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Sri Lanka: Rajapakse II imposes State of Emergency

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Two days after he addressed the nation on TV to announce his latest promise to revive the economy, President Gotabaya Rajapakse has taken emergency powers to try to hold back the tide of protest threatening his rule.

What prompted the sudden announcement? Thousands of desperate Sri Lankans demonstrating outside his home, demanding not just his downfall as President but his expulsion from the country.

Their desperation is driven by the effective collapse of the island's economy; the currency has devalued by at least 30 percent just in the last two weeks, foreign currency reserves were down to $US 2.2 billion in February but $US7 billion has to be repaid this year, 12 hour power cuts are now the norm, four people have died from exhaustion just waiting in ever longer queues for food.

Rajapakse and his brothers, the prime minister and the finance minister, are principally responsible for this rapid descent into hell after years of slow, but inexorable, decline. Those debt repayments are the direct result of Mahinda Rajapakse's rule when he financed huge prestige projects such as the Hambantota port and a new "international airport" with loans from China.

Just the interest payments on those loans, $US53 million to the China Development Bank, $US77 million to the Export Import Bank, for example, show the cost of such "white elephant" monuments to their rule.

The sheer economic recklessness with which they robbed the country is underlined by just one statistic: between January 2020 and March 2022, the Central Bank printed 23 times more money than in the whole of the period 1952 to 2020! The collapse of the rupee was guaranteed, and the great mass of the people now face the prospect of hyperinflation.

No wonder, then, that thousands besieged the President's house. Media reports emphasise that the protest was "spontaneous", there were no party banners, no politicians' speeches, just thousands of angry citizens. But, as Trotsky said of the February Revolution of 1917, "spontaneous" just means we do not know who organised it, or at least took the initiative in proposing it to friends, neighbours and workmates. Thousands of people do not suddenly all decide to do the same thing at the same time.

What is, unfortunately, certain, is that it was not working class parties or trades unions that organised it. That makes all too clear the failure of socialists in Sri Lanka to revive working class organisation, despite the many crises of recent decades. The trade union movement has fragmented into hundreds of organisations, most of them tiny and ineffective, while those who identify with the revolutionary tradition are divided into a range of small groups, even if they often call themselves parties.

Nonetheless, social crises on the scale that Sri Lanka is facing demand drastic solutions that could bring about a revival of the Left. Among those groups and trades unions there are hundreds, probably thousands, of people, men and women, who not only see the need for working class organisation but have a wealth of practical experience maintaining it against all the odds. No doubt the same is true of many local community groups, tenants', women's and students' organisations.

The task for socialists now is to encourage all such activists to organise collectively and democratically to defend their interests and rights, despite the Emergency and even the prospect of martial law.

All such mass-based, democratic organisation is important but the most vital is workplace organisation. Trades unions should certainly launch recruitment drives but mass meetings of all employees should be the basis for electing committees to represent the whole of the workforce. If the unions prove themselves effective, they will recruit, if they do not, they are not entitled to any automatic leadership roles.

The existing leaderships of the unions, particularly the bigger and more influential ones, have often proved to be obstacles to effective action in defence of pay, working conditions and jobs. All too often they are tied into government and business circles via political parties whose only real purpose is to represent business interests.

This is a fatal weakness in the trade union movement, and it has led some socialists to the idea that the trade unions should be ignored or, like the Socialist Equality Party, to the belief that the unions only exist to betray their members. Their answer is to denounce such leaders and try to build an alternative working class movement.

That is a bankrupt strategy. Denunciation from the sidelines makes no difference to the ability of those leaders to betray and to mislead. Their strength lies in the simple fact that they control important sections of the class whose work underpins the whole of society. But the other side of that coin is that those workers do expect some benefit from their membership.

Throughout the international history of the workers' movement, it has been shown time and again that removing such leaders is best done by mobilising those expectations against them. Instead of pointless denunciations, workers should put clear demands on those leaders, for example, at the present time, pay claims that include protection from inflation.

Every union member can see the importance of that, the crucial role of the socialist is to warn workers not to rely on their leaders but, rather, to organise to enforce their demands themselves if the leaders do not deliver, as they generally do not. This is where democratic workplace organisation shows its value; keeping everyone informed of progress, or the lack of it, discussing tactics, organising action such as demonstrations and demanding direct representation at negotiations.

In this way, a different, more reliable, more democratic leadership can be built - strong enough not only to replace the misleaders but to take on the bosses themselves.


Wherever possible, workplace organisations should coordinate their activities, with a perspective of drawing in other mass organisations to build local or town councils of delegates. Such organisations are essential, but they are not an end in themselves. One of their key tasks is to discuss and decide on a strategy, a programme, for the whole working class and the oppressed, to fight and defeat the government's offensive.

A proposal for such a programme has already been put forward by the United Socialist Party. Quite rightly, against Rajapakse's decision to accept the IMF's diktats, it demands, for example, cancellation of the debts to the imperialist banks, controls over the movement of capital, investment in essential industries, nationalisation under workers' control of banks and key industries, price controls and a minimum wage.

What is missing, however, is a clear political strategy for the implementation of these essential measures - because Rajapakse certainly is not going to implement them. True, the USP does call for the downfall of the present government, it does call for strike action, even general strike action, by the unions and it also calls for a "national people’s assembly to bring together all those in the struggle". Fine, but if a general strike did bring down Rajapakse, what then?

The USP programme is presented as a proposal, not an ultimatum, and in the same spirit, supporters of the League for the Fifth International would suggest workers' control should be integrated into all of its demands, both to ensure their implementation and to develop workers' ability to control the economy. Given the State of Emergency, we would also stress the need for workers' organisations to ensure the safety of their own demonstrations and meetings by training defence stewards.

More, we should emphasise the building of democratic workers' organisations, eventually workers' councils, in all districts and that it is these bodies that should convene their own "national assembly" to lead the struggle nationally. That struggle will not be just for the downfall of the Rajapakse clan but for the National Workers' Council itself to become the basis of government, ruling through the organisations built up in the current struggle, which will not be over quickly.

Winning support for such a strategy will not be spontaneous or automatic, it will take a determined struggle against alternative, supposedly safer or quicker, strategies. Those who see the need for a revolutionary strategy, whatever party, trade union or group they might be in today, need to organise themselves to fight for it in all working class organisations, as well as amongst the oppressed layers of society, women, youth, the national minorities. In this way, the approaching crisis can be the dynamo for the generation of a new, revolutionary, workers' party in Sri Lanka.