Interview: Sri Lanka’s stalled revolt

Issue: 176

Ahilan Kadirgamar

The rebellion in Sri Lanka reached such a scale in July that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s president and head of the infamous Rajapaksa clan, rapidly packed his bags and went on the run. Pictures of protesters swimming in the pool of his palatial mansion and setting fire to the houses of MPs from the ruling party were beamed around the world. Seemingly fearless young people fought the police and defied curfews to lead hundreds of thousands on the streets.

While Western media concentrated their attention on well-spoken protesters camped out in the capital, they generally missed the real action. Over a period of months, poor people—deprived of even the basics of life by shortages, lost wages and rising prices—had decided they would no longer sit back and watch the anti-Rajapaksa movement. Instead, they joined it in huge numbers. Their entrance into the movement proved decisive in deposing the old regime.

However, in the wake of this success came an establishment fightback that sowed confusion and division among even those who had long been implacable opponents of the Rajapaksas. The movement now faces difficult times ahead. The state has recaptured the initiative and is free to lash out with severe repression. The movement also faces vital class questions about what kind of society it wants.

As a national vice president of the Federation of University Teachers Association, Ahilan Kadirgamar has been an active participant in the revolt. He spoke to Yuri Prasad at the end of August, just as the recently installed president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, announced a new austerity budget and the vultures of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) circled ready to swoop on the country.

Yuri: When we last spoke, you predicted that there was going to be a major upsurge in the struggle in Sri Lanka.1 In addition, you said that working-class organisations would play a much more prominent role. By early July, you had been proven correct. Can you give us a sense of what was happening as the revolt reached its high point?

Ahilan: When we spoke in late April, we were getting ready for the general strike on 6 May, which was so successful it forced the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to say he was going to resign within a few days. However, he then set his goons on the protestors in the centre of the capital city, Colombo, even as the police watched, thinking that they would smash the protest movement. Instead, there was a huge counter-response by the people. They fought back, torching many of the houses of the ruling party’s parliamentarians. The Rajapaksas were shaken, and Mahinda resigned in shame.

Three days later, his brother, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new prime minister. Wickremesinghe was seen as someone who could win the support of international actors to ensure an agreement with the IMF and address its economic concerns.

The people’s response to this move was somewhat muted. Most protest leaders did not know how to react to his appointment. There were voices among them saying, “Let’s give Wickremesinghe and his international backers a chance to address the crisis.” Yet, as the economic problems continued to deepen, the various forces in the movement began to reconsolidate themselves and organised a new wave of protest actions for 9 July, which marked two months since the first uprising. The idea was that the people would go on to the street on this day and chase out both Wickremesinghe and president Rajapaksa.

Two days before the main event, there was a major meeting of the trade unions to mobilise for it. The next day, the student movement organised a protest. On the evening of 8 July, the government imposed what they called a “police curfew”. There is, however, no such thing as a police curfew in Sri Lankan law. You can only declare a curfew during a state of emergency, and it is the military that then implements it. The curfew was an effort by the regime to keep people away from the next day’s protest, but it didn’t work. I was in Colombo from 7 July onwards and saw wave after wave of people coming from all over the island. Masses of people went to the train stations and forced the stationmasters to run trains to the capital. There were people coming on the back of trucks and giving people lifts in their own vehicles. As we were marching, we could see the huge numbers of people coming to join us, with the students in the forefront. They walked through police tear gas, water cannons and barricades straight into the buildings of the presidential secretariat and the president’s house. It was an unbelievable show of force by hundreds of thousands of people, and scenes of people occupying the major state buildings were shown all around the world.

The protesters came from all walks of life. There were middle-class people from Colombo, there were workers coming in buses and trucks from the plantations, and others from many other parts of the country, sometimes hours away from the capital. The state’s curfew strategy was to block all the roads into Colombo, but people paid no attention to this. Together we defied the curfew, and the state had to lift it because it had no credibility.

So, the protest was made up of people from all walks of life but, I would say, a disproportionately large part came from among the urban working poor, and their youth were also in the forefront.

