The Tsunami Disaster and Politics in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was one of the countries worst affected by the tsunami disaster. The government is now trying to exploit the situation to its advantage, but the huge wave that struck the country has brought out many contradictions and prepared to further destabilise an already very unstable regime.

The whole world is aware of the disaster that occurred on the 26th of December. The “Tsunami”, which hit more than 14 countries, left in its wake a trail of death and destruction. Sri Lanka was the country most affected next to Indonesia, where the earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, occurred. The earth tremor that generated the Tsunami not only slowed down the rotation of the earth for a moment but also considerably changed the pace and sequence of events in the Sri Lankan political arena as well.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunge (CBK) and her PA-JVP (Peoples Alliance – Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) led alliance re-gained parliamentary power in April 2004. However, they were facing a host of woes by December, a bare 6 months after assuming political power. The continued rapid increase in the cost of living and inflation had resulted in increasing criticism and public dissatisfaction. The government was also adversely affected by the rise in oil prices and the devaluation of the Sri Lankan Rupee. Although the PA-JVP alliance had won the general election in April, they could not secure a majority in parliament, even by October. This resulted in their failing in their bid to elect the Speaker, who was finally elected from the opposition. After lot of manipulation and financial wheeling/dealing the alliance was able to buy over some of the Members of Parliament (MPs) belonging to minority ethnic groups, and were finally able to announce that they now have the necessary parliamentary majority.

The alliance could not re-start the peace negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), because of sharp and open contradictions with regard to the “peace process” within the alliance. The peace negotiations had been successfully initiated by the short-lived United National Party (UNP) regime in December 2001. Within the alliance itself, the JVP was openly opposed to the Norwegian brokered “peace process”, while the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), one of the main parties within the PA, was oscillating. Since the international community had tied up all financial aid to SL with the “peace process”, the JVP-PA alliance was not receiving any meaningful foreign aid, which in turn meant that most of the planned or ongoing economic development activities, were threatened. In addition to all of the above, the LTTE was threatening to resume hostilities, which meant a resumption of war in the North and East. The co-chairs of donor countries were terrified of these developments and had issued ultimatums to the Sri Lankan government.

It is in this backdrop that the Sri Lankan government submitted their first budget in November. At first glance the budget appeared to be a people-friendly, welfare budget, which silenced a lot of criticism, both from the opposition and the general public. However, although the wording appeared as people oriented, when analysed more deeply, the budget was an `empty’ one, which aimed at short term gains and with no concrete means of fulfilling its promises. It talked about concessions to various sectors and the implementation of many projects, but gave no indication as to where the money was coming from. Given the scepticism of both the national business community and the international community of the government’s handling of the peace process and the economy, and the ultimatums issued by donor countries, the government would have been hard-pressed to implement its people-friendly budget. If they had persisted in trying to do so, they would have had to face accelerated inflation which would have in turn resulted in price hikes, more internal taxes and high interest rates.

Panicking from all of the above and the possibility of a revival of UNP popularity, the government cast about frantically for some diversions, in order to get the public off their back. The President imprisoned one of the UNP stalwarts, S.B. Dissanayake (SBD), a former close associate of CBK, who had crossed over to the UNP in 2002. The UNP however, managed to launch a successful protest campaign against this arrest. So at the time the tsunami washed away most of Sri Lanka’s coastal areas, the PA-JVP led alliance was facing an extremely difficult situation on all fronts. We all know that wars and natural disasters can act as catalysts in socio-political processes, so as mentioned earlier, the tsunami disaster also changed the pace and sequence of political events in Sri Lanka.

Today the catchword in Sri Lanka is Tsunami! Tsunami! Tsunami! Price hikes, the resumption of hostilities by the LTTE and the imprisonment of SBD etc. are temporarily at least, forgotten. The tsunami disaster surely was an unprecedented one and everyone is still in a state of shock and horror at the extent of the devastation. People have lost their lives, relatives, properties and income sources. Entire families have been washed away and words are not capable of explaining the situation. But the government does not seem to be lacking for words, whatever else they may lack in terms of leadership, political vision and integrity.

Initially the government was in an absolute panic. At the time the tsunami struck Sri Lanka, CBK was holidaying in London, while her brother, a parliamentary minister, was holidaying in Los Angeles. The Prime Minister (PM), Mahinda Rajapakse, was in Sri Lanka, but under the current constitution, the PM is only a nominal head, with all executive powers vested in the President. The government, the armed forces and police and all other emergency personnel were in a state of shock and immobilized. But temporally, slowly and steadily, the government gained control of the situation. The state media cooperated by working together with the government to keep the people in their most desperate and passive state by continuously giving coverage to heart-breaking incidents.

The overwhelming response by the international community resulted in emergency supplies flowing into the country, thus relieving most of the government’s immediate burden – that of providing relief aid. Needless to say, the government started capitalizing on this international sympathy and support. Medical teams, emergency teams, medicines, supplies and funds have flown in from abroad, while motivated Sri Lankan workers voluntarily renovated bridges and roads and worked around the clock to restore utility services. Responding to a call made by trade unions, approximately one thousand railway workers have already restored about 30 kilometres of the southern railway line, which was absolutely devastated and washed away by the tsunami. These workers are continuing their unbelievably rapid restoration work and extending the southern railway line further down the coast. Civilians voluntarily shifted debris, cleaned up hospitals and schools, handled decomposing corpses and provided food, shelter and clothing to the thousands of affected people. So the government has had a very easy time. They have been doing what they always do best – smile for the cameras, give interviews and pretend that things are happening due to their efforts. The government is capitalizing on this situation in order to obtain more sympathy and support from every part of the world.

