National Sections of the L5I:

May Day in Sri Lanka

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In every country, May Day provides an opportunity to assess the state of the working class movement. Strikes, rallies and demonstrations reveal not only the vitality of the movement but also give an insight into the relative strengths of the different political currents and organisations.

In Sri Lanka, May Day is an official public holiday and that itself is testimony to the central role that the working class movement played in the struggle for independence from Britain. However, for many years, May Day has confirmed not only the decline in the movement but also its fragmentation as each of the competing parties, groups and trade unions rally their supporters to separate events.

In this respect, 2013 could mark a change for the better, a small first step towards overcoming that fragmentation. In early March, the United Federation of Labour, a trade union federation affiliated to the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP, the Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International) issued a call for a "United Workers' May Day Rally". This initiative stood in sharp contrast to the NSSP's previous prioritisation of campaigning for the "United Opposition", an unprincipled, cross-class, popular front which is led by the United National Party, the traditional party of Sri Lanka's bourgeoisie.

On March 15, in response to this, representatives of a number of trades unions and political groups met and agreed to support this initiative. At subsequent meetings, as many as 40 different groups were represented and these included not only unions affiliated to groups that originated in the Trotskyist movement but also to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, JVP, which developed out of a split from the pro-Beijing Communist Party. While it is probably best known internationally for two adventurous insurrections and its slavish support for the brutal war against the Tamil independence movement, the JVP retains a significant mass base in the trade unions. The Frontline Socialist Party, FSP, which split from the JVP two years ago, taking with it some of that trade union support, and representatives from farmers' and fishermen's organisations, also attended.

Despite this promising beginning, the prospect of a really united May Day was diminished by the decision of the JVP and also the United Socialist Party, USP, (Sri Lankan section of the CWI) not to participate but to hold their own events. Interestingly, the FSP initially decided that, although it would hold its own rally, it would encourage its trades unionists to take part in the joint May Day rally. On the other hand, the decision of several "politically independent" trade unions to support the joint rally was an important step forward.

That decision, however, was quickly reversed when it was decided to invite representatives of the Democratic People's Front, a Tamil party led by Mano Ganeshan, formerly a UNP MP, and the National Unity Alliance, a Muslim party, as platform speakers for the May Day rally. Although it was not unprincipled to invite representatives of these political parties, the working class movement should certainly take the lead in defending both Tamils and Muslims, this was tactically unwise because it provided an excuse for the "politically independent" union leaders to pull out of the whole initiative and to go ahead with their own separate rally. The FSP also decided to withdraw any support and directed all of its supporters to its own rally.

On May Day, therefore, there were, again, several competing rallies. As in previous years, the JVP rally was the largest with some 4000, about the same as last year. The FSP rally reportedly attracted perhaps 2500 and was noticeably smaller than last year and the "independent" rally numbered about 1000. A similar number attended the "united workers' May Day" and, as the first attempt to overcome the long-standing divisions on the Sri Lankan Left, this has to be counted as a relatively successful mobilisation. It was also significant that a large proportion of the crowd, perhaps more than 500, were Tamil plantation workers who play a crucial role in the country's economy but have been long underrepresented within the working class movement.

At the last moment, it was announced that Azath Salley, the leader of the National Unity Alliance, would not be addressing the rally and few, if any, supporters of the NUA appeared to take part. Later it was explained that his absence was as a result of threats to his safety – the following day he was arrested on trumped up charges of inciting inter-communal violence.

Addressing the rally, Mahinda Devege, the Secretary of the Socialist Plantation Workers' Union and a leading member of the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, the section of the League for the Fifth International, stressed the need not only for the unification of the trade union movement but also for the building of a workers' party to fight for the interests of all workers, from all communities, and to unite them in the struggle for socialism on the island. This was in sharp contrast to the speech of Vickramabahu Karunarathne, the general secretary of the Fourth International section, who defended his party's participation in the popular front coalition, the "United Opposition".

Looking to the future, it is clear that, although it was not possible to win the argument for a single, united working class May Day rally, the initiative did address a widespread recognition of the need to overcome long-standing divisions. The regime of Mahinda Rajapakse and his family is not only increasingly authoritarian and oppressive but its economic policy is having a devastating impact on the working class and farmers across the island. 

The latest blow is a government-backed 65 per cent hike in electricity charges and a system of tariffs that hits low volume users, in other words the poorest consumers, hardest. Opposition to this is widespread and growing and could provide a focus for a united working-class resistance. A first protest rally, jointly organised by the NSSP, the FSP and the SPSL and their affiliated unions is to be held on May 15. Separately, the JVP and the UNP are calling for a protest strike and demonstration on May 21.

This is clearly a move by the JVP, which was previously in government with Rajapakse, to form a new alliance with the traditional party of Sri Lanka's capitalist class. The SPSL has responded to this by calling for all the unions to join the strike on the 21st while demanding that the JVP, and the NSSP, turn away from their popular front strategies, which in the long run can only benefit the UNP, and form a workers' united front against Rajapakse.

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