Socialism Today - Sri Lanka upsurge in communal violence
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Issue 45

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Issue 45, September 1999

Sri Lanka upsurge in communal violence

A deadly threat to workers and poor

A MONTH IN Sri Lankan politics at the turn of the century proved to be a very long time. It has seen a stormy election campaign and a new and ugly atmosphere of communal tension develop. Before the two massive bomb attacks at the final presidential election rallies in the capital, Colombo, on 18 December, it looked very much as if the incumbent president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, would lose to Ranil Wickeramasinghe of the United National Party (UNP).

Elected as a 'left' alternative to UNP rule in 1994, Chandrika's People's Alliance (PA) government had presided over the privatisation and cutting back of important services like electricity, telephones, air transport and the docks and an actual decline in living standards for most people. Most crucially, the president had failed to carry out her election promise to end the long-running civil war which has been draining the economy and sapping the morale of the whole population. Tamils in the North and East of the country have been fighting for independence from a state which has left them an impoverished and oppressed nation.

The already tense and charged atmosphere was inflamed by the president's three-and-a-half hour diatribe on national television on 3 January. She attacked not only all Tamils along with the Tiger guerrillas but every one of her foes, and some of her erstwhile friends, in an unprecedentedly vitriolic manner. A revenge bomb attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) two days later near the prime minister's office killed another 13 people.


The shooting dead, at almost the same hour on the same day, of the prominent Tamil lawyer, Kumar Ponnambalam and the massive police operation against Tamils in general, has thrown that community, especially in Colombo, into a state of shock, mourning and terror.

Although the national question was the most critical of the election campaign, only one candidate - MP Vasudeva Nanayaka, who has a long-standing reputation for defending the Tamil people's struggle - put forward the principled position of defending the right of Tamils to self-determination. The United Socialist Party (USP), affiliated to the Committee for a Workers' International, supported this 'Left and Democratic' candidate and provided some of the most ardent campaigners.

Below, SIRITUNGA JAYASURIYA, USP general secretary, explains his party's stance in the election. He gives the reasons for Chandrika's narrow victory, outlines the background to these momentous events, and points to a perspective and programme for the workers' movement.

WE HELD the USP congress early in December last year, when the snap presidential election campaign was in full swing. We used it to weigh up what was at stake in the contest and to clarify with the 70 delegates and visitors present the reasons for our decision to support Vasudeva Nanayaka's candidature. Although Vasu has broken from the People's Alliance government and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) with whom he had entered parliament, and although he had not agreed with us that he should stand on a full socialist programme, we gave him our critical (but energetic) support, primarily because of his stand in defence of the Tamil-speaking people. No-one else was championing their interests. He has a record that goes back a long way and is widely respected.


We could not do what other so-called Marxists like the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) did and take the totally unprincipled and opportunist position of supporting the People's Liberation Front (JVP). This party has a very bad record of taking a racist or communal line over the past 15 years and today they have failed to come out against the war and for the devolution of power to the Tamils. They say the Tamil people can have self-determination after socialism is established. More than that, a very concrete question is whether you campaign to stop the war being waged by your own capitalist class against an oppressed nation. No Marxist at the present time can keep silent on this issue. The national question is a litmus test for Marxists. Both the JVP (who call themselves socialist and anti-imperialist) and the NSSP have failed the test in this election.

During the campaign, the USP put forward its own programme. We produced and sold two issues of our paper - the only bi-lingual paper on the island. We got out 50,000 leaflets - 20,000 in Tamil and 30,000 in Sinhala. We don't have the resources of the big parties, backed by different businesses for their own reasons. We could not afford to hold the public meetings in our name that we wanted to but we got a steady flow of letters and forms returned to our office from people who said they were interested in our party.

At all Vasudeva's election rallies - held in workers' districts, at factory gates and even in fishermen's communities - we had a USP speaker on the platform, putting our point of view and getting a warm response. Generally, the response to the campaigning for Vasu was good and particularly in the Tamil areas of the East, on the tea plantations, etc. The Tamil people, who suffer the greatest exploitation and discrimination, felt at last there was someone fighting on their behalf. In the poster war that breaks out in every election in Sri Lanka, our teams put up a brave battle. Vasu's posters could be seen even in some of the remotest jungle villages.


