Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Emergency

22 March 2018

THE State of Emergency declared by the government of Ranil Wickremasinghe on March 6, initially for 7 days, was finally lifted on March 18. The attacks by Buddhist gangs on Muslim communities, which were the ostensible justification for the Emergency, left two dead and 450 Muslim-owned homes and businesses burnt out.

Most of the violence centred on the district around the town of Kandy in the central highlands but reportedly most of the 300 arrested were from the capital, Colombo, a four hour bus journey to the South. This reinforces the accusation that the attacks were planned and orchestrated and not any kind of spontaneous response to local frictions.

As the Sri Lankan section of the League explained in its statement on the Emergency, the attacks came after the racist campaign of the former President, Mahinda Rajapakse, in the recent countrywide local elections. Those elections had been repeatedly postponed by the government, fearful of increasing unpopularity because it had failed to deliver on the promises it made in the general election of 2015.

The likelihood of a serious loss of support increased with the budget published in November which included very serious cuts in government expenditure, demanded by the IMF as a condition for new loans made earlier in the year. Crucially, these included removal of agricultural subsidies which will hit the peasant farmers of the south of the island, historically the electoral base of President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, SLFP, very hard indeed.

Mahinda Rajapakse, who was ousted from the leadership of the SLFP by Sirisena, has taken over the small Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (People’s Front) SLPP, and turned it into an effective campaigning organisation. He took full advantage of the budgetary cuts, while accusing the governing coalition of the SLFP and the United National Party, UNP, of the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, of planning to divide the island by making concessions to the Tamil community of the North and East.

At the same time, he encouraged extreme right wing Sinhala chauvinists, including the clerical-fascists of the Buddhist Brigades, Bodu Bala Sena, BBS, who were later involved in the attacks in Kandy. The BBS claims to defend the majority Sinhalese, at least 70 percent of the population, against Muslims, about 9 percent, who it claims are planning to take over and minoritise the Buddhist Sinhalese.

Against a background of broken promises, spending cuts and declining growth rates, down to 4.7 percent last year from 8 percent five years ago, Rajapakse’s campaign proved effective. His SLPP gained 40.54 percent of the vote, winning control of 231 local authories out of 315. The governing UNP received only 29.41 percent and just 34 councils. Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP was massacred. Where it stood on its own, it gained 4.03 percent, where it stood in the so-called “Freedom Alliance” (including the Communist Party) that rose, but only to 8.04 percent.

The chauvinist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front) JVP, which had previously been in government with Rajapakse, expected big gains but only improved its support by 100,000 votes, a disappointing 5.76 percent. Clearly, the Sinhala chauvinist vote went to the “original”, Rajapakse. The scale of his victory probably even surprised him, since SPLL had seen these elections as only a step towards the general election in two years’ time.

These results clearly reveal the dangerous situation developing in Sri Lanka. Whilst the governmental block and its allies together still command a higher percentage than Rajapakse, the dynamic is clearly on his side. And it was that dynamic that drove forward the attacks on the Muslim communities. Equally, the government’s response, the State of Emergency, was as much a testing of public acceptance of a crackdown as a means of dealing with essentially localised violence.

The tensions within the ruling coalition, which were clear to see in the election campaign, the rise of Rajapakse and the worsening economic situation point to further attacks on the living standards of the mass of the population, whichever party wins the next general election. In such a situation, not only will the government resort to emergency measures but the street gangs of the BBS could be mobilised against protest demonstrations and strikers, as they develop into an organised fascist movement.

Unfortunately, the response of the left and the workers’ movement to all this has been shameful. The JVP, which claims to be left and “revolutionary”, proved again to be a chauvinist force. Whilst it protested against the ban on social media, it refused to defend the Muslim minority and instead called for “mutual understanding” and action against the “extremists on both sides”.

Most of the Sri Lankan left did not criticise the State of Emergency. The bourgeois and petit-bourgeois nationalist Tamil forces, but also sections of the “far left”, backed the current governmental coalition in the parliamentary elections in 2015 and are still defensive of it. “Trotskyists” like Vickramabahu Karunaratne of the “Nava Sama Samaja Party”, NSSP, the Fourth International’s section, long ago branded Rajapakse as a “fascist” in order to justify a “united front” with Wickremasinghe and Sirisena, the leaders of the traditional parties of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie.

Even those forces that did call for defence of Muslims and opposed the Emergency, like the Frontline Socialist Party, FSP, failed to turn that into practical actions and mobilisation. Thus, the Sri Lankan left failed to rise to the challenge either of the chauvinist arsonists or the government’s emergency powers. The comrades of the SPSL proposed a united front in defence of the Muslim community, to set up self-defence committees of Muslims, trade unions and the left, to implement a policy of no-platform against the fascist forces and to oppose any scrapping of democratic rights by the government. The State of Emergency and the curfew needed to be opposed. Self-defence was and is the task of the day.

Such a united front of the workers and the oppressed will be needed in the future by all those who want to defend democratic rights and to combine this with the struggle against the inevitable attacks of the bosses and their government, whichever of their parties is in office.


Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter