Socialism only way forward for Sri Lanka’s Tamils

The Sri Lankan government, along with the bourgeois press, is loudly celebrating the apparent defeat of the Tamil Tigers and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The government is saying that the long civil war in Sri Lanka that has killed as many as 80,000 people is finally over and that peace and prosperity can finally return to Sri Lanka's people, including its Tamil population. Many Tamils, rightfully, feel that this is not the case - especially in the context of the present world economic crisis ‑ and that their situation in Sri Lanka will not improve.

Even though 80,000 have officially been killed in Sri Lanka since 1983 (and over 1,000 in one single weekend in May 2009), it is only in the past few months that the civil war in Sri Lanka has come to the fore in the corporate media. Unfortunately, this newfound interest in Sri Lanka has largely been focused on the inconveniences that the Tamil protests, particularly in Toronto [and London], have placed on people and business instead of the atrocities being committed against the Tamil people.

The roots of the civil war are not known widely. The civil war has pitted Tamil nationalists, who are demanding an independent Tamil homeland based in the north of the island, versus the Sri Lankan state. Tamil nationalists claim that the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is oppressed and excluded from full state participation, and that the state favours the majority Sinhalese population.

Toronto's Gardiner Expressway blocked at evening rush hour on May 10, 2009Toronto's Gardiner Expressway blocked at evening rush hour on May 10, 2009 The media, particularly in Canada, began to focus on Sri Lanka at the end of January when at least 25,000 Tamil supporters formed a mass human chain around Toronto's downtown core in order for the Canadian government to pressure the Sri Lankan government to stop their bombing of the Tamil homeland. The protest even blocked Union Station, right at the heart of the evening rush hour. Regular protests followed in the ensuing months until at the end of April, several thousand Tamils occupied University Ave. across from the US consulate and refused to move, blocking the street for several days. On 10th May, another solidarity march spontaneously turned into an occupation of the Gardiner Expressway, the main highway linking Toronto with Hamilton and Buffalo. The entire highway was blocked for over six hours.

Many have been surprised at how quickly and how effectively the Tamil community was able to organize these protests, but that simply reflects their lack of knowledge at the atrocious treatment meted out to the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. The media has made much of the fact that the protests around the world have featured very vocal support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), considered to be a terrorist group by the Canadian government. Several politicians, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Toronto Mayor David Miller, and federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, have all expressed their "sympathy" and "understanding" for the Tamils' plight, although immediately criticizing the movement for supporting the LTTE. At every point, the media has been very careful to point out that most major Western governments including Canada, the United States, and the European Union, have all declared the LTTE to be a terrorist organization. They go into excruciating lengths outlining the atrocities and crimes of the Tigers. What they usually fail to outline with as much gusto, however, is the mass killings that the Sri Lankan state is guilty of, particularly in the past few months, or the Sri Lankan state's oppression of the Tamil people.

The main reason why so many ex-pat Tamils have been flying Tiger flags and holding signs calling for the freeing of Tiger prisoners is that in their view, the only group that is currently fighting for a better life for Tamil people is the LTTE. The Tamil population has every right to fight against the oppression of the Sri Lankan state. If Tamil workers believe that they will only gain a better life by demanding their own separate state, then Marxists need to support that demand up to, and including, independence.

Having said that, however, we do need to recognize that the tactics employed by the LTTE, in addition to the fight for an independent Tamil homeland, are not the tactics or program that will actually result in a better life for working-class Tamils. Marxists are very critical of guerrillaism and the tactics of individual terrorism. These methods are quite alien to that of the working class and actually help to turn workers away from revolutionary struggle. As well, these tactics, instead of weakening the state, quite often can strengthen it.

LTTE Sea Tiger boat patrolling. Photo by Ulflarsen.LTTE Sea Tiger boat patrolling. Photo by Ulflarsen. This is what has happened in Sri Lanka, with the tactics of the LTTE alienating the Sinhalese workers and thus strengthening the hand of the state, which has now achieved a "military victory" and crushed the Tigers. Even though the Tamil Tigers were reportedly an incredibly well-organized and well-funded apparatus, including possessing a navy, the beginnings of an air force, and an annual budget of $200-300 million (all of this according to the BBC), it was still not enough to defeat the might of the Sri Lankan state, with the aid of its imperialist partners.

