By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Sri Lanka is witnessing the biggest social movement ever in my lifetime: the protest of the peasantry. It is not devoid of political backing and the embedding of cadre, but it was not born because of any political effort. It would not have been possible for any political party or combination of political forces to have awakened the peasantry and roused it to mobilize in these numbers.
Certainly, the August 1953 Hartal or peaceful working people’s uprising was the strongest ingathering of social forces in our post-Independence history, and the peak of a powerful Left movement, but that was before I was born.
The volume and velocity of the peasant protest has made it a Movement; the first ever peasant Movement on the island. We have had strong workers’ movements and student movements, but never a mobilized peasantry; never a peasants movement.
The father of that movement is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, which is partly appropriate because his father, uncle, cousins and brothers were all elevated by their ties with the peasantry, but in this case the peasants are resisting and rebelling against, not for, a Rajapaksa.
The peasants’ movement is the best chance that Sri Lanka has to halt and reverse the dangerous negative trends underway, ranging from the slow-motion collapse of the economy to the rapid erosion of democracy and the journey towards the Myanmar model.
The power of a peasants’ movement should never be underestimated in the global south and especially in Asia. Mao rose to prominence as a young Communist because of his essay ‘Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan’. The secret of Mao’s political success and indeed the victory of the Chinese Revolution was because of a paradigm shift he effected in orthodox Marxist-Leninist political strategy, including of the Chinese Communist Party, which was focused on the cities.
There are many traps the Opposition must avoid, to prevail over this regime.
1. Don’t regard the Gnanasara issue in isolation: it is not only to resume the project of ultranationalist dominance, it is, more pressingly, an attempt to change the terms of the current situation by diverting attention from the peasant issue and those of the workers, teachers and students. It is an old tactic of splitting and deflecting if not diverting the protest churning in the largely Sinhala populated heartland. To this end the regime is striving to place the ethno-religious issue at the top of the agenda, displacing what is a far more serious threat, namely the accumulating socioeconomic issues. The Opposition and dissident opinion must link the anti-racist, anti-dictatorial, anti-militarist causes with the socioeconomic struggles of the peasants and workers, anchoring the former in the latter.
2. The struggle against the regime’s despotism must have as its main axis, a worker-peasant alliance as the main axis of a bloc of working people and students-teachers-principals. This requires getting the timing right; synchronize the struggles: true, “absolutely everything develops unevenly” said Mao, rendering Lenin more poetic, but it is vital that the workers struggle doesn’t peak too soon –for instance a blackout over the Yugadhanavi issue—and draw repression, which then deprives the peasant struggle, which is the main force, of the role of potentially the leading element, namely the urban workers. The teachers and principals movement seems to have understood this, and adopted better tactics than headlong confrontation.
3. The Opposition and the Resistance must lose all evidence of the old “Toiya’ mentality and the notion of a “baiyya/toiyya” struggle. Today it is not the “toiyyas” but the “baiyyas” who are fighting the regime and posing the most serious social threat to it. Don’t stay stuck in the urban social enclave. The action has manifestly shifted and is in the countryside.
4. Even in the urban areas, the emphasis must be the needs and demands of the economically hard-hit; not the well-off.
5. The ex-UNP Opposition mustn’t remain within the consciousness and agenda of the past quarter-century, of the Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNP. It must not inhabit the 25%-30% vote bank of the UNP constituency. It must grasp the reality that even today, if the choice, were a Ranil Wickremesinghe UNP vs a Mahinda Rajapaksa SLFP or SLPP, the vast majority of voters probably wouldn’t opt for the former. Those SLPP-SLFP voters cannot be won over by the discourse of the UNP of the Yahapalanaya (2015-2019) and preceding CFA (2001-2004) years.
6. The tectonic shift of the Sinhala voters of 2019-2020 won’t snap back entirely and automatically, however bad the economy gets, to that 2001-2004/2015-2019 UNP agenda. It is because JR Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa knew this that even while the awful economic policies of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Dr NM Perera were causing such immense suffering to the masses, they didn’t expect the voters to automatically shift and therefore totally revamped and repositioned their party.
7. If those Pohottuwa/ SLFP voters who regard themselves however inaccurately as “left” (“Vamay”), “progressive” (“pragathisheelee’) and “patriotic” (“jathika/deshapremee”) are to be won over, the ex-UNP has to shift to a progressive center i.e., a moderate-nationalist center-left.
8. The Opposition must pivot so as to politically supply the mounting “social demand”. A technocratic perspective, free-market economics, hoorays for the lifting of price controls, and shout-outs to the IMF, won’t achieve that. The program, platform and discourse of the Opposition must be much more ‘national/patriotic’ and Populist –representing the 99%–than technocratic/free-market fundamentalist.
9. When SWRD Bandaranaike split from the UNP and formed the SLFP, he and his fellow founder-members didn’t think of themselves as ex-UNP or as building a party which was the successor of the UNP. They built a new force, carving out a new, Center-left space; a Middle path between the Conservative Right and Marxist Left. Thus, they succeeded in attracting voters from right and left.
10. The strategy must be a replay the national-popular bloc constructed by Ranasinghe Premadasa which was far from (a) JRJ elitism (b) DB Wijetunga “majoritarianism” or (c) Ranilian ‘minoritarianism’, but a platform and discourse of and for the “have-nots” plus a multiethnic, multireligious, multiethnic approach. Today’s democratic Resistance must be built from and represent the social movements, i.e., the people’s movements, that have already arisen. These must be replicated in every social sector and every locality until a grid covers the whole social topography and national terrain. The democratic Resistance must be a “Movement of movements” representing the “99%”.