Sri Lanka: Beyond UNHRC resolution

Demand a constituent assembly

Genocide – that is the recent verdict given against the Sri Lankan government by the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) in relation to the carnage in the last stages of the civil war. Yet this verdict will have no value for Tamils other than serving as a propaganda point. As we know, the PPT decisions are never acknowledged by the ‘international community’ of world governments. But that is largely beside the point; the volume of established evidence that has been accepted by the PPT could have been accepted in any court of law. Is a court challenge to the Rajapaksa dictatorship likely to take place? We all know the answer. Similarly we all know the answer to the question of what is likely to come out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in March this year.

There will be no talk of a political solution either or any attempt made to address the national aspirations of the Tamil masses in Sri Lanka. It is not a lack of evidence that is holding them back. Rather a severe lack of ‘political will’. And that ‘will’ is not determined by genuine interest in ‘justice’, but rather by the competing economic interests in the region.

Conflicting economic interests behind the March resolution

The Chinese government, which holds a veto power in the UN, has scheduled further discussion for March on the FTA agreement with Sri Lanka. They want to come to a ‘landmark’ agreement before the end of 2014. Already China-Lanka trade has increased by 306% since 2005. According to a Sri Lanka Central Bank report, 19% of total imports, worth $3.64 billion, came from China in 2012.

Another important country that determines South Asian regional politics, certainly Sri Lanka’s socio-economic future, is India. Sri Lanka’s trade with India was just $672 million in 2001. But it has increased by over 500% to $4.08 billion in 2012. Heavy criticism from Indian capitalists is starting to be expressed with claims that “Sri Lanka is slipping out of India’s orbit”. Indian big businesses want more ties and more investment as they predict the ‘Great Game’ of this century will be played out in the Indian Ocean.

Both China and India are investing heavily in various infra-structure projects. India is building a major railway line while China is building a big motorway. The Chinese are significantly ahead of India in this competition by helping to provide arms to the regime and forging close ties with the Rajapaksa family. The current economic crisis and the fall of GDP growth in India and China will further hamper the Indian government’s hold on the Sri Lankan economy. Mammoth China, even with low growth, still has the potential to hold on to small economies like Sri Lanka’s. This factor could help to sustain the Sri Lankan economy, without which crisis is imminent.

Even with the so-called ‘Pacific turn’ of the US, the western imperialist powers are set to lose out in this game for now. They need the Indian and Chinese economies to come to the rescue of the world economy. At the same time they are pushing for greater control in the Pacific region – particularly to counter the threat from increasing Chinese influence. But the small economies in Asia are falling like little flies when China raises its hand against them.

The European Union remains the biggest export partner for Sri Lanka. £2.23 billion worth of products were exported to the EU, which represents 26.8% of the country’s total exports. The IMF rescued the Sri Lankan economy with a $2.6 billion loan soon after the May 2009 massacre. However, overall trade with the EU is declining as exports and imports to China are on the increase. China could take first place if the so-called ‘landmark’ China-Sri Lanka FTA agreement is clinched this year.

The politics of control over the Sri Lankan economy can be played out in various ways. Human rights violations by the current regime and the Tamils’ national question are two aspects which will continue to play a significant role. Chinese assistance will strengthen the current regime and help it to continue its ever-increasing militarisation. To break China’s influence in Sri Lanka, the current regime needs to be brought down.

A strong resolution against Sri Lanka in March during the UNHRC session will have an effect. However, it will not go beyond raising ‘concerns’ about the current regime. And even if there was a change in government at present would only put the pro-western UNP in power. That might be enough to satisfy all the forces behind any ‘strong’ resolution. But this is not good enough for the large numbers of politically and socially deprived Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka.

Political solution?

The reason for Tamil people demanding an international independent investigation is different from those who talk about it on a ‘humanitarian’ basis. Yes, we seek justice. But this is not motivated by revenge. Rather the Tamils’ demand for justice is innately linked to the demand for a political solution that meets their national aspirations. Justice will not be sufficiently served without this.

It is why the demand for the right to self-determination becomes a key component of demands for justice.

Political discrimination in the island has a long history. Government after government has whipped up oppression against Tamils in an attempt to maintain support in the predominantly Sinhala south of the country, rather than offering any meaningful solution. In fact, through attacking the rights of all minorities in the country, democratic rights in general have been deeply eroded. The weak capitalist state that battled with workers and minorities to establish its strength, hasended up with almost tyrannical control.

