The Guardian • Issue #2017

What is happening in Sri Lanka?

An interview with Bimal Rathnayake

For many outside of Sri Lanka, the political situation inside the nation can be difficult to understand. We interviewed Bimal Rathnayake, a politburo member of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – “People’s Liberation Front”) to get a communist perspective. Rathnayake was also a member of parliament, first representing the Kurunegala District and then for the National List, making his insight into the political machinations particularly revealing.

Valentin Cartillier (VC): For the outside observer, the occupation of the presidential home on 9th July 2022 and subsequent resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would appear as quite sudden events. Could you describe the political situation in Sri Lanka that led up to this moment?

Bimal Rathnayake (BR): Since 2020 several mass protests emerged against privatisation, alienation of public assets, corruption, and the debt crisis among others. Some of the major protests that took place were:

Against sale of East Container Terminal of Colombo Port – Since August 2020, the JVP, its trade union, and all port trade unions collectively struggled to save the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port from alienation to India. Out of the four existing operational terminals, the Colombo International Container Terminal had already been privatised. Protests emerged when President Gotabhaya and government made plans to give the East Container Terminal to India. East Container Terminal is a deep sea container terminal under construction. It is supposed to berth larger ships and generate a large income for the Sri Lanka Port Authority.

Around January 2021 due to the massive wave of protests government had to withdraw the plan to alienate East Container Terminal. However, the government managed to sell the proposed project to build Colombo West Container Terminal to Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited.

Farmers protests, demanding fertiliser – Former President Gotabaya took an adamant and ill-advised decision to ban the importation of chemical fertiliser in February 2021. He continued this disastrous decision for almost fourteen months, halving the country’s agricultural output. Since this decision, there have been mass demonstrations for more than a year from the village level to the district level, and even nationally. Farmers lost their income and had to face unnecessary and intolerable hardships due to this decision. All Ceylon Farmers Federation and other farmer organisations took the leading role in these demonstrations, which awakened the popular masses of the country.

Against the sale of Yugadanavi Power Plant – In July 2021 the Sri Lanka government signed an agreement with New Fortress Energy Incorporated Limited, a company based in the US to construct a terminal to supply gas to Sri Lankan power plants. Additionally, as part of the deal, forty per cent of shares of the Yugadanavi power plant were sold to the company.

From the beginning, the JVP, trade unions, and other progressive organisations stood against this agreement and struggled within the parliament. These struggles extended for several months, but the government and the president went ahead with the agreement without adhering to the people’s will.

Against Amending KDU Act – On 8th July 2021, the Kotelawala Defence University Amendment bill was brought to parliament. On the same day and thereafter, ongoing demonstrations around the country were organised by Sri Lankan Student Movement, progressive trade unions, and community organisations to show opposition to this bill. Police forces, upon the instructions of the government, suppressed the demonstrating activists by using quarantine regulations. This amendment bill is clearly supposed to pave the way for militarisation and privatisation of the higher education sector threatening free education. It also destroys the free, fearless, and progressive culture that a university should have by providing significant discretionary powers to the minister and military officials. However, due to the continuous public pressure against this bill, it has been postponed indefinitely but has not been withdrawn yet.

Against salary disparity of teachers and principal services – Similar to the aforementioned proposed amendment, collective strike action continued for several months by the teachers. This is one of the biggest teachers’ strike action we have observed in the post-independence history of Sri Lanka. School teachers in Sri Lanka are doing immense service at their jobs while receiving considerably less salary. School teachers of Sri Lanka have been demanding to resolve their salary disparity, a problem that has not been resolved for the past twenty-four years. More than fifty unions have joined in this struggle and they were supported by the parents, students, trade unions and general public. Several massive demonstrations were organised around the country. These massive protests continued for about four months until the government decided to give in to the teachers’ demands.

Against the sale of Trinco Oil Tank Farm – Trinco Oil Tank Farm is a very valuable asset for Sri Lanka but has been appropriated to India since 2002. The Sri Lankan government has an opportunity to reacquire it in 2023. The JVP has continuously demanded that the government of Sri Lanka reacquire this asset for the storage facilities for the utilisation of Ceylon Petroleum Cooperation as it lacks storage facilities.

According to the opinion of the Ceylon Petroleum Cooperation employees, among the ninety-nine tanks, there are at least twenty tanks with the capacity to store fuel for a month, fifty-three tanks which can store fuel for two months, and eighty-six tanks which are capable of storing fuel for three months. However, instead of reacquiring it in January of 2022 the Sri Lankan government re-leased these oil tanks to India. The JVP and its youth union held protests, press conferences, and marches against this deal.

General Strike on 28th April – The Trade Union Coordinating Centre (TUCC) called a general strike demanding the immediate resignation of the government and demanding other workers’ rights related issues.

6th May General Strike – After the successful general strike the TUCC organised its local committees all over the country and called for another general strike. On the 6th May, the country totally stopped from north to south and millions of people, small trades, farmers, everybody joined with the militant and peaceful protests in all towns of the country. From dawn to dusk, they occupied all the towns and demanded the immediate resignation of the president and the government.

Due to the peoples’ power, the president convened a special cabinet meeting and informed then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksha to step down.

VC: What is the class character and demographics of these protests, and what position has the JVP taken up in regard to them?

BR: The main social forces who are protesting are working people, farmers, students, women, the Sri Lankan diaspora, and some sections of the middle class. However, these protests are mainly fought and led by working-class people, the left and progressive parties, trade unions, women’s unions, students and youth unions, left-oriented progressive artists as well as many thousands of individuals.

Through our party, we have been largely working with the trade unions and student and artist movements. Of course, there are some challenges from the regime and the anti-socialist groups such as the mainstream media and some anarchist groups within the protest. Except for the big business and upper-middle class sections, the whole population are joining these protests.

VC: How has the JVP formulated and presented its solutions to the ongoing economic crisis within the country?

BR: From the beginning, our solutions will be to put the country on track, solving the issues blocking the normal function of industries, transportation, education etc. But in the middle and long run, the only remedy will be based on tailor-made socialist policies in the economy, administration, and every sector of the country.

Essentially, the focus must be on three aspects. Structural economic change which emphasises planning the industrialisation of a sustainable, modern farmer friendly agriculture; the end of privatisation of public industries and institutions; structural political changes in the administration; and nation building by unifying all the communities with equal rights and equal participation in state affairs.

As the JVP, we have created a peoples movement of trade unions, farmer unions, women unions, progressive and intellectual groups such as artists, Sri Lankan Diaspora, called the National People’s Power and we have compiled a set of policy publications regarding sectors of education, health, agriculture, environment, transportation, national unity, culture and economy, which extensively explain our plan on building the country.

VC: What are the immediate and long-term tasks for the JVP in building a mass left-wing movement in light of this situation?

As an immediate task, we have a decisive role to play in the protest movement. We, as a Marxist-Leninist party have to orient the protest movement towards the direction favouring working peoples’ demands and protect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty from the imperialist onslaught.

The other main thing is the rejection of class collaboration. There is huge pressure from the society to us to join with capitalist coalition governments to fix the crises. We won’t make any coalition governments with any capitalist party because we know capitalist cries cannot be solve by capitalist policies like old books cannot bring new solutions.

The current situation has given us an opportunity to approach more people in the working class and to get their attention. We use this opportunity to grow our movement by increasing the organised members. We further organise and grow youth, students, women’s movements, and the trade union movement. We must continue the struggle in every possible way and means before the elections and after. We will deepen the class struggle using our consolidated base until we reach the socialist victory.

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