We caught up last month with Niyanthini Kadirgamar, a member of the Feminist Collective for Economic Justice, on the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka. The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity. (Sinhala)
How would you describe what’s going on in Sri Lanka? How did the country get to this moment of crisis?
Sri Lanka is going through the worst economic collapse. On the ground, people are facing hardships, including shortages of food items, long queues for fuel and regular electricity cuts for the last several months. Prices of essential items have gone up, while many have lost incomes. The situation is concerning in terms of food and nutrition with 70% skipping meals or reducing the quantity of food consumption. UNICEF has warned that one in two children need urgent help.
There are several reasons for how we got to this point. The current Government ignored the crisis, although signs emerged in early 2020, and did nothing to address it. Instead, they kept importing non-essential items, gave tax concessions to businesses and the rich and imposed an ill-advised fertiliser ban in April 2021, which has impacted the food supply. Sri Lanka has defaulted on all its foreign debt obligations now. 40% of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt is borrowings in International Sovereign Bond markets. The country no longer has enough dollar reserves to pay for imports or loans.
The crisis is also due to the longer trajectory of neoliberal policies since the late 1970s, including trade liberalisation, which has led to a large trade deficit. Sri Lanka’s economy depends largely on exploiting women’s labour for foreign reserves in the three main sectors – tea exports, garment manufacturing and remittances of migrant domestic workers. What did the government do with the borrowings and earnings in the post-war years? It spent on large infrastructure projects – building ports, airports and highways. It didn’t translate into job creation or enhancing people’s livelihoods. The agriculture sector has been neglected for so long and investments into social welfare like education, health decreased. So, I think the current crisis can be attributed to the neoliberal trajectory of policymaking, dependence on foreign loans, as well as the recent erratic policies of the Government.
As a part of the Feminist Collective for Economic Justice, you cowrote a feminist response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, which offers an assessment of the economic situation and its human impacts and argues for a feminist economic and political analysis. It concludes with several ideas for collective action. Do you see any of these actions being realised in the current movement?
The analysis out there did not reflect the dire situation people were facing, did not pay attention to women’s contribution to the economy and that women are again facing the brunt of the crisis along with working class folks. Government’s response was to go to the IMF for assistance, hoping to get a loan and access to international markets again, to borrow more. It also meant an austerity programme, only making things harder for working people and for women. The statement pointed out those points and put forward eight proposals, including setting up a food distribution system and that the Government should find the revenues for it. We proposed a wealth tax, because Sri Lanka has a regressive tax system and expanding the existing social security programmes. None of these things have happened yet.
Unfortunately, the government still hopes that the austerity policy is the way to go ahead. They doubled interest rates to control inflation, although the inflation we are facing now is due to high commodity prices. The Rupee was floated, hoping it would encourage remittances to be sent back home, but we have not seen a large increase in remittances. And they have frozen public spending for most sectors. Just yesterday, the Government announced that the the work week will be reduced to four days for the public sector, which includes health education, and many other essential services. So, what we are seeing is a move in the reverse direction to what we had proposed.
People are mobilising on the ground, however, and trying to support each other in whatever way they can. There are community kitchens being set up in different places, there are teach-ins happening in small groups. The only way people can survive this kind of dire crisis.
In the statement, you talk about, food sovereignty on the one hand, and also expanding government support and social services such as the Samurdhi system on the other hand. How do you see balancing self-determination with dependence on a welfare state?
A good question. During a crisis, the Government should not abscond on its responsibilities in terms of ensuring social welfare and investing in the economy, to stimulate the economy. The government has to increase direct taxes, including a wealth tax, as a way of redistribution. Samurdhi is the main social security programme. In Sri Lanka, 80% of the people are in the informal sector and as daily wage earners. The only guaranteed income they get is the cash transfer that Samurdhi provides – it is very important to them. However, there are issues with the way the programme is imagined – as a poverty alleviation tool, rather than a social security programme, which is what the people would want it to become.
As I mentioned before, the overnight ban on chemical fertilisers led to a decline in production in the last harvest season by 50% and only 20% of farmers are expected to cultivate in the next season. Prices of fertilisers have just skyrocketed and is just unaffordable for farmers. We are in a very difficult situation where the government doesn’t have the dollars to import essential food items. At the same time, the local food system has been badly impacted.
What we mean by food sovereignty is that even with such decisions, if the government had consulted farmers, and come up with a plan that does not disrupt the food system in this drastic manner, it would have been better. In terms of agricultural policies, the neglect over the years has really undone a lot of the system. Sri Lanka has a history of offering agricultural subsidies to farmers and also fishermen. In 1953, when the Government removed the subsidies, there was a massive general strike, and the parliamentarians were so scared to meet they had to meet in a ship out at sea. Now we are seeing the same level of disruption to the fertiliser subsidies, and in the last few months, we saw some of the major general strikes that have happened in this country since the 1950s.
