SRI LANKA: The changing language in social movements in Sri Lanka

By Basil Fernando

As compared to the key words and concepts which were commonly used in the social movements of Sri Lanka which were sometimes also referred to as Leftist movements, the language that is now being used has undergone a very significant change. These changes are not merely a change of words and expressions but also suggest different kinds of mentalities that are getting developed within the general social consciousness of many people.

The first significant social movement to develop in Sri Lanka was the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma (BLPI). The leadership of that movement belonged to a number of intellectuals who were influenced by what they thought were Marxist ideas and in particular the ideas of Leon Trotsky. The influence of that movement had a significant influence particularly up to about 1964 when two major Parties of the Left, the Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party joined together into a coalition with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

This early Leftist movement’s concern as expressed in their rhetoric was mainly internationalism, as understood in the framework of international debates which were going on within the socialist movements of the time. There was a belief, whether held genuinely or only proclaimed publicly, that a world revolution was imminent and that such would be a revolution where the workers will establish their own governments as against the governments which were supportive of the capitalist class. Thus, a proletarian revolution was what was talked about. Within that context, words like Viplavaya, armed struggles to take over power, and the need for a proletarian party of the working class were among the key words along with other words like communism and socialism.

Essential elements of this approach was that local problems of a small country like Sri Lanka were not of great significance, and that what would matter is the establishment of a workers dictatorship in developed capitalist countries. When that happens, the other small problems like those existing in countries like Sri Lanka would get resolved by itself. There was no need for a specific understanding of what were uniquely local problems relating to the local economy, the kind of development needed in the state structure itself, the developments of the administrative structures, dealing with the social problems unique to a particular country and also cultural issues, as they were of little significance if they had any significance at all. For example, even the development of science and technology within the country, thereby improving the country’s own resourcefulness was something to be a by-product of the great changes that were to happen outside the country.

This significantly affected the attitude towards the peasants and also other persons who were employed in the informal sector. It was the workers organizations that mattered and that once the workers took over power, they would resolve the agricultural issues automatically. Thus, despite the majority of the country being dependent on agriculture, this was not considered a matter of great importance.

From around after 1964, the social movements of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils took different turns. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) talked of a Maoist type of revolution where the takeover of power by armed struggles was considered not only legitimate but as the only alternative for resolving any of the problems of not only the workers but also of the farmers and other poorer sections of society. This idea of the armed struggle also spread into the Tamil movements which finally justified the taking of arms on the basis of a demand for a separate state.

At the heart of all this rhetoric was a fundamentally serious concern about inequality and the achieving of opportunities for the people who have been denied such opportunities for the improvement of their lives in the past.

With the bitter experience of the failure of the internationalist Marxist movements and the loss of what once was a great expectation of world revolutions, it has finally had its impact on the consciousness of the social movements of today and particularly among the thinking of the young adults in the country. The failure of the armed struggles which ultimately led to the loss of lives on a massive scale among the poor, led to the attraction of the armed struggle as a way out also losing its validity.

And a new understanding has been entering into the issue of equality. For example, the issue of equal rights for women which was not a great concern for what was called the Old Left is now a major concern within all the social movements. So it is no longer a world dominated by men which is being envisaged but a world in which women play an equal role in all spheres. That means not only just increasing the numbers of women in employment and social life but also bringing different gender perspectives on social issues which are different to the mainly male oriented social consciousness.

With the bitter experiences of economic failures, the social movements have now begun to realize that they need to get involved in developing an understanding of how to solve the economic problems of the country in a world where people would have to coexist with much more sophisticated and economically developed countries. Thus, the need for the understanding of local economic development related issues has begun to be a dominant feature in the communications of the social movements of our times.

Instead of words like revolutions as used in the past, words like liberty and rights are becoming much more a part of the rhetoric of these social movements. Thus, the concept of equality is getting a much more concrete expression in terms of the ability to participate in the social life by way of the freedom of association, assembly and expression on the one hand and on the other in dealing with matters relating to the right to life such as the right to food, education, health and other basic social needs. Among the major concerns of the social movements today is the future of the young, partly because the young adults of today being products of the free education system are themselves capable of expressing their own concerns as people who come from generations who have been deprived of many social and other opportunities.

Essentially, the thrust of the present social movements is for the greater localization of their thoughts in terms of developing locally valid ideas for the improvement of every aspect of their lives, However, this localization is understood to be taking place in a world that has completely changed. Sri Lanka does not have the option of being isolated from the rest of the world. And the younger generations are very much aware because their own experiences have thrown them into the influences of the global changes that are taking place throughout the world. Among these big changes is the communication revolution that is the communication change that is taking place in the world. Thus, technological advancement and the ability to communicate with the rest of the world are also among the ambitions that are getting expressed through the social movements now developing in Sri Lanka.

We are now witnessing a change which has come about partly by way of learning the lessons of the failures of the past and partly by a simple process of generational changes within which there is a younger generation which thinks in many new ways which are not familiar to the old approaches in the social movements of the past.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-037-2021
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Civil and Political Rights, Democracy, Freedom of expression, Rule of law,