The Sri Lankan National Crisis and the Search for Solutions (2)

S Sivasegaram


5. The Scene, the Players, Ideology and Approach

The Present Situation. The conflict escalated rapidly under President Rajapaksha and, between April 2006 and April 2007, over 4000 have been killed, mostly civilians. Although aerial bombing gave the government the edge over the LTTE, the latter seems to have retreated from bases in the East with minimal losses, while civilians suffered heavily. The LTTE has since switched to guerrilla attacks in the East. While the almost daily air attacks by the SLAF cause suffering to the people, skirmishes between the army and the LTTE have caused loss of life on both sides.

The surprise land, sea and air attacks by the LTTE have emboldened the main opposition party, weakened by its defeat at the presidential polls, to challenge the government’s ability to defend the country against the LTTE. The government, which is far from accomplishing essential tsunami relief work, is now saddled with a burgeoning refugee problem, to which its attitude fringes on calculated indifference towards Tamil refugees while appearing to address the needs of the smaller number of Sinhalese victims. Muslim victims are neglected too, despite pledges by Muslim politicians.

The Tamils in the North have since last August faced shortages of essential goods and high prices owing to the closure of the A-9 highway (the main supply route which was opened in 2002 following the CFA) amid difficult living conditions caused by war-imposed restrictions on cultivation and fishing. Those in the army-controlled areas also face unlawful killings, kidnapping, disappearing, threats and a general rise in crime.

In the East, what was a fairly successful agricultural economy of the Tamils even under conditions of war and a reduction in the area under cultivation is now in total disarray. The loss of livelihood for the hundreds of thousand internally displaced persons and the disruption of normal life has grave short- and long-term implications for the solution to the national question and, given the dominance of narrow nationalism and opportunist politics, could aggravate tensions between local communities. The Muslims in the East who earlier protested about harassment by the LTTE now, especially since the tsunami, face increased harassment from Sinhala chauvinists, sections of the armed forces, the Special Task Force (STF), and pro-government Tamil paramilitaries.

The country’s economy is in deepening crisis, and corruption is rampant. The false sense of well being created by the liberalised trade and indiscriminate borrowing from international funding agencies, supplemented by remittances by migrant worker population (standing at well over a million adults from a country of eighteen million) is now gone. The rising crime rate, child labour and child abuse, drug addiction, prostitution, rising unemployment amid migration of skilled labour for overseas employment, decline in social values, wrecking of family life owing to one or both parents seeking jobs abroad are among the many social ills that are directly related to the open economic policy adopted in 1978. The war has added to the economic and social ills and has been the pretext to sell many successful state ventures to local and foreign ‘investors’, to be asset-stripped and abandoned, or for plunder by businesses aiming at short term profit. Covert undermining of the role of the state in the public sector and social services, under pressure from the IMF has further burdened the people, and the climate of instability has affected foreign investment as well as tourism-related income and employment.

A breed of new rich with wealth of dubious origins has emerged, as has an underworld on which the rich and the leading political parties rely for their safety and survival, while subjecting the society at large to unwanted risks.

It is long since the mechanisms for the enforcement of law and delivery of justice became politicised. Today, the country is fast drifting towards state-engineered chaos with routine unlawful killings, kidnapping and disappearing. The law and order arm of the state is indifferent if not involved. Harassment of Sinhalese journalists and politicians directly and indirectly by the state was on the decline since around 1992 but has increased steeply in recent years and particularly the past several months. There is fear that the country is heading towards an authoritarian state with the armed forces and the underworld working together to keep all political opposition in check. The recent Presidential ruling (23.4.2007) authorising the armed forces to carry out the duties of the police, yet to be implemented, is not a good sign.

Thus it is becoming increasingly difficult to isolate the solution of the national question from the issues of democratic and human rights and struggles against imperialist globalisation and foreign domination. Thus the positions of the various players towards the national question have to be seen in the context of their class loyalties as well as their attitude to imperialism.

Sinhala Nationalism: the Shades of Chauvinism. At the core of Sinhala nationalist ideology is the notion that the Sinhalese (or Sinhala Buddhists to some) are the true sons of the soil. This assumption was readily extended to deny other ethnic groups equality with the Sinhalese. The UNP has been the main Sinhala bourgeois political party, with pro-imperialist trappings, followed by the SLFP, which for over a quarter century, identified itself with the national bourgeois interests and adopted, within limits, a social reformist and anti-imperialist programme. However, since the weakening of the SLFP by its electoral defeat in 1977 and the adoption of the liberal economic policy in 1978 the difference in substance between the two parties on matters such as globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation, has in a little over a decade faded into insignificance, except for the occasional ritual denunciation of foreign domination by the odd SLFP politician.

Neither party recognised the Tamils, let alone the other ethnic groups, as a nationality but were compelled by force of circumstances to recognise the existence of traditional Tamil homelands and the right of the Tamils to some form of autonomy. The position on the degree of autonomy was not always consistent and both parties have, under pressure from extreme chauvinists and often without resistance, abandoned their own proposals for regional self-government for the Tamils. Also, the two parties have used issues concerning the Tamils for political gain, promoted chauvinist politics for electoral advantage, and obstructed moves to solve the national question by the rival party in power. This attitude still persists.

Neither the UNP nor the SLFP has willingly sought a solution to the national question, and it is unlikely that, as long as the bourgeois parliamentary political system is in place, they will, in the absence of mass political pressure or, as in the case of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, pressure from a dominant foreign power, consent to a solution to the national question based on the recognition of the rights of the nationalities and ethnic groups. Even when agreement has been reached, the temptation has been strong to cheat or to go back on what was agreed, as seen in the recent de-merging of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

It is important to note that, since the start of the war, neither party sincerely sought a negotiated solution or criticised the excesses of the armed forces. Nor has either denounced chauvinism or campaigned among the Sinhalese for autonomy for the Tamils, let alone other ethnic groups, as a right rather than a price to pay for peace. Successive governments have been party to institutionalised falsification of history and promotion of chauvinism at every level ranging from education to tourism. No step has been taken to end discrimination against minorities, to rectify injustices in the fields of education and employment, or restore language and legal rights of the minority nationalities, which are matters that need not wait for a negotiated settlement of the national question.

The Sinhala Buddhist fanatical fringe existed alongside Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and has contributed to the development of chauvinist ideology and the whipping up of communal tension. It has not been a major political force although it has had capable spokespersons, some of whom Bandaranaike accommodated in his grand alliance (the pancha maha balavegaya, the front of five forces) in 1956. Successive governments acted to placate Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism in various ways in their bid to keep the Sinhala Buddhist electorate with them. The extreme Sinhala Buddhist groups have effectively lobbied at various levels to canvass opinion against what were seen as concessions to the minorities. A section, with a strong base among the educated urban upper middle classes, entered electoral politics for the first time as Sihala Urumaya in the year 2001 to secure just one seat on the basis of the total national vote. In the Elections of 2004, it fielded members of the Buddhist clergy as candidates, and the gimmick paid dividends with voters who were disgusted with corrupt politicians. Despite public disillusion with the conduct of the JHU MPs in parliament, the JHU remains an influential opponent of negotiations with the LTTE and solutions based on autonomy of any kind for the Tamils. Its anti-Tamil and occasional anti-Muslim outbursts are backed by various front organisations and individuals with influence in the media. Although sharing the same class support base as the UNP, the saffron-clad JHU MPs were easily tempted by the perks of office so much so that the JHU came to a deal with Mahinda Rajapaksha to support him in his bid for presidency in December 2005. The JHU and the JVP encouraged Rajapaksha to take a hard line against the LTTE, and following the recent wave of cross-over by UNP MPs from the UNP to the PA, the JHU enabled the fanatically Sinhala Buddhist Champika Ranawaka to become MP and join the Cabinet.

Although the roots of the early leaders of the JVP were in the two factions of the Communist Party, the JVP always had a weakness for chauvinism. Until after its failed insurrection of April 1971 it was hostile to the organised working class and had as part of its programme the expulsion of the Hill Country Tamils from Sri Lanka. It used Marxist Leninist and Che Guevaraist labels up to 1971 and on re-emergence in 1978 acquired a ‘legitimate’ Trotskyist label from one of the Fourth Internationals which withdrew its recognition a few years ago in view of the openly chauvinist line of the JVP.

The JVP’s interest in the minority nationalities does not go beyond tokenism of the kind practiced by the BJP in India and the right wing parties in the US and the UK. From 1982, the JVP position on the national question has been explicitly chauvinistic and it opposed any form of devolution or recognition of traditional Tamil homelands, something that even the UNP and the SLFP have conceded out of political necessity at various times, while in practice acting to deny the Tamils a contiguous territory through colonisation and military occupation. The JVP’s compromise with Sinhala Buddhism was consummated by its leaders falling at the feet of the Buddhist mahanayaka priests and submitting the JVP manifesto to them for approval on the eve of the parliamentary elections in 2000.

The groups that splintered from the JVP before the 1971 insurrection, for ideological or other reasons, became ineffective but remained Sinhala chauvinist. Splits after the insurrection led, however, to groups that have been free of chauvinist ideology, but unable to organise as political parties.

Another overtly chauvinistic group with a ‘left’ label is the MEP, with origins in the LSSP and a chequered political past. It lost all credibility as a left party when it joined the UNP-led government in 1965. It now relies on an alliance with the SLFP to secure parliamentary seats, and is hostile to peace negotiations with the LTTE and opposes autonomy for the Tamils.

The Buddhist Clergy. The Buddhist clergy, now almost exclusively identified with Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, still has progressive clergymen in its midst. It may surprise many that there were several monks who were activists and leading members of the left movement and that the Communist Party had among its founders the learned Sri Sumamgala Thera. With the upward mobility of the Buddhist clergy owing to support by the state, and wealthy individuals and Buddhist organisations, the clergy, although divided along political, caste and regional lines, act as a privileged social group, and play an important role in carrying forward the cause of Sinhala Buddhism in all major Sinhala nationalist parties. The four mahasanghas have been given increased prominence by successive governments and have generally served to obstruct solutions to the national question based on devolution of power.

Tamil Nationalism: Moderates and Militants. The 1980s saw the emergence of young Tamil militants as a political force. But rather than develop into mass political organisations they became armed groups claiming to fight the Tamil national cause with the support but not participation of the Tamil community. Without exception, the main Tamil militant organisations have been petit bourgeois in outlook and, irrespective of claims to be leftist or radical, they were driven by Tamil nationalism so that the prospects for a mass struggle led by a united front of Tamil militant movements were bleak despite occasional co-operation among cadres of different organisations. Competition for dominance intensified with rising hopes of early success leading to a separate state, a dream encouraged by their Indian patrons, while desire for personal power led to splits and brutal elimination of rivals and, when India imposed its solution on them in 1987, the divisions were too deep to be plastered over.

Although several militant organisations liked to be identified as leftist or even Marxist, in practice their nationalism got the better of their left inclination if any. The desire to acquire a left label was to a considerable extent due to the impact of the success of the mass campaign against caste oppression and untouchability between 1966 and 1971, led by the Marxist Leninists. Although the militants were inspired by the armed resistance of the oppressed castes, they failed to learn the need for democracy, mass participation, mass struggle and above all guidance by sound theoretical principles based on social practice.

The shallowness of the commitment of the Tamil militant organisations and their various factions to the cause of Tamil Eelam became clear when, in the face of impending LTTE domination, they jettisoned their struggle. Some organisations like the PLOTE and the EPDP, besides siding with the government let their members fight alongside the armed forces of the government in attacks against the LTTE as well as the Tamil people. While this is seen as treachery by many, the reality is that the leading militant groups were saddled with a large membership, acquired when things went well for them; with a sudden change in fortunes and the LTTE monopolising Tamil political affairs in the North East, survival meant either assimilation to the LTTE or seeking the patronage of the Sri Lankan government or their erstwhile handlers in India. The Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers (TMVP, also known as the Karuna group) the splinter from the LTTE in early 2004, however, became a close collaborator with the Army for different reasons.

EROS (Balakumar faction) was absorbed into the LTTE while the rival faction that supported the government is virtually defunct. The EPRLF (Pathmanabha faction) is an openly pro-Indian group and a weaker faction loyal to Varatharajapperumal, the former Chief Minister of the North East Province is fully under Indian control. The TULF, ACTC and the former militant groups TELO and EPRLF (Suresh faction) patched up with the LTTE to form a united front, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to contest parliamentary and other elections to curtail the parliamentary strength of the pro-government EPDP. Splits occurred in this alliance owing to personality clashes as well as issues arising from divided loyalty between the LTTE and the Indian establishment.

The LTTE remains the only Tamil nationalist organisation waging armed struggle against the state and, with the Tamil masses being the target of state oppression and war, it is seen by many Tamils as their sole protector. While the LTTE has demonstrated great discipline and capability on the military side and a strong sense of commitment to Tamil liberation, it is lacking in ideology. It should, however, be noted that, it showed remarkable maturity during the peace negotiations to indicate willingness to consider a federal solution based on ‘internal’ self-determination.

The LTTE is not a leftist organisation, although its cadre and support base comprises the most oppressed sections of the Tamils in the North East, especially since the middle classes fled the following the intensification of the war. On the political front, excessive emphasis on Tamil national unity resulted in scant attention being paid to internal contradictions concerning class, caste, region and gender. The LTTE also lacks a clear vision about globalisation and liberalisation and has avoided confrontation with the US in these matters. The failure of the LTTE in this respect could be traced back to the tendency of Tamil nationalism to distance itself from struggles for social justice in the South as well from anti-imperialist campaigns, and is indicative of the considerable influence that the Tamil elite classes continue to exert on the LTTE. In recent years, the LTTE has, perhaps for tactical reasons, also refrained from criticising the Indian establishment, despite the latter’s hegemonic ambitions harming the struggle for Tamil liberation.

There has for long been resentment about taxation by the LTTE, especially among Muslim traders and cultivators in the East, and that has contributed to ethnic tension. The LTTE has been most severely, and deservingly, criticised for its intolerance to political dissent. Many of the faults of the LTTE in issues of human and democratic rights, restriction of freedom of expression and movement, and on political activity arise from the reliance of the LTTE mainly on armed struggle rather than broad-based mass struggle with armed struggle as an essential component. The lack of discussion and debate among the masses and the LTTE’s claim to be the sole representative of the Tamils have obstructed the democratisation of the struggle, the formation of a broad united front to confront the oppressive state, and uniting with other victims of state and imperialist oppression.

The LTTE, like other militant organisations, had seen splits but none more damaging than the one led by Karuna in 2004. Karuna and his TMVP have the benefit of regional sentiments in the East, especially among a section of the Tamil middle class; but the credibility of the TMVP is poor as a liberation movement. It is backed by the government and the armed forces and, following the LTTE ceding formal control of territory in two districts to the Army, it seeks to be the dominant force there. Prevailing conditions will probably restrict its role to something like that of the EPDP, but with the added complexity of conflicts between the Muslims and the TMVP.

Muslims: New Awareness and Old Tactics. The Muslims, while sharing a common language with the Tamils, maintained a separate identity and began to assert it early in the 20th century. The demography of the Muslims determined, however, that Muslim nationalism could not express itself in ways similar to Tamil nationalism. Survival demanded a stable relationship with the communities among whom they live. Given the difference in nature of the problems faced by the Muslims in different parts of the country no Muslim leadership emerged that could claim to represent the interests of Muslims across the country.

Election to parliament (since 1978) according to the proportion of the votes secured by a party on a district basis, relieved the Muslim leaders in the North East of their earlier dependence on the support of a Tamil nationalist party to be elected. This enabled the Muslims to have their own parliamentary political party in the North East as well as demand better representation from the main parties with whom they aligned in the South. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), founded in the 1980s in response to Tamil domination in the East, became a significant political force that performed well in the 1989 general election and won an overwhelming mandate from the Muslims in 1994, to which it held on until the party was ripped apart in late 2000 by dissent based on personal rivalries following the death of its founder leader AHM Ashraff. The SLMC leadership used its parliamentary strength to bargain for cabinet posts and other favours, and compromised its position as a fighter for the rights of the Muslims in the North East. Ashraff set up the SLMC-dominated National Unity Alliance (NUA) in early 2000 in a bid to increase the say of the SLMC in national politics; but the NUA failed to achieve the purpose while the SLMC earned the wrath of the Muslim leaders in the South.

The Muslims in the North East have good reason for concern about Tamil domination. Insensitivity on the part of Tamil militants and their use of violence against non-cooperative Muslims led to the loss of the significant degree of support and general sympathy that the militants enjoyed among the Muslims up to the mid-1980s. The expulsion of the Muslims from the North by the LTTE in 1990 was a cruel act that did irreparable damage to Tamil-Muslim relationship. Since the mid-1980s, successive governments have systematically manipulated the Tamil-Muslim contradiction to their advantage and mischievous elements among the Muslims including Home Guards, recruited and armed by the government and backed by the armed forces, indulged in acts of violence against Tamils.

The Muslim leaders in the North-East are nevertheless aware that in the medium and long term the main threat to the Muslims is Sinhala chauvinism, but their opportunism makes them emphasise the contradiction with the Tamils. Thus, when the demand for a Muslim autonomous region in the East is raised by them, it is invariably linked with Tamil autonomy in the North East and the North-East merger, and not based on the right of Muslims to autonomy. Thus a just demand for autonomy, rather unfairly, acquires an anti-Tamil colour.

The demography of the Muslims in the South does not permit a Muslim parliamentary political party to represent them and for opportunistic reasons the Muslim leaders are allied to one or another chauvinist party. Abuse of privilege by Muslim parliamentary politicians has often been at the expense of Tamils and Sinhalese and has contributed to the worsening of a delicate relationship between the Muslims and other nationalities.

The failure of the Muslim Congress, and its warring factions and rivals in the North East, as well as that of the Muslim leaders of the South to address seriously the concerns of the Muslims, the impact of international events comprising the imperialist persecution of the Muslims, and the upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism and militancy have together contributed to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka. While the fundamentalists are divided and politically weak, they have strengthened the place of Islam in the identity of the community and in cultural matters, including the demand on Muslim women to follow the ‘Islamic’ dress code.

What is sad is the lack of vision on the part of the Muslim leadership and its inability to put forward programmes for the autonomy of the Muslims as a nationality, taking into account the problems faced by the Muslim nationality in different parts of the island. This lack of vision is highlighted by the fact that a comprehensive proposal for self-determination for the Muslims came from the Marxist Leninist NDP, and not from any Muslim political organisation.

Some newly emerged Muslim nationalist groups talk of an Islamic nation in the North East for which they demand self-determination. Their approach places at risk the unity and the identity of the Muslims as one nationality. And the risk is compounded by the possible emergence of a sizeable Sinhala speaking Muslim community in the decades to come, with an increasing number of Muslims in the South for various reasons opting for Sinhala rather than Tamil as their medium of instruction in school.

While the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists perceive the national question at best as a conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils and more commonly as a terrorist problem, the Muslims do not fare as a part of the national question. They are, however, useful to the extent that they weaken Tamil claims to a merged North East as a basis for solving the national question. Thus the Muslim bid for an autonomous region in the East is considered favourably by the UNP and the SLFP while the JVP and the JHU are opposed to any form of devolution on an ethnic basis.

The Tamil nationalists, on the other hand, have found it hard to digest the fact that the Muslims are a distinct ethnic group. It is only recently that some of the Tamil nationalist parties, for pragmatic reasons, conceded that the Muslims have a distinct identity and a right to autonomy. However, the Tamil nationalist leadership, both moderate and militant, has to this day failed to find common cause with other oppressed nationalities or to put forward proposals that address the national question as a whole.

The Hill Country Tamils. The Hill Country Tamils were alienated from the mainstream of Sri Lankan politics following their disenfranchisement in 1948. This made it possible for the CWC to take advantage of the backwardness of the community and exercise virtual monopoly over the trade unions in the tea plantations. Although the left, especially the Marxist Leninists, made considerable headway in building a politicised trade union movement, that trend met with setbacks in the 1970s.

Corruption and opportunism in the CWC led to dissent and desertions but not to a serious challenge until the Hill Country People’s Front (Malaiyaka Makkal Munnani or the MMM) was formed in the early 1990s. With the restoration of the citizenship to the Hill Country Tamils resident in the country, electoral politics and political bargaining for posts and portfolios and various privileges rendered the CWC and the MMM incapable of fighting the cause of the Hill Country Tamils, whether it be a demand for a fair minimum wage or struggles against chauvinistic aggression.

The CWC and the MMM once successfully used ethnic identity as a political issue to shunt out political rivals who accommodate other nationalities, while avoiding struggles to defend the interests of the Hill Country Tamils. Frustration with the leadership of the CWC and the MMM caused splits and factions in both parties, but for opportunistic reasons. Frustration with the CWC has for some time been a cause for attraction of a section of the youth towards the LTTE, and the MMM sought to use it to its advantage by appearing to be a close ally of the LTTE; but the show was given away when MMM, like the CWC, became a partner in a government that is waging an undeclared war against the LTTE. Elections to the local authorities in 2006 showed that the electoral bases of the CWC and the MMM had eroded considerably, but without an effective alternative. The newly emergent educated youth from the community, guided by the NDP and other left and progressive forces, have taken the initiative to launch struggles for the educational, land and other rights of the Hill Country Tamils, and thereby exposing the betrayal by the CWC and the MMM to protect their cabinet posts and business interests. Although the Hill Country Tamils are conscious of the exploitation, discrimination and denial of fundamental rights that they suffer, they have some way to go before they are mobilised to struggle for their rights as a nationality.

The Left: the Old and the New. The parliamentary left paid the price for its opportunism sooner than expected. The commitment of the LSSP and CP to the parliamentary path meant that their humiliation in their election of 1977 destroyed their credibility as a political force, and their alliance with the SLFP denied them an independent political existence as well as eroded their left credentials. The LSSP and the CP have at times distanced themselves from the chauvinistic line of the SLFP, as for example on the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, but as partners in government they could not dissociate themselves from government policy and its pursuit of war.

The split in the LSSP following its decision to enter into an alliance with the SLFP in 1964 led to the emergence of several Trotskyist groups, but none with a mass political base. The NSSP which originated as a faction in the LSSP in the early 1970s established itself as a political party of considerable strength in the late 1970s. But splits, rather of a personal nature weakened the NSSP: the NSSP (now renamed the Left Front, LF), the United Socialist Party (USP) and the Democratic Left Front (DLF) are surviving factions which are not internationally recognised Trotskyist parties.

The Marxist Leninists, who parted company with the pro-Soviet CP following a debate between the parliamentary pacifist and the revolutionary lines, underwent splits which did not hurt the Revolutionary Communist Party until 1972, when a split was forced by a group of pro-SLFP elements in the wake of the JVP insurrection. That split hurt the Party and its working class base, but the splitters soon disintegrated and lost their political identity. A debate on the stand of the party leadership on the on the Tamil national question led in 1978 to the formation of the Sri Lanka Communist Party (Left), renamed the NDP in 1991, which, although active mainly among the Tamils and the Hill Country Tamils is the strongest Marxist Leninist organisation in the country. There are also the rump of the Revolutionary Communist Party, renamed the Maoist Communist Party of Sri Lanka (MCP), and other Marxist Leninist groups and factions in the South, some with roots in the JVP of the 1970s.

A positive development in the left movement since its downfall since the 1970s was the founding of the New Left Front comprising the NSSP, NDP, USP and three other left groups. It made an impact in the Provincial Council elections of 1999, but the opportunism of the leadership of the NSSP in making a deal with the JVP without consulting other members of the NLF led to the break-up of the NLF in 2001. The NSSP adopted the name NLF (now LF). Subsequent attempts to build a united front have been unsuccessful, but for electoral alliances and joint campaigns with specific goals. It appears that the left, especially in the South, has much to learn about broad-based united fronts, common programmes, and unity and struggle within a united front. A section of it seems to harbour illusions about parliamentary political power, so that electoral alliances take precedence over alliances for mass struggle.

On the national question, however, the position of the left ranges from formal rejection of chauvinism by the parliamentary left to demanding autonomy for the Tamils by for example the DLF, and the recognition of the right of the Tamils to self-determination by the NDP, NSSP, USP, RSP and MCP among others. The attitude towards the LTTE varies from rejection as terrorists by the two parliamentary left parties to almost uncritical endorsement by the NSSP, the MCP and a few others. The NDP takes a guarded approach which recognises the LTTE as the effective fighting force of the Tamil nationality while being unreservedly critical of its failings including a lack of democracy, absence of an anti-imperialist stand, and over-emphasis of military aspects over mass participation and mass struggle.