Let’s, as your collective statement writes, put our ear to the ground. So far we have seen protests and strikes by teachers, farmers, factory workers, fishermen, and so on. and occupation sites or Gota Go Gamas across the country. What are the demands of the protestors?
The main demand of the protesters is that the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa should resign and the Rajapaksa family who have held many important positions in the government should also remove themselves from politics – this has been the one unifying demand. There is support for the abolishment of the executive presidency.
The protests, I think have to be viewed again in the long term. In the last few months, we’ve seen occupations in Colombo as well as in several other parts of the country, which are the Gota Go Gamas. Last year, farmers protested when the fertiliser ban was issued, a large teachers strike with the demand to rectify salary issues also happened. We’ve had a history of protests by different sections of the working class, by trade unions, by students. It is a culmination of many of those protests in the different parts of the country for various issues, including political issues. For example, in the North, calls for demilitarisation, to return land owned by the military back to the people, protests by fishermen who are impacted by trawling by Indian fishermen etc. Many different protests and people’s demands also vary. The economic concerns are central to all of them.
It’s good to note that, obviously, these movements are not monolithic. What else can be said about the composition of the ongoing movement? What sorts of intersections and contradictions can we observe, such as along the lines of ethnicity, religion, class, caste, gender, and sexuality? Who is missing?
The protests since March are unprecedented, I would say, in Sri Lanka’s history, because almost all sections of society have turned out, including the middle-class in Colombo, from the most affluent neighborhoods and those are continuing.
In the occupations, multiple conversations are happening. People who are critical of the current Government, there are minority groups, like Tamils who want more discussions and acknowledgement of the harm that was done to them in the last several decades. Muslims, who came under attack post-war, including during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Government implemented a policy of forced cremation of the deceased due to COVID. The Muslims, during the fasting period, came to the protests and would break fast at the occupation ground.
The protests have been very creative, both in the ways they have conveyed the message to the Government in largely nonviolent forms and for the diversity, persons with disabilities and speeches being made in the sign language, and translated the LGBTQ community, families of the disappeared, campaigning over issues that are of concern to them. There are contradictions too – people who will cheer the police and the military and others who feel very upset by hearing those cheers.
The spaces allow people to express themselves, to think, debate and be in dialogue with different groups of people. It somehow seems quite essential for, when we think the future of democracy in Sri Lanka, regardless of the immediate victories it may or may not produce.
What happened on May 9, 2022? Could you elaborate on the events that took place that day?What led to the ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family being burned, along with the homes of others MPs?
It began with the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the brother of the current president, inviting his supporters to his official residence in Colombo who, after the meeting, went on to violently attack the protesters, including in the main Gota Go Gama site in Galle Face, Colombo. The riot police were there but failed to control the crowd and we now know that certain government ministers were involved in instigating the people as well. The former prime minister has to take full responsibility for what happened on that day. This attack completely changed the atmosphere of what has been a largely non-violent protest for months. There was a reaction soon afterwards and violent backlash. Properties were burned mainly targeting the Rajapaksa family, ministers in the ruling party, their properties and businesses that were connected to them.
Property violence during protests and riots polarises opinion like no other, such as during the George Floyd and Hong Kong movements. What has been the effect of these events on the opinion of the people?
It was a reaction to the thuggery that was unleashed by the Prime Minister and the ministers who were supporting him. It did take us all by surprise to see that level of reaction. A member of parliament was killed. We have had a history of mob violence in the country, very often directed towards minority groups. The July 1983 riots was a major one against Tamils. There have been anti-Muslim riots more recently in the country. There was also fear that this whole incident can go out of control, but it was brought under control quite quickly. The incident has polarised the views among protesters, about how to approach thuggish violence and how a non-violent group can face it.
We have also had instances where the police and the military have brutally attacked protesters as well. Post-May 9th the atmosphere in the occupation sites changed, there is more antagonism and the movement has weakened. I think it is also due to the steps taken by the government. Soon after, a new prime minister was appointed, who did not even win a parliamentary seat in the last election. It was seen as going against the people’s wishes. Appointing a neoliberal Prime Minister along with an authoritarian President who have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The protests have been facing challenges since then, particularly repression and arrests of leaders.
You mentioned that there have been violent, even fatal, encounters between protestors and government supporters and the police. Has any of this led to calls for or thinking about police abolition, such as occurred in Hong Kong in 2019?
In Sri Lanka, protestors are often attacked by the police, with tear gas and water cannons, particularly student protests and sometimes with live bullets – on people waiting on long queues for essentials. The level of militarisation in the country is a concern. The Defence budget is significant, spending much more on defence than on education, health and social welfare. There’s been a long call to demilitarise, which has not come to pass even after more than 10 years since the war ended. There is a concern about the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has targeted Tamils and Muslims, arresting people without evidence and keeping them locked up for years. It is now being used on the majority community, the Sinhalese, on anyone who protests against the Government. We have not had calls for the abolishing of the police, but there’s been conversations about police brutality, torture in particular, and the need for police reforms.
