With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) taking place from 10 to 17 November all eyes are on Sri Lanka
With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) taking place from 10 to 17 November all eyes are on Sri Lanka. In 2009 the Socialist was almost a lone voice reporting on the government’s atrocities against the Tamil population in the North of the country. Here Senan, a leading Tamil activist and writer, analyses the post-war situation and the perspective for struggle.
"We conquered the country – now it’s time to conquer the world." That’s one of the astonishing propaganda slogans the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has selected as it prepares to host Chogm.
’Conquest’ is one way of describing the regime-authored genocidal slaughter that claimed the lives of a UN estimate of 70,000 Tamil-speaking people at least in 2009, summary executions, and the widespread trampling of democratic rights that has followed in the aftermath.
Callum Macrae’s No Fire Zone film has devastatingly documented these war crimes and crimes against humanity. This was the bloody endgame of the three-decade civil war.
As the Chogm website declares, the country’s official name is the ’Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’.
But this regime, with power concentrated in the hands of the Rajapaksa dynasty, can be characterised as increasingly dictatorial with only a thin veneer of democracy.
Yes, elections took place in the North for the first time in 25 years – but every type of dirty trick and bribery was used in the failed attempt to get votes for the government parties.
The regime also grabs every chance to whip up the nationalism it relies on to maintain its support – and Chogm represents a carnival of opportunity.
All protests and public meetings are prohibited. The universities have been shut down in fear of possible student protests.
Chogm mania means nothing is moving or going forward in the capital Colombo – not just the traffic but also the economy.
The world economic crisis is beginning to be felt in South Asia. With growth in India and China not expected to cross 5% next year, huge tensions are developing inside these countries and in the region.
Having relied on Chinese and Indian support to prosecute the bloody massacre in 2009, Sri Lanka’s dependency continues as the economy slows.
Post-war growth was paralleled with massive borrowing. According to one report, Sri Lanka borrowed at least $15 billion since 1997, mostly from China.
China also invested at least $6 billion in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure. Commonwealth leaders will be driving on the new Katunayake airport highway when they enter the country – it cost $298 million – borrowed from China.
The railway to the Tamil-dominated North was built by India, which is also investing heavily in telecoms.
Over 300 families who lived in central Colombo are being evicted to make way for Tata which is expected to build a big shopping complex.
The IMF, which bailed out Sri Lanka in 2009 with a massive $2.6 billion loan, predicted 6.5% growth this year but has now reduced that to around 6%.
The banks are beginning to stop lending and overdraft facilities for small businesses have been cancelled, with a number closing down.
This is taking place at the same time as the government is expected to start paying interest on its debt.
Another major drag on the economy is the massive military budget. This year, in the so-called peace, the defence budget has been upped to $1.95 billion – the highest ever at 12% of the total budget allocation.
Against this background millions of rupees are being spent on the Chogm festivities. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family want to use this opportunity to rally support among the masses and hide their war crimes.
But the Canadian prime minister’s refusal to participate, now joined by the Indian prime minister, has cast a shadow on Chogm.
However, these actions are not mere human rights ’concerns’. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has shaken the bloodied hands of Mahinda many times in cosy meetings in Delhi. His reluctance to attend Chogm is based on something new.
An estimated 72 million Tamils live in the Tamil Nadu state (TN) in India. There and in countries where there is a significant Tamil Sri Lankan diaspora, major protests have taken place.
The frequency of the protests and the level of participation have not been seen in TN in recent history.
Against a background of the frustrated aspirations of millions of young people, TN’s Dravidian ruling party and opposition party compete with each other to slam the Rajapaksa regime harder.
The 2014 general election is in the minds of all these right-wing Dravidian parties now. Congress, India’s ruling party, is weakened and relies heavily on the regional parties to secure a victory. Hence Singh’s hesitation.
In Britain almost all the Tamil campaign groups have organised protests against Chogm. Massive anger is developing against the Tories.
This is the reason why David Cameron has been forced to change his tune and now promises a ’tough’ talk with the Sri Lankan regime on war crimes.
