National Sections of the L5I:

Sri Lanka: from civil war to permanent revolution

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The ongoing offensive by the Sri Lankan army against the bases of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, indicates the determination of the present government to isolate and militarily defeat them.

A peace process initiated with Norwegian facilitators in September 2002 temporarily ended a conflict in which more than 65,000 people had already been killed. The agreement pledged both sides to seek “a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka”. Clearly this was far from recognition of the Tamils right to self-determination.

Government-LTTE negotiations effectively stalled in April 2003 when the latter walked out. Yet the ceasefire lingered on till 2005 when the government began a series of co-ordinated attacks on Tamil Tiger strongholds and civilian areas. Since then another 5,000 deaths have been recorded.1 In addition 200,000 people were turned into refugees and 600,000 are confined and denied their basic human needs.

Since early March this year the Cease Fire Agreement truly lies in tatters, with the army conducting aerial bombardments and invasions of the Tamil majority areas around Batticaloa, trying to recapture a LTTE occupied army base there. Recent splits within the LTTE and fighting between it and parts of the broader Tamil national movement, coupled with the damage caused to many Tamil fishing areas by the 2004 Tsunami disaster, have weakened resistance to army attacks. The government clearly senses an opportunity to break the military deadlock and seriously degrade the operational capacities of the Tamil Tigers, thus forcing a new ceasefire on much more favourable grounds.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake of the Sri Lanka Liberation Front (SLFP) head the current government in Colombo, which was elected in November 2005. They were elected promising a hard line against the LTTE, something they delivered when they escalated government attacks and provocations within a few months of the election.

Cause of the conflict
The ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka go back a long way. Sinhalese is an Indo-European language, related to the languages of Northern India and this majority (now 74 per cent) traces its descent to settlement from there in the 6th century BC. Tamil is a Dravidian language related to those spoken in the southern part of the sub-continent. The Tamil minority (now 18 per cent) settled in the north and east of the island in the 14th century AD though some argue there has been a Tamil presence for over 20,000 years. However the origins of national antagonism must be traced back to the British imperialists. They turned Ceylon into a giant plantation, exploiting the people there to grow tea for export. Using their invariable ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics they looked for a minority to grant privileges to in return for support for their domination and exploitation of the island. They employed some of the Tamil Hindu minority as their managers, ensuring that they had a better access to education and so on. This sparked divisions between them and the majority Buddhist, Sinhalese speaking population. When the British ended their direct rule of the country in 1948, they maintained a sizeable military presence in the country via several bases.

The Tamils are concentrated mainly in the north and the east of the country, especially in cities like Jaffna, which is home to around one million Tamils. The majority religion in Sri Lanka, and the religion of the government ministers, is Buddhism. The Tamils are mainly Hindus. Within the Tamil community itself there are two distinct groups, the Tamils that have lived in the country for hundreds of years and the Tamils that were brought over from India by the British to work in the plantations, often as indentured labour. From amongst the northern Tamils the British developed a privileged middle class stratum, placed in government jobs, educated to a higher level and incorporated into the colonial state. This contradiction formed the basis for an anti-Tamil political atmosphere after the British pulled out.

The Sinhala voting majority returned parties that provoked Tamil protests against their discriminatory laws. When the Tamils initially organised non-violent protests in the late 1950s against suppression of their language, Sinhala chauvinists responded with violent attacks on the Tamils in 1961, 1974, 1977 and 1979. In the early 1980s police-provoked pogroms were launched against Tamils living in the Sinhala dominated south. In 1981 an event which helped kindle a full scale Tamil uprising was the burning of the Jaffna library2. This was the great repository of Tamil culture in the island stretching back centuries. The vandalism destroyed over 95,000 rare manuscripts and books and was carried out by police and paramilitaries. These events proved to the Tamils that they could not rely on the country’s constitutional system or “forces of order” to defend them. The minorities were excluded from government and the state allowed or even carried out systematic attacks on them.

The early resistance movements were rooted in the youth. Many students from middle class backgrounds, like Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, were radicalised by what they went through in the 1970s. Their career aspirations in the civil service were thwarted through language restrictions, leading them to take part in sit-ins and demonstrations against the government. The violent attacks and persecution of their community drove them to favouring individual terrorist actions. One of Prabhakaran’s first political acts was the assassination of the mayor of Jaffna in 1975, carried out by members of his organisation, then called the Tamil New Tigers.

The relationship between the militant Tamil community and the Sinhalese security forces reached boiling point in 1983 when thirteen policemen were killed by LTTE members in Jaffna. In response mobs of chauvinist Sinhalese rampaged through the streets of major cities, including Colombo, burning down Tamil shops and homes. Around 1,000 Tamils were killed and many refugees fled from the southern areas. This was seen as a cataclysmic national event for the Tamils, and helped generate serious recruitment for the separatist rebels.

The Tamil Tigers
The LTTE is certainly the main armed resistance movement of the Tamils commanding around 10,000 militants. It was established in 1972 and has been run by Velupillai Prabhakaran with an iron hand since then. Its political programme is the familiar petty bourgeois national liberation programme of many post-world war semi-colonial resistance movements. It aims at creating a separate state for the Tamil minority. The LTTE strategy was to carry out an “armed struggle”, i.e. guerrilla warfare, in the areas of the country that were majority Tamil, called Eelam, the proposed name for a Tamil homeland. The LTTE sought support from international bourgeois institutions, hoping they would recognise and support their struggle.

The 1983 pogrom acted as a huge catalyst for recruitment to the LTTE. Many Tamils saw it as the only self-defence force available to them. However a number of other factors that year also helped consolidate more Tamils around the militant struggle of the separatists. First the government brought in a new law that forced all new MPs to swear allegiance to the united Sri Lankan state thus cutting off the “peaceful and democratic” avenue for solving the national question. This forced many supporters of Tamil independence or autonomy within government service to quit. Second the 100,000 people made into refugees by the pogroms formed a huge Tamil Diaspora which in turn helped to generate sympathy for the Tigers’ cause. This was rapidly translated into financial support and weaponry.

The LTTE began an all-out war against the Sinhalese majority government from July 1983 to 1987 which is called the First Eelam war. The initial conflict resulted in the LTTE being cornered in Jaffna and close to defeat before India intervened and called a halt to the fighting. As regional superpower, India had always been seen as a potential ally by many Tamils since it has a sizeable Tamil speaking section of the population which has historic ties to many of the Tamils living in Sri Lanka.

The UNP government in 1987 was obliged to sign a pact with the Indian government called the Indo-Lanka Accord, which promised to grant limited autonomy to the Tamils and place Indian troops in many of the insurgent controlled areas. The LTTE initially supported the Accord, but turned against it when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) began to forcibly disarm its fighters without any of the political promises being fulfilled. Before long the Tamil Tigers were fighting a war against the Indian forces: one which forced the IPKF to withdraw in 1990, leaving the Tamils not one step closer to their dream of an independent Eelam.

Revolutionary Socialists do not believe that the LTTE is the kind of leadership that the Tamils need to secure a progressive new society. Their history of violent attacks on other Tamil organisations, the dictatorial regime they run in the areas they control, the self-destructive tactics they use against Sinhala civilians, the use of child soldiers, are all means of struggle which do not help but hinder the cause of national liberation and self-determination. Such methods are evidence of the reactionary nature of much of the LTTE programme and political outlook. Their continued use of individual terror (assassination, suicide bombs in civilian areas) as a political tool has led to increasingly savage responses from the Sri Lankan government which has caused yet more suffering for the Tamils across the country. They have also failed to address many of the social needs of the Tamils and other people living in their areas of control. Above all the LTTE’s refusal to allow any opposition to exist or compete with them politically blocks the road to developing a better strategy and a better leadership – especially a working class party with a strategy of social revolution. Nevertheless whilst they represent the national resistance of the majority of the Tamil people it is the duty of revolutionary communists to do all in their power to assist the defeat of the government repression directed against them. A defeat of a government carrying on a reactionary war is in the interests of the workers and rural poor of all communities, including the Sinhalese. As Marx said, “a nation which oppresses another can never itself be free”. The waste of vast sums money and human lives on the war when there is so much poverty in the country, the restrictions on democratic rights and state repression within the Sinhala community too, are all testimony to this fact.

In areas that the LTTE control they used the auspices of the Cease Fire Agreement to establish themselves as a quasi-state formation. The agreement committed the government to respect the existing front lines; this left large rural areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers. They set up administrative organs in order to develop and maintain control over the civilian population, judicial courts, a police force and even banks and limited taxation. In many of the areas however the central Sri Lankan government was still operating, so the LTTE fused its political officers with these institutions and forced them to work under their joint command.