That’s a good reminder that demilitarization is an important aspect of thinking about abolition. Rohini Hensman’s recent Jacobin piece, The Struggle for Democracy in Sri Lanka, gives an excellent summary of the political-historical context of the Rajapaksa party. Despite the failures of what Hensman called “bourgeois-democratic revolutions,” she points to broadly left-wing “nonparty entities” as a sign of hope for democracy and socialism in Sri Lanka. In your view, how would you describe the “Left” in Sri Lanka, especially beyond electoral politics? Does this temper your expectations with regard to the seven steps you urge the government to take in the Feminist Collective for Economic Justice statement? And do you share a similar hope in the nonparty entities?
In terms of the Left in Sri Lanka, there is a long history of a strong labour movement, from pre-colonial times in the plantation sector, which is the most economically and politically deprived community, they were disenfranchised after gaining independence and do not have land rights even now. The labour movement played a major role in the post-independence history until about the 1980s. Sri Lanka moved into a neoliberal policy regime and appointed an authoritarian president in the late 1970s. Strikes were organised against economic policies that were detrimental to working people. The Government broke the labour movement by sacking their leaders from jobs and the labour movement never recovered from that blow. Contributing to its decline, were the changes in the labour regime, precarity, outsourced labour in free trade zones etc. Some left parties are a part of the parliamentary process. One left party with some seats in parliament and there are other small parties. The sad things is that the Left’s position on the ethnic conflict has not been very progressive. They have opted to side with the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian nationalist governments.
I agree with what Rohini Hensman has said regarding bourgeois democracy. I also want to point to her recent piece on the Sri Lankan crisis. She refers to the “divided soul of Sri Lanka: while on the one hand has been brutal authoritarianism, on the other hand there is the stubborn pursuit of democracy”. I think that’s an important point to think about, even in this dire situation. Because despite everything, democracy has continued to prevail in the country. Sri Lanka has gotten rid of authoritarian regimes through democratic processes. Now, protesters are voicing their discontent towards what we thought was an unshakable authoritarian regime. Policies like free health and free education, which are unique to countries like Sri Lanka, have survived even after the country moved to neoliberal reforms. I feel that despite authoritarian tendencies, with the executive presidency and so on, we have also seen moments of democratic mobilisations and victories as well. It is something to hold on to.
In this process, I think the Left movement plays an important part. There is the need for a strong parliamentary opposition, and the Left needs to be part of building it. The non-party Left movement can also play a role because this crisis is going to extend for years. We have to start thinking long-term – like what do we do after we get rid of the Rajapaksas and this Government? I think that’s where the role of social movements, feminist movements and other movements become important. And any kind of formations, of collectives, working people’s movements and cooperatives should become central to whatever that is built for the long-term.
Do you think there is a lack of attention to the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka, and in particular from the international left? What avenues for international solidarity are there, if any?
I would say, yes and no. Attention has been received in the last few months in international media and by international actors. The crisis is due to Sri Lanka’s participation in international markets and in the solution being proposed also is via an international savior, the IMF. Some economists have predicted that Sri Lanka maybe the forerunner among many developing nations, who might default on their foreign debt. Historically, Sri Lanka was the first to introduce universal franchise in Asia, so the oldest democracy in Asia. We were the first in South Asia to move to neoliberal policies. Whether Sri Lanka is also going to be an experimental ground for solving the debt crisis is a question.
At the same time, I think what is important is the level of attention that can help build solidarity, among working people across borders, left groups, feminists etc., this is where I see the lack. There can be more conversations, in terms of building bridges among groups expanding beyond national borders. And I feel like there’s opportunity for more of it to happen — conversations like this — not the clickbait kind of media stuff. That’s there already, it’s not very helpful.
Okay, so last question. What happens after fire dies? If you would dare to dream, what would be your ideal outcome, and what would it take to get there?
We know that the next few months are going to be hard for Sri Lanka because of the food crisis. The economic crisis is going to last for some years. Warning people and being prepared for it is crucial.
The crisis is also an opportunity to think of the larger changes we want to see in the country. Encouragingly, there is more interest, awareness and awakening among a new generation of youth. It will be interesting to see the forms of resistance and social change they are going to come up with.
I think we should not get too stuck on how protests are being quelled right now. The longer history becomes important here, of how working people have constantly resisted in different forms and have created opportunities for change, which the ruling class have often squandered. But I think those struggles will continue, they’re not going to stop. And so how can we build on those struggles? How can we form broader coalitions for change? I feel like that’s where our efforts and our labour should be focused. I see hope in those possibilities.