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Socialism Today 128 - May 2009

Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamils

Sri Lankan troops are poised to overrun the last piece of territory held by Tamil fighters. Tens of thousands of Tamil people are caught up in this desperate situation. The extreme brutality has provoked an unprecedented outpouring of fury among Tamil people around the world, including a demonstration of 200,000 in London and the occupation of Parliament Square. CLARE DOYLE reports on the latest chapter in Asia’s longest-running conflict.

THE GHASTLY CIVIL war in Sri Lanka, that has been raging for more than 25 years, appears to be ending in what an International Red Cross worker called "nothing short of a catastrophe". As the Sri Lankan army broke through what appeared to be the last defences of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE – Tamil Tigers) on 20 April, tens of thousands of terrorised civilians poured out in a dazed mass. Hundreds of thousands, including an estimated 50,000 children, had been trapped in a tiny strip of land euphemistically called by the government a ‘no-fire’ zone but described by Human Rights Watch as "one of the most dangerous places in the world".

Hospitals and churches in which survivors sheltered were bombed. Doctors struggling to treat the horribly injured, who dared to raise their voices against the carnage and the blocking of medical and food aid, face disciplinary action. The United Nations reported 4,500 killed in the first three months of this year. Hundreds more were slaughtered in the merciless onslaught by the army north of Mullaitivu aimed at crushing the LTTE and forcing its leaders into unconditional surrender.

In the Independent (22 April), Asian affairs expert, Charu Lata Hogg, predicted: "Victory in the battlefield will remain hollow; an aggrieved minority at home and an embittered diaspora abroad will ensure that peace remains elusive in Sri Lanka". It is doubtful whether any Tamil will ever forget these last few months of wholesale carnage or forgive the ministers and generals they hold responsible.

The living hell for those who have lost their homes, family members and livelihoods will not end soon. Starving mothers will still be unable to suckle their babies. Famished children will continue to die from illnesses caused by malnutrition. Men and boys, sometimes girls too, will continue to be taken at gunpoint from their families. Herded into concentration camps, surrounded by barbed wire, inadequately housed, fed or cared for, thousands more Tamils will die and thousands more will lose hope of ever living a normal life.

Humanitarian organisations and aid agencies struggle to get into the area. So do journalists. Sri Lankan media personnel and opposition figures who dare to tell the truth about Mahinda Rajapakse’s dictatorship and its frenzied ‘war on terror’, have become targets for the killers on motor bikes or in white vans who do the dirty work of the state. Many have fled the country.

Socialists in the country are living through one of the darkest periods in their history. Leaders of the United Socialist Party (USP – the CWI in Sri Lanka) have consistently warned that a military defeat of the Tamil Tigers will not end the deep-seated national conflict. Capitalist commentators, like Mark McDonald reporting from Colombo to the International Herald Tribune, say the same. Anger at "decades of official marginalisation, resentment over discriminatory education policies and suppression of the Tamil language by administrations dominated by the Sinhala Buddhist majority will linger..." (Tamils make up around 17% of the 21 million population, Sinhala about 74%.)

Other issues bear down on poverty-stricken Tamils in the central plantation areas as well as in the war-devastated north and east. Massive government investment in schools, infrastructure, housing and jobs is needed in addition to genuine political autonomy and freedom from discrimination.

But capitalism in Sri Lanka, in its weakest and most indebted state since independence, is incapable of fulfilling these demands. The majority of Sinhala workers and small farmers have not benefitted from being part of a favoured majority. The vast sums needed to finance the war have caused prices on basic goods to soar with inflation reaching as much as 30% in some periods. It is also behind the sharp rise in the number of unemployed.

Regional power play

THE ‘END’ OF the war has long been promised by the Rajapakse gang. Even this year it was going to be finished by 4 February – Freedom Day, marking independence from the British. Then it was going to be the Sri Lankan New Year (13/14 April), or in time to affect the outcome of the next round of provincial elections (25 April). At the latest, it seems, the war had to be over by the end of April to qualify for a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. If the loan is secured and the war continues, this money will be used to procure more deadly armaments – from Israel, Iran, Pakistan, etc. If not, it will be used to repay the massive loans already taken to pay for the war. One of the conditions laid down by the IMF is a 50% devaluation of the rupee which will mean steep cost of living increases.

International capitalism has urged an end to the civil war for its own reasons. Mainly in order to get back to making profit out of trade and industry but also to capture lucrative contracts for reconstruction and development. This applies especially to India which now has vast interests in Sri Lanka.

Satya Sivaran, a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka on behalf of his church, wrote to the Stop the Slaughter of Tamils campaign (, exposing the real reason for India’s support for the murderous Rajapakse government: Ashok Leyland and Tata Mercedes enjoy a near monopoly for heavy vehicles, and Bajoj is the only brand of auto-rickshaws available in the country. More recently, the Indian Oil Corporation has leased the strategic Trincomalee harbour for berthing its tankers.

