Sri Lanka: Meaning Behind Our Instinctive Struggle 

The crisis was created by the rulers and a few company owners who joined hands with the rulers. Billions and trillions were borrowed. As of today, the per capita loan alone has exceeded the limit of 1.1 million. Nothing was done with the loans received.

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Student activists are demanding the immediate release of their leader, Wasantha Mudalige, the author of this article [ Photo: Thilina Kaluthotage]

2022 is over, and a new year has dawned. It is the 140th day that I have been in prison for labelling terrorists who committed economic crimes, killed people and maintained a murderous culture while the real terrorists were free. Not only me but there are also other people in prison who fought for a better society and demanded economic and political change. I know that even if many people are not imprisoned due to the repression of the government, they do not have the freedom to do their daily activities normally.

We cannot remove the year 2022 from history like removing the calendar from the wall. Because that was the year we learned. The year people knew about the power of the people. It was the year when it was proved that many things that were thought impossible and said could not be done could be done through teamwork. 2022 did not just pass. That is why 2023 did not just begin. The new year starts with the inspiration of many historical achievements of the past year.

We as a people are facing the most profound economic crisis we have faced in our lifetime. The country is bankrupt. The expectations of an entire society have been shattered. Especially the youth. The dreams of life have been devastated to the point of not being able to understand what will happen and what to do. Daily wage workers, plantation workers and construction workers have lost their sources of income. Farmers are unable to farm. Fishermen have not been able to find even their daily meals. Government employees and private sector employees are unable to live on the wages they get. Another aspect is that even the middle-class people who had previously built a certain standard of living in society have collapsed in the face of the crisis. In reality, a situation has been created where the middle class will be abolished. In the midst of all this, the existence of only a limited class has been confirmed, which plunged society into a huge economic crisis. A petty political group and a group of companies have only managed to gain profits even in the midst of the crisis.

The crisis was created by the rulers and a few company owners who joined hands with the rulers. Billions and trillions were borrowed. As of today, the per capita loan alone has exceeded the limit of 1.1 million. Nothing was done with the loans received. Funds from those loans were also stolen. People have been robbed of their tax money. Through indirect taxes levied on goods and services, 85% of the country’s total tax burden is paid by people who cannot even get their daily meals provided. While those people have paid all those taxes, the income-earning companies and capitalists have not paid even the meagre 15% tax they are bound to. From 2015 to 2019, this group evaded tax payments of 41,4400 million rupees. Today we are told that there is no money to allocate for education. There is no money to give for health and transportation. According to the government, the mistake is not that the rulers stole but that the children are studying. The fault is that people get sick. It is not the robbers who are punished, but the victims. Therefore, today this country has become a country where mothers commit suicide because they cannot buy their children’s school books. This has become a country where people are waiting to die, knowing they have fatal kidney disease, heart disease, cancer and no money to buy medicine. This has become a country where parents watch their children die of malnutrition. This country has become a country where university students drop out of their courses because they cannot pay the boarding fee.

So what else could we do without struggling against injustice? Are we supposed to eat something given and sleep looking at whatever is happening? No, as the people, we decided to fight. The entire society decided to put an end to the cowardly history that had tolerated this situation and turned the whole system upside down. The student movement intervened to play a crucial role in that people’s struggle from the beginning. We brought the slogan “Let’s overthrow the government – turn the system” into a struggle. With that slogan, we said what should have been done. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s disgraceful government, which made people completely helpless, should have been sent home. We should not stop there and overthrow the old political and economic system. That proposal and that expectation are still valid today. Representative democracy, which appoints people to parliament every five years as people’s representatives, has failed. It has been proven in the face of the struggle. Ranil Wickramasinghe, who could not even win a position as a Member of Parliament, became the President. What more examples to give about the deception of representative democracy? A Constitution with holes enough to allow a loser like Ranil to sneak in and sit in the presidential chair, for sure, does not represent the people’s expectations.

