Sri Lanka: United Socialist Party holds important Congress

The 12th National Congress of the United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka) took place in Colombo on October 8 & 9 in extremely difficult circumstances.

Since the end of the war in 2009 President Mahinda Rajapaksa has moved towards creating a dictatorial regime. Repression has in many ways been increased and the police and military play a key role in the running of the country.

As preparations were being made on October 7 the police visited the Congress venue and questioned whether the USP had permission to hold the meeting. They said that the meeting would be deemed illegal given that Council elections were also being held in many parts of the country on October 8.

Despite this intimidation the meeting went ahead with delegates travelling from right across the island. Many delegates travelled by bus for more than 10 hours.

Most significantly a number of members attended from the Tamil areas in the north and the Muslim region in the east. A large delegation of tea plantation workers was also present from the hill country. Delegates were present from all the major towns and cities, including the branches within Colombo itself.

The Congress started with a minute of silence to remember the comrades who have lost their lives fighting for socialism – a stark reminder that politics in Sri Lanka can often be a life and death matter.

After welcoming members of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in India, Malaysia, Britain and Australia the first session began with USP General Secretary, Siritunga Jayasuriya, leading off a discussion on the current political situation.

While it appears as if the Rajapaksa regime is infallible, under the surface there are several contradictive processes taking place. The government boasts of 8% economic growth yet the vast majority of ordinary people see none of the benefits of this.

The minimum monthly wage for a public sector worker is a mere 11,730 Rupees ($107 AUD) yet the average family needs 42,224 Rupees ($377 AUD) in order to live. The cost of living is very high with some basic necessities like fuel selling at similar prices in advanced countries.

Never before has racism taken such a prominent role in the politics of Sri Lanka. Since the military defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), Mahinda Rajapaksa has presented himself as the sole inheritor of the war victory. He claims to be the hero of the Sinhala-Buddhist masses.

As the USP predicted, the government’s victory over the LTTE has not gone any way towards solving the Tamil national question. Rather, the Rajapaksa regime has moved to establish military rule in the north and removed democratic rights for people across the whole country.

Journalists, trade unionists, genuine socialists and all those who speak up against the government are branded as traitors. Tamil people are now not only refused their own homeland but they are forced to live under constant military harassment. One comrade from Jaffna said that many people feel that they can only open their mouths for two reasons – to eat and to drink.

Thousands of displaced people still reside in camps and such was the devastation of the war that it is estimated that there are now more than 53,000 widows in the north of the country.

Clearly the government is taking advantage of the war victory in order to further the aims of their big business allies. While the excuse of the threat of terrorism is given, the crack down on democratic rights is clearly aimed at all working people – especially those who dare to struggle for a better standard of living. Only a few months ago a worker was shot by a police officer while protesting against attacks to the pension scheme.

In many ways the JVP (People’s Liberation Front) helped the government create this situation. For years they have pushed anti-Tamil racism and they played a key role in bringing Mahinda Rajapaksa to power.

Unfortunately for them Rajapaksa has not allowed them to take any credit for the defeat of the LTTE. They have suffered a number of electoral set backs and this has created deep splits within the party.

The point was made that you reap what you sow. In the case of the JVP they are now paying the price for their consistent opportunism and their disgraceful position on the national question.

It is clear that a huge political vacuum exists in Sri Lanka. Despite their rhetoric, all of the major parties represent the interests of the rich and powerful. There is a desperate need for a mass party that stands for a genuine socialist alternative and a party that represents all poor and working class people regardless of their nationality. This is the task the USP has set for itself.

As the first day of the Congress drew to a close, reports of violence surrounding the Council election in Colombo came in. It turned out to be a violent intra ruling-party clash that killed three people and left more than a dozen wounded. As a result the police declared a curfew in part of the city.

Despite the difficulties with travel and the uneasy mood that swept the city it was decided that the Congress should go ahead as planned the next day.

While the first day of the Congress helped the delegates understand the main political issues in Sri Lanka, the second day focused on building the party within this context.

Despite the difficult circumstances in Sri Lanka the USP has been involved in all the major struggles that have taken place in the last few years. From trade union battles to campaigns for democratic rights, the USP has often played an important role. The organisation is also renowned for its long-term, consistent position in defence of the rights of Tamil people.

The point was made that unlike most other parties in Sri Lanka the USP Congress is a genuinely democratic affair. More than just listening to the speeches of a few leaders, this Congress was a forum where all members were able to participate in the discussions and the decision making process.

It was reported that two new branches have been established this year and two cadre schools were held. Two new booklets are being produced and will be published before the end of the year.

The USP also produces two newspapers, one in Sinhala and one in Tamil. This is something the USP is very proud of given that most other parties have closed their papers in recent years. The USP papers are now the only left papers in the country that are sold regularly on the street corners, at the factory gates and on the plantations.

USP National Treasurer Dhammika De Silva delivered a finance report making the point that no other party in Sri Lanka is so open about their finances. Despite the fact that fundraising is very hard in the underdeveloped world, the vast bulk of the money that the USP raises comes from members and supporters within Sri Lanka itself.

It was also announced that by the end of 2011 the USP will own its party headquarters outright. This comes after a year’s long fundraising campaign.

Central Committee member Srinath Perera made a financial appeal to the delegates. He said that while people join other parties in order to receive something, people join the USP so that they can contribute to the struggle for socialism. In order to wage a successful campaign we first and foremost need the right ideas but we also need organisation. Finances are the sinews of the class war.

Despite the poverty conditions faced by many members more than 34,000 Rupees was donated to the party building fund. A number of pledges are still to come in.

Twelve people were elected to the new Central Committee (CC) along with three District Secretaries. The CC pledged to meet monthly to provide political leadership to the party until the next Congress.

Despite the difficult conditions faced in Sri Lanka, a definite sense of confidence was present at the conclusion of the Congress. One delegate commented that he was now armed with the ideas to go back to his area and step up the struggle. While Rajapaksa may seem unassailable at the moment, he will not be immune from the convulsions sweeping the world as a result of the ongoing economic crisis.

It was clear that the USP has influence in Sri Lankan society far greater than its size. While all the other left groups have made serious mistakes and either retreated from the struggle, or are now collaborating with the class enemy, the banner of the USP is spotless.

The challenge ahead is for the party to fill out its ranks with the workers and youth who will inevitably come into conflict with the Rajapaksa regime in the coming years. This Congress was important as it laid down the political and ideological foundations on which a successful struggle can be built.