Burning Questions of the Sri Lankan People’s Movement: What is to be Done?  

July 25, 2022

By Maya John

(This article is based on a talk delivered at the online session organised by International Solidarity with the People’s Movement in Sri Lanka on a 23.07.2022)

The people’s movement in Sri Lanka has entered into a deadlock with the ‘(s)election’ of Ranil Wickremesinghe as President. Within hours of him assuming office, a mid-night crackdown on the Galle Face protest camp was unleashed. Only cowards attack in the dead of the night as they have much to hide during the day. Despite brutal state repression, the people’s movement shows a resilient commitment to continue. This resilience stems from a simple fact: the people are fighting against Wickremesinghe for the same reason why they were fighting against his predecessor. 

This is the first time in the history of Sri Lanka that a serving President has fled the country and the Parliament has voted for a new President. In an election that has been nothing short of a political gimmick desperately played out by power-hungry and cunning politicians, Wickremesinghe got 134 votes. He owes these votes to the support he garnered from the ruling coalition, in particular, the SLPP (a Rajapaksa family outfit), which has the largest number of members in the Parliament.

The other candidates were a dissident member from the SLPP, Dullas Alahapperume, who got 82 votes, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP who garnered three votes. Sajith Premadasa, an opposition leader and the fourth candidate in the fray, withdrew his name prior to the election, reportedly as part of behind-the-scenes assurances by Alahapperume that he would nominate him for the prime minister’s post in the new government.

The election of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President is a travesty. The decision of the Sri Lankan parliamentarians to allow Wickremesinghe, a puppet of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to act as President till November 2024, completely delegitimizes the parliament as an institution. This election of Wickremesinghe is outright illegitimate manoeuvre because on the one hand it gives a new lease of life to the much despised, authoritarian executive presidency system, and on the other, it has allowed a crony of imperialist, capitalist forces to dictate the terms of the country’s so-called economic recovery.

Wickremesinghe has been edged into powerful positions in the government despite the fact that his own party, the UNP, was badly defeated in the last parliamentary election and attained only a single seat in the parliament due to its national cumulative vote share. As a politician who has no independent backing except for that which is extended to him by the parties of the ruling coalition, in particular, the SLPP with majority seats in the parliament, we can only expect President Wickremesinghe to work in close coordination with the interest of such ruling elites. 

The result has left many people feeling dejected and it seems that we have returned to the same point from where we started. Some of the people in the movement expected that the Parliament would stand with justice and listen to the voices emanating from the ground. While they were making appeals to the conscience of the Members of Parliament (MPs), these politicians were hatching a conspiracy against the people. It is imperative to note that a large section of the people were already apprehensive of the role of MPs, and therefore, had been demanding for the resignation of all 225 MPs in the Parliament. Indeed, within a short period of time, the aragalaya had transitioned from initially demanding for the resignation of the President, “Gota Gedera Yanu,” to demanding for the resignation of all 225 parliamentarians, “225 Ma Gedera Yanu”. 

Despite the apprehension that the parliamentarians were not be trusted since they were a part of the obsolete representative system which has overseen the crash of the Sri Lankan economy, some thought that the due process should be given a chance and the Parliament should be allowed to ‘elect’ a new President. Now that Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected, it is being argued by some that the people should give the ‘duly elected’ President a chance to bring the economy out of the crisis. The mainstream media, for one, is celebrating Wickremesinghe’s presidency and soon-to-be formed government as a harbinger of stability and peace. These voices apart, even now for a majority of the struggling people, the Parliament does not represent the interest and aspirations of the masses, and has now lost whatever legitimacy it still had by ‘electing’ Ranil Wickremesinghe as President. 

Wickremesinghe’s ‘election’ has been a foregone conclusion from the very beginning. To those who believed otherwise, we ask, were they sleepwalking so as to not see clearly just how futile it was to appeal to the ‘conscience’ of the parliamentarians? The janatha aragalaya has till now valiantly fought the thugs of ruling elites, and bravely rose to counter every attack made on it. Currently, these gains of the movement and people’s power is at the verge of being arrested by the newly formed government. This brings us to the burning questions of the day, the answers to which will determine the course of the people’s struggle in the coming days. We, therefore, need to think seriously and concretely at this crucial juncture in history when we are poised to bring about revolutionary transformations in our society. 

What is the current situation in Sri Lanka? 

The economy of the country has collapsed. Does this mean that all the people are facing economic troubles? What about the dominant economic classes, the ruling elite, the bureaucracy, and the rich strata of society? Are they having to go hungry or having to stand in endless queues for the meagre rations and essentials which are being doled out to us? The answer is no.

