Eyewitness from Sri Lanka: Popular protest, state repression and trade union solidarity

June 12, 2022
Anti-government protest in Sri Lanka on April 13, 2022 in front of the Presidential Secretariat. Photo: AntanO/Wikimedia Commons

Despite ongoing protests, basic goods’ shortages, 40% inflation and a historic debt default, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced he will finish the remaining two years of his term. In an interview with Bloomberg, he said: “I can’t go as a failed president … I have been given a mandate for five years.”

His statement came amid a wave of mass arrests of peaceful protestors that had mobilised in response to the May 9 attack on the Gota Go Gama (Gota Go Village) protest camp at Galle Face, Colombo. Established in April, the camp has been at the heart of the current protest movement calling for Rajapaksa to resign and “go home”.

Rather than focusing on the ruling party thugs who attacked the protest camp, the state instead targeted social activists, including Buddhist monks and Christian nuns, who defended the camp. According to Sri Lankan police, 2528 protesters had been arrested by June 7. 

Despite this, protesters gathered on June 9 to commemorate the attack. They met in front of Colombo’s main railway station — a popular venue for protests — before marching to the police headquarters.

Police assembled behind barricades along the march route to protect the buildings of financial institutions and the Criminal Investigation Department, notorious as a site where protesters have been interrogated. 

Another 100 police stood behind barricades at the police headquarters, where protestors gathered outside chanting. Among them were a troupe of musicians, mostly high school music teachers, playing indigenous drums. 

When a small group of protesters began to shake the barricades, police responded by firing tear gas. Protesters then ran to protect themselves, before returning to the barricades and finally marching to Gota Go Gama. 

Among the protesters was Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) secretary Joseph Stalin, who has endured multiple forms of state repression over the years as a union leader. 

In July, Stalin was arrested along with 16 other union members while demonstrating against the widely criticised Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill. Under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions, the state forcibly detained the union members at an Air Force camp quarantine centre for 14 days.

Stalin spoke to Green Left just as protesters began dispersing after the police teargas attack. 

Can you explain why this struggle emerged?

The Rajapaksa regime was determined to plunder the state under the guise of a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology. At the same time, they also used the military victory [in the 2009 war on Tamils] for their purposes and misled the people. They were greedy for power and stole public property. 

All this was to prepare the way for members of their extended family to take on positions of state power. Even as they did this, they couldn’t shelter the economy. Since they didn’t have any economic plan, an economic crisis emerged. There were seven-to-eight-hour electricity blackouts and other economic disasters. This helped remove their Sinhala-Buddhist ideological cover. 

With this emerged the current struggle to demand they go home.

The Rajapaksa regime was elected on a promise to build the national economy. What happened to that promise? 

That’s how they misled the people. They didn’t have a plan to strengthen the economy or the capacity to do such things. They were clearly positioning themselves to steal and strengthen their own power.

They fooled the people with their distorted [Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist] ideologies. They created the Viyath Maga [Professionals for a Better Future — a network of academics, professionals, and entrepreneurs] but that was just a tool to gain power. 

From this struggle, we have seen an awakening of the people. That was one of the main victories. The people have developed a sense of critical awareness. We need to go forward with this. 

What is unique about this struggle?

The youth movement has gained strength and come to the forefront. They gained recognition. They gained leadership. 

There is a protest movement across the country that is centred around the Gota Go Gama. This is new. We need to protect that uniqueness.

We all know that a lot of political parties, rooted in corruption, are trying to plunder this struggle. That’s wrong. That’s going to undermine the diversity in this struggle. 

They need to put all their plundering to the side and merge with this struggle and turn this into a broad people’s struggle. But a lot of political parties are not functioning like that. Some parties are trying to claim that they are the only ones capable of leading the change. They shouldn’t do that. 

How do you view the trade union movement’s involvement with this struggle?

There has been a large contribution by unions to this struggle. We went on strike in April. Then we did a hartal [a form of civil disobedience involving the shutdown of workplaces]. 

We also did a collective strike with other teachers’ unions in response to the attack on Gota Go Gama, but that was undermined by another party-based union with a mistaken ideology. Otherwise, we could have displayed the real strength of the trade union movement. 

But the protesters, as well as the people, believe that the union movement has some responsibilities to this struggle. 

What do you have to say to the Australian labour movement?

Clearly, they need to support this movement to send this government home.

We know that the appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is protecting this government. After coming into power, he said he would protect the Gota Go Gama. But, at the same time, he has allowed the arrest of nearly 3000 people. He’s engaged in state repression. 

The international community should pay attention to that. The international community should condemn these anti-democratic practices. The Australian workers movement should also strongly stand up against these threats and arrests. 

What do you think needs to be done to counter this state repression?

We need to strengthen people’s power. People should come forward fearlessly in this struggle. The state will try to repress the struggle. But, to date, the state has been unable to repress the struggle. So, we already have some power. We need to build on this power and go forward. 

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