Sri Lanka: Bloody end to war, no end to national conflict

Socialists continue fight against Rajapakse dictatorship

The Sri Lankan government is engaged in what it sees as its final battle to defeat the dwindling Tamil Tiger forces in the north of the country. It ignores all pleas, including now from the United Nations, to suspend fighting in order to release thousands of men women and children to safety.

The ghastly civil war in Sri Lanka, that has been raging for more than 25 years, appears to be ending in what an International Red Cross worker called “Nothing short of a catastrophe”. As the Sri Lankan Army broke through what appeared to be the last defences of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on 20 April, tens of thousands of terrorised civilians poured out in a dazed mass. Hundreds of thousands, including an estimated 50,000 children, had been trapped in a tiny strip of land euphemistically called by the government a ’no-fire’ zone but described by a Human Rights Watch director as “one of the most dangerous places in the world”.

Hospitals and churches in which survivors sheltered were bombed. Doctors struggling to treat the horribly injured, who dared to raise their voices against the carnage and the blocking of medical and food aid, face disciplinary action. The United Nations reported 4,500 killed in the first three months of this year. Hundreds more were slaughtered in the merciless onslaught by the Sri Lankan Army north of Mullaitivu aimed at “crushing” the LTTE and forcing its leaders into complete, unconditional surrender.

“How the war ends will be critical to Sri Lanka’s future,” warned Robert Temple of the International Crisis Group. If in a “bloody massacre”, its memory “would be used to incite decades more war and terrorism”. In the same issue of the Independent on 22 April, Asian affairs expert, Charu Lata Hogg, predicted: “Victory in the battlefield will remain hollow; an aggrieved minority at home and an embittered diaspora abroad will ensure that peace remains elusive in Sri Lanka”. It is doubtful whether any Tamil – inside or outside Sri Lanka – will ever forget these last few months of wholesale carnage or forgive the ministers and generals they hold responsible.

The living hell for those who have lost their homes, family members, their livelihoods will not end soon. Starving mothers will still be unable to suckle their babies. Famished children will continue to die from illnesses brought on by malnutrition. Men and boys, sometimes girls too, will continue to be taken at gunpoint from their families. Herded into concentration camps, surrounded by barbed wire, inadequately housed, fed or cared for, thousands more Tamil people will die and thousands more will lose hope of ever living a normal life.

Humanitarian organisations and aid agencies still struggle to get into the area. So do journalists and TV crews. Sri Lankan media personnel and opposition figures who dare to tell the truth about the Rajapakse dictatorship and its frenzied ’war on terror’, have become targets for the killers on motor bikes or in white vans who do the dirty work of the state. Many have left the country to survive.

Socialists in Sri Lanka the country are living through one of the darkest periods in their history. Leaders of the United Socialist Party, sister organisation affiliated with the England and Wales Socialist Party to the Committee for a Workers’ International, have consistently warned that a military defeat of the Tamil Tigers will not bring an end to the deep-seated national conflict in Sri Lanka. Capitalist commentators, like Mark McDonald reporting from Colombo to the International Herald Tribune, say the same. Anger at “decades of official marginalization, resentment over discriminatory education policies and suppression of the Tamil language by administrations dominated by the Sinhala Buddhist majority will linger…”. (Tamils make up around 17% of the 21million population and Sinhalese about 74%.) As he points out, other issues bear down on poverty-stricken Tamils in the central plantation areas as well as in the war-devastated North and East. Massive government investment in schools, infrastructure, housing and job creation are needed in addition to genuine political autonomy and freedom from discrimination.

But capitalism in Sri Lanka, at its weakest and most indebted state since independence, is incapable of fulfilling these demands. The majority of the Sinhala workers and small farmers have felt no benefits of being part of a favoured majority. The vast sums needed to finance the war have caused prices on basic goods to fluctuate wildly with inflation reaching as much as 30% in some periods. It is also behind the sharp rise in the number of unemployed private and public sector workers.

Regional power play

The ’end’ of the war has long been promised by the Rajapakse gang in power. Even this year it was going to be finished by 4 February – Freedom Day, marking independence from the British and a good day to celebrate freedom from terrorism! Then it was going to be the Sri Lankan New Year – 13 and 14 April, or in time to affect the outcome of the next round of provincial elections on 25 April. At the latest, it seems, the war had to be over by the end of April to qualify for a massive $1.9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. If the loan is secured and the war continues, this foreign currency will be used for the procurement of more deadly armaments – from Israel, Iran, Pakistan … If not, it will be used for payments in the region of $900million on the massive loans already taken to pay for the war. One of the conditions laid down by the IMF is a 50% devaluation of the rupee which will mean massive increases in the cost of living.

