The Black Protest Week campaign, launched by a newly-formed organization called the Professionals’ Trade Union Collective (PTUC), against high taxes, etc., is gaining momentum and inspiring agitations across the country. The PTUC consists of doctors, engineers, accountants, bankers, university teachers, corporate sector executives and other influential citizens. They are very active on social media and capable of shaping public opinion.

On Wednesday, a group of trade unionists put up black flags at the Central Bank, Colombo 01, and a tense situation arose there when the police forcibly removed the flags and tried to take them away. The protesters resisted police action courageously, and the flags were finally returned to them, and the agitation ran its course. University teachers have also held protests in several parts of the country. Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) engineers conducted a protest in Colombo last week, demanding an immediate reduction in taxes. Hospital workers are up in arms, and they have already staged a series of protests and more such agitations are expected. Protests are attracting more workers.

Port workers mounted a protest, blocking the main entrance to the Colombo Harbour on Monday to pressure the government to reduce taxes. They also took up other issues such as the ongoing privatization programme, which has affected the country’s ports. A crippling strike in the Colombo Port is the last thing any government wants. The disastrous consequences of such a protest amid the current crisis are not difficult to imagine.

The government does not seem serious about addressing the causes of the current wave of protests. Maybe it thinks that eventually the protesters will come to terms with tax increases, and their agitations will peter out with the passage of time like the Galle Face Aragalaya. But the protesting trade unions are determined to win their demands although the government is not in a position to reduce taxes, having undertaken to increase them in compliance with an IMF condition, according to the ruling party spokespersons.

Most workers, in both private and public sectors, have loans to repay and children to feed, clothe and educate. Their real incomes have dropped drastically due to high inflation, and tax and tariff hikes have worsened their pecuniary problems. The latest power price increase (65%) could not have come at a worse time. When it takes effect with its impact on household incomes being felt, workers are sure to intensify their protests.

Even a minor protest is fraught with the danger of snowballing into mass uprisings unless handled properly. When farmers in far-flung areas threatened to lay siege to Colombo unless the government made agrochemicals available to prevent crop losses, in the latter part of 2021, nobody took their threat seriously. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was very powerful at that time, and it was thought that a sustained protest campaign in Colombo would not be tolerated, and it would be a huge mistake for anyone to take on the President and his government. Gotabaya was expected to deploy the police and the army to crush protests. But nothing of the sort happened when protests erupted in Colombo. He was right in desisting from using force to suppress them because such a course of action would have made the situation even worse.

What culminated in a wave protests that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the collapse of the SLPP government and the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, last year, was a process of anti-government agitations, which began as a women’s demonstration in a suburb of Colombo.

On 05 March 2022, some members of the SJB’s women’s wing, the Samagi Vantiha Balawegaya, led by former MP Hirunika Premachandra, held a protest near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Mirihana against the high cost of living and the shortages of essential goods. It did not receive much media attention. The agitation ended without any untoward incidents but emboldened others to follow suit. Hirunika became a heroine of sorts overnight and earned encomia from social media activists for her ‘bravery’. Returning in one piece after holding a protest near Gotabaya’s house was no mean achievement!

On 31 March, a group of people gathered at the Jubilee Post junction, Mirihana, and launched a protest that would make history. The protesters were mostly middle-class people demanding a swift government intervention to make cooking gas and other essential commodities freely available at affordable prices. Subsequently, more people gathered in response to calls made via social media, and after nightfall, the venue of the agitation was shifted to Pengiriwatte Road, where President Rajapaksa’s private residence is located. Towards midnight, violent clashes erupted between protesters and the police, triggering a wave of copycat protests across the country leading to the Galle Face agitation, which brought down the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government.

One of the reasons for the downfall of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in 2015 was the Rathupaswala protest, where three persons died when the army opened fire, in August 2013. Trouble for that administration began as an agitation by a group of villagers at Rathupaswala against a factory polluting groundwater in the area. They asked the government to have the factory relocated and their wells cleaned. But their call went unheeded, and the government opted for a crackdown and deployed the army to disperse the protesters, who blocked the Kandy-Colombo main road. If it had been wise enough to address the root cause of the protest and defuse tension, the unfortunate incident could have been avoided. The Rathupaswala crackdown damaged the image of the Rajapaksa administration both here and abroad, and provided a boost to the Opposition’s anti-government campaign.

The ongoing protests against tax and tariff hikes and high interest rates the government has resorted to in a bid to secure an IMF bailout package are much more organized than the ones we witnessed last year. They are led by educated, intelligent, influential citizens, and the police and the army are hesitant to unleash brutal force in dealing with them because coercive action could trigger strikes in vital sectors. The high cost of living and the exorbitant interest rates have helped trade unions mobilize all fixed income earners. In fact, they have not spared any Sri Lankan. Daily wage earners and the self-employed are the worst affected. Even the corporate sector is facing existential problems, and some big companies have already gone belly up, and retrenchment is fast becoming the order of the day. Job losses are bound to swell the ranks of protesters.

The government seems lost between the devil and the deep blue sea. If it tries to crush protests, the protesters will consider resorting to stronger trade union action, which is likely to lead to a general strike, as some trade unions have already warned; if it allows protests to continue, they will spread with more workers joining them, throwing the country into turmoil. Whether the government will act tactfully and try to pacify the protesting professionals by being flexible instead of taking them on and driving them to stage a general strike, the possibility of which cannot be ruled out, remains to be seen.



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