Sri Lanka: Historic crimes of the chauvinistic Left (parts 1 & 2)

A July 2023 remembrance event for the July 1983 pogroms in Sri Lanka, which was organized in Colombo,. The event was attacked and forcibly stopped by the police. USP (CWI Sri Lanka) members took part in the protest. The 1983 pogrom against Tamils is regarded as a significant turning point in Sri Lankan history, as it played a role in driving many young Tamils towards armed militancy.

Part 1 – Indian military intervention and emergence of political confusion

One evening in 1988, when encroaching darkness seemed momentarily halted, in the gentle embrace of the emerging moonlight, a car was driving towards Palali airport. The unsuspecting driver looked very innocent. The passenger in the back seat was wearing the same expression. They spoke no words, not even the faintest whisper of sound escaped their lips. The turmoil brewing within was hidden by the silence that enveloped the moving vehicle as the only comforting shroud.

In those war-torn days, cars were a rare sight, each one drawing attention and suspicion, liable to be scrutinised by the military. The driver’s sole focus was to evade detection by the Indian army, navigating with precision to avoid military checkpoints. Beneath the tranquil facade of the car’s interior, two young boys lay hidden, concealed beneath the very seat upon which the passenger sat. The woman passenger had not eaten for two days, consumed only by the details of organising this risky journey. This was the last phase, and she could not think about anything other than getting to the airport without being stopped. She would gladly give her life to secure the lives of the boys. For the boys, the long journey of running away from Jaffna began that day. They didn’t know that they would never spend meaningful time together again.

Palali Airport at that time was a menacing symbol of the Sri Lankan military, which cast a shadow of fear over the northern region. Countless air strikes had been carried out from this place. The continuous shelling from there had rendered the area around the base immobile for any living creature. It was from this stronghold that the Sri Lankan government launched Operation Liberation in 1987, a notorious military campaign that besieged Jaffna with air and ground offensives, resulting in widespread devastation. One of the brigades was commanded by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who got injured in this operation. He later led the genocidal slaughter of Tamils in 2009 and is now seen as the number one war criminal in Sri Lanka by the Tamils and having led corrupt politicians by the rest of the population.

For ordinary civilians, venturing towards that airport was an unthinkable gamble, a journey veiled in the spectre of death. For the youth, especially those suspected of dissent against the government, such a journey spelled certain doom. War is also the experience of directly confronting whatever is feared. However, the year 1988 was far from ordinary; this period was a period of extraordinary historical upheavals that would sculpt the trajectory of Sri Lankan history. From 1986 to 1990, the wider population bore witness to unprecedented transformation beyond their wildest imaginations.

During this tumultuous period, Tamil youth were handed over to the Sri Lankan military as a means of escape, while the Sri Lankan government supplied weapons to Tamil militants. A party claiming to be a ‘Marxist’ party took a radical nationalist turn, unleashing a wave of violence that claimed the lives of numerous left activists. Despite being the fourth-largest military force in the world, the Indian military suffered defeat in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the establishment of the first-ever North East provincial ‘government’ saw 19 members ‘elected’ without a single vote, leading to the declaration of Tamil Eelam by the first chief minister of the north who worked with the Indian military. An Indian Prime Minister was attacked by a Sri Lankan soldier, while the US withdrew a number of its strategic bases from Sri Lanka. The list of remarkable events during those few years is extensive.

This article is written not to recount personal anecdotes but to document several political and historical facets of that era, which still harbour invaluable lessons. Political perspectives and strategies are not abstract concepts; they are closely linked to everyday existence and possess the power to drastically alter the lives of millions, for better or for worse. Learning from history is imperative for activists who persist in their struggle for freedom, democracy, socialism, and a brighter future for all. In such complex times, the actions of the so-called left come under scrutiny. Why did those who labelled themselves as ‘Marxist’, and purported to guide the masses toward liberation, falter?

The exploration of why and how they failed leads us to another key question of necessary political perspectives and leadership required at that juncture. Although farsighted positions did exist, those advocating them were besieged by reactionary forces, resulting not only in loss of life but also in diminished influence, dwindling numbers, and depleted resources. Merely possessing clarity or far-sightedness is insufficient for those engaged in the struggle. This article is also to clarify the importance for Marxists to stand firm on principles, even amidst challenging circumstances. Not compromising on political ideology, even when faced with narrowing strength, is essential to retain a beacon in history that will resurface with renewed vigour. None of the so-called Marxist organizations were able to recruit militant youth in the North or the South during that time. Consequently, many Tamils joined the LTTE in the North, while various nationalist trends emerged in the South. However, those who championed far-sighted positions during that era are now beginning to resurface. The future of strengthening of the struggle depends on how this position gets more traction among the wider working class. With this in mind, this article aims to give historical background and give a glimpse of what Marxists should have advanced in that period.