In the days after the protest, Gotabaya Rajapaksa went on the run, first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. As he slipped away, he appointed Wickremesinghe “acting president”. Importantly, the Sri Lankan constitution clearly states that the president must be elected by the people in a national election, but an interim president can be elected by parliamentarians alone. This is when horse-trading between political parties began. The Rajapaksas, through their majority in parliament, backed Wickremesinghe.

This parliamentary process marked a major setback for the movement. Some of the political parties, and even many of the public organisations, thought one way to bring about political stability would be to elect a president from an alternate parliamentary faction more acceptable to the people—that is to say, somebody not associated with the Rajapaksas. Thus, some politicians and their supporters threw their lot in with a faction that had previously broken away from the Rajapaksas. This manoeuvre was a big step backwards because one of the movement’s demands had been to abolish the executive presidency. The moves to elect a president legitimised the presidency. The movement should have stuck to its principles and said, “We’ve chased away a president and we don’t want another one.”

During the parliamentarians’ presidential election, the Rajapaksas’ forces regrouped and even brought over some other MPs from different political parties into their camp. This gave Wickremesinghe a majority. As soon as he was installed as the new president, he ordered a state of emergency and began repressing the movement, ordering an attack on the main “Gota Go Gama Village” protest camp in the centre of Colombo. The military, which had previously been somewhat subdued and careful, weighed in to support Wickremesinghe, partly because its former commander in chief, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had now run away. So, Wickremesinghe’s victory was based on support from parliamentarians belonging to the Rajapaksa camp, from the repressive apparatus of the state, and also from various foreign states and international organisations.

Despite this, there has been a shift among the Western powers. Since the uprising, they’ve been cautious about their support for Wickremesinghe. They have realised that he does not have the kind of social and political base needed for the long term. When he unleashed repression, there was widespread concern in the West that he would be unable to consolidate power.

Yuri: Can you tell us about the government’s ongoing repression? You have recently described this as akin to a counter-revolution.

Ahilan: The repression is characterised by the arrest of very many young people, particularly those belonging to the urban working poor. The police are holding them for supposedly entering government property during the height of the revolt. They are also targeting the leaders of the struggle for arrest, including Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU). The CTU is very strong and has been at the forefront of struggles for many years, including against the militarisation of education. Thanks to public pressure, Stalin has been released on bail. The police have also targeted university student union leaders. The students were among the most prominent in the street fighting with the police in July. Three of the major student union leaders were arrested last week under prevention of terrorism laws, which is very worrying given Sri Lanka’s history of using this legislation to torture and detain people for long periods. By resorting to terror laws, the government wants to send a chilling message to protesters. People know that the police can use these laws to arrest and detain them for up to 12 months without trial.

I’ve been characterising the uprising against the economic crisis and Sri Lanka’s rulers not as a revolutionary moment, but as a great revolt. The revolt is now being suppressed by a counter-revolution. Here I am drawing from Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848–1850, in which he assesses the revolutionary conditions of that time. Describing the 1848 revolts and how the counter-revolution suppressed them, Marx also notes how repression clarifies the class character of the new regime. He observed how France’s new dictator, Louis Bonaparte, started making peace with the rest of Europe in order to enable his suppression of the working classes at home.

There is a similar moment here in Sri Lanka. Different class forces are now aligning with Wickremesinghe, particularly the elite classes in Colombo. They are saying we must give the new government a chance because the events of 9 July were hugely traumatic for the entire ruling establishment. They think, if people can invade the prime minister’s residence, all public property is under attack. Their underlying fear is, “What if the protesters come after private property next?”

This is important, because the anti-Rajapaksa mobilisations were framed around corruption and anger at the regime, and class questions did not come out explicitly during the great uprisings. Yet, the class picture is now becoming clearer. We can see who is aligning with whom; organisations that were against Rajapaksa are now urging unity with Wickremesinghe. That’s true of sections of lawyers and a faction of the Bar Association, for example. The Bar Association once very strongly supported the movement but, after the 9 July uprising, has been much more muted. Among the middle classes, the support that existed for young protesters is now missing. It remains to be seen whether another wave of protests will emerge again in a few months. Certainly, the economic crisis is not abating. If anything, the intervention of outside powers, such as the IMF, will make things worse.

Yuri: With the movement on the back foot, is the government now in a position to start implementing a new IMF-led austerity programme?

Ahilan: The IMF’s negotiations are continuing as we speak and its team is in Colombo negotiating with the government this week. Sri Lanka’s central bank and finance ministry have already implemented many of the IMF’s recommendations from its last report in March, and Wickremesinghe is now accelerating those policies. For example, we have seen the pricing of energy at market levels and the floating of the rupee on international exchanges. The value of our currency has since fallen from 200 rupees to a US dollar to 360 rupees, and the cost of this has been passed on to consumers. The central bank has raised interest rates, resulting in the policy rate jumping from 6 percent to 15.5 percent, and businesses are collapsing as a result. To cap this, government spending has been halted.

Those are the headlines, but there is even more. In April, Sri Lanka defaulted on external debts valued at $51 billion. The timing of the default was engineered under the assumption that the country would quickly arrive at a refinancing agreement with the IMF. The government thought that within two or three months there would be an IMF agreement, with the default showing that Sri Lanka had surrendered to its terms. But that strategy has backfired. When the IMF saw the July uprisings, it decided to delay because it does not want to sign an agreement with a government that might collapse in three months. Having now defaulted on its external debt, countries including China and Japan, which have in the past bailed out Sri Lanka with bilateral loans, cannot now lend to Sri Lanka. That means Sri Lanka has locked itself out of that kind of credit, and many Chinese and Japanese-led development projects already in place have now stopped. The result is that the economy has ground to a halt.

The governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka said two weeks ago that he expects the economy to contract by 8 percent this year. That’s huge because a country such as Sri Lanka would normally seek to grow by 8 percent a year. So, the austerity and the hard landing has already happened. What we are talking about now is further austerity. How are people expected to survive this? How will it be acceptable to the people?

We already see the impact of this on ordinary people’s lives. Over 60 percent of the population depend on day to day or seasonal incomes, but there’s no opportunity for work when the economy has halted. Construction projects have stalled, so all those in that sector are without pay. Every day there’s a new shortage of a basic foodstuff. For example, currently there is a shortage of eggs. That means people have resorted to hoarding all kinds of foods, and people in many rural areas are only cooking one meal a day. In some households, they are not cooking at all, instead relying on neighbours to provide food for their children.

The government is oblivious to all this suffering. Wickremesinghe has just appointed a number of committees to plan the privatisation of state assets, particularly the public utilities, resulting in a significant increase in the price of electricity. People at the very bottom of society have seen their bills rise by more than 270 percent. They soon won’t be able to pay their bills or even afford food. The price of bread has tripled from 60 rupees a loaf to now 200 rupees. Fertiliser prices are now so high that farmers have stopped cultivating, and their farms are drying up because they can’t afford fuel to run their irrigation machinery. It’s a very dire situation. Even production for subsistence has become difficult.

In spite of all this, the geopolitical game continues. As early as last December, a number of neoliberal think-tanks were pushing for Sri Lanka to default on its debt because it would quicken the pace of privatisation. They knew that, in order to raise money, the state would have to sell off its assets, such as the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Ceylon Electricity Board. Their strategy of pushing for a default was designed to push Sri Lanka towards an IMF solution and then return to the capital markets in the West to borrow more sovereign debt. They insisted we follow this strategy because, they say, Sri Lankans are not capable of coming up with an economic solution for their own problems.

The IMF has now turned that around. It says Sri Lanka must first restructure its debt with its creditors before it will dispense even the $3 billion most analysts say is vital. So, we are now in a chicken and egg situation. On the one hand, people say we need an IMF agreement to have a credible and sustainable way to repay the debt. On the other hand, the IMF says that we first need an agreement with our creditors. However, creditors such as China are unwilling to take a “haircut” on the capital owed. Thus, even from an establishment perspective, we are caught in a trap. The West wants to use Sri Lanka as an example to show the world what happens when you default. Sri Lanka is being treated as a test case for debt restructuring, particularly with China.

Yuri: Are there any signs of the emergence of a new leadership prepared to take up the class questions?

