The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the Alton and Glenugie estate plantation workers’ action committees in Up-cot and Maskeliya staged protests and demonstrations respectively on Thursday. The protests were part of a general strike across the island of millions of workers that day demanding the resignation of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government.
The central plantation districts have been totally shut down as workers across the region have come out and staged protests in all major townships including Nuwara Eliya, Hatton, Maskeliya, Up-cot, Bogwanthalawa and Haputale. Shops were closed in support and all transport stopped at noon.
Plantation workers have been hit hard by the Rajapakse regime which has imposed on the working masses the unprecedented economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. Demonstrations and strikes involving hundreds of thousands of people have continued across the country since early April in response to shortages of essential goods, mounting price increases and power cuts. The rising cost of wheat flour, rice, bread and kerosene had a huge impact on plantation workers.
Plantation unions, including the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), National Union of Workers (NUW), Up-country People’s Front (UPF) and Democratic People’s Front (DPF), like other Sri Lankan unions, have kept a stony silence on the brutality social attacks. Faced with mounting anger from plantation workers, plantation unions were forced to call on their members to join Thursday’s nationwide strike.
The political response of the SEP and the Estates Action Committees on Thursday was starkly different from that of the unions, which support the Colombo political establishment and work desperately to bind workers to the main capitalist parties. CWC leader Jeevan Thondaman was a minister in the Rajapakse government until April, while the NUW, UPF and DPF are partners in the parliamentary opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).
The Alton Estate Action Committee and SEP Demonstration and March, which attracted approximately 200 workers and young people, began at the Alton Estate. Most of the participants were women and young girls picking tea. Several young mothers carried their babies to express their anger at the appalling social conditions they currently face.
The protesters marched from the upper division to the lower division of the estate to the town of Up-cot where they were joined by other workers. They then marched to the nearby Gouraville estate where they held a public rally.
Banners carried during the march included: “Abolish the executive presidency, overthrow the Rajapakse government”, “Reject the interim regimes, fight for a workers and peasants government”, “For a socialist program, repudiate foreign loans”, “Build the international community “. working class unity, build action committees,” “Stop the US-NATO proxy war against Russia,” “Mobilize the international working class against capitalism.
Mr. Thevarajah, a member of the SEP Political Committee, addressed the rally, telling the protesters that the general strike was a culmination of the mass struggle against the Rajapakse government. Plantation unions, he said, had tried to ignore mass opposition but were forced to call a strike.
“The NUW, DPF and UPF are aligned with the bourgeois opposition SJB and are campaigning for an interim administration. Like the Rajapakse government, any future “interim regime” will implement the IMF’s restructuring program. It will be devastating to the masses.
“The only way out is to fight for a workers’ and peasants’ government based on an international socialist program. Plantations should be nationalized under workers’ control, as the workers’ government did when it nationalized big business after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Workers’ rights will only be upheld in this way.
“The Alton estate is a place where the treacherous role of the unions has been clearly exposed. The Horana Plantation Company, which runs the Alton estate, fired 38 workers on false charges. The management was only able to carry out this attack thanks to the support of the trade unions, in particular the Ceylon Workers’ Congress,” explained Thevarajah.
Another demonstration involving more than 750 workers was organized by the Glenugie Workers Action Committee (GWAC) and the SEP. The demonstrators marched towards Maskeliya, a main town in the region. Glenugie workers were joined by others from the Mocha, Deeside, Adams Peak and Brunswick estates. Mocha Estate workers marched approximately 5km to Mallihaipoo Junction where the protest began, linking up with others and then marching into Brunswick Estate.
K. Kandipan, secretary of GWAC and a prominent SEP member in the region, addressed the workers at Mallihaipoo Junction. He called for the ousting of the Rajapakse administration but insisted that the struggle must be based on the struggle for socialist policies and for a workers and peasants government.
The official political establishment and its parliamentary parties were rotten to the core, he said, pointing out that the unions defended the capitalist state and big business. Kandipan explained that workers should establish independent action committees to fight for their rights.