Port struggle, Trade Unions and politics

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa government had to temporarily withdraw the attempt to implement the agreement reached in 2019, in which 51% of the Eastern Terminal of the Colombo Port would be owned by Sri Lanka and 49% by Adani of India. This setback would not have been possible without the courageous struggle of port workers in particular against this move. Despite the unlimited powers of the executive presidency and the 2/3rd majority in parliament, the ability of the working people to overthrow that power was a great victory for the working class in general. It is a fact that the nationalist forces, especially the monks, who had high hopes through the patriotic slogans used by the government to come to power, also joined the struggle to save the Eastern Jetty. In fact, the struggle was spearheaded by two Trade Unions affiliated to the ruling government.

It is not a secret that even among these trade union leaders, there was no clear idea about the aim or objective of the struggle. The two main trade unions affiliated to the government political parties said that this struggle does not mean an opposition to the government’s policy, but simply a fight to save the Eastern Terminal. In return, they did not object to selling the Western Terminal or anything else to Indian or foreign company. Comrade Krishantha of the Port Engineers’ union, who addressed the online public rally held by the Marx School & the “Wame Handa” newspaper, also made this clear. Similarly, the monks of the National Movement who came to support this struggle always tried to turn this battle only to save the Eastern Terminal without allowing it to escalate into defeat Government policies. Therefore, they have always led the battle front with the connivance of the Mahinda faction in the government as well as the nationalist factions including Wimal Weerawansa and Gammanpila. It was revealed that the Cabinet has finally decided to keep the 100% of Eastern Terminal under the Ports Authority and lease 85% of the Western Terminal to companies designated by India and Japan on a long term basis.

In fact, the issue of selling the Eastern Terminal to India did not come out as a necessity of the country. It is not a secret that international powers have been keeping a close eye on the Port of Colombo, especially due to its geopolitical significance. This is due to the diplomatic influence exerted by the anti-Chinese block led by the US against the handing over of Hambantota port to China by the previous government and the domination of the Colombo port city. They want to build Colombo port as their stronghold to reduce the Chinese dominance. This is evident from the fact that even before the new Cabinet decision, a statement issued by the Government of India had exerted strong pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka to comply with the 2019 Convention. It is no secret that the government is in a serious predicament.

The government’s policy of opening the Eastern Terminal to Indian investors has not only arisen due to the above international factor. No matter what the government promised to people to come to power, today their only alternative is to sell the country’s public resources to foreign investors. If they succeeded the sale of Eastern Terminal, lot of other major public institutions such as Telecom, Electricity Board, Road Development Authority and a large chunk of urban land will be sold to imperialist investors. Even now, if the sale of the Western Terminal is successful, the government will transfer other institutions to foreign companies. We do not know to what extent the working class has accurately assessed this danger. During the port struggle, the rest of the unions were unable to act as a single force to strengthen the struggle on one hand and they often became mere press releases and media conferences. It is unfortunate that the trade union leadership has no real interest in building a broader trade union front of the working class against privatization and to protect public resources, and as a result workers appoint pro-government monks as their saviors. These cunning forces were always able to keep the struggle within their limits, and at the end of the struggle, the leaders of the battle were the advisers of the government, ministers and monks who represent the government. Because of this reason, some of the militant trade union leaders tried to stay out of the fray.

A serious political problem faced by the workers’ movement today is to identify whether the hostile agents in the class struggles are their true allies. At the end, many of the organizations that claim to be left-wing had to go after those forces and just publish their photos in the newspapers and become their tail. There was no advantage on the side of strengthening the class. Therefore, today’s task of the working class is to review again and again the experience of victory and defeat of the port struggle in depth. We emphasize the need for revolutionary politicians in particular to intervene in this struggle as well as to make the class aware of the dangers that arise at every particular moment of the struggle.

By Niel Wijethilake