The rich and the elites who own more than 60 percent of the resources of the country are living their lives peacefully amidst the general misery. As per 2021 data, the richest 10 percent strata of Sri Lankan society own 63.8 percent of the country’s total wealth, while the bottom 50 percent strata of society own a miniscule 4.3 percent of the total wealth. The income disparity is markedly further skewed: while the poor toil away to sustain the economy, the rich amass the wealth and poor accumulate miseries. It is the rich who think that our movement will peter out with the formation of a new government. They alone project that the new government is capable of bringing about the much-talked about stability and peace. This is precisely what the mainstream media is also echoing.

Through various means, people are now being waylaid into believing that they should give time to the newly elected President to take some active measure which are based on ‘fiscal prudence and responsible governance’, or else the economic crisis will worsen. However, the dominant economic classes, the rich, are the only sections which have wanted the government to come back through a reinstated, pro-IMF executive presidency. These sections are now selling dreams of stability to the struggling people of Sri Lanka whereas the new government is going to prove a nightmare for the common masses.

The rich are busy propagating the myth that if time is given to the elected President, better days will surely come. With this aim, they are ably served by some pseudo economists and so-called financial trouble-shooters, who are peddling the same myth. However, what is lost among all this talk for ‘fiscal prudence and stability’ is the fact that the government has started to usher in IMF-decreed austerity measures which will make the already miserable life of the people a living hell in the coming days. 

It should be noted that the government has openly expressed its opinion to not touch the wealth of the rich, and it is an open secret that IMF-dictated austerity measures are going to be imposed on the labouring masses and common people of the country, if they are not resisted by the people’s collective power. Expectedly, only the rich are very pleased with Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming the President of the country. The purpose of the government formed henceforth is to provide a façade of change and to grant a much-needed breathing space to the beleaguered corrupt politicians, while preparing grounds for the anti-democratic measures needed to impose the IMF’s diktats.

To better comprehend the impact of the IMF’s so-called bail-out package and appended austerity measures, it is imperative to bring to the forefront the differential impact of the economic crisis. We should remember that economic collapse initially affected everyone, albeit very differently. There were ubiquitous power cuts and people struggled to get fuel and food. But, people who are rich have seen their situation stabilize soon, and it is ultimately their servants who have stood in lines for food and fuel. There has been a scarcity not for the wealthy but for the poor. While the poor struggle to buy essentials, the rich have been hoarding in bulk, given their higher purchasing power. 

It is not unusual that the initial trauma of a collapsing economy has subsided for the rich, and now these elites are calling for peace and stability whilst demanding the common people to sacrifice. Of course, it is not these richie-rich who are going to sacrifice, but the poor who will have to sacrifice the most. Even at the height of the present economic crisis, the rich are not beleaguered by the problem of food scarcity, as food is not a huge portion of their expenses. In contrast, the food expenses eat up almost the whole of the meagre income of the poor. 

It is imperative to note that during the present crisis, when street lights were turned off to conserve fuel and electricity, a bulk of the country’s fuel was used to generate electricity in luxury hotels, fancy restaurants, high-rise apartments, casinos, nightclubs, and various other places where the rich live and entertain themselves. We should note that fuel for generators costs more to the country than that consumed by the bikes used by the middle-class and the general working population. 

At a time when most of the Sri Lankans are struggling to eat two meals a day, and daily wagers, who are a significant section of the working population, are the hardest hit, Sri Lankan politicians and corporates are known to have stashed their millions of dollars in offshore bank accounts. It is important to understand that the economy is created through the extensive exploitation of labour. It is the labour of the working masses which creates the wealth of the nation, but is ruthlessly appropriated by the rich. This stolen wealth actually belongs to the country because it is society’s vast majority of labouring people who have created it in the first place. The time has come to enforce an alternative in which there is reappropriation of the wealth created by the labouring poor.

The rich are very pleased with Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming the President of the country as he represents nothing but the status quo. The dominant economic classes have begun vociferously propagating their trust in Wickremesinghe’s ‘experienced’ and ‘pragmatic’ governance, which for them constitutes as a step in the direction of stabilizing the economy, needless to say, an economy in their interest.

Consider a small example, increasing the interest rates in banks would only profit the rich who can afford to keep their surplus money in banks. Naturally, this measure would benefit those with big deposits. On the other hand, it will gravely impact the poor who need urgent loans. This policy measure would simply rob the poor, while making the rich even richer. It is surprising that this measure which would make life hell for the poor is being touted as a brave measure at the time of the worst economic crisis in the Sri Lankan history. 

