Sri Lanka: “War victory” celebrated

National question remains unresolved

The war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government’s armed forces has come to an end. It went on for close to 30 years and originated from the unresolved national question in relation to the minority Tamil population. Government forces were able to defeat the ‘Tigers’, kill its top leaders, including Velupillai Prabhakaran, and capture all the territory held by the LTTE.

There were organised celebrations in the south of the country to mark the war victory and also a campaign to show that there is no more national problem. However it will now become more complex in the near future than it was 60 years ago. In the ceremonial speech made by the president in parliament, declaring the war victory on 19 May, the president said, “There are no minority communities any more in this country. There are only two communities. One that loves this country and another that does not”. But the national conflict in Sri Lanka has a long history; it is by no means resolved by Rajapaksa’s so-called military victory.

History of the national question in Sri Lanka

After the winning of independence from British imperialism in 1948, the new Sri Lankan government wanted to replace the English language, which had been at the helm up to then, with the Sinhala language, which was the language of the majority Sinhalese. They promised to give a comparable status to the Tamil language but it never became a reality. Instead they attacked the rights of Tamil plantation workers and later signed an agreement with India and repatriated tens of thousands of workers and their families. The Tamil leaders in the early period tried to act in co-operation with the Sinhala bourgeois. Indeed those Tamil leaders believed that they could resolve the problems affecting the Tamil community through dialogue with Sinhalese leaders. But that belief gradually faded away. The decisive role in this connection was played by Soloman (SWRD) Bandaranayaka in 1956.

In 1952 Bandaranayaka had resigned from the United National Party which was in power at that time and moved towards a Sinhala nationalist position in order to win political power. For that purpose he built a nationalist force comprised of Buddhist monks, native physicians, teachers, peasants and workers – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He pledged that the Sinhala language would be made the official language within 24 hours after him becoming prime minister. Only the leaders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party (CP) campaigned and voted against the Sinhala Only Act in the parliament.

In the parliamentary debate in 1956. Colvin R de Silva, a Sama Samajist (socialist/Trotskyist) leader of the time, proclaimed the famous phrase: ‘one language two countries, two languages one country’. Some in the left movement who previously fought for the rights of the Tamil-peaking people later became identified with the Sinhala communalism by embracing cross-class coalition politics. When the UNP Government of Dudley Senanayaka brought in the Tamil Language Special Provision Act, supposedly to give some concessions to the Tamil people through the Dudley-Chelva Agreement of 1965, the left leaders of the Sama Samaja and Communist parties disgracefully held demonstrations together with Sirima Bandaranayaka of the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) against the government, taking a communalist position.

A Buddhist monk, Dhambarawe Rathnasara, was shot dead by the police on 8 January 1968, while on one of these anti-Tamil demonstrations. The coalition of the SLFP with the Lanka Sama Samaja party (LSSP) and the Communist Party swept to power in 1970 and one of the reasons for the victory was basing themselves on that Sinhala Buddhist sentiment. Previously the LSSP had mass support among a wider layer of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim workers and among the Hill Country Tamil plantation workers. Such was the support for genuine socialist ideas, that the LSSP and CP often came second in elections. However, as the LSSP leaders began to look to the parliamentary road, seeking concessions and negotiating reforms, their commitment to mass revolutionary struggle waned.

The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a turning point in Sri Lankan politics because of the betrayals of the leaders of the traditional left parties in joining the capitalist coalition government and abandoning the class struggle. This paved the way for petit bourgeois movements starting both in the south and in the north at the same time. The rebellion in the south under the leadership of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) was launched and the guerrilla movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came into being almost simultaneously

The UNP and SLFP representatives of the Sinhalese capitalist-landlord class had ruled the country up to then, but now even the ‘left’ leaders, had degenerated in the process of bourgeois parliamentary politics. The coalition government of 1970 with the so-called left leaders, initiated a process to draft a new constitution and the Tamil leaders again attempted to get the national aspirations of the Tamil people incorporated into the new constitution. The Constitutional Council rejected all the demands put forward by the Tamil leaders. Buddhism, which is the religion of the majority Sinhalese, was made the official or state religion under this constitution. It was enacted under the same Colvin R. de Silva, the prominent leader of the LSSP, then in the government. Tamil people, who were first marginalised by the Sinhala Only Act of the Bandaranayaka government in 1956, were thus dismissed outright by even the so-called left leaders in the 1970 Popular Front government. In the absence of working class alternative that would unite all workers in the struggle for winning equal rights, oppressed Tamils looked for other means to take their struggle forward. Tamil leaders then stepped in to fill the vacuum.

The background was thus created for the formation of the Tamil United Front encompassing all the Tamil political parties. Due to the Sinhala Only Act, after 1956 a considerable number of Tamil public servants were forced out of the public service on the basis that they were not proficient in the Sinhala language. The new generation of Tamil youth were thus shut out of public service. All the expectations of the Tamil people to go up in the social ladder were dashed by this process.

