Sri Lanka: Decisive moment

The recapture of the strategic Elephant Pass by the Tamil Tigers inflicted a severe blow to the Sri Lankan army. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has declared a state of emergency, suspending democratic rights and demanding yet more sacrifices from working people. Will the Indian state intervene? At this crucial juncture of the island’s 17-year conflict, ELIZABETH CLARKE reports on the region’s sharpening political and national tensions.

After 17 years of an unresolved war in Sri Lanka, the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, delivered a ‘message to the nation’ on 23 May. She spoke of a ‘grave crisis’ and a ‘decisive moment’ facing the people of the island. Chandrika came to power in November 1994 promising peace between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tigers had launched an armed struggle to achieve a separate homeland for the Tamil people of the North and East of Sri Lanka after bloody pogroms in 1983 which saw thousands dead.

Today, after five years of being unable to resolve the conflict, and with the Sri Lankan Army on the verge of a major military defeat, Chandrika is struggling to save her government from disaster.

Since the LTTE took the strategically vital area of Elephant Pass on 22 April, the Tigers have been on a powerful drive north with the aim of recapturing what is regarded as their cultural capital, Jaffna city. They have also launched attacks on military bases in the East, near Batticaloa. Jaffna was taken from their control by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) in 1995, with thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of thousands made homeless.

Today the Liberation fighters, a force five to seven thousand strong – mostly young and half of them female – aided by overwhelming support amongst the Tamil population, have inflicted heavy losses on the 120,000-strong Sri Lankan army. With what amounts to an airforce and navy, as well as a well-equipped army, their struggle with the Sri Lankan state has taken on the character of a conventional war, rather than a series of guerrilla skirmishes. They routed two divisions at Elephant Pass and are now bombarding the last SLA-held sea and air-ports on the peninsula. If these are taken, there is no escape for the 30,000, possibly 40,000, government soldiers still in the area, who will become hostages to be bargained with in any subsequent negotiations.

Chandrika urged her forces towards a final victory in the interests of ‘safeguarding the people’ and ‘with the blessings of the people’. Yet in the same speech, she called on the hard-pressed workers of Sri Lanka to sacrifice two days’ pay every month for the war effort and to eschew all family and other celebrations. She cites the fact that cabinet ministers generously gave up a month’s salary and MPs did not draw the recent fat, back-dated salary increases they awarded themselves only a month ago!

Prices were already sky-rocketing before the massive increases in spending necessitated by the war situation. In response government workers launched a fight for a monthly wage of 3,000 rupees and demonstrations were building up against the privatisation of the post and of phosphate production. All such protests were banned under the ‘War Footing’ regulations. Along with the imposition of a draconian clamp-down on democratic rights – free speech, press freedom, the right to hold meetings, demonstrate and strike – has gone an increase in tax and a massive undermining of real wages through price rises on fuel and electricity. The war tax is now a 6.5% purchase tax which means that, with VAT and other taxes, total sales taxes are now just under 20%.

At least $850 million has been spent on new military equipment, and more military assistance is being sought in previously unlikely quarters like Israel and Pakistan. It would be ironic if the Israeli army, even if only in the capacity of advisers, got involved in a war by proxy against guerrilla insurgents in Sri Lanka, just as it is beating an ignominious retreat from Lebanon. As in the Lebanon, the liberation fighters have the zeal of their cause and are prepared to die for it, while the soldiers of the Sri Lankan army, like those of the Israeli army and their Southern Lebanon allies, have no heart for continuing the struggle.

Indo-Lanka discord

The israeli Chargé d’Affaires in New Delhi, Dan Stab, was visited, at the request of the Indian defence minister, George Fernandes, by V Gopalasamy or ‘Vaiko’, who leads the Tamil Nadu-based party MDMK in the Indian parliament (Lokh Sabha). His mission was to ‘caution’ against any action which may ‘harm the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka’. Vaiko has made no secret of the fact that he is personally pro-LTTE and pro-Eelam (a separate state for the Sri Lankan Tamils), like some other leaders of parties based in Tamil Nadu. Some of them participate in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government of AB Vajpayee. Most of them also insist that the Indian government should not send a single soldier to assist the Sri Lankan army in its struggle with the ‘Tigers’. Even evacuating the SLA would, in Vaiko’s opinion, open the way for an economic blockade of the Tamil North and cannot be supported. As the Sri Lankan deputy foreign minister Lakshman Kiriella commented, this is in contrast to the situation that existed the "last time when India intervened", in 1987, when "the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi was ‘all powerful’." (The Asian Age, 25 May)

The Jaffna peninsula is just a few miles across the Palk Strait from Tamil Nadu, India’s southern-most state. Although the ancestors of the Tamil people of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka left the Indian continent more than a thousand years ago, there are strong feelings of solidarity between them and the Tamil population of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. When, in 1987, an Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) was sent to Sri Lanka to implement the terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord brokered by Gandhi, many Tamils – even the LTTE itself – had illusions that the IPKF would arrive as a friendly force to resolve their problems. Many left parties in Sri Lanka, including the majority of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), supported the idea of an Indian intervention. But, as the minority in the NSSP around Siritunga Jayasuriya warned at the time, the Indian army, being the army of a capitalist power with its own interests in the region, would not assist the Tamil people to win their rights.

According to an article in The Asian Age, the current position of the Indian government is decidedly ‘No Eelam; no intervention’ (25 May). The US representative, Thomas Pickering, visiting New Delhi before going to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, added his voice to the chorus opposing separation and insisting on the unity and integrity of the Sri Lankan state. This position, incidentally, is shared by leading members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who have spoken in even more nationalist terms of ‘sacred sovereignty’.

India, in spite of being dominated by world imperialism, especially the USA, itself operates as an imperialist and dominant power in its relations with Sri Lanka. It has no interest in establishing the basic right of the oppressed Tamil people in Sri Lanka to self-determination, let alone to ending the rule of local big business, of multinational companies, the banks and the big landowners. Much of Sri Lankan industry and tea production is actually in the hands of Indian capitalists. Moreover, a separate state in North and East Sri Lanka, even without attacking these root causes of class oppression and poverty, would, as the International Herald Tribune put it on 23 May, "fan the flames of ethnic separatism". This would apply especially to the most aggrieved national entities within India’s borders – Tamil Nadu itself, Kashmir, Assam, etc. In fact, the politicians of the Tamil-based parties of India, mindful of their electorate, have threatened the Vajpayee government with withdrawal of Tamil Nadu from Indian rule if any support is given to the Sri Lankan army which has killed tens of thousands of their ‘kinspeople’ already.

Back in 1987, the Indian Peace-Keeping Force ended up battling with the Liberation fighters and losing as many as 1,500 troops. The Buddhist Sinhala chauvinists were opposed to their entry and were the most vociferous in demanding the departure of the Indian forces in 1990. An indication of the depth of the present crisis is that the same Buddhist ‘leaders’ are today calling for India to come to the aid of the Sri Lankan army.

As we go to press, the Indian government has made it clear that there will be no intervention until Jaffna has fallen and then strictly only ‘humanitarian’. The idea of a United Nations intervention seems to have been quite firmly discounted.

The Sri Lankan president’s appeal for unity to guarantee victory, and the declaration of a ‘War Heroes Day’ for 7 June, are aimed at boosting the flagging morale of the Sri Lankan forces, who are at the sharp end of this intractable war. Meanwhile, a flurry of diplomatic activity has been taking place to find a way out. While no official appeal has been made to the Indian government, Sri Lanka’s deputy foreign minister, Lakshman Kiriella, has been on a ‘private visit’ to India. The SLA joint operations commander, Rohan Daluwatta, was also there at the very time the emergency was declared. Everyone is suspicious that secret negotiations have been taking place. The Vajpayee government, meanwhile, has been insisting that it could do nothing about the conflict in Sri Lanka unless requested by both sides. Nevertheless, 30,000 Indian forces personnel have been amassed on the southern tip of India and an air commander says they are on six-hour alert (Guardian, 23 May).

"The Indian government will find it impossible to remain silent with this human tragedy unfolding", comments JG Jagadish, secretary of New Socialist Alternative, the socialist (CWI) organisation in India. "Refugees from battle-threatened Jaffna have been reaching India’s shores in spite of the ban on immigration and the Indian gun-boats patrolling the Palk Straits. The PT – a party in Tamil Nadu based on the low-caste Dalits – has declared that the Tamil Nadu government must welcome the refugees, even if the central government does not want to. Posters have already appeared celebrating the victory of the Tigers. One Indian Tamil party leader said, on the recent anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a Tiger suicide bomber, that there were fewer sympathisers for Rajiv than for the LTTE! The Indian government will almost certainly go in. But how will it go in? That is the question on people’s minds".