Needless to say, a prominent section of the rich earns its income in dollars, which simply means that its income actually increases with the collapse of the economy. Many millionaires and billionaires were simply looting in Sri Lanka and hoarding their ill-gotten wealth in dollars. This has been achieved through various measures. For example, export companies avoided duty through misinvoicing and transfer pricing.

Of course, in this context one can understand that brokering a bail-out package from the IMF would immensely help Sri Lanka’s richie-rich, who, therefore, want Wickremesinghe to remain at the helm of affairs. This situation in Sri Lanka is like jumping out of the frying pan, into the fire. Ultimately, in the name of overcoming the economic crisis, an IMF ‘bail-out’ package would end up reproducing and intensifying the crisis in its worst possible form.

What pro-people economic measures are the need of the hour?

The idea of a deal with the IMF to get a bail-out package is being sold as the only panacea to the crippling economic crisis. However, as noted earlier, this idea is actually being promoted solely by the ruling elites as well as opportunist politicians in the opposition. We must not forget that this economic crisis is not of recent making. Rather, it was brewing for many decades, especially since the beginning of the 21st century. It is, in fact, the 17th bail-out package which the country has sought from the IMF. 

In contrast to the much-touted IMF ‘bail-out’ package, are a set of measures which need to be demanded and fought for to save the country rather than strengthening the richie-rich. The country can only emerge from the crisis if the rich are made to suffer and pay for the crisis which they themselves have caused. The alternative measures are: 

  1. To address the fuel crisis, the vehicles which the rich use, such as petrol-guzzling cars, should be forbidden on the roads, and only public transport and those vehicles used by the middle-class and labouring masses should be allowed. Public transportation undertakings, the middle class and labouring poor should alone be provided required quotas of fuel.  
  2. The payment demanded for electricity from those having high incomes should be enhanced. This would mean that higher bracket of electricity consumption by the rich would cost more, and in effect, would allow more electricity to be provided to the poor at a low cost.  
  3. The inputs used by the small peasantry should be subsidized so that the country’s food production is stabilized. This should be done to ensure that in the middle-term, the country does not have to import staple consumption items. 
  4. The stolen wealth, which has actually been created by the labouring masses of the country but accumulated by the wealthy, should be reappropriated so as to finance the social sector. Sri Lanka has vast plantations and tea companies wherein a large section of labouring population works. These, along with the large industrial enterprises, should be nationalised, and the vast wealth and profits of these enterprises should be used to purchase essential imports. 
  5. All the essential items should be distributed through a strengthened Public Distribution System (PDS). Education and healthcare should be managed by people’s committees and should be completely publicly-funded. Also, for all other small economic activities, cooperatives should be formed and promoted. 
  6. There should be nationalization of all private banks, repudiation of all foreign debts, and stopping of trade in the US dollar, which benefits only imperialist America while adversely affecting the balance of payments of beleaguered Sri Lanka. Currency swap policy is something which is not just the need of the hour in Sri Lanka, but is something which is going to be the future of many debt-ridden countries and their billions of people around the globe.*

[* It is important to reckon with the fact that almost all the oil sales worldwide are transacted in the US dollar (USD), which makes USD the most dominant reserve currency, allowing it to de facto acquire a status of an international currency. Since the 1970s there has been an agreement with the oil-rich Saudi Arabia for oil sales exclusively in USD, in return for military protection.

By 1975 all countries which were part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had reached similar agreements to price oil exclusively in USD and to invest surplus oil proceeds in the American government’s debt securities. In exchange, America extended military protection to these OPEC countries. Such developments have expectedly culminated in the consistent international demand for the USD, irrespective of the economic health of America.

The American government gains huge revenues through seigniorage. Issuing treasury bonds at lower rates allows the American government to maintain a higher budgetary deficit. Further, a stronger USD has also meant that commodities imported into America are relatively cheaper while those exported from America are more expensive for purchasing countries. Taken together, the hegemony of the dollar–treasury nexus has contributed in a major way towards America’s dominance in several international financial institutions.

In this regard, it is important to note that the debt burden of Sri Lanka to IMF and other western imperialist countries is more than 80 percent, while to China is only 10 percent. Contrary to this fact, the western imperialist countries in their global fight for dominance with China are propagating the myth that the present situation in Sri Lanka is due to debt-trap diplomacy pursued by China.]  

The choice which needs to be made at the present moment is very simple. The people have to either re-appropriate the wealth created by them, or else, continue to live under an economic system wherein the economic exploitation of the poor further intensified. The ruling establishment has made clear its choice for the pro-rich, anti-poor austerity measures. The moment thus beckons people to make their firm choice. The people are standing at a precipice. Extraordinary anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist measures alone can get us out of this situation.

