Photo courtesy of Statfor

The post war Sri Lankan state’s inability to fulfil the demands of global finance capital has devastated the lives of millions of Sri Lankans. This is a country where we see the socio-economic impact of the new period of capitalist transition that emphasised the private sector, markets and openness to global capitalism for more than four decades. The other dimension that has had a wide ranging impact on society has been three decades of a military strategy to consolidate the territory of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state. This began in 1979 with the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and sending troops to the North and was achieved in 2009. A full understanding of the social impact of this dimension needs a lot more research. If we add to these the impact of Covid and the economic crisis we get the full picture of the socio-economic issues that people within the state are facing. Of course, the impact of these issues is mediated through the social structure. Therefore socio-economically marginalised population is facing a worse situation, and their condition is bound to deteriorate further.

The media is full of analyses and answers to these problems. But as one of my favourite Critical Theorists Robert Cox who worked in international political economy says, all analyses are done for someone and for some purpose. There is no politically neutral analysis. The bulk of the discussion is geared towards restoring capitalist growth. Often this is accompanied by a desire for what is called political stability. But advocating political stability without defining how this is to be achieved, in a country where we have seen thousands of deaths through state repression, is not only dangerous, but downright reactionary. Rather than political stability, we need to talk about political legitimacy. A regime that has a greater degree of political legitimacy can give leadership to developing a new social contract, which is essential for Sri Lanka to face the current situation. This article is aimed at the social and political forces that have begun to challenge existing orthodoxies in the current context. These protests are found cutting across ethnic groups. It aims to combine social justice and pluralism and point towards new areas where progressive politics can be strengthened.

To begin, we need to consider the impact of more than four decades of the more liberal period of capitalist transition. The bulk of the economy is concentrated in the Western Province, which was better endowed to benefit from the new directions in the economy. Central Bank data shows that in 2019 these areas accounted for around 39 per cent of the total national output. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of 2019, which managed to cover the entire territory of the state because it was unified through military means, 11.9 per cent of the households in Sri Lankan live below the official poverty line. There is a great degree of variation in this indicator between districts. While Colombo district had 1.8 per cent of households below the poverty line, the Mullaitivu district in the Northern Province. it was as high as 39.5 per cent of households. This area has also been affected by three decades of armed violence. In reading this data it is necessary to remember that the poverty line, as defined by the state, measures a basic minimum a household needs for survival, although it is propagated as a great achievement in development. What these figures show is the proportion of the population who could not secure even this basic minimum.

With the deepening of capitalist relations of production there have been significant changes in the agrarian sector. The share of agriculture in the economy has significantly declined. In 1977, 30.7 per cent of the national output was from agriculture. By 2019 it had declined to 7.0 per cent. There has been a gradual deterioration in the viability of smallholder paddy. The 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Survey shows that only 8.6 per cent of income in the rural sector was from agriculture. Further reforms in capitalist transition backed by international actors will try to promote markets relations in state land. This will make it even more difficult for the smallholder peasantry to earn a living from their land.

The other side of this rural transformation is the growth of a population depending on wages. The growing working class is found in multiple socio-economic formations – organised, informal and sub-contractors. A significant section of this labour are women. Some sections of the working class sell their labour in other countries. While the working class has grown, institutions that protect their rights and working conditions don’t operate in many sectors. What existed in the past has been gradually dismantled. The effectiveness of these institutions depends a lot on the presence of trade unions. But the working class is not organised in all sectors. On the other side, business interests will continue to try and dismantle the remaining institutions that protect rights of the working class.

In a situation where wages become a major source of income, education and skills development becomes a critical area for social mobility. Since the state monopoly on education was broken in the new period of capitalist transition, the role of the private sector in education has expanded. This has become a new avenue where richer classes can ensure an education for their children. In addition, the state sector is not an equal system. Therefore, both private sector education and state education provides more opportunities for the richer section of population to provide a quality education for their children. The cumulative effect of these changes has been the growth of a significant level of inequality. Data for 2019 show that while the richest 20 per cent of the population acquired 51.4 per cent of national income the poorest 20 per cent had only 4.6 percent.

The answer to these socio-economic issues from those whose main agenda is restoring capitalist growth in the current context, is the same old idea of protecting vulnerable groups that we heard 40 years ago. The foundation of this idea is the notion of growth and trickle down. Sometimes these policies are called targeted safety nets. The argument is that these policies are meant to safeguard the poor from the impact of capitalist reforms. This is supposed to be the main role that the state should play vis-à-vis the poor – in the long run, economic growth would take place, and the benefits would trickle down to the poor. The analysis that underpins these ideas always focuses on households in isolation from the structures of socio-political power that maintain this population in this condition in the first place. Therefore, it takes us away from the need to tackle the reasons for marginalisation.

