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
Jul 18, 2022
On July 13, the president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country. He was quite literally chased away by a massive popular revolt, culminating in the invasion of the presidential palace by thousands of people on July 9.
Cameras showed audiences all over the world how protesters were enjoying the posh bedrooms, dining rooms, the pool, and other amenities in the mansion, giving an idea of the kind of luxury the president and his entourage have been living in, while the vast majority of Sri Lankans have had to live without enough food, fuel and other necessities for months.
Since the beginning of the year, fuel, food, medicine, and other essential items have been in short supply in Sri Lanka, a small island nation of 22 million located in the Indian Ocean just south of India. These necessities are currently simply not available, or so expensive that only very wealthy people can afford them.
There are regular, long power outages, and schools have even shut down for lack of paper. People have been spending many hours, even days, waiting in long lines for gasoline and cooking oil. Police and army are regularly deployed to keep people in line—since people waiting in line often start another demonstration!
Initially, when protests began in Sri Lanka’s largest city, the protesters were mostly students and middle class people, coming together in a park in an upscale neighborhood, calling for Rajapaksa’s resignation. But the protests spread quickly, and soon thousands of people were marching on government buildings, as people from other sections of the population, and other parts of the country, joined the movement.
Government violence against protesters, perpetrated by police and armed thugs of Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lankan People’s Front, resulted in nine deaths and more than 300 injured in May. But that only seemed to strengthen the resolve of the protesters—the demonstrations persisted.
Different sectors of the Sri Lankan working class have also been part of the ongoing popular revolt with their own actions. Healthcare workers have struck over pay cuts, and then again for free fuel and higher wages, this time in defiance of a government ban on strikes! Electricity workers have also struck, against the privatization of the electric company. Oil workers have also protested against privatization, and textile workers in Colombo’s Free Trade Zone have clashed with police over the military control of these zones, where no labor laws apply. There were also two general strikes, on April 28 and May 6, which contributed to the resignation of the prime minister.
The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa (the president’s brother), was forced to resign in May. But that did not stop, or even slow down, the demonstrations either. And for good reason: the “new” prime minister, the 73-year-old politician Ranil Wickremesinghe, was filling the post for the fifth time since 1993!
In any event, Wickremesinghe’s “cure” for the economic crisis was worse than the disease itself. He announced plans to eliminate 800,000 public sector jobs and to cut down pensions. The prime minister even dared to tell workers to look for jobs abroad, so that they could send much-needed foreign currency to import fuel and other necessities! The government also reduced the working week to four days, and declared a two-week government shutdown in late June, further reducing workers’ income.
Thus, the protests continued, and grew, finally ousting the president. But behind the politicians and the civilian government is the military, and it’s likely that it was the military brass, in consultation with big powers, especially the U.S., that told the president it was time for him to go (the Sri Lankan Air Force has confirmed that Rajapaksa left the country for the Maldives on a military jet).
For the U.S. government, and for the governments of other imperialist powers, the problem is to contain the massive popular revolt in Sri Lanka and prevent its spread to other countries where populations are also caught in economic crisis. On July 9, upon the invasion of the presidential palace by popular masses, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez urged the country’s armed forces to use “restraint" and declared "all parties must work together with the international community for a new government that respects the democratic and economic aspirations and upholds human rights the Sri Lankan people deserve.”
Why did he make these comments? The U.S. and other imperialist powers want to make sure that Sri Lanka continues to pay its debt to imperialism! In fact, the attacks on workers’ standard of living announced by Sri Lanka’s prime minister are the standard requirements that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) always imposes on governments in debt. They are the conditions for a new loan the IMF is offering to the Sri Lankan government, which has been defaulting on its debt payments.
It’s a vicious cycle of loans and interest payments, pushing populations of entire countries deeper and deeper into poverty, while the banks enrich themselves on the interest payments of these loans.
So far, protesters in Sri Lanka, and media commentators, have mostly focused on the hated Rajapaksa clan and their government. But Sri Lanka’s economic tailspin is very much part of a worldwide recession, which was already underway in 2019, when the Rajapaksas took office. Then, in 2020, came the Covid-19 pandemic, deepening the recession. Among other things, the pandemic put a stop to tourism, which was a major source of revenue for this small island nation. And finally, with the advent of the war in Ukraine in February, prices of imports, especially fuel and other necessities, further increased, turning the screw even more on Sri Lanka’s economy.
It’s true, the government made some moves that accelerated the downfall, such as giving the rich a big tax cut in 2019, which reduced government revenue by more than 1.4 billion dollars. They also banned imports of chemical fertilizers in 2021 to save foreign currency, which then led to a shortage of staple foods and an increase in food prices.
But overall, the crisis in Sri Lanka is part of the worldwide crisis of the capitalist system, the brunt of which is being carried by the working class in all countries, including the U.S.
What’s needed in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, is not just new faces in government, but an entirely new course, both economically and politically. But politicians representing big capitalists, who enrich themselves off the crisis, will not do that. Only the working class has the reason to do that, taking Sri Lanka’s resources and using them, first and foremost, to meet the needs of the population, starting with all those who have been deprived of food and other necessities for weeks, even months. Then, to fight to spread the revolt, to gain allies against imperialism, which will seek to isolate and throw back the movement.
The strikes and other actions recently taken by Sri Lankan workers show that the working class is in a good position to take the lead of, and give direction to, a massive popular mobilization in Sri Lanka. It remains to be seen if that will develop in coming weeks and months.