Sri Lankan socialist: Regime stepping up anti-people policies

April 23, 2012

Privatisation polices have been stepped up since the end of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, says Ranath Kumarasinghe from Sri Lanka's New Socialist Party (NSSP)

Kumarasinghe is features editor of Haraya, a Sinhala language newspaper published by the NSSP. He recently visited Australia to speak at the Marxism 2012 conference, organised by Socialist Alternative in Melbourne over Easter.

Kukaarasinghe told Green Left Weekly: "The International Monetary Fund agreed to a loan of [US]$2.6 billion to the Sri Lankan government, which is being delivered in six instalments. In return the government is expected to follow International Monetary Fund (IMF) directives.

“The IMF has demanded the government devalue the currency, raise interest rates, cut social benefits and subsidies, liberalise the labour market, and abolish cost of living adjustments to the minimum wage and in pay agreements.

"Health care and education are being privatised. New private hospitals are starting up, while under-funded government hospitals have long waiting lists.

"Fifteen thousand hectares of land have been given to multinational companies for export-oriented agriculture. More land will be sold to Gulf-based businesses."

Kumarasinghe said irrigation of these agro-industries will divert water away from small farmers, including many who are likely to be forced to work for the big companies.

The IMF's $2.6 billion is being spent on "mega-projects" such as a new airport, highways, communications towers, tourist resorts and power stations.

Cuts to fuel subsidies recently caused fuel prices to rise by 30%. This led to protests by fisherpeople who had to pay more to fuel their boats.

Police fired on a demonstration in Negombo, killing one person and wounding others.

Workers are also resisting attacks on their living standards. Last year, workers in the private sector held strikes and demonstrations against government misuse of the money in their Employee Provident Fund. Police fired on a protest of Free Trade Zone workers, killing one and injuring others.

The government boasts that GDP has risen by 8% in one year. But 15 % of the population live below even the absurdly low official poverty line of $1 a day.

GLW asked Kumarasinghe about the situation of Tamils, an oppressed minority in Sri Lanka, since the end of the war. He said: "They are still living under military occupation. One third of the lands in the Jaffna peninsula are still occupied by army camps.

"Most displaced people are still not settled on their own lands. Most Tamil fishermen are still unable to fish. Outsiders are coming into the areas they used to fish.

"There are still at least 10,000 Tamil youth in custody. There are 60,000 widows with not enough food for their children."

GLW asked about the report from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, a body set up by the Sri Lankan government in response to international criticism of the conduct of the war.

Kumarasinghe said that the commission made some recommendations that should be implemented, including the resettlement of displaced people on their own land, the ending of army control of civil affairs, and the investigation of allegations of war crimes.

However, the government has not implemented any of the commission's recommendations. Some ministers have said the recommendations will be implemented, while others have said the opposite.

Kumarasinghe said the recommendations were "not a solution", but the demand to implement the recommendations was a "transitional slogan". The NSSP is working with other groups to build a mass movement around this demand.

A series of rallies have been held under the banner Vipaksaye Virodhaya ("protest of the opposition"). These rallies have demanded: the immediate implementation of the commission recommendations; an end to abductions and disappearances; immediate release of all political prisoners; reversal of the recent hikes in the price of kerosene, diesel and petrol, as well as electricity and other essential commodities; and wages to be raised according to the cost of living.

In building this campaign, the NSSP is working with other left parties and the Tamil National Alliance.

It is also working with the United National Party, the main capitalist opposition party. This raised some questions at the Marxism conference.

Kumarasinghe said that cooperation with the UNP is "just for agitation on certain slogans", which can help to "bring the masses onto the streets". He stressed that it is not a front with the goal of forming a common government.

He said socialists cannot rely on a capitalist party such as the UNP to actually implement the democratic goals to which it is theoretically committed.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe has talked of federalism as a solution to the ethnic conflict. But in the past, leaders of both the UNP and the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party have reached agreements with Tamil leaders, only to abandon them under pressure from chauvinists from the Sinhala ethnic majority.

Kumarasinghe told GLW about the repression in Sri Lanka. Critics of the government are often jailed or murdered. Many have been taken away in "white vans", never to be seen alive again. A committee set up to investigate disappearances has received 5000 complaints.

The government is trying to intimidate the media. An estimated 16 journalists have been killed in the past four years. The pro-government media vilifies critics as "traitors".

Kumarasinghe said only the working class can win the struggle for democracy. He said one problem has been that some unions are affiliated to parties in the coalition government.

These unions, while sometimes campaigning on immediate economic issues, are reluctant to criticise government policies.

The government's chauvinist propaganda has influenced workers, but this is starting to change.

Kumarasinghe said: "The advanced section of the working class is supporting the commission’s recommendations. These workers understand that the government, despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric, is implementing the policies of the IMF".

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