Except for a cement factory in Kankasunthrai and a chemical factory at Paranthen, no major industry was established in the north by successive Sinhalese-led governments after independence. Even these two industries only came into being because of the pressure from Tamil-speaking people. Tamil Congress leader, GG Ponnambalam, was forced to take an initiative. He was the minister of industries in the 1947 UNP government and represented Jaffna, the main town in the North. In that context, the only hope of the Tamil people to have a decent life was through education. This gave them a bigger incentive than the Sinhalese to get an English education.

Youth becoming leaders of Tamil struggle

Tamil leaders who were part of the ruling class held sway among Tamil people up to the 1980s. Ponnambalam Ramanathan in the 1920s and GG Ponnambalam (who initiated the ’50:50’ campaign at the time of British rule in the 1940s) represented one line of the aspiring capitalist class. SJV Chelvanayagam, who founded the Federal Party in 1949, and A. Amirthalingam in the 1970s and early 1980s, were another trend among Tamil leaders. The Tamil youth movement which was challenging the established leadership came into being against this backdrop. Tamil bourgeois leaders, who claimed that they were following the non-violent methods of Mahatma Gandhi (leader of Indian freedom struggle), sought to have a policy of negotiation in order to solve the Tamil people’s grievances. They were challenged by emerging Tamil youth leaders, amongst them, a group called “Tamil Tigers” as early as 1972. This changed the political pattern in the north.

There were several armed youth groups in the north till the late ‘80s. The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). India assisted in training all these groups in the initial period as they all stood for a separate Eelam state and nothing less. This shows the intense stage that the national aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people had reached in that period. The LTTE came to prominent partly through their attacks on military targets and partly through physically annihilating the other groups. Despite this, the LTTE managed to win the support of Tamil youth and students as their discontent against the Sri Lankan government continued to increase.

JR Jayawardana, leader of the UNP when it came to power in 1977, took steps to abolish ‘standardisation’ as part of implementing neo-liberal policies. Standardisation was introduced by the previous Sirima Bandaranayaka government. (Under this policy, Tamil middle level students, were discriminated against in favour of Sinhala middle level students when entering the university.)

By the time Sinhalese leaders began to recognise the Tamils’ right to use their own language and take action to alleviate the injustices inflicted on them, the national struggle of the Tamil people had heightened to a stage where they demanded equal justice. They would not be reconciled to accept such petty gestures. It is very clear that Tamil-speaking people had more than enough reasons to loose all confidence in Sinhala capitalist leaders when you look at this short history.

’Black July’ in 1983 – the carnage carried out against Tamils by the worst elements of the Jayawardena regime – was the turning point in the Tamil national struggle. Hundreds of innocent Tamils who lived in Colombo and other cities of the south were killed in the streets and burnt alive in their houses. All of their properties were looted and destroyed by Sinhala chauvinist gangsters. The police and the Sri Lankan Army did not interfere to stop any of these activities. But there were some Sinhalese who heroically took Tamil people into their homes to protect them from the pogrom.

By then some Tamil youth had embarked on armed struggle based on the method of individual terrorism and the case for that struggle was argued on a national and international level. From then on a bloody war ensued, which claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Military solution to the National Question

The war with the LTTE dragged on for nearly 30 years. Although unable to achieve decisive victory against the Sri Lankan state, and establish Eelam, nevertheless, by the end of the millennium, the LTTE had established almost complete control in the north and parts of the east. Not only did it have its own army, navy and even a small-scale air force, it had its own courts, taxation system, border posts and acted as a state within the state. However, the LTTE’s failure to involve the masses in a democratic manner meant that splits would inevitably appear in their organization.

The defection to the side of the government in 2004 of the eastern Tiger commander, Karuna, with thousands of cadres, dealt a mortal blow to the LTTE. This combined with massive support from regional powers such as China, India and Pakistan meant that Rajapaksa was able to conduct a major offensive from 2006 onwards. Finally, the Sri Lankan army was able to capture all the territory previously controlled by the Tamil Tigers and to kill all their leaders, including Prabhakaran.

But nobody can say that the struggle, emanating from injustices inflicted on a community for decades is now over because of the Sri Lankan Army’s military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

The Sri Lankan government leaders have been boasting again and again that they have been able to bring the country, which was divided hitherto, under one national flag. In reality it is nonsense to say that, given that hundreds of thousands of Tamil people are imprisoned in open-air camps in the north and that the captured areas are deserted without any population.

No real solution can be achieved without the support of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and other minorities in the country. But Rajapaksa wants to create a unitary country, on his terms only, without organising any democratic measures of consulting ordinary working and poor people. The sinister motives of the Rajapaksa government can be understood from the fate that has befallen the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) which was appointed by Rajapaksa soon after he became president for the purpose of finding a political solution. Rajapaksa was repeatedly saying that he would put forward a proposal-solution within a few weeks.