Unbeknownst to the boys under the car seat, a heated debate was unfolding in Europe about the dire situation in the North of Sri Lanka. Far from the warm moonlight, amidst the cold winter of Antwerp, Belgium, the annual gathering of International Executive Committee members of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) was taking place. The CWI, a prominent revolutionary international organization, had a presence across all continents. Among its ranks were prominent leaders of what was then a significant left party in Sri Lanka, the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP). A sharp difference in opinion emerged between the two members from Sri Lanka, Siritunga Jayasuriya and Vikramabahu Karunaratna (Bahu). This divergence led to a significant debate that unfolded in 1987 and eventually culminated in the expulsion of the NSSP from the CWI in 1989. Before delving into the programmatic debate of that time, it is crucial to understand the historical background.

At that time, the primary argument put forth by Vikramabahu was that Tamils could benefit from the arrival of the Indian military in Sri Lanka. When Operation Liberation was launched by the JR Jayawardene government, purportedly to liberate the North, India intervened. The aid and support for the Sri Lankan military operation came from Israel, the US, Western governments, and Pakistan. The increasing US military presence, particularly their influence in the strategically important Trincomalee harbour, further escalated tensions with the Indian government. Despite the propaganda of ‘non-alliance’ and ‘neutrality,’ the Indian government opposed Western interests in South Asia. One way they exerted influence in Sri Lanka was through funding and training various Tamil militant organizations operating in the North and East. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed militant group demanding an independent state, forcibly removed all other militant organizations in 1986, including those closely collaborating with the Indian government. Operation Liberation aimed to eradicate all militants, posing the risk of losing control of the situation to the Indian authorities. Within days of the brutal military offensive, it became apparent that the LTTE, with inadequate resources, would not be able to withstand thousands of soldiers marching towards them. Despite losing over 700 soldiers, the operation continued with relentless aggression. By the end of June or early July 1987, it became clear that the Sri Lankan army was likely to take full control of the North. Under Rajeev Gandhi’s premiership, the Indian government announced on 2 June that they would send troops to provide humanitarian assistance. Under the supervision of Mirage 2000 jet fighters, a powerful war machine at that time, a few food parcels were air-dropped as a token gesture under the name of Operation Poomalai (Garland), marking the beginning of direct Indian involvement. The arrival of the Indian military – the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) – followed.

Many Tamils in the North were impressed by the mass protests taking place in Tamil Nadu in solidarity with the Eelam Tamils. Initial fears set in on hearing the unusual sound of Mirage 2000s in the North quickly turned into a celebration on hearing that India would intervene to stop the Sri Lankan military offensive. Their initial reaction was to welcome the Indian soldiers as saviours. Among the armed Tamil militants, a section of them, particularly the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), was in full collaboration with Indian foreign Intelligence, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The TELO, along with other militant organizations (PLOT, EPRLF), who had been attacked by the LTTE in the past and were now hostile to them, also arrived with the army, willing to collaborate under their protection. The LTTE faced an existential problem at this stage. Though they formally welcomed Indian government intervention, they had so far refused to collaborate with the Indian government. Now, the Indian troops on the ground fully undermined their authority in the North. Additionally, Tamils in general welcomed the Indian intervention. This created more difficulty as the LTTE, at that stage, was not able to convince the masses of the bogus motives behind the Indian intervention.

Sinhala chauvinists

The situation in the South was also heating up, as the main Sinhala nationalist propaganda centred around hatred of India. For Sinhala chauvinists, India had breached Sri Lankan sovereignty only to save the LTTE terrorists. While the JR Jayewardene government leaned on similar propaganda, negotiations began with the Indian government. The so-called negotiations concluded on 29 July 1987, with the signing of the Indo-Lanka Pact. This pact proposed an amendment to the 1978 constitution to establish separate administrative units, not just in the North East but throughout Sri Lanka. Like those in the Indian state but with much less power, administrative units would be formed, and chief ministers and local governments would be elected according to the changes. This fell far short of what the Tamils were demanding at that time. While hoodwinking the Tamils into believing that the rearrangement of administrative units would empower them, the then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi achieved all that they wanted: the re-establishment of geopolitical control over Sri Lanka, including Sri Lankan harbours, and the removal of Voice of America and the rest of US control, among other things.

