Sri Lanka: Sinhala chauvinist party quits government over tsunami relief

Rising communalist tide – A warning to the working class

Sri Lanka was plunged into renewed crisis at midnight (15 June) as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) carried out its threat to leave the government over President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s plans for a temporary tsunami aid agreement with the Tamil Tiger guerillas, which control a large slice of the island’s north and east.

The JVP’s defection is part of a rising communalist agitation which poses a major challenge for the working class and socialists in coming weeks and months. To underline this fact, JVP supporters physically attacked a prominent CWI member on Wednesday 15 June, who luckily escaped serious injury.

With 39 members of parliament, the ostensibly ’Marxist’ JVP – in reality, a Sinhala chauvinist party – accounted for a third of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition’s 116 parliamentary seats. This was the JVP’s first spell in government, repeating the ’popular frontism’ i.e. collaboration with openly capitalist parties of the Communist Party and ex-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party, before them. Both the CP and LSSP, which today are tiny parties, are loyal members of the UPFA government.

The current crisis came to a head when Kumaratunga, who leads the UPFA’s main component, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), refused to back down over the proposed ’joint mechanism’ for administering tsunami relief.

After 14 months in the UPFA government, in which its ministers have towed the line over neo-liberal economic policies, creeping privatizations, and the spiralling cost of living, the JVP has chosen to come out on a communalist (religious sectarian) issue: the joint mechanism, which it opposes as a ’national betrayal’, arguing that this agreement will facilitate the formation of a separate Tamil state. This is because the joint mechanism, negotiated through the agency of the Norwegian government, envisages a tripartite forum for supervising tsunami relief, with a representative of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and a representative of the island’s Muslim community. Around a third of the overall tsunami devastation was in areas controlled by the LTTE, but no relief has reached these areas to date.

“The JVP may have miscalculated, believing that [President] Chandrika would retreat,” argues Siri Jayasuria, General Secretary of the United Socialist Party (USP), the Sri Lankan section of the CWI.

“Instead, it seems she will put the joint mechanism to parliament on 22 June and get the backing of around 80 per cent of the deputies,” he explains.

“The [right-wing pro-imperialist] UNP have said they will not topple the government, so a snap election is unlikely. More likely is presidential elections or a general election at the end of the year, which the UNP believes it can win. This will create a new dilemma for the JVP – if they stand their own candidate they will split the anti-UNP vote and pave the way for a UNP victory.”

The last thing the JVP wants is the return of the UNP who, with the backing of imperialism, could well unleash a campaign of repression against the JVP, focusing on its role in the late 1980s when it carried out assassinations of political opponents to the right and left.

The SLFP’s presidential candidate is likely to be Mahinda Rajapakse, the Prime Minister. He has leant on the JVP, during the last year, and clearly counts on their support in the presidential elections.

“Like the JVP, Mahinda bases himself on the rural Sinhala Buddhist vote and for this reason he has kept a very low profile on the issue of the joint mechanism,” Siri points out.

Incredibly, much of the old left in Sri Lanka – including former CWI members, Wickremabahu Karunaratne and Wasudeva Nanayakkara of the New Left Front – are already campaigning for Mahinda, mistakenly portraying him as an ‘anti-communalist’ candidate.

The JVP, for its part, has been trying to woo sections of the SLFP whose electoral base among rural Sinhalese overlaps with their own. Their goal is to replace the SLFP as the main rival to the UNP, becoming a Sinhala Buddhist version of India’s Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. It is, therefore, a setback for the JVP that, so far, no government ministers or SLFP politicians have broken ranks with the president over the joint mechanism.

Kumaratunga has come under relentless pressure from the imperialist powers which, for geo-political reasons, want to kick-start the stalled Sri Lankan peace process, which ended nearly two decades of civil war in 2002. They hope to draw the rightward moving LTTE leadership into a framework of agreements which will neutralise it as a threat to regional ’stability’.

The imperialist donor countries – the US, Japan, the European Union and Norway – have, therefore, insisted on the joint mechanism and the inclusion of the LTTE before releasing around $3 billion in promised tsunami aid. The Sri Lankan capitalists also support this process in the interests of ’stability’ and for a more favourable economic environment. This also explains the pressure on the UNP not to exploit the governmental crisis for its own ends. Having sounded out the UNP leaders, Kumaratunga evidently felt the time was right to call the JVP’s bluff.

