Galle Face peoples’ struggle: A recap

Saturday, 21 May 2022 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

They were all this while interested in their own things unlike the Galle Face Heroes who have no benefits to win for themselves other than standing and sacrificing on behalf of the helpless and deserving masses



Sri Lanka recently witnessed a series of events reflecting the greatness of a doctrine of historic significance founded by independent people in struggle for and on behalf of the suffering masses. The battle is not over yet. This analysis will help us understand the underlying factors in a struggle which culminated into a newly acquired experience of a modern revolution which has already succeeded in several achievements. We have seen many fighters for the cause of the working class and other revolutionary movements at our national level. Reminiscing some of those fairly recent struggles will help us to assess the importance of contemporary events.

The historic hartal in 1953, which was the immediate reaction of the people against the more than doubling of the cost of rice. The associated civil disturbance acts took place in many parts of the country spreading to riots causing severe damage to transport and communication systems. Police had to open fire killing two persons who obstructed the operation of buses and railway wagons carrying fuel set on fire. University students clashed with the police who faced confrontations with protestors in many parts of the country. 

The riots were suppressed and the hartal was stopped with the declaration of a state of emergency and the security forces acting under the command of the Governor General carrying out orders. This action was a countrywide demonstration of civil disobedience and strike. The Prime Minister resigned and was replaced by another MP of the same ruling party. The rice subsidy totally cancelled was partially restored.

The insurrection headed by Rohana Wijeweera of the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna was responsible for the events of 1971 under the guidance and leadership of Wijeweera who ironically was incarcerated in the Jaffna prison during the relevant period. He himself admitted that he gave his approval for the launching of the attack while inside the Prison and the JVP politbureau meeting on 2 April at the Vidyodaya Sangramaya fixed 5 April as the date for the revolution. 

The insurgents could not implement many of the activities as planned and the two leaders who were entrusted with the attack in Colombo, Bopage and Uyangoda took a decision to call it off when they realised that the police was already alerted followed by the declaration of a curfew on the previous day. 

Accordingly, several plans such as attacking the residences of the Army Commander, the IGP, and Felix Dias Bandaranaike were abandoned and the attempt to take Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike into custody couldn’t be carried out. But due to communication problems several outstation attacks were launched resulting in the loss of many lives. Many youths sacrificed their lives in vain and it became a lost battle with a huge cost to the country.

The second wave of insurgency was experienced in the 87/89 period, launched as an armed revolt by the JVP against the government of Sri Lanka. The 1987-1989 insurrection, like the 1971 JVP insurrection, was unsuccessful. The insurgents led by the JVP resorted to subversion, assassinations, raids, and attacks on military and civilian targets while the government reacted through counter-insurgency operations to suppress the revolt. It ended in December 1989 with the capture and killing of the leader Wijeweera. Thousands of lives were lost and the country experienced a spate of assassinations of several scholars, VIPs and political party supporters belonging to many different parties. The insurgents were successful in creating a virtual anarchy and the offenders went to the extent of obstructing even the democratic election process of the country. The total number of deaths was estimated to be between 60,000-80,000 with about 20,000 disappearances. 

The actions of the JVP coincided with the Eelam war launched by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which continued with intermittent fighting spells from 23 July 1983 to 19 May 2009 when it ended up with the Sri Lankan government victory achieved by militarily defeating the LTTE.

The last clandestine operation was the Easter Sunday bomb blast of April 2019. On 21 April 2019, three leading Catholic and Christian churches were targeted by suicide bombers who also targeted three luxury hotels in Colombo causing 269 deaths (with those of the 8 suicide bombers). To date the perpetrators and the actual cause of this attack continues to remain a mystery despite appointment of commissions of inquiry, parliamentary select committees and various investigations initiated by two successive regimes of governance.

The latest of the series of these episodes is the ongoing protest action launched by young people who claim that they are independent of any political party attachments now well-known as the Galle Face Struggle. It has continued for 31 days non-stop as a Peoples’ Struggle demanding the resignation of the President and the entire Government. Now following an attack on the protestors by a gang of goons supported by the Government it has culminated into countrywide riots and civil disobedience. Already eight lives are lost and severe damages caused to personal properties of politicians and their supporters. Country has declared a State of Emergency and an island-wide curfew extending to three days as of the time of writing (11 May). 

It is interesting to trace the series of events that led to this organised mass protest campaign. From about six months now the farmers in all parts of the country were agitating and protesting demanding the restoration of the fertiliser subsidy that they were entitled to and for a regular, timey supply of agro-chemicals and inorganic fertilisers. The protest actions which started on a small scale at village level grew up to bigger demonstrations supported by thousands of farmers who even threatened to surround the Parliament and the Colombo offices of decision makers. 