However, we believe that the unexpected respite that the government has gained out of tsunami waves will evaporate soon. The government media are full of reports of the amount of aid being received. Yes, but it is relief aid, not development aid. In another twist of irony, because of this media coverage of international aid being received, the enthusiasm and commitment of local voluntary services is rapidly declining, while the expectations of the affected persons are being raised. Therefore, the day of reckoning for the government is near at hand. We all know that the promises made by various governments and international bodies, following any disaster, do not necessarily translate into hard cash. The example of the Bam earthquake of Iran can be cited. Following this earthquake, about one billion dollars was pledged as development aid. However, only 17 million dollars was actually realized. The government of Sri Lanka will also have to face this reality. Now the government says that they will do this, that and the other. But when the ashes start to settle, and promises become vague, then the Sri Lankan government will indeed be in a completely hopeless situation. On the one hand they will not be in a position to rebuild the devastated areas as per the expectations of the affected people, given their own rhetoric and promises. On the other hand, due to the gigantic cost they have incurred to re-build the devastated areas, the government will not be in a position to develop the rest of the country either.

The situation of the LTTE is no different to the government. In fact, if anything at all, the LTTE is worse off than the government. The LTTE was badly affected by the tsunami. Most of the sea tiger assets were destroyed. It is also clear that their war machinery received enormous damages due to the tsunami. Although the LTTE claim that they have a separate administration in the North and East, the people under their administration got absolutely nothing from them in terms of relief assistance. If anything, the LTTE has been exposed for their total inability to handle such situations. There has been no news of the whereabouts of the LTTE supremo, Prabhakaran, for the past 3 weeks, and speculation is rife about whether he is indeed alive.

Let us discuss at greater length the possible political perspective, following the tsunami disaster. We have always maintained that CBK’s personal ambition was the main factor behind all her decisions and actions during the last couple of years, rather than those of the capitalist class. Since Sri Lanka has a Bonapartist constitution, the President plays a somewhat Bonapartist role. According to the current Sri Lankan Constitution, an individual can serve as President for a maximum of two terms. CBK is now at the end of her second term. Therefore, she has been trying very hard to amend the current constitution and go back to the Westminster system where the Prime Minister is the Chief Executive. She can then become the executive Prime Minister and continue as the leader of the state of Sri Lanka. All her manoeuvres during the last couple of years were aimed at achieving this objective.

We are of the view that this government presented a welfare-style budget with the aim of going for a referendum in the early part of this year, in order to obtain the mandate of the people to go for a constitution amendment without the 2/3rd majority in the parliament. Prior to this, they had also planned on removing the present Speaker from office and replacing him with one of their choice. However, the tsunami has completely jeopardized all their plans. With all their talk of “co-habitation” and “cooperating to rebuild the nation” it will now be very difficult for the President to remove the Speaker. Also the cost of going for any sort of election or referendum will create a huge public uproar, even if it was possible in practical terms, which it is not. Therefore, the tsunami waves have temporally washed out CBK’s entire personal political agenda.

It is indeed a very interesting and unique situation. CBK and the government are in disarray. The LTTE is also in disarray. The opposition is not in disarray, but are not in a position to obtain much political advantage out of the situation, the “watchdog” of the nation, the JVP, is within the government and there is absolutely no left movement.

It is also relevant and important to discuss similar phenomena and situations, seen in different parts of the world, which parallel the post-tsunami disaster situation in Sri Lanka. When there is a national catastrophe, capitalists want to share it with the people. This happened in Korea during the last recession. The Korean government requested people to donate their gold to build up their foreign reserves and millions of ordinary people responded by giving all their jewellery. But after Korea came out of the recession and the economy began to prosper, it was the big multinational and Korean companies that enjoyed all the benefits and profits. In Sri Lanka as well, the government is reminding the people of their civic duty at every turn. But what is the role and responsibility of the government in this disastrous situation? Unfortunately, there is no effective Left Movement in Sri Lanka to raise this issue. During the 1930s, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in Sri Lanka faced a similar situation during the malaria epidemic that ravaged the island. Tens of thousands died due to this epidemic. However, they successfully mobilized the masses in responding to this situation and not only provided much needed medical supplies and services, but were also successful in exposing the then government’s inability to handle the situation. The way the LSSP leaders faced the malaria epidemic paved the way for the initial successes of the LSSP in mobilizing the masses and gaining entry into Parliament. In fact, the seats won by the LSSP in 1935, were from the areas affected by malaria. The unfortunate and tragic fact of today is that there is no one in the left to remind the government of their responsibility. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the one time Marxist, has also joined the bandwagon of “dutiful citizens”, who are busy collecting and distributing some lorry loads of relief goods – and doing nothing else. At least there was no media coverage of those incidents. Such is the situation to which the traditional left movement of Sri Lanka has been reduced.

We, the comrades of the new revolution in Sri Lanka have repeatedly stressed that the political climate in Sri Lanka is extremely volatile, and the tsunami waves have only created more contradictions to make this situation even more unstable in the future.