United Socialist Party (CWI) opposes Indian intervention

Direct military intervention from India on the side of the Sri Lankan government seems unlikely, especially after the humiliating experience of 1987-90. Intervention to assist with humanitarian aid, or the evacuation of civilians and of armed forces, is only possible with the agreement of both sides. But even operations of this character are fraught with the danger of being pulled into armed clashes with one side or another, giving rise to political as well as human casualties. More likely, in the view of Siritunga Jayasuriya, general secretary of the United Socialist Party (CWI), is a call from a foreign mediator to stop the war and start discussions. Norwegian envoys are involved partly because there is a big Tamil population in exile in Norway but, unlike the US and India, it has not outlawed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and can therefore talk to the Tigers openly. "We demand the immediate stopping of the war. 500,000 innocent Tamil people are still in Jaffna who are not part of the war. They are without food and medicine".

"We in the USP have always been totally against any foreign intervention. The responsibility for the war is that of the government of Sri Lanka. Once any foreign powers get in, it is difficult for them to get out. At the same time, we see that the Sri Lankan capitalist governments have been concerned only to safeguard their system and not understand and solve the national question. However, we would defend against attacks from the Sinhala communalists any concessions that are made to the Tamil people as part of a settlement and fight for more. We would, as always, defend the Tamils’ right to self-determination".

"The imperialist powers", says Siritunga, "have made it quite clear they want an end to the war so that investment can be renewed and the drain on national resources stopped. They, and the capitalists in Sri Lanka, don’t want a military intervention from outside which would prolong the war. They don’t even want an evacuation of the beleaguered troops; if they were brought back into Colombo, the communalists would go berserk and all hell would break loose.

"Our party is involved in an initiative to fight the emergency repressive laws and re-establish democratic rights. Our record on opposing capitalism and all its manifestations – privatisations, price hikes, sackings and so on – is known to everyone.

"The government is going towards a form of semi-dictatorship. It has closed down the BBC Sri Lankan service and the only newspaper produced in Jaffna, ‘Uldayan’. Now all papers in the ‘Leader’ group have been banned.

"We want to put our own programme in our paper and in leaflets but we are now supposed to submit our material to the censor and we don’t know if he is going to let us print anything! In a joint statement of nearly all opposition parties, we will be coming out against the repressive laws and against the communalists. They will not want to be giving any concession to the Tamil people. We have a task to defend the oppressed and persecuted minority on this island. The so-called Marxist JVP is also against giving anything away to the Tamil minority, and that is why they will not even agree to the demand of ‘End the war’! They say the separatists have grown stronger, they must be weakened! A recent press statement of the JVP says they are against the proposed constitutional changes which were being considered which would give some concessions to the Tamil people and they want them stopped.

"A new cycle of talks is definitely on the cards. The starting point will be the ‘principles’ agreed in the 1986 negotiations – ie the concepts of a Tamil homeland and the unity of the North and East of the island. But that will not be the end of the matter.

"The foreign bankers and investors are putting big pressure on for an election to be held before the due date of August. (The Paris Aid Group, for example, has suspended all talks about new money until there is a new electoral mandate). There is talk of parliament being dissolved quite soon. An election would see the United National Party (UNP — the hard-line party of the ruling class) winning and with Chandrika still president, the argument would be, ‘now they are sharing power, they can get together and sort out some agreed position’.

"In conducting this war, Chandrika has been doing what the communalist forces are demanding. Usually the communalists are against the government of the day. Now we find even the Communist Party (CP) and the once-left Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) going along with the war against the Tamil people.

"The LSSP and CP have issued statements supporting the war footing. Even under this critical situation, the LSSP and CP are sticking to their portfolios. They are now becoming part of the war machinery. Their trade union leaders are supporting the call to workers to sacrifice two days’ pay a month. But ordinary workers in the factories are rejecting this appeal. They are voting against having their wages docked and even demanding increases in their wages.

"The government has taken a communal line to try and regain support and suppress the movement against it. But the president seemed to be in a very demoralised mood when she appeared on television. The ‘war footing’ has been in place for three weeks now and nothing has been gained. The facts are being hidden but it is clear that all the battles are being lost.

"Anger is building up against the government over the measures to increase taxes, to block the payment of all loans for housing, and the demand for two days’ pay towards the war effort. The methods of this government to rally the nation will back-fire on them. We believe an upsurge in protest is not far off.

"It is very clear that the capitalist class in Sri Lanka will not find a lasting solution to the national question. This has been proved by the very bitter experience through the last two decades. In this situation we need to rebuild the workers’ movement and restore it to its former might in Sri Lankan society. Only the left under working class leadership will find a solution to the national question with guarantees in relation to the right of the Tamil-speaking people to self-determination".

If the LTTE is victorious, it will be up to the Tamil-speaking working class to challenge the rule of capitalist interests – at home and from elsewhere. It would need to appeal directly to the Sinhala and other workers of Sri Lanka, and to workers in India and internationally, to join in the struggle for socialism.

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June 2000