Within the capitalist United National Party (UNP) led by JR Jayewardene, significant opposition emerged against the Indo-Lanka Accord and the Indian military presence. Ranasinghe Premadasa became a significant proponent of this propaganda. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which presented itself as centre-left at that time, was no different, although Premadasa out-trumped them with vicious nationalist propaganda. Once a mass left force, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) had by then become an outdated electoral platform only seeking parliamentary positions. The very small Communist Party (CPSL) was no different. With a Sinhala nationalist stance, they refused to take a clear Marxist position. Another important socialist party that existed at that time was the NSSP, formed by militant socialists who left the LSSP in 1977 following its betrayal of joining the SLFP coalition government. Another party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which claimed to be on the left with Marxist rhetoric, launched a heavy attack on anyone who supported the Indo-Lanka Accord, including Tamils mistakenly hoping that the IPKF would end repression. Opposing the IPKF on a fundamentally Sinhala nationalist basis, the JVP emphasised the struggle against Indian imperialism, falsely claiming that it was aiming to divide the country. They made no effort to expose the hypocrisy of the Indian government or put forward a class position to educate its members and the masses that a working class-led movement was needed to oppose the repression of both workers and Tamils. These were real issues. Just a few years earlier in 1980, the ruling UNP government had brutally provoked and then crushed a public sector workers’ general strike, and then sponsored an anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983.

Instead, the JVP launched a viciously racist campaign cloaked in leftist rhetoric. The specially formed armed wing of the JVP initiated attacks and killed numerous activists and unionists, particularly those on the left in the south. These actions by the JVP are often erroneously labelled as an ‘uprising’, ‘insurgency’, or ‘insurrection’. However, they were far from it; the main motive and campaign of the JVP at this time centred around an opportunist, racist, nationalist agenda. The Patriotic People’s Armed Troops (PPAT or DJS), the armed wing of the JVP, declared their intent to eliminate all ‘traitors’ and enemies of the country.

While the LTTE in the north opposed the Indian military presence, they did not launch a killing campaign akin to that of the JVP. Having already eliminated or neutralized the other militant factions in the north to assume full control, the LTTE faced the challenge of garnering mass support for their military campaign against the IPKF. Thileepan (Rasaiah Partheepan), a popular LTTE leader at the time, initiated a fast-unto-death campaign on 15 August 1987, dying just over a month later. Through this, the LTTE sought to popularize their stance among their supporters and youth, highlighting the hypocrisy of the Indian intervention. Thileepan’s demands, which included halting Sinhala colonization in the North East and releasing political prisoners held under PTA, resonated with many. They also demanded that the opening of new police stations should be stopped, and the military that took positions in schools and other educational buildings should leave. In addition, they also demanded a prominent position for the LTTE in the interim administrative council and that it should have the power to organise rehabilitation. The LTTE utilized this campaign to underscore the credibility of their cause, questioning the motives behind the Indian intervention.

Part 2: Horror of Indian military and JVP 

Following Thileepan’s death, the LTTE launched an attack on the IPKF. In response, the powerful Indian military retaliated with Operation Pawan, aiming to eradicate the LTTE and assert full control over the north. The horrors unleashed by the Indian military in the north were unprecedented. Instances of brutal murders, sexual violence, and torture became rampant. Young women were subjected to heinous acts of violence, and arbitrary arrests and beatings were commonplace. Some women are subjected to cruel violence. There were incidents of women stripped naked and shot in their genitals. Others were subjected to their breasts and lips cut open with knives and left to bleed and die. Arrested young men were told to run, then the army opened fire at them. Many houses and shops were burned down. Numerous arrests were made. The majority of those arrested experienced severe beatings and cruel torture. This continued throughout the presence of the IPKF in the North and East. Beating up anyone who dared to even disobey them became a norm.

The IPKF also used other militant organizations as paramilitary units to maintain control. As they did not have enough youth involved in these paramilitary militant groups, they formed a new group called Tamil National Army (TNA) and forcibly recruited young children as young as 12. Revenge attacks and sexual violence perpetrated by these groups, under the guise of collaboration with the Indian military, further exacerbated the suffering.

Amidst this turmoil, the first provincial election was held, but it was marred by irregularities and lack of genuine representation. The EPRLF stood in the election but received no votes in northern districts. All 19 members who were ‘elected’ from the North were declared to have won ‘uncontested’ to avoid embarrassment. The JVP in the south, on the other hand, threatened violence against anyone participating in the provincial election, demonstrating their commitment to their chauvinist propaganda. They had no forces in the North. However, explaining the details of what is going on in the North did not serve their propaganda purpose. They stuck to their chauvinist propaganda about how Tamils supported India and their military presence in Sri Lanka was to divide the country for Tamils. Their patriotic position, in essence, was a Sinhala-nationalist position – leading them to create a corporation with a section of the elite and military. All those seen as non-patriotic were named as traitors and marked for killing.