The chairman of the APRC, Tissa Witharana, who is a cabinet minister and the leader of the rump LSSP, stated more than a year ago that the APRC has finalised more than 90% of its proposals. The government, while trumpeting that the war is over, keeps mum about any solution said to be presented by the APRC. It seems farcical that the APRC has now passed away without any notice being taken.

There is no way this government will address the national question without putting forward at least a framework of proposals to the Tamil people, especially against the background of its stated claim of wiping out the Tiger rebels. Through that, the government may have won over some Tamil people to their side. But the reality is that the Rajapaksa administration is fully dependent on extreme Sinhala communalists for its survival. Therefore it would be a Herculean task to get consensus among constituent partners of the ruling party for any kind of proposal which would take account of the wishes of the minorities.

President Rajapaksa stated in January 2007 that he is prepared to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the constitution. (This amendment was introduced by the Rajiv-J.R. Pact, also known as the Indo-Lanka Accord, of 1987, signed between the leaders of India and Sri Lanka. It proposed the establishment of provincial councils and the election of chief ministers in each province. Under this constitution the North and East provinces were merged into one province. Even though the chief minister was elected, in reality he did not have any power. Provinces came under the control of the executive presidency in Colombo who appointed governors.) Rajapaksa has now put a full stop to talk of that kind of thing. Even Rajapaksa’s best allies are in a campaign not to implement the 13th amendment.

It should be noted that the LSSP and the CP welcomed this Indo-Lanka Pact with open arms. Even the so-called revolutionary Nava Sama Samaja Party which had broken away from the coalition politics of the LSSP, supported this pact between two capitalist parties and welcomed the Indian Peace-keeping Force entering the north and east to implement it. This, as the minority in the NSSP (who stayed with the CWI) had warned, ended up going against Tamil aspirations and paved the way for the Indian armed forces being used against the Tamil population in the north. The CWI grouping, with a clear Marxist understanding of the issues and forces involved, were the only ones to oppose the IPKF being brought into the country.

Muslims and the war

Pro-government Muslim leaders endeavor to show that there is no direct link between Tamil-speaking Muslims and the war in the north. They are trying to portray that normal life in the east has resumed after it was re-captured from the Tamil Tigers. One of the main demands of the LTTE was to accept the North and East as a Tamil homeland. Nevertheless the experience of the formation of the Eastern provincial council in 2008 shows the attitude of the Rajapaksa government towards undermining the national and religious sentiments of the Muslims in the east. He openly breached the promise he had given to Hisbullah (the Muslim leader from the ruling People’s Alliance who contested in the east) that he would be appointed as chief minister in the event of the ruling party winning the election of the eastern province.

Sinhala bourgeois leaders always use Tamil and Muslim people as pawns in their political games and it is evident from this experience in the East and situation in the north. The opportunistic role of the Thondeman ‘leaders’ of the Hill Country Tamils, of Douglas Devananda and of Karuna (former LTTE leader in the east) is a clear indication of this. At the beginning of the Tamil armed struggle, the majority of the ordinary Muslim people in the east were supportive of it as it was seen as a challenge from the oppressed to the oppressor. But the expulsion of Muslims from the north and east provinces by the LTTE in 1990 alienated the Muslim population. Towards the end of the war, a vast majority of Muslims were opposed to the LTTE and its struggle and acquiesced to the chauvinist Rajapaksa government in the south mainly because of the blunders and mistakes of the LTTE.

Now, Muslim leaders and Muslim people are alleging that the Rajapaksa government is in the process of establishing Sinhalese colonies in traditional Muslim areas. At the same time Muslims are on the receiving end of attacks as the government has failed to arrest the deteriorating law and order situation. Equally important is the charge that regulations have been enacted to curtail the freedom to observe and practice their religion. In this manner, the traditions and sentiments of Muslim people are being challenged by the Sinhala – Buddhist hegemony. Though the education ministry has permitted female Muslim students to wear the head scarf, along with their traditional clothes, when attending school, there were reports in some schools in Colombo to the effect that school authorities have tried to prevent, or at least discourage, Muslim school girls from wearing that attire. As the principals were not amenable to their demands, the parents moved to organising agitational campaigns. Sinhalese communalists have begun a vicious campaign against that just demand of Muslim parents.

This shows the desire of these communalist–nationalist elements for hegemony, not allowing any ethnic group to go beyond the limits imposed by them. Their chauvinist hatred, going even beyond the basic laws of the country, should be defeated at the earliest opportunity. Otherwise we cannot discard the possibility of Muslim people being driven to take a reactionary Muslim religious stand against these communalist chauvinists.

