National Sections of the L5I:

Sri Lanka: united demo builds on May Day success

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On May 15, 5000 demonstrators marched across the heart of Colombo, from Campbell Park to the main railway station at Fort, to demand a reversal of the government's 65% price hike in the cost of electricity. As news of the size of the march spread, a gang of government supporters who were waiting at Fort melted away.

The demonstration was supported by a range of trades unions including those with political affiliations like the Commercial and Industrial Workers' Union in the United Federation of Labour, (Nava Sama Samaja Party, NSSP, the section of the Fourth International) the Joint Health Clerical Workers' Union and the Socialist Plantation Workers' Union (Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, SPSL, section of the League for the Fifth International) the Jathika Sidaka Sangamaya, affiliated to the main bourgeois party, currently in Opposition, the United National Party, UNP, and even unions affiliated to the Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, LSSP, which support the government of Mahinda Rajapakse, as well as the Health Trade Union Alliance and the Teachers' Union, both of which are politically independent.

Two weeks after the joint workers' May Day rally, which attracted 1,000, the range of support for the demonstration, which was also backed by the JVP and the United Socialist Party (Sri Lankan section of the CWI) reflects the widespread anger at the price rises which will hit the poorest, hardest. The fact that even unions that are normally pro-government found it necessary to support the demonstration is the clearest evidence that they are under pressure from their own rank and file members.

Nonetheless, inviting figures like Ranil Wickremasinghe, the leader of the UNP, to address the rally at the end of the demonstration was wrong and can only spread confusion amongst the mass of workers. The UNP is the traditional party of Sri Lanka's bourgeoisie. Having been trounced by Rajapakse at the last elections, it realises it has somehow to win mass support if it is ever to gain governmental office again. If successful, it will govern in the interests of the rich and carry out the policies of the IMF and World Bank just as Rajapakse does and just as every UNP government in the past has.

Giving Wickremasinghe the opportunity to present himself and his party as "friends of the masses" is an unprincipled breech of the principle of working-class political independence. And this was no one-off error, a mistake made in the confusion of a growing political mobilisation. On the contrary, it is the publicly stated policy of the NSSP, or at least its General Secretary, Vickramabahu Karunaratne, which sees the building of the Vipaksaye Virodhaya, the “Common Opposition”, a cross-class popular front, led by Wickremasinghe, as the key strategy for defeating Rajapakse.

This is not only unprincipled for a Marxist but even in terms of the game of parliamentary politics it is foolish and self-defeating. If even those who call themselves revolutionaries say that the UNP can be trusted to lead the fight against Rajapakse, why should workers join, or vote for, a small socialist party with no chance of "winning", instead of a big and well-financed one that can win?

Of course, in Sri Lanka, just as in other countries, amongst the less organised and less class conscious sections of the working class, there is support for liberal and conservative parties. The only way to overcome that is to heighten the contradiction between the material interests of the workers and those of their current leaders. That is why the SPSL is calling not only for demonstrations and speeches against the electricity price rises but for united strike action by all the unions, up to and including an all-out general strike, to force the government to back down and, ultimately, out of office. In that struggle, the workers will see who is really on their side.