhism » a far right ideology which mixes bouddhist fanatism and anti tamil racism2 the ruling class is dividing workers further by spreading the poison of racism. The working class is also weary of state violence and terror like during the 1988/1989 coup attempt by JVP where thousands of left activists were killed regardless of their affiliation. The private sector -union-s are controlled by mainstream political parties. At the beginning they were suspicious of the inchoate and anarchist dimension of the mobilization. The small left -union-s (bank employee -union-, teachers -union-, CMU and UFL -union-s, several thousands of members) had more sympathy towards the mobilization and they took part in it. A significant part of the working class feels it has a role to play in its own destiny.

What is the politics of the revolutionaries in this mobilization ?

The revolutionary organisations are trying to constitute a « workers bloc » in the mobilization to defend workers’ demands. But because of the betrayals of the left in the past, the current left is weak. There is a general mobilization that is strong but there is no central leadership. There are definitely some pros in the mobilization : it is led by women and young people while the left organization are largely more male and older. The revolutionaries must be active to win over the vanguard layer of the mobilization and change their routine. Some in the left want to work with bourgeois parties. Others suffer from sectarism and bureaucratism. But this mobilization is definitely an opportunity to bring socialism to a new generation.

Does the mobilization discuss the Tamil question ?

The Tamil from the North and the East (where they are a majority) are mostly not active in the mobilization except the plantation workers. In the past some maoist formations (like JVP) took part in the massacres of 2009 where the president Mahinda Rajapaksa sent the army in Tamil lands and killed tens of thousands of people who were suspected to be members of the Tamil guerilla group the LTTE (Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam). The situation between the left and the Tamil is complicated. The core demands of the Aragalaya are bounded by the identity and consciousness of the Sinhala nation. There has been no reckoning with the systemic roots of Sinhala supremacism. They have not yet recognised historic injustices meted to Tamils. It does not mean that Tamil people in the North and East are indifferent to the Aragalaya. They have always voted for the main opposition candidate to the Rajapaksas since 2005. Their sufferings are beyond socio-economic deprivation represented in the Aragalaya. The prograsive left in the south should represent this issue with the citizens’ movement. 

What message do you want to send to revolutionary militants abroad ?

Sri Lanka is a small country [22 million people] we will not win alone. We need to build international solidarity at least in Southeast Asia. The extra parliamentarian left groups in Sri Lanka are mostly trotskist. There are some things that separate us like the position on the Tamil question. But we are all united against the « politics of coalition », of class collaboration with the bourgeois party that destroyed the left by the past. We need to win over youth and women who are active in the mobilizaton otherwise we will remain on the fringe for ever.
Modern Discussion