Abbey Naidoo wrote in February in the South African Post: "India has revealed a duplicitous and murderous collaboration with the genocidal regime in power in Colombo. Not only deaf to the pleas and cries of its own Tamil population to intervene in this murderous onslaught, it actively assists the regime in the supply of military hardware, the training of strike aircraft pilots, the supply of military expertise and the provision of military advisers on the ground".

The Financial Times (26 February) stated that one of the factors behind the impending military defeat of the Tamil Tigers was "the competition between India and China for regional influence [which] has led to a huge inflow of Chinese money and arms – with no tut-tutting about Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record". But the seeds were sown five years ago with the defection of Karuna, the Tigers’ commander in the east, taking half their army over to the side of the government.

Chauvinist reaction

TWO YEARS LATER, whipping up anti-Tamil reaction, Rajapakse and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came to power. He had the support of the Sinhala chauvinist JVP (People’s Liberation Front) and the Buddhist monks’ organisation, JHU. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, a president was elected by Sinhala votes alone. He tore up a four-year-old ceasefire brokered with the LTTE by Norwegian emissaries, and ruthlessly pursued his goal of becoming the first Sinhala ruler of a ‘united’ Sri Lankan state.

The LTTE, led by Velupilai Prabhakaran, once controlled nearly the whole of the north and east of the island. There was an embryonic separate state, with a kind of civil service, border controls, tax officers, police and even speed cops. It had at least 12,000 fighting cadres – land forces, naval fighters (Sea Tigers), a merchant navy and primitive air force capable of carrying bombs to Colombo from the Wanni jungles. The use of human beings as suicide bombers was a gruesome but deadly tactic widely employed and carried out by the venerated Black Tigers. Enormous heroism and self-sacrifice was shown by young fighters but terrible consequences flowed from some of the military and political methods employed. The most recent blunder was instructing Tamils not to vote in the presidential election, allowing the rabid chauvinist, Rajapakse, to defeat the United National Party (UNP) leader, Ranil Wickeramasinghe, by a small margin.

The LTTE was mortally wounded by the defection of Karuna. Now he has gone the whole way and joined the ruling SLFP and been rewarded with the post of minister of national integration!

The Tigers imagined they could win an all-out military victory against the Sri Lankan state and the 50,000 soldiers sent against them. They made spectacular advances in the early stages but were severely hampered by the banning of their organisation in Europe, the US, Canada, India and elsewhere, and its effect on funds and supplies. In the end, their fighting force probably amounted to little more than 1,000 in their last redoubt near Mullaitivu. But a return of guerrilla warfare is almost inevitable.

The right of self-determination

"THE ABSENCE OF war is not peace!" as the New York Times was reminded by a retired Indian army general. Ashok Kumar Mehta had participated in his country’s ill-fated ‘peacekeeping’ mission in the late 1980s. At the time, this armed intervention was opposed by those members of the Nava Sama Samaja Party who were later to become the Marxist Workers’ Tendency (forerunners of the USP), and by the international leadership of the CWI. It was tragically borne out that the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie were not those of ordinary working and poor Tamils. They ended up shooting and killing the very people they had supposedly come to defend and many of their own number perished.

Socialists maintain that national conflicts, fostered by imperialism and exacerbated by the inability of capitalism to provide for all, cannot be overcome on a capitalist basis. The struggle for socialism has inscribed on its banner the basic democratic demand of the right of nations to self-determination. The early Sri Lankan Trotskyist leader, Colvin da Silva, warned that not giving the Tamil language equal official status as Sinhala would engender national resentment capable of dividing the two communities, which he summed up in the formula: "Two languages one country; one language two countries".

The USP unflinchingly defends the right of the Tamil-speaking people to live without fear of oppression or discrimination. It also supports the right of the Tamils to self-determination, up to and including separation and independence. No government of Sri Lanka has allowed the people to freely express what they see as the best arrangement for protecting their rights. The Tigers have always claimed to represent the Tamil people and have broad support but have not fully tested political feelings in a genuine, democratically-conducted referendum or election, and have sometimes shown themselves intolerant of opposition.

But there are those who were on the Sri Lankan left who have now given up advocating the right to self-determination, let alone the ideas of socialism. Some have ended up in the camp of the present chauvinistic, anti-working class government. Others have allied themselves in elections, in an unprincipled fashion, with capitalist parties such as the UNP. When it has been necessary to form a temporary front with some of these forces on a single issue, such as ‘stop the war’, or ‘no to dictatorial powers’, the USP has done so in a principled and careful fashion, maintaining an independent programme for a struggle against capitalism.

The USP has also put forward the idea that, if a separate state or large measure of self-rule was established, there should be guarantees of the rights of minorities within it, up to and including autonomous areas for Muslims and Sinhala if they so wished. In elections in the east, the USP has been the only party with Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala candidates. There and in the Hill Country, USP campaigners have warned against false friends of the poor and working people in the form of the unprincipled leaders of the Muslim Congress and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress who tend to take the side of whoever wins! For this, USP election candidates and campaigners have been physically attacked and imprisoned on faked charges.