In March 2004 Colonel Karuna, a prominent Tamil Tiger leader, split from the LTTE amid allegations of fraud and personal corruption. His split took most of the Eastern units with him, thus seriously weakening the LTTE’s combat capabilities. It also threw the Sri Lankan government a lifeline to begin the process of breaking up the monopoly of control that the LTTE had established in the Eelam area. Karuna now works for the government, providing them with information which has led to the abduction of several leading Tamil cadres over the last few months. His organisation is also fighting an armed struggle against the LTTE which is sowing further divisions in the region and weakening the LTTE military might. This, combined with the government’s military offensive and a reduction of funding for the LTTE from abroad has led to successes of the military in retaking several bases that had been previously lost to the Tigers.

But no one should be fooled that a defeat of the LTTE would lead to peace in the region. It would lead to a police state over the Tamils who would be deprived of their national rights. That is why the peace process, as in Ireland, is a charade that the left should have nothing to do with. It is simply the mechanism through which the bourgeois and petty bourgeois leaders of the conflicting forces will try to manoeuvre each other into a corner. This results in the demobilisation of the struggle from the militant and subjectively revolutionary methods that were previously used to the dead end of parliamentary negotiations and international community brokered deals. It led to massive defeats for the Palestinians and if pursued it will lead to the same for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil question cannot be resolved unless the rights of the Tamils are recognised unconditionally. Socialists support their right to self-determination, up to and including the creation of a separate state if the Tamils freely express this wish. Yet we do not seek separation or the division of existing states as some sort of good in itself. We are not bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalists who believe every nation or nationality must have “their own” state, because even the most independent bourgeois states is no fatherland for the working class. “The working class has no country”. Indeed, all other things being equal, large states, multinational and multi-ethnic are more desirable, providing that is there is no element of forced unity. Why? Because they enable greater unity of the working class, across ethnic and racial divisions and a bigger arena in which to fight their exploiters and oppressors. The smaller the semi-colonial states, the more imperialism will seek to pit them against one another, dominate and exploit them. Hence we advocate voluntary socialist federation of states where workers have taken power. Marxists have held this view since Marx himself argued that the British workers must support the independence of Ireland while adding, “though after that may come federation”.

The present oppression of the Tamils and the constant attacks on their rights indicate the contempt with which the government in Colombo holds them. The Sri Lankan ruling class counterposes its own nationalist interests to the national rights and strivings of the Tamils. Their main parties view federal structures or regional autonomy in contempt, only juggling with the terms in order to politically deceive and disarm the Tamils with words that are never followed by deeds. They face generations of further oppression as the army attempts to crush the independence movement and drown the hopes of Tamil Eelam in blood. Socialists must resist this move by the government and work to force the democratic wishes of the oppressed Tamil nation to be granted in full. Whoever denies this is not even a democrat let alone a socialist.

Sinhalese nationalism[b]
The Sinhalese bourgeoisie used the political vacuum left open by the British withdrawal to develop a strong nationalist ideology to tie the poor and middle classes to a struggle for a Sinhala dominated country. This political movement also encouraged a hatred of the Tamil minority who had often been seen as the satraps of the ruling British in the country.

A coherent national Ceylonese identity began to emerge though a political protest against the colonial occupation, the Suriya Mal campaign in the 1920’s and 30’s, when Ceylonese people protested against the exorbitant sums of money leaving the country to pay for Poppies on Armistice day. Another important event was the Malaria epidemic of 1934 in which over 100,000 people died. The British administration appeared to care little and did very little to deal with the situation. The Youth Leagues put the death toll to the ‘direct result of the callousness and indifference of the state.’

These events, alongside strikes and working class actions up to 1935, led to the formation of an explicitly socialist party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). The new party was designed as a broad organisation that could unite both the socialist minded workers and intellectuals with the radical nationalists in the middle classes. Ceylon lacked a strong national bourgeoisie, so its national liberation struggle was co-ordinated and led by subjectively socialist militants. The LSSP rallied to Trotskyism and joined the Fourth International.

Under its influence from the 1930’s onwards the struggle for national liberation took on a general anti capitalist colouring, The LSSP accepted and defended the national rights of the Tamils. It became the party of the majority of the class -conscious workers. Yet in 1964, in an act of historic betrayal, it voted to support entry into the bourgeois government (see below).

