Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka at a crossroads

The victory for the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the parliamentary elections, followed by the provincial elections, has brought more problems instead of solving the burning crisis of the country. The UPFA – a coalition of President Chandrika Bandaranayaka’s capitalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the communal Janatha Vimakthi Peramuna (JVP People’s Liberation Front) – won 105 seats but did not get a clear majority in the 225 member parliament.

The general election in April was prematurely called by President Chandrika, after the collapse of the bitter co-habitation government between the two main capitalist parties – the UNP (United National Party) and SLFP. The result, as we predicted, was a hung parliament. In this election Ranil Wickremesinghe’s reactionary UNP won only 82 seats.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 22 seats in the North and East and emerged as the 3rd largest party in parliament. Apart from them only the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) won one seat in the North and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won five in the East. The TNA contested the elections accepting the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) as the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people. They also accepted the LTTE’s proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) as the basis for restarting the peace negotiations with the government after a two year cease-fire in the 20 year conflict.

It was the first time that the LTTE openly participated in the elections and the verdict of the people in the Tamil-speaking areas was a clear message to both the Sinhala capitalist ruling class and the international capitalists.

From the South, nine Buddhist monks entered parliament for the first time – another significant factor, showing the growth in Sinhala communal pressures in Sri Lankan society. This newly formed extremist communal party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya National Heritage (JHU) will play a key role in the present parliament, holding the balance of power.

At the same time, to try and get a clear majority in parliament, the UPFA has been trying to buy over the nine MPs of the CWC (Ceylon Workers’ Congress, the Hill Country Plantation Tamil Workers’ Party, with a right wing leadership). But so far they have failed to do so. When Sri Lanka’s thirteenth parliament met for the first day to elect the speaker it took nine hours! After the final vote was counted an opposition candidate won as the speaker.

The UPFA’s victory is also a clear indication that economic issues took precedence over the former UNP government’s ‘Peace Process’. Ranil’s UNP government ruled the country for two years as a puppet of American dominated imperialist agencies like the World Bank and the IMF.That brought big hardships to the working class and the poor peasants of the country. Large scale privatisation and attacks on living standards of the workers and poor were implemented by the UNP under the so-called ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ programme demanded by the World Bank.

Even though the UPFA said, during the election campaign, that they would continue negotiations with the LTTE, some are claiming the UNP defeat as an outright rejection of the peace process. On the contrary, the feeling throughout the country is still against any resumption of war. But this result has seen the re-emergence of Sinhala communalism in the South, against the peace process and for the restoration of the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. On the other hand, if you look at the election results, they clearly indicate that where the Tamil speaking Muslims live, even in the South, the UPFA could not win.

In addition to the burning national crisis the UPFA government now faces big challenges to implement the popular promises made to the people: A 70% salary increase for government workers, 30,000 jobs to unemployed graduates, bringing down the high cost of living, cancellation of the railway privatisation programme and the abolition of labour laws against the working class within the first 3 months. Thus countering the neo-liberal policies of privatisation and attacks on the working class.

However it is clear that they will continue, as the previous government, with these neo-liberal policies.  The above promises are dependent on the loans and aid they expect to get from the World Bank and the IMF but the failure of the re-starting of the peace negotiations has deepened the crisis.

The main partner of the capitalist populist UPFA government, the JVP, has openly opposed the proposal of the ISGA. The JVP (which claims to be Marxist) has 39 MPs in the parliament, with 4 Cabinet Ministers, giving them control over the UPFA government. This has led to a crisis within the UPFA and President Chandrika’s resignation from being head of the UPFA is a clear indication of that crisis.

Now her plan is to use her presidential powers to start the peace talks by undermining the pressures of the JVP. Without the peace talks she knows that her government will not get any financial help from the World Bank and the imperialist countries. Chandrika’s main concern is to get $4.5 billion as pledged by the donor countries to the former UNP-led government.

The European Union has issued warnings that unless the new Sri Lankan government resumes the talks without further delay, the money will go to other countries. Since she is dependent on the communal forces within her government, taking a decision to start the peace talks on the ISGA is a real test for Chandrika.

In this situation a female suicide bomber attempted to kill a UPFA minister (Douglas Devananda) in Colombo, starting another round of killings in the capital of Sri Lanka.  This follows the killing in Colombo of eight supporters of the Karuna Faction. (Karuna leads a breakaway group of the LTTE and was formerly a commander for the East).

These attacks were followed by a plot to kill an army informer, Mohan, in the capital. Once again tensions are mounting in the South, almost two years after the signing of the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) reached between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

Together with the tension in the East, because of the Karuna affair, the ‘peace process’ remains stalled and security and political uncertainty in Colombo deepens. Even though the cease-fire agreement signed by Ranil during the last government on 22nd February 2002 is still there, the situation has become more volatile than before.

In this situation President Chandrika had to call on the Norwegian government peace negotiator, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vidar Helgessen, to come to Colombo to diffuse the tensions and try to restart the Peace talks. But even this was not successful. The Sri Lankan government (unlike the LTTE) failed to state clearly their position on the ISGA in order to restart the talks, mainly because of the staunch opposition from the communal JVP.

It is very clear that neither the capitalist UPFA coalition nor the right-wing UNP can solve any of the burning issues facing the country. The communal JVP, with their radical ‘Marxist’ rhetoric, are trying to mislead the youth and the rural masses, claiming that they can clean up the corrupt capitalist system and deliver reforms to the people. This is un-Marxist, opportunistic politics within the present system of capitalist globalisation.

During the last General and Provincial Elections, the United Socialist Party (USP) contested with a clear socialist programme against capitalism and communalism. Standing for the first time in the general election nationally the USP received 14,660 votes. While, in the provincial elections held three months later, the USP nearly doubled its votes. It received 21, 732 in the 14 (out of 15) districts of the country where elections were held (as opposed to the 22 districts included in the general election). With just a couple of hundred more votes, the USP could actually have won a seat in the provincial council elections – in Nuwara Eliya district, where Tamil speaking hill-country plantation workers live.

This shows that a layer of workers and poor people understand that the weak capitalist class in the neo-colonial countries is incapable of solving any of the main social and economic problems faced by the masses today.  Under the present system of globalisation, the UNP and UPFA capitalist leaders are all acting as agents of the World Bank and the IMF.

In the last four years Sri Lanka has had three general elections. This is an indication of the crisis of the capitalist class in the country. The coming months are going to be very critical for the working class, poor peasants and Tamil and Muslim people.

In only 4 months of UPFA rule, petrol prices have been put up by 14%, domestic gas prices by 8% and rice and other commodity prices have increased by 25%. At the same time, in the last four months, the Sri Lankan rupee has devalued by 6% against the US dollar. On top of this, the price of everyday commodities and transport fares will increase with the next budget, due in November this year.

In this situation, the rump traditional working class parties like the LSSP and CP are blindly supporting the UPFA government and holding their trade unions back. These two traditional left parties have engaged in popular front politics for the last 40 years since 1964 and cannot survive any more without a coalition.

The USP appeals to other left parties and the working class as a whole to fight together against another communal backlash that can lead to another bloody war in Sri Lanka.  The time has come, after 21 years of disastrous war and the failure of capitalism, to put forward a genuine socialist programme as the real alternative to the barbaric system we are experiencing today.

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August 2004