During the new period of capitalist transition that emphasised markets, private sector and openness to global capitalism, all sections of the population did not accept these ideas of safety nets propagated by the political elite and their international backers. That is why there have been struggles in various sectors, such as the urban working class, plantation working class, sections of small holder peasantry and fisheries to improve their living conditions by challenging the structures of power that maintained existing the social relations of production. The entry of women’s’ groups into these struggles added a new dimension. Of course, there were setbacks, such as state repression of the July 1980 strike. At present what is needed is to take a close look at this experience, learn lessons and look for possibilities of reviving these struggles.

Finally, it is necessary to pay attention to the austerity measures that are sure to follow an agreement with the IMF. In approaching this question, it is important to remember what we have is a post war state. The result of more than four decades of the new period of capitalist transition and three decades of armed conflict has been the growth of armed forces and proliferation of state institutions at several levels. Today the institutional structure of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state has institutions at presidential, parliament, provincial, districts, sub-district and local authority levels. Almost all these levels include elected members and a bureaucracy. In addition, institutions of the central state have undergone numerous divisions. One of the reasons has been the need to maintain coalition regimes and large cabinets. The strategy of the political elite has been to divide state institutions and distribute them among coalition partners. The state is bound to give priority to ensure resources for these institutions in implementing austerity. The objective of progressive sections should be to focus on how policy changes will affect the marginalised, and counter possible negative impacts.

If we are to go by past experience, the politics of economic reforms to ensure capitalist growth need not be peaceful. We need to remember that the state has draconian laws and a better developed security apparatus to meet any challenges to these reforms from society. As in the past, the political elite is more likely to use this repressive apparatus to achieve their own political objectives, rather than aim towards political legitimacy through a new social contract.

Beyond reconciliation

Policy discussions on social justice should not ignore the political demands that have been raised by ethnic minorities right throughout the post colonial period. While the political elite inaugurated the new period of capitalist transition after the 1977 elections, the Tamil minority demanded a separate state in the same election. One of the responses of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state, that presided over the new period of capitalist transition was to enact a Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), establish a discourse of terrorism and send troops to the North East. This military effort lasted for 30 years, and in 2009 the territory of the centralised state was consolidated. But none of the major issues in relation to minorities and the centralised Sinhala nationalist state have been resolved. In fact, in some areas the situation has worsened for example, with the Muslim population becoming a target of extremist violence.

At present some of the key aspects that the ensure security of the post war state are maintaining the strength of the armed forces, continuing a presence of armed forces especially in the Northern Province at a level higher than when Tamils demanded a separate state and keeping the PTA in the statute books. In this context various activities under the title of reconciliation become an element to stabilise the post war state.

The focus of reconciliation is society, rather than nature of the state and state-society relations. Although there is an element of prejudice and animosity between identity groups in Sri Lanka’s conflict, they exist in a context of a centralised Sinhala nationalist state. Ignoring this within the discourse of reconciliation means ignoring the need for fundamental state reform focusing on its identity, public policies and structure to suit a multi-ethnic society. What we need is not a nation-state with a unified identity, but a state that has space for multiple identities. Its structure and public policies have to fit into this vision.

Given the socio-economic impact of the economic crisis that is affecting all ethnic groups at present, there is space to focus on a strategy where diverse ethnic groups come together to struggle for common socio-economic rights. This can give a new meaning to reconciliation and combine social justice with a vision of a plural society. There are scattered examples of this happening already. For example, every year we see demonstrations by the mothers of the disappeared from the North (victims of the military strategy to consolidate the territory of the Sinhala nationalist) and South (victims of the state repression in 1989-90). There have been some links between them. But this certainly can expand. During my work in the North East after the war ended, I have seen examples where people from a Tamil village and adjoining Sinhala village come together to lobby state institutions to restore their land documents. Another example is Muslim and Sinhala villages coming together to lobby about supply of water in the irrigation canals. There can be many such examples that can built upon. These are small examples. In the current context there is space to build on this strategy.

I would like to emphasise the need to get away from an analysis that places class and ethnicity in isolated compartments when dealing with the problems of the marginalised in Sri Lanka. In this regard my best personal experience has been when working with the plantation working class/Hill Country Tamils. There was no way one could separate ethnicity and class at analytical or political level when working with this population. The struggle for political, socio-economic and right to a distinct ethnic identity had to go together. This is an experience that we can learn from.