The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Sri Lanka:
From Crisis to Bankruptcy

May 23, 2022

This article is translated from the May 20 issue #2807 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group of that name active in France.

The Rajapaska family controls the top of the government of Sri Lanka but was forced to sacrifice older brother Mahinda after being shaken by weeks of protests.

Mahinda resigned his post as Prime Minister on May 9 in the attempt to save his younger brother Gotabaya’s presidency. Several other members of the clan already resigned their ministries in recent weeks.

The Rajapaskas owe their rise to their role in the army’s repression of the Tamil minority, putting a bloody end to the rebellion of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Mahinda was president from 2005 to 2015 but had to cede to the opposition after losing an election. But the clan retook power in 2019, taking advantage of emotions aroused by Islamist attacks that caused 258 dead and nearly 500 injured. The family is never stingy with nationalist demagoguery, flattering the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority.

Sri Lanka has been sinking into an unresolved economic crisis ever since. The pandemic amplified the effect of the attacks in depriving the island country of tourists. The country is heavily indebted and has no foreign currency reserves. Accelerating inflation worldwide has made imports unaffordable. Sri Lanka’s currency, the rupee, lost 30% of its value in March. Electricity only works intermittently. Patients can’t find medicines, or the medicines are too expensive. Even shoes are considered non-essential goods. Imports of shoes were halted. The government saw fit to disguise the financial impossibility of importing chemical fertilizers—the prices of which are soaring on international markets—as a positive environmental move. But agricultural production has dropped. Food shortages are happening. Poor people skip meals.

Demonstrations have happened daily in the capital Colombo for a month and a half. They demand the resignation of the president. Even Buddhist priests, who supported the Rajapaskas’ violent nationalism, turned against the ruling family, and took to the streets. Demonstrators tried to reach the presidential palace and the ministries, were pushed back by police, and set fire to the houses of some government ministers.

On May 8 the Rajapaskas mobilized their supporters, who attacked anti-government protesters with sticks—accompanied by tear gas from police. Two deputies fired on demonstrators. Nine people died and 300 were injured. Curfew was declared throughout the island. But the prime minister still had to throw in the towel, after trying in vain to convince the opposition to join his government to stabilize it. As soon as the space opened for them, opposition politicians formed a new government, under the weakened authority of President Gotabaya Rajapaska.

New prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is back for his fourth round. Given the economic collapse, he could only offer sacrifices to the population, announcing, “The next two months will be the most difficult months of our lives.” He said the economic crisis “will go from bad to worse before it gets better.” On May 16, he had to admit there was only one day’s supply of fuel. Four tankers were financed by an emergency line of credit opened by neighbor India. But once they dock, the reprieve will only last a few days. Wickremesinghe and his economic minister begged people to stop lining up at gas stations. When people meet on those lines, spontaneous protests start! The new government helplessly signaled that it would print more banknotes, even while acknowledging that this will worsen inflation.

The administration would like to put an end to the demonstrations and the political instability they cause. But the working class and the poor population can expect nothing from the government in terms of loosening the grip of the global economic crisis in which Sri Lanka struggles.