Sri Lanka: Is Peace possible?

The description of Sri Lanka as ‘tear-shaped’ has never been more apt than it is today.

After a devastating ethnic civil war, which has claimed over 120,000 lives, hopes were raised four years ago that an agreement could be arrived at between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to end the suffering of the Sinhala and Tamil people. However, since then the ‘peace process’ has periodically been punctuated by armed exchanges between the Sri Lankan armed forces and Tiger fighters in the north and east of the country.

When I was in Sri Lanka at the beginning of October, the Colombo-based Sri Lankan press was full of claims that the army and navy were getting the better of the Tigers. The Sri Lankan government had managed to split the LTTE with the defection of a former Tiger military commander, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan (alias Karuna), and his forces. The Bush-Blair worldwide ‘war on terror’ also led the European Union, in a short-sighted move, to eventually ban the Tigers as a ‘terrorist’ organisation even though it is not banned in Sri Lanka. Even Thatcher, during the 30-year war of Britain with the IRA, did not ban its political face Sinn Fein. This was not for altruistic reasons but because the British capitalists realised it would drive the organisation underground and make it much more difficult to combat and ultimately negotiate with.

Karuna protected by government

Karuna and his small band of armed cadres have been rumoured to be safely ensconced in a government-protected compound in Colombo. A sinister series of kidnappings and abductions, predominantly of Tamils, has taken place in recent months. Up to early October, 33 abductions had been reported, largely in and around Colombo, in the previous three months. Nine abductees were killed, 18 found and seven released, many after paying big ransoms. The general secretary of the United Socialist Party (USP), the Sri Lankan section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, who is Chairperson of the People’s Monitoring Committee, was quoted in the Morning Leader in early October: “Sirithunge Jayasuriya [Siri] this week accused the government of protecting the abductors and alleged that the Kotahena Police had ‘received orders from the top’ to release an arrested suspect.”

Siri has openly accused the government of using the Karuna group for this reign of terror. The consequence of this is that, while I was there, Siri received numerous death threats for courageously defending, together with USP members and others, terrorised Tamil-speaking people, both rich and poor. On the phone from Colombo, after I had returned, Siri also recounted his harrowing experience when he was called by poor Tamil parents in Colombo to the scene of the abduction and murder of their teenage son, left prostrate and shot by his cowardly abductors on the banks of a lake. His bereaved parents stated that he had left Jaffna and the north for the ‘safety’ of Colombo!

For defending a besieged and terrorised Tamil population, particularly in the south and condemning the abductions which threaten to turn Colombo into a version of Baghdad with tit-for-tat ethnic and sectarian killings, Siri has assumed almost heroic status in the eyes of the Tamils and, conversely, the undying hatred of the Sinhala chauvinists.

In this stance, however, both Siri and the USP are acting in the best past traditions of the mass Trotskyist party the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). It also heroically campaigned against communalism, the division of working people in particular, on ethnic lines. The LSSP no longer exists as a force, partly because it departed from this principle, the defence of oppressed minorities, which also in the process cemented unity of the working class in Sri Lanka.

The scale of the present communal polarisation is shown in the position of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) government of Rajapakse and the character of the state he presides over. According to Siri, it is “the most exclusively Sinhala government in the history of the state”. When I was in Colombo, the cheerleaders and supporters of the government believed that the wind was in their sails, the LTTE was on the run. It was therefore no longer necessary, they claimed, in the peace talks in Geneva scheduled for the end of this month to make significant concessions to the demands of the Tamils for their legitimate national rights.

Vellupillai Prabakharan, the leader of the LTTE, has already scaled down the Tigers’ demands. No longer demanding immediate independence for the north, the Tigers will settle for an extensive autonomy for the north and the east within a federal framework, the details to be negotiated. These demands are entirely just for the population of the north but are unacceptable to significant sections of the population of the east. This region is roughly divided between one third Sinhala, one third Tamil and one third Tamil-speaking Muslims. The Sinhalese and the Muslims (who are Tamil speaking) have expressed a wish not to be forcibly incorporated into an exclusively Tamil-autonomous north and east entity but wish for autonomous status themselves, which is their democratic right.

Military defeat?

However, the idea that the Tigers are on the verge of military defeat has been countered, paradoxically, by government stooge Karuna, who warned: “A wounded Tiger is a dangerous Tiger.” [Sunday Times, 1 October.] Now, the idea that the Tigers can be crushed by military means alone has been shattered by the death of over 139 government troops on 11 October, 103 navy personnel killed on Monday 16 October, and then two days later an attack by the ‘sea Tigers’, the naval wing of the LTTE, which resulted in 26 injured and 3 navy personnel being killed in the port of Galle. This latest attack is significant because in the 23-year civil war, the Tigers have never been able to strike as far south as this. This was also a huge blow to Sri Lanka’s tourist industry, coming on the heels of the devastating tsunami, which hoped to attract 600,000 tourists this year.

The idea that this conflict can be settled by military means alone is a chimera of the Sinhala communalists: “In military terms, the LTTE is unmatched in the South Asian region.” [Hindustan Times, 21 September.] The defence expenditure of Sri Lanka is now $700 million per annum and could rise to about $1 billion, which finances a 150,000-strong army. Pitted against this is the military wing of the LTTE estimated at only 10,000 and 2,000 ‘sea Tigers’ but with the support of the Tamil population. The LTTE spends at least $8 million annually on military hardware and its networks. Moreover, its income is “anywhere between $175 million and $385 million”; at least $40 million of this is from the Tamil ‘diaspora’ Significantly, it is estimated that the Tigers have 300,000 rockets, larger than the reported stash of rockets which Hezbollah has in Lebanon, and which was a significant factor in halting the Israeli army’s advance in the recent war.

This has made Sri Lanka the most militarised country in South Asia. The beneficiaries of all this are the merchants of death in the arms industry and the corrupt state officials who have pocketed colossal bribes for “successful tenders”. The losers are the workers, the peasants and the poor – both Sinhala and Tamil – who have paid with their blood and significantly reduced living standards.

The 8% growth in Sri Lanka is an illusion, estimated by economists I spoke to at no more than half this official government figure. Inflation is approaching 20% and is affecting foodstuffs which are the basic diet of the Sri Lankan people. On top of this, the World Bank is remorselessly demanding and getting the privatisation of the state sector. This savage agency of neoliberal capitalism has brazenly stated that: “Sri Lanka [is] paying excessive attention to worker protection.” [Morning Leader, 4 October.] When I was in Colombo, the Sunday Times announced that the Asian Development Bank, another agency of world capitalism, withdrew a $30 million grant to the Ceylon Electricity Board because “reforms [read privatisation] had been prevented because of union pressure”.

The government has responded by threatening that “striking unions are to be banned” [Sunday Times, 24 September]. Under the cover of the peace process, Rajapakse is seeking to carry through the programme of the Sri Lankan capitalist elite in collaboration with imperialism. He also gives the impression that this time his government will finally solve the ethnic conflict and end the war. Reflecting the support of the great majority of the Sinhala elite, he is attempting to draw into the government either “officially”, with the bait of ministerial positions or from the outside, the other major capitalist party the United National Party (UNP). Both the SLFP and the UNP are in the process of formulating a “common minimum national agenda”. The same goes for the Sinhala communalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which is split with one section supporting Rajapakse “because he is doing the job”, allegedly, and “defeating” or at the least promising to “demilitarise” the Tigers. Another wing is threatening to withdraw its support from the government if it makes unacceptable concessions to the LTTE.

Sri Lanka’s “de Gaulle”

Some, even on the left in the past in Sri Lanka, believe that Rajapakse could be a kind of Sri Lankan ‘de Gaulle’, who initially came to power as a representative of those who said that Algeria would always be French. He then gave independence, which earned him the hostility of the French-Algerian ultras, expressed in assassination attempts. Although the independence of Algeria was a progressive step, both for the people in that country and in the whole of the Middle East, this did not mean that socialists and Marxists gave support to de Gaulle.

If Rajapakse was to establish even an unstable ‘peace’, with support of the Tamil-speaking people and their organisations, then this would be a step forward. If he was to go a step further and the UNP, SLFP and JVP, or remnants of them, were to coalesce into one capitalist political formation, it would simplify the struggle of the working class and further the process of the working class creating a new mass political force, organised on socialist lines.

It cannot be excluded – given the colossal pressure which will be exerted on imperialism and by ‘big brother’ India – that despite the present violence, some kind of ramshackle agreement can be eventually be arrived at. This is, however, going to be difficult given the Sinhala communalist forces ranged against such a deal. Moreover, even if there is an agreement, it will not solve the underlying national question, which is intractable on a capitalist basis. However, even temporary agreements can allow a breathing space for the working class and the development of the class struggle, which has been skewed in Sri Lanka because of the war and the communalism which has flowed from this. It will allow socialist and Marxist forces the opportunity to unite the working class and the poor in the struggle against capitalism and the Sri Lankan elite.

The USP offers the best hope for the Sri Lankan masses to build the basis of a fighting organisation which can recreate all the best socialist and revolutionary traditions of the past. It has already passed a severe test in the presidential elections and on the issue of abductions. It has the clearest programme to combat communalism and solve the national question. A socialist Sri Lanka linked to a socialist confederation of the South Asia subcontinent, in the first instance, is the way forward.

An edited version of this article will be published in the next issue of the Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales

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October 2006