The Social Tensions in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, like Iran(1) at the end of 2021 and Kazakhstan(2) at the beginning of 2022, is facing extremely significant social and class tensions. The exploited class face problems such as a high cost of living and expensive fuel, under a political system of widespread corruption and nepotism.

The cause of the protests is directly attributable to the increase in the cost of basic necessities and fuel. The situation is particularly serious with regard to petrol and diesel, which are in short supply. Local witnesses report queues of up to 13 hours to refuel the car while the police and armed forces guard the distributors. There have been prolonged electricity blackouts for months. In order to reduce fuel consumption and encourage the growing of self-subsistence crops, the government has ordered the public sector home for two weeks, and reduced the working week to four days for the next three months (a precursor to mass layoffs).(3) At the same time it is encouraging emigration which guarantees remittances to families who remain in the country.

The country is experiencing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. The foreign exchange reserves needed to import food, fuel and medicine are nearing exhaustion. By May, inflation had exceeded 40% and the price of food had risen by at least 60%. Of the 22 million inhabitants, at least 5 million could be affected by the lack of food supplies in the coming months.(4) The World Food Program has already begun distributing food to 2,000 pregnant women in the capital, Colombo.

The country is experiencing a major debt crisis. Last autumn, companies that could not pay their debts to China were forced to sell up.(5) With a foreign debt of over 50 billion, half of which is held by financial markets on short-term maturity and at high interest rates(6), this year Sri Lanka is expected to repay debt and interest of 7 billion dollars with only half a billion dollars currently in its foreign exchange reserves.(7) A situation that can only get worse with the coming global rise in interest rates.

Heavily indebted to both India and China, which are competing for economic control of the island, it is foreseeable that the country will soon be forced to declare bankruptcy, and then restructure its debt. By doing so, Sri Lanka will join countries like Suriname, Belize, Zambia and Ecuador that have already defaulted on their debts during the pandemic. Just like near neighbour Pakistan. This means that Sri Lankan workers will soon have to face harsh austerity policies such as the restructuring of the public sector – where there is talk of a cut from 50 to 70% of the workforce – plus cuts in wages, pensions, services, subsidies and taxes on consumption. All this is in order to increase profits and convince the IMF to restructure the debt and make new loans. Will their class response live up to the severity of such attacks? The premises are partly promising, as we will see shortly.

The main political opposition forces of the country Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) are expressing de facto support, openly or by their silence, for these policies justifying themselves with the political note of the two times: "first we save the country from collapse, at most with a change of government, then ... we will see": the reformist forces always take the side of the preservation of the system.

In any case, this dramatic situation has led to the outbreak of important protests. In the capital Colombo, masses of workers, poor peasants, middle class and students spontaneously began to gather in front of state official residences on 31 March to protest against the cost of living, endemic corruption, nepotism, the poor management of the country demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (his brother). In Colombo on 9 April, after a demonstration of over 100,000 people (in a city of 700,000), the demonstrators instead of dispersing organised a camp on the famous Galle Face Beach, in front of the parliament building.

This camp took the name of GotaGoGama ("The Village of Gota Resign"). The occupation has become a rallying point for the movement in general like Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011 and Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013.

Hundreds of spontaneous assemblies have arisen in GotaGoGama in which the message against ethnic and racial divisions supported by Rajapaksa, who incites the Sinhala Buddhist majority against the Tamil, Muslim and Christian minorities, has been forcefully passed. The occupation had fundamentally democratic, popular and inter-class characteristics, politically dominated by the middle class and by students who advanced their unrealistic ideas of reform and invited fraternisation with the forces of repression in the name of non-violence. This testifies to the fact that in the absence of a politically independent working class movement, with a revolutionary perspective, the bourgeois democratic forces always drag every movement back within the limits set by capitalism. The participation of the working class was also limited by the fact that the trade unions did not decide to call a strike.

The general strike was eventually announced by the trade unions. Though they did so with little conviction it was massively supported by workers, on 28 April and again on 6 May.

On 9 May, Prime Minister Mahinda was sacrificed by the President and he resigned, but as a final act Rajapaksa recruited numerous family supporters and paid a few rupees to some poor people who first gathered and consumed a lot of alcohol, and then poured into the streets of the capital and major cities, with the support of the police and the army, to unleash violence against demonstrators. However, the attempt to clear GotaGoGama with tear gas, water cannons and even gunshots(8) failed while the trade unions were again forced to call a strike that lasted from 9 to 11 May. Once again, the unions demonstrated their nature by calling strikes belatedly and without conviction, for the sole purpose of recovering and bringing the growing anger of poor workers and peasants back onto the institutional track of calling for a simple change of government. However, the demonstrators were able to respond to the attacks, the historic home of the Rajapaksa family and those of various other ministers and former ministers (at least 20) were attacked and set on fire while other demonstrators organised various checkpoints on the road to the airport to make sure Mahinda escaped and when they found out that he had taken refuge in the Trinca naval base, it was besieged. Several vans carrying those arrested to prison were attacked and destroyed. At least 8 were killed and hundreds more injured. Hence the movement's slogans radicalised, passing from the slogan "Go Home Gota" to "Go Home 225", a reference to the total number of MPs in parliament. Furthermore, the ideology of non-violence that had characterised the movement up to that moment had to yield to the crude materialism of the balance of power on the ground: the forces of reaction create the basis for this violence. In the following days, a curfew and the militarisation of the capital followed. The situation has slowly returned to "normal", but all the problems described in the first part of this article and which gave rise to the movement persist and it is likely that the movement itself will be rekindled when further austerity policies are enacted.(9)

Battaglia Comunista


Image: AntanO,









(9) Since this article was written the new prime minister has already told the world that the Sri Lankan economy is in a state of collapse:

Sunday, June 26, 2022