Marxism and LTTE

With the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, discussion of the Tamil national question will reach new dimensions. We as Marxists have time and again questioned the methods of the LTTE. Our criticism was that armed struggle without engaging the masses would never bring any liberation to the Tamil people. However Marxists supported and defended the Tamils’ right to strike against the oppression unleashed on the Tamil people by the Sinhalese state.

Despite an early inclination to the ideas of socialism, the Tigers did not have any confidence in an awakening or a rising struggle of the oppressed masses. They carried out a campaign to physically eliminate all those people and organisations who did not subscribe to their ideology. Hence there was nothing left for the Tamil people other than to support the LTTE as the only organisation that would bring them liberation. The LTTE, while taking forward the Tamil national struggle to a level which would attract international attention, did not allow any other leadership to emerge from the Tamil community in the north and east.

They managed to get considerable fiancial and political support from abroad, especially from the extensive Tamil Diaspora. Because of the authoritarian approach of the Tigers’ leadership under Prabhakaran, they did not follow through on several important opportunities which came their way to push for their full demands.

During the period that the cease-fire agreement was in operation, from 2002 to 2004, the LTTE had ample opportunity to allow a democratic discussion and debate within the Tamil community and become their leaders with their approval. But the Tigers were very much opposed to such a course of action and did not permit any democratic practice within their territory. At the same time there was also ample opportunity for them to start a dialogue with leaders of the southern working class who were defenders of the rights of Tamil people. The Tigers neither tried to organise such a thing nor did they appear to be concerned whether Marxist or workers’ organisations in the south were supporting the right to self-determination. They even attacked and killed Tamil socialists.

At the same time the LTTE’s response to the atrocities of the government forces in the north was to carry out military attacks and sometimes kill and terrorise southern innocent Sinhalese people. They effectively closed any opportunity for the southern Sinhala people to raise their voice in support of the Tamil struggle. The LTTE created this atmosphere because of their rejection of the struggle of the oppressed masses in the south to overthrow capitalism and build a socialist society.

It has become a very difficult task to campaign for the Tamil people’s right to self-determination in southern Sinhala society due to this situation. Even under very difficult situations, the southern Marxist movement has fought for the right to self-determination of the Tamil people. What the LTTE wanted to show to the world was that there was not a single Sinhalese who is supportive of the Tamil national struggle.

The Tamil people’s struggle for their freedom and liberation would unfold, in a third world country such as ours, through joining it with the struggle of the working class and poor oppressed masses – of Sinhalese people, Tamils and Muslims – to overthrow this parasitical capitalist system.

Truth unpalatable to the majority.

The period after independence aptly shows the sinister, fraudulent and deceitful nature of the Sinhalese capitalist ruling class on the Tamil national question. It is mainly due to the weak and parasitical nature of Sri Lankan capitalism, as in many other under-developed countries. Both the UNP and the SLFP (at present the People’s Freedom Alliance) have always set their eyes on majority Sinhala Buddhist votes to come to power and do not have any other objective. It is therefore very clear they would and could not provide any solution to the problems faced by Tamil and Muslim people.

There are various so-called liberal people giving free advice to the government about providing a solution in a post-LTTE era. These layers express their opinions on the basis that the Rajapaksa government is capable of solving these problems. The true nature of those so-called radicals who wear garbs of liberalism or non-violence has come out only after Rajapaksa’s so-called war victory.

Here we have to understand that what developed to the level of a horrendous war was the national struggle of the Tamil people which was soaked with their blood. It cannot be lightly dismissed as mere terrorism. It is difficult to say at this moment how the Tamil liberation struggle will develop or what shape it will take in the next period.

However the reality is very clear for workers and young people to see. An unprecedentedly large number of Tamil people across the world have rallied round the national liberation struggle of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. This points to an internationalisation of that struggle, including into Tamilnadu in India, rather than an ending of the war, as claimed by the Sri Lankan government. Ironically, even Jayalalitha Jeyaram, the opposition leader in Tamilnadu, who is staunchly anti-LTTE, has stated that there is no other solution to the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka other than Eelam – a separate country.

Finally it is very clear that the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka cannot be resolved within the limits of capitalism. Democratic control of the resources for the benefit of all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, sex and caste, is the only way forward for the poor and workers in Sri Lanka. To achieve that, a fight against capitalism is crucial. Capitalism always plays a divisive role to intensify the exploitation of the ordinary working masses.

It has been borne out, as advocated by Marxists, that national liberation cannot be won through the method of isolated individual terrorism. Liberation of the Tamil people can be achieved only through the fusion of the struggle of workers and other oppressed masses in the south to overthrow the capitalist system and address the problems of Tamils and of Muslims.

The armed conflict in the north and east, which lasted for close to 30 years, claiming countless precious lives, has finally taught us this bitter lesson. It is an important lesson not only for the Tamils in the north but also for the Sinhalese in the south.

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July 2009