After a wave of protest last month forced Sri Lanka’s president from office, Ceylon Teachers’ Union general secretary Joseph Stalin speaks about the labour movement’s role in the uprising – and about the struggles that still lie ahead.

Joseph Stalin of the Ceylon Teachers Union after his release on bail on 8 August, chanting slogans condemning the government’s crackdown on protestors. (Pradeep Dambarage / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On 9 July, protesters pushed to the brink by the rising costs of food, fuel, and Sri Lanka’s debt crisis brought the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s president, to its knees, forcing the head of state to resign. In the immediate aftermath, images of protesters swimming in the pool of the presidential palace and running along its hallways flooded the internet.

The collapse of the government and the social upheaval, which forced Rajapaksa to flee the country, was a result of a long wave of popular resistance, to which Sri Lanka’s labour movement contributed. Among the protesters pushing for a more just resolution to the ongoing crisis was the head of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU), Joseph Stalin, who police arrested earlier this month for involvement in the protests.

The CTU played a massive role in the protests, particularly in the General Strike on 28 April and the more localised strikes on 6 May. The former prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has stepped into the role of president, promising to bring economic and political stability to his country by negotiating a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court granted Stalin bail on 8 August. Fresh from his release, he spoke about the successes of the anti-government movement, the challenges Sri Lanka’s left faces, and whether Wickremesinghe, a former supporter of the protests, is the reformer he claims to be.

Devana Senanayake

How did the CTU come to play such a big role in the protests?

Joseph Stalin

The CTU is not a political party but an independent trade union which [contributes] to political struggles. In the CTU constitution, we have included a section about [the need to be involved] in political struggles. In the 1980s, the government introduced the Emergency Law [and] the public business security funds, both of which we opposed. Since 1976, the CTU has been part of a movement to release political prisoners. Since 1976, there has been a movement to release political prisoners who were involved in the 1971 [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) youth uprising]. We have also recognised the Tamil people’s right to self-determination, minority rights, human rights, and [the maintenance] of democracy in our nation.

Devana Senanayake

How has the CTU responded to the economic crisis and political crisis specifically?

Joseph Stalin

To be honest, people in this country arrived at a point where they just could not live on a day-to-day basis. The Rajapaksa government made this country, for the first time in its history, bankrupt. We know the Rajapaksa family is full of fraud and corruption. With this type of government in the country, we have no food and this has impacted education too, [specifically] our children’s education. There was a nutrition programme created for a 120,000 school children which has been stopped because it did not have any money. These days, children cannot even take buses, vans, or any vehicle [to school] because of skyrocketing fuel prices. Watching this, the CTU decided they had a social responsibility to join the aragalaya (struggle).

Devana Senanayake

What part has the labour movement played in the aragalaya?

Joseph Stalin

The aragalaya erupted across the country and centralised into Galle Face Green as Gota Go Gama (Gota Go Village). The people who came were the country’s citizens. They were not an organised crowd. There were no leaders [because] the leaders were the citizens. The people’s problems are also the trade unions’ responsibility. Why is this? Well, the memberships of trade unions are composed of everyday people.

On 25 April, teachers and principals hosted an event. We did this so that the workers would lose their fear. Even during the Rajapaksa government, we won some demands. Teachers and principals hosted a 24-day protest for the salaries of [educators]. We have challenged the Rajapaksa government and won some of our demands. Based on these results, we gathered teachers and principals to host a one-day strike and also hosted a conference to seek solutions to problems in our country.

We also decided to host a general strike on 28 April. We got all the groups together, which included people from the bottom to the top of trade unions to join this day. On 6 May, we were also able to organise a massive hartal [strike action] across the country with trade unions. That hartal became a very important event in this country’s history and was a complete success. Then on 9 May, organised mobs attacked our nonviolent protest [site at Galle Face Green]. Later, we organised a protest against the attack. Trade unions joined this protest to help take the movement forward.

Devana Senanayake

With the incidents of 9 May, the protest movement quietened. What do you think happened?

Joseph Stalin

We know that on 9 May, [former] prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa brought people such as his confidantes, thieves, and thugs to a conference [at his office, Temple Trees]. At this conference, they had a meeting and then they attacked [Gota Go Gama]. A member of parliament, Johnston Fernando, recruited and motivated the mob. We know that the senior deputy inspector general responsible for the western province Deshabandu Tennakoon protected the mobs. All of these people watched as the mob unleashed violence on the [site]. When a large number of citizens came to protect the site and people, Mahinda Rajapaksa had to retreat into the Trincomalee Naval Base [in fear of losing his life].

The Rajapaksas brought Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was unable to win his own seat in the elections, into the role of prime minister. The Rajapaksas stated he had international connections and recognition. Then people in the international community, NGOs, and embassies started to congratulate Wickremesinghe.

One of the main problems in the country is the lack of foreign dollars and the inability to bring in foreign dollars. The Rajapaksas created [the illusion of a solution] which would bring in dollars to end the problems in the country. With those expectations, a lot of people thought that this would end and some people believed that Wickremesinghe could actually do something.

The CTU understood that this could not be done because Wickremesinghe was brought to shield the Rajapaksas’ corruption, murders, and all the ruin they had done. We knew he had come to protect these villains. Then they started a myth that if he came, the country would become better. That’s the reason people’s attendance decreased.

Devana Senanayake

What did the trade unions do to keep the aragalaya alive in the post-9 May period?

Joseph Stalin

We organised people because they had to understand that this failed government could be defeated. This is a message we consistently spread. Several trade unions and the Mass Organisation Collective held campaigns, conferences, meetings, and protests around the country. While we did all of this, people realised that the state did not have a solution for the country. There were still queues for oil, queues for gas, no electricity, no food, and the rising cost of goods. That is why many people turned up for the protest [on 9 July] to send Gotabaya Rajapaksa home.

Devana Senanayake

What part did the trade unions play on 9 July—the day that pushed Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of his role as president?

Joseph Stalin

They did a massive campaign to push people to come to Colombo on the stipulated date. After we told people to come, the state instituted an illegal curfew. With the help of the railway general manager, they stopped trains. After they created the curfew, they said trains would not run because of the curfew. Then they pushed certain [politicised] unions to start a bus strike. These are not ‘real unions’ but fake unions. They stopped all means of entry for people to come into Colombo.

However, the people prevailed. There was no oil, but people came on foot and carpooled into Colombo. A lot of trade unions, particularly the teachers’ unions, helped people come into Colombo.

Devana Senanayake

How has Ranil Wickremesinghe’s short tenure as president compared to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, particularly the treatment of leaders, activists, and members of the Left?

Joseph Stalin

There is no difference between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Despite being a ‘democratic person’, he is intimidating the people in the aragalaya. At present, there’s massive repression in the country.

If you look at the constitution of Sri Lanka, when a president resigns, the parliament plays a major role. After people sent Gotabaya Rajapaksa home, the next leader was chosen by the parliament. Wickremesinghe got the vote of 134 members of the SLPP (the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party) and became the prime minister with their backing.

The last election was held in 2019, but by 2022, the climate had changed. A lot of people who came to the aragalaya said they were part of the 6.9 million people who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but they are currently against him. The parliament members’ vote was based on the previous mandate, but this has currently changed because everyone is against it. The MPs who had previously been against Wickremesinghe voted him in. Why? For their protection and survival.

[On 9 July,] a million people went to the president’s house. They took selfies and photos that the state has taken as evidence to arrest youth across the island. They have taken more than 2,500-3,000 people into custody. The government is doing this to stop the aragalaya and also to prevent future uprisings. [On 21 July,] the state unleashed a massive attack on Galle Face Green. All of this happened under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s [eye].

What are the Rajapaksas doing? There is no difference between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa—[the Rajapaksas] are doing the same thing with another face.

Devana Senanayake

Why did they arrest you and put you in jail?

Joseph Stalin

25 May was the fiftieth day of protest at Gota Go Gama, so activists organised a big gathering and a march there which thousands of people attended. On 27 May, there was a court order that certain people should not trespass onto designated roads, despite the protests not spilling onto any of these roads. My name was added onto a list of people accused of entering specific areas and this served as a pretext for arresting me.

Shortly after, police then came into our office and took me into Colombo’s Fort Police Station to intimidate me. They kept me there overnight and were supposed to put me before the magistrate the next morning. I had to wait until the following night before they took me to the magistrate’s house where they remanded me. They have arrested a lot of people like this. But, we are not going to be scared off by these tactics. We are neither afraid of it nor shaken.

Devana Senanayake

Wickremesinghe supported protests. What do you think are the reasons for his present behavior as president?

Joseph Stalin

When Wickremesinghe was prime minister he asked the state to provide Gota Go Gama all the facilities it needed. He made a committee and asked the Colombo mayor to provide all the resources it needed. He said that he was committed to the aragalaya and that it needed to continue. He stood for the struggle. What has become clear is that he only said these things to carve out a path for himself. He wanted to show particular organisations and particular countries that he was presidential material.

It’s not like he has changed. He is in power because he was personally chosen by the Rajapaksas. Wickremesinghe is a product that the Rajapaksas have put out. Wickremesinghe is standing on 134 votes. Who are these 134 votes? The SLPP’s. If you take those votes out, what happens to Wickremesinghe? He is on the floor. Whose wishes does he have to fulfill? The Rajapaksas’, of course.

Devana Senanayake

What is next for the trade unions?

Joseph Stalin

Actually, we are hoping for constitutional reform. The 19th amendment to the constitution [which Parliament passed in 2015] led to significant democratic progress and was also the result of the wave of protests. The amendment led to the weakening of the executive presidency, the appointment of independent commissions, and the strengthening of the role of prime minister [over the executive].

The government is currently saying that it will bring in a 22nd amendment to the constitution, but I do not believe that it will go as far as the 19th amendment. Ever since 1994, every government has come forward with the promise of putting an end to the executive presidency, but they have not done this. We remain focused on this goal.

The CTU specifically has noticed that the country’s education has collapsed, alongside everything else. Children did not have their education for two years because of Covid-19. There is very little education for children at the moment. They only go to school for three days a week. The bus and van fares are too expensive so many children do not have a method to travel to school.

Devana Senanayake

Where do you think the ‘system change’ people have been asking for is going to come from? What role do you see you and the trade unions playing?

Joseph Stalin

In Sri Lanka, this change has to happen through the ballot box and parliament. Another method is a revolution that pushes for a sudden radical social transformation. In Sri Lanka, we hope for changes through the democratic system so there needs to be a general election. Our country is not ready to pursue the second option.

Straight after I was bailed out, I went to the UN and then to a protest to show that despite putting us in jail and intimidating us, they will not stop our aragalaya. Protesting is not my personal agenda, but the collective intention of the teacher associations and trade unions—it is a collective approach. I’m just representing them.

This is not about me being scared. We are not scared. We have a massive network and a strong base of support behind us. All of this is a result of our work together and in tandem.

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