Colombo, Sri Lanka – Millions of Sri Lankan workers celebrated a nationwide general strike Thursday to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government controlled by his powerful family amid the worst economic crisis in the island’s history.
Banks and businesses closed and public transport ground to a halt as nearly 1,000 unions from across the island nation staged the strike, which was attended by public and private sector workers.
In the capital Colombo, thousands of trade unionists joined the protesters are already camping in front of the president’s office for nearly three weeks, demanding the removal of the government.
But Thursday’s general strike was the first time the country of 22 million people had been paralyzed since mass protests broke out late last month.
“Life has become hard in this economic crisis. Gas, electricity, food and bus fares are too expensive right now,” a government worker who wanted to remain anonymous told Al Jazeera.
She said there are five members in her family and she finds it difficult to support them on her salary, which has remained the same despite sharp increases in food, medicine and fuel prices.
“Last year, the price of rice was around 99 rupees. It is currently at 215,” he said.
Sri Lanka does not have enough foreign exchange to import essential food, fuel and medicine after the coronavirus pandemic, rising oil prices due to the Ukraine war, government tax cuts and declining oil reserves. foreign exchange paralyzed its economy.
The protesters also accuse the powerful Rajapaksa clan – which has dominated island politics for nearly two decades – of mismanaging the economy.
“We voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but he has destroyed our country,” Ruchira Ashan, a 27-year-old mechanic who works at the Colombo shipyard, told Al Jazeera.
Ashan said he had taken a leave of absence from his office to join the strike, in which doctors and nurses also protested outside hospitals and clinics during their lunch hour.
“Many people influenced me and my family to vote for the Rajapaksas. I feel responsible,” said Binali Wijekone, a 21-year-old trainee at a bank in Colombo.
Comparisons with the 1980 strike
Political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda said Thursday’s general strike was the first in Sri Lanka since the government cracked down on the trade union movement in 1980.
“This is the first time in four decades that Sri Lankan unions have come together to launch a general strike,” he told Al Jazeera.
Uyangoda was referring to a similar general strike called by Sri Lankan unions in 1980 to demand a total monthly wage increase of Rs 300, the reinstatement of food subsidies and the withdrawal of “anti-democratic and anti-union measures” taken by the government. .
In response, then-President JR Jayawardene, a strongman pushing for a “liberalization” of the island’s economy, mobilized the armed forces, imposed a state of emergency across the country and declared the strike illegal, triggering violent protests.
Experts said the country is seeing a similar rise in people’s anger against the government.
“Jayawardene crushed the 1980 strike, but today the unions have corrected their mistakes and are ready to move into the future,” Venerable Tampitiye Sugatananda, 32. Buddhist monk and chief secretary of the Joint Union of Health Workers, he told Al Jazeera.
“Since 1980, many unions were formed by political parties, but in recent years, this (trend) has changed. Working class struggles have taken center stage and today’s event has only reinforced this trend.”
The island’s unions have threatened to launch a longer strike from May 6 if the president and government do not resign.
“If the workers tell the president and prime minister to leave, then they should leave by all means,” Sugatananda told Aljazeera. “We need a State response to today’s action. If not, there is no choice but to continue for months.”
As he spoke, banners reading “They don’t really care about us” and “Stop the crackdown” were seen at the march in Colombo as people made speeches and raised slogans outside the president’s office.
Sri Lankan lawyer and activist Balachandran Gowthaman said he had “not seen an event underwritten by unions of various persuasions and such a complementary show of force” since 1980.
“The discipline with which the private sector and the public sector came out without too much persuasion and too much hassle indicated that all sectors are devastated by the economic crisis and want the current administration to be held accountable,” he told Al Jazeera.
VT Gunatunga, a 60-year-old member of the All Island Local Government Workers Union, said he traveled from Panadura to attend the protest in Colombo and support the young protesters.
“Well, 6.9 million may have voted for them (the Rajapaksas), but we are all here to send (the Rajapaksas) home,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to claims that the powerful clan got 6.9 million. of votes in the 2019 elections.
“I could die, but there has to be a country for future generations and that is why I am on the streets,” Gunatunga said.