The left has traditionally seen the national question as one concerning the Sinhala and Tamil nationalities, in response to the way in which the national question emerged since the 1930s and therefore failed to recognise its other less visible but important dimensions. This approach still prevails even among left parties that accept the right of nationalities to self determination. As a result the stand taken by most of the left parties on issues that arise in the course of development of the national crisis has tended to be pragmatic or empirical.

The NDP has, in this respect, made pioneering contributions to the understanding of the national question by examining the national question historically and dialectically and drawing on international experience. It has thus been able to advance the concept of the right to self-determination in a way that it could be extended to nationalities without a contiguous territory as well as to ethnic groups with no clearly defined territories to call their own.

The Media. The overall contribution of the mainstream media in the national question has been negative. The Tamil and Sinhala press have in general catered to the interests of the linguistic groups and, except for left and progressive liberal intervention, the contribution of the press to the betterment of ethnic understanding has at best been muted. With the aggravation of the national problem, rival newspapers have competed to capture readers among the increasingly nationalistic middle classes.

The radio has been a state monopoly until the 1990s; television entered the scene around 1980 as a state monopoly with the private sector entering the scene in the early 90s. The private sector has tended to be pro-UNP in the past, but amenable to state pressure since the escalation of the national conflict. The state controlled media has lost credibility over the past few years, thanks to politically appointed administrators and meddling by ruling party politicians.

The Sinhala and English media increasingly cater to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, at times serving up vicious chauvinism and wilful distortion of facts, the most notorious being the Island and its sister papers. The Daily Mirror, reputed to be a little fairer in its reporting on the national question, recently came under threat from those in power for reporting the serious acts of injustice to the Tamils, and seems to be yielding. Its sister papers compete for the Sinhala Buddhist market. The Tamil newspapers, except for the state-controlled Thinakaran with a poor circulation, give the news a pro-LTTE slant within the permissible limits of pressure from the state and paramilitary forces loyal to it. Although the Thinakaran caters to some extent to the Muslim reader, Muslim opinion is poorly represented in the mainstream media.

The Sinhala newspapers are selective in reporting stories from the Tamil media in ways that are hostile to the Tamil national struggle and, Tamil newspapers tend to publicise stories in Sinhala with chauvinistic overtones. There are, however, a few Sinhala and English newspapers that tend to be critical of the way the government handles the national question, but cautious not to appear to be overly sympathetic to the Tamil cause. Their circulation is low and inadequate to counter the impact of the mainstream media

The media, the Tamil newspapers in particular, were a target of state-sponsored terror in the 1980s, and have continued to be under pressure. In the past few years and especially in recent months attacks on journalists have been on the rise; and now Sinhala publishers and journalists who reject chauvinism are openly threatened by chauvinists and harassed by the state.

The Tamil and Sinhala Émigré Communities. Since an overwhelming number of the Sri Lankan Tamils who emigrated fled the country as refugees, many having witnessed the holocaust of 1983, the Tamil nationalist cause finds strong support among them. However, competition for loyalty and demand for financial support for liberation movements followed the Tamils wherever they went. Although a good many Tamils would willingly support the armed struggle of the LTTE, there have been a many instances of systematic coercion. That, together with intimidation of rival political groups and attempts to suppress critical opinion which was there even before the LTTE became the dominant player, now haunts the Tamil community as well as the support for the struggle.

The Tamil Diaspora, despite its strong feelings about the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the need for struggle, remains politically backward so that not only the supporters of the LTTE but also its opponents are narrow in their outlook. This narrow outlook also reflects in the failure of the Tamil community to identify itself with other refugee communities facing oppression in their countries of refuge.

The Sinhala émigré community like its Tamil counterpart was initially based mainly in the UK. The emigration of professionals and skilled personnel that started in the 1970s extended it to the US, Canada and Australia. The opening up of the economy and the tourism industry in Sri Lanka led to migration to other parts of Europe and the Far East, but in smaller numbers. The violence of 1987-89 led to a large number of Sinhalese leaving to various destinations in Europe. The émigré Sinhala community has become increasingly chauvinistic in a way matching the developments in the country. Today the bulk of the community acts as an active Sinhala nationalist lobby against ‘Tamil terror’.

The healthy interaction that existed even into the 1970s between the two émigré communities comprising mainly an English-educated middle class has almost ceased to be. That advantage has been lost following the transformation of the national contradiction into war, and even the social occasions that brought the two groups together are now almost segregated.

The ‘International Community’. It is often forgotten that imperialism encourages conflict between communities and has been the agent of war in many Third World countries. The role of imperialism in national conflicts depends on the political orientation of the government. The national question has been used to destabilise countries whose rulers act counter to imperialist interests; and oppression of minorities has been condoned where it involves a government that is warm towards imperialism.

