People’s uprising a ‘defining moment in Sri Lankan politics’

September 7, 2022
Green Left and Socialist Alliance’s forum on the Sri Lankan people’s uprising featured activists from Sri Lanka and the solidarity movement in Australia.

The mass movement in Sri Lanka mobilised more than a million people in revolt against the corrupt government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Green Left and Socialist Alliance hosted a discussion on the uprising, featuring activists from Sri Lanka and the solidarity movement in Australia.

Following Rajapaksa’s removal and the installation of Ranil Wickramasinghe as the new president, the state ramped up its repression of the people’s movement. Rajapaksa returned to the country from self-imposed exile earlier this month.

Addressing the forum from Sri Lanka were Kaushalya Ariyaratne, a member of the National People’s Power (NPP) alliance — an electoral coalition involving the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) — and Nuwan Bopage, a Frontline Socialist Party member, protest leader and prominent human rights lawyer.

Ariyaratne outlined the country’s economic and political crisis.  She explained that since independence in 1948, successive governments failed to maintain economic sustainability. In the late 1970s, Sri Lanka became the first country in South Asia to liberalise trade.

“This shift was part of a structural adjustment program implemented following an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as solutions to the ‘economic ailments’ the country was facing at that time,” she said.

“Until 1978, the economic system was based on the Keynesian system, where the government intervened in capitalism through public policies,” Bopage explained. “However, in 1978, [President] JR Jayewardene exposed the economy to neoliberalism ‘overnight’ and introduced a new constitution with executive powers for the president.” This sparked organised resistance, slowing down the project until 2009.

The period was marked by the 25-year-long civil war against the oppressed Tamil population, which ended in 2009 with the massacre of more than 100,000 Tamils.


“After 2009, Prime Minister [Ratnasiri Wickremanayake] started the second phase of neoliberalism, where billions in loans were taken out,” Bopage said. “[This] created the illusion that high rise buildings, highways and consumerism are the yardsticks of development.

“Sri Lanka owes more than US$51 billion to foreign lenders, including US$6.5 billion to China.”

Sri Lanka’s local economy collapsed by the end of last year, after the country’s foreign reserves dropped to $3 billion, Ariyaratne explained. They were down to $1.9 billion by the end of March, and the government defaulted on its debt for the first time in May.

“Sri Lanka’s economy has heavily relied on its foreign exchange earnings in three sectors: tea exports, government manufacturing, and foreign remittances by migrant workers” — all of which rely largely on women’s labour, she said.

High inflation earlier this year meant “the poorest of the poor suffered first” from the crisis. Sri Lankans lost jobs, were eating less food, and there was no fertiliser for farmers. “But by January to March, it was felt by the middle class — their food, medicine, cooking gas and other essential items were also not in the market,” Ariyaratne said.

People’s anger and frustration were compounded by the “enormous power” held by the ruling party, especially the president’s executive powers to change the constitution. People started expressing their anger towards the government on social media, Ariyaratne said.

The NPP and other opposition parties organised rallies across the country earlier this year, prior to the Galle Face occupation that started in early April in the capital Colombo.

“In early March we marched against the corrupted government. We also organised one country-wide strike, which we call a hartal,” Ariyaratne said. “On April 9, people organised through social media to come to Colombo in front of the President’s Secretariat office and occup[ied] the land, demanding the president and his family resign.”

The Galle Face occupation grew stronger and continued for three months. One and a half million people descended on Colombo on July 9 — thousands of people overcame heavily-armed military and police to occupy the presidential and prime ministerial offices and residences.

“The protests were mainly led by youth, took non-violent forms, and were also creative,” Ariyaratne said.

United in protest

“The Galle Face protest has marked a defining moment in Sri Lankan politics,” Bopage said. The protesters came together to agitate “regardless of their political affiliations”.

“They have also made it multi-ethnic and multi-religious ... [including] singing the national anthem in Tamil as well as Sinhalese. The New Year festival was also celebrated together as Tamils, as well as Sinhalese — that is a significant development in the country.”

However, according to Bopage, the movement was not sufficiently ideologically mature and well organised to take the opportunity to build a workers’ and people’s state.

“The government reacted to these protests with authoritarian actions — such as declaring the state of emergency, allowing the military to arrest civilians, imposing curfews and restricting access to social media.”

“Wickramasinghe has no mandate to be the president,” Ariyaratne said. “Currently, he is engaged in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment towards political leaders, protesters and trade union activists. Several of them are arrested and detained under emergency regulations.”

Ariyaratne said that after Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister, the NPP proposed the formation of an interim government, to address the people’s demands and “support the country to overcome immediate problems”.

“We also suggested a mechanism to consult the protesters in this interim government,” Ariyaratne said. “However, Ranil Wickramasinghe became the new PM at that time — backed by the ruling party — and that ultimately paved the way for him to become the illegitimate president of the country.”

“The NPP, along with other opposition parties, is demanding a new general election where political and economic reforms can be implemented in the parliament,” she said. “We understand that there are certain limitations to the current constitution, but a new process and constitutional amendments can be implemented through a new parliament with a people’s mandate.

“Instead, the ruling party has been negotiating with some of the opposition parties to form a so-called ‘all-party government’ for the next two and a half years, just for the sake — we believe — of showing the political stability of the country in order to obtain more loans and the debt restructuring support.”

This will only prolong the country’s economic, social and political crisis, Ariyaratne said.

Wickramasinghe is a “key agent” of neoliberalism and “one of the main culprits of the economic crisis”, whose only solution is “to impose taxes on the general public, bringing the crisis to the doorsteps of the people”, Bopage said.


“Wickramasinghe has been leading talks with the IMF to secure — as we hear — a four-year bailout program that would provide up to US$3 billion,” Ariyaratne said.

“We do not see any commitment to make any serious political reforms, end corruption or to take any measures to protect the poor. In fact, most likely the IMF will assist Wickramasinghe to further cut down subsidies and other social benefits.”

“The economic crisis will be worse in the coming months,” Bopage said. “There is a 1 billion loan repayment due in July that has already been defaulted on [and] payments worth US$7 billion are due this year.

“Therefore, the people’s uprisings are inevitable against the government and economic recession.

“The left movement of the country — this is very important — should be able to mobilise the people towards socialist reform and to change the system. The current crisis is an arable land to plant socialist ideologies against neoliberalism’s agenda.”

“The tremendous hardships and suffering caused by the current crisis and the protests that have emerged across the country point towards the need for a new economic vision and a political vision — one that is based on economic justice for the marginalised communities,” Ariyaratne said.

“First, we must understand that the task of crafting a people-centred government as well as an economy cannot be given [over] entirely to local neoliberal ‘experts’ or international ‘saviours’.

“Secondly and most importantly, a response to the crisis is not possible without the participation of women and the marginalised communities in decision-making — on whose labour the country has relied. I mark this as we have zero women in the current cabinet. I feel these are the new challenges we face as protesters in general, as well as the left, specifically.”

“The main capitalist wing ... is demanding an election and a solution to the economic crisis,” Bopage said. “Parties like JVP, which has a left background, [are] also demanding an election at this juncture, instead of mobilising the people.”

“[I]t is very important to mobilise the people through people’s struggle committees. Actually, the Galle Face protesters suggested their [own] action plan. In the action plan they focused on building people’s councils, which is a socialist-oriented solution.

“[I]nstead of asking for another election just to strengthen [the parliamentary] system, what we are asking is to formulate a new system with people’s councils and create people’s committees to give more power to the people instead of keeping this power with the old parliament, which is unable to meet the demands of the people.”

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