Sri Lankan upsurge has the potential to reshape the state and society

STAN MILLER interviews WILFRED SILVA

For the past couple of months, a huge mobilization has been taking place in Sri Lanka against the high cost of living, shortages of basic supplies, and nepotism. The Rajapaksa clan—which included 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’s offices. The population was able to realize how much the political elite had lived in luxury while most people live in poverty. Stan Miller explores these topics with Wilfred Silva, a veteran socialist activist from Sri Lanka in exile in France and member of the panasiatic socialist website “Asia Commune.” (Special to Workers’ Voice.)

What is the current political situation in Sri Lanka?

The people are happy that they ousted the Rajapaksa clan by their mobilization [known as the “Aragalaya,” “the citizens’ movement,” in Sinhalese]. This movement is a lesson in democracy. The political mobilization, together with the economic crisis, have 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 mobilization of the masses. The ousting of the Rajapaksa family made the people confident in their ability to change things.

The mobilization started one year ago around issues of the high cost of living, and then the demands became political. There were mobilizations of tea plantation workers and schoolteachers for higher wages, and mobilizations of peasants because some essential fertilizer that used to be imported were banned by the state[1]. On the 31st of March, these mobilizations were met by the 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 July 20. The population will not be fooled. 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 (i.e., the JVP, a Maoist nationalist party, with three seats in parliament), want to form a national unity government. The goal of this government 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 organized by local committees whose program is: economic relief for the population; abolition of the presidential function (the president has a lot of power); a new constitution, which will give a role to local committees.

What are the politics of the unions in this mobilization?

After the defeat of the 1980 general strike, the unions became weaker. At the beginning of 2022, the working class was mostly in a passive state. But despite the economic crisis, the working class was willing to fight the bosses and the state; wages had collapsed. There were some sectorial struggles: health-care workers, schoolteachers, plantation workers, and peasants. Class consciousness is very fragmented and diluted by years of defensive struggles.

Through promoting “Sinhala Buddhism,” a far-right ideology that mixes Buddhist fanaticism and anti-Tamil racism,[2] 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 what took place during the 1988/1989 coup attempt by JVP, when thousands of left activists were killed regardless of their affiliation.

The private-sector unions are controlled by mainstream political parties. At the beginning, they were suspicious of the inchoate and anarchist dimension of the mobilization. The small left unions (bank employees’ union, teachers’ union, CMU and UFL unions—with 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 are the politics of the revolutionaries in this mobilization?

The revolutionary organizations 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.

The general mobilization 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 organizations 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 on the left want to work with bourgeois parties. Others suffer from sectarianism 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, when the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, sent the army into Tamil lands and killed tens of thousands of people who were suspected to be members of the Tamil guerrilla group, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

The situation between the left and the Tamils 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 recognized the historic injustices meted out to Tamils. But this 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 go beyond the socio-economic deprivation represented in the Aragalaya. The progressive 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 Trotskyist. There are some things that separate us, like positions on the Tamil question. But we are all united against the “politics of coalition,” class collaboration with the bourgeois party, which destroyed the left in the past. We need to win over youth and women who are active in the mobilization; otherwise, we will remain on the fringe forever.

[1] The state was importing chemical fertilizers, using American dollars. The currency reserve was plummeting. So they started importing cheaper organic fertilizers from India and China. The final goal of the government was to produce domestic organic fertilizers. But these fertilizers, both foreign and domestic are of very low quality.

[2] The Tamil are a national minority in Sri Lanka, around 16% of the population. They are Hindus and speak Tamil, while the majority speak Singhalese and are Buddhists.

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