International capitalism has urged an end to the civil war in Sri Lanka for its own reasons. Mainly in order to get back to the business of making profit out of trade and industry but also to capture lucrative contracts for reconstruction and development. This applies especially to India which now has vast interests in Sri Lanka.

Satya Sivaran, a ’frequent visitor to Sri Lanka’ on behalf of his Church, wrote to the ’Campaign against the slaughter of Tamils’, exposing the real reason for India’s support for the murderous Rajapakse government: Ashok Leyland and Tata Mercedes enjoy a near monopoly for heavy vehicles and Bajoj for auto rickshaws are the only brand available in the country. More recently the Indian Oil Corporation has leased the prestigious and strategic Trincomalee Harbour for berthing their tankers.

Abbey Naidoo wrote in February in the South African Post: “India has revealed a duplicitous and murderous collaboration with the genocidal regime in power in Colombo. Not only deaf to the pleas and cries of its own Tamil population to intervene in this murderous onslaught, it actively assists the regime in the supply of military hardware, the training of strike aircraft pilots, the supply of military expertise and the provision of military advisers on the ground”.

In the view of the Financial Times of 26 February, one of the factors behind the impending military defeat of the Tamil Tigers was “the competition between India and China for regional influence [which] has led to a huge inflow of Chinese money and arms – with no tut-tutting about Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record”. But, it maintains, the seeds were sown five years ago with the defection of the Tigers’ commander in the East, Karuna, who took half their army over to the side of the government.

Chauvinist Reaction

Two years later, whipping up ’patriotic’, anti-Tamil reaction, Rajapakse came to power. He had the support of the Sinhala chauvinist JVP (People’s Liberation Front) and the Buddhist monks’ organisation the JHU. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, a president was elected on the votes of Sinhalese only. He proceeded to tear up a four year old cease-fire brokered with the LTTE by Norwegian emissaries, and to ruthlessly pursue his goal of becoming the first Sinhala ruler of a “united” Sri Lankan state.

The LTTE, led by Velupilai Prabhakaran, had once controlled nearly the whole of the North and East of the island. Not only was there a kind of Tiger civil service, and border control points manned by LTTE forces. There were tax officers, police and even Tiger speed cops. It had at least 12,000 fighting cadres – land forces, naval fighters (the ’Sea Tigers’), a merchant navy and a primitive ’air force’ capable of carrying bombs to Colombo from the Wanni jungles. The tactic of using human beings as suicide bombers was a gruesome but deadly invention of the LTTE and carried out by the venerated ’Black Tigers’. Enormous heroism and self-sacrifice was shown by young fighters but terrible consequences flowed from the military and political methods employed. One of their blunders was to instruct Tamils not to vote in the presidential election of 2005 – a tactic which allowed the rabid chauvinist, Rajapakse to defeat the UNP leader Ranil Wickeramasinghe by a small margin.

They had already been mortally wounded by the defection of Karuna. Now he has gone the whole way – joining the ruling SLFP and being and been rewarded with the post of minister of national integration! With him, in effect, was lost the whole of the Eastern part of the territory claimed to be part of the Eelam homeland.

The Tigers imagined they could win an all-out military victory against the Sri Lankan state and the 50,000 soldiers sent against them. They mad spectacular advances in the early stages but were severely hampered by the banning of their organisation in Europe, the US, Canada, India and elsewhere and its effect on funds and supplies. In the end their fighting force probably amounted to little more than 1,000 in their last redoubt near Mullaitivu. But a return of guerilla warfare is inevitable, as long as the Tamil people provide the water in which the fish can swim safely.

Right of self-determination

“The absence of war is not peace!” as the New York Times was reminded recently by a retired Indian Army general. Ashok Kumar Mehta had participated in his country’s ill-fated peace-keeping mission in the late 1980s. (This involvement of Indian government troops was firmly opposed at the time by those members of the Nava Sama Samaja Party who were later to become the Marxist Workers’ Tendency, fore-runners of the United Socialist Party of today, and by the international leadership of the Committee for a Workers’ International. It was tragically borne out that the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie were not those of the ordinary working and poor Tamils. They ended up shooting and killing the very people they had supposedly come to defend and many of their own number perished.)

