SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 81 - March 2004

Sri Lankan crisis elections

ON 7 February, Sri Lanka’s president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, dissolved parliament and announced new elections for 2 April. Her hope is that widespread discontent and protest will pave the way for the defeat of the government, led by the United National Party (UNP), the main rival to her own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Political tension is growing and could even threaten the ceasefire between the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fighting for autonomy for the majority-Tamil areas of North and East Sri Lanka.

Chandrika has prepared the ground by taking several dramatic measures. On 4 November 2003 she conducted a ‘mini-coup’, seizing three ministerial positions (including defence) from the UNP. Then, on 20 January, the SLFP formed an alliance with the chauvinist communalist People’s Liberation Front (JVP).

Chandrika came to power in 1994 on a promise to deliver peace after more than a decade of war between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE. But soon afterwards, the war was restarted – on her orders. In 2001, the traditional capitalist party, the UNP, won the general election also by promising peace. War weariness, the widespread desire for peace, plus pressure from imperialism and local capitalists, led to a ceasefire in February 2002.

The UNP government, however, has produced discontent and opposition because of its neo-liberal, pro-imperialist policies. No new jobs have been created and there are no efforts to improve education. Youth unemployment is still chronically high. Indian capitalists in particular have been invited to buy up tea plantations. And now, the railways are in line for privatisation – a proposal which has already provoked a massive railway workers’ strike, which went into a second week.

The discontent with government economic policy and the pressure from Sinhala communalists against a peace deal were behind the president’s coup of 4 November. The peace talks, still in their early stages, had reached a new phase on 1 November with the publication of the LTTE’s proposal for an ‘interim self-governing council’ for the Tamil areas.

In response, Chandrika took the ministerial posts and launched extremely sharp criticisms of UNP prime minister, Ranil Wickramesinghe. Soldiers were stationed on the streets and the TV network put under her control. The attempted coup, however, did not get the popular support that the SLFP hoped for. Among Sinhala workers and people in general there is still strong support for the ceasefire, which has made life easier. For many years, people thought twice before going to the capital, Colombo, because of the risks. Schools were often closed and parents had to take special protective measures. The imperialist powers and Sri Lankan capitalists urged the two major parties to overcome their differences.

Chandrika then moved towards an alliance with the JVP, a unique party combining quasi-Marxist rhetoric with outright Sinhala racism. For a long time, the JVP campaigned, even with arms, against the far-reaching powers granted to the president by the constitution. Now, it is in an alliance with her. Historically, the chauvinism of the JVP against the Tamils has meant that it is extremely anti-Indian, because of the link between the large Tamil population in South India and that of Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, the JVP holds up the ruling Indian Hindu chauvinist party, the BJP, as one of its role models. And its leaders have praised the economic policies of India, Malaysia and China.

It is still not clear what the SLFP/JVP programme will be on the national question. The JVP previously demanded that Norwegian negotiators should leave the country, that the ceasefire agreement should be abandoned, roadblocks reintroduced, and that LTTE camps in the east be removed by the army. Since Chandrika took over the defence ministry, however, none of these measures have been introduced.

In January, Chandrika started to tone down criticism of the peace negotiations, underlining that both the SLFP and JVP wanted an agreement. This shift is due to pressure from the imperialist powers which want security for future investment. Chandrika also needs votes, of course. Opinion polls show that a big majority of the population wants peace negotiations to continue.

The JVP hopes to gain electorally through the alliance with the president’s party. Its profile will be ‘anti-imperialist’ towards the UNP government, with ‘patriotic’ slogans to keep its base among Sinhala chauvinists. The economic policies of the SLFP/JVP alliance are little different to those of the UNP, except for some rhetoric against privatisation (although previous administrations under Chandrika carried through similar policies). The formation of the alliance, and especially an election victory, will create big problems for the JVP’s image as some kind of ‘left’ party.

The UNP, on the other hand, will portray itself as the peace alternative. This is despite the fact that it has not achieved any real progress in that direction for the last few years. It will be supported by the majority of the capitalist class, which wants stability to be able to maximise profits. Neither of the major parties has fully responded to the LTTE proposals. They are afraid of losing Sinhala votes if they propose any meaningful devolution of power to the LTTE.

After the election, a government of either the United National Front (of the UNP) or the SLFP-JVP will continue to attack workers’ conditions. Moreover, the chauvinist mood whipped up by the new alliance will make moves towards peace negotiations more difficult. The risk of communalist violence or even an end to the ceasefire has increased. The election underlines the crisis facing Sri Lankan capitalism and the bourgeois parties representing it. Communalism can reappear, used to divert the anger of the masses away from the need for collective, independent, working-class action.

The United Socialist Party (USP – CWI, Sri Lanka) supports self-determination for the Tamils. At the same time, it explains that the capitalist system offers no real answer to the social and economic problems. Only a socialist society, achieved by the working class, Tamil and Sinhala, can solve the crisis. The USP also defends the rights of trade unions and parties in the North and the East, arguing against the LTTE having absolute power.

Others on the left are repeating the classical mistakes of alliances with bourgeois parties. The Communist Party (CP) general secretary, Dew Goonasekare, complained to Chandrika: "Madam, we have been supporting you for years, since your mother’s time [her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was prime minister], but you have completely turned your back on us with the alliance with the JVP". The president replied that she agreed that the CP had been most loyal and assured it of further cooperation. The CP and the former Trotskyist party, the LSSP, are in a ‘Peoples Alliance’ with the SLFP, and both will probably remain formally outside the new alliance but, in practice, support it. Another left party, the NSSP, on the other hand, has in the past leaned towards the UNP as a peace alternative. In 1987-88 the NSSP supported the Indo-Lanka Accord, a so-called pact for peace in Sri Lanka, which turned out to be a catastrophe. The USP is calling for an independent left front on a socialist programme to contest the elections, as part of a campaign to build a mass socialist force.

Siritunga Jayasuriya and other members of the USP spoke to Per-Ĺke Westerlund, a recent visitor to the island.


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