Greater rights for the Tamil people cannot be achieved with the methods adopted by the Tamil Tigers. In fact, a completely different alternative was, at one time, possible, based on a united working class, Tamil and Sinhalese, in the struggle for a socialist Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's fight for socialism

The divisions between the Sinhalese and Tamil people began with British imperialism. Although previous divisions had existed within Sri Lankan society, it was the British that exacerbated these differences when they took over Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known). The British brought in increasing numbers of Tamils from southern India to work as plantation labour. In the early 20th century, as Britain began to introduce more "self-government" to the colony, they privileged a tiny sector of the minority Tamil population. Although most Tamils continued to work on the plantations, this helped to alienate the majority Sinhalese, which were beginning to form the majority of the Sri Lankan working class in the cities. This was a tried-and-true practice for Britain and other European imperialist powers - to sow divisions within the native population (usually on ethnic lines) by giving extra benefits and privileges to one and not the other.

Map of Sri LankaThe first elections in Ceylon were held in 1931 under British supervision. A new government consisting of upper class Sinhalese was elected; although they demanded greater autonomy from the British, they did not explicitly demand independence. A small minority of Sinhalese, particularly in Colombo, were enriching themselves and beginning to form a native capitalist class, but the vast majority of the population, both Sinhalese and Tamil, were either stuck working in the plantations or as industrial workers in the burgeoning Sri Lankan economy.

The failure of this new "native" government to gain independence from Britain, or to improve the lives of plantation workers and growing working class population, began to radicalize Sri Lankan youth. Largely stemming from the youth, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was created in 1935 with a programme demanding independence from Britain, based on a socialist platform. Although the roots of the party lay in the mainly Sinhalese youth and working class in Colombo, by the end of the 1930s the party had gained a major foothold amongst Tamil plantation workers because the LSSP was the only party fighting for improved working conditions for plantation workers.

During this period, the LSSP was formed as a Trotskyist party adhering to the ideas of Leon Trotsky and eventually joining the Fourth International. Although the party was forced to go underground during the Second World War, it emerged after the war playing a leading role in the wave of militant strikes that shook Sri Lanka, leading it to become a mass party and the largest opposition party in 1947. The LSSP was the only party in Sri Lanka with a significant base amongst both the Sinhalese and Tamils. This was because it had a correct position of defending the rights of the Tamils while at the same time striving for working class unity across the ethnic divide. As a result of this, the governing bourgeois United National Party (UNP) passed the Citizenship Act of 1948 that deprived Tamils of Indian heritage any rights of citizenship in a deliberate effort to weaken the LSSP and sow divisions amongst Sinhalese and Tamil workers.

Sinhalese and Tamil workers united once again in 1953 when they launched the Hartal - a general strike that paralyzed the country and brought down the UNP government. The supposedly "liberal" Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came to power in 1956 and immediately passed the "Sinhala Only" act, which made Sinhala the only official language in Sri Lanka. Although the SLFP proceeded to nationalize the oil industry, the SLFP was very explicitly a Sinhalese party and exacerbated the existing marginalization of Tamil workers in Sri Lanka.

The roots of the present tragedy in Sri Lanka are to be found in the reformist policies that eventually came to dominate the LSSP in the 1950s and 1960s. While opposing the SLFP's nationalism in words, the LSSP would work with the SLFP, even assisting the SLFP in election campaigns. This was unfortunately part of a process whereby the LSSP leadership drifted further and further towards reformist politics, eventually entering a short-lived Popular Front government with the SLFP in 1964. At the same time, there was increased radicalization amongst Sri Lankan workers culminating in a series of major strikes during the same period.

In 1968, the LSSP entered again into a "United Front" coalition with the SLFP and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka. This coalition was swept to power in 1970, with the LSSP taking important positions within the new government. The coalition government carried out some reforms such as the nationalisation of all plantations still under foreign control, and it brought drug prices down for poor people. However, the LSSP very explicitly stated that they were following the example set by the Allende government in Chile, of "socialism through parliamentary means", which meant that capitalism survived and no real long lasting solutions to the problems of the masses were possible.

Rohana Wijeweera led a split of radical youth from the Communist Party and created the Maoist leaning JVPRohana Wijeweera led a split of radical youth from the Communist Party and created the Maoist leaning JVP As in Chile, the slow pace of change under the United Front coalition began to frustrate many, especially university youth. Rohana Wijeweera led a split of radical youth from the Communist Party and created the Maoist leaning JVP, a new party that claimed to be the true revolutionary party of Sri Lanka and one that was opposed to the conciliation and "old politics" of the LSSP and the CP. Recruiting mainly from university campuses, in 1971 the JVP launched an "armed revolt" to overthrow the coalition government. Poorly equipped, and with an ultra-left position, the rebellion was crushed and it is estimated that as many as 15,000 youth were killed by the Sri Lankan state during the uprising.

While in government, although some reforms were implemented, the LSSP failed to resolve any of the fundamental problems afflicting the Sri Lankan working class. The LSSP leadership believed that significant changes to Sri Lankan society could be achieved through such coalition politics and within the confines of capitalism. Their bourgeois liberal partners, the SLFP, had different ideas. They were only using the coalition to hold back the mass movement. In 1975, the LSSP, having been used by the bourgeois, was eventually expelled from the United Front coalition. In the 1977 elections, the LSSP and the CP both paid very dearly for their class collaborationist policies failing to win a single seat in parliament.

