Sri Lanka’s democratic revolution
The latest episode in a decades-long drama
On July 14, 2022, Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker announced that he had accepted the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sent by email from Singapore where he had fled via The Maldives. That this former military commander—known as “the terminator” due to his propensity to get critics assassinated—was forced to resign by an overwhelmingly nonviolent mass movement marks this as a major episode in Sri Lanka’s protracted democratic revolution.
The term “bourgeois-democratic revolution” is confusing because it suggests that democracy is a gift from the bourgeoisie, is inseparable from capitalism and has nothing to do with socialism, whereas in fact most sections of the bourgeoisie have no interest in it and the Communist Manifesto states that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is … to win the battle of democracy.” Democracy—freedom from killings, torture and enforced disappearances, freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, equality of rights and opportunities, and the right of people to participate in making decisions that affect them—is only won and defended by struggles of working people in solidarity with one another. Furthermore, while a bourgeois revolution can be accomplished quickly, a democratic revolution may take decades and encounter serious setbacks.
The uprising in Sri Lanka, which started with a few small candlelight vigils in early March 2022 and developed into a full-scale revolution with protesters taking over the presidential palace and prime minister’s office, was triggered by critical shortages of food, fuel, cooking gas, and medicines, accompanied by long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. As Nimanthi Rajasingham explains, the protesters blamed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family members, including then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, for the catastrophe. Demonstrations spread throughout the country, the most iconic location being “GotaGoGama” at Galle Face Green in Colombo opposite the Presidential Secretariat. She also points out that although criminal mismanagement by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime dealt the final blow to the economy, the mountain of foreign debt had been growing for more than four decades after J.R. Jayawardene of the United National Party (UNP) won the elections of 1977 and introduced neoliberalism.
However, it is significant that although this is obviously an economic crisis, the demand that has unified the aragalaya—struggle—was “GotaGoHome.” Protesters were not demanding that Gotabaya provide them with what they needed; instead, they wanted him and his government gone, appealing to a higher form of democracy that includes the right to recall representatives who fail to carry out their mandate. This is the clearest indication that at the root of the economic collapse lies a political debacle.
An ultra-authoritarian state on one side, a divided electorate on the other
How could successive governments and especially the last one take such disastrous policy decisions without being prevented from doing so by the public? The short answer is that the state had assumed virtually absolute power while the public was so divided that any section which opposed a particular policy could be isolated and crushed. Dividing the electorate along ethno-religious lines has been the policy of the ruling class since Ceylon (as it was then) got independence from the British in 1948, and this in turn has allowed the executive to centralize enormous power in its hands.
In 1948 and 1949, the UNP government enacted legislation depriving around a million Tamils of more recent Indian origin (most of them super-exploited plantation workers in the central Hill Country) of their citizenship and franchise. This initiated the policy of isolating one section of working people and subjecting them to discrimination, violence, and deprivation of their human rights. The policy has since been used against Sri Lanka Tamils (who have been inhabitants of the island for as long as the Sinhalese), Muslims, and occasionally even Sinhalese Christians. In each case, some members of the majority community—Sinhalese Buddhists—orchestrated the attacks, others mounted a strong defence of the victims, and many remained passive.
The Official Language Act introduced by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who came to power in 1956, accelerated this process. It made Sinhala the only official language, thus discriminating against Tamil speakers, especially in government employment. Peaceful protests against it led to the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958. Sri Lanka Tamils being a much larger minority than Hill-Country Tamils, the resulting sense of injustice—heightened when the SLFP led by Bandaranaike’s widow Sirimavo introduced a policy discriminating against Tamil students in university entrance—contributed to the slide towards civil war.
In 1978, J.R. Jayawardene introduced a new constitution which centralized almost absolute power in the hands of the Executive President, a post that he proceeded to occupy. Not only was parliament disempowered, but institutions that should be independent of the executive and ruling political party—like the Election Commission, Supreme Court, and judiciary, National Police Commission, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Human Rights Commission, and Public Service Commission—also came under the control of the executive, with predictable consequences.
Given its obvious role as an assault on democracy, there has been a tug-of-war over the Executive Presidency since then. The campaign to abolish it has been hamstrung by a Supreme Court opinion that this would need support from a two-thirds majority in parliament and a simple majority in a referendum, which has been difficult to achieve. Instead, under Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency (1994-2005) the 17th Amendment drastically reduced the powers of the president; then under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, the 18th Amendment (2010) repealed the 17th and scrapped the two-term limit on the presidency. When SLFP rebel Maithripala Sirisena became president and Ranil Wickremesinghe prime minister on the crest of a popular “Yahapalanaya” (Good Governance) movement in 2015, the 19th Amendment again curtailed the powers of the president, but was promptly reversed after Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a right-wing split from the SLFP, came to power in 2019 and the 20th Amendment was passed in 2020. A more authoritarian Executive Presidency is associated with more lethal assaults on human rights and democracy. It’s not surprising that a growing number of voices from the aragalaya are demanding its abolition.