All the palliative measures taken by the Government to diffuse the situation proved to be fruitless steps. It was pointed out that the Government was spending very large amounts of money to supply substitutes for inorganic fertiliser. From time to time Government spokesmen, mainly the minister in charge of agriculture appeared in public making statements and promising various relief measures to farmers severely affected by the crop failure due to the fertiliser shortage. 

None of these promises were kept and the Government failed to address the issues in a justifiable or satisfactory manner. This situation not only paved the way for a state of discontent, frustration and resentment among the farmers and consumers but led to a serious disadvantageous impact on the GDP input from the agricultural sector. Disorganised as a rustic group these farmers were left helpless.

The authorities in charge of the supply of cooking gas resorted to various ruses as ploy hoax plans to revise the price of gas. On one occasion they reduced the volume of gas in the cylinders to keep the original price by supplying a lesser quantity at the same price. When they felt that there was a heavy resentment from the consumers, they resorted to import substandard varieties. This resulted in a number of gas tank explosions causing deaths, physical injuries and even damages to properties. It took some time for the gas company authorities to rectify the situation and regularise the supplies. This was again followed by a heavy shortage of gas supply and an unprecedented price hike. Before long cooking gas was in short supply leading to people waiting in long queues for days to obtain gas. It became so unbearable that the people living in apartment houses where they could not revert to other options had to line up in streets and start protesting.

When this situation was going from bad to worse with no assurance of a regular supply there came the power shortages due to power cuts introduced by the CEB. This was like falling into the fire from the frying pan. People had no relief or consolation coming their way other than the continuous harangue by the financial wizards stating about the dire state of foreign reserves to import gas and fuel. The importation of fuel was virtually suspended leading to miles long queues of vehicles lining up for fuel supplies in front of filling stations. 

The ripple effect of diesel shortage led to worsen the impact on diesel-powered generating plants. During drought periods when the hydro-electricity supply was affected it is these diesel powered plants that supplemented the electricity without any interruption. The CEB owns six such diesel-powered plants and all these units had to be stopped due to shortage of fuel. In the same context the price of fuel was increased twice consecutively and the prices have now been increased to levels as never before.

Now the country came to a stage which looked like reaching a point of no return. No fertiliser – no food production; no fuel – no supplementary electricity supply and hence power cuts; no cooking gas – people are virtually starving and wasting all their time in gas queues. Under these conditions the informal sector of employees were the worst affected. Urban population hit hard. Village farmers were indebted and had no way of living. Cost of living skyrocketed following the printing of money to pay salaries and meet other government expenditures. Debt incurred becomes payable with insufficient reserves to meet such liabilities. Rating agencies lowered the country rates to levels nearing insolvency making further borrowing impossible. 

Ships arriving with supplies of fuel and gas had to wait in anchor out harbours until they got the green light of the availability of funds to pay for the consignments. Each day of waiting added to the cost of demurrages accruing due to delays of unloading. When the few individuals who were remitting their exchange earnings overseas realised this situation they either stopped sending money or resorted to black market channels, leading to worsening the reserve position.

Ministers resigned. The CBSL Governor changed. A new Finance Minister was imported and planted. There was no hope or any sign of consolation to the ordinary masses. Government was dumbfounded. They were like the vagabonds who scrape the bottom of the rice bowl to prepare a meal. It looked like all of them were taken unawares. They all started to make amends when they reached the bottom. 

This is the state of affairs that led to the Galle Face protestors to come forward, rally round and voice an opinion against this dumbness on behalf of the suffering people. We cannot forget that they came forward when there was no other force including the Opposition parties who remained confined to theoretical battles and finding ways and means of accusing each other and to waste time. There was no one who was sober enough to visualise the hardships of the people and suggest or propose timely, meaningful solutions.

The specialty of the protestors was that they played their role so innocently, democratically and peacefully. It was in complete contrast to the previous uprisings we have witnessed associated with terror, bloodshed and inhuman cruelties. The sacrifices of the hardships of these youthful protestors later well-supported by the helpless and victimised elders have already begun to bear fruit. It is a pity that the goons jumped in at a time when the struggle was culminating into more stable positions. But the determination of those associated in this non-violent, innocent but extremely effective protest action has succeeded so far beating all odds, threats and ambushes against it. We wish them all success.

Like in all such movements they have to be cautious and take guard against Trojan Horses. Most of those who have woken up from their eternal slumbers are only interested in the share of the success of the battle. They too are responsible for what has been going on all these years either indirectly contributing or maintaining silence. They cannot pay for their sins by trying to join hands with the Galle Face protestors. While you have shown to the world, our expatriates and the international community at large who you are and what you stand for in no uncertain terms, the trade unions, political parties and other organisations with rotten professional backgrounds cannot even hold a candle to your movement by their ostensible appearances as God Fathers. They were all this while interested in their own things unlike the Galle Face Heroes who have no benefits to win for themselves other than standing and sacrificing on behalf of the helpless and deserving masses.

Hold fast, we wish you success.

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