Otherwise, whatever has been achieved after three months of the popular uprising, might eventually culminate into a grand tragedy. The historic moment would then become a lost opportunity, for despite changes in government personnel, no real change will materialise for which people have so valiantly fought. It would become a classic case of ‘the more things change, the more they remain same’. 

What does it mean to bring about change?

People’s self-rule is not going to come from the Parliament. Expecting the Parliament to constitute a People’s Council is equally foolish. People are the real constituents of power. The time has come for them to start constituting their own assemblies, where they must decide democratically the fate of the country. They should not wait for the present dispensation to stabilize and launch a counter-offensive of the rich and powerful against the labouring masses.

They must realise that there is irreconcilable conflict between the greed of the profit system and needs of the masses. There is an irreconcilable conflict between the illegitimate Parliament and the President, and the people on the street. Currently, the condition of dual power exists, and the movement should aim at constituting the people’s power through people’s assemblies and councils. Sovereignty must be inalienable, and in substance, it must be vested in people themselves. 

The most clearly expressed aspiration of the people in the struggle has been to bring out a clear-cut, concrete change. The only way to resolve the present deadlock is to dissolve the current system and rebuild a new political system in its place. However, to change the system, we also need to change the way we think and understand the things. Extraordinary conditions in history bring out the possibility of extraordinary consciousness to emerge.

We need a renaissance of pro-people thinking which will take us beyond the way we have been made to think, i.e., being confined within the coordinates of the dominant ideology promoted and propagated by the elites of all hues. We should not become accustomed to thinking about the possibilities only within the system, but change the very parameters within which the possibilities are comprehended and concretised. 

Remember that till few months back deposing Gotabaya Rajapaksa was considered impossible. Remember that despite all the difficulty of transportation, swathes of people descended on the capital, defying curfew. People who couldn’t come to the capital staged their protests in different parts of the country. Police barricades were swept aside like matchsticks and people surged forward.

Remember that many were arrested, injured and killed, but despite this the people became confident in their collective power and lost their fear. It ushered in the time for the powerful to fear and flee. We managed to make Gotabaya Rajapaksa flee. But, how can we forget that Wickremesinghe is a cover for the ruling party and Rajapaksa clan. It is the same clique which is ruling under a different face. Moreover, the change of face is a fraud since the IMF is going to dictate everything.

Now, while a few in the movement are considering a truce with the government, a large majority wants a re-composition of the movement with more rigour and a firm direction.  Remember that Wickremesinghe is not recognized by the people’s movement as a legitimate President, and the people have resolved to intensify the movement till he resigns, as well as to change the very system of governance.   

People have expressed their collective power in the last few months. What was unthinkable only a few months back has transpired. The people have, with their collective struggle, the janatha aragalaya, ousted the Rajapaksas from power. However, majority of the sly politicians still remain in power and are simply brokering deals over ministerial positions in Wickremesinghe’s government. Even the opposition parties’ politicians, who spew rhetoric about changing the system due to the pressure of the movement, are basically interested in furthering their own interests and arresting the people’s aspirations. 

Thus, the parliamentarians have not per se challenged the system, but have sworn their allegiance to the existing Constitution that has simply allowed president after president to use executive power to mercilessly suppress people’s rights. The politicians who use radical phraseology under the pressure of the people, utter meek words in the Parliament in support of the struggling people, without of course undertaking any concrete action.

The cadres of these politicians’ parties mingle with the masses at protest sites but have little to offer except empty rhetoric. Radicalism of words and opportunism in deeds has exposed the sly character of Sri Lanka’s mainstream politicians. They have, ultimately, played a massive role in legitimizing the existing representative system that has propped up Wickremesinghe once more into an authoritative position in contradiction to the people’s will.  

The struggling people need to aim for real change. The extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures to be taken by the people themselves. Representative democracy as it exists in many parts of the world today is a colonial construct. In the colonial context it served to propel native elites into positions of power brokering with colonial authorities. Hence, for a long time, the edifice of representative democracy was built on property-based franchise, expensive elections, and uneven carving out of electoral constituencies that together allowed the wealthy to dominate the formation of ‘representative’ institutions like legislative assemblies and legislative councils.

In other words, explicit rules of polity and institutional set-ups were erected as effective trenches around the property and privilege of the dominant sections and colonial power. Even after the transfer of power from the colonial elite to the native elites, the basic structure, with certain cosmetic changes, persists. In this way, the inner core of representative democracy remains consistent in terms of alienating the power of people and transferring it to political institutions, like Presidencies, Parliaments and Cabinets, on whose functioning the people have little control. 