Getting away with murder

THE ASTOUNDING SILENCE of the big powers has allowed Rajapakse’s government to literally get away with murder – mass murder! And with no witnesses. Only when it was too late to save the lives of thousands of men, women and children, did western governments begin to make their faint voices heard. And only then when hundreds of thousands of furious Tamils protested across the world and when desperate young men in London, Australia, Canada and India have been prepared to die through hunger strikes or immolations to get justice for their people.

In India it was the pressure of mass, sometimes violent, demonstrations of striking students and lawyers in Tamil Nadu which finally evinced mild pleadings from Sonja Gandhi and one or two government leaders for Rajapakse to agree to a permanent ceasefire. But he will still bank on support from the majority in Sri Lanka, including some Tamil people, who simply want the war over.

The dictator-president in Sri Lanka rules through decree, the use of vast emergency powers and sheer thuggery. War weariness, however, has not been enough to guarantee him the kind of victory he wants in the council elections of 25 April in Colombo. There are rumours of convicted gangsters being released from prison to go to the Tamil areas and wipe out the traditional UNP support. At present, this party stands for peace. When the UNP was last in power, Wickeramasinghe was instrumental in getting the 2002 ceasefire to hold, allowing some respite to the Tamil population, and to the armed forces. He was under great pressure, particularly from US imperialism, to bring the costly war to an end and continue to open up the economy to further investment and exploitation by foreign capital.

But it was under a UNP government that the war started. The party had won a landslide victory in 1977 with 140 seats to eight for the SLFP. In the north, the Tamil United Liberation Front won a clean sweep of all 18 seats, standing for a separate Tamil state. These two developments came in the wake of the betrayals of working and poor people by popular front governments, but the sharp attack on the gains of the past and driving down of living standards provoked an all-out general strike in 1980. After it ended in defeat and mass sackings of trade union and party lefts, the government pursued a civil war with the LTTE. On 24 July 1983, the bodies of 13 soldiers killed by the Tigers were paraded in Colombo. Mobs were given military protection and government vehicles to massacre up to 4,000 Tamil people.

Today, the UNP poses as the friend of the workers, the Tamils and all peace-loving citizens. It has decried the war but made few moves to organise real mass opposition against it. The nearest it came was around the funeral of the murdered newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickeramatunge. It did not do well in the last round of provincial elections.

The ruling SLFP won decisively – in the east, with the help of another LTTE renegade, Pillayan, playing on fears of a prolonged war. In the eastern Ratnapura, and in the Hill Country, it was able to win the votes even of Tamils, because of intimidation or a will to see an end to the fighting and the massive drain of the war. Sinhala families with sons in the army, many as economic conscripts, longed for an end to the fighting. Every village in the south has been flying white flags of mourning for the soldiers lost.

The USP is reluctant to stand in elections which serve to strengthen Rajapakse’s warmongering clique. But it has a responsibility to voice the anguish of the Tamils, defend their rights, and campaign for united mass action to change society along socialist lines.

When the war is supposedly over, there will be no long-term solution under this government. Triumphal JVP and JHU chauvinists, who will never settle for any kind of devolution, may come onto the streets to stir up communalist sentiment. They and the government may even feel strong enough to carry out physical attacks on Tamils and political opponents.

Fraudulent elections

THE GOVERNMENT MAY go for snap elections in the Jaffna area to claim the war is over and that Tamil people can have some measure of choice over their representatives. It will aim to install its own Tamil politicians, refusing any real element of self rule. But, after the bloody ‘end’ of the longest conflict in Asia, the Tamil people, if consulted, will not now settle for integration into a unitary state.

Elections under these conditions are a farce. The idea of the government is to move quickly to repeat the experience in the east, where military victory was followed by fraudulent and violent elections to get a compliant local administration into power. There are said to be plans to organise Sinhala settlers to move into the war-torn areas in the way that Jewish settlers have been ‘planted’ in the West Bank.

Whatever manoeuvres, strategies and emergency powers are adopted, in the end, relief at the war finishing will give way to new anxieties over the lack of a settlement to the national conflict but also to the crippling costs and conditions of life. The war has consumed vast resources – up to $5 million a day. Defence spending amounts to more than 5% of GDP – in the top 20 worldwide. It was 0.5% in 1982. It has gone from 96 billion rupees to 200 billion in two years. The current account deficit has gone from 1.5 billion to 3.6 billion rupees. Prices of essential food and fuel have spiralled. The rupee in the wage packet has plummeted.

In his appeal for solidarity action on 8 April, secretary of the USP, Siritunga Jayasuriya, pointed out what the effects are already of the global downturn: "More than 300,000 employees out of a total workforce of 6.1 million in the private sector have lost their jobs, with more than 50,000 being dismissed during the past three months. More than 50 companies and factories have been closed due to the present crisis situation and the labour ministry has done little to protect the employees who have lost their jobs".

The working people of Sri Lanka will resist paying the price for the crisis on top of the huge war burden. The Tamil people most direly affected by the war will want to see something in return for their huge sacrifices. The workers’ movement and the socialist forces will be rebuilt to fight back. An end to war and a lasting peace can be achieved through a mass, united struggle of the working and poor of all communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim – for a harmonious socialist society.


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