Breaking a Strike With Violence

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 20 2021
Columns Breaking a Strike With Violence

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Within a couple of years of the changes JR had wrought, even the World Bank began to ask for restraint from the Government with regard to its more grandiose schemes. Amongst these was JR’s pet scheme of shifting the capital from Colombo to the suburb of Sri Jayewardenepura, which involved draining of a marshy area to build a grand new parliament complex. In other countries such shifts were designed to engineer demographic changes, relieve over-crowding and help development of neglected areas, but it seemed as though none of this was of interest to JR whose main motivation was to have the capital of the country reflect his own name.

All that he achieved though was a towering structure on an island in the middle of a lake that had cost the country billions. And it helped to alienate parliamentarians from the people for access was only through a long causeway which could easily be shut off. And, then in the decade that followed no major administration office or commercial undertaking, except for the Ministry of Education, moved to Sri Jayawardenepura, and Colombo continued in essence in the role of the real capital, getting more and more congested and expensive.

So despite the warnings of the World Bank capital expenditure proceeded apace and the cost of living escalated dramatically while the rupee depreciated appallingly against the dollar. Since JR had privileged an export economy, and since exporters wanted a rupee that had little value so as to increase the appeal of what they sent out, they agitated for continuous devaluation, which was happening anyway given the increasing demand for imported goods.

Meanwhile, as part of the prevailing wisdom with regard to an open economy, welfare schemes that had lasted for decades had early on in the Government’s tenure been subjected to rigid means tests. And now it became generally known that the government’s creditors were insisting on still further cuts. They were in a strong position to do so for the Government had borrowed heavily in its early years to launch its programme, claiming it was now loved by the West. But servicing the debts was proving more and more difficult. 

By now Esmond Wickremesinghe, who at least understood economics, had begun producing a stream of papers suggesting that the open economic policy had to be modified if the country were not to be bankrupted. But he held no official position, though before the election. It had been thought that he was JR’s choice to be Minister of Finance. But his wife Nalini was said to have stepped in and demanded from her cousin JR that her son Ranil be put into Parliament rather than her husband, so Esmond gradually became a cipher, though he still remained close to JR and his old friends in the party, including Cyril Mathew.

He was not as enamoured of the ruthless cutting down of the state that JR’s financiers insisted on and made his views known. But this was only as JR’s private confidante with no influence over anyone else. And though he was supported by Nevilie Karunatilleke, a distinguished economist who was the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, the latter was eased out of office for his pains. So, Wickremesinghe being ignored, the government continued on the course it had embarked upon in 1977, quite content as it seemed to reach a point when the actual deficit in the annual budget exceeded its income.

A corollary of this was increased borrowing and reliance on donors. Unfortunately this was the period when the most influential amongst such donors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the more significant of the countries they represented, were particularly keen on cutting spending on welfare measures on the part of Governments they supported. So real incomes in Sri Lanka declined and it seemed that the high quality of life Sri Lankans in general enjoyed, in fields such as health and education as well as in basic nutrition, would soon be reduced by restrictions on Government spending in those areas.

Hardest hit in the midst of the economic decline on the country were the public servants, still a very large part of the work force inasmuch as the private sector had still not had time to open up substantially in accordance with the new economic order, and the population in general still functioned in terms of a socialistic model whereby the state dominated practically every sphere of activity. That was to change in the years that followed as new avenues of employment opened up, and in itself the private sector as it stood in 1980 was doing relatively well. But public sector salaries had barely risen in the previous three years while the costs of everything had, and enormously. The result was that in July 1980 a general strike was called, which looked likely to have substantial support.

Jayawardene however was determined. The strike was brutally repressed, after an emergency was declared and troops called out. But even more effective in crushing the strikers, in dealing with pickets and keeping whatever services the government deemed essential going, were the government’s own shock troops, drawn largely if not exclusively from the JSS. 

Under all this pressure the strike collapsed. The government had however decreed from the first that strikers would be deemed to have vacated their posts and a number of people did indeed lose their jobs. Some it is true were taken back soon, and more as the years went by. There were some ministries however, such as the younger Wickremesinghe’s Ministry of Education, that remained adamant, and nearly a decade later one of the slogans the opposition albeit ineffectually kept reiterating was the reinstatement of all the July 1980 strikers.

And then, with that success under his belt, Jayewardene moved as dealt with earlier to remove Mrs Bandaranaike from the political scene. And he made very clear the party political motives behind the whole exercise because the very day after parliament had removed her Civic Rights the legislation concerning this was amended, to stop anyone whose civic rights had been taken away from canvassing on behalf of others standing for elections or in any other way taking part in the electoral process.

It was after that JR had the District Council Elections. The SLFP meanwhile was falling apart as JR had planned, Mrs Bandaranaike’s children Chandrika and Anura jockeying for supremacy with different senior members taking one side or the other. This confusion contributed to their decision to boycott the elections which gave JR a free run in the south of the country, though he was a bit startled when the JVP, which did contest several districts, did better than expected. Their leadership had been jailed following the insurrection of 1971 against Mrs Bandaranaike’s Government, but JR had pardoned them immediately he got into power, and found them useful to remind people about the inequities of the previous government. But he did not relish having to face them also as opponents in the democratic process. 

Not only did the TULF however win the election in the North but in addition what the government tried out then lost it to an even greater extent the support of Northern Tamils. However his elite Colombo supporters continued to believe in him, supporting him in the referendum too, until they too suffered attacks.

That was in 1983. But before that, following the assaults on Tamils in 1977, there was yet another pogrom under JR’s watch after the District Council election. Why this happened should be related to JR’s mentality, his determination to be in control, and his bitterness when this was denied, which led to petty revenge, as happened with the judges.

To go back to 1977, despite the pledges in his manifesto, JR’s chief motivating factor was his own authority. So soon after the election, he had got rid of the well liked Sinhalese Government Agent, the Sinhalese Civil Servant Lionel Fernando, and replaced him with a Tamil former diplomat who had been a candidate at the election. But though well meaning he was seen as a political appointee, owing his appointment only to the President. JR may have thought that would make him popular, given the adulation of his Colombo Tamil friends, but such feelings did not hold sway in Jaffna and the man could do nothing to stem rising disaffection.

Worse, JR transferred the army regiment that had been stationed for some time in the area and had settled down there peaceably. Though there had been violence, notably the killing of the Jaffna Mayor who was seen by the then incipient LTTE as a government stooge, tensions had subsided at the time of the 1977 elections. But following the riots in the rest of the island then, the new regiment moved to Jaffna found itself in a very tense situation in which feelings were running very high. Naturally it rather looked upon itself as having been moved into hostile territory with an obligation to assert a central, which if saw as Sinhalese, authority. The government unfortunately did little to discourage this attitude. 

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 20 2021

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