Behind the popular protests in Sri Lanka

Protest posters in Sri Lanka
Multi-sectoral protests have been organised in Sri Lanka over the past 23 days. Images: Twitter

Since the beginning of March, protests have erupted across Sri Lanka demanding the resignation of President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa. These protests emerged in the context of rising costs of living, exacerbated by a foreign exchange debt default, restricting the state’s capacity to buy essential items.

The protests against the shortages of essential goods, such as electricity, kerosene, diesel and natural gas and the rising cost of food, energy and transport, were preceded by multiple trade union protests, involving teachers, nurses, supplementary health workers, railway workers and electricity workers.

The union protests demanded wage rises and improved working conditions, as well as an end to the rampant corruption and looting of the public sector by politicians and unelected senior state bureaucrats.

The generalised protests in March rose under the slogan “Gota go home”, demanding the president and his five brothers in the Cabinet and parliament relinquish their elected positions.

New movement

The protests have many dimensions and are driven by a new generation of activist youth, critical of mainstream political parties, including the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples Liberation Front, JVP). Nevertheless, the JVP is also engaged in a broad social movement with a range of progressive civil society groups.

The protests are openly critical of ethno-nationalist politics, in particular Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, which has divided the country since independence. Despite a majority of Tamil people in the north and east still enduring daily harassment by the military and police forces, there have been protests in major towns in those areas. Tamil families with forcibly disappeared relatives continue their protests across the northeast. Unionised Tamil tea plantation workers — mostly women — have engaged in an enduring protest demanding wage rises.

The current government received the highest popular mandate in the country’s history (60%, or 6.9 million out of 11.5 million voters) just two years ago. Taking place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the elections were also preceded by anti-Muslim violence and the April 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombing.

The Easter Sunday suicide attack was carried out by an Islamist terrorist group, targeting three churches and three luxury hotels in the capital, Colombo. About 269 people were killed, including foreign nationals, and at least 500 were injured. Although numerous investigations were carried out, some still on-going, what has emerged is the complicity of state security forces with the attackers.

In effect, the current protest movement is also demanding justice for the Easter Sunday bombing victims, and the truth about state involvement in the attack. This lack of state accountability and transparency directly relates to the enduring militarised authoritarian state that has also created an economic crisis directly impacting the livelihoods of many Sri Lankans.

The popular protests include a range of democratic social movements and activist networks and are highlighting the corrosion of representative democratic institutions — executive, legislative and judicial — and lack of internal democracy within the mainstream political parties over the past 44 years.

An artistic photo display of journalists assassinated by the security forces at the main protest site, was vandalised under the cover of darkness on April 27.

State capture

In 1978, the newly-elected Sri Lankan government introduced a presidential constitution, centralising state power with the president and granting the cabinet extra-parliamentary powers. This was also a government committed to economic “liberalisation”, the promotion of deregulated markets and privatisation. In 1979, the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) reinforced police powers of arrest, detention and torture.

Prior to the outbreak of ethnic war in 1983, the government crushed the labour movement during a general strike in 1980, using state violence and thugs mobilised by politicians. Despite the cessation of the war against the Tamils in a blood bath in 2009, under then-defence minister Gotabahaya Rajapaksa, disappearances, arbitrary killings and torture have endured.

After becoming president in 2019, Gotabahaya Rajapaksa appointed at least 28 serving or retired military and intelligence figures to key administrative posts. The ongoing protests are exposing this brutal militarisation of the state.

The government’s popular mandate goes back to the country’s Ten-Year Development Framework 200616 (Mahinda Chinthanaya) introduced by then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Its main aim was to shift focus from external dependence to local autonomy, focusing on the rural economy, agriculture and small and medium enterprises, as a new vision of “growth with equity”.

This also meant retracting from privatisation of state enterprises and forming a closer alliance with China (and India) rather than the West. A range of progressive forces supported these changes to strengthen the public sector.

In practice these policy moves were mostly focused on looting the state through private-public partnerships and creating clientelist networks through the public sector for political and personal gain. The promotion of large-scale infrastructure projects (encouraged by the World Bank) involved building highways and cricket stadiums, along with a port and airport in Rajapaksa’s home district. These projects were mostly underutilised and drained public funds in order to enrich an elite few through commissions at various stages.

This capture of the state by politically-connected oligarchies in various economic sectors precipitated the current crisis.

Unions

With $51 billion in foreign debt, the solution to the current crisis is articulated by the government in terms of returning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with a begging bowl for more loans.

This has strengthened pro-United States and anti-Chinese policy rhetoric. While China continues to assist, the country’s debt to China is only 10% of its overall debt, which is mostly owed to Western markets. The return to the IMF also means more austerity measures to reduce public spending, which is likely to exacerbate the cost of living.

The ongoing protests have re-energised the trade union movement, which continues to endure multiple forms of state repression, including the mobilisation of conservative-party-subordinated unions and NGOs to undermine progressive union initiatives. Employers as well as the mainstream media also contribute to trivialising union struggles, while promoting de-unionised labour markets, to attract foreign investors.

The union movement exists in a sea of informal workers and a hostile industrial relations system, which is weakening mechanisms for collective bargaining. Although many women workers — in the tea plantations, health, education and manufacturing sectors — are unionised, the senior union leadership is often made up of men. This is also replicated within political parties as well as in the parliament. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, women accounted for a mere 5% of elected representatives.

The emergence of popular protests has asserted new forms of solidarity across ethnic and class lines, undermining enduring ethnocentric nationalism, in particular, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

The protests are reasserting a new sense of citizenship, which goes beyond voting at election time for political parties lacking any real commitment to voters or the democratic process. They have also foregrounded the role of public services, public spending and public production of goods and services. In particular, protesters are demanding that the law and the police serve and protect the people, rather than acting as a security service for the ruling elite and local politicians. This overlaps with demands by professional public sector workers to enable public policy development and implementation shielded from corruption and political interference.

The protests in Sri Lanka are resonating across the Sri Lankan diaspora, including those in Australia. Sri Lankans living in major cities in Australia have protested, demanding accountability and justice.

Numerous forms of state repression are already at play, including the shooting death of a young father during an agitation in a rural town. Buddhist chanting through loud speakers was also used to drown-out the sound of protesters outside Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official residence.

Nevertheless, the democratic protests demanding transparency and accountability of public institutions endures and the labour movement is a key actor in this historic moment, renewing democracy, justice and citizenship.