The economic and political crisis that arose was created by the political system that ruled the country for so long and by the rulers who governed that system. A crisis that was developed step by step. Therefore, the people should not be responsible for this crisis at all. The people did their best for the country, whether they had food to eat or not. When the people do that, the rulers steal the people’s assets as much as possible. This is why the traditional political system was rejected in front of the people. Since then, the hope of the people has been the struggle. The struggle in which the majority of the country’s people participated, regardless of colour, party, race or religion, introduced new dimensions to Sri Lanka’s politics. Instead of the illusion of representative democracy, the struggle allowed the people to try the sovereign power of the people. Therefore, we must win the people’s expectations in that struggle. What did the people say through the struggle? The rulers give us the money they stole from us. Companies to pay evaded taxes. Banks to recover from one who has not repaid massive loans. In 2020 alone, 10,500 million bank loans defaulted. We said that we needed a program to set up a fund and provide emergency relief to the people. The executive presidency should be abolished. A new Constitution is needed to accept the power to recall representatives, the power to call referendums, and education and health as fundamental rights given to the people. Briefly, this is as follows. We expected from the struggle;

1. A society with economic equity

2. Democratic reforms that are directly related to people’s governance

3. A political and economic policy that is responsible for society and the environment

People struggle with those expectations. However, we have not been able to fulfil those expectations yet. After Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sent, Ranil became the President after making constitutional coups. Now the Ranil-Rajapaksa junta is doing the same old work even faster. People are being taxed. Everyone who turns 18 years old is going to have a tax file. A large part of the salary of professionals who earn more than one hundred thousand rupees monthly is going to be cut. This is done when large-scale companies have evaded billions of tax money. Electricity bill increased by 70%. This year too, the electricity bill is going to be increased by the same amount. That means the price of goods will increase in comparison to that. People who are still eating one meal a day will starve to death after that, when hundreds of billions of export earnings are hidden outside the country when billions of stolen money are sent out of the country as revealed in the Pandora Papers, when tax money and loan money default, more burden is placed on the people without even a word about it. Even education and health rights are sold. People’s assets are being sold.

To cover up their incompetence, the government has started an extensive slander campaign against the struggle. Other pro-government parties, intentionally or unintentionally, have started slandering the struggle saying that there was no leadership in the struggle, no plan for the struggle, and had no purpose etc. However, in the midst of all this, we urge people not to allow those allegations and complaints to undermine the value of the struggle. This is the most successful struggle in the history of our country that we all did together. This is just the beginning of the struggle. It is not over yet. The rulers wanted to prevent the struggle from spreading from here to the final victory. At the very beginning, the struggle brought many accomplishments to this society.

1. The struggle built confidence in the people’s power to appoint governments and send governments home.

2. The struggle gave experience to this society about methods of experimenting with people’s power outside of institutions like parliament.

3. The struggle succeeded in defeating the politics of the Rajapaksa family, who dreamed of being in power forever.

4. It was possible to defeat the political tradition maintained by using prejudices based on religious and racial grounds.

These are the fundamental achievements that the struggle gave us. With the foundation of these historical achievements, the year 2022 ends and the new year 2023 begins. With that experience, the struggle must be continued until a final victory is achieved. The year 2023 dawns with that message. Therefore, I request all the people of my country to choose the struggle for your right to life. Do not kneel before government repression and economic pressure. Unconditionally, come the streets in an organized manner. Let’s fight for our lives. Let’s fight for our future generations. As a student movement, we are ready to make any sacrifice for the rights of people in this country.

Victory to the struggle!

01.01.2023 | in Colombo remand prison

Views expressed are author’s own

Wasantha Mudalige

Wasantha Mudalige is a prominent student leader and an education rights activist. He is the convener of the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) which has been a prominent force in the ongoing peaceful protests linked to the economic crisis, but also raising broader issues of governance, corruption, and accountability.

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