Sri Lanka: Building the people’s movement is a priority

February 8, 2024
two women holding signs
During the 2022 peoples uprising in Sri Lanka. Photo: @dula311/X/Twitter. Inset: Pubudu Jayagoda. Photo: @pubudu.jayagoda/Facebook

Following Sri Lanka’s popular uprising (Aragalaya) — which took place from April to August in 2022 — the ruling regime remains fragile. With parliamentary and presidential elections announced for later this year, the dominant political parties, which lost their credibility during the uprising, are scrambling to gain popular support.

The main party in power — the People’s Front (Podujana Peramuna, SLPP), led by the Rajapaksa family — returned to election-campaign mode in mid-December.

The Supreme Court ruled In November last year that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, two former central bank governors and other top treasury officials had violated the public trust through economic mismanagement between 2019 and 2022.

The opposition United National Paty (UNP) — led by the current president, Ranil Wickramasinghe — and the splinter group, Samagi Jana Balawegaya, (SJB) — led by Sajith Premadasa (the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who ruled from 1988–93) remain weak.

Initiated under an International Monetary Fund debt-restructuring agenda, the regime has imposed indirect taxes on the people, and is commercialising and privatising state-owned enterprises, particularly in electricity and petroleum.

Meanwhile, working-class party, the Peoples Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, JVP), has mobilised a broad social movement bringing together a range of unions, women’s groups and community organisations, under the National People's Power (Jathika Jana Balawegaya, NPP), which was established in 2015. The JVP is increasingly gaining popularity, however it is limited in framing a popular alternative program to the present market-driven reform process and addressing the grievances of the Tamil and Muslim communities in the north and the east, in relation to the withdrawal of the military from these areas.

A JVP splinter group established the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) in 2012. Several party members were arrested in June, 2020, during a peaceful protest in front of the United States embassy, against the murder of George Floyd and the signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) deal with the US — a market-driven foreign aid project.

The FSP actively contributed to the 2022 popular uprising.

Green Left’s Janaka Biyanwila interviewed Pubudu Jayagoda, the FSP’s educational secretary and central committee member.

* * *

Could you describe how the FSP emerged?

We used to be within the JVP and in 2002, there was a new movement that included some ethno-nationalist figures. This led to a new interpretation that neocolonialism was shifting towards a recolonisation. This was the period of the post-9/11 war against Iraq, and there was an argument that there needed to be new form of national liberation struggle.

In 2004, JVP entered into an alliance with the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) lead by Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was followed by support for his presidential campaign in 2005.

At the 2004 parliamentary elections, the JVP was able to gain 39 seats in the parliament out of 225 seats and three cabinet portfolios.

The majority of the membership opposed this alliance with Mahinda. Nevertheless, the debate continued within the party and reached a climax with the 2010 Presidential elections, when the JVP decided to support former military commander Sarath Fonseka against Mahinda.

Unlike Pakistan or Bangladesh, we have never had the military as heads of state and we were arguing [about] whether we are contributing to create a new problem.

Three issues emerged: Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism; our political strategy; and internal democracy.

There was no internal democracy within the central committee and when this was argued they decided to remove those who opposed their decisions ... and a majority of the members decided to leave. Those who stayed were the ones with parliamentary representation and cabinet posts.

We were unknown to the public. Nevertheless, the youth, students, women and farmers’ wings came with us. We held our first conference in April 2012, and that’s how we started as a party.

Although we are known as a break-away group of the JVP, most of our members are new and they were not in the JVP. All our young leaders were never in the JVP.

As the uprising has demonstrated, the younger generation has contributed to serious social change.

How did the FSP participate in the popular uprising in 2022?

The dominant approach of all our historical working-class parties was to go through elections, enter parliament and then make changes. The second approach was militant struggle where you capture state power. There were multiple Maoist factions in those days that promoted this.

So when we were forming our party we were discussing our political program. That debate continued until 2014. Some left us, but they remained in the left. Then, at the 2014 party conference we agreed that our political strategy was to build a revolutionary mass movement.

Gotabaya, who was defense secretary at the time, in an interview said there were three main national security threats: Muslim fundamentalism, the return of the LTTE (Tamil separatist nationalism) and the FSP. He was implying that the “revolutionary mass movement” is an attempt to initiate popular uprisings like the “Arab spring” protests.

Our strategy was based on the movement for people’s struggle (jana aragala vyaparaya).

At the 2019 presidential elections Gotabaya won 6.9 million votes, we only got 15,000 votes. [T]he media dismissed us saying people have rejected us. But we said that within two years the same 6.9 million that elected Gotabaya will chase him out.

In August 2021, following COVID-19, we began discussions with the JVP. We held the view that people will come to the streets in 2022, and if there was some consensus between the FSP and JVP, we could take the popular struggle towards certain victory. Otherwise, it would become like the Arab Spring (co-opted by the ruling elites). But [JVP] refused talks.