These pernicious divisions among ordinary working people on one side and centralization of power on the other allowed the state to violate the human and democratic rights of everyone, including Sinhalese Buddhists. There are many examples of this, including the assassination of Sinhalese critics and sacking of tens of thousands of workers in 1980, but the most spectacular example is the UNP’s crackdown on the second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising of 1987-1989. This included most of the same measures used against Tamils, like subjecting Sinhalese civilians to arbitrary arrest, prolonged incarceration without being tried or even charged, torture (often resulting in death), and enforced disappearances. The main difference was that mass murder was suffered not from bombing and shelling but by being hacked to death, burned on tire-pyres, buried in mass graves or dismembered and dumped by the roadside or in rivers. An estimated 60,000 Sinhalese were killed in this conflict, including around 6,000 by the JVP; some of those killed by state security forces were JVP combatants but the vast majority were noncombatants.
Opposing state authoritarianism and ethnic supremacism
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the JVP fought against the Sri Lankan state, but the alternatives they offered were no less authoritarian and ethnic supremacist. The LTTE consolidated its dominant position by exterminating members of other Tamil militant groups, and its goal was a Tamil-supremacist state. It started by killing and driving out Sinhalese from the Northern and Eastern provinces, which it claimed as its territory, and later did the same to Tamil-speaking Muslims. Its supreme leader, V. Prabhakaran, aspired to totalitarian control over Tamil Eelam, and ruthlessly exterminated Tamil dissidents. There were tens of thousands of such victims, some of whom were tortured before being killed. One of the best known is Rajani Thiranagama, socialist, feminist, doctor, lecturer, writer and human rights defender, who challenged the nationalism, militarism and macho authoritarianism of the LTTE and their forcible conscription of child soldiers. Other dissidents were forced into exile.
Similarly the JVP headed by Rohana Wijeweera, who called himself a “Marxist-Leninist” and “modern Bolshevik”, had a strong Sinhala-supremacist streak. Its five education classes included one characterizing Hill-Country Tamil plantation workers as tools of Indian expansionism: an abysmal failure of class analysis, apart from expressing racist prejudice. It opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, which included recognition of Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic country, equality for the Tamil language, and devolution of power to the provinces, all of which offered a modicum of redress to the grievances of Tamils. It was also extremely authoritarian. Threatening to kill people if they didn’t go on strike or boycott elections was not exactly the promotion of democracy required for moving towards socialism. The modern JVP has renounced violence and abandoned its anti-Tamil racism, but without an adequate critique of its earlier politics.
This brings us to the role of democracy activists, both party and non-party, in the democratic revolution. They were at the forefront of the struggle against British colonialism. Ponnambalam Arunachalam argued for universal franchise (which would include the plantation workers) and a welfare state with free education. At the founding meeting of the Ceylon Workers’ Federation in 1920, he called for unionized labor to protect the interests of workers. After Arunachalam died in 1924, his vision was pursued by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP, formed in 1935) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), which fought for independence and against the legislation depriving Hill-Country Tamils of their citizenship and franchise, organized a successful nationwide hartal (civil disobedience and general strike) against the withdrawal of the highly-subsidized rice ration in 1953, and opposed the Sinhala Only Bill put forward by the SLFP.
Yet these parties entered into an alliance with the SLFP in 1964, and in 1968 formed a United Front with it that came to power in 1970. In 1972, Colvin R. de Silva of the LSSP presided over the drafting of a republican constitution that enshrined Sinhala as the sole official language and gave a special place to Buddhism. Principled members split off, and in many cases split again. What possessed them to take such a suicidal step? LSSP theoretician Hector Abhayawardhana’s opinion that the SLFP victory in 1956 represented Sri Lanka’s “belated national liberation” gives us a clue. The UNP, wedded to the West, was seen as prolonging colonialism, whereas the SLFP’s policies of nationalization, import substitution, and hostility to the West were seen as “anti-imperialist” and “anti-capitalist,” despite their simultaneous attack on equality and democracy. The same pseudo-anti-imperialist, pseudo-socialist politics of the leaders of the LSSP, CPSL and Democratic Left Front (DLF, formed out of successive splits from the LSSP) ensured that they continued to support the Rajapaksas, thus sharing responsibility for the ongoing catastrophe.
The irony is that with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, the SLPP has anointed UNP leader Wickremesinghe—who failed to win his own seat and whose party was wiped out in the 2020 parliamentary elections—as their new president. His first actions on coming to power were to declare an emergency and unleash the police, army, and Special Task Force paramilitaries in a “shameful, brutal assault on peaceful protesters,” as Amnesty International described it. This is not surprising. Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya have been partners in crimes against humanity during the pre-1994 period of the civil war and the anti-JVP counter-insurgency, when as a member of the government and an army commander respectively they were responsible for massacres of Tamils and Sinhalese; they have also both been responsible for Sri Lanka’s loss of tens of millions of dollars. Moreover, shocking evidence has emerged that an Islamist group funded and protected by Gotabaya through the deep state carried out the devastating Easter terrorist attacks in 2019, enabling him to win the presidential election as the national security candidate. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, president and prime minister at the time, ignored numerous warnings from Muslims that the group had been radicalized, thus becoming complicit in the slaughter.