“The campaign has already begun in the government-controlled media,” says Siri Jayasuria. “She [the president] is pinning her hopes on the release of funds from the ‘donors’ beginning to make itself felt in the tsunami areas. In the media, Chandrika is ridiculing the JVP, saying the joint mechanism is a ’small thing’ – not the first step to a Tamil state, as they are claiming”.

Rising communalist tide

“There has been a rising tide of communalism in recent weeks,” he explains. “The JVP felt threatened by the JHU [Jathika Hela Urumaya – a right-wing Buddhist chauvinist party] who are also campaigning against the joint mechanism. A leading JHU monk began a fast-to-the-death outside the country’s most important Buddhist Temple in Kandy. This hunger strike has since been abandoned, but if he had died there could have been an explosion of communalist tensions. The JVP clearly believed he would die and this explains their ultimatum to the President, setting a deadline of midnight 15 June for her to repudiate the joint mechanism.”

The JVP has been under growing pressure because of its role in a government pursuing anti-working class policies. Prices of basic foodstuffs have doubled, in some cases, over the last year, and fuel prices have risen by 30%, in the last six months. In May, the government – with no protests from the JVP – raised the price of kerosene, despite previously ruling this out as it would ‘burden the masses’. As its ‘socialist’ pretensions wear thin, the JVP has increasingly fallen back on its main element of support: Sinhala chauvinism.

On Tuesday 14 June, the JVP organised a mass rally against the joint mechanism in Colombo, with 15-20,000 participants. This followed days of smaller protests – one demo of around 3,000 was organised by the JHU – with police using tear gas against the protesters.

In response, the United Socialist Party (USP), and other left organizations, held a city centre protest against communalism, on Wednesday 15 June. It was after this demonstration that a leading USP member was set upon by JVP thugs. Fortunately, several bystanders, including taxi drivers, intervened to stop the assault.

In eastern Sri Lanka, an ethnically diverse region, which has become a powder keg in recent weeks, the JVP, its religious front organization, and the JHU, have stirred up communal passions with a campaign to erect new Buddhist statues. This led to a four-day ‘Hartal’ (general strike) in Trincomalee, organised by the LTTE, which is also fighting against an army-backed breakaway faction in this part of Sri Lanka. The struggle in the east is partly a ‘turf war’, with the Sri Lankan army and LTTE covertly fighting each other to establish ’facts on the ground’ in advance of any final agreement. Over 300 have been killed in the last six months in this region, which was also devastated by the tsunami. This ‘low intensity civil war’ has increased the anxiety of the imperialists that the peace process is in danger of collapse.

The LTTE have been forced to depart from their previous position that they alone represent all Tamil-speakers, including Muslims [the LTTE is a predominantly Hindu organisation] and agree to Muslim representation in the joint mechanism. This is recognition of how explosive the situation in the East has become, and the growing resentment of Muslims who feel discriminated by both the Sinhala government and the LTTE.

Relief work paralysed

December’s tsunami, which left 39,000 dead, 900,000 homeless, and around one fifth of the workforce unemployed, followed years of military repression and devastation, especially in the LTTE-controlled areas. The LTTE has been under growing pressure from the Tamil masses to deliver economic improvements and this explains the recent warning by its political wing’s spokesman, S.P. Thamilselvan, that “a very serious and dangerous” situation would arise unless Kumaratunga signed the joint mechanism.

“Six months has passed since the tsunami struck and people are still living in huts and tents,” says Siri Jayasuria.

“To my knowledge, not a single house has been completed! Now the monsoon is here and the people in the south can’t live in the temporary accommodation. We’re the only party fighting for the rights of the tsunami victims – their right to homes, economic compensation and a livelihood.”

In response to the new sharp, turn of events, the USP plans an island-wide poster campaign, from next week. Posters are the most widely-read and, therefore, important means of political communication in Sri Lanka. The new USP posters call for mass struggle against the rising cost of living; for immediate compensation of tsunami victims and an end to the infamous 100 meter (coastal construction) ban; against coalition politics (alliances with the capitalists) which have opened the door for a return of the UNP; and for a socialist alternative to communalism, capitalism and the imperialist blackmail of the World Bank and other capitalist ‘donors’.

As a measure of the USP’s growing importance in the working class movement, Siri Jayasuria will represent the USP in a three-hour debate on the popular Jana Handa programme on national television. The theme of the debate, to be broadcast on Monday 20 June, is the latest crisis and the joint mechanism.

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June 2005