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As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

There has been some mystery surrounding the Foreign Policy of our governemnt for some time now. Increasing signs of ‘disturbing’ alliances with ‘antagonistic’ nations such as Iran, Russia and China during the war and subsequent post war events especially in the Human Rights department have got a lot of people wondering why we are so openly going against the West. The following article from the Sri Lanka Guardian sheds some light on the whole affair. Cheers to Zack for the link.

The position of the governments of India and a group of states that can collectively be called the Periphery, such as the U.S. and Australia, were in support of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers, either overtly or covertly. Many of these governments also provided this support tacitly, so as not to close any future opportunity of co-opting Sri Lanka after the fighting was over.

(…)In contrast, the governments of a group of states that can jointly be called Eurasia as a collective entity, such as Iran and Russia, supported the Sri Lankan government. The polar nature of the support by Eurasia and the Periphery for the two different combating sides in the Sri Lankan Civil War betrays the scent or odour of a much broader struggle. This is a struggle that extends far beyond the borders of the island of Sri Lanka and its region.

Why is this so? Much of the answer to such a question has to do with the formation of a growing alliance in the Eurasian landmass against the international domination of the U.S. and its allies.(…)In 2009, the last chapter of the Sri Lankan Civil War was very much a theatre within this process.

– Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, Sri Lanka Guardian October 29, 2009

Read the rest or continue for a quick summary

There is growing division among the West and countries of the ‘Eaurasian’ coalition of which the main stakeholders are Russia, China and Iran. Sri Lanka is caught between a power struggle between Western and Eurasian nations due to its strategically important location in a key supply chain line connecting the East with the rest of the world. The West has either wised up to this long ago or had their own ideas of its importance as evidenced by Diego Garcia; a key military base jointly held by the US and British armed forces situated approx 1000 miles exactly south of Sri Lanka.

The LTTE was seen as a threat to the Eaurasian alliance cementing their control of Sri Lanka, as a ‘Balkanized‘ SL would have meant instability and a possible loss of control to the ‘periphery’. So support was provided to the Government of Mahinda Rajapakse to help it eradicate the LTTE. This was not seen in a friendly light by the West and aid from that region declined at a tremendous pace; almost as fast as aid increased from Iran and China. In 2008, within the military framework, Chinese aid reached $1billion while US aid dropped down to $14million. Iran chipped in with interest free loans and extended support fot the GOSL to get its crude oil situation sorted out.

This Eurasian Alliance formed along the lines of the Primakov Doctrine (which chiefly advocates a ‘nonpolar’ world) has formed the ‘NATO of the East’; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) of which Sri Lanka has become a ‘dialogue partner’ (see right on SCO wiki page). The Hambanthota ‘harbour’ under construction is really a Chinese naval base; A part of the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy to strengthen its military power in the region to secure its supply chains originating from the Mid East and Africa. 

Now the primary interests if the Eurasian states lie in consolidating their influence in Sri Lanka. They need to ensure that a government friendly to them will remain in power in order for them to do this. End of summary.

Given this context, some light is shed on the possible underlying reasons why the president is now referring to Gen Sarath Fonseka as a traitor. We will probably see some strong propaganda coming out of Temple Trees soon to the effect that the General is trying to undo all the hard work put into winning the war in a selfish and frustrated bid for power. Both sides will try and keep all details of foreign influence out of public campaigns; Sri Lankans are notoriously paranoid when it comes to interfering foreigners. But when the dirtypolitik that our campaigns are famous for raises its head, everyone will get a chance to sniff at the garbage.

Back to this emerging Cold War; it does not seem to be abating as some leading local intelletuals seem to think. The recession drove home the importance of economic buoyancy and the increasing need to compete for resources has only emphasized fears of possible threats to independence and security, leading to a need for powerful nations to start preparing for a possible big one.

The West will try its best to preserve the already changing status quo. And they do not want to be faced with a powerful China, Russia or Iran if and when push comes to shove. So they will obviously try and take pre-emptory measures to reduce the possible impact an Eurasian opposition would have in a next Great War or series of mini conflicts that will encompass a sustained Cold War. And the Sri Lankan elections, to the minds of both sides, will be crucial in securing power in the important shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean.

In a setting like this, a small country like ours probably has no other option but to sell its soul. The war has divided our society too greatly for us to be able to unitedly stand against foreign influence. Plus, in a globalized world where we rely so much on foreign help for economic sustenance, staying non aligned for long is a virtual impossibility. Especially when we are caught in such a geopolitically strategic location in the tug of war between two powerful opposing forces.

The best we can do is keep playing a dangerous game to ensure that we keep getting the benefits. But a Faustian game is a tough one to play and you don’t always get rescued by heaven. In the real world Mephistopheles usually caps yo ass, or you get your ass capped because of him, one way or another.

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