Repeated reproduction of this form of governance has made people accustomed to take the existing form of representative democracy as sacrosanct and the final form of democracy. This paralysis in thinking compels people to reduce their involvement simply to the search for better representatives. The quest for ‘better’ representatives absurdly continues. Within this form, people alienate the right to rule themselves, and transpose this right to elected representatives. These representatives become a power unto themselves who represent their electors, more or less, as they please.

In other words, they are not delegates mandated by the views of the electorate. The hierarchy between rulers and ruled remains. And so does the perpetual possibility of getting betrayed. It is, thus, important to decolonize democracy, and for people’s movements to envisage democracy in new, revolutionary ways. People’s assemblies could be bodies that enable people to participate in ruling themselves. We must strive to build a political system in which no law can be made without the consent of the people’s assemblies, and the parliament, as a representative body, is under continuous check by the actual presence of the people in the decision-making process via people’s assemblies.

In this regard, real change in Sri Lanka would only be possible by waging a concerted struggle on certain immediate political aspirations. These include: 

  1. The present conjuncture necessitates an alternative which completely replaces the way in which the political system exists to keep the common people, the labouring masses, voiceless. The alternative, imperatively, manifests itself in the evolution of a new democratic system and the institutionalization of the people’s will through establishment of people’s assemblies across the country. Expectedly, it will possible to establish people’s assemblies in some places first; namely where the aragalaya is strongest. Nonetheless, these assemblies will serve as a model of institutionalized people’s power which can be replicated across the country.  
  2. The people’s assemblies in the cities, towns and villages should be empowered to decide upon the most pressing issues in the country. (i)The power of people’s assemblies should be supreme, and the Parliament should only be a representative body to manage the affairs of the country in consultation with the people’s assemblies. (ii)Further, each people’s assembly would elect a people’s council. All the candidates in the election to the people’s council who secure a cut-off number of votes out of total votes cast, will be deemed the elected delegates. The people’s council would be a permanent deliberative body while the people’s assembly would be routinely convened for deliberation and voting on crucial policy matters / legislative action. The expansive nature of democracy emerging from such political formations would be further guaranteed by extending the right to any group of individuals or political organization to bring an issue with substantial support to the people’s council for deliberation, and to requisition a referendum in a duly convened meeting of the people’s assembly. Decisions henceforth reached would move to the Parliament, which will submit it to other people’s councils and assemblies for deliberation and ratification. In this way, the people through the people’s councils and assemblies would have legislative power to make or repeal laws for the country by the criterion that the majority of such bodies decide to do so.
  3. Such a restructured democratic framework would empower the people’s assemblies to summon and recall their representatives in Parliament and People’s Council. 

A new democratic polity of Sri Lanka is not possible under the existing Constitution and the Wickremesinghe government that comprises a sizeable component of existing ruling elites. Neither can the rights of the people be concretised without transforming the economy; a process which demands the active participation of the common masses in policy framing. Presently, the balance of forces is favourable to strategic use of the current conjuncture to transform the system in a revolutionary direction, so that there is not simply a change of degree in people’s life but a change in kind. 

At this juncture, all the advanced sections of the struggling masses, and the rank-and-file of oppositional organizations, should form joint co-ordination and action committees while continuing their camp and sit-ins. We can expect the illegitimate Wickremesinghe government to keep trying to delegitimise the people’s movement and to unleash troops on our sit-ins. Needless to say, the more this government unleashes the army and police, the more the aragalaya should implore the masses, the common people, to join on the ground in the defence of the movement. This is a test of nerves, a test of numbers, and the aragalaya has ample of both. 

Overcoming the sombre mood among some activist quarters following the 21st July mid-night crackdown, the movement has resiliently persisted. Nursing wounds, yet re-energised, it rises like a phoenix from the ashes to inspire struggling people across the world. This moment calls for a go-to-the-people campaign so as to escalate the momentum of the people’s movement in the direction of revolutionary possibilities. Currently, the mobilisation of the common masses to reach Columbo for a march to the Parliament is crucial for the movement.

The rallying call for the People’s March to Parliament should be the immediate convening of a special session of the Parliament on the motion for prohibition of the use of military and police forces against the protesting people. This special session will serve as a litmus test for the existing Parliament in the ongoing battle for democracy, and the Parliament’s failure to deliver will be a catalyst for further mass action for a new transformative polity. 

Maya John teaches at the University of Delhi, India. She has been part of the Left movement for around two decades. Email: maya.john85@gmail.com

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