A few days into the month of May, the country is further polarized and in disarray. The internationally recognized May Day itself was officially postponed in Sri Lanka from May 1 to May 7. And May 1 was marked by yet another cabinet reshuffle worsening the persisting confusion and lack of any initiative from a crippled Government. New corruption scandals keep erupting, leaving the people puzzled and disillusioned.
Furthermore, the month of May also marks nine years since the end of the war, and there could be some ideological manoeuvring in the South and the North as the war anniversary is observed by some as a mark of victory and others as a reminder of devastation.
Even though May Day should have ushered in solidarity for working people, in Sri Lanka the month of May seems to be a month of divisions.
By all accounts, the May Day marches on May 1 had a defiant spirit as workers took leave from work and marched. It exposes the political chaff that are only concerned about patronage. Certainly, those who march on May 7 are beholden to political parties rather than workers’ causes; and as with previous years, such May Day marches are merely the crass display of numerical strength of political parties. Arguably, there may be much wanting in the politics of the actors that organized the relatively smaller rallies on May 1, but it nevertheless provided for more genuine concerns of the rights of workers. Furthermore, the rallies of the independent trade unions in Colombo have become an energized annual affair with possibilities to form new and broader alliances.
However, these independent trade unions also have a long way to go, in addressing concerns of women’s leadership and bilingual reach. Why is it that the speakers in such rallies are exclusively male and primarily monolingual with only Sinhala speeches? While “man power” workers have found solidarity, some farmers and fisher-folk have joined the independent rallies and women’s demands were aired on May 1st this year, questions remain about the trade unions capacity for inclusion and solidarity. The trade unions face major challenges in shifting their politics towards the informal sector workers, rural working people, women’s rights and minorities concerns – both in terms of their own organizing work and their capacity to bring about social change through broader alliances.
There is increasing lethargy in the Government and lack of political will to accelerate the economy and urgently address the day to day economic problems
Corruption and theatrics
While the working people in the country have many economic grievances including rising cost of living and diminishing state services, the trade unions, including the independent unions have yet to put forward an alternate economic programme. Trade union demands have remained narrow and reactive to their own conditions and challenges such as ensuring wage increases. They have yet to put forward far reaching redistribution demands including policies to strengthen social welfare. Indeed, with national elections due in another year and a half, this would be the time to float such a progressive economic programme to initiate major debates on transforming the national economy.
However, the public discourse is not conducive for such economic thinking. Corruption has become the main if not the only supposedly economic issue to be discussed in the media and even parliament. It is as though if corruption is eliminated the economic problems will be solved. Furthermore, economic policy changes have been reduced to changing the ministers and ministries. Without a broader shift in economic policies, including to reach those who are excluded and exploited, changing ministerial heads and subjects is akin to old wine in new bottles.
There is increasing lethargy in the Government and lack of political will to accelerate the economy and urgently address the day to day economic problems. That too after the wake-up call of the local government elections. The nationalists in the South and the North, on the other hand, are predictably going to mobilize the theatrics of “war heroes” and “martyrs”, even as the public discourse next week shifts with the country marking the end of the war on May 18. Such nationalist mobilizations and posturing by the political mainstream will not only polarize the country but also detract from addressing the economic issues.
Disruption and alternatives
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, which was given a broad mandate to address the countries woes in January 2015, through its own commissions and omissions has brought about its own decline and lost a golden opportunity to address the national question. Even as the Government struggles to set its course for the remainder of its term, the Rajapaksa-led opposition’s strategy seems to be one of ungovernable disruption. That strategy has been working well over the last year for the Rajapaksa opposition as it makes electoral gains in tandem with the economic paralysis and political indecisiveness
of the Government.
The programme of the working people, unlike that of the narrow nationalists and politically ambitious opposition, cannot be merely one of disruption. Rather any progressive movement including the trade union movement has to build peoples power with an alternative economic and political vision. Would the independent trade union alliance that marched on May1be up to that task?