After being expelled from the CWI, Bahu formed an electoral alliance with the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP), branding it as a workers’ party. The SLMP, at that time, portrayed itself as ‘left-wing’ and had a populist programme. Its leader, Vijaya Kumaratunga was a former member of firstly the LSSP and then the SLFP, a prominent actor, and husband of Chandrika, who is the daughter of the founder of the SLFP, C.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

In 1986, Vijaya Kumaratunga visited LTTE-controlled areas in the North and met with key leaders—a bold move that no other politician was willing to make at the time. Chandrika, residing in London, also engaged with several militants, including LTTE representatives in London, as well as holding discussions with the CWI about forming a potential united front. Bob Labi, from the CWI’s International Secretariat, met Chandrika in London to explore solidarity work.

During this period, there was the potential for united front collaboration to advance workers’ programmes and work towards a political solution for Tamils, but the focus shifted towards forging an electoral coalition. This coalition also included the Communist Party and the now-defunct LSSP.

Vijaya Kumaratunga’s position in relation to a negotiated settlement of Tamils’ demands was vehemently opposed by sections of Sinhala nationalists in the south, including the JVP. Vijaya Kumaranatunga was shot and killed by an armed JVP group in February 1988. Bahu almost faced a similar fate when he was targeted by the same JVP armed group during an election rally near Colombo, narrowly escaping death despite suffering a neck wound. In response, a faction of the NSSP began to arm itself. While the source of their limited arsenal remains ambiguous, speculation suggests it was provided by the Sri Lankan government. Despite claims of self-defence, these weapons were also turned against left activists who opposed the NSSP leadership. Shots were once fired ‘accidentally’ at the NSSP office in Colombo, narrowly missing Siritunga Jayasuriya (Siri), a co-founder of the party. the who had been excluded from the NSSP for siding with the CWI leadership and voting at the IEC (CWI) in Belgium to threaten the NSSP with expulsion from the International if it did not end its support for the Indian intervention. That IEC meeting which debated Sri Lanka situation took place in January 1988. Later at the fifth World Congress of the CWI held in December 1988, the NSSP was given a deadline to change course and, if it didn’t, the CWI would regard the party as being outside of the CWI, an outcome which was confirmed at the July 1989 IEC meeting. Later, with the support of CWI, Siri established the United Socialist Party (USP).

As a backdrop to these events, the 1988 presidential election unfolded. Both main capitalist parties, the SLFP and the UNP, pledged to annul the Indo-Lanka accord. R. Premadasa clinched the presidency by promising to expel the Indian army. However, no elections were conducted in the North or even the East, as most of the North was under the control of the IPKF at that time. Premadasa struck a clandestine deal with the LTTE to cooperate against the IPKF. Even before the presidential election, the Sri Lankan military provided support to the LTTE, which later became official after Premadasa’s victory. The Sri Lankan government commenced supplying weapons and aid to the LTTE to combat the IPKF. As part of this agreement, many LTTE members were permitted to operate freely in the south. Youth who faced threats from the IPKF and EPRLF in the North were also allowed to escape to the south through various routes, including the military controlled Palali airport.

With assistance from relatives and others, a number of youths found their way to Palali airport. Upon arrival, they were taken into the custody of the military and transported in cargo planes to Colombo. However, the military treated them all as LTTE members, subjecting them to a harrowing experience. Positioned near the powerful engines of the cargo planes, they endured deafening levels of noise, leaving many unable to walk or function upon arrival. It took several days for some to recover, while others never fully regained their hearing.

This event served as a stark lesson for a generation of northern youth, instilling a deep-seated distrust in authorities bearing promises and gifts. It was during the late eighties that the northern population experienced such widespread human suffering for the first time. Of course it is no comparison to the suffering that took place in 2009. The suffering endured by the northern population in 2009, particularly during the so-called ‘end of the war’, was unprecedented in Sri Lanka’s history. More than ten percent of the northern population was wiped out in a matter of months. But this earlier horror of the Indian military left behind a huge scar.

At a very young age, without a full grasp of the scale of war or the political complexities of the time, I, like many others, was drawn towards so-called ‘radicalism.’ At that time, clarity of thought and organized platforms were lacking among Tamils. Most former leftists had either joined the LTTE or fled the North in fear of it, leaving a void of coherent ideology.