Then we did a campaign [called] “the next power”, [arguing that] the next power should be peoples’ power and not party power, in order to recover from this crisis. We did about 800 forums around the country and published a small booklet. There was a positive response among the people, even in villages.

In January 2022, we had a major rally (from Colombo to Galle) where the slogan was a “truthful hope, and a peoples movement”. We got a feeling that there were tendencies towards a mass movement. We sensed that the people were politicised.

But we didn’t want this to become a negatively destructive movement, which might also lead to state violence. So we wanted this to be a well-organised struggle. Since the party couldn’t do this all by itself, we decided to create “struggle councils” in each village and town.

The struggle councils didn’t need to be led by party members, but by educated/politicised locals. We wanted people to struggle, but without burning petrol sheds or destroying local supermarkets.

In March, we set up a struggle council in Nugegoda (a suburb close to the President’s private residence). But we were a bit late, because about four days later the protest in front of the private residence took place. So, we stopped building the struggle councils and supported the popular movement.

In April 2022, we protested against the curfew, and this encouraged people onto the streets. Then our student movement was in the forefront of the protest, signaling people where to congregate. So, even after the protest, our strategy was to promote a “people’s council” and establish an interim government avoiding the appointment of another president.

The action plan was decided on July 5. Despite this consensus, all the opposition parties supported the election of a new president. The SJB and the JVP were aimed at sending people back to their homes and supported the new president. But we wanted the struggle to continue.

How do you see the post 2022 debt restructuring and the reform process?

The main effort of the new president [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is to break the unity of the people’s struggle. The alliance between the working classes and middle class that emerged with the uprising was broken. He managed to provide some privileges to the middle class. He gave electricity and fuel (petrol and gas) to the middle class but increased the price. This excluded the lower classes, and the weight of the reforms was loaded on to the lower classes.

Then [Ranil] made all the opposition parties kneel. He made the SJB feel that it will be undermined by defections. The JVP and its mass movement (NPP) was forced to abandon protests by displays of violent state repression and the JVP was compelled to shift towards electoral politics. He undermined the TNA (a Tamil nationalist party) by saying there will be national reconciliation. He offered ministerial posts to the Muslim parties and undermined them.

He always said IMF reforms will be difficult on the public but there was no alternative. There were no opposition parties that refused the IMF agenda or suggested an alternative. The JVP said “we will go to the IMF but suggest specific conditions”. That is when Ranil responded saying “how does the debtor demand conditions from the lender”. So it was a joke. Even the regional head of the IMF mentioned that this will be “bitter experiment”, so we are like lab rats.

How are you mobilising people on the ground?

In terms of building the mass movement, the Galle Face Action Committee (which coordinated the occupation of the Gall Face Green) is now engaged in popularising the people’s council. We support that, but we don’t interfere too much. Meanwhile, we are building our struggle councils through the people’s struggle movement.

In the upcoming months, we are planning on building 1000 councils. The response of the people has been positive. These are not party units, all parties can join. We believe building the party is important, but we also think building the people’s movement is more important.

The movement that emerged with the [2022] uprising (Aragalaya) — we need to build on that, improving quality and standard. That’s why it was weak. The uprising was not organised, so we think organisation is important.

The second is the workers’ movement. The workers’ movement couldn’t give leadership to the [2022] uprising because it was weak. After the defeat of the 1980 July strike (in which masses of public employees lost their jobs) we haven’t recovered. Since then, the workers haven’t been able to organise a general strike. This was a key weakness. We could have defeated Ranil, if there was a general strike.

The main weakness of the workers’ movement is its fragmentation. There are party unions, then party-independent unions. Even amidst a major crisis, they weren’t able to unite. The workers’ movement could not even achieve one percent of what the student movement achieved during the Aragalaya.

What about women members in the party and organising women?

In terms of women’s membership in the party, we are making progress. There are women engaged as district and (regional) electoral organisers. This was previously seen as only done by men. Our women’s movement, “free women”, is active. Recently they were engaged in organising women who are struggling with micro finance. We are building a national movement focused on that.

We are also organising relatives of women migrant workers. Women migrant workers are hard to organise ([due to the] temporary nature of work and [their location] overseas). We are also engaging on issues of sexual harassment against women and children.

While women in Sri Lanka face less barriers compared to Arab countries or India, women still think that politics is not their field. Even though they were active during the uprising, they didn’t interpret it as political engagement. Some of the most active women during the uprising have their profile pictures (on Facebook) with a tag line “I hate politics”. So we need learn how to engage with this.

The new school term begins in February and just the cost of school books is Rs 20,000. If there are three children in the family that’s Rs 60,000. This is because of the increase in indirect taxes (VAT). This is only the cost of books, not uniforms, shoes, etc. So women feel this. Even in the kitchen there is nothing to cook, because of the cost of food items. Earlier there was no (cooking) gas. Now we have gas, but no food to cook.

So I think this will lead to more women organising.

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