Sri Lanka: The popular rebellion ousted the president

July 14. The president of this Asian country, an island found southeast of India, resigned by email. Gotabaya Rajapaksa sent an email to Parliament, while he fled to the Maldives and then to Singapore. It is the corollary of a massive revolution, which has as its framework the greatest economic and political crisis in Sinhalese history.

Pablo Vasco

Days ago, through television and social networks, the shocking videos of thousands and thousands of Sinhalese breaking into the presidential palace, the presidential secretariat, the prime minister’s office and other government offices, finding relatively little resistance by government forces, circulated across the world. The police repression, with tear gas and hydrant cars, caused one death, dozens of people were injured and hundreds arrested. The president’s own form of resignation, by email and in the midst of his flight on a military plane with his family, confirms the complete lack of control by the political power.

Formerly called Ceylon, Sri Lanka is an island country located in the Bay of Bengal. Its capital is Colombo, which is also the main transshipment center in South Asia. Sri Lanka was a Portuguese colony, then a British one. In 1948, it declared its independence, in 1972 it was established as a republic and in 1977, under a center-left government, as a democratic socialist republic. It has a unicameral parliament with 225 members -196 elected by district and 29 by national proportion- and the president appoints his prime minister and cabinet.

Sri Lanka has 23 million inhabitants, three million of whom are of the Tamil ethnic group, who live in the north and northeast of the island, influenced by a separatist guerrilla: the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Homeland. The Sinhalese are mainly of the Buddhist religion and the Tamils, on the other hand, are Hindu. With a tropical climate and great natural beauty, Sri Lanka’s economy is essentially based on the export of agricultural products such as tea, rubber, coffee and sugar (20%) and, at an industrial level, textiles and clothing (63%). The pandemic severely affected tourism, which is the other key source of income.

The country has a public debt of 72,000 million dollars, 20% poverty and 6% unemployment. Before the popular uprising, the government had given state employees one day off a week to grow food in their gardens and five years of unpaid leave to look for work abroad. In addition to fuel and food shortages, aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a lack of medicine.

The reasons for the revolutionary uprising

The causes of the current rebellion are well explained in an article published by our Pakistani comrades of The Struggle, a section of the International Socialist League: “On May 6, millions of public and private sector workers went on strike. Banks, businesses and transportation were closed in Colombo and other cities. Doctors and nurses joined the protests. On May 7 and 8, the president declared a state of emergency, imposed for the second time since the start of the protests. Last year, the price of rice doubled.

“Last month the government announced that it was defaulting on $51 billion in foreign loans due to depleted US dollar reserves. Inflation reached 40% in the last two years and rose to 50% for basic products such as food. The finance minister recently announced that the economic crisis would continue for another two years. The people of Sri Lanka live without electricity for 13 hours a day and are forced to queue all day for gasoline or natural gas. On May 16, the prime minister announced that the country could run out of gasoline in a day if he did not get 75 million in foreign currency to buy more gasoline. Container ships waited on the beach and refused to unload until they were paid.

“The strike was called by unions and civil society groups. The protesters demanded Rajapaksa’s resignation and questioned the corruption of his family, which has ruled Sri Lanka for almost two decades and in the last two and a half years has bankrupted the country.”[1]

To the great corruption and economic and social mismanagement of the government, which included the privatization of ports and deforestation by multinationals, we must add that it had unleashed a harsh repressive offensive against the Tamil regions and the Muslim minority.

Political challenges

After the president fell due to popular mobilization, now the prime minister -in hiding for several days- proposed “to give way to a government of all parties” and tense negotiations are opened for that purpose between the political sectors with parliamentary representation. They speak of forming a new “provisional and national unity” government, while opening negotiations with the IMF. They would shuffle candidates until July 19 and decide on the 20th in parliament. The transitory period of said government, after which new elections would be called, is not clear.

Nothing favorable can be expected by the Sinhalese people from a pact woven between the main parties that have alternated in the exercise of power until now, defenders of capitalism in its liberal, nationalist-populist or center-left variants: the New Democratic Front (former ruling party) , the United People’s Power (main opposition party), the Socialist Front Party, the Popular Liberation Front and others. Even less when all of them seek to negotiate a loan from the Monetary Fund as a way out, which will accentuate the dependence of the Sinhalese economy.

In the ’40s of the last century, an important Trotskyist party emerged in the country, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which played a role in the independence struggle and gained strength among the working people, but in the ’60s it ended up entering the bourgeois nationalist government of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), whose prime minister was Sirimavo Bandaranaike. This opportunistic capitulation weakened the forces of revolutionary socialism. However, the current rebellion allows better conditions for the challenge of building a revolutionary leadership that will fight in Sri Lanka for the only realistic way out of the crisis, without the IMF or the capitalists: a government of the workers and the poor people, that applies an economic program in favor of the great majority.