National Sections of the L5I:

Tamils under attack

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July’s carnage on the streets of the capital Colombo was neither a new nor an unexpected event. Attacks on the 2.8 million minority Tamil population have been regularly aided and abetted by Sri Lanka’s 30,000 strong police force and army 98% of whom are drawn from the 11 million strong Sinhalese majority population.

Anti Tamil pogroms have occurred, with mounting savagery, in 1958, 1961, 1977 and 1981. In the latest pogroms, at least 300 Tamils were butchered in a few days. Homes, shops, factories belonging to Tamils in Colombo were looted and burned. Between 80,000 and 100,000 were left destitute and herded into the 17 refugee camps skirting the capital.

The most intense period of communal killing came after July 23rd, when 13 Sinhalese soldiers were killed in an ambush that was carried out by the Tamil Tigers a guerrilla grouping operating in the North since 1977. This attack was itself response to months of intensified repression by the security forces. Since June 3rd, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) estimate that over 2,000 Tamils have been killed.

The British press reports those and other examples of ‘communal strife’ as though they confirmed how ‘backward’ these countries are. In fact such antagonisms are an endlessly repeated pastern in Britain’s ex colonies in Cyprus, Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine, Malaya and, not least, in Ireland.

They are a legacy of British imperialism’s method of administering its colonies, with limited numbers of troops and colonial administrators quite unable to hold down an empire, the British were masters at divide and rule. Wherever Possible they based their colonial administration on minority peoples, systematically stoking up communal antagonisms. Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was no different.

In 1802, under cover of the Napoleonic wars, Britain took over from the Dutch. After the 1850s, when tea replaced coffee as the island’s main export crop, the real power lay with the tea barons of Lipton’s and Brooke Bond. Ceylon’s economy was effectively controlled from London’s Mincing Lane.

It was the form of political control that the British sponsored to safeguard their super profits that explains the ethnic rivalry today. Britain selected out the ‘Ceylonese Tamils’ (about half of all of it in Sri Lanka) as a privileged caste to administer the state bureaucracy. Those Tamils are the descendants of the original Tamil population who came to the island from Tamil Nadu in India thousands of years ago. They form a majority in the North and Eastern provinces, The ‘Indian Tamils’ on the other hand, were brought over as conscript labour from India to provide an agricultural proletariat on the tea plantations of the South Highlands. Today, they are the most oppressed and super exploited section at the Sri Lankan proletariat.

Whole families work for less than £2.00 per day. They survive on handouts of rice. Only about a quarter at these workers have the right to vote and, since 1965, some 300,000 of them have been forcibly ‘repatriated’ to India.

The British colonial administration, however, treated the Ceylon Tamils quite differently. They gave them privileges by way of education and employment. They developed out of these Tamils pro imperialist, English educated elite which could be trusted to exercise political control over the mass of Sinhalese workers and peasants and the Tamil plantation workers. By 1948, whilst forming only 10% of the population, the Ceylon Tamils occupied some 90% of civil service posts, professional jobs and accounted for nearly 50% of the armed forces and of the total labour force.

The contradictions lodged in this situation were bound to explode sooner or later once independence had been granted. It was inevitable, given universal suffrage, that the demands of the Sinhalese majority, particularly the national bourgeoisie, would gain ground.

Since 1948, political power has bean held by one or another party of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie. The 1947 elections gave power to the United National Party (UNP). This patty is the most conservative, most slavishly pro imperialist. It traditionally represents the big Sinhalese landowners and, today, the higher and middle level ranks of the state bureaucracy and the management of the state sector.

The alternative party of government for the Sinhalese bourgeoisie has been, and remains, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Mrs Bandaranaike. This party is based more in the traditionalist, religious sector of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie, partly in the large areas of rice cultivation and partly amongst the landowners of the central highlands. The Buddhist monks themselves are considerable landowners and this helps to explain the SLFP’s virulent Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism which is part and parcel of its populist demagogy. The pace of anti Tamil ‘reforms’ meet further and faster under SLFP governments in the 1960s and 1970’s

Whether it was under the SLFP or the UNP the Tamils of Sri Lanka have been systematically victimised. The political, educational and language privileges of the Ceylon Tamils have all but gone. They are systematically discriminated against in education through a ‘standardisation’ scheme which demands higher levels of achievement before Tamils can qualify for higher education. In employment, Tamils now occupy less than 5% of the civil service posts and professional jobs and general unemployment is proportionately greater for them than for the Sinhalese.

Further, in the 1970’s the government institutionalised Sinhala as the only state language and has promoted Sinhalese colonisation of the predominantly Tamil areas, particularly in the East, to break down Tamil national cohesiveness.

The Sinhalese bourgeoisie has constantly used communal antagonisms, born of the imperialist domination, to offset class antagonisms and to obscure the independent class interests of the Sinhalese workers. There are some 4 million workers in Sri Lanka the majority of them are Sinhalese and they are concentrated in the South West region in and around Colombo. Over half of this class are agricultural labourers working on the coconut and rice fields. About 26% moth on the tea plantations. Of these workers the majority are Indian Tamils who produce the bulk of the super-profits in Sri Lanka. About 20% of the proletariat works in industrial enterprises, mainly small scale ones. Working class unity has been only sporadic, nevertheless it has occurred, most dramatically in the general strike of 1947.

By and large, however, working class parties have been hated amongst the Sinhalese workers. The main party of the left wing, the Lanka Sews Samaja Party (LSSP) now the Name Saws Samaja Parry (NSSP) was formally a Trotskyist party in the early years after independence and undertook work amongst both Tamil and Sinhalese communities. It also argued in a principled way for Tamil rights among the Sinhalese workers where it had its main base. In reality, however, the LSSP was always an uneasy coalition of revolutionises and Social Democrats. After 1956 and the wave of Sinhalese chauvinism generated by the SLFP the LSSP capitulated to this chauvinism, eventually entering a Popular Front government with the SLFP in 1963/4. This government attacked Tamil rights and introduced austerity measures against the whole of the working class.

The failure of the left wing parties like the LSSP to overcome the communal divide has had two major consequences for today. It has left a chronic political and communal disunity in the Sri Lankan working class at the level of the trade unions. These are not only divided along white collar/manual and private sector/public sector lines but, within these division each major party and communal grouping has its own allied union. There are consequently over two dozen union federations. Fighting for unity of the Sinhalese and Tamil workers, fighting for trade union unity, is an urgent task for any revolutionary organisation in Sri Lanka today.

The second consequence of the betrayals of the Tamils by the LSSP has been to allow the Tamil bourgeois nationalists to consolidate their hold over the Tamil wastes. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Ceylon Tamil parties were small, with little parliamentary representation, more concerned to do a deal with the ruling party than to press Tamil grievances.
The Indian Tamils were no better served by the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) the union which dominates the plantation workers and is led by Thondamon, himself a large landowner, slavish follower of the UNP and a cabinet minister in the present government.

Because the left tailed the Tamils, these bourgeois nationalists have seen their power grow stronger. The TULF (the alliance of the Tamil parties) was the main parliamentary opposition with 17 seats until Jayawadene banned it recently. The growing strength of petty bourgeois nationalism is also to be seen in the formation and the growth of the Tamil Tigers, an openly separatist grouping which grows at the expense of the constitutionalist TULF which has hitherto sought devolved local powers for the Tamil bourgeois. Events this year have forced the TULF to adopt a separatist rhetoric, Jayawardene has lowered unemployment by attracting foreign investment from Europe and Asia, promising conditions of exploitation and return on capital on the Hong Kong model. Economic growth improved a little as a result but only at great cost to the workers and poor peasants. Yet, even this improvement went alongside further rounds of indebtedness to the IMF which presently stands at over El billion, Currently, the IMF is negotiating more savage cuts in return for another $1120 million.

The UNP’s response to these measures has been for President Jayawardene to pursue an ever more Bonapartist course. He has sought powers at the expense of a parliament which his party dominates anyway and has unleashed the army on the Northern Tamil areas. He has brought in draconian ‘anti terrorist’ legislation. He has pushed through a referendum suspending elections for six years. Since the end of July he has instituted heavy press censorship and banned the three main left wing parties

The world economic crisis has hit Sri Lanka and Jayawardene has to try ever more desperately to scapegoat the Tamils in order to escape the wrath of the Sri Lankan masses. Thus, he was prepared to cure against the last elements of the power and privileges of the Ceylonese Tamils. Although they had suffered immeasurable cultural and political discrimination over the last decades, in and around Colombo they still owned 60% of wholesale trade outlets and 60% of retail trade. Jayawardene was happy to divert the grievances of the Sinhalese poor against the Tamil petty bourgeoisie a trick made possible because the latter held the debts of many Sinhalese workers. During the July pogroms Tamil predominance in commerce has been largely wiped out. However, the Sinhalese workers’ “benefits” from all this will be ephemeral; their Tamil creditors will be swiftly replaced by Sinhalese ones.

What are the tasks of revolutionaries in Sri Lanka when faced with the Pogrom government of Jayawardene? An acid test of revolutionary firmness is the defence 0t the Tamils against Sinhalese chauvinism, The Tamils have been melded into an oppressed nationality by the discriminatory acts of the government, the brutal assaults of the armed forces and the inflamed mobs. Whilst the goal of separation or partition at Sri Lanka, the creation of a Tamil Eelam state, is itself an undesirable and retrograde step for the masses of Sri Lanka it is the absolute duty at Trotskyists to defend the right of the Tamils to self determination up to and including separation.

The real answer to the plight of the Tamils and the Sinhalese proletariat does not lie in the division of the island. A tiny Tamil state and a rump Sinhalese one will be even more at the mercy of Anglo American imperialism. The creation of ever more ‘nation states’ out of the intermixed communities in South Asia is a utopian and, indeed, reactionary project. But ‘unity’ based on repression, inequality and pogrom is far worse. The only rest solution is for the proletariat to strike out along the road of class independence from the nationalist petty bourgeoisie. In the first place the revolutionary Trotskyist vanguard has to take the lead in defending the democratic tights of the Tamils.
They most also fight for democratic slogans which affect the whole population. The corrupt electoral system is weighted towards the Sinhalese peasantry. It discriminates not only against the disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers but against the urban Sinhalese. The demand for universal, equal and direct suffrage still has no be defended in Sri Lanka, as does the demand to abolish the Presidency and its special powers.

To these democratic demands revolutionaries must wield an action programme of immediate and transitional demands against Jayawardene’s austerity measures which hit at workers.
• Against the cuts in food subsidies.
• Against the cuts in social services and benefits.
• For the cancellation of all debts to the imperialist bankers and all payments to the former plantation owners.
• For workers’ control of the nationalised estates and enterprises.
• For a sliding scale of wages to defend living standards against the inflation caused by repeated devaluations at the rupee.
• For a real programme at agrarian revolution - take the land away from the big landowners and the state bureaucrats, ensure its collective, cooperative or individual ownership by those who work on it.

Only the winning of the proletariat and its natural allies amongst the oppressed rural and urban petty bourgeoisie to such a programme can point the way to working class power in Sri Lanka. Only this power can break out of the vicious circle of imperialist exploitation and a bourgeois nationalist demagogy which is bold only against the oppressed and exploited.