Katunayake Protest as an Invitation to Political Economy


Photo courtesy Vikalpa

[Editors note: For background on the Katunayake protests, read Protests in Katunayake Free Trade Zone: No police in sight]

The state sponsored triumphalist ideological noise of Sinhalese ethno-nationalism was suddenly disturbed, on the eve of the officially declared month for the commemoration of war heroes (ranaviru), by an unexpected eruption of workers at Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) into the political field. The majority of these were women workers who came from rural areas, effectively defying the sanctioned definition of traditional Sinhala women, as propagated by the current nationalist ‘truth-regime.’[1] Although the government media points its fingers at some political parties over the May 30th clash between thousands of workers and the police at the Katunayake FTZ, the protest campaign likely reflected the worker’s own fear and distrust of the Pension Bill, introduced by the government for private sector workers. A young worker died and hundreds were injured as a result of police gun fire, enraging trade unions, opposition parties and the critical public including even some sectors that supported the ruling regime in other respects. Reacting to this emerging opposition, the Rajapaksa regime has had to be on the defensive for the first time since its victory over the LTTE, and was forced to retract the present Pension Bill and promised a new one.

The events that unfolded on the Katunayake protest thus announced a possibility of change, in terms of trade union actions being able to prevail even in a context of strengthening constitutional authoritarianism, supported by a strong ethno-nationalist ideological imaginary in the South. It is interesting that this event grew out of political economy factors (not ideological factors), even while the mainstream politics had been distracted by the flood of ideologically over-emphasized issues such as the UN panel report, the Indo-Lanka Joint Statement, and the celebration of victory over the LTTE, so on and so forth.

There is no doubt that the Katunayake event raises many important questions regarding the country’s political futures and the changing nature of the existing political equilibrium. Putting those complex issues aside for a deeper analysis, this short article intends to draw attention to the way this event should be able to emphasis the importance of revisiting the political economy, within the current debates. I would take political economy here not in the old fashioned traditional Marxist sense of economic reductionism, but in an alternate Marxist sense of ‘doing concrete analysis of a concrete situation’[2]. An invincible legacy of the scholarly tradition of political economy is analyzing the concrete socio-political issues without overlooking their interconnectedness.

In the Sri Lankan context, such an interesting debate on political economy was seen through 1970s and early 1980s with significant contributions of prominent social scientists of the day like Newton Gunasinghe, S.B.D. de Silva, Charles Abeysekara, Mick Moore and Vijaya Samaraweera. The prominent issues addressed in their writings consisted of political transformation in the Sri Lankan state in 1956, open economy and its effects on ethnic relations, ethno-religious nationalist articulations of postcolonial capitalism, changing dimensions of caste and class, agrarian reforms and rural poverty. However, this debate on the political economy was gradually sidelined by the late 1980s by the emerging interest of identity politics and ideology of ethno-nationalism among social scientists and public intellectuals with the spread of ethnic civil war. As Gunasinghe correctly observed during this period, ethno-nationalist antagonism became one of the central overdetermining factors in the country’s body politic at least since the ‘black July’ in 1983[3]. This significant political change had its own consequences and, I would argue, it affected the scholarly and public discourses as well. Unfortunately, the dominant trend of social science researches in this period was likely to turn away from the political economic tradition of concrete analysis of concrete political economic issues towards abstract explanations of selected and isolated issues.

The NGO civil society politics mushroomed in the country, especially since the early 1980s, also has contributed towards the above trend. New themes of discussion like ethnicity and gender, conflict resolution and peace studies, identity politics, good governance, human rights, state reform etc. were introduced and promoted through the funding policies of International Organisations. It is also important to keep in mind that this was the time when NGO civil society politics, or so called ‘new politics’ spread around the global South as a result of a significant policy change of global financial regimes (IMF and World Bank) and ‘donor countries’ under the banner of ‘democracy promotion through civil society.’ As the Sri Lankan experience suggests, many leftist political activists and groups were absorbed into newly emerged NGO civil society politics that introduced them to new practices like writing and following project proposals, focusing on issue-based campaigns, reporting the progress to donors, which developed a new kind of political professionalism as a whole. In precise Althusserian sense, one can argue that, through the above mentioned material and institutional practices, the ideology and identities of the leftist social activists themselves were changed and one can further identify this as ‘NGOsation of the Left politics.’ Perhaps, when the ‘ideological Berlin Wall of the old Left’ collapsed in the late 1980s, Sri Lankan leftists found the radical issue-based campaigns championed by NGOs to be attractive.

However, as I argued throughout this short piece, within the dominant civil society discourse during the last two decades, isolated issues and institutional agendas, selected through funding policies, were highlighted at the price of concrete analyses of the existing political conjunctions. This might have paved the way for the failure of liberal and Left-wing civil society groups in calculating the real relations of power on the ground, in accounting the hegemonic potential of ethno-nationalist populism against a background of neo-liberal economic reforms and in predicting the defeat of militant Tamil nationalism and in conceptualizing the post-war political scenario. A self-critical acknowledgement of the above failures would be imperative in any attempt to reinvigorate democratic and progressive civil society politics in the country. It is in this sense that I would welcome the Katunayake protest not only as an important political manifestation but also as an invitation to a largely ignored legacy of paying attention to the political economy.


[1] Mahinda Rajapakshe, the president, is reported to say at the International women’s day celebration in 2010, that his government was ready to provide the ‘sacred place that women should deserve in the country’s national culture’ other than an equal place. He has further made a much controversial statement questioning the applicability of Universal rights principle within the Sri Lankan context; he has said that “under the current legal regulations, our cultural bond has been weakening, while the legal bond has been strengthened, because we have to follow the laws of the violence against women”, Lankadeepa, 10. 03. 2010: 5.

[2] It was Lenin who introduced this term ‘concrete analysis of a concrete situation’ in his much debated political writings. According to Althusser, Leninist concrete analysis takes into account multiple developments of economic, political and ideological layers of a given social formation and in that sense it goes beyond ‘economism’ that reduces all dimensions of cultural and political life to economy (Althusser, 1971, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press: New York).

[3] It is now clear that the anti-Tamil riots of July ’83 constitute one of the most important points in the recent history of Sri Lanka. A particular equilibrium within the Sri Lankan social formation has been irrevocably lost and a new equilibrium is yet to be achieved.” (Gunasinghe, Newton, 1996, May Day After July Holocaust, in Newton Gunasinghe Selected Essays, edited by Sasanka Perera, Social Scientists Association: Colombo).