Discussion on Sri Lanka

Siritunga Jayasuriya from the United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka) led off the congress discussion on the recent dramatic developments in Sri Lanka. Several other comrades contributed to the discussion, including Srinath Perera, also from Sri Lanka, and Jagadish Chandra, who visited Sri Lanka often to take part in the work of the USP.

Since the last presidential election, in November 2005, the economic and political situation in Sri Lanka has gone from bad to worse. Mahinda Rajapakse was elected as president with the support of the communalist, ex-Maoist JVP (Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna – People’s Liberation Front), the reactionary and racist Buddhist monks’ party, the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya), the CP (Communist Party), and a few other so-called ‘left’ forces.

This presidential election marked a turning point and split the country into pro-war and pro-peace camps. A prominent JVP leader was Rajapakse’s election organiser and propagandist. Together they created an explosive formula for the election slogan. Their election propaganda based itself on anti-imperialist, anti-globalisation, and anti-American slogans combined with anti-LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and anti-peace deal rhetoric. They successfully misled many workers and poor people into voting for Mahinda Rajapakse.

They even got the support of a majority of the trade union leaders in the country. In the north, the LTTE took a decision not to support any parties and prevented the Tamil masses from voting. This massively improved Rajapakse’s chances of winning. However, significant numbers of votes went to Ranil Wikramasinghe, the leader of the capitalist UNP (United National Party) who stood on a pro-peace programme.

 

Chauvinism

 

Soon after Rajapakse became the president, he began to fill the government with Buddhist chauvinist racists and with members of his own family. Rajapakse is himself considered to be a ‘pure’ Sinhala Buddhist, as he was the first president to have come from the ‘deep south’, unlike other Colombo-based leaders. Since gaining independence, Sri Lanka has never seen an openly ‘Buddhist’ capitalist government.

The president did everything to create fertile ground for the communal forces, such as the JVP and JHU. They moved into action quickly and began sabotaging the peace process. The Karuna group, a split-away wing of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) working with the Sri Lankan Army, also begun its ruthless operation in the east and the south with the blessing of the president. Killings and kidnappings for ransom became an almost daily occurrence in Colombo. Apart from the LTTE’s political front - the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) - nobody was prepared to take up the issue in parliament.

The USP (United Socialist Party) took an initiative to give leadership. It was a very dangerous task and a demanding one, in terms of resources and the forces required.

Tamils in Colombo had a meeting and invited the USP to attend, together with other opposition parties. In the meeting of over 500, the Civil Monitoring Committee (CMC) was formed and Siritunga Jayasuriya, General Secretary of the USP, was appointed chairperson of the CMC. Since then, the USP has been a powerful voice against the killings and the kidnappings. The USP helped to raise this issue in the mass media. The government’s direct involvement in this matter was brought to the attention of the wider public. In a heated one-to-one debate with the president, Siritunga Jayasuriya brought to his attention the JVP’s communalism and gave an example of a JVP member giving a racist speech in an army camp in the north. In disbelief, the president had to call his brother, the Defence Secretary, to confirm this! Such is the extent to which communalism is getting out of control.

 

Resumption of war

 

War was quickly back on the agenda. Government ‘security’ measures were frantically implemented. After the failed assassination attempt, in November, last year, of the Defence Secretary, the notorious ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ was brought back again. But this time, the President could not win enough support to ban the LTTE.

There are now security posts every 100 yards in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. Check points and armed security raids make the lives of people even more miserable.

Due to international pressure, the president intends to maintain the status quo with the LTTE and to push ahead with neo-liberal policies. This created conflict with the JVP. Rajapakse did not enjoy a majority in the parliament and depended on the JVP for support. To resolve this, for the first time in the history of the SLFP, it began talks with the UNP. Despite the UNP receiving hundreds of thousands of votes a pro-peace programme it completely ignored them. The pro-peace mask of the UNP was easily torn off. Together with the SLFP, the UNP created a ’memorandum of understanding’ (MOU).

This government not only stopped all the peace initiatives taken by the previous government but is also trying to destroy the agreements made in the Rajiv -Jayawardene Pact, made between the former leaders of India and Sri Lanka, in July 1987.

The situation is further exacerbated by the JVP systematically fuelling communal tensions in the south. The JVP also calls for a ban on the LTTE. The LTTE is already banned in the EU, US and India. However, there is international pressure not to ban the LTTE in Sri Lanka, as it will create complications for initiating any peace negotiations with the Tigers. Banning the LTTE will not have any significant effect, as its operations are effectively banned in the government-controlled areas and it will mean nothing in the areas that the LTTE already control. But the JVP is promoting the ban to provoke and create ethnic tensions.

The Sri Lankan government believes that the LTTE can be militarily defeated. Since the peace process began, in 2002, it has spent millions of dollars on purchasing military hardware from Pakistan and Israel. Recently, the government made an arms deal with Pakistan worth $250 million. The change in the international attitude towards so-called terrorist, national liberation movements, and the acceptance by capitalist powers of the Israeli unilateral attack on Lebanon, last year, gave many neo-colonial rulers the confidence to get away with brutality, as long as have the support of imperialism. The EU, all the so-called ‘donor countries’ and the US reportedly released statements in support of the Sri Lankan government.

 

Not preferred solution

 

A military solution to the situation is not the preferred option of these countries, as they want a relatively calm situation for capitalist investment. But they announced they will keep out of Sri Lanka and leave it to the government to ‘solve’ the problem. Even the Norwegians, who negotiated peace deals in the past, stated that they would not intervene in the current situation. The JVP continually conducted propaganda against the Norwegians (including calling them “salmon-eating busybodies”!). The president recently accused some foreign NGOs of helping the LTTE. In the past, Chandrika Kumaratunge - ex-Sri Lankan president and ex-SLFP leader - accused the Norwegians of helping the LTTE to set up a radio station which was bombed to the ground soon after Rajapakse was elected.

The clampdown on LTTE operations, worldwide, and particularly in the US, and the Karuna group’s support for the government, gave confidence to current Prime Minister Rajapakse. Despite the monstrous allocation of over 40% of the last budget to defence, there is simply no money for war. Sri Lanka was already declared a ‘failed’ country. Prices are rocketing. Inflation is above 21%, which could be among the worst in the world. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, the Sri Lanka Central Bank resorted to printing paper money, a measure which has been ridiculed by even the most right-wing economists and media. Foreign investment is also rapidly decreasing.

The government is determined to cut money from education, health and other public services, which has already made an impact on working people and the poor. Driving down living conditions to fund war is naturally creating much anger and discontent.

It is a complete underestimation by the government to believe that the LTTE can be defeated militarily. The LTTE made devastating attacks on the Sri Lankan Army.  They reportedly have more rockets than Hizbollah. Recently, the Tigers captured a ship from Jordan, which was heading for South Africa. They took 14,000 metric tonnes of food and all the equipment they needed. This ship remains moored off an LTTE-controlled area, with the Sri Lankan navy still fearful to go anywhere near it!

 

Ruthless attacks

 

The Tigers are completely aware of the Karuna factor in the conflict and it may have some effect. The LTTE is not finished, as the government would like to believe. The LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in his Martyrs’ Day speech, announced his movement would go back to the demand for Eelam (separate self-government). They also hinted the war will not be the same as previous wars. They gave an indication that bombs will go off in the south, if the war intensifies in the north. Last year, there was a government bombing of a school that killed more than 60 innocent people in the north and a recent bus bombing in the south.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE indicate they are prepared to wage a ruthless attack on civilians, which is an attempt to polarise ethnic divisions even further. Polarisation along ethnic lines is at a historical high. This is destined to claim more lives. Last year, more than 3,500 people died, which is almost as high as the number of deaths in Afghanistan.

Tamils in the north live in what has become an open prison. Death by hunger is another new feature created by the war-mongering government. More than half a million Tamils in the north are starving. The cost of essential products in the north has never been so high. A small child’s milk carton is now sold for more than five times the price in Colombo. One egg costs about sixty rupees. One coconut costs 120 rupees. The cost of living index rose by 700% in the north.