Socialists maintain that national conflicts, fostered by imperialism and exacerbated by the privations and inabilities of capitalism to provide for all, cannot be overcome on a capitalist basis. The struggle for socialism has inscribed on its banner the basic democratic demand of the right of nations to self-determination. The early Sri Lankan Trotskyist leader, Colvin De Silva warned that not giving the Tamils’ language the same equal official status as Sinhala would engender national resentment capable of dividing the two communities. He adopted the formula: “Two languages one country; one language two countries” which unfortunately was not implemented.

The United Socialist Party, has unflinchingly defended the right of the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka to live without fear of oppression or discrimination. It has also had inscribed on its banner the right of the Tamil people to self-determination, up to and including separation and independence, if they wish it. No government of Sri Lanka has allowed the people to freely express what they see as the best arrangement for protecting their rights. The ’Tigers’ have always claimed to represent the Tamil people and have broad support. But they have never fully tested their political feelings in a genuine democratically-conducted referendum and have sometimes shown themselves intolerant of political opposition.

On the other hand, there are those who were on the Sri Lankan left who have given up on advocating the right to self-determination, let alone idea of socialism. Some have ended up in the camp of the present chauvinistic, anti-working class government of Rajapakse. Others have allied in elections, in an unprincipled fashion with capitalist parties such as the United National Party.

When it has been necessary to form a temporary front with some of these forces on a single issue such as ’Stop the War’ or no to dictatorial powers, this has been done by the USP in a principled and careful fashion, maintaining an independent programme for a struggle against capitalism. Marching separately, striking together.

The USP has also put forward the idea that, if a separate state or large measure of self-rule was established, within it there should be guarantees of the rights of minorities within it, up to and including autonomous areas for Muslims and for Sinhalese people. In elections in the East of the island, the USP has been the only party with candidates on its list from all three main communities – Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala. There and in the Hill Country, USP campaigners have warned against false friends of the poor and working people in the form of the unprincipled leaders of the Muslim Congress and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress who tend so often to take the side of whoever wins! For this, election candidates and campaigners of the USP have been physically attacked and also imprisoned on faked charges.

In the present situation in Sri Lanka, with not one of the major problems resolved, no outside force can change the situation. The United Nations Security Council finally discussed, on April 22 how to bring an end to the humanitarian nightmare in Sri Lanka. But, as faithful representatives of their own ruling elites, as usual, no agreement was reached to ’interfere’ in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. A few weeks ago, New Labour in Britain finally decided to send an envoy, Des Browne, to Sri Lanka. He was not even allowed into the country – the move dismissed by the Rajapakse government as a “Disrespectful intrusion” into Sri Lanka’s affairs!

Getting away with murder

The astounding silence of the big powers has allowed the Rajapakse government to literally get away with murder – mass murder! And with no witnesses. Only when it was too late to save the lives of thousands of men, women and children, did western governments begin to make their faint voices heard. And only when hundreds of thousands of furious Tamils turned out for mass protests across the world and when desperate young men in London, Australia, Canada and India have been showing themselves prepared to die, through hunger strikes or self-immolation, to get justice for their people.

In India it was the pressure of mass, sometimes violent, demonstrations in Tamil Nadu – of striking students and lawyers – which finally evinced the mild pleadings from Sonja Gandhi and one or two government leaders for Rajapakse to agree to a permanent cease-fire. But he will still bank on support from the majority in Sri Lanka, including some Tamil people, who simply want the war over.

The dictator-president in Sri Lanka, rules through decree, the use of vast emergency powers and also sheer thuggery. War weariness has not been enough to guarantee him the kind of victory he wants in the provincial council elections of 25 April in Colombo. It is reported that he has ordered the release of convicted gangsters from the prisons to go to the Tamil areas and wipe out the traditional support for the main opposition bourgeois party – the United National Party. At the present time this party stands for peace. Its leader, Ranil Wickeramasinghe, when the UNP was last in power, was instrumental in getting the 2002 cease-fire to hold, allowing some respite to the minority Tamil population and to the Sri Lankan Army forces. He was under great pressure particularly from US imperialism, to bring the costly war to an end and continue to open up the Sri Lankan economy to further investment and exploitation by foreign capital.

It was his party, however, which was in power in the early ‘80s when the full-scale war was started. The UNP had got a landslide victory in 1977 with 140 votes to eight for the SLFP. In the north, the Tamil United Liberation Front won a clean sweep of all 18 seats, standing on the programme of a separate Tamil state. These two developments came in the wake of the betrayals of working and poor people by popular front governments of the capitalist SLFP with left parties, but the sharp attack by the UNP on the gains of the past, and its driving down of living standards, provoked an all-out public sector general strike in 1980. After it ended in defeat and mass sackings of trade union and party lefts, the government turned to pursue a civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

On 24 July 1983, the bodies of 13 soldiers killed by the Tigers were paraded on the streets of Colombo. Mobs were given military protection and government vehicles to move in. Up to 4,000 Tamil people were slaughtered in just a couple of days. More than 18,000 homes were attacked and damaged and more than 100 workplaces and 20 garment factories were destroyed. 150,000 lost their jobs and over 100,000 Tamils were made refugees. President Premadasa justified this tragedy saying the Sinhala people must be given respect but that anyway the pogroms against Tamils had been organised by the left parties!

Today the United National Party poses as the friend of the workers, of the Tamils and of all peace-loving citizens. They have decried the war but made few moves to organise real mass opposition against it. The nearest it came was at the time of the funeral of the murdered newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickeramatunge. They have not done well in the recent provincial elections.


The ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party has won decisively. In the East it was with the help of another LTTE renegade, Pillayan and his thugs. In the Ratnapura area and in the central Hill Country, where Tamils of a different origin from those of the North are the majority, Rajapkse was still able to win big votes. Corruption and intimidation are endemic in Sri Lanka’s elections, but the promise of a swift end to the war and its drain on resources and emotions, won out. Sinhalese families with sons in the army, many as economic conscripts, longed for an end to the fighting. Every village in the South has been flying the white flags of mourning for the numerous soldiers lost in the dacades of fighting.

The United Socialist Party has been reluctant to stand in the recent elections which, in the circumstances are a farce and serve only to strengthen the Rajapakse warmongering clique. But the USP has a responsibility to voice the anguish of the Tamil-speaking people, to defend their rights and to campaign for united mass action to change society along socialist lines.

When the war is supposedly over, there will be no long-term solution under this government. The JVP and JHU chauvinists, who will never settle for any kind of devolution, may well come onto the streets to create a triumphal communal atmosphere. They and the government even may feel strong enough to carry out physical attacks on Tamils and political opponents alike.

The government may well go for snap elections in the Jaffna area to claim the war is over and that Tamil people can have some measure of choice over their representatives. They will aim to install compliant Tamil politicians. They will refuse any real element of self rule, especially if it means implementing the ‘thirteenth amendment’ (to an earlier cease-fire agreement) which would link the north and east as one entity. But after the bloody ’end’ of the longest running conflict in Asia, the Tamil people, if consulted, will not now settle for integration into a unitary state.

Elections taking place in these conditions are a farce. The idea of the government is to move quickly to repeat the experience in the East where military victory was followed up fraudulent and violent elections to get a compliant local administration into power. There are said to be plans for the government to organise Sinhala settlers to move into the war-torn areas of the North in the way that Jewish settlers have been ’planted’ in Palestine’s West Bank, for example.

Whatever manoeuvres, strategies, emergency powers Mahinda Rajapakse has surrounded himself with, in the end, relief at the end of the war will give way to new anxieties – over the lack of a settlement to the national conflict but also to the crippling costs and conditions of life. The war has consumed vast resources – up to$5million a day. Before the civil war, in 1982, defence spending was just 0.5% of the country’s GDP. Today it takes more than 5% – putting Sri Lanka in the top 20 biggest military spenders worldwide. The total has gone from 96bn rupees to 200bn in two years. The country’s current account deficit has gone from 1.5bn to 3.6bn rupees. Prices of essential food and fuel have spiralled. The rupee in the wage packet has plummeted.

In his appeal for solidarity action on April 8, Secretary of the USP, Siritunga Jayasuriya, pointed out what the effects have been already of the global downturn: “More than 300,000 employees out of a total workforce of 6.1 million employed in the private sector have lost their jobs, with more than 50,000 being dismissed during the past three months. More than 50 companies and factories have been closed due to the present crisis situation and the Labour Ministry has done little to protect the employees who have lost their jobs.

The working people of Sri Lanka will resist paying the price for the crisis on top of the huge war burden. The Tamil people most direly affected by the war will want to see something in return for their huge sacrifices. The workers’ movement and the socialist forces will be rebuilt to fight back. An end to war and a lasting peace can be achieved through a mass, united struggle of the working and poor of all communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim – for a harmonious socialist society.

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