Ahilan: The trade unions are trying to regroup, and there are discussions going on between them and the student movements. However, the repression has meant they are now caught in a defensive strategy of trying to mobilise against the repression and safeguard the rights of the prominent protesters by forming action committees. Wickremsinghe is on a weak wicket, because he has no political base to rest on and is thus forced to use the state’s repressive apparatus. Nevertheless, he has us on the defensive, and there is no real offensive political strategy at the moment. Yet, despite this there are a lot of discussions going on about how to forge a new strategy. There is an ideological battle to be fought on the way forward economically. We also need to explain why the centralisation of state power in the parliamentary system and executive presidency doesn’t work, and we need to make the case for a different constitutional order. My sense is that it’s going to be a difficult road with both setbacks and further struggles.

Yuri: Are the ruling class able to divide the opposition to distract from the growing crisis?

Ahilan: Wickremesinghe has been telling the people that he is able to solve the problem of shortages that are devastating the country and grinding the economy to a halt. For example, the government has developed a new quota system for petrol and diesel, which has been successful in terms of ending the days-long queues at the pumps. Along with those queues came a black market for fuel where desperate people might pay three or four times the fixed price. The quota system gives the appearance of working because the government has tripled the price of fuel and thereby reduced the total amount being dispensed.

The quota system has controlled the black market, and the middle classes’ desperation has ended, but fuel desperation has not ended for everyone. Kerosine oil, for example, is used by fishing communities for their boats, small farmers for irrigation pumps and the urban poor for cooking, but there’s been no supply for three months. This is due to the government’s deceitful strategy, which kept the price of kerosine at 87 rupees per litre and claimed new supplies were coming. The government told people new fuel would arrive in a few weeks, and then it said it would be a month. This just went on and on. Now, three months later, kerosine has arrived and the government is getting ready to distribute it, but it has raised the price to 340 rupees a litre, a fourfold increase, which is completely unfeasible for the poor.

The government obviously decided to distribute petrol and diesel in order to pacify the middle classes, but the fishing, farming and informal sectors have been neglected and fuel has been made unaffordable for them. This is likely to get a major response from working people and possibly others too. The farmers and the fishers have been opposed to the Rajapaksas but have not stepped so militantly into the protest movement—perhaps this will soon change. In 2012, we got a glimpse of what the fishing community can do when the government attempted to increase the price of kerosine by 49 percent overnight. The whole western coast of Sri Lanka was blocked by a “hartal”, a general shutdown, and the government had to retreat quickly.

After 9 July, a lot of the support for the protest movement from the business community and the middle classes was withdrawn. That’s when people withdrew from the protest camps because they couldn’t sustain the occupation without broader logistical support. Nonetheless, my argument remains that the camps were only a catalysing core; the broader revolt was premised on the support from the entire country, in particular the working people. Their activity and opposition culminated in the president having to make a getaway. The conditions for those people have not changed, but what form another wave of protest might take is the crucial question. My sense is that the repression is going to make things difficult.

Another question for us is what will come after yet another wave of protest. Back in April, the demand was simply, “Gota Go Home!” We wanted to get rid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Well, what comes next now this is achieved? On 9 July, there was a big opportunity. We should have pushed for the abolition of the presidency and an interim government without a president. Sadly, the political will and clarity were not there to take things forward. So, we now have to ask, if another wave of protest emerges, as it well may in a few months, what comes after that?

There are now increasing calls for a general election. But even if that were to happen, would it produce a leadership that would take up the class concerns raised by the crisis? Wickremesinghe, the Rajapaksas’ supporters and the parliamentary opposition are all wedded to an IMF-led “solution”. Even the far-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP; People’s Liberation Front) is muted in its criticism of the IMF. The JVP thinks it will make major gains in an election. Nonetheless, the real question is what kind of economic solution should be put forward, and how to provide leadership to the people during the economic crisis. These questions are yet to be answered. So, as Antonio Gramsci would say, the old is dying, but the new is yet to be born.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Jaffna in Sri Lanka and one of the national vice presidents of the Federation of University Teachers Associations.


1 See our previous interview with Ahilan at