The forging of a bourgeois Sinhala nationalist identity took on a particular zeal after 1948, and was legislatively reinforced and extended by successive governments, passing laws that institutionalised the domination of the Sinhala majority. For instance in 1948 the UNP administration passed a law that deprived around one million Tamils of citizenship rights, thus also upsetting the delicate balance of the post independence constitutional framework.

The major Sinhalese bourgeois parties – the UNP, SLFP and the JVP – are also arch opponents of any just solution for the oppressed Tamils..

The UNP was the major post independence bourgeois party and the first to form a government. It appealed to Sinhala majority and sections of the land owning classes; however it supported Ceylon remaining a Dominion of Britain whilst advocating pro-business policies to enrich the nascent bourgeoisie.

A split from it in 1951 formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, led by Solomon Bandaranaike who favoured a more vigorous approach to undermining the position of the Tamil minority. Shortly after taking power in the 1956 elections, the SLFP passed the notorious ‘Sinhala Only Act’, which made it the only official language of Ceylon. The SLFP has been the main trap for left wing parties as its populist nature and appeals for ‘socialism’ have blinded many would be revolutionaries into joining its governments; this is the fate that befell the LSSP after 1964.

At the last elections on 2 April 2004, the SLFP was part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance that won 45.6% of the popular vote and 105 out of the 225 seats in Parliament. The JVP was the largest partner in this alliance after the UNP and thus it became part of the government.

The JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) originated as an underground Maoist guerrilla movement, which launched an armed rebellion in 1971. It always had a strong streak of Sinhala nationalism which has increased in virulence over the decades. Its anti-imperialist rhetoric gave way to a pro-parliamentary orientation, culminating in their election to a popular front government in the mid 1990’s and their violent dismissal of any discussions between the government in Colombo and the LTTE. During the ceasefire they called on the USA to throw its full weight behind the ‘war on terror’ against the Tamil Tigers in the North and East of the country. The JVP is a reactionary chauvinist party for all its continued talk about socialism and communism (perversely its website still has a hammer and sickle on its home page).

Socialists must be clear on the reactionary nature of Sinhalese chauvinism and nationalism. It is an ideological tool of the ruling class in Sri Lanka to bind sections of the working class and poor to its political project of a unitary state. In order to subordinate both the ethnic/linguistic and the religious minorities of the country the continued domination of Buddhism and Sinhalese as the religious and linguistic official norms of Sri Lankan society to the exclusion of everything else leave no room for compromise. The logical conclusion of this political methodology is the crushing of social, religious or political movements that challenge the status quo.

[b]The tragedy and treachery of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party
The tragedy of Sri Lankan political history is the tendency for previously revolutionary parties to be co-opted into the reformist parameters of the Sinhalese ruling class and end up as mouthpieces for the reactionary forces in society. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the LSSP, which was previously the mass section of the Fourth International and the group that split away from it, the NSSP, have ended up as reformist parties who are part of the government.

As Workers Power wrote in its 1983 book Death Agony of the Fourth International:

“Throughout the 1950s the practice of the LSSP was increasingly limited to elections and trade unionism, not revolutionary agitation. In 1960 when the SLFP of the Bandaranaike family gained the largest number of seats and the LSSP lost two of their previous 12 seats, the “Marxist” leaders, Leslie Goonewardene, Colin de Silva and Bernard Soyaa were thrown into crisis. In 1956 they had given the bourgeois SLFP (which had enjoyed widespread support amongst the peasants, whom the LSSP had largely ignored) “responsive co-operation” when it was in government.

In 1960 they opted to give the new Bandaranaike government “critical support”. Here again, as in Bolivia, an FI section went beyond the defence of a government, which was carrying out democratic or anti-imperialist measures against domestic or imperialist reaction, to political support for that government (albeit with “criticisms”). Only in 1961 did the International Secretariat of the Fourth International (IS) and its World Congress call for a radical change in the political course being carried out by the LSSP, after the LSSP had already voted for the SLFP’s budget in 1960. Such criticism was too little, too late. The failure of the IS and (after 1963) the United Secretariat of the Fourth International to support the building of a fraction of the left in the LSSP, paved the way for the later treachery.”

The later treachery was that the critical support evolved into a “popular front” approach to the SLFP which resulted in the LSSP leader N M Perera becoming the finance minister of a bourgeois government. The 1964 conference of the LSSP voted to support this move and resulted in the LSSP degenerating from Trotskyism to reformism.