It is generally accepted that the current regime is increasingly dictatorial and cannot be brought down by electoral means alone at this stage. The authoritarian Chinese government wants to establish a long-term hold in Sri Lanka and most of their investment is brought in through businesses largely controlled by the Rajapaksa ruling family. The UNP, on the other hand, is weaker than it has ever been in its entire history. Given the major divisions inside the UNP, the very survival of the party is in question. A further intensification of the dictatorial powers of the Rajapaksa family will further weaken the UNP and all opposition.

‘If a pin is stuck in your feet, you need another pin to take it out’ – goes the oft-quoted Tamil proverb. It is being used to argue for creating an alternative opposition Sinhala nationalism against the ruling Sinhala nationalism. The desperate hope is that by bringing together Buddhist monks, the JVP and the military General (Fonseka) accused of war crimes – an opposition will be created that will be capable of defeating Rajapaksa. This is a false strategy. There are those who argued that Chandrika Kumaratunga would be a better president than JR Jayewardene – and Rajapaksa would be better than Chandrika and so on. There is no guarantee that the suggested candidate – Sajith Premadasa – or any Buddhist monk will be better than Rajapaksa.

We cannot hope to defeat evil with evil. There is no ‘lesser evil’ that is not also itself evil. But people in Sri Lanka have been given a choice of death by machete or death by the axe. The goal is survival and winning democratic rights. This cannot be achieved with a mere change in government. Not just Tamils but all workers and poor in the country know too well the pain of continued betrayals by government after government. This is why mere regime change will not appeal to those who want to see a real change in their lives and prospects.

‘Regime gone – then what?’ is the obvious question whenever the possibility of punishment of the regime or challenge to the regime is posed.

Besides, this regime cannot be removed nor its character be changed by a mere resolution. Even in the unlikely event of a UNHRC agreement to take ‘strong action’ against the regime, they will not be able to implement it. Not only will the veto held by China and India be an obstacle. There is no decisive action the UNHRC can take. If it were the case, the UN could have solved all the problems of the western governments with regards to Iran, Syria, Israel/Palestine and even North Korea. Furthermore there is no questioning of the ‘sovereignty’ of Sri Lanka at this stage. Even the external military intervention would not solve anything; rather it would further muddle the situation and exacerbate the existing problems. That route must be determinedly opposed by everyone.

Establish a genuine constituent assembly

As these governments and the UN as a body, are not serious in finding a solution there is no choice but to look for or build other forces. We should therefore be campaigning for a political arrangement that reflects the true feelings of the politically and socially deprived people of Sri Lanka – the organising of a democratically elected constituent assembly.

This demand is not just to draft a “new constitution” for Sri Lanka, although it is true that there is already a sort of constitutional crisis in the country. Every government that has come to power has meddled with the constitution to prolong its own lifespan. Now we have ended up with an Executive Presidency and the eighteenth amendment – which together are enough to sustain the dictatorship. Even the Chief Justice is forcibly removed and the new occupant of the position is an obedient servant to the ‘royal family’. The so-called 13th amendment, allegedly aimed at giving Tamils in the north and east of the island more say, is itself in danger of being amended out of the constitution. Such is the mockery of the implementation of this amendment in the north that the northern chief minister is not even able to choose his own secretary.

A number of questions are not dealt with in the political system in place in Sri Lanka. Democratic rights, including trade union rights and land rights, are a concern of workers, peasants and the poor throughout the country. The Hill Country plantation workers are still condemned to centuries-old conditions that existed under the British Empire. They are still living in ‘lines’ of basic shacks, and their children still walk miles to get a basic education.

The Muslim minority in Sri Lanka faces horrendous attacks at the hands of the fascistic Buddhist monks’ organisations and other chauvinist forces. The discrimination and loss they suffered in the ‘90s have still not been redressed nor any compensation given. Working and poor Muslims are forced to follow a rotten and corrupted leadership to secure the sparse rights that they have. Instead, political autonomy should be guaranteed to the people of these communities giving adequate security and economic well-being.

The national aspirations of the Tamils living in the North and East must be met. All these problems can start to be properly discussed and acceptable solutions adopted only by setting up a genuinely representative, democratic and accountable Constituent Assembly (CA). Elections to the CA could be held across the country in constituencies representing all communities. But there needs to be an assurance to minorities that their needs would be addressed. In this process Tamil representatives might accept some kind of federal arrangement or something less, but they could also demand a referendum for independence. The CA should allow a full and free discussion to take place on this in order to get an outcome acceptable to all.