Given the bankruptcy of the old Left parties, with only small groups like the United Left Front adhering to the agenda of carrying out a democratic revolution, the role of non-party human rights and democracy activists and groups is all the more important. From the 1970s onwards, they have worked with exemplary courage in extremely repressive circumstances.
Healing divisions between working people of different communities and combating authoritarianism are preconditions for solving the economic crisis. The celebration of Sinhalese and Tamil New Year together, other communities participating in breaking the Ramadan fast along with Muslims, and the first commemoration in the south of Tamils killed in the war are positive developments, but democracy activists need to push them much further. The unusually high profile of women and young people in the protests is also a hopeful sign.
As a Sinhala-speaking half-Tamil whose family in a Colombo suburb was displaced by the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958, my reading of the so-called “ethnic conflict,” which I investigated in my oral history Journey Without a Destination: Is there a solution for Sri Lankan refugees? and explored further in my novel Playing Lions and Tigers, is more complex than most views. My own experience and interviews testified to strong bonds of friendship and solidarity between people from different ethnic communities, with numerous stories of Sinhalese saving the lives of Tamil friends, neighbors and even total strangers during anti-Tamil pogroms.
There have certainly been Sinhala-supremacists, including Buddhist monk groups, organizing violent attacks on Tamils and Muslims with the complicity of the state, but I attribute much of the support they have received to the language divide created by Sinhala Only. The decline of English as a link language and the inability to communicate across linguistic communities, combined with tight censorship and relentless propaganda via Sinhala media and schools, resulted in ignorance among large sections of the Sinhalese public about the discrimination, violation of civil rights, displacement, incarceration, torture, and mass killings suffered by Tamils. It was easy to blame the civil war of 1983-2009 entirely on the LTTE without acknowledging the terrible injustices suffered by Tamils. Yet when their own experience clashed with what they had been told—as occurred during the anti-JVP counter-insurgency—many Sinhalese were willing to re-examine their beliefs.
This moment, when state security forces are once again inflicting violence on Sinhalese activists, is a good opportunity to raise these issues. Many Tamils feel uncomfortable in a movement that ignores their concerns; but for their own sake too, Sinhalese who voted for the Rajapaksas despite knowing that they had looted the country when they were previously in power, who voted for mass murderer Gotabaya as a knee-jerk reaction to the Easter bombings, need to understand that voting for Sinhala supremacist authoritarianism can lead to disaster for themselves.
On the other side, Tamils who say that this movement doesn’t concern them also need to look inwards. Since it is patently absurd to argue that Tamils don’t suffer from the prevailing shortages, power cuts and inflation, the subtext of such a claim is that Tamils don’t belong in Sri Lanka but in a separate state. This Tamil nationalist position is advocated precisely by those who stifle criticism of the LTTE’s terror attacks against Sinhalese civilians including children, their massacres of Muslims in the East and ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the North, their torture and murder of Tamil dissidents, and the barbaric cruelty of tearing Tamil children from their parents and sending them to their deaths on the battlefield. The more nuanced position of Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingham Sritharan of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) argues that Tamils must engage positively with the aragalaya, combating “both Sinhala chauvinism and narrow Tamil nationalism.”
The appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as president demonstrates the impossibility of political reform under the existing parliament. New elections will have to be held and a new constitution enacted. There have been suggestions for the formation of a People’s Council, or multiple People’s Councils that elect delegates to an apex federation, with the dual responsibilities of alleviating the sufferings of their constituencies and forging a new constitution. Such a body, backed by a general strike to bring down the existing government, could organise the election of a new parliament, campaign against the SLPP and its allies including Tamil, Muslim and Left parties, and put forward their proposals for a new constitution to be upheld by other candidates. These should include abolition of the executive presidency and devolution of power to the provincial and local levels.
Solving the economic crisis is the biggest challenge for the aragalaya and any new government. Only a few voices have called for a suspension of foreign debt repayment, an audit of the foreign debt, and cancellation of illegitimate debt, but this is absolutely necessary. Transparency about the holders of securities is required; when an investment banker said he was “flabbergasted” at the “amazing willingness” of the Rajapaksas to pay their creditors despite being “bankrupt,” it’s worth asking: Are they among the offshore holders of Sri Lanka’s sovereign bonds? Others have suggested that a new government should not agree to austerity as a condition for future borrowing, given the overwhelming evidence of its negative effects; it should impose a wealth tax, restrict imports to essential consumption goods and production inputs, install a public distribution system, defend state ownership of utilities and public services, and encourage producer cooperatives.
The lead actors in this drama are the working people of Sri Lanka, but they cannot solve all their problems alone. Internationalist solidarity is necessary to support the aragalaya against the brutal repression it is facing, extend humanitarian assistance without strings attached, and resolve the foreign debt crisis. That would also help numerous other countries facing similar crises.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Nazly Ahmed; modified by Tempest.
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Rohini Hensman View All
Rohini Hensman is a writer, independent scholar and activist working on workers’ rights, feminism, minority rights and globalization. She has published extensively on these issues, including Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism.