A month has now passed since nationwide anger erupted in Sri Lanka, leaving the ruling class shell-shocked. The movement has shown remarkable resilience. Neither monsoon rains, nor the Sinhala Tamil New Year festivities, nor the shenanigans of a government that knows every dirty trick in the book have succeeded in defusing the rage of the masses. And yet, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains stubbornly entrenched in power, mocking the masses by his presence.
The gloves must come off. Yet it has taken until yesterday, 28 April, for the nervous and hesitating trade union leaders to call even so much as a single day of strike action. But however trembling the call to strike might have been, the workers nevertheless responded to it with élan, giving the world a glimpse of their enormous power.
Gota Go Gama
It is worth briefly recapitulating how the anti-government movement in Sri Lanka has developed and the problems that it has posed.
One month ago, on 31 March, without a party or programme, the masses of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, came out spontaneously onto the streets to express their seething rage. The Rajapaksas’ regime tried to bare its teeth. Rather than being cowed, the movement exploded into an all-island movement that swamped the government. The briefly declared state of emergency collapsed and the ruling class was thrown into a panic.
The protests have since grown and grown, reaching a decisive turning point with a march on 9 April. The masses from across Colombo and beyond descended on the capital’s Galle Face Green, adjacent to the president’s beach-side office building. The protest was enormous. Over 100,000 attended – a significant show of strength in a city of 700,000 and a country with a population of 22 million people, the majority of whom live in rural districts.
But the protesters didn’t disperse as night fell on 9 April. Rather, they established a permanent tent village. Dubbed ‘Gota Go Gama’ (‘Gota Go Village’), it has become a focal point for the movement, much as the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo offered a point of reference for the spontaneous movement of the Egyptian masses in 2011.
The mood at Gota Go Gama has been one of euphoria as the movement – overwhelmingly youthful – has given the masses a sense of the power of their united action. Where the Rajapaksas have used racial division as a political crutch – inciting the Sinhala Buddhist majority of the country against the minority religious and ethnic groups: Tamils, Muslims and Christians – the masses have emphasised their unity and emphatically rejected this poison. All layers of society in every region of the island have been swept into a movement without precedent in decades.
Every evening for three weeks, the permanent protest at Galle Face in Colombo has swelled to 40,000-50,000 attendees. The working class is participating in this movement en masse – but so long as the trade unions refuse to call an all-out strike, they can only do so after working hours.
Despite the anger and militancy of the working class therefore, the permanent occupation at Gota Go Gama has tended to have a disproportionately middle-class character. Students have played a leading role since day one. Lawyers have also played an enormous role in this movement: frustrating the government in the courts, giving free legal assistance to protesters, and organising protests of their own. There have even been a number of instances of police fraternising with the protesters and speaking from megaphones.
And it is no wonder the middle classes have been drawn in in such a way: inflation, blackouts and shortages are crushing the middle layers of society, just as they are crushing the poorest.
According to comrades in Sri Lanka, even the more-affluent supermarkets with a middle-class clientele are now selling firewood. Previously, the middle classes would cook with gas. When that ran out, they switched to kerosene. Once the kerosene ran out, they switched to electricity. But now the power cuts last for so long that even the moderately well-off are cooking on wood fires.
The problem the movement faces is that, although they too are being crushed, the middle classes alone cannot decisively resolve the crisis facing the masses.
Neither can the students. They can certainly act as a catalyst, bringing radical, left-wing ideas to the movement, but they are not the decisive force in society. Only the organised working class, concentrated in all the political and economic centres of power, with the tremendous power that comes from its collective action, can paralyse production and bring the regime to its knees.
More than this, the crisis in Sri Lanka is not merely caused by the Rajapaksa dynasty. They are part of the problem. More precisely, they are merely the most degenerate expression of the rottenness of Sri Lankan capitalism. This is a capitalist crisis, and only the working class can offer a way out. All of history shows that the middle classes – being intermediate strata between the capitalists and the working class – cannot play an independent class role.
To both cut across the confusion that exists in the movement, to stamp it with a clear class character, and to deal a death blow to the regime, the working class must enter the scene decisively and take up the leadership of the movement. This is the context of the 28 April general strike. A tidal wave of class anger has so far been dammed up behind the conservative trade union leaders. These ‘leaders’ have trembled at the thought of unleashing the tremendous power of the Sri Lankan working class.
After one whole month of continuous mobilisation by the masses, a coalition of 1,000 trade unions finally called a one-day, token strike that took place on 28 April.
In the current circumstances – when the conditions of the masses are so desperate, and the government so weak – such a call falls far, far short of what is necessary. What the situation at present demands is an all-out strike to bring down the government. In many instances, the call fell short even of a day-long strike. In many cases, rather than calling a strike, workers were called on to phone in sick for the day. And understandably, given the token nature of the strike, doctors, nurses and healthcare workers opted for a two-hour protest so as not to disrupt their vital services.
Despite the union leaders’ prevarications, however, the fact that the strike was called at all shows the immense groundswell within the unions. Even unions affiliated with the ruling SLPP called its members out! And it gave a demonstration for the whole movement of the enormous latent power that the working class possesses.
Workers from the postal service, hospitals, banks, universities, schools, railways, tea plantations, and many, many other sectors came out and flooded the streets. In Colombo, the open air market district of Pettah was left completely empty. Similar scenes were seen across the island as small traders and farmers joined the strike.
Strikes and mass demonstrations were seen in the hyper-exploitative Free Trade Zones in the coastal towns of Katunayake, Awariwatte and Koggala, where predominantly female workforces process garments for the export market.
Towns and cities across the island saw working-class mobilisations, the likes of which haven’t been seen for a generation. From Tangalle (Gota’s heartland in the south of the island), to Jaffna (in the Tamil-majority north of the island), workers came out in large numbers and flooded into the main protests, where they were welcomed with rapturous applause.
Splits in the ruling class
The magnitude of these protests has already opened up serious divisions within the ruling class. In a state of shock, and hoping to save their political skins, in the first days of the movement, the entire cabinet resigned and 42 MPs fled the Rajapaksas’ coalition.
Gota eventually succeeded in forming a new cabinet, but he was forced to omit his family members and his close allies in an attempt to appease the masses. But far from being pacified, the masses sensed that this (largely symbolic) victory was a sign of their power. They now feel that the downfall of the government is within their grasp.
Even the upper echelons of the Buddhist hierarchy – who have worked hand-in-glove with a regime that bases itself on Buddhist chauvinism, and who are now just as despised as the regime by the masses – are demanding some sort of reshuffle at the top!
The majority of the ruling class have decided that Gota is too much of a liability. He is the focus of the masses’ anger, and as long as the masses are on the streets, the ruling class continues to feel that it is standing on unstable ground. But Gota – who was elevated to power by this same ruling class – isn’t too happy about being sacrificed. He is clinging to power with grim determination. And the Sri Lankan constitution makes it very difficult to dislodge a president who doesn’t wish to be dislodged.
He and the opposition are in accord on one thing: both want to see the masses driven off the streets. Rumours are circulating that Gota has even toyed with firing his own brother, the Prime Minister. Even if he commits political fratricide, it will hardly placate the masses. But suspicions of such have only extended the split in the regime all the way into the Rajapaksa family itself. The one option left to Gota is violent repression, and to that end he has given the army powers of policing – that is to say, licence to drive people off the streets under gunfire.
The Rajapaksas are waiting for their revenge the minute the movement ebbs. There is nothing idle about the regime’s threats to ‘police’ the masses with live ammunition. In Gota Go Gama, protesters have erected a gallery dedicated to the Rajapaksas’ past victims: the portraits of the long list of journalists murdered under the last Rajapa ksa government from 2005 to 2015. And on 19 April, the police killed for the first time since the movement began.
The faces of journalists murdered, abducted & tortured in #SriLanka - including the Rajapaksas in their previous time in power - adorn the fence of the Presidential Secretariat at Galle Face.— Amalini (@Amaliniii) April 12, 2022
A few from the long lists of lives they need to answer for. #lka #GoHomeGota pic.twitter.com/0qq7XlvyLO
An IMF deal?
Both the government and the bourgeois opposition headed by the SJB want the masses off the streets. The opposition advocates the velvet glove because they are afraid that the use of the mailed fist will only enrage the masses further.
But however it is achieved, the whole ruling class is unanimous that it needs ‘Order’. They desperately need an authoritative government that can focus on the pending task of negotiating a bailout from the country’s imperialist creditors. Chronic shortages and blackouts haven’t just plunged the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans into chaos. They are also making it extremely difficult for the capitalists to run businesses, and therefore to make a profit.
To this end – after a period of jockeying between China, India and the IMF – the sitting government has entered into negotiations for a bailout from the latter. A few statements have now been released that give an outline of what such a deal will mean.
This money will not be free. The IMF has explained it will only sign off on a bailout “once adequate assurances are obtained that debt sustainability will be resolved”. What does this mean?
It means the government – with or without the Rajapaksas – will have to balance the books so it can keep paying its debt. That means austerity.
It will mean higher taxes and reduced government spending. It will mean an end to fuel and electricity subsidies, and prices higher even than those currently crushing the masses. It will mean a floating rupee that will depreciate rapidly, making exports cheaper (excellent news for the capitalists) and imports more expensive, further reducing the masses’ living standards.
Let us be clear: a deal with the IMF to “restore economic confidence” and some kind of economic equilibrium will do so at the expense of the workers, the poor and the middle classes. This is what all sections of the ruling class are clamouring for – from the Rajapaksas themselves, to those companies that now feign sympathy for the masses’ struggle.
The question is now posed: what next?
It is clear that the trade union leaders are under immense pressure from the rank and file, and the question is being posed of a ‘Hartal’ – a term for an all-out strike, which calls to mind the heroic traditions of struggle of the Sri Lankan working class, stretching back to the 1953 Hartal.
The trade union leaders are now talking about prolonged action from 6 May, although what that means is unclear. But a genuine Hartal, if called, would pose the question of power. It would represent an all-out struggle to depose the government.
But what would the unions propose to replace it with? Healthcare workers’ leader, Ravi Kumudesh, on behalf of some of the striking unions said:
“If the President and the government do not listen to the people and resign in a week, these unions will commence a continuous strike. The President and the government need to understand that they no longer have any legitimacy. They need to resign and hand over power to those who have the confidence of the people.”
But what does this mean? To whom – enjoying “the confidence of the people” – ought the government hand power? As well as the slogans “Go Home Gota” and “Go Home Rajapaksas”, the people have overwhelmingly raised the slogan: “Go Home 225” referring to all 225 members of parliament. In other words, the mass of the people do not have confidence in any party, grouping or individual MP in parliament!
But this mood does not mean that the masses are hostile to all leaders and all organisations. As the reception that the trade unions’ and student unions’ marches received at Galle Face shows: the masses are prepared to give a warm welcome to those organisations who use their strength to advance the movement of the masses. What legitimate suspicion exists is towards those ‘leaders’ who ensnare the masses into lending them political support, only to elevate themselves to power and the privileges of a life in parliament.
The masses, as we have said before, must have confidence only in their own power. But the trade unions are their organisations. The trade unions must therefore organise the fight to seize power, not to deliver it to some other pro-capitalist faction. As we have shown: both the government and their parliamentary opposition have a programme of suffering in store for the masses.
The point is to organise the workers’ power into a force that can challenge the existing regime.
The preparations for a serious struggle must include the forging of such organisation. Hartal committees must be built – in every workplace, in every poor neighbourhood, in every peasant and fishering community. Such organs would keep order and communities supplied during a Hartal, and would thereby begin displacing the functions of the state. And they would begin fraternising with the lower ranks of the army and police, breaking down the old state power along class lines.
Linked up on a district and national scale, they would become the one force capable of securing “the confidence of the people” – for no other reason than the fact that they would actually be formed of the oppressed and exploited people themselves, organised, and under the leadership of the working class.
This is the path forward – the path that leads to the overthrow of the regime, and towards the overthrow of capitalism as the only way out of the misery into which this system has plunged the people.
It is about time that the trade union leaders take this path of struggle, and organise the fight seriously. And if they lack the heart for a fight, they should step aside and make way for those who do!