Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya
R Arun Kumar
ARAGALAYA in Sinhala broadly means struggle. The country is struggling to meet its fuel, food and financial commitments. People are on the streets, in struggle against the government that had failed them. They are demanding immediate resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all the 225 members of the parliament, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The catchy slogan of this popular struggle is, ‘Gota Go Home’, implying President Gotabaya should leave office. All attempts made by the president to appease the protesters have failed. As we go to press, these largely peaceful protests are not showing any signs of relenting. Indeed, they are slowly spreading to other parts of the country.
Protests started in Sri Lanka with farmers demanding fertilizers for their crops. Their demand fell on deaf ears of the government as it was not interested in providing them with chemical fertilizers. The government wanted the farmers to immediately switch to organic farming. The maniac decision imposed on the farmers led to crop failure as many of them found their crops withering away, while they were watching helplessly due to government’s apathy. There was a 40 per cent reduction in crop production. This angered the farmers who started the demonstrations in almost all the agricultural districts in Sri Lanka.
Soon these protests were joined by middle-classes who were incensed by the rising fuel prices and spiraling inflation. These protests erupted spontaneously with no political party calling for them or leading them. Moreover, many of the political parties and even trade unions kept away from these protests, not sure of their character, leadership and direction. But soon it emerged that it is the youth who are leading these protests and they are not bound by any ideology or political affiliation. What bound them together is their common anger against the loot of the country.
Sri Lanka achieved independence from the British in 1948. The feudal landlord class and the emerging bourgeoisie together took over the reins of power. D S Senanayake became the first prime minister representing the United National Party (UNP). As representatives of the ruling classes, the policies they pursued did not benefit common people. A reflection of the growing disappointment among the people was found in the split of the UNP and the formation of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) by SWRD Bandaranaike.
Bandaranaike’s policies slightly differed from the UNP as he started pursuing certain welfare schemes and emphasised on the improvement of social indicators like education, health, etc. After the assassination of Bandaranaike, his wife Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first women prime minister. She initiated some steps to nationalise certain sectors of the economy like banking and industries. She led the process to replace the British era constitution with a new constitution in 1972. However, these half-hearted steps, without an intention to completely transform the country exposed the limitations of bourgeois reforms of the capitalist system. The resultant disenchantment with the SLFP government was sought to be diverted by rousing racial and ethnic passions. Sinhala nationalism reared its head and was actively encouraged by the ruling classes. This tragically pushed the country to decades long internal turmoil. Ethnic Tamils who were stripped off their citizenship rights in 1948, felt further marginalised.
J R Jayewardene of the UNP, who gave the slogan, ‘Sinhala Only’, defeated Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the elections held in 1977. He used this victory to change the constitution in 1978, which changed the country from a parliamentary system to presidential system and conferred tremendous powers to the executive-president. Free market economy gained precedence. Transparency and accountability, much needed in a democracy became the sacrificial goats. Similarly the concept of separation of powers, checks and balances too were given a go. Judiciary and bureaucracy lost their independence and catered to the whims of ruling political parties.
Thus the basis of the current economic crisis lay deep in the history of the socio-economic development of Sri Lanka.
GENESIS OF THE PRESENT CRISIS
The genesis of the present crisis lies in the neo-liberal policies that increasingly guided successive governments in Sri Lanka. Excessive dependence on imports, sacrificing domestic agriculture and industrial growth to meet the demands of foreign capital ruined its economy. Extravagant infrastructural projects and corruption that came along with them added to the burdens. At the immediate level, tourism, the mainstay of the economy took a hit during the Covid pandemic. Lockdowns imposed on the country accentuated the miseries.
The Gotabaya administration, instead of attending to these problems, created few more. The government enacted extensive tax cuts, which had led to the drop of government revenues by around 22 per cent. These tax cuts were basically on direct taxable incomes and benefited the upper crust of the society. This was a move intended to benefit the ruling classes, in the name of helping them ‘tide over the economic crisis’. As worldwide experience had demonstrated, giving concessions to corporates and bailing them out, does not bail the economy out of the crisis, as majority of the poor and middle-classes still suffer from loss of their incomes and wealth.
While the people were suffering, came the presidential order to suddenly shift from chemical farming to organic farming. The drop in crop production created shortages of staples like rice and the country was forced to import large quantities at a huge cost to its economy. These added to the tensions in the families of common people.
Institutionalised corruption emerged as another key concern of the citizenry. People were watching the construction of huge infrastructural projects and the accompanied corrupt practices. Kickbacks and political proximity decided to whom most of the contracts go.
The executive presidency that was not accountable to anyone slowly cemented its power since 1978. 20th amendment to the constitution enabled the executive to act without the fear of audits, retributions or accountability. It is estimated that $35 billion were siphoned off from the country in these last few decades and this had gathered pace after the enactment of the 20th amendment. The lack of independent judiciary meant that most of these corrupt practices went unchallenged and even if challenged, went unpunished. This had angered the people, who are now out on the streets demanding a repeal of the 20th amendment, accountable government and reversion to parliamentary system from the present form of executive presidency.
The government after the initial denial, agreed to change the faces in the cabinet by bringing in new members. Few days back, they indicated that they are ready to consider amending the constitution and restoring parliamentary form of governance. Apart from all these measures, the government decided to approach the IMF for bailing the country out of the present crisis.
Approaching the IMF for a loan or bail-out would imply accepting the various conditions it imposes asking for structural adjustments in the economy. Austerity measures would be imposed. Discussions between the representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the IMF have already started. Conditions like privatisation of public sector enterprises, reform of labour laws, enactment of laws to easily enforce price hikes in utilities like electricity, water, etc., and reduction in import tariffs on luxury goods like cars, etc., are being mooted. Proposals to reform pension rules, introduction of voluntary retirement schemes are also on the line. These measures, once accepted and implemented will certainly increase the burdens on people.
A section of the ruling classes and their apologists are trying to utilise these protests to demean even bourgeois democracy. They are calling for the replacement of all elected politicians with technocrats. They argue that technocrats would bail the country out of the present crisis, which was created by the politicians. This is a flawed argument and is intended to divert the attention of the people from the real reasons afflicting the country. The failure of IMF prescribed austerity measures and the rule of technocrats is clearly visible from recent examples in Europe, particularly Italy and Greece. So these are not real options before the people.
The real option before the people is to demand a real change in the system. Already the demands of the movement have taken a step forward – from demanding the government to ensure supply of essential commodities, to asking the government to step down, to demanding a change in the form of governance and a suitable amendment to the constitution. Real democracy, where people’s voices are heard and respected and more importantly an end to neo-liberal reforms are needed.
It would help if the experiences of all the recent popular protests like the Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square (Egypt and other Arab countries), the Gilet Juanes (Yellow Vests) in France, etc., are also considered by the protesters in Sri Lanka. They show us that to achieve their demands: (i) the scope of the protests should be expanded to include trade unions and other class and mass organisations and (ii) an organised, ideologically clear leadership is necessary. One should also be aware that finance capital and the ruling classes try their best to fizzle out these protests by using force, changing faces or agreeing to some concessions that do not harm their core interests.
As of now, large numbers of youth, middle-classes are participating in these protests. Oppositional political parties that were initially reluctant, expressed solidarity and some of them like the Janata Vimukti Perumana (JVP) have organised parallel protests. Being alert to ruling class maneuvers, staying true to people’s demands and being accountable to them are what people expect.