Sri Lanka: Presidential election 2010

Socialist runs with clear alternative to “choice of death by machete or death by axe”

A presidential election is under way in Sri Lanka. The market stalls have been set out, displaying the electoral wares of no less than twenty two candidates. Some are trying to sell patently fake goods, some sell yesterday’s warmed up curry and some sell truly deadly concoctions. Just one candidate – Siritunga Jayasuriya for the United Socialist Party – has taken an honest and principled stance and has anything genuine to offer, telling the truth and showing a way out of the nightmare of recent years in war-torn Sri Lanka.

The longest running war in Asia – that between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – came to an end on 18 May, 2009. To make electoral gains based on victory propaganda, the government has called an election early. It is taking place on 26 January. The ruling UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance, led by the SLFP(Sri Lanka Freedom Party) and the also the main opposition party – the UNP(United National Party) – are asking for votes based on a war victory achieved through the butchering of thousands of ordinary poor Tamil people.

Rajapaksa and Fonseka – “choice of death by machete or death by axe”

Family Rule

The ‘Executive President’ Mahinda Rajapaksa family is now the most feared and powerful family in the country and controls every aspect of the government. It is said to be one of the richest in the region and was earlier accused of looting Tsunami money. Nepotism and corruption is now at an all time high. A massive $11.7 million per year is spent on presidential advisors and over $8.6million on luxury vehicles. Rajapaksa spends $100, 000 per day on his personal office alone. Several millions a month go on looking after the president and his security.

Now, in the election, there is more news emerging about government corruption of epidemic proportions. ‘Transparency International Sri Lanka’ published reports of how state resources are plundered to campaign for Rajapaksa. There are 160 complaints already made regarding improper use of state facilities including misuse of state buildings and vehicles. The army has been deployed to paste up Rajapaksa’s posters. The Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) has summoned all commanders of police stations to call on all officers to support Rajapaksa! Intimidation and state plunder are expected to increase as Mahinda Rajapaksa fights for his survival.

Tamil refugees in horrific camps

The legacy of this government is one of repression, corruption and gross economic failure. Up to 200,000 Tamils are still kept in horrific detention camps. Over 15,000 young people, some only 8 years old, are being kept in special concentration camps in secret locations. The government is also accused of having committed war crimes. It denies the increasingly corroborated evidence such as film of bound prisoners being shot.

The economy is on the verge of collapsing in a country which in the past had the second highest living standards in South Asia, with generous subsidies for food and fuel. There was almost 100% literacy for women as well as men. Today, more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s people live on less than $2 a day, when the government has been spending more than $2 million a day on the war.

‘Defence’ expenditure reached SLRs 177.1 billion ($925 million) in 2009. Public debt stands at over 80% of GDP. Inflation has been over 7% as a result of the Central Bank’s frenzy of money printing, and far higher for the basic necessities workers need. In July 2009 the rupee was overvalued by 21 percent according to the real effective exchange rate index of the Central Bank, badly affecting exports.

No so called peace dividend for the poor

There is a lot of talk about a ‘peace dividend’, but so far nothing has been realised. Since the official end of the war, the price of essential items has risen and none of the poor have made any gain. A massive injection of public money is required to rebuild and reconstruct from the devastations caused by the long war, but the government and the regional powers lining up to invest only have their own interest in mind.

Poor people and workers have not benefited at all from the Hambantota port project in the South – described now as a billion-dollar port – which is under Chinese control. Chinese investment already has a horrific history of exploitation throughout Africa. There is little evidence that it has brought prosperity to millions of poor African workers. In fact, Chinese firms are very unpopular for their acute exploitation. Poor people in Sri Lanka who have already suffered greatly during the war will now be forced to work in harsh conditions for little money. Like the Rajapaksa government, the Chinese government also has no respect for human rights or better working conditions.

India’s $500 million coal power plant venture in Sampoor, Trincomalee had already displaced thousands of Tamil-speaking people to refugee camps similar to those that now exist throughout the country. Malaysia was the top investor in Sri Lanka in 2008 with over $900 million. It has also agreed to expand its investment in Telecommunications recently to profit from the island’s cheap labour.

In October this year Rajapaksa announced that he will build Free Trade Zones particularly in the Kilinochi and Trincomalee areas. There were also reports that young people held in special camps on suspicion of terrorism will be forced to work in these FTZs for as little money as possible. These cruel measures are taken in the name of a ‘rehabilitation programme’ which aims only to increase profits for investors.

Despite all this, for the first time ever, the government has had to rely on external loans to prevent it from collapse. It recently managed to secure an IMF loan of $1.9bn. This was secured by giving in to the demands of the IMF such as imposing a wage freeze and cuts in public services. This is the first time since independence from British rule that such a large loan has been borrowed. It does not represent a helping hand for the impoverished masses of the country but its conditions actually make things worse for them. Even the so-called ‘aid and development’ packages end up benefiting the already rich tiny minority in the country. The majority have suffered rapid falls in living standards and job losses.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in the first quarter of 2009 alone, more than 60,000 workers lost their jobs. An official survey by the government’s statistics office said 155,000 industrial jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2009.

With global demand falling due to the acute economic crisis, no boom is expected in the manufacturing sector. The textile sector has not recovered since the Tsunami when it wiped out factories as it killed thousands of workers and their families. Now the economic Tsunami facing Sri Lanka and the world means huge job losses internationally. In Sri Lanka at least one million jobs in the textile and related sectors are expected to go. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has warned that as many as 350,000 public sector jobs could be lost over the next five years.

The agreement with the IMF means that there will be a reduction in public sector spending. Job losses and cuts in services will have devastating consequences for the workers and poor. This has even brought a leading economist to make comments about “guerrilla war in the workplace” and “a bloodbath in the public finances”. Cuts in military recruitment, because the Sri Lankan economy cannot sustain a massive expenditure on defence, will also add to unemployment numbers.

On top of this, the textile sector will be hit even harder if the European Union withdraws the ’GSP+’ privilege from Sri Lanka. This scheme allows duty-free exports of Sri Lankan products into the EU. The textile industry in particular has benefited from it. According to Julian Wilson, head of the EC (European Commission) delegation to Sri Lanka, GSP+ is worth €900 million and it helps to employ over 100,000 people in the country. The EC says, ‘Keeping the GSP+ depends on how well the Sri Lankan government is seen to implement the 27 conditions laid down in international conventions on human rights, labour rights and environmental standards’. Sri Lanka actually has the worst human rights record in south Asia and one of the worst in the world.

Corruption and looting of aid and investment is at an all time high. The (temporary) suspension of GSP+ is to be welcomed as a sanction against the Sri Lankan government. But it is hypocritical, given the continued dealings with the murderous Rajapakse regime during the murderous civil war and, moreover, it is ‘too little, too late’. The EU did nothing while the civil war raged. They watched while thousands were brutally murdered during the war. Withdrawing GSP+ is a belated attempt to uphold human rights and is being used as a strategy to regain some influence in the Sri Lankan economy.

Fonseka offers no alternative

The main opposition candidate standing against Mahinda Rajapakse has no alternative programme for Sri Lanka. The blood-soaked General, Sarath Fonseka, has put himself forward but has no record on the political arena of being able to bring solutions to the country’s deep social or economic problems. Rather he has taken the decision to stand in the presidential election to take personal vengeance against the current president. He has a brutal record of commanding the army that carried out mass murder in the war, but when Rajapaksa denied him a share in the war glory, he defected to the opposition camp!

The United National Party and the chauvinist JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna – People’s Liberation Front) – both jumped to rally behind General Fonseka only because they believed that they could pick up a bit of the victory mania by backing him.

There is no great difference between the UNP of the past, that deepened and inflamed the ethnic divide created in the Island by the British, and the UNP of today. The argument that it has somehow gone through an incredible metamorphosis and will now defend the rights of the minorities and poor Sinhala masses is a sick joke. History is full of evidence to the contrary. If the UNP takes the helm in Sri Lanka once again, faced with a crisis situation, it is quite capable of carrying through atrocities against the minorities and attacking the poor Sinhala working class as it has in the past.

In a previous election manifesto the UNP already talked about creating five new Free Trade Zones and this remains the centre of their economic policies. FTZs are a way of creating acute exploitation and high profits. They create an ideal environment for investors – often foreign investors – to invest and pay less tax and employ the cheapest possible work-force denied any labour rights. Rarely is any of the profit made from these zones – by stealing wages and not paying taxes – ever be re-invested.

Of course, there is a section of the Sri Lankan business class – crony capitalists – who are completely in the pockets of the Rajapaksa family. The current president has also been able to carry favour with Asian powers, whose backing was a decisive factor in crushing the ‘Tamil Tigers’.

For the first time in thirty years the whole country appears to be under the “control” of a southern-based government. The entire business class of Sri Lanka seeks ’law and order’ – the protection of the state in order to maximise profit.

With regional powers such as China, India, Australia along with Malaysia, Japan and other countries lining up to invest, businesses definitely wants a party that it can trust in power. The leading parties – UNP and SLFP – compete with each other in terms of implementing brutal neo-liberal policies. Workers, poor farmers, fishermen and small traders have all experienced that the current government policies have no real benefit for them. They should have no illusions, either, in UNP policies. None of them will prove to be worker and poor people friendly. Privatisation cuts in public services, cuts in real wages, increasing unemployment – this is what ts UNP victory would mean to the masses, just as much as if Rajapaksa is returned.

The UNP-sponsored General is full of contradictions and there is no guarantee that he will listen to the UNP. Fonseka recently declared that the defence minister Gothabaya Rajapaksa gave direct orders not to take any prisoners during the final days of the war in May 2009. The Rajapaksa family faces several other war crimes. Channel 4 in the UK published video footage of the Sri Lankan army, while under Fonseka’s control, murdering surrendered men and women. Some videos are not shown as they are described as ‘trophy’ videos with horrific images. The United Nations also announced that they are considering setting up an expert panel to look into alleged violations of human rights by the Sri Lankan army. Fonseka, claming the war victory glory as his, cannot escape from war crimes charges.

This American green card-holding general never had any interest in the well-being of ordinary people. UNP support for Fonseka is a shameless admission of how they envy the government boasting of its war victory. They do not have any real opposition to the horrors that either their own fighting forces or the poor and working masses have to face. Whoever thinks that a military commander is an appropriate candidate to lead the country, just because he has managed a brutal victory, with the military aid of India, China and others, is definitely not considering the interests of the ordinary Sinhalese and Tamils in the country.

The Sinhala nationalist party, the JVP, is another ardent supporter of the General. It is no longer able to hide its chauvinist anti-worker policies in Marxist rhetoric. The JVP, from its origin and throughout its existence, has a history of communal politics. It never accepted the right of the minorities or stood for an alternative (socialist) economy despite its muttering about anti-capitalism. They supported the war and nearly all the anti-democratic attacks made by the current government. In fact they vigorously defended the government’s policy of hunting down the dissenters, often helping them by attacking those who questioned the war. Only after they had split away from the government they made some pro-worker noises.

Even now the JVP says Tamil refugees are in the camps only because they have been “tormented due to Prabakaran and his Tiger terrorist movement”. They hypocritically close their eyes to the very attacks on Tamil people and their rights which provided the conditions in which the Tamil Tigers could find support. The JVP only asks the government to “act more sensibly”. By comparison, they make General Sarath Fonseka with his demagogic demands for democratic rights, look more to the left than them!

The JVP claims to be part of the mass war murder, to boast to the chauvinist forces and make them jump at the first opportunity to rally behind Sarath Fonseka and beg him to stand in the coming election. They regard him as a “war hero” and saviour of the people. This means they are now shamelessly working with the UNP – historically the most right-wing capitalist party in the country – to elect a military general and a war criminal to the executive president’s post.

While claiming that they are anti-imperialist they proudly announce: ‘We invite China to invest in Sri Lanka in a new JVP regime’. Beyond their anti-capitalist rhetoric their programme stands for nothing but Sinhala chauvinism. Their election theme reads ‘For a new Sri Lanka from the south!’ Like all their election slogans and propaganda, their material aims at the most chauvinist forces in the country. They have no aim of bringing together Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim working class people across the country. Not long ago when they participated in the Rajapaksa government, after campaigning vigorously to get him elected, they made clear that they would not accept any devolution of power to the Tamil-speaking minority. Their chauvinism, sometimes dressed up in Marxist phraseology, is only aiming at strengthening the Sinhala chauvinist forces that they are basing themselves on, to build a vote bank for themselves. However their support has been diminishing fast, as Rajapaksa has occupied their political ground. This was shown in the recent provincial council elections when they lost nearly 80% of their seats.

In the absence of a real alternative mass party to represent the working masses, the JVP’s propaganda divides the working class by building hatred among Sinhala workers and organising them separately. While they had a significant influence in the government, they moved heaven and earth to push the government to go for war.

Opportunism

The majority of MPs in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – a political alliance of various Tamil nationalist groups and parties brought together by the LTTE during the 2002 truce – are now calling for a vote for the very army commander who butchered tens of thousands of Tamils during the war.