The ‘moderate’ Tamil leaders have been well received by US and British imperialists when the country had an SLFP government whose policies were not in the economic or geopolitical interests of imperialism. The relationship was as good when the Tamil leaders were partners in power with the UNP. Thus the Tamil leaders deluded themselves that the great American democracy will find common cause with them in their struggle against Sinhala chauvinist oppression. This, besides their class loyalties, partly explains why the Tamil leaders went out of their way to be hostile towards ‘communist’ countries in general and China in particular.

Things were destined to change when the UNP came to power in 1977 with an unassailable parliamentary majority. Imperialism found in the UNP regime, which lasted until 1994, a strong partner to deliver its plans for Sri Lanka in carrying forward imperialist globalisation. The aggravation of the national question helped to distract public attention from serious economic problems, and once the embarrassment caused by the pogrom of 1983 faded from international memory, imperialism openly backed the war efforts of the UNP government. This support has continued to this day, although by the late 1990s peace and stability became desirable for carrying the imperialist agenda further forward.

The US along with Israel has been the biggest supporter of the Sri Lankan military effort by providing military training, arms, information and logistic support. The US banned the LTTE in 1996 and followed it up with pressure on both the government and the LTTE to pursue peace. The 9/11 attack provided the pretext for the US ‘War on Terrorism’ and for the exertion of further pressure on both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to negotiate. Norway, which delivered the goods for the US sponsored talks between Israel and the PLO, was again the agent. Moves initiated under the PA government bore fruit as soon as the UNP, which was more amenable to the US establishment, formed the government in 2002.

Several US government spokespersons have refused to recognise traditional Tamil homelands and the US has given greater priority to disarming the LTTE than to solving the national question on an equitable basis. The role of the US in causing a split in the LTTE in 2004 was part of a plan to weaken the LTTE militarily. Of late, the US has been more assertive about its interests in Sri Lanka, and an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (first negotiated by the UNP Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe in 2002 but dropped in view of Indian concerns) has been signed between the US and Sri Lanka early in 2007.

Although the European community and Japan are not as outwardly hostile to the LTTE as the US, their position on the national question is dubious. The LTTE and Tamil nationalists who pinned their hopes on Europe to defend the Tamils against state oppression were in for a rude shock when the EU banned the LTTE in 2006 amid a marked rise in attacks on Tamil civilians by the armed forces of the GOSL. Notably, the ‘international community’, whose response to a whole year of bombing and shelling of the Tamil areas by the Sri Lankan armed forces starting in April 2006 was at most an expression of concern, has been more forthcoming with its criticism of the LTTE for its acts of terror. The attitude of the ‘international community’ has therefore to be understood in the context of its imperialist agenda and the place for Sri Lanka in that agenda.

Direct US interest in Sri Lanka has been more strategic than economic. The US has eyed Sri Lanka since the British naval and air bases were closed down in 1957. However, attempts to gain a foothold in the country intensified after the landslide victory of the UNP in 1977. Sri Lanka is important to the US for two purposes: US domination over South Asia; and plans to encircle China. US efforts to gain control over the Trincomalee Harbour around 1980 were thwarted by India. US interest in Sri Lanka has, however, been revived since around the turn of the century and several military agreements have been signed  between the US and Sri Lanka, the most recent being the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement signed in March 2007, without protest from India. Today the US has increased its naval presence around Sri Lanka, and has a relay station in Sri Lanka for the Voice of America and other US political broadcasts for South Asia.

Sri Lanka also constitutes an important part of the US plans to implement imperialist globalisation in South Asia, and successive Sri Lankan governments since 1977 have been submissive to the US in this respect. A Free Trade Zone (FTZ) was set up in 1978 close to the international airport as part of the open economic policy, and investors from the Far East moved in fast to take advantage of various subsidies including tax holidays and concessions, and a labour force deprived of trade union rights by special legislation. Another important attraction besides cheap skilled and semi-skilled labour and tax concessions has been the unused quota for the export of garments from Sri Lanka to the US and Europe. Meantime the World Bank, the IMF and the ADB continue with pressure on the government to implement ‘structural reforms’ to downgrade the role of the state in providing social services and social security; and the cost of the war has served as an excuse for selling all or part of several state owned enterprises, including the highly profitable national airlines, petroleum and telecommunication companies.

Indian Concerns: Gods with Many Faces. India’s South Asian policy has been driven by hegemonic ambitions of the ruling classes dating back to the last days of the British Raj. India’s direct involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict was prompted by the shift in Sri Lankan foreign policy from strict non-alignment to a pro-US line under JR Jayawardane from 1977.

India provided military training to Tamil militants since the late 1970s on a modest scale and on a much bigger scale since 1983. Most Tamil nationalists misread Indian intentions and believed that India would help them to liberate Tamil Eelam like it helped to liberate Bangladesh from Pakistan over a decade earlier. Although the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 laid bare Indian intentions, there are many who like to believe that Indira Gandhi was genuinely for a separate Tamil Eelam while her immature son was easily taken for a ride by JR Jayawardane. Illusions about the Indian ruling establishment continue to be propagated by many Tamil leaders, more out of self-interest than ignorance.

