Sri Lankan police are systematically unleashing a crackdown on activists involved in nationwide anti-government protests demanding the resignation of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government, and an end to escalating social catastrophe.
The protests, which erupted across Sri Lanka in early April, were fueled by intolerable price hikes and shortages of essentials – food, medicine and fuel – and long power cuts. Tens of thousands of people, including workers, young people and the poor, gravitate to and occupy Galle Face Green, making it the main center of protest.
On May 9, thousands of Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) thugs from Rajapakse brutally attacked unarmed protesters at Galle Face Green and outside Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official residence, injuring around 100 people. The police did not arrest the thugs but allowed them to move freely. Police then used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the attacks, but did not arrest any of them.
The most recent victim of the police crackdown on protesters is Rathindu Suramya Senaratne, a leading figure among Galle Face Green activists. Popularly known as “Ratta”, Senaratne is an actor, filmmaker and regularly posts videos on YouTube.
Senaratne was summoned to the Slave Island Police Station where he was arrested on May 30, charged with unlawful assembly and obstructing police while participating in a protest outside the Colombo Fort Courts on May 25 . He was brought before a magistrate and released on bail of 100,000 rupees on 30 May.
In fact, the group, including Senaratne, were protesting outside the courts of Colombo Fort over the May 9 attack. The group demanded justice for the Galle Face Green protesters and the arrest of the other perpetrators of the attack.
A few days earlier, 14 demonstrators, eyewitnesses to the violent May 9 attack, were banned from traveling abroad and ordered to hand over their passports to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). The ban was issued by the court, following a request from the police. Among those targeted are Jagath Manuwarna, a famous teledrama actor, and Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest, both complainants in the May 9 thug attack.
Senaka Perera, head of the Committee for the Protection of Prisoners’ Rights and lawyer for those targeted, told the World Socialist Website (WSWS) yesterday that the order obtained by the CID for the surrender of passports was illegal under Sri Lankan law. He also said that he had just been informed by the CID that his agents were going to visit him to obtain a statement. It was part of the ongoing witch hunt, he said.
In a separate incident, Wekendawela Rahula, a Buddhist monk, was summoned to Walasmulla police station on May 26 and taken into custody. Police questioned him about a damaged statue in memory of President Rajapakse’s parents near their ancestral home, the burning of the house of the President of Walasmulla Pradeshiya Sabha (local government authority) and several other incidents .
Rahul, who denies any involvement in these events, has been a prominent environmental activist since 2005. He is due to appear in court again on May 31.
Police, under the pretext of pursuing people allegedly involved in acts of violence, including damage to the property of ruling party politicians after the May 9 attacks, arrested 1,808 people across the island. About 780 of these people have been remanded in custody. According to the media, the majority of those arrested belonged to lists of political opponents prepared by SLPP politicians and local party leaders.
These crackdowns, taken with the blessing of the government of President Rajapakse and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, are part of the regime’s preparation for a broader crackdown on workers and youth.
The May 9 thug attack was a deliberate provocation initiated by the SLPP leadership, particularly former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, to create a pretext for increased state repression.
The Galle Face Green protest movement has attracted the support of hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Millions of workers took part in a general strike on April 28 with another general strike and hartal (small business closures) on May 6 involving almost all sections of workers and the oppressed.
While the workers strongly demonstrated their determination to defend their rights, the unions called for these strikes to divert this anger under the wing of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). These opposition parties were calling for an interim regime to keep the mass opposition in secure parliamentary channels.
Terrified by this explosive movement of the working class, President Rajapakse imposed a state of emergency on May 6 with the power to mobilize the army, ban strikes, outlaw organizations, impose censorship and other undemocratic measures.
Thousands of workers and other sections of the population invaded Galle Face Green to oppose attacks by right-wing thugs on May 9. They demanded the immediate arrest of those responsible. Health, postal and port workers immediately went on strike, they were joined the next day by other sections of the working class, forcing the unions to call a general strike.
Violent reprisals also erupted in many parts of Sri Lanka in response to the May 9 attacks, with the homes of some ministers and MPs set on fire.
Rajapakse seized on this situation and deployed the army to the streets with orders to shoot on sight those who were deemed to be rioters. The unions immediately capitulated to these repressive measures and on May 11 called off an indefinite strike that had begun on May 10, a day after the thug attacks.
Fearing mass anger over the May 9 thug attack, Sri Lanka’s attorney general has ordered police to immediately arrest 22 people, including former ministers who planned and led the violent assault in Galle Face Green against protesters. Only eight of those named have so far been arrested. Former Highways Minister Johnston Fernando, for example, was summoned to police headquarters on May 24 but released after being questioned for five hours and taking a statement.
The Attorney General initially ordered the arrest of Deshabandu Tennekoon, the Deputy Inspector General of Police and responsible for Colombo. This order, however, was later amended to transfer Tennekoon out of Colombo. Nothing happened to ex-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, who reportedly gave a speech inciting SLPP thugs. He has just been “questioned” by CID agents.
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) immediately called for the mobilization of the working class to defend the protesters and their democratic rights and for all charges to be dropped. At the same time, he warned against retaliatory attacks.
A May 11 SEP statement said: “Without a progressive political perspective, outbursts of anger, such as those that led to the destruction of property on Monday evening, only strengthen the hands of the government and the reaction.
The SEP and International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) vehemently condemn and oppose brutal state measures aimed at suppressing anti-government protests. We urge workers to stand up for these activists, as part of a broader struggle to defend all democratic rights.
The SEP, however, does not support the policies of middle-class pro-capitalist groups leading the Galle Face protests. These parties have publicly called for an interim regime, general and presidential elections, and for the regime to resolve the enormous social crisis. These demands echo those of the SJB, the JVP and the pseudo-left Frontline Socialist Party, all of which are dedicated to defending the capitalist regime.
There is no solution to the immense social problems and the end of the suppression of democratic rights within the existing social order. The worsening social catastrophe in Sri Lanka is the product of the global capitalist crisis, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and now the US-NATO proxy war in Ukraine against Russia.
The unions played the main role in blocking any independent intervention by the working class, thus facilitating the draconian measures of the government.
The defense of all social and democratic rights can only progress through the establishment of workers’ action committees in each workplace, on the plantations and in all working-class neighborhoods, independent of the unions.
By mobilizing its independent strength, the working class can rally the rural and urban poor in the struggle for socialist policies: for the nationalization of banks, big business and large estates under workers’ control, and the repudiation of all external debts. The implementation of these policies requires the coming to power of a workers’ and peasants’ government, within the framework of the struggle of international socialism.