Sri Lanka: United Socialist Party holds successful congress as country’s crisis deepens

Three days before the congress of the United Socialist Party (CWI, Sri Lanka) was convened in Colombo, a suicide bomb attack in the city targeted the minister of defence – the brother of the president, Mahinda Rajapakse. Two of his entourage were killed and thirteen people hospitalised with severe injuries. Gotabhaya Rajapakse narrowly escaped with his life but the attack was seen as a virtual declaration of war by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Pictures (added on 23 December 2006).

United Socialist Party holds successful congress as country’s crisis deepens

Within hours, the communalist anti-Tamil organisation, the JVP (People’s Liberation Front) was covering the capital with posters demanding the LTTE be banned. Luckily, the USP had completed its own poster campaign on the two previous nights. After many printers had refused to print the USP/CWI text, which was openly critical of the government’s war-mongering, they managed to get out 2,000 posters. It cited the vast sum allocated for war in the new budget, while the prices of basic foods rocket. “MPs’ and ministers’ salaries hit the sky while for ordinary people it’s ‘make do or die’!”

At the week-end, with tension in the capital high, the cabinet considered banning the ‘Tigers’. Such a move would mean that no further peace talks could be arranged; the bloody civil war would be renewed in earnest. Both sides have been building up for this, but the majority of the population dreads it. Efforts have proved fruitless on the part of representatives of the big capitalist powers and the Norwegian intermediaries to keep the tattered four-year-old ‘cease-fire’ in operation.

Against this background, it took courage for comrades of the USP, especially those from the Tamil-speaking minority, even to travel to Colombo. Faced with police and army checks everywhere, those without official papers could not come to the capital.

Confident mood

Nevertheless, nearly seventy party members were in attendance when the ninth congress of the United Socialist Party went ahead on 4 and 5 of December. The road to the Kamkaru Sevana Workers’ Centre, where it was held, was lined with posters and festooned with red flags. The hall itself was decorated with party banners, portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and posters from recent USP campaigns. A wall display gave a glimpse of the massive media coverage the party has received since its secretary, Siritunga Jayasuriya, came third in last year’s presidential election campaign.

There was also a folder with material indicating the massive international protests and solidarity expressed around the world in response to the recent killing of the Tamil MP, Nadharaja Raviraj. (See previous reports on socialist world.net.) Siritunga, himself a target of the death squads, spoke in his address to the congress of the work of the Civil Monitoring Commission and outlined the context of perhaps the worst economic and political crisis the country has faced.

The document he moved for approval was thoroughly discussed in a session that conveyed the confidence and enthusiasm of the members, many of them new to the Trotskyist movement in the country. It also demonstrated the reality that the USP can unite within its ranks representatives of the Tamil-speaking minority, including Muslims and also Sinhalese and female as well as male workers and youth. A letter was read at the beginning of the congress from the secretary of the Jaffna branch in the North, wishing the party well and regretting the impossibility, because of the virtual blockade of the North, of travelling south to participate.

A financial appeal made by Srinath Perera raised the excellent sum of 45,000 rupees. Before the end of the first day the congress heard a report on some of the main aspects of the world situation and the progress of the Committee for a Workers’ International. On the second day the report on the party’s work and plans for doubling the membership was given by the USP’s chief organiser, Dhammika de Silva and discussed at some length. Votes were taken on the political and organisational reports as well as to elect the new Central Committee to lead the party. All three were unanimous and the party members sang the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Internationale with gusto and with smiling faces.

Lankadeepa, the widest circulation newspaper in Sri Lanka, carried the main points of the USP’s press release about the congress as did a Tamil newspaper, asserting that the USP had been discussing the role of the working class in finding an answer to the national question.

Dictatorial powers

The following evening, the president, Rajapakse made a televised speech about the re-introduction of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. This gives the forces of the state free rein to arrest and detain, on grounds of being a threat to security, anyone they want to silence. “This is little short of military rule,” Siritunga Jayasuriya told the press and television networks the next day when they called on him to comment. “This step is not aimed at clearing the way to go back to war; they can do that anyway. These measures have been used in the past and will be used again to try and intimidate and suppress popular movements of protest against the government as it forces the working class and poor people into greater and greater misery. There is no one else speaking out against this government, no left force apart from ours. This is the tragedy of the situation today.”

The recent votes in parliament on the infamous war budget and on the renewal of the State of Emergency have seen only the twelve Tamil National Alliance MPs voting against. The opposition United National Party that professes to be against the war has not only gone into a paper alliance with the ruling Sinhala communalists but is voting with them on every measure!

“The country is now clearly divided between north and south”, commented Siritunga. During the day on Wednesday 6 December, before Rajapakse’s speech, the so-called ‘patriots’ of the chauvinist Sinhala organisations had been on the streets of the capital and other southern cities peddling their racist, anti-Tamil slogans. A real threat looms of a repeat of the 1989 pogroms and persecution of Tamil-speaking people in the south as the planes and war-ships of the government begin open attacks on LTTE positions in the North.

Yet the government continues to speak of peace. At a briefing of ambassadors in Colombo from Asia and the Gulf countries, Rajapakse assured them that the peace talks are not blocked by the new moves as there is no ban on the LTTE by name. (In fact, the Cease Fire Agreement specifically outlaws the reintroduction of the PTA – making this measure just another of the many infringements of that agreement, along with the military and paramilitary operations being conducted by both sides!)

Welcome report

Today (Friday, 8 December), there has been a welcome development. A report has been published which is critical of the government. A panel of experts set up by an all-party conference in August recommends “maximum devolution” for the north and east as one entity. It has come out against a recent court decision for the “de-merger” of the north and east which was intended to weaken the claims of the Tamil-speaking people. They say it should last for at least another ten years. It was the Sinhala chauvinist JVP that took this issue to court and got the support of a similarly communalist judge. It was the USP that had challenged it.

The All Party Representative Committee will also consider the proposals of the ‘experts’ from different parts of Sri Lankan society, for the establishment of autonomous regions within the North-East for the Sinhalese and Muslim populations in the East. This is also along the lines of the position of the USP which has campaigned for such democratic rights to the maximum self-determination of oppressed minorities in the country.

The conclusions of the majority of the Panel of Experts reflect the huge international pressure being exerted by outside capitalist governments, including especially those of the US and India. But, as Siritunga commented, “It shows it is well worth campaigning on the issues we have taken up, representing the weight in Sri Lnka of the working class and the interests of the Tamil-speaking minorities.”

The future in Sri Lanka is uncertain. The government faces a crisis and could go either to all-out war or to new elections to secure its position. The main opposition UNP also faces big difficulties and could split. The attempts of the JVP and another communalist organisation, the Buddhist Monks’ JHU, to rabble rouse the Sinhala population of the south against the Tamil-speaking population may or may not succeed. Recent strikes, go-slows and protests of workers in the tea plantations, of Post Office telecoms workers and also of teachers, reflect a big mood of resentment against employers who hide behind globalisation and neo-liberalism to hold down wages or hold back salary payments.

Call for united struggle

In this situation, the only way forward is along the lines suggested in the USP’s ninth congress. It made a call for the re-convening of the Democratic Workers’ National Convention to discuss the emergency situation and how to mobilise the maximum working class resistance. It also proposed the establishment of a broad platform to fight on the three key issues of war, communalism and neo-liberalism.

“Once more”’ said Siritunga Jayasuriya, “It comes down to the USP to take the initiative. No one else in the country is voicing the needs of the working people and championing the cause of socialism. Whatever the conditions over the next few weeks, months and years, as our congress showed, the members of the USP up and down the country are not prepared to shirk their historic responsibilities”.

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