Revolt in Sri Lanka: DOES A SEISMIC STRUGGLE GUARANTEE SYSTEMIC CHANGE?

by Ellen Isaacs

August 6, 2022

To quote Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, the uprising is “a revolt and not yet a revolution, because it doesn’t want to change fundamental social relations… or property relations.”1

As was the case with the massive upheaval in Egypt in 2011, or the more recent large uprisings in India and Burma (https://multiracialunity.org/2021/02/24/revolt-in-india-does-a-seismic-struggle-guarantee-systemic-change/, https://multiracialunity.org/2021/03/18/revolt-in-burma-does-a-seismic-struggle-guarantee-systemic-change/), without a program to challenge capitalism or an organization to analyze and lead the struggle, even a large and valiant rebellion does not lead to lasting change. There may be some reforms, as in India, or the door may be opened to a military takeover, as in Egypt and Burma. In Sri Lanka, a politician from the same ruling clique as the deposed rulers has become president and already several protest leaders have been arrested as others are being hunted or banned from travel (NYT 8/4/22).

The Recent Struggle

For the last few months thousands of workers and students have participated in mass protests, and several general strikes have shut the country down. In the capital, Colombo, a protest park was established for several months. Long divided by religion and nationalism, the majority Buddhist Sinhalese have united with Muslims, Hindus and Christians as well as separatist Tamils, who had been suppressed after 26 years of bloody conflict ending in 2009. For the several months before thousands invaded the Presidential Palace on July 9, conditions for ordinary citizens had become intolerable. More than one fourth of the population was severely short of food, and fuel and medicine were scarce for all. The government had also suddenly banned chemical fertilizers, which dramatically reduced harvests. At least 15 people died from heat stroke in long fuel lines, and another 42 or more were killed at protests by police (NYT 7/9/2022).

As thousands stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he was soon forced to resign, only to be replaced by the former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Both long time members of the same political dynasty and promoters of Sinhalese nationalism who have rotated offices for twenty years. The list of demands of the protestors included a resignation of current office holders, an interim government which subscribes to the “‘economic, social and political aims and aspirations of the people’s struggle,” and a more democratic constitution (see full list in appendix).2   An end to corruption and unfair taxation, the right to health care and education, and an end to racism are some of the proposals.  However, there is no call to alter the fundamental economic system, international relations or sources of power that would be needed to actually make any of these changes.

Background of Implosion

As an island in the Indian Ocean, sitting along important shipping routes, Sri Lanka (called Ceylon until independence from Britain in 1972) has been caught in rivalries between India, China and the US. In the two decades after the end of the Korean War, Sri Lanka was part of the Non-Aligned Movement and very close to China, from which rice was imported as rubber flowed the other way. But the Tamil separatist movement, which led to civil war, was supported by India, and Sri Lanka drifted closed to the US. China supported the brutal government attack on the Tamils which led to sanctions by the UN and Sri Lanka drifted away from the West back towards China.1

The recent crisis stems in large part from Sri Lanka’s massive foreign debt owed to US and EU based bonds and hedge funds like BlackRock, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and China and Japan. The ruling politicians relied on the huge income from tourism to pay off their debts, an industry that died with the pandemic.  They also increased their profits by enacting a massive tax cut for themselves. Lastly, the war in Ukraine and the world financial crisis have caused more shortages and inflation.

The US wishes to control land, transportation and communication infrastructure and make the island, in essence, a US military base.  China’s Belt and Road Initiative has interests in ports in Hambantota and Colombo and its international airport, but has not offered loans to ease the debt.3,4 Instead, Sri Lanka has been forced to turn to the IMF, which has devalued the currency and imposed austerity, as always.5

Revolt Without Revolution

Unfortunately, despite the valor of thousands of Sri Lankans, there is no left movement to lead the struggle away from capitalism and the grip of inter-imperialist rivalry. There was a period of great trade union militancy in the 1920s, but without any contact with the international communist movement. In 1935, Ceylonese students in London did form Marxist groups, but made self-defeating alliances with non-revolutionary progressives.6  At present there are a few small parties who call themselves socialist or communist, but most call simply for democratic parliamentary reforms. Only the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), a small Trotskyist group, actually says it is anti-capitalist, but it calls for establishing action committees rather than being in the thick of current struggles.7

It is inevitable that workers around the world will rebel as economic hardships worsen, climate change accelerates, pandemics continue and wars rage. However, if these struggles do not involve actual attempts to seize power from capitalist ruling classes, they will only change the names of the oppressors. The inevitable result is the repression of those who have fought back and little, if any, change in workers’ conditions. In fact, rebellion without an anti-capitalist analysis, can even be open to leadership from the right, as we see in the US and Europe with the growth of racist, nationalist groups.

We must recognize that, ultimately, revolutionary struggle must be violent, in order to depose a violent ruling class. Thus we must be winning soldiers as well as workers and students to both study the workings of capitalism, the history of revolutions and their successes and failures, and the methods of both interim reform and then revolutionary warfare. Then we must reiterate these lessons as we engage in struggle. When we say power to the people, let’s really have a plan to take power.

Appendix

References

1. https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-hope-and-fear-of-the-sri-lankan-protest-movement

2. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/rajapaksas-resignation-what-are-the-demands-of-sri-lankan-protesters-101657370420588.html

3. http://www.bannedthought.net/SriLanka/

4. http://www.plp.org/challenge/2022/7/25/sri-lanka-inflamed-by-crisis-caught-in-rivalry.html

5. https://countercurrents.org/2022/07/a-call-for-debt-justice-debt-cancellation-and-transparency-in-imf-negotiations-in-sri-lanka/

6. https://countercurrents.org/2022/07/a-call-for-debt-justice-debt-cancellation-and-transparency-in-imf-negotiations-in-sri-lanka/ 7. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/07/21/pers-j21.html

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