The rise of Tamil nationalism

The JVP was only the first significant reaction towards the LSSP's inability to bring about real change for Sri Lankan workers. Both before and after independence, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie had pursued a deliberate policy of attempting to split the working class along ethnic lines. In the 1970s, the inability of the United Front coalition to improve the lives of many Tamils meant that more and more Tamil nationalist parties and groups began to emerge. This, in turn, threatened the minority Sinhalese in the north of the country, which was used by the Sri Lankan government to justify even more anti-Tamil measures.

Tamil Eelam (LTTE) territorial claim (green) and approximate de facto territory controlled at the time of the launching of the 2008–2009 Sri Lankan Army Northern offensive (yellow). During the final army offensive, however, all of this area was recaptured by Sri Lankan forces.Tamil Eelam (LTTE) territorial claim (green) and approximate de facto territory controlled at the time of the launching of the 2008–2009 Sri Lankan Army Northern offensive (yellow). During the final army offensive, however, all of this area was recaptured by Sri Lankan forces. At the same time, the working class movement in Sri Lanka was weakening. Their political representatives, the LSSP, had disappointed many in their role in the United Front government and were decimated in the 1977 election. In those elections, a right-wing UNP government was elected that proceeded to "liberalize" the Sri Lankan economy and attack the unions. In 1980, a railway workers' strike quickly materialized into a general strike. The government imprisoned virtually all of the trade union leaders and employed lumpen elements from the urban centres to break the unions.

It is in this period that we see the creation and rise of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The Tigers were able to recruit heavily amongst Tamil youth who had witnessed the oppression of the Tamil people by various governments and the inability of the Left to rectify it. The Tigers also borrowed from groups like the JVP who had begun to use guerrilla tactics to inflict damage on the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE's early attacks were fairly low-key until 23rd July 1983 when they ambushed a Sri Lankan army troop transport, killing 13 soldiers. Sinhalese nationalists, with the aid of the government, launched an anti-Tamil pogrom that killed up to 3,000 Tamils in the following days. Since then, a bloody civil war has resulted that has killed up to 80,000 across Sri Lanka.

Which way forward for Sri Lanka?

Even if we are to believe that the LTTE is fighting for the betterment of all Tamils - a claim that is hard to believe given their eagerness to work with the UNP government between 2001 and 2004, a government which was rolling back all of the gains made by Sri Lankan workers in the 1960s and 70s - real emancipation and prosperity for Tamil workers cannot be achieved without uniting with all workers in Sri Lanka (and the sub-continent) and fighting the capitalist system.

The Tamils only make up approximately 16% of the Sri Lankan population and are largely clustered in a tiny section in the north, and east, of an already small country. Even if the LTTE (or any other Tamil nationalist group) had been successful in establishing an independent Tamil state, they would have been at the mercy of imperialism, especially Indian and Sri Lankan imperialism. It also ignores the fact that the tactics of the Tigers, particularly the terrorist attacks launched in working class neighbourhoods of Colombo, pitted Tamil and Sinhalese workers against each other, instead of against their common enemy - the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie and the Sri Lankan state.

The divisions between Sinhalese and Tamil workers certainly go back a long way, but as Sri Lankan history shows, it is possible to overcome these differences on a class basis. The best days of the LSSP prove this. In fact, the Sri Lankan ruling class had to implement all sorts of measures to foment hatred between the two large ethnic groups.

We fully support the Tamil people in their struggle to free themselves from oppression, even if it includes self-determination. The crimes of the Sri Lankan state, especially over the last few months of the civil war, are atrocious. The Tamils have every right to defend themselves. However, real emancipation will not occur without first fighting imperialism and capitalism, two formidable forces. This can only be accomplished in union with Sinhalese workers, and workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the entire sub-continent. This union is not a pipe dream - the Tamil and Sinhalese workers have already joined forces before, bringing the ruling class in Sri Lanka to its knees.

The lessons of the past need to be learnt. When the LSSP had a genuine Marxist position it built up a powerful position among Sri Lanka's workers and peasants, both Tamil and Sinhalese. When the LSSP began to move away from this position it eventually led to defeat and demoralisation. The Sri Lankan left must return to the best traditions of the old LSSP, adopt a genuine revolutionary socialist programme and on this basis the Sri Lankan workers can be successful once again in leading a united Sri Lanka forward towards socialism. A socialist Sri Lanka would grant autonomy to the Tamils, and even separation if they wished, but on the basis of a socialist federation linked to a socialist South Asian subcontinent.

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