Sri Lanka: Ceasefire and the ballot box

Council elections in Sri Lanka have reinforced last December’s general election results with the United National Party strengthening its position further. It was bolstered, above all, by the cease-fire deal with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. SOCIALISM TODAY interviewed SIRITUNGA JAYASURIYA, general secretary of the United Socialist Party (the Sri Lanka section of the CWI), for first-hand commentary on the situation.

What do you think of these results and how do they compare with the general election?

THE LOCAL ELECTIONS held on 20 March have had a national impact. The People’s Alliance (PA – the coalition led by president Chandrika Kumaratunga) and Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – People’s Liberation Front, led by Tilvan Silva) campaigned against the capitalist United National Party (UNP – led by Ranil Wickeramasinghe) on anti-peace, communal grounds. They said that Wickeramasinghe conspired with Vellupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE – the main guerrilla force fighting for Tamil autonomy), to sell out the country. The JVP very clearly campaigned against the cease-fire agreement which has been signed by the government and the LTTE. Because of these circumstances the local elections became a sort of referendum on the national question.

In spite of the very high cost of living and five-hour long power cuts every day, a majority of the people voted for the UNP, hoping that it will bring some peace to the country. The local election result is a big setback and defeat for Sinhala chauvinism. The UNP’s election organisation, the United National Front received 57.8%, PA 32.5% and JVP 6.6% on a 60% turnout. In the last general election, held on 5 December, the UNP/UNF polled 45.6%, PA 37.1%, and JVP 9.2%.

The JVP’s base of support has dropped significantly over the last few months – from 815,353 to 424,760 votes. Up to this election, the JVP had increased its vote in every election since 1994. This is a very important development because its communal campaign will be cut across, at least temporarily, with this result.

The United Socialist Party (USP) contested twelve of the 311 councils in the country and managed to more than double the vote compared to the 2001 general election. Not only that, but in six of those councils we had to stand against the New Left Front (NLF – led by Wickrambahu Karunarathna [Bahu]) and the Democratic Left Front (DLF – led by Vasudeva Nanayaka [Vasu]). In two areas we received more votes than them: in Bope Poddala council where the USP got 183 votes, with the DLF on 81; and Kaduwela council where the USP received 303 votes, the NLF 213. In Eheliyagoda USP polled 593 – 2.1%. The council elections in the capital, Colombo, and Galle were postponed until 20 May. For a new party contesting local elections for the first time, our results were a significant achievement.

What is the mood in Sri Lanka since the ceasefire and peace talks?

WITH THESE LATEST results, the mood of the country has changed dramatically. The intensity of the communal campaigns has lessened. The UNP government has got more authority for its peace programme. After the cease-fire agreement ordinary people have seen the change. Roadblocks in Colombo and other areas have been removed. There are no street checkpoints. People feel they are free to go about their business. More than this, there are no dead bodies coming back to Colombo from the North. The A9 main road, closed since the war started, has now reopened and ordinary passengers can travel North – or South to Colombo – to visit relatives or to conduct business.

What are the chances of peace?

THE USP DOES not think that the capitalist class can solve the national question completely. Capitalism cannot bring genuine democracy. But that does not mean that there will not be a temporary peace. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have been engaged in this war for almost two decades. Nearly 65,000 people have lost their lives. Billions of rupees have been spent but neither side has achieved a significant victory. The LTTE appealed to the Tamil population of the North to support the war, saying that it will secure the Eelam (an independent homeland). But those who helped have now realised that they cannot win. As a result, LTTE has been losing support within the Tamil community. The LTTE leadership has recognised this and drew the conclusion that it should try to find a ’respectable solution’ without Eelam. The Tamil people nonetheless respect LTTE as an organisation which has fought for their liberation.

It is clear that the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie has realised its limitations over the past few years. But the typically weak capitalist leadership in the neo-colonial countries always vacillates when it comes to making decisions. Another factor was the pressure from the imperialist countries to stop the endless bloodshed. For the first time in 50 years, the Sri Lankan economy fell below zero growth, after growing a meagre 0.6% in 2001. In this situation both sides have understood their limitations and this forced them to find some face-saving solution. It will not solve the national question but some sort of agreement may arrive this time. It will allow more opportunities for the working class to fight on issues such as privatisation, job cuts and the World Bank’s austerity programme.

Are there any differences between this ceasefire and previous agreements?

