14 July, 2024


Sri Lanka 2023: Anniversaries Of Struggle

By Quincy Saul

Quincy Saul

No matter what happens for the rest of this year, 2023 will go down in the history books of Sri Lanka. This year is like one of those astronomical alignments which only come around once every few centuriesNot only does the country face unprecedented crises this year; it also commemorates the combined anniversaries of major events that have defined modern Sri LankaThrough the lenses of these anniversaries, the struggles of 2023 come into fresh focus. They will come according to our doing

1893: 130 years ago, the first strike was called and the first trade union formed. The Ceylon Printers Union formed to bargain collectively with H.W. Cave and Co; it led sixty workers on strike because they hadn’t been paid on time. 400 joined the union which included Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher workers. The union’s leadership was fired and after six days the strike was broken – the battle was lost but the class war had only just begun. The printers fired “the first salvos in shattering the industrial peace of colonial Sri Lanka.” (Kumari Jayawardena) 

1923: 100 years ago, 20,000 workers joined forces in the first general strike in Sri Lankan history. Led by the Ceylon Labour Union and affiliated to the Ceylon National Congress, this was a turning point in history. What began in a small print shop had culminated in island wide economic power, and pointed towards politics. 

1933: 90 years ago, a major strike at Wellawatte Mills went on for two months. When the Ceylon Labour Union refused to support these workers, and even joined with employers to bring in strike-breakers and divide the workers on ethnic lines – they turned to the Left.  This strike signalled the emergence of anti-capitalist leadership in the labour movement. The same year, the Suriyamal Movement was launched; an island wide mobilization led by women which would lay foundations for Independence.  These movements grew together – large assemblies of women wearing red became a signature feature of every trade union action in this period.

Harthl – 1953

1953: 70 years ago, a country-wide decentralized movement of civil disobedience, sabotage and satyagraha erupted, known as the Hartal or Varjanaya. Provoked by steeply rising prices of rice, transport and new taxes, people were restless. Finance minister JR Jayewardene advised the poor to grow their own food and gave tax concessions to the rich. Left leaders called for Hartal; and the power of the people was unleashed like never before or since. Roads were blocked and bridges blown up. Trains were held hostage; tracks torn up; telegraph lines torn down. Women faced down police batons with kittul clubs. Black flags flew from Colombo to Jaffna. An anonymous policeman’s testimony tells all: “We are only six thousand; what can we do against eighty lakhs?” The police and army fired live ammunition but crowds didn’t disperse; they held their ground and sometimes fought back. The government leadership hid on a British warship in the Colombo harbour; they were right to be afraid. (Only a few weeks before Fidel Castro had attacked the Moncada barracks in Cuba; a general strike was sweeping France; and communist China’s first five year plan had just begun.) In Sri Lanka a united urban and rural working class had seized the commanding heights of the neocolonial export economy – transport and communications. Afraid of what they had started, the Left leadership called the Hartal off; hundreds of arrests began.

1963: 60 years ago, and ten years after the Hartal, the Sri Lankan working class reached the highest state of unity and organization to date. In April, recognizing that isolated strikes had been unsuccessful, the Ceylon Trade Union Federation convened the first conference of all unions. The Joint Committee of Trade Unions represented workers in every sector of the economy; private and public, clerical and manual, rural and urban. On May Day of that year there was a gigantic demonstration on Galle Face Green, the likes of which had never been seen before. In September, 800 delegates representing one million workers met and formulated 21 demands. A seventeen day strike at the Colombo harbour brought the point home. Its leaders were invited to join the government.

This article has not mentioned the names of the individual leaders associated with these events; nor has it interpreted these episodes of struggle. As Krishnamurti told Colombo, “an interpreter is a traitor.”(Sri Lanka Talks, 1957) The study and understanding of these events must be the work of the working class itself — as the meaning of history belongs to those who make it.  

How will these epic anniversaries be commemorated? Remembered with nostalgia? Forgotten with shame? Exorcised with fear? Celebrated with struggle? For context, President Ranil Wickremaeinghe has argued that the scale of the crisis facing Sri Lanka today has not been seen since the collapse of the Rajarata Civilization. This diagnosis and his prescriptions were articulated in the early days of his presidency and his counsel is clear: a shock doctrine of neoliberal reforms courtesy of international finance capital. What’s less clear is the position of the mass movement which unwittingly brought him to power. 

Not just Sri Lanka but the whole world is in a crisis of civilization. And almost everyone from the farms of India to the industries of France, seems to agree on struggle. “Aragalaya” has unique Sri Lankan characteristics but most countries in the world are facing major economic crisis and popular unrest. With struggles behind and struggles ahead, this year of alignments is a window of opportunity to reflect on what it all means. For this we are gifted with the vision of a far-seeing Sri Lankan named Ananda Coomaraswamy; who at the age of thirty wrote an essay titled “The Deeper Meaning of the Struggle,” now over a hundred years old but still ripe. Two years before Gandhi wrote “Hind Swaraj,” Coomaraswamy wrote about India; but since his idea of India included Lanka, I hope we are not unjustified in reading his essay from 1907 as if it were written for Sri Lanka today:

