A government-organized attack by armed thugs on Sri Lankan protesters camped at Galle Face Green in central Colombo yesterday was set to pave the way for a much wider crackdown on the month-long anti-government protest movement . It turned against him.
Using the violent attack as a pretext, President Gotabhaya Rajapakse imposed an indefinite nationwide curfew and mobilized the military, sending armed troops to Galle Face Green to bolster the heavy police presence already in place.
Far from suppressing the opposition, thousands of people angered by the violent attack defied the curfew and the heavy police and military concentration to invade Galle Face to show their solidarity with the anti-government protests. Across the island, hundreds of thousands of people are said to have taken to the streets to do the same.
Sections of workers, including health workers from the Colombo National Hospital and postal workers, spontaneously stopped work to take a stand against the government’s actions.
Mass protests have taken place across Sri Lanka over the past month demanding the resignation of the President and his government and an end to the social catastrophe facing workers due to soaring prices, power outages prolonged power outages and shortages of essential items, including basic foodstuffs. , fuel and medicine.
Workers are forced to queue for hours or even days. Many are finding it increasingly difficult to provide for their families and are reducing the number of daily meals. There is a worsening breakdown of essential services. Hospitals lack medicines and equipment. Transportation becomes prohibitive.
The wave of opposition from the working class forced the unions, which had initially done nothing, to call one-day general strikes on April 28 and again last Friday. Friday’s strike, complete with what is known as a hartal, a blanket shutdown of small businesses, has crippled the economy. Millions of workers across the island have stopped working, including in free zones, hospitals, schools, public administration and transport.
The strike was particularly significant as workers united across communal lines – Sinhala and Tamil, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist – around their common class interests. For decades, especially in times of crisis, politicians in Colombo have stoked anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim chauvinism and staged communal provocations and pogroms to divide working people against one another.
The strong support for the general strike and the hartal sent a chill of fear through the entire political establishment – government and opposition as well as the unions, who were clearly shocked by the scale of the support.
Late on Friday night, President Rajapakse, who already has the sweeping powers of the executive presidency, imposed a state of emergency allowing him to mobilize the army, impose curfews and censorship, carry out arbitrary arrests and ban strikes and demonstrations.
As the government prepared to mobilize the army, unions called off an indefinite general strike due to start on Wednesday, replaced by limited lunchtime protests by workers. By demobilizing the working class, the unions only encouraged a desperate government to act.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the president’s brother, yesterday rounded up hundreds of Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) supporters, many bussed from other parts of the island, to his official residence in the center of Colombo. After a deliberately inflammatory speech, they were sent in armed with sticks and clubs, first to attack protesters outside the residence and then those occupying Galle Face Green about a mile away.
The police, though armed with tear gas and water cannons, did nothing to stop them until the Galle Face Green rampage was over. More than a hundred people were hospitalized with injuries caused by the thugs.
What the Rajapakse brothers did not count on was the angry reaction of large sections of the population ready to defy the curfew and the security forces. As the scale of the opposition became apparent, Mahinda Rajapakse tendered his resignation as prime minister, thus disbanding the cabinet.
President Rajapakse has now called on all parliamentary parties – government and opposition – to form a “national unity government” to find solutions to the country’s unprecedented economic and political crisis. The country is facing an acute currency crisis, meaning it has very limited funds to buy imports, including fuel, and has declared “temporary default” on its large foreign loans. The International Monetary Fund has insisted on draconian austerity conditions for an emergency rescue loan that will only deepen the social crisis facing workers.
The entire political establishment in Colombo – opposition parties, trade unions, business representatives and media commentators – pin their hopes on the formation of an interim or national unity or multi-party government to find a way to demobilize or quell workers’ protests. , young people and the rural masses.
To date, the main opposition parties – the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – have insisted that the president resign before considering joining or supporting an interim government to prepare for elections. anticipated. Under the impact of the events of the past few days, they could well reconsider their decision. Undoubtedly behind closed doors, frantic discussions are taking place in ruling circles to patch up such a government.
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) in Sri Lanka has warned workers not to trust a capitalist caretaker government. The opposition SJB and JVP parties have a history of imposing IMF austerity dictates and will do so again, just as ruthlessly as the current Rajapakse regime, given the chance.
The violent attack on anti-government protesters underscores the urgency of the SEP’s call for workers to form action committees, independent of the unions, in workplaces, plantations and working-class suburbs across the country. island in order to mount a unified campaign for their class interests.
The SEP has developed a series of demands that these action committees can fight to ensure that resources are used to meet the pressing needs of working people and not to satisfy the profit demands of the super-rich. These include taking control of the production and distribution of essential goods, controlling prices and measures against price gouging, indexing wages to inflation, defending jobs and the repudiation of all external debts.
The formation of a network of action committees and the struggle for these demands lead inexorably to the political struggle for a workers’ and peasants’ government to restructure society along socialist lines. The crisis in Sri Lanka demonstrates most acutely the incompatibility of even the most basic needs of the working class with the profit system.