In order to secure Tamil votes, Fonseka and the UNP have made many demagogic statements about wage increases and protection of the rights of the Tamil minorities including an amnesty for prisoners and closing down detention camps. He has also claimed that he will restore democracy and abolish the executive presidency. But the same vote-grabbing gestures towards Tamils are also being made by Rajapaksa. Fonseka, supported by ultra-right wing Buddhist monks and the undemocratic JVP, will never be able to deliver these election promises. To abolish the executive presidency he needs to win a two-thirds majority in the election and a referendum on the same demand. Given that the executive presidency was introduced by the UNP and it is unlikely that he will even get the full support of all UNP members, the question of abolishing the executive presidency seems a distant reality.

Even if Fonseka manages all that, he has not proposed what ‘democratic’ system would replace the executive presidency. Given his brutal military background it is hard to believe that any genuine democratic change will happen under his leadership. The Tamil-speaking people know the duplicity of these populist statements, but the TNA has unbelievably ignored all that this general stands for.

In 2008 the same general said he strongly believed that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese only. Under Sarath Fonseka’s command the military bombed hospitals, schools and other government buildings and killed thousands of innocent civilians. The UNP or TNA or anybody who asks the Tamil-speaking people to vote for this tyrannical military commander does not care about them or their democratic right to self-determination.

Among the so-called Tamil elite and MPs, some aspire to be a minister one day, if the party they support gets elected. But for the Tamil-speaking masses, nothing will change. It is disgraceful to call on the people to vote for either Fonseka or Rajapaksa, knowing they are responsible for every atrocity during the war – from the mass murder of civilians to the slaughter of surrendered prisoners in Mullivaaikaal, film of which has been authenticated by United Nations experts.

Throughout its history the Tamil elite in Sri Lanka has made the mistake of taking the side of the chauvinist elite parties who oppress Sinhala workers and poor as well as Tamils. It is their political stance that has pushed young Tamils in the North and |East towards militancy.

One Tamil National Alliance MP, Mr MK Sivajilingam, is opposed to the TNA’s decision to support Fonseka. He is the only Tamil to stand as a presidential candidate. It is a farce that Mr Sivajilingam sees no no major political differences between the TNA and the UNP. He would have joined forces with the UNP, like his colleagues, if it had not supported the Fonseka candidature. It is only the Fonseka factor that keeps him away from the UNP rather than the UNP’s policies. In this respect Sivajilingam is no different from the old Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leaders who betrayed the interests of the Tamil-speaking people in the past.

To support Sivajilingam is to support the anti-worker policies of the UNP that offer no solution to the problems of the Tamil-speaking masses. The ordinary people of Sri Lanka need a candidate with a principled stand against the policies of repression. It is clear that Sivajilingam is not that candidate. During last year’s Indian election campaign he appeared on the same platform as the candidate of the Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) – a major Hindu nationalist party in India whose communalism can rival that of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Buddhist nationalist party in Sri Lanka. He has a very narrow nationalist political perspective and has stated nothing about his political or economic programmes as a presidential candidate. He is also widely condemned as using the funeral of Mr Vellupillai, father of the late LTTE leader, as part of his election stunts.

Participating in a joint campaign with Sivajilingam is Vickramabahu Karunaratne, Farcically, both are standing as presidential candidates. It is shameful that an alleged left candidate he is eager to work with the entire Tamil elite, regardless of their politics. It is not the first time that Vickramabahu Karunaratne has made such a mistake. When the Indian army intervened in the north of Sri Lanka in the 1980s, he, along with the majority of the leaders of his Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) argued that the Indian capitalist class was progressive compared with the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie. They supported the idea of an Indian army intervention, finally signing an agreement with the ruling SLFP which gave full support to the Indo-Lanka accord.

The experience of the Tamil-speaking population of the North disproved the validity of this position decisively. Even though the NSSP leader now says that it was a mistake, Vickramabahu and his party continue to make similar mistakes as they seem to have no real understanding of the national question and how to solve it. Just as the TNA and other Tamil elites continue to cooperate with either of the leading parties, the NSSP cooperates with some of the Tamil elite without reservations. Abandoning the oppressed working and poor Tamil masses, not to mention the Sinhala workers and poor, for the sake of electoral gain is inexcusable. The LSSP destroyed itself by going into an unprincipled electoral coalition in stark contrast to the position of the LSSP in its revolutionary period when it stood firmly for the masses and took a principled position against chauvinism. Now Bahu, on a smaller scale, is making a similar mistake in his current electoral tactics.

Mr Sivajilingam’s position not to take the side of the oppressors and join forces with the left candidate should be welcomed. However, at a stage where a clear political alternative is needed, this marriage of convenience between Sivajilingam and Vickramabahu Karunaratne has only a narrow electoral objective.

