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Sri Lanka: Rajapakse and the return of dissent July 2011


The Rajapakse regime’s tested strategy of responding to all criticism through the propagation of and identification of conspiracies, scapegoats and ‘traitors’ might now be reaching its limits – dissent is seeping into the body politic.

Himal, July 2011

The last two months in Sri Lanka have seen increasing international pressure coupled with domestic struggles against Mahinda Rajapakse’s government. In fact, in the post-war context, other than perhaps General Sarath Fonseka’s challenge during the presidential elections of January 2010, which split the war coalition in the south, these recent weeks have been among the most worrying of times for the Rajapakse regime. International criticism centring on questions of post-war accountability and political reconciliation has suddenly coincided with anti-government domestic mobilisations by a range of actors – from workers challenging the government’s pension schemes, estate workers calling for wage hikes, university teachers moving on strike actions and student unions opposing leadership training by the military for university entrants. While President Rajapakse’s strategy might be to wade through these difficult times until the criticism and resistance begin to subside, the question remains as to how a government that has won thumping victories in presidential, parliamentary and local government elections over the last two years has had to face such mounting challenges.
International criticism has been rising since the UN released a report in April accusing both the government and the LTTE of wartime abuses. While Sri Lanka has been wooing India to counter Western pressure, New Delhi now seems to be shifting towards a more critical stance. Indian officials have called for an end to the state of emergency, the need for Colombo to address human-rights concerns and to move on genuine reconciliation, along with a constitutional settlement to address the grievances voiced by the island’s minorities. The recent election of Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu has augmented this pressure with a call for sanctions against Sri Lanka. Although Jayalalitha could well be posturing for a deal of her own with the Congress-led government in New Delhi, differences on the constitutional settlement for the minorities could put Sri Lanka on a confrontational path with its massive neighbour.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council sessions in June discussed Sri Lanka, adding to the run of international condemnation. Though a resolution at the UN forum is unlikely anytime soon, the posturing of the larger powers around the Human Rights Council, along with a recently launched damning documentary by Channel 4 in the UK that exposed the army’s brutalities during the endgame of 2009, has again put Colombo in a corner. So why is Sri Lanka in such a position just two years after the war?

Everyday economy
Many analysts inside Sri Lanka have been critical of the lack of coherent foreign policy on the part of the government, coupled with increasing politicisation of the Foreign Ministry. Not long ago, government ministers attacked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and yet the government supported his second term. Likewise, while the government claims to be seeking New Delhi’s support, President Rajapakse’s Sinhalese-nationalist allies have virulently attacked India for calling for a devolved political settlement.

The lack of a coherent foreign policy is also symptomatic more generally of the Rajapakse regime’s narrow post-war vision, whether in relation to the minorities or, for that matter, workers’ rights and the economy. Over the course of June, Sri Lanka’s universities became a hotbed of dissent as lecturers, calling for substantive increase in their salaries, began strike action. The government’s efforts to railroad ‘leadership’ training in military facilities for university entrants has led to increasing criticism not only by student unions but also by the broader academic community and society more generally. The move is seen as an attempt to irrevocably militarise Sri Lankan society. In the tea plantations, demands for substantive increases in wages have for the moment been neutralised through a small increase of the minimum wage, but this might not be the last of the agitations by plantation workers.

Perhaps the most dramatic development in recent months was the massive protests that broke out among garment workers in one of the country’s major ‘free-trade zones’. This was due to a government attempt to force through a pension plan that would require all workers to give over an additional two percent of their wages – without guarantees of gaining from it in the future. Trade unions organised anti-government demonstrations, and the police resorted to firing live bullets into the protesting crowds, injuring many and killing at least one. The mounting criticisms and protests led to a significant surprise: the 1 June retirement of the chief of police, Mahinda Balasuriya, specifically due to what had taken place in the free-trade zone. Despite this removal, the government has continued to claim that the protests were instigated by the political opposition, particularly the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Such pat dismissals paper over the structural problems simmering underneath the Rajapakse regime’s economic and political vision, currently focused solely on major development projects. In coming up with these pension provisions, for instance, the increasingly authoritarian government deigned to consult with neither workers nor unions.

The war is no longer an excuse for the government to ask the workers to tighten their belts, and class issues as well as the criticism of the government’s economic policies are likely to become further aggravated in the years ahead. The Rajapakse regime’s tested strategy of responding to all criticism through the propagation of and identification of conspiracies, scapegoats and ‘traitors’ might now be reaching its limits – dissent is seeping into the body politic. Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had historically positioned itself as a party concerned about the ruler and urban poor, and is particularly vulnerable to labour struggles that undermine its social base. While, the political opposition remains in shambles, underlying social and economic problems facing state and society are likely to emerge in the form of struggles shaping social consciousness. While international pressure continues to be important, and has indeed been a serious irritant for the regime, ultimately it is domestic struggles – around day-to-day bread-and-butter issues linked to workers struggles and democratisation – that may reshape Sri Lanka’s post-war future.

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