Sri Lanka: Stalled peace process background to 2005 presidential election

Pro-capitalist presidential winner will not bring peace and better living conditions

The president of Sri Lanka for the past eleven years has been Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike. She was elected to this position in 1994 when the party she headed – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – was the major force in the People’s Alliance (PA) government. The PA included one or two small parties like the ‘Communist’ Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (once a mass Trotskyist party, now a rump).

That PA government was elected on the basis of widespread hopes for an end to the long-running civil war. After two years, however, the PA government was using the army against the Tamil fighters as ruthlessly as previous UNP governments. It was squandering huge resources urgently needed to relieve the problems of the millions of low paid workers, poor farmers, fishermen and unemployed people.

Chandrika went for an early election in 1999 – a year before her first term expired. She narrowly defeated Ranil Wickremasinghe, of the United National Party (UNP), after a terrorist attempt on her life, which killed fourteen other people at an election rally of her party.

‘Cohabitation’ with UNP government ended

Two years later, with war-weariness dominating the whole of Sri Lankan society, the UNP-led United National Front alliance won the general election. As prime minister, Ranil, under increasing pressure from the US and other imperialist powers, was able to secure a cease-fire. But with Chandrika Kumaratunga still in the president’s palace, there was a period of uneasy ‘cohabitation’. The president has almost dictatorial powers and eventually dissolved the parliament and dismissed the government when the prime minister was in the US!

Discontent over economic problems, exacerbated by the inability of the government to assure a lasting peace, were behind the defeat of the UNP –led government in the general election, last year. Although the cease-fire has held for more than three years, it has come under increasing strain. The SLFP-led (UPFA), included most of the old People’s Alliance plus the perniciously Sinhala chauvinist Janata Vimukti Perumuna (JVP) and the arch right wing Buddhist Monks’ Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). These organisations have reputations for extreme communalism or what amounts to violent racism directed against the Tamil population. Their support comes largely from the predominantly Sinhala population of the Southern mainly rural areas.

Within the government, these virulently nationalist and anti-Tamil forces began to wag the dog of the SLFP-dominated PA. They would not agree to any peace talks that recognised the demands of the guerrilla forces organised under Prabakharan and his Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). By the time of the cease-fire, the LTTE, known as the Tigers, had de facto control over the predominantly Tamil-speaking North and much of the East of the island.

The mainly Muslim East was included in the territory claimed as the rightful ‘homeland’ of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Tamil-speaking Muslims themselves have been fearful of total domination by the LTTE and have voiced demands for autonomy within Eelam. An organisation called the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress claims to represent the Tamil-speaking Muslims in the East but consists of more or less self-appointed ‘leaders’ who do little to campaign for the genuine economic and social rights of working people. In the current presidential campaign, the SLMC has come out in support of Ranil Wickremasinghe, mainly because of the anti-Tamil chauvinism of the UPFA candidate, the current prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse.

President loses claim for an extra year

The position of president in Sri Lanka has near dictatorial powers – to dismiss the government, to introduce emergencies, to ban strikes and public assembly etc. But presidents cannot stand for office for more than two terms. Chandrika attempted to convince the population and the Supreme Court that she should have more than the stipulated six years in her second term because as the first one only lasted five years! Because of the atmosphere of deadlock and crisis in society, the Supreme Court decided against her and the presidential election had to proceed before the end of this year.

Another very political decision of the Supreme Court demonstrated the influence of Sinhala chauvinism in very high places. The JVP, after wrangling on many issues, pulled out of the government because it had come to an agreement with the LTTE-backed Tamil National Alliance over the (very belated) distribution of aid to Tsunami-affected areas – the P-TOMS agreement (Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure). The Court backed the JVP’s claim that this was illegal as it gave de facto recognition to control in the North of the island by the LTTE – a terrorist organisation. The P-TOMS agreement was rendered inoperable. It actually promised to be of little value to the Tsunami sufferers of North or South. Like all other aid arrangements, it would have been used to benefit the actual participants in the agreement and their political and personal friends, rather than reaching the people who most needed help.

Mahinda Rajapakse was originally the chosen candidate of Chandrika Kumaratunga to succeed her as president. He is a long-standing member of her party, the SLFP, and current prime minister. However, in the run-up to the presidential nominations, Rajapakse renewed the alliance with the JVP and JHU (who had also left his government) allegedly agreeing that the P-TOMS agreement should be scrapped and no talks to end the war should be held on terms outlined by the ‘Tigers’ (in spite of the fact that the LTTE leaders had anyway abandoned the demand for a separate state). Sri Lanka must be maintained as a unitary state, they insisted.

The JVP still masquerades as a Marxist party, using red for its banners, t-shirts, hats etc. and claiming to be fighting imperialism. But the JVP’s leadership has long abandoned socialist ideas, even in theory, and are far from internationalists. They base themselves on the teachings of Buddha rather than Marx, and on the small entrepreneurs of town and country.

False ‘friends’ of working people

Recently, the JVP made a bid for support amongst the plantation workers of the Hill Country, in central Sri Lanka. These super-exploited people are mostly Tamils and do not have direct links with the historically long-established Tamils of the North and East, engaged in the struggle for liberation from Sinhalese domination. The Hill Country Tamils are descended from Indian labourers brought into Sri Lanka by British colonial tea planters in the 19th and 20th centuries. They suffer humiliating working conditions and political, economic and social discrimination. Many feel an affinity to the Tamils of the North and East. Only a few fall for the JVP’s pose as defenders of workers’ rights who will help them build trade unions to fight the exigencies of their employers. Participating at national level in a capitalist government, they have used ministerial influence to provide some welfare benefits in the Hill Country area, but even so have still failed to get much support.

The Hill Country Tamils have other false friends in the form of a corrupt and self-seeking organisation called the Ceylon Workers’ Council (CWC). Under the virtually dynastic leadership of the Thondaman family, this body is notorious for supporting the winning side in any election, as long as the price is right. The CWC owes its considerable hold over many Hill Country Tamils because of the horrific oppression they have suffered for decades, at the hands of governments of every hue. Once the CWC has used the votes of the Tamil labourers to curry favour with the winning side, they do little or nothing to improve their lot. In this election, ArumugamThondeman eventually declared for the UNP’s Ranil, while representatives of the CWC remain in the UPFA government, and he pays fulsome compliments to Chandrika and the SLFP. Like his father, he can always change his allegiance if he has backed the wrong horse!

Nothing solved by election

Ranil is seen to stand for a renewal of peace talks and a ‘federal solution’ to the national question. He is also advocating a coalition government between, at least, the UNP and Chandrika’s SLFP to see the ‘peace process’ pushed to a conclusion. His present stance more directly reflects the interests of imperialism, including free market, pro-privatisation policies. Rajapakse declared war on any further privatisation, but he stayed silent throughout the 11 years that he was a minister and then prime minister in Chandrika’s government, which privatised more than any UNP government!

Whichever candidate wins this election will not have a government entirely under its control. The UNP/UNF is in opposition and the PA also does not have a majority – without the JVP and JHU. So either a new parliamentary election would have to ensue or a coalition be cobbled together.

Chandrika has shown an interest in a coalition, seeing her role as retaining considerable influence as leader of the SLFP. She has expressed her extreme disapproval of Mahinda Rajapakse’s pact with the JVP and JHU, reflecting that she too has come under heavy pressure from imperialist forces. International investors and bankers want a government which will assure them a favourable climate for them to carry on their business – the ‘normal’ exploitation of the cheap labour, resources and strategic position that Sri Lanka can offer on a capitalist basis.

Note. The United Socialist Party (USP) contested island-wide in two elections, last year. Its total vote was doubled from the general election, in April, to the provincial council elections, in July, when it reached 21,300. In this year’s presidential election, as is illustrated by the court challenge and the TV debate, the USP is the only genuine voice on the left.

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November 2005