The government still refuses to open the A9 route, which is the only road that takes vital supplies to the north. Meanwhile, the president’s salary has gone up by 300%. Ministers’ salaries have risen by 200% and MPs’ salaries by 150%. Even worse, these incredible salary rises were backdated for two years! All political parties in parliament, including the so-called left JVP, voted for the obscene pay rises.

Starvation, military occupation and fear of war are driving northern Tamils towards the east of the island and to India. One fifth of the population is displaced. Thousands of refugees landed in TN (Tamil Nadu) state in India, which has a 60 million-strong Tamil population. The anger and sympathetic feelings of Tamils in India opened up a new opportunity to the TN ruling class, whose representatives play a key role in the Manmohan Singh central India government.

 

Attitude of Indian government

 

India faced an almost similar situation after the Sri Lankan government’s military operation in the north, which led to the deployment of the ‘Indian Peace-Keeping Force’ in the 1980s. This time, the Indian prime minister announced they will not act in the conflict in the same way, despite the pressure of Tamil Nadu politicians to intervene. India, however, also does not want any other international forces to intervene in Sri Lanka, as it aims to maintain its domination of the sub-continent. It is playing a dual role. While trying to establish a strong economic relationship with Colombo, it is concerned about the probability of growing Tamil national feelings in Tamil Nadu.

When Rajapakse went to Delhi for talks, the Indian prime minister apparently refused to be photographed with him, so as not to upset the TN ruling class in southern India. But the talks did go ahead and there were no public disagreements.

The recent arrival of an Indian ship laden with food to the north of Sri Lanka is another symbolic message to the Sri Lankan ruling class that India has still not given up its regional interest. (China also made an agreement with India regarding economic policy and security issues.)

The Muslims in the East of Sri Lanka are the most exploited people in the country. All the leading political parties ignore their rights. The Muslim Congress, which assumes leadership of the Muslims in the country, recently visited Pakistan asking for help. Most of the Sri Lankan military’s hardware comes from Pakistan. They also train the Sri Lankan Army. Pakistan president, Musharraf, promised $400 million in aid and will be interested in protecting his interests in Sri Lanka and the region and in countering Indian imperialism. Pakistan also realises that the creation of an autonomous region in the east for Muslims would exacerbate the explosive national question in Pakistan. As a consequence, just like India, the Pakistan regime will not act in the interest of the poor masses.

 

Prospects for the region

 

If the conflict in Sri Lanka goes further out of control, it will have a massive impact in the whole region. For obvious reasons, nobody in ruling circles is prepared to defend the right to self-determination of the Tamils in the north and of the Muslims in the east. The current Sri Lankan government does not consider granting even minimal autonomy to Tamils.

Sri Lanka as a country is more polarised than ever. We should not underestimate the ethnic divisions created and cemented during the long period of ethnic tension. Under the current situation we can expect this to reach new highs.

There will not be any solution within a capitalist framework. The only way to solve the conflict is to unite the working class and the oppressed masses to fight for the socialist transformation of society. In the best traditions of the old LSSP – a mass Trotskyist party in Sri Lanka – the USP fights for all the rights of the oppressed masses. The USP calls for full self-government with enhanced autonomy in the north and east, with full safe-guards for the democratic rights for Muslims in the east. All proposals in relation to the national question, as well as a programme on the urgent social issues, should be decided by the masses on a genuinely democratic basis, with socialists in the forefront of the struggle.

As the only left force in the country fighting for this position, the United Socialist Party and especially its general secretary, are exposed to grave dangers. Speakers during the CWI World Congress discussion on Sri Lanka spoke of the huge esteem in which the comrades of the USP are held in Sri Lanka and saluted their courageous work.

The international campaign of protest against the Sri Lanka government’s renewed war and attack on democratic rights, and the solidarity given to the USP and the Sri Lanka working class, must be continued with vigour (See articles on the socialistworld.net.)

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