“The shadow of a coming conflict overhangs the [Sri Lankan] sky. It cannot be much longer postponed, certainly not indefinitely avoided, and the manner, and in some measure the result, will depend largely upon the wisdom and foresight of the opposing parties. Signs are not wanting that the struggle will be a very bitter one… a struggle is inevitable. Yet let us not while in the midst of it, forget its deeper meaning, as there is some danger that we may; we owe it to ourselves to make the issue clear… Episodes… are but the flashes that announce the conflict, they are not the struggle itself, nor do they explain its significance. What then is the deeper meaning of the struggle? …. [Sri Lanka’s] ancient contribution to the civilization of the world does not and can never justify her children in believing that her work is done. There is work yet for her to do, which if not done by her, will remain forever undone. We may not shirk our part in the reorganization of life, which is needed to make life tolerable under changed conditions. It is for us to show that industrial production can be organized on Socialistic lines without converting the whole world into groups of state-owned factories. It is for us to show that great and lovely cities can be built again, and things of beauty made in them, without the pollution of the air by smoke or the poisoning of the river by chemicals; for us to show that man can be the master, not the slave of the mechanism he himself has created. Let us not be tempted by all the kingdoms of the earth; granted there is much that we have not, which others have, and which we may acquire from them; what is the price to be? What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?… We are conscious that the best in us is sleeping still; but when the sleeper wakes, who knoweth what shall come of it? One thing at least we are certain of, that the awakening must be no waking in a prison cell, but that of a free man, ‘full of good hopes, of steady purpose, perfect strength.’ It is for this that we are stirred, for this that we shall suffer; and this is the deeper meaning of the struggle.” 

*Quincy Saul is an independent scholar currently living in Sri Lanka

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  • 3

    Q S says world in a crisis of civilisation. The reason is the denial that all humans under the one true God of creation, are really brothers and sisters in one family. This truth alone will put us into unity and not the artificial intelligence, trying to be immortal and do better than God. I hope our leader going into the Westminster Abbey for coronation, will meet the Spirit of the presence of God and be forever changed so as to not be a satanic dictator. The anointing oil prepared for the event, is from olives of Jerusalem and are specially blessed in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem being the city to which the King would return to rule in his kingdom. This final war of armageddon, descends from Megiddo to Jerusalem, not Washington, London or Rome.

    • 2

      The memoirs supplied by the present writer explained the course of our protests for decades if not centuries.
      It certainly dispels the doubts of many who cannot judge the reality of our people’s mentality.
      I am talking about the average in Sri Lanka. Used to overestimate who they are. They are nothing but slaves in every way.
      They are inflated with self-aggrandizement. By the end of last July 2022, all that had brought nothing. Those who thought their combination equaled LKY and Malaysia’s #s MM ended up like the defeated dogs hiding their their tails behind the rear legs. There too, the slave mentality of the people became clear because now nation#s number one criminal aka Mahinda Rajapaksa has been accepted again by the people. Can a brave nation ever do that?????????????????????????

      • 1

        Megddigo to Jerusalem must come to pass indeed and its about time ……..the Euphrates river is getting scorched.
        The decision is now at the highest pretorium …beyond the mounts.
        But is there any reverence for that anointing oil at the coronation? for the new king of England follows a strange line of earthly kingdoms being all things to all men…..will England lament the Balfour declaration or will every high thing come down ?

        Talking of the Tigris and Euphrates…..if there is no water cant we have petrol ?

  • 5

    “I hope our leader going into the Westminster Abbey for coronation, will meet the Spirit of the presence of God and be forever changed so as to not be a satanic dictator.”

    I think Sri Lankan President is going their to study how to make him as supreme King of dictators of this land until 2048.

  • 5

    The author should also give an account of historical anniversaries of riots, violence, insurgencies, wars, political coups of this island. Please see some below:
    1883 − 1883 Kotahena riots, Kotahena, Western Province
    1915 − 1915 Ceylonese riots, Kandy, Central Province
    1953 − 1953 Ceylonese Hartal, Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces
    1956 − 1956 anti-Tamil pogrom, Eastern Province:
    1958 − 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom: Also known as the ’58 riots.
    1966 − Demonstrations in Colombo organized by the SLFP, left-wing parties, and trade unions in protest of the Tamil Regulations Act
    1969 − Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist) conducted a mass rally in 1969 which ended in bloodshed, t

    1971 − Ceylonese protests against the Vietnam War:
    1977 − 1977 Anti-Tamil pogrom
    1981 − Burning of the Jaffna Library, Jaffna, Northern Province
    1981 − Anti-Tamil pogroms
    1983 − Black July Anti-Tamil pogrom
    1987 − 1987 Trincomalee riots, Trincomalee, Eastern Province:
    1997 − Kalutara prison riots, Kalutara, Western Province:
    On 8 September 1998, a riot was unleashed on Plantation Tamils
    2001 − Mawanella riots, Mawanella, Central Province:
    2002 − Beruwala riots, Beruwala, Western Province:
    2012 − 2012 Welikada prison riot, Welikada, Western Province
    2014 − 2014 anti-Muslim riots, Kalutara, Western Province:
    2018 − 2018 anti-Muslim riots:
    2019 − 2019 anti-Muslim riots:
    2020 − Mahara prison riot, Mahara, Western Province:
    2022 − 2022 Sri Lankan protests: All across the island, several protests erupted against the incumbent government of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa

    • 1

      “1969 − Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist) conducted a mass rally in 1969”
      Was there sch a party at the time?
      Can you please explain the meaning of ‘pogrom’?

  • 2

    This Quincy Saul is an independent scholar (what is that means) currently living in blessed land.
    Is it another NGO to go after the trade unions
    I lived with the PTA like many orher youngsters in late 70s round up the villages then take the youngsters as custodians parents dont have clue trumatize starts no records, we abandoned studies only to safe guard the life.flee…….
    This scholar may have different agenda not the core problems.

  • 2

    I do not understand the purpose of this article, but I notice a fascination with years ending in 3.

  • 0

    Before Megiddo to Jerusalem war, Rosh will progress from attacking Ukraine to joining Iran for armageddon. Rev.16,12 clearly shows the army of kings of the east travelling across the dried up euphrates river to join this war against the true creator of this universe, clearly showing the 2 sides. There is no unity of truth.

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