Some may correctly point out that we went along this road in 1972 and ask what good it delivered. The constituent assembly set up by the coalition government then failed to address the root causes of a number of problems. In fact, it set a precedent by extending the term of the coalition government by another two years. A boycott was carried out in May 1972 in the Tamil areas. On the day of the implementation copies of it were set on fire by students. This eventually led to the 1976 Vadukkoddai resolution that brought together all the Tamil parties under one umbrella. With it a new phase of Tamil nationalism emerged. The subsequent defeat of the coalition government in the 1977 election was historic. The TULF become the main opposition party. The LSSP, who had betrayed the interests of workers and all minorities, never recovered from this. The right-wing UNP subsequently changed the constitution to prolong their grip on power. This led to a neoliberal offensive in the 1980s and the emergence of an armed opposition in the form of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Certainly – we should not go down that road. Getting rid of the current regime means challenging the whole class and caste system it is based on and launching the call for a the setting up of a revolutionary constituent assembly -revolutionary in the sense of being part of a mass struggle for a different society. It would need to be constituted through elections at a local, workplace, neighbourhood and regional level, organised by democratically elected representatives of workers, peasants and poor people from all sections of society. Such an assembly would not use the power of the majority to outweigh the genuine demands of any other section of society. Instead it would aim to find acceptable solutions, including meeting the national aspirations of the Tamils.

Build the struggle in Sri Lanka

Of course the demand for a revolutionary constituent assembly will not be acceptable or granted by the current Sri Lankan regime or the governments across the world that protect it. We should not have any utopian illusion of achieving this sort of demand with the blessing of brutal, capitalist governments. Instead it can only be brought to the fore through mass struggle. We also argue that the end of the current regime in Sri Lanka can be made possible only by building mass struggle. This poses the question of establishing a new order – new rules – new society.

Struggle against this regime must be built within Sri Lanka, for which support should be mobilised internationally from the other ‘international community’ – that of workers and poor people who also suffer at the hands of dictatorial and big business dominated governments. It needs to take the form of class struggle, or a mass uprising, or both to put up an effective challenge to this regime in the current situation. Nowhere in the world has the UN, made up as it is of governments defending the capitalist status quo, taken the position of supporting and strengthening emerging class struggle inside any nation. From this point of view, we could safely rule out the UN or the EU a factor in finding a long-term solution.

Indian capitalism has, in the past, used the discontent of fellow Tamils in Tamil Nadu to find its way to establish and look after its own interests in Sri Lanka. The military intervention that we saw in 1987 may not be repeated in exactly the same way, but similar efforts at defending business and political involvement cannot be ruled out. The level of discontent and anger that exists now in Tamil Nadu on the question of Eelam or self-rule for the North and East of Sri Lanka is at its highest in history. Adding fuel to this fire is the enormous corruption scandals enveloping all major parties in India. A volcanic anger is simmering in Tamil Nadu. A further escalation of human rights abuses in Eelam could be the trigger for an eruption. This viral anger can be transmitted to the north and east through various channels due to the common culture and language. This provides a potential spark for a new struggle to emerge in the region. It also, however, provides a backdoor for the reactionary Indian government to enter Sri Lankan politics, posing as defenders of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Those seeking to build a struggle against this regime – with the view of achieving a long-term solution – should take all this into consideration. The struggle must be independent – one that will not fall prey to the Indian government’s interests or to the interests of any of the ‘international community’ of governments – all of whom defend capitalism and, where necessary for this purpose – dictatorship.

This struggle will not be an offensive struggle against any one community. The demand for the right to self-determination is not an offensive demand against the Sinhala workers and poor. Rather it is a defence of Tamils’ democratic rights and their national aspirations. Instead this struggle should and must include the Sinhala and Muslim workers and poor. The policies of the Rajapakse regime also targets Sinhala and Muslim workers and poor. A mass campaign for the rights of Tamils can only help others to fight for democratic rights too.

With this view, an initiative needs to be taken to win over every fighting force amongst the workers and poor to the struggle. It is not an easy task – at the same time it is not a utopian dream. But crucially, no alternative exists for those who seek a long-term solution. In Sri Lanka major social change in terms of ending the system of exploitation of workers, fishermen and small farmers would be of benefit to the overwhelming majority of the population. A force capable of carrying through such a transformation would have the aim of putting an end to the present regime and to the totally unjust society it wishes to perpetuate

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February 2014