To share government with a Sinhala chauvinist party, the SLFP, meant of course abandoning the defence of the rights of the Tamils. Likewise its parliamentarism meant that in the late 1960s it lost the support of the revolutionary students and youth from the Sinhala community too, opening the way to the Maoists.

Though the party flourished in various coalitions in the 1960s and early 70s, with cabinet ministers, and control over powerful trade unions, it degenerated politically, espousing a reformist, indeed openly “Eurocommunist” approach. Yet in 1977 the LSSP lost all their parliamentary seats and in 1982 the UNP Government provoked a railway strike, which turned into a general strike. The government mobilisation of strikebreakers and police repression smashed the strike and broke the trade unions. This was a historic defeat. The LSSP effectively lost its mass base. Since then there have been several much smaller Trotskyist groups and parties which we do not have the space here to analyse in full but to which we will return in further articles.

Permanent revolution
Socialists recognise that a capitalist Tamil state is no guarantee of a dramatic improvement in the living conditions of the majority of the poverty stricken workers and peasants that will live within its borders. The struggle of the ANC in South Africa shows that nationalist resistance movements do not automatically create more socially just and egalitarian societies. The ANC secured the right of black bourgeois figures to lead the country, and they proved unable to improve the lives of the exploited millions.

Socialists therefore must advance a programme of revolutionary measures that will not only allow the national aspirations of the Tamils to be fulfilled but also create the conditions for a revolutionary new form of society that can meet the needs of the working class and poor across the island.

However the narrow political aspirations of the LTTE also undermine their ability to rally significant support to their cause. They not only preach a form of Hindu chauvinism as a counter weight to the ruling parties’ Sinhalese chauvinism, they also alienate the majority of the island. Most working class Sinhalese receive no real benefit from the continued political hegemony of their religious and ethnic grouping; they can be won from the Sinhalese chauvinists to a united revolutionary party that addresses their needs. The overarching slogan for revolutionaries in Sri Lanka should be for a socialist federation of the whole region, which would provide not only the economic basis for emancipation of the urban poor and working class but also the only framework for really answering the needs of the nationally oppressed.

Socialists must make clear that only a working class leadership of the Tamils which seeks to win over workers from the Sinhalese speaking majority can provide an answer. Their programme should include demands for full nationalisation of the major industries and agribusinesses under workers control, with no compensation for the bosses.

The pinnacle of our programme is the call for the creation of workers’ councils in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations when the rising level of mass struggles requires coordination and when the crisis of leadership in the trade unions and parties with influence in the working class urgently needs to be overcome. Democratic debate over tactics and strategy, and unity in action: these enable the rapid change and development necessary in heightened periods of class struggle. Workers councils allow for just this. Indeed workers often spontaneously create such forms of organisation during the course of struggle. But there is one other vital element – a force that has worked out a revolutionary strategy, has trained and prepared leaders who can offer an alternative at the crucial moment, who will strive for the workers’ councils to seize the power. In short a revolutionary party. The role of the revolutionary party is to know when the class antagonisms reach the point when only a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class can resolve the crisis in favour of the working class.

But soviet type bodies do not spring fully formed from nowhere. Local delegate-based committees to organise resistance to military, police and JVP repression, to support workers struggles against the government programme of privatisations and attacks on the working and living conditions of the poor and working class – such bodies could be established now. United across the whole island they alone could co-ordinate a serious fightback against the state and the employers. The struggle for working class power, for a socialist federation in Sri Lanka and the entire region, will only go forward when a powerful revolutionary organisation is built which can combine both principled support for the Tamils’ right to self determination with a united revolutionary class struggle against imperialism, against the Sri Lankan capitalists and their government. To this task the League for the Fifth International and its sympathisers in Sri Lanka should dedicate themselves in the years ahead.
• Sri Lankan troops out of Tamil areas
• Solidarity with the LTTE and all Tamil forces resisting government attacks
• Self-determination for the Tamils, up to and including the right to form an independent state
• United Nations out of Sri Lanka, all aid to the Tamil regions to be channelled through working class and Tamil organisations
• For the right of all refugees to return home
• Nationalisation of major companies and industries under workers control
• Independent trade unions in Sri Lanka, for a new revolutionary party for all workers and socialist youth in Sri Lanka
• For workers’ revolution and a government of workers and poor peasants
• For a socialist federation of Sri Lanka as part of a Socialist Federation of South Asia!