Before the bombing, Vasudeva had been hoping for between 100,000 and 150,000 votes. We put the probable figure at more like 70,000 or 1% of the total. This in itself would have shown that, in spite of all the difficulties, there was a basis for building a broad left movement that links the struggle of the poor people of the North and the South.

In fact, in Jaffna in the Tamil north, at present under Sri Lankan army occupation, Vasu came third, with the JVP way down at eleventh place. In all the Tamil areas, Vasu did well and the JVP was near the bottom of the list. In Colombo West, where the New Left Front got its best result in the provincial elections last year, Vasu also came third.

Overall, the election result was severely affected by the eleventh-hour terrorist attack at Chandrika's final public rally in the capital. As we expected, she benefited from a huge sympathy vote. The bomb was so close that she was thrown to the ground and has probably lost the sight in her right eye permanently. Once more, sectarian bombers have handed victory to the very politicians against whom the people they 'represent' are fighting.

Most important in affecting the eventual outcome of the voting, was the swing back to the People's Alliance amongst those who were becoming attracted by the idea of an alternative position against both capitalist wings, and by the substantial minority of people in the country who had been tending to abstain in elections or spoil their vote. In the three local government elections last year (in different parts of the country) on average nearly 7% put a big cross through all the politicians' names.


Vasudeva's 'Power to the People' campaign had been aiming to win over 'natural' PA voters by convincing them that Chandrika was no more left than the UNP and had, in fact, gone further in carrying out that party's programme, rather than the programme of the parties in the People's Alliance. In the event, Vasu received 23,668 votes, putting him in sixth place. The JVP's vote was also affected by the wave of post-bomb support for Chandrika. Their candidate came third to the PA and UNP candidates, but with about half their expected vote - at around 350,000. Also benefiting from the Tamil Tiger suicide bombing was the rabid candidate of a small Sinhala chauvinist organisation who gained over 27,000 votes for his communalist call for all Tamils to be crushed.

In spite of all this, Chandrika Kumaratunga only just managed to scrape together the 50% of votes needed to avoid the counting up of preference votes, which would have been a clear sign of her much weakened position. In 1994 she received 62% of a 70% turnout. This time 51% of a 73% turnout.

The People's Alliance government and particularly the president herself had lost a lot of their original popularity. Chandrika had become president saying she would abolish presidential rule within a few months. Not only has it not been abolished, she has used the vast powers introduced by the hated, dictatorial UNP president, Jayawardene, to make major decisions with parliament acting as no more than a rubber stamp. And now, five years later, she stood for the position again with the intention of strengthening her personal rule.


Although she promised to cut the number of cabinet ministers to 20, there are now more than in the UNP days. They can be played-off against each other, rather than challenge the president's decisions directly. In spite of the fact that they have little power to affect national politics, they consume a vast amount of public money and the majority of the electorate, surviving on tiny incomes, don't like it.

On the key issue of the war, Mrs Kumaratunga promised in her first election campaign to end it and to 'find a solution to the national question'. (Manifesto 1994) In fact, the prosecution of the war consumes now around three times as much of the public's money as it did then and a settlement is as far from view as ever.

Another of the election pledges was not to continue with the UNP's pursuit of a full-scale market economy but to go for a 'balanced economy' and not to privatise the major state sector. In fact, with the help of the traditional 'left' leaders of the working class - the 'Communist' Party and the LSSP - Chandrika was able to push through enormous attacks on the working class, in the form of major privatisations, that the UNP was unable to do before because of the organised workers' resistance. The promised introduction of unemployment benefits and state payments to low-income families failed to materialise. Prices rose, eating into workers' wages.

Working people in the towns and countryside did not want the UNP back in power with their pro-IMF policies and state terror. Nevertheless, their vote went up from 35 to 42% because of the unpopularity of the People's Alliance government. The UNP also gained votes in the Tamil areas of the North and East because of their promise of a two-year 'interim' (though unspecified) form of self-rule. The PA increased its support amongst the Sinhala community in the South, indicating a dangerous polarisation.


