|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 185 February 2015
Sri Lanka’s new and uncertain times
Much to the relief of western capitalist powers, the newly elected Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, has been sworn in. This followed his narrow but momentous victory over Mahinda Rajapakse. Sirisena has announced sweeping reforms to ‘clean up’ government in Sri Lanka and to satisfy the basic needs of many sections of the population. In what appears to have been a carefully managed transfer of power, Ranil Wickeremasinghe, the leader of the right-wing United National Party, has become prime minister. A number of other ministers in the Rajapakse government have been replaced.
The whereabouts of Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother, Gothabaya – the former minister of defence whose hands are mired in blood and corruption – are unknown. He is said to have tried to prevent, with soldiers under his command, the announcement of Sirisena’s victory, but other sections of the army were already on the side of the victor! It is widely anticipated that former army commander Sarath Fonseka, a rival candidate to Mahinda Rajapakse at the last presidential election in 2010, will be given the job of defence minister after new parliamentary elections now scheduled for April. Fonseka, like the new president, was responsible for giving orders to Sri Lankan forces as they massacred the minority Tamils at the end of the civil war.
Nevertheless, because of pressure from below and in order to consolidate support, this new team is trying to give the impression that they constitute a new broom to sweep away the remnants of the corrupt and dictatorial regime of the Rajapakse clan. They are promising a golden period of economic and political reform. Indeed, Sirisena’s list of 100 measures to be achieved in 100 days is impressive.
He promises to benefit almost every section of the population. Public-sector workers’ wages will be increased and petroleum prices will be reduced. Teachers and pupils will enjoy an environment free of military control. Women will receive a better deal as will Free Trade Zone workers and the families of the many Sri Lankans working abroad. Education spending will go from 1.7% of the budget to 6%. The free health service will be overhauled.
The small clique at the top around Rajapakse is to lose all its opportunities for graft and cronyism. Whether some kind of trial will be organised for Mahinda Rajapakse himself is not certain. The new president was, after all, a close collaborator in government and secretary of Rajapakse’s party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Parliamentary elections are to be held at the end of the 100 days (in April or May) supposedly on a reformed electoral system.
How far the new team will go in changing the politics of Sri Lanka and its international alliances is unknown. But it is clear that, because of its strategic position, western imperialist powers and India favoured a ‘regime change’, particularly to rein in the influence of the Chinese regime on Sri Lanka’s economic and foreign relations. China had given succour to Rajapakse financially and militarily, unencumbered by concerns for democratic rights, war crimes tribunals, etc. Sri Lanka is strategically important as a base from which to guard China’s trade routes – the development of its ‘Maritime Silk Road’.
India’s right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi, was one of the first world leaders to greet the victory of Sirisena, signalling a "recalibration away from Beijing", as the London Guardian put it on 10 January. A number of luxury building projects are being reviewed as well as the construction of a new port city near the capital, Colombo. Other Chinese investments – in roads, airports, harbours, etc – will no doubt go ahead but the US and European powers, as well as the IMF, will look at reviving trade, investment and loans.
The many pledges in the Sirisena programme in relation to press and media freedom, freedom of speech, the ‘independence’ of the judiciary, and so on, are a welcome sign that, if implemented, trade unions and political parties of the left will be able to operate and organise without the vicious state repression of the recent period.
State sponsorship of white van abductions and of murderous racist thugs like the anti-Muslim Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) may end and equal rights are promised for all races. No explicit promise has been made to open the refugee and prison camps that still hold thousands of Tamil-speaking people, but it has been stated that land and housing are seen as a priority for all displaced persons. Even the super-exploited Tamil tea plantation workers are to have new homes to replace the infamous ‘lines’ in which they have been forced to live for generations. Small farmers, fishermen and trishaw drivers have been promised pension and other rights they have never enjoyed before.
This all sounds too good to be true. (And even the Pope has visited the island, giving his blessing to the project!) But much of it may not be implemented. The economy has been going ahead at more than 7% in the recent period and defence spending could be reduced dramatically to finance the health and education spending increases. However, capitalist economies worldwide are suffering a long-term crisis and China’s growth is slowing. Also a very strong camp of Sinhala chauvinism will not remain passive.
During the presidential election campaign, the United Socialist Party put forward the need for public ownership and socialist planning to assure jobs and welfare for all. It now has a unique opportunity to explain the barriers that exist in a capitalist dominated society like Sri Lanka’s to the fulfilment of Sirisena’s promises. Moreover, explaining how the independent mobilisation of workers and young people is necessary to ensure the implementation of these promises and to transform society.
In a record turnout of over 81%, Maithripala Sirisena has been elected on the basis of large votes from Tamils and Muslims, as well as swathes of the Sinhala majority population who wanted the Rajapakse clan off their backs. If he does not deliver on his promises, the Rajapakses, who still have a large layer of support in the Sinhala-dominated south, may yet try to make a comeback. Their astrologer-advisers will have to work harder next time round to get it right! Meanwhile, the United Socialist Party has a unique opportunity to build on its support and get its socialist policies known countrywide.