However, within the NSSP, a process began, facilitated by the intervention of the international organization they were then affiliated with, the CWI. While all capitalist parties focused on manoeuvring against the Indian government and propagating Sinhala chauvinism, so-called ‘Marxist’ parties such as the JVP, LSSP, and CP moved even further away from revolutionary ideals to champion outright Sinhala nationalism. As Kumar Gunaratnam, a prominent JVP leader who later split to form the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), aptly put it, they “dropped the red flag and raised the national flag of Sri Lanka”. This surge of Sri Lankan nationalism permeated all political parties, including Tamil ones, and even sections of the LTTE, where defending Sri Lanka was deemed strategically vital – a justification for full collaboration with the Sri Lankan state.

The NSSP, too, was not immune to this trend. However, it did not immediately succumb to Sinhala nationalism. Instead, a crisis erupted within the party. The NSSP managed to resist nationalist influences to some extent because it was the sole party exposed to genuine international developments. Nearly all Trotskyist internationals had some presence in Sri Lanka during that period. Most either collaborated with the LSSP or comprised a handful of individuals working independently, many of whom had to operate clandestinely for their safety. The prospect of sacrificing oneself for an ideology was very real at that time.

Initially, the NSSP emerged as a significant force opposing the nationalists. However, this stance was short-lived as the party itself descended into crisis. Intense debates ensued among leaders and members regarding the correct stance on the national question, the appropriate slogans to champion, the left’s strategic approach, and more. While there was an objective necessity for such discussions to occur within the broader left, including the leadership of all militant organizations, the reality was starkly different, primarily due to the nature of these organizations’ leaders.

Discussions within leftist circles at the time largely revolved around either endorsing the JVP or denouncing them as terrorists—regardless, no one strayed from their entrenched ‘patriotic’ stance. Sadly, few possessed a comprehensive understanding of international developments or a solid grasp of Marxist theory. Consequently, Marxism was swiftly abandoned, persisting only in rhetoric.

Understanding the significance of being part of an international Marxist organization is paramount. Without a robust organic connection to the struggles of the working class, both regionally and globally, every Marxist organization risks succumbing to nationalist tendencies. The Fourth International (USFI – United Secretariat of the Fourth International) during that era operated as a quasi-federal body, accommodating affiliates with diametrically opposing views, even on national questions. While this arrangement might seem functional in abstract scenarios where affiliates aren’t directly engaged in particular struggles, situations like those in Sri Lanka during this period demonstrate its limitations. When confronted with sharp circumstances demanding decisive positions, organizing together Indian nationalists and Sinhala nationalists becomes untenable. Developing a farsighted class position becomes imperative for the survival of any international organization.

Although the USFI formally expelled the LSSP in 1964 due to its class-collaborative coalitionism, its only remaining connection was with former LSSP members. Support for the USFI eventually waned in South Asia. Stalinist organizations like the communist parties in India lacked a history of genuine international engagement. Their understanding of internationalism typically amounted to national organizations convening, devoid of substantive debate or efforts to connect with workers’ struggles in other countries. Communist parties in India aligned with their bourgeois counterparts and made no attempts to foster solidarity with workers in Sri Lanka. Presently, their involvement has regressed to providing speakers for party events in other countries as mere ‘stage decoration,’ lacking political or programmatic substance.

A small faction within the NSSP courageously championed the Marxist position despite facing potential threats to their lives. The collective leadership of the Committee for a Workers’ International played a pivotal role in this period. Without exaggeration, this group of Marxists hoisted the banner of Marxism throughout the country, steadfastly advocating clear positions on various issues, including the necessary tactics to advance working-class interests and alleviate the suffering of the oppressed.

However, this was a marginalized debate, inaccessible to the broader working class or Tamil youth. Although all left parties counted Tamil members among their ranks at the time, none wielded significant influence. A Maoist organisation that had some influence by now had abandoned serious work, with several of its notable members joining the LTTE. Even its exiled leader, N. Shanmugathasan, underwent a complete ideological shift, endorsing the LTTE’s fight against the IPKF, not out of adherence to Mao’s ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ doctrine, but rather due to his belief that ‘the main enemy is India.’ It is also worth mentioning here that Rohana Wijeweera, who founded the JVP, started his political journey as a youth leader of the Maoist party that Shanmugathasan was leading. He allegedly left after a disagreement about the allocation of resources for printing a Tamil leaflet.

Thus, it came as a personal revelation to me when I learned about the debates within the CWI two decades later. Although I wasn’t affiliated with any organization at the time, I had come to appreciate the imperative of ideological clarity needed, especially concerning caste and national questions, and was actively seeking out those who had them.



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