Building a Left Wing in Sri Lanka

Building a Left Wing in Sri Lanka

GreenLeft Weekly interviews Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne, general secretary of the NSSP - Feb 1995

The Nama Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) of Sri Lanka was formed in 1977 by people who were a faction within the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). In the 1960s the LSSP had a very large base within the working class and among peasants. However, during its coalition with the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) in government, it moved further and further to the right. After 17 years of rule by the conservative United National Party (UNP), last August a coalition of the SLFP, LSSP and other smaller parties in the Popular Alliance (PA) was elected to government. The NSSP stayed outside of this alliance. In this interview, Dr VICKRAMABAHU KARUNARATNE, general secretary of the NSSP, talks to MICHAEL TARDIF and SUJATHA FERNANDES of Green Left Weekly.

Question: How has economic policy changed under the PA government compared to the UNP government?

The election of the PA was a victory in the sense that it was a show of strength by the masses. It also opened the way for a politically free atmosphere. Emergency regulations have been removed, and there is freedom of expression and freedom to demonstrate and to strike.

When the PA government was elected, the employers were very frightened, as they thought that this would lead to an abandonment of the Open Economic Policy that was being followed by the UNP government. However, the PA government's new policy statement, released on January 6, quickly dispelled these fears. The PA has the same economic advisers as the UNP - the World Bank. As well, the minister for state policy and economics is a member of the UNP who crossed over to the PA.

There are certain changes in social policy which are designed to bring some relief to the rural sector. They have taken back some casual workers from the agricultural sector and made them into full-time public sector workers. They have implemented some aspects of their welfare policy.

Yet the PA has used its base of support in the masses to expand the economic policy of the UNP. The UNP were scared to enter the rural sector and implement World Bank policies, whereas the PA is making use of its current support base to hit back at the rural sectors. For instance, under its recent policy statement it has started to remove the barriers for multinationals to enter the rural sector. It has removed the land ceiling for agribusinesses wanting to go into the rural sector.

We can expect to see a rise in unemployment and also unrest and agitation by those affected. Already, disillusionment with the PA can be seen by the growth of the NSSP.

During the August elections the NSSP stayed outside the PA and were isolated. Papers supporting the PA depicted us as betrayers for not joining the common struggle and they denounced us as agents of the World Bank and multinationals. Our members in rural areas were too frightened to come out as NSSP members. Our position was that people should vote for PA or left, progressive candidates in places where we didn't stand. We offered critical support for the PA during election time. Now people are starting to turn to us as they see the PA selling out.

Question: Can you describe the political composition of the PA?

The most important party in the PA is the SLFP, which started out as a populist liberal-bourgeois party. We now characterise them as a radical bourgeois party along the lines of the Indonesian Communist Party or the Indian National Congress.

The other parties that make up the alliance are the reformist Communist Party, the LSSP, the new Maoists who have turned reformist and the Tamil Workers Party.

Question: What is the strategic approach of the conservative UNP towards the PA government?

In the implementation of the Open Economic Policy, the UNP is collaborating with the right wing of the PA. It has supported the right-wing measures of the government, such as the anti-labour laws and emergency laws. The UNP also supports reform of the constitution as long as its original dictatorial nature is preserved. For instance, they will reform but not abolish the dictatorial presidency.

The present period may be a honeymoon period for the PA government, but it is also a honeymoon period for the UNP, literally. Recently the UNP leader was married and held several large parties for all the parliamentarians, including PA cabinet ministers.

The UNP moved onto the PA after seeing the mass following that it had and its strategy now is to try to gain positions within the PA government.

Question: What strategies have been adopted by the left in relation to the PA government?

The reformist left is trying to carry out radical reform within the PA. But increasingly they can do nothing; the right has a firm hold within the PA.

Outside there are two main radical movements, the NSSP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). In the north there are also the agitations of the extremist Tamil Tigers.

The current strategy of the NSSP is to lead all of the struggles breaking out against the government and lead them to the creation of an alternative. We are trying to bring together all of the left forces, both inside and outside the PA government, to form a left alternative.

The JVP has taken a typically sectarian attitude. They don't participate in the present struggles breaking out amongst the masses. Their only area of work is within the student sector. Through our movement, the Ceylon Student Federation, we are working with the JVP, trying to bring them into common struggle with the workers.

Question: What is the significance of the present anti-World Bank campaign in exposing the PA?

After the Open Economic Policy statement, the workers were the first to come out against the new government, and the peasants also followed up with agitation. On January 17 this came together through the anti-World Bank rally. This campaign started as a pressure movement to support the PA; however, after we intervened and put forward our ideas, the right wing in the campaign walked out. Those leaders who simply wanted to turn the campaign into a support group for the PA also walked out. Our success was shown on the day of the rally, when the right was extremely isolated.

On the day of this big rally, the JVP organised a separate student rally demanding hostel accommodation. This was a deliberate manoeuvre to prevent workers and students from acting in solidarity.

Our strategy was to participate in both rallies so that they did not become opposed campaigns but rather parallel campaigns. We used the student demonstration to raise awareness about the World Bank issues. In this way we are trying to work with the JVP and the peasantry and other sectors breaking with the PA.