EARLIER PEACE DEALS did not take place in this kind of situation. Both sides had some hope of winning the war. Even Chandrika thought that if talks failed she could launch an offensive and achieve a clear victory. The LTTE held similar views. The other factor is that the Tigers were not as strong as it is now. LTTE controls almost the whole of the Tamil-dominated North and East. The other main Tamil parties also back LTTE today. This is a big change.

What is your position on the national question?

FROM THE VERY beginning, USP has been very firm about the solution to the national question. We demand self-determination for the Tamil-speaking people, including Muslims whose mother-tongue is also Tamil. Accepting the Tamil homeland and merging the North and East is essential. But, if they want it, Muslims should be able to have their own self-rule within the Tamil homeland as a separate community. Sinhala people living in the East should be able to link up with Sinhala-dominated districts of their choice. The question of the plantation Tamils is totally different. Firstly, the plantation Tamils – who originally came from South India – should get Sri Lankan nationality with equal rights to other ethnic groups. Failure to guarantee their equal rights could lead to the development of further struggles in the future.

How is the USP approaching this new situation?

THE MAIN TASK for the left today is to promote a socialist alternative to capitalism and to fight against communalism and chauvinism. JVP and other communal forces, like the Sinhala Urumaya Party (SUP – Sinhala Heritage), are against any sort of talks with the LTTE. The working class should take an independent line, defending any positive outcome of the peace talks but being very careful not to go along with the capitalist programme. The old left of the past, including the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP – linked with Bahu’s NLF), completely identify with the capitalist deal and have become part of that reformist programme. As a small party, the USP has a crucial role to play. While defending the rights of Tamils, we have also mobilised workers against the implementation of the World Bank’s programme by the UNP government.

Increased communal violence was widely predicted, was that a mistaken view? And could the JVP make a comeback?

THERE HAS BEEN a wave of communalism. But it will always weaken when mass opinion is against it. Communalism becomes particularly strong when it is linked with an anti-government mood. Previously, when the PA won elections on a popular wave, the communalists hid their heads in the sand for a temporary period. When the present government becomes unpopular, because of its anti-working class policies backed by the World Bank, communal forces will re-emerge. The JVP is trying to provoke the people against the peace talks. But it is not getting a big response because the government is still popular.

The JVP cannot do the same as it did from 1987-89, a period when it was working as an underground organisation. Its present leaders are very much adjusted to parliamentary politics. They are still profiting from the past sacrifices of their leaders. Today, the JVP’s main aim is to attract the rank and file of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP – Chandrika’s party in the PA) to its activities. It is trying to show them that the JVP is the only organisation actively doing something against the UNP-LTTE deal.

What is Chandrika’s position and what influence does she have?

CHANDRIKA IS IN a big dilemma. She would like to upset the peace talks. But as a capitalist leader and president of the country, she cannot do that publicly. Because of that she is playing a double game and has already been exposed in the eyes of the Western imperialist countries. She has similar tactics to the JVP: waiting for problems in the peace process to provoke the Sinhala masses against the UNP. She has become a dead weight for her party.

What is the attitude of the US?

IT IS VERY clear that Western imperialist interests are a dominant factor in the peace process. Washington DC has shown that it backs the government. A number of US officials visited Sri Lanka, including Jaffna. They are very interested in Trincomalee harbour, which is an important strategic point for US influence in Asia. But this will not be an easy thing to achieve as it clashes with the interests of the Indian ruling class. And the US has not seen everything go smoothly. The previous Sri Lankan government opposed Israel’s war against the Palestinians. There was a fairly big campaign by the Muslim community in the East against Israel. We also held a protest in front of the US embassy with other left organisations.

Stop Press

AS WE GO to print, the results of the Colombo and Galle elections have been announced. They show an even further sharp fall in the vote for the PA – down to eight seats compared with 32 for the UNP. Support for the JVP collapsed – from around 42,000 votes to 9,000 since the general election. It won only two seats. The USP, on the basis of just two-and-a-half days of electioneering, no posters or advertisements and just a small leaflet, gained over 1,000 votes in the capital – 40% more than in the general election five months ago. The joint list of the NLF (Bahu and Vasu) got 1,724 votes. Even the extreme chauvinist SUP got only 2,900 giving them just one seat. In Galle the USP also increased its vote – to 244.

The enormous desire for peace prevails at the moment but the USP is well placed to offer an alternative programme on both the national and social issues as the UNP government fails to solve the problems. Two days after the Galle and Colombo election results were announced, prices on petrol, diesel and kerosene were dramatically increased!

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June 2002