FLSP represents the common people | Daily News

FLSP represents the common people

Pics by Ranjith Asanka
Pics by Ranjith Asanka

Front Line Socialist Party (FLSP) leader Kumar Gunaratnam, having finally received his Sri Lankan citizenship, in an interview with the Daily News vows to continue with his political struggle to bring about a socialist state in Sri Lanka. At a time where all parties are in coalition with each other, Gunaratnam senses that it is the right time for the FLSP to step in and provide leadership for the common man's protests and struggles. Excerpts follow:

Q. You have finally received Sri Lankan citizenship you fought for, what do you plan to do now?

A. The main struggle to get Sri Lankan citizenship was to engage in politics. I had engaged in politics democratically for many years, and I had to leave the country because of a threat to my life. The citizenship was not merely given, it was a result of a year-long fight by supporters, party members and other leftist parties which forced the government to grant it. We fought for it.

Q. Though you speak of democracy, many complain that your party itself is not very democratic and you use undemocratic means to get what you want?

A. We have based the party's organisational structure on the principle of democratic centralism. The reason why people have such allegations is that many leftist parties the world over, and in Sri Lanka like the JVP, do not practise democratic centralism properly. But we in 2012 when we formed the FLSP identified this problem. The party was a result of this internal debate within the JVP for about 7-8 years. One of the areas discussed was the forming of coalitions with various governments and then leaning towards chauvinist, ultra-nationalist tendencies and the lack of internal democracy. So we practise politics away from such principles.

And unlike the SLFP or the UNP, leaders alone don’t make all the decisions; it is the members who make the decisions at a convention.

On February 1, we had our second party convention, and we discussed issues such as the national question, how do we create a mass movement and released some documents. For that, we had several discussions for months and debates and when they turned up at the convention, the members were well informed of what was being discussed.

Q. It is believed that smaller parties such as yours will not be able to come into power without forming coalitions with a major party. Do you think you can go it alone and form a government?

A. A belief exists that you have to form coalitions with major parties to get some parliamentary seats. But that is not the objective of a left movement. Our objective is socialism - the politics of the working people.

The workers, farmers, fishermen, students, women, and the oppressed minorities - and to stand for and fight for the economic problems of all these people - this is what the Left does.

We can’t achieve this by joining a major party; in coalitions, we only help these major parties achieve their own end goals.

Some ask if we are going to resort to something else, if we are not aiming for Parliament.

No, we will be using the Parliamentary system to the maximum. Our members will contest and our ideology will be taken to society. But that alone is not our goal, and we will engage in continuous politics with the ordinary people as well.

People usually engage in politics every five years but we want to mould citizens who engage in politics continuously for five years - so they stand up for their rights in education, health, agriculture and so on… they all have to be organised to tackle these problems.

Q. Just because they organise themselves to fight against certain issues that may affect them, it does not mean that all of them will be your party supporters. How do you plan to build your party base through this?

A. Yes, such fights are always there, but what we are saying is that we will provide the leadership for such struggles and help them continue with it. We find that most often, these struggles are short lived and soon fizzle out. Today we have the objective reality needed for a continuous struggle; you need money to educate your child in a good school; for the best medicine, you need to go to private hospitals. If you take the national question, the Tamil and the Muslim minorities have had the same problem for many years; it has not been solved. The problems are the same every time. We don’t care what party they support; we don’t want to turn them into FLSP supporters; if so we will always have a very small support base. Let them support any party they want, but we want them to support our continuous struggle. The process will provide a moment where our vote base will automatically be built and they will vote for us. We are in no hurry for that. We will not immediately go and try to convert someone into a FSLP member. The neoliberal society we live in has many ideologies and it cannot solve the problems of our society. It has many economic experts. Tthey will tell us that a crisis is coming and many such crises will come, but they will not be able to stop them. Once a crisis comes, they will advise the banks what to do and so it continues. That is capitalism; that is the system and it cannot be stopped.

Q. What you say has been the mantra of every leftist party, but you still have not been able to build a mass movement?

A. That is true. Do we all speak the same thing? We do all read the same books; Marx, Lenin, Engels all have the same literature in their libraries. The importance is our practice, how do we differ in that. The concept of a continuous struggle has not been spoken of by the JVP or any other party. They are issue based, and only fight on an issue when the elections are near. In the end, whatever protests you hold, if you go help Mahinda Rajapaksa form a government, then help Sarath Fonseka and then again the UNP coalition to get Maithripala Sirisena be President, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister - things don’t change very much.

Q. The FLSP is generally perceived as being more radical than the JVP? Wouldn’t you appeal to the masses more if you were to choose a more moderate path?

A. We need to know the definition of what radical is. Are we radical in comparison to the JVP which is more moderate? Rather than comparison, we should look at the FLSP as just a left movement. You need to look at the programme we are putting forward for the people. The more you ask us to become moderate, what you truly want us to do is to join one of the major parties and fit into their agenda and influence their policies for the better. But this system is out of date; it cannot be fixed no matter what. It has been 69 years since Independence, but we are still in the same place. Every time someone thinks they can clean up the system from within, they simply end up kneeling before it. It happened to the Communist Party, Lanka Sama Samaja Party, and the JVP. Therefore, we have to swim against the tide, we have no choice.

Q. How will this new system work?

A. The main principle is that it will be controlled by the ordinary people and their representatives. The system of governance will be the same, but they will be chosen from the bottom. If you take a factory, decisions will be taken from the bottom up. If you take the courts, while you will still have the higher courts, there will be many district courts that are involved too.

If you take the tax system, most of it comes from the poor - 80 percent is taxed from the poor and just 20 percent from the rich. They say the rich have to start factories for us to have jobs. What we say is that the government should intervene on behalf of the people. And profit is not the main aim, today production is where profit is and that is one of the main reasons why crisis occur. So we say that production should suit people's needs. The government will not dictate what the people need, it will be democratically decided, so there will not be anarchy.

This can be in the form of cooperatives, joint farms, large factories owned by people and economic plans will be made by a central economic planning centre.

There will be a private sector and the government will work with them, but the key areas will be handled by the government. The private sector will not be able to cause a financial crisis.

Q. Your party is very strong in the universities and many of the student unions are allegedly supported by the FLSP. And their fights are very much issue based, do you think your ideologies are filtering through to the grassroots?

A. It is baseless to say that the unions are supported by the FLSP. We have our own union called the Revolutionary Student Union (RSU) and they work in the universities. They help the IUSF in their agitations but the IUSF is controlled by the students themselves. Our main base is not the students, we deal with the working people; they are the key, not the students. We practise politics with all groups, we don’t control the student movement.

Q. The Sri Lankan government is formulating a new Constitution, and it is expected to solve the national question. What is your opinion?

A. The national questions cannot be solved by a new Constitution because several constitutions were brought before this and none of them solved anything. The root cause of this problem lies in the fact that the Tamils and thre Muslims of this country do face national oppression - we have to admit that. Nationalistic and chauvinistic political parties use it for their advantage. These differences have existed from the time of the British, and it was used by these parties for their advantage.

Then we had a horrible war and the communities were separate further; the Mahinda Rajapaksa government thereafter made things worse. The current government is not doing anything to help resolve it either. In such a situation, we must look to build linkages and connections between the communities; a new Constitution will not do that. Everybody in government says people should get together but just because you say that; it will not happen. We need a national programme for that and all issues that gave way to these problems have to be practically resolved. If those in the North want their land back, it should be given back. Questions of language should be resolved.

A new Constitution will only help the politicians of the North and South; it will not resolve the issues of both sides.

What is common to the oppressed of both sides is their economic woes. Our suggestion is an equal rights movement and through this we can resolve the common issues. And in this, the majority Sinhalese oppressed must take the initiative and build trust so that we can all fight together.

Q. You come from a Sri Lankan Tamil background, but this has not been an obstacle in your path to leadership. Have you found more freedom within the Left?

A. If you follow the right leftist policies, a person’s caste or ethnicity doesn’t matter. I represent the common people of this country; I do not care what ethnicity they are. That is the way I look at the national question too. We all should fight together as one country and one people. But a capitalistic system cannot bring about this change.

We have seen that in the last couple of governments. As a party we don’t have ethnic issues, and we will fight against any situation where there are chauvinistic policies, and we will not care if we lose our vote base because of that - that is the left conscience.

Q. In 2012, when you left the JVP you pointed out its chauvinistic policies motivated you to leave. The JVP too started as a leftist party with your ideals, so why did things change?

A. When the JVP started, there was no chauvinism. Different people join a party with various ideologies, but the party should have the power to bring all its members, sympathisers and supporters to one place through its ideology. But from 2000-2010 there was a decline in these policies and the main reason was the war at the time, and the complicated political situation which arose through it. The JVP could not analyse that situation with its left ideology. I too am to be blamed for that as I was within the politburo of that time and whatever personal stand I would have taken at the time, I had a collective responsibility. That is why I said we had many an internal debate on it.

By 2004, when the coalition with Mahinda was made, the party had completely embraced its chauvinistic policies and its main target was to defeat the LTTE in the war. They chose not to speak against the injustices meted out to the Tamil people and they eventually got pushed into the corner by Mahinda Rajapaksa and he made use of them.

Q. Do you think you can avoid the fate that befell the JVP?

A. Clearly. Because I believe in the strength of our ideology and our practice. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in 2011, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan disappeared; they both worked in Jaffna and they fought on behalf of the Tamil people. This shows that we fought for our ideologies no matter what.

Q. You speak of an equal movement, but we see that not many left parties give prominence for women at leadership roles. Isn’t it the same with the FLSP?

A. Yes in reality we don’t see that; we see that as a shortcoming. The main reason for this is the backwardness of our society. Women are very much oppressed and less women are coming into politics. Those who are there are mostly related to political families. We have discussed this seriously.

At our recent convention, we didn’t have a single female central committee member being appointed.

Q. You are now 51 and a good part of your life you have been fighting for your politics, do you see an end to all this? Can there ever be retirement?

A: To me the only answer is the ‘struggle’. This system gives us impossible dreams and many spend their whole lives running to fulfill these endless goals; not many realise them but we are all running. So what do we do in that instance? Do we accept it? Or fight against it and change it? To me this is the only path; there is no retirement.

We take inspiration from leaders like Fidel Castro, who engaged in politics to the end - our roles may change over time, but it is our responsibility to go on. 


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