While the UNP pose as false champions of the Tamils, the People's Alliance, who came to power on anti-communal slogans in 1994, has used totally opposite tactics in the run-up to this election. The president has won over to her camp some of the most reactionary and racist MPs from the UNP. And, for the first time in Sri Lankan history, chauvinist parties like the People's United Front (MEP) came out for a representative of the one-time 'progressive' Bandaranaike family - Chandrika Kumaratunga. This shows how far she has moved away from her roots. She is now in a dilemma. Still wanting to resolve the national question, but surrounded by hard-liners, she will find it even more difficult to find some kind of compromise with the LTTE.

This has already been illustrated by the bombing of the prime minister's office on 5 January. It was a punishment for Chandrika having got back into power with racist backing. There will undoubtedly now be more such attacks. The president has renewed her mandate but faces enormous contradictions and huge problems. After ten years, we are now seeing a resurgence of the horrific communal tensions fostered by the UNP Premadasa regime. The killings, intimidation, harassment, arrests and torture have returned.

In an interview with the BBC World Service on 7 January, after the curfew was imposed and thousands of Tamils rounded-up and arrested, I put the blame for this and for the murder of Kumar Ponnambalam squarely at the door of this present government. In her television broadcast, the head of state had been shouting abuse at her perceived enemies just like neighbours in a village when somebody's cow has trespassed into the other's backyard!


The reason behind it all is her inability to put any of her plans into effect. She wanted to reshuffle the cabinet and hasn't managed it. She wanted to call a general election to assure a two-thirds majority for changing the constitution and cannot decide on a date. She was considering a referendum to extend the life of this parliament by six years, as Jayawardene did in 1982, but she is not sure of success in this either. Even her political package for the North has not been put forward for genuine discussion.

All these difficulties explain her wild speeches. She accuses almost everyone she knows to be critical of her - in the press, in the UNP and in the business world - of a conspiracy. These rantings show she is not in a confident mood.

Chandrika being elected for a second term is going to open up a difficult period for workers and their organisations in the country - the trade unions and left parties. It is her final term of office and she will go all-out to implement the full programme of the IMF and the World Bank. This will provoke big opposition amongst the mass of the Sri Lankan population. She will need to utilise all the dictatorial powers available under the constitution.

The capitalist class in this country is very weak. It cannot take decisions on its own. They need peace to go about making their profits. Under both the PA and UNP governments they have had 20 years of open economy but have not seen any big gains. Chandrika will go for completing the privatisation programme dictated by the World Bank - of water, the state banks and the post office. She will come out with more attacks on the trade unions and threaten the democratic rights of the whole population.


The curfew and the round-up of Tamils, and the intimidation and harassment that has developed in the period immediately after the election, have been whipped-up by the president herself identifying all Tamils with terrorism. A communal mood is developing in society in a very dangerous way.

We have to build up mass working-class opposition to counter this dangerous development. We should appeal to the Tamil-speaking people to help build the left and socialist movement. This is the only answer to the burning questions facing Sri Lankan society: the only way to stop Chandrika's repressive policies in the future and to stop the UNP coming back into power as a reaction against her rule.

The USP is fighting amongst the working class, the trade unions and other left organisations to support our programme and build a real socialist alternative against capitalism and chauvinism. If things continue as they are going, under capitalism, this country is heading for a horrible partition. Although socialists support the right to self-determination, a partition on a capitalist basis would be a disaster. Neither a Sinhala government of the South nor an LTTE government in the North would solve the problems caused by capitalism that afflict the overwhelming majority of the population in all communities who live in poverty.

We say the people of the North must be allowed to go about their normal lives - fishing and farming - with all the basic necessities at present denied to them - from medicines, kerosene and motors down to the simplest things like batteries. End all harassment and intimidation of Tamil people - in the South, East and West of our country as well as the North! We will campaign on the demands: 'Stop the war offensive!' 'For the right of the Tamil people to self-determination!'


We see recognising the Tamils' right to a separate homeland, if they so wish, as an essential part of building a socialist Sri Lanka.

We have a strong tradition of working-class struggle that has brought us, in the past, real social and economic gains. Building a socialist alternative is not just an idea. The foundations have already been laid. It is our task to build on them.

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