Of course, the satisfaction of British and western economic interests in Sri Lanka are Cameron’s primary concern. But Chogm business participation is heavily dominated by China and India.
Despite much-flaunted anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Rajapaksa family do not resist western investment.
They do, however, wish to control every aspect of investment, which creates complications for western investors.
Most of the Chinese investments are done through new companies opened up by the Rajapaksa family. Without taking the family’s side, it will be difficult to do business in Sri Lanka.
This regime has proved its capacity to be brutal. Some argue a ’strong’ government is needed to carry through developments in the interests of big business, specifically the planned privatisation of Sri Lanka’s hard-won and much-cherished public services.
The family certainly has a full hold on state affairs. From defence to the judiciary, every key component is within Rajapaksa control.
At present the regime also enjoys significant support in the south. This is largely due to infrastructure developments – particularly the new roads which have created enormous relief for the masses. However, family rule is becoming increasingly unpopular.
But though the regime appears strong, its weakness is beginning to be exposed. Even within the ruling SLFP party there is mounting discontent against one-family rule.
But more importantly the demand for at least 6% of the budget to be allocated for education is gaining strength among the working class.
The campaign to defend free education is growing among young people. This is one of the key areas where the government is expected to face significant resistance. But the regime has shown it will try to suppress any protest brutally.
In the south, in the town of Weliweriya on 1 August the people demanded clean water and, as one writer put it, they "got bullets instead".
Protesters against the water pollution that has left every inhabitant with kidney problems were mowed down by the army. Six were killed and hundreds injured.
The brutal methods that were used in the north can also be used in the south. The tens of thousands who are affected by the water pollution are willing to take on the government despite its brutality.
The declining support for the Rajapaksa family is also eroding the nationalist base that this regime enjoyed.
The regime is forced to go to ever greater extremes. It is learning from the dark periods in Sri Lanka’s history when vicious pro-capitalist governments whipped up chauvinism and racism to divide the masses and undermine support for ideas of struggle and socialism.
The memory of the Black July pogroms 30 years ago is evoked by the use of right-wing racist organisations such as Bodu Bala Sena or Jthika Hela Urumaya to try to whip up Sinhala nationalism to maintain middle class support for the regime.
This makes it urgent that today’s opposition also learns the lessons of Sri Lanka’s incredible history of class struggle.
The growth in nationalist feeling in the North is fanned by the opportunist Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders.
The polarisation between the north and south is widening. The so-called rehabilitation has not improved the lives of war victims.
Tens of thousands still live in sheds. In addition the land grab by the government and military is enormously unpopular.
TNA’s historic victory in the recent council election was made possible due to the enormous hatred building up against the state and the occupying military.
The TNA victory in the North shows that this regime can be defeated. But a new political voice for the workers and poor masses will have to be built.
It has been a custom for the current government to buy off any popular opposition leaders. Key members of the main pro-capitalist opposition UNP have been brought by the Rajapaksa family to decorate their election rallies.
In fact the UNP is in total disarray. Its right wing argues for a much more chauvinistic and nationalist stand to win back the masses.
One UNP leader even suggested that candidates change their names to Rajapaksa to increase their chances of winning the election.
Although Colombo council is controlled by the UNP – actual control is in the hands of defence secretary Gotabaya, Mahinda’s brother.
He is running the ’beautification’ project, among many other areas of government. This attempt to paper over Sri Lanka’s bloody history reveals one of the major contradictions – and sources of future conflict.
Much of the building work is being done by the military for free instead of by trained construction workers.
Earlier this year Sri Lanka reached back into its strong and long tradition of class struggle, especially the heroic general strike of 1953, with a partial general strike.
This brought into stark relief the political vacuum that exists and the need to build a mass left opposition, involving the trade unions.
The United Socialist Party, the Sri Lankan section of the Committee for a Workers’ International plays a prominent role in opposing the current regime.
The USP argues that it is vital to build a mass movement to challenge this regime. Given its underlying weakness, if a strong mass opposition can be organised then the regime will quickly crack from the top.
This will of course open up a number of possibilities, including the working class asserting its will on events.
The Rajapaksa family is making plans for its long-term control of the state. Mahinda’s son Namal is being prepared as the next in line for the throne.
The Cabinet, which now holds a world record for its size, is stuffed with Namal’s people. But the major crisis – economic and political – that awaits them will challenge their existence.
Cameron’s priorities – votes not rights
Senan confronts the PM!
The following article is an edited version of an article that was first published by the Colombo Telegraph.
Finding myself face-to-face with Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, or at least her large painted likeness, while I waited to interview David Cameron, reminded me of the on-going abhorrence of her legacy.
In April Australian Foreign minister Bob Carr revealed what he called Thatcher’s "unabashedly racist" comments – she warned him against allowing Indian migrants to "take over".
The BBC reports that in 2010 the Tories won only 16% of "the ethnic minority vote" and concludes that this is because they are seen as racist. David Cameron cannot escape the reputation and unpopularity of his ’Nasty Party’.
As well as the anger at the Stephen Lawrence murder case and other high profile issues, polls show that two-thirds of voters correctly think "the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people".
Therefore, since the 2010 general election which no party won, ethnic minority votes are becoming seen as a significant factor. The Tories know they need access to what the establishment parties arrogantly consider ethnic minority ’vote banks’ for the 2015 election – even to guarantee a dignified defeat!
Cameron, however, is already largely defeated in the battle for the hearts of Tamils in Britain.
His decision to take part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Sri Lanka angered almost all sections of the Tamil population.
Tamilnet, a leading Tamil news website, supported the call for ’no Tamil votes and no Tamil money to the Tory party’. Tamil Solidarity has also promoted this demand.
Faced with the total decimation of Tamils’ support in the future, the Prime Minister’s Office took extraordinary steps in the hope of softening the anger by luring sections of the Tamil media onto their side.
On 7 November Cameron wrote an article for the Tamil Guardian arguing that "The right thing to do is to engage… if we are not at the table we have no way of encouraging the Commonwealth to take a strong stand on issues that we care about deeply in our country."
On the same day Cameron gave me a brief but exclusive interview for Tamil station Deepam TV.
First, I asked him what has he got to say to the outraged Tamils regarding his decision to visit Sri Lanka. He simply repeated that it is important to go to Sri Lanka to fix the ’shared future’.
However, Cameron admitted that he was appalled by the evidence unearthed by the latest Channel 4 No Fire Zone documentary by Callum Macrae.
Cameron said to me on camera that he had watched this film. But two days later the PM’s office tweeted "PM: Been watching @NoFireZoneMovie.
"Chilling documentary on Sri Lanka. Serious questions to put to @PresRajapaksa next week". Was the PM having a second look? Not sure.
But this devastating film, like Callum’s previous documentaries, leaves no doubt that the current Sri Lankan regime is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the civil war in 2009. Cameron weakly pledged to bring the world’s attention to these issues.
Change of heart?
In a meeting held with some Tamil activists on the same day he was even forced to say he would ’consider’ calling for an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. This represents a departure from previous talk.
When the Foreign and Commonwealth Office replied to Tamil Solidarity supporters in July all they said was: "We urge the Sri Lankan Government to implement the [Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission] recommendations contained in the resolution and comply with their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law."
As Tamil Solidarity pointed out "LLRC makes the mildest and frailest recommendations, which was itself commissioned by the regime, and yet the government refuses to implement it."
The Sri Lankan government has so far paid not the slightest heed to any criticism. Cameron’s professed faith in the power of the British media is touching, but on Saturday 9 November the Sri Lankan regime answered it by putting a 222-page denunciation of Channel 4 in every Chogm press pack.
In its subsequent editorial the Tamil Guardian disagreed with the PM. In general the efforts of the Tories to tempt the Tamils came to nought.
After Cameron departed, under the gaze of Thatcher in that study room I remembered Hugo Chavez’s legendary speech at the UN in 2006: "The devil came here… and it smells of sulphur still."
See: tamilsolidarity.org for a video of Cameron as part of Senan’s interview with Callum Macrae for Deepam TV