One constraint on India has been the strong sentiments in Tamilnadu about the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The assassination of Rajeev Gandhi, the motivation for which is still very cloudy, as well as the misconduct of renegades from various liberation movements and some negative aspects of the Sri Lankan refugee problem drained the sympathy for the Tamils, with, of course, help from the elitist media, especially the Hindu and Indian Express groups of newspapers. Recent events in Sri Lanka have, however, reversed the trend in Tamilnadu, but only to the extent of ensuring that the Indian and Tamilnadu state governments do not appear to back the Sinhala chauvinist war against Tamils.

The DMK and its leader have been as elusive as ever while the ADMK leader and the Congress have been uncompromising in their hostility towards the LTTE. It should also be noted that the few friends that the LTTE has like the MDMK and the PMK in Tamilnadu, George Fernandes and, interestingly, Bal Thakeray were, however, of no avail in lifting the ban on the LTTE even when they were partners in the BJP-led government.

The Indian establishment cynically interfered in the peace process in ways that hindered progress, while claiming to keep out of it. It is well known that the Sri Lankan Prime Minister and the Norwegian mediator had debriefing sessions in New Delhi after every round of talks with the LTTE on various issues. The Indian establishment has made it clear that it does not want anyone other than a pliable client in control of affairs in any part of Sri Lanka where India has commercial or strategic interests. There is a slight shift in this attitude with recent developments in Indo-US collaboration and collusion, and Indian ambitions for regional hegemony and that of the US for global domination are now mutually accommodative.

India has several client political organisations in Sri Lanka, including the JVP, besides influence over important personalities in nearly every political party; and the conduct of the two previous Indian High Commissioners had been compared with that of a Viceroy in the colonial era. Thus, Indian interests will in one way or another continue to play a major role in the resolution or otherwise of the national crisis, based on the interests of Indian capitalism and Indian hegemonic interests.

Indian capital began to penetrate Sri Lanka following the open economic policy; it benefited from the deterioration of the national economy of Sri Lanka and controls a sizeable section of the foreign trade. Although Indian capital suffered a brief setback in 1988-89 during the JVP insurrection, it recovered fast to expand into the privatised plantation sector and other major ventures, most significantly the petroleum sector which it has come to dominate since privatisation. India sees in Sri Lanka a good market for its products, especially with the growth in consumerism and the decline in local production. Collaboration between Sri Lankan and Indian companies in the finance and service sectors also has seen rapid growth in the past decade.

India clearly asserted its hegemonic stand in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, and in 1998 imposed on Sri Lanka an unequal trade agreement whose terms were revised in 2002 to the detriment of Sri Lanka. While India is not in a position to control Sri Lanka militarily, it has been able to restrain Sri Lanka from concluding military agreements with other countries that could challenge Indian hegemony. The Sethusamudram project on which work commenced in 2006 is one more instance where the Indian state has arrogantly ignored Sri Lankan concerns while the Sri Lankan state has abjectly failed to stand up for its people.

Other Factors. There are vested interests working against an end to the armed conflict and others using the conflict to advance their self-interest. Arms dealers need the continuation of armed conflicts in various parts of the world. Profiteering in the arms trade is not possible without the help of people in influential positions on various sides of the conflict. Serious charges of corruption have been made against politicians and leading figures in the Sri Lankan defence establishment. Equally there are vested interests on the side of the Tamil nationalism who do not want peace. Keenness on the part of certain sections of the media to pursue the war makes one wonder if the arms industry has cast its net far and wide.

Another group of cynical operators comprises the NGOs. While they appear to play the role of providers of relief to affected masses and campaigners for peace, the local NGOs mainly comprise careerists delivering the agenda of INGOs, most of which are extensions to the arms of imperialist governments. Recent escalation of the conflict has led to the suspension of relief work by NGOs in the war affected areas, and the people, already denied and deprived by the government, have been reduced to a state of helplessness. Thus the NGOs have positioned themselves as a necessary evil in a situation where the government purposely fails its people.

The worst harm done by the NGOs is through handouts, and ‘self-help’ and ‘leadership development’ projects, which really make the people less and less self reliant; while the NGO campaign against political work undermines mass mobilisation with clear political objectives.

The national problem of Sri Lanka is in many ways less complex than that of many third world countries but has been aggravated by the repeated failure of successive governments to arrest the escalation of the contradictions. The transformation of the national question into a national crisis and war was by design and driven by class interests. Thus its resolution will not be possible without identifying and isolating the forces that are act against the interests of the country, its nationalities and ethnic groups, and the toiling masses. In the final analysis the resolution of the national question is interwoven with the struggle for social justice; thus, while endorsing the need for struggle including armed struggle where necessary to overcome chauvinist oppression and war, one should not lose sight of the fact that the national contradiction is not a hostile contradiction and needs to be resolved peacefully while persisting in struggle against the oppressors.

The people of Sