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Sri Lankan crisis: what was wished, what arrived, and what shall be

NDMLP, Draft comment by S. Sivasegaram


Aragalaya: the Roots

When the mass protests dubbed ‘the Aragalaya’ started in Colombo in February, not many suspected a foreign hand, for public disaffection with the government was strong because of its mishandling of the economy had led to shortages of food, fuel and many essential items including patent medicine. Prices were on the rise amid shortages marked by kilometres long queues for fuel for cooking and transport. The government was at a loss to address the problems, which would have been eased somewhat had there been planned procurement and distribution of essentials.

Much of the state’s inability to meet emergencies was inherited. Road transport of goods was almost fully private by late last century. The state owned railway, once the main island-wide bulk transporter of liquid fuel was undermined decades ago in the interest of private road transporters. Streamlined collection and milling of paddy by the Paddy Marketing Board was wrecked to serve rice milling monopolies. Most services under state control were left to rot by mismanagement under political appointees. The economy itself rapidly changed from a mainly farming and plantation crop economy struggling to industrialize to one exposed to predatory foreign investment and unhindered inflow of foreign goods, paid for by the export of labour on a large scale. (Over 2 million of a population of 21.6 million work abroad, mostly in the Middle East.)

Anti-union legislation, whipped up communal feelings and the civil war together had blunted the will for political protest. The JVP’s second insurrection (1988-89) was a disaster not just for the JVP, but also for all democratic opposition. The two JVP insurrections and the war were used to beef up the police and defence forces, which remain as strong as they were during the peak of the war. The war was fought on borrowed money. The country’s economy was in a state of ruin and none but a few lone voices were bothered by indebtedness, as there were many lenders for consumption. Thus, unlike before 1978, there was no public protest about rising prices and declining standard of living for the many as long as there was no shortage of goods.

The JVP, now nominally the strongest ‘left’ party, with its Sinhala chauvinism still intact, has become yet another opportunist parliamentary political party. In a hurry to share power, it compromised with Mahinda Rajapaksa to back his presidential bid in 2005 and become partner in the SLFP-led electoral alliance. It paid a heavy price by way of a three way split of the JVP and loss of credibility among earlier supporters. Mahinda took advantage of the military victory over the LTTE in May 2009 to sideline his rivals. Corruption and abuse of power caused his defeat in 2015. But the chaotic rule by the UNP-led alliance with the SLFP as junior partner that defeated him helped his brother, Gotabaya, an absolute novice in politics and a notorious Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist, to become president and Mahinda to be elected prime minister.

A global economic crisis was over the horizon when Gotabaya became president in 2019 November and the country’s economy began to feel its impact amid the global panic stirred by the said COVID-19 pandemic. Gross mishandling of COVID-19, was marked by a casual attitude initially followed by overkill including lockdowns, exaggeration of infection and mortality data, and mandatory vaccination, and led to loss of earnings from tourism and remittances from expatriates. It was compounded by the serious loss of work for casual and self-employed workers. This led to the closure of many urban small businesses, mostly forever. Thus it was well known in 2021 that an economic crisis and a financial crunch were impending, well ahead of the Central Bank declaring early this year that foreign reserves were at critically low levels. The financial crisis led to shortages of imported food, fuel and pharmaceuticals among other essentials.

An earlier comment in Marxist Leninist New Democracy has noted that economic trouble was to be expected owing to the global economic impact of the COVID-19 ‘pandemic’. Among other serious mistakes, unduly harsh steps by the government to control infection further hurt the economy. Many fail to see the current problem as the outcome of opening up the economy in 1978, the resultant ruin of the national economy, and the tendency to borrow to feed an uncontrolled consumerism. Even as a financial crunch approached, non-essential goods including luxury motor vehicles were imported and the rich received tax concessions, in keeping with the pattern since 1978.


The China Bogeyman

Pro-Western and Indian media pundits denounce debts owned by China (just 10% of all foreign debt and mostly for development projects) ignoring big lenders like ADB, Japan and the World Bank and, notoriously, market borrowings from private investors in the West owning nearly half of the debt). An anti-China agenda in South Asia was initiated at the dawn of the century with the claim of a Chinese naval build-up in the Indian Ocean (the Necklace of Pearls). Unfounded charges aggressive intentions followed, and gathered momentum as Sino-Lankan ties improved in the face of US bullying of the government. Prior to the general election of 2015, the UNP, the main opposition party, declared that the Port City in Colombo was an ill-considered project which it will abandon when it came to power. It also denounced the Chinese built Hambantota Harbour as a white elephant and humiliated the Chinese built airport nearby by storing paddy in its warehouses. A leading figure in the UNP boastfully cited an African anti-China newspaper ‘The Namibian’ to deride Chinese credit as ‘loan traps’.

The UNP’s empty boast eventually came to naught although the UNP-led alliance won the elections. The Port City project resumed after an avoidable 17-month long construction delay. What the government achieved was a loss of goodwill.

Much of print and Internet media are under the influence of the West, partly owing to long time reliance on global media empires for foreign news. Tamil media pander to anti-left Tamil nationalists, who in turn pander to the Indian establishment.

There is reason to believe that some state officials deliberately act to give China a bad name. Experts in coal thermal power noted that frequent breakdowns at the Chinese built coal power station on the west coast was unusual for a Chinese coal power plant, as China leads the world in coal power technology. The power plant has since operated smoothly, but sections of the media even report a routine maintenance closure as a breakdown. Such mischief impacted on consumers suffering daily power cuts due to petroleum-based fuel shortage. Nothing is spared by some to attack China, and the ‘Chinese virus’ tale was a boon to them amid ones like aggression against Taiwan (not much on Tibet or Xinjiang nowadays), Chinese ‘organic fertilizer scandal’ (the scandal really being a state laboratory falsifying results to claim that the fertilizer had lethal bacteria contaminants), and China’s debt trap to seize Hambantota harbour (where 85% of the shares transfer of the harbour were transferred to a Chinese company to raise funds to service loans owed mainly to private lenders). The Chinese Naval research vessel episode of August is now spun by Indian media to claim that China provoked a dispute by arm twisting Sri Lanka to allow its vessel into Hambantota, whereas Indian arm twisting forced Sri Lanka to cancel a prior agreed visit by the Chinese vessel to provoke the crisis. Indian news media reporting has been most disgraceful since Indian humiliation in the Galwan Valley border skirmish of June 2020.

In the past several years, India went out of its way to wreck Sino-Lanka relations by pressurizing the government to cancel legitimate commitments to China, the last bring the failed effort to keep out a Chinese naval research vessel. Every time India had its way, insensitive Indian media gloating embarrassed Sri Lanka.

The US has been most vicious and uses the print and electronic media and the Internet to slander China. US diplomats and regional officers breach diplomatic norms to warn the Sri Lankan government against Chinese assistance and security threat to Sri Lanka.

Despite charges of a Chinese loan trap, India is the country that shamelessly uses loans and grants to pressurize Sri Lanka. It took advantage of the recent financial predicament of Sri Lanka to secure projects for Indian companies, bypassing normal procedures of scrutiny― the most shameful being the recent offer of two renewable energy projects to the Adani Group, a political ally of Premier Modi without calling for tenders. India has also secured a long lease of oil storage facilities close to the strategic natural harbour in Trincomalee. These are being challenged in court.

Rising US and Indian influence with the Sri Lankan government was visible months after the election of the former US national Gotabaya as President and particularly after the appointment of his brother Basil, a US national, as Minister of Finance in July 2021. Basil resigned in disgrace both as minister and MP in June 2022, but remains a powerful manipulator within the ruling party. But the false impression persists that the Rajapaksa clan is under Chinese influence.


The Crisis and the Components of the Protest

Leaving out the oft repeated details, the crisis can be summed up as the outcome of a combination of global trends starting with the slowing down of the Western economy since 2018, aggravated by the impact of the (even deliberate) mishandling of COVID-19 by lockdowns that reversed global economic growth (notable exceptions being the pharmaceutical and private health care businesses which). The collapse of tourism income and fall in foreign remittances hurt foreign currency earnings to rapidly drain foreign currency reserves. Erroneous government policies compounded the problem to cause shortages, which were the main basis for the ‘Aragalaya’ protest.


The pain of shortages and price hikes were worsened by poor distribution owing to poor planning and domination of transport, storage, processing and distribution dominated by the private sector. An ill-advised devaluation of the rupee worsened the crisis with little benefit for foreign currency reserves. Shortages and ceaseless long queues gave birth to the Aragalaya. But the Aragalaya was not entirely spontaneous. There was organization and media support, with protesters persuaded that Rajapaksa family’s corruption was the main cause of the crisis. The President was the focus of attack, as paraphrased by the slogan ‘Gota go home’, with demands built around the dictatorial ways of the President, corruption of the Rajapaksa family, mismanagement of the economy, cronyism and breach of law and justice. But little went beyond ‘Gota go home’ and its corollaries like ‘Mahinda go home’ and ‘Bring back the loot’.

Aragalaya, however, had a strong spontaneous component comprising members of middle class, very literate in English. Absence of the poorer classes was not by design. The working classes, although supportive, kept a distance. Left and progressive circles noticed foreign hands and a hidden agenda, but considered it inappropriate to censure a campaign with growing popular support, and the only public protest that persistently stood up to a repressive government. Meanwhile, the government ― on a week wicket amid shortages and rising prices and fearful of unforeseen consequences ― held back on use of force to suppress the protest.

Moves by NGOs and other donors to visibly transform the protest into evenings of merriment manifested in providing protesters with holiday camping tents, gas cookers and cylinders of gas, bottled water, portable toilets and accessories, and packets of semi-luxury food. Some who were unimpressed nostalgically quoted Mao: “A revolution is not a dinner party” ― a strong reminder of which was badly needed.

While middle class supporters at home and abroad made fancy comparisons with the Arab Spring and Colour Revolutions (mindless of their eventual outcome), NGOs acted to depoliticize the struggle and narrow its scope to a demand for the resignation of the President while keeping all political parties out, in the name of unity of the struggle. The role of economic liberalization and imperialist meddling received minimal attention unlike the corruption of the Rajapaksas. Little thought was given to the post-crisis economic future.

With support for Aragalaya growing from left leaning trade unions and student bodies, NGOs began to lose grip. Calls emerged for more than resignations. While Aragalaya was content with parliamentary government, political discourse within Aragalaya led to calls for radically changing the constitution and a truer form of democracy.

Attack on the protesters by the Prime Minister’s goons was followed by his resignation, and well-coordinated arson attacks on properties of key ruling party personalities and a few killings. This orgy of violence helped the embattled President to regain composure and offer two leaders from the opposition SJB the post of Prime Minister, which they turned down so that Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister. His appointment was promptly welcomed by both the US and India.

The massive protest of 9th July expedited the President’s resignation that was over the horizon. The occupation of the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat and Prime Minister’s official residence intimidated the President to flee the country, resign his post, and name the Prime Minister as interim president as per constitutional provisions. The unforeseen election of Ranil as President by parliament was in fact a coup by the Rajapaksa family that marked Aragalaya’s change of fortune.

The lack of a clear plan, poor organization and uncertain aims led to serious tactical errors. Protesters at every level were blissfully unaware of the nature of the state. Some interpreted the rather restrained (but least of all supportive) posture of the police and the army as signs of weakness.

Ranil used occupation of state residences and offices as a pretext to unleash avoidable violence on the protesters. It was only a sign of things to come. The Army’s attack, that carefully avoided use of firearms, was designed as a warning to Aragalaya protesters. That intimidated a sizeable section of the comfortable middle class protesters and their supporters, who later found comfort in the gradual restoration of distribution of petroleum fuels and its benefits.

The US found itself in an awkward situation. Although the net outcome was to its pleasure with a very much pro-US politician as President, who is amenable to reactivating the bid to impose the Millennium Challenge Corporation project that has been rejected several times besides projects like the Status of Forces Agreement that fell by the wayside in the past several years. President Wickremasinghe is perhaps the keenest to oblige the IMF to secure a loan to tide over the debt problems by inflicting any harsh condition that the IMF may impose. He has already set in motion price increases of food, electricity and water supply based on the devaluation of the rupee early this year and the global rise in prices. Despite the heavy increase in price of food and fuel, urban public anger is yet to boiling over, as the middle class tends to compare the Wickremasinghe regime with what immediately preceded him.


Observations on the Aragalaya

Aragalaya started as a middle-class protest movement, deluded into imagining that an apolitical urban protest could put the country on track to economic recovery.

Its identification of abuse of power, corruption and mismanagement by government leaders as things that hurt the economy is valid. But that is an incomplete picture, as the country owes its present plight to the open economic policy since 1978 that destroyed the national economy, wasteful consumerism, and heavy borrowing for non-productive purposes, including an avoidable war. Aragalaya’s notable omission of imperialism as a source of the economic woes points to the say the US-funded NGOs had in it

It had faith in the parliamentary system, and blamed the failure of the economy on the corruption of a handful. Even at the stage when it suggested that all MPs should resign, it did not reject the parliamentary system. Realization that the parliamentary system as it exists cannot address the problems of the country, however, began to sprout within the Aragalaya, but needed time to mature into a policy alternative. But Aragalaya was derailed well before that could happen.

The Aragalaya was commendable for its secular and inclusive stand, call for rule of law free of state intervention, fair elections, freeing of political prisoners, defiance of threat by the arms of the state as well as by pro-government forces. But it was naïve to believe that transformation was attainable through a bourgeois parliament.

Discussion of the national question was eschewed by inadequate political debate. That became an excuse for Tamil nationalists to persuade Tamils to keep a distance. Only the Tamil left, especially the NDMLP, saw potential in the Aragalaya to address core issues.

Aragalaya ignored the class nature of the state (thanks to NGO activism), and mistook the tactical reserve shown by the armed forces and the police as fear of public wrath and hoped that they could be neutralized.


Political Attitudes

Parliamentary political parties that backed the Aragalaya saw in it a ladder for electoral uplift in what may follow the collapse of the government. Some explicitly desired that Aragalaya stopped with getting the President and at most the cabinet to resign. They saw in the crowds that gathered votes for themselves besides campaigners in the elections to come.

Those once associated with the SLPP-led government but parted company recently had less hope in the Aragalaya, and were thus critical supporters.

There were hard right wingers, including Ranil, whose endorsement of Aragalaya was nominal and limited to a democratic right to protest.

The collapse of the Aragalaya in the face of violence unleashed by Ranil exposed the vacillating nature of the urban middle class, of whom many quickly distanced themselves from the Aragalaya on pretext of undemocratic and unlawful conduct that let down the side. The NGOs are embarrassed, and at best denounce Ranil but stop short of mobilization against the oppressive state.

The US and its allies too were embarrassed as they had to retreat from their endorsement of the protest through secret funding for the NGOs.

Some have yet to reconcile to the turn of events that to their surprise if not shock brought Ranil to ‘power’.


The Future following the Great Reversal

The Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency has to be understood as a presidency with its executive power trimmed to suit the Rajapaksas. Ranil’s posturing as a tough leader maintaining law and order, cannot dare hurt the Rajapaksas or their cronies.

The President’s measures to address fuel shortage by a fuel rationing scheme was well received, although users of hiring vehicles are forced to buy most of their fuel in the back market, including petrol stations. Prices of all food items have soared and the level of child malnutrition is like to escalate. Removal of subsidy for small scale consumers of electricity has delivered a blow to the poor and lower middle class households. Removal of subsidies seems to be in anticipation of the grant of an IMF relief.

Enthusiasts for IMF credit seldom reveal that IMF loans are designed to keep the country indebted but able to service loans by burdening the toiling masses. It will take some months after the IMF deal for the pain to be felt.

Foreign policy will be tailored to suit US imperialist and Indian expansionist regional interests, but likely to avoid offending China, as the economy is likely to rely on the Colombo Port City to boost foreign investment.

Early economic recovery is unlikely, and even if shortages are eliminated, rising prices will deny access of goods, including essentials, to a large section of the population. While the state apparatus is being readied for a confrontation in the event of mass protests, legislation has been enacted to limit the scope of public protest and could be widened in scope in the face of growing mass agitation.

It is too soon to forecast a fascistic rule by an alliance of pro-Western imperialist forces and local reactionaries. But the danger drifts closer to realization, with no parliamentary political party showing the will, desire or capability to act against it.


The Response to be

  • In an immediate sense, the residual Aragalaya offers the most hopeful rallying point for the revival of resistance to state oppression.

While building a democratic anti-imperialist movement for national unity and social justice is the challenge facing the genuine left and progressive forces, defence of democratic and legal rights of all citizens will need to be the immediate and central battle cry against state repression.

Economic demands and call for social justice will inevitably enter the campaign as the Aragalaya evolves into a mass-based progressive anti-imperialist movement.

  • There is a great need to learn from the experiences of the seven months of struggle.

Dangers of adventurism are manifold, and the very persons who hailed some of the ill-conceived actions as heroic were quick to denounce them as lawless after the protest collapsed.

Caution is important against infiltration by vested interests through agencies such as NGOs.

  • Political education is urgently needed in:

Understanding imperialism and the importance of struggle against imperialism, its hegemonic allies and local partners.

Redefining development in ways that it will free the country from the imperialist economic grip

Appreciating that delivery of economic liberation demands the resolution of the national and democratic crises facing the country.

  • The genuine Left needs to take a realistic and flexible attitude towards Aragalaya to avert its being hijacked by narrow, opportunist interests. Reactionary thought and deed can be overcome only through a democratic process.

  • Freeing the country from the Western Credit Trap is central to economic recovery and that has to be accompanied by directing economic activity away from consumerism, rationalizing the service sector and reindustrializing the country based on a national economic policy.

  • The struggle has to transcend protest to activation of the masses in social and economic work towards devolution of political and economic power.

  • Resolution of the national question needs recognition as one concerning four nationalities with steps to eliminate hostility between nationalities as well as religions.

  • Liberation is also liberation from dominant reactionary ideology, and a proactive approach is essential towards gender and caste equality to eliminate hierarchy.

  • Most importantly, the struggle, to advance towards mobilization of the masses for national economic recovery and social justice, has to be firm in an anti-imperialist, anti-hegemonic stand. In short the struggle in the process of growth should undergo an educational process to remould itself as a revolutionary vanguard.

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