The TNA argued that an independent Tamil candidate cannot win so either the SLFP or UNP must be supported. The idea that there is no alternative other than the oppressors setting the agenda is not acceptable. Tamil-speaking people, like all Sri Lanka’s poor workers and peasants, need an independent working class voice. They should be able to support anyone who will stand up for their rights, regardless of whether they are seen as able to win a big victory or not.

The most important question is not how to defeat the current government in this election. Instead it is how to build this independent force that will change society for the benefit of all the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry masses.

United Socialist Party (CWI) candidate, Siritunga Jayasuriya

There is an alternative party in the North and throughout the island which has consistently defended the rights of Tamil-speaking people and workers and poor. The United Socialist Party (USP) members have put their lives in danger to speak and organise against the brutal war and oppression. They remain the only voice that is bravely and consistently defending the rights of the Tamil-speaking people and calling for a united struggle of all sectors against the regime.

The USP helped to set up the Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC) that investigates the deaths and disappearances caused by paramilitary operators. The leaders of the party receive death threats for openly condemning atrocities and organising pickets and anti-war activities.

The media in Tamil Nadu and around the world publicised widely when USP secretary, Siritunga Jayasuriya, bravely spoke against the brutal war at its height. This was at a time when the defence minister famously declared: "You are either with the government and military or against them!" and accused everyone who spoke against them of being traitors. Mr JS Tissanayagam was jailed for a shocking twenty years for writing just two articles with minor criticisms of the government. The assassination of Sunday leader editor, Lasantha Wikramatunga, is blamed on government forces. A number of journalists and activists who have opposed the government have suffered a similar fate. Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) in a statement called Sri Lanka the ‘least respectful of media freedom among all democratic countries in the world’. Despite all intimidation, USP members continue to fight against repression.

The majority of the Tamil politicians, who now argue for a vote for the leading parties, have either remained silent or chose to support the government. But political fighters in the USP stood up for the principles and ideas for which they have always stood – standing shoulder to shoulder with the poor and oppressed masses in the fight for their rights. This consistent approach and record deserves respect and support. It is the USP who the oppressed people – be they Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim – should trust. The TNA MPs and other Tamil elites know this fact very well. They might argue that a Tamil candidate would have no chance in the presidential election. The key question is whether any candidate is prepared to stand up for the rights of Sinhala workers and poor as well as the rights of the Tamil-speaking masses. Such a candidate would combine standing in the election with mobilising a mass movement to oust a Sinhala chauvinist capitalist government.

Siritunga Jayasuriya, the USP presidential candidate, helped to set up the ‘Stop the Slaughter of Tamils’ campaign which was the predecessor of the Tamil Solidarity campaign.

Demands

None of the leading right wing parties has come out with any real political solution as far as the national question is concerned. All they talk about is the ’13th Amendment’ that was forced through during the Indian army intervention about 20 years ago. This amendment provides no real solution other than a slight change in the constitution. There is no attempt made whatsoever to counter the communalist propaganda, instead the leading presidential candidates want to rally behind it.

USP candidate, Sritunga Jayasuriya came third in the last presidential election in 2005. As the results were announced he immediately warned Rajapaksa not to step up the war or unleash the Sinhala communal forces. But the current president has given free rein to the horror of nationalism and the militarisation of society which have now reached an all-time peak. The war is used to justify continuous attacks on basic democratic rights. This has paved the way for Mahinda Rajapaksa to establish a dictatorship with a thin veneer of democracy. Now this election has been called in a rush in order to legitimise the continuation of state repression and anti-working class policies.

None of the leading candidates offers any way out for the working and poor masses. They offer the choice of death by machete or death by axe. General Sarath Fonseka led the war offensive, butchering the innocent Tamil minority and worked closely with the current government in all its attacks on the voices of dissent and suppressing democratic rights. In a breathtaking show of hypocrisy he now accuses the government of corruption and of denying democratic rights. Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka suppressed democratic rights and pushed the workers and poor into destitution. Both are using all kinds of devious techniques to win the next election and have not shown any sign of changing their policies after the election.

Such a rigged election is not democracy. A call for the abolition of the executive presidency is not enough. But it represents an admission by the ruling class of their failure to manage society equably. An alternative is urgently required. We must come together to campaign for all basic democratic rights, including the right of the oppressed Tamil-speaking people to self-determination.

To this end the USP argues for a constituent assembly to be democratically convened, based on a mass movement of Tamil, Sinhala, upcountry workers and other working and poor masses that can prepare the way for their participation in deciding their own future. Only this can create the conditions for implementing genuine democracy. This will allow for discussion and preparation of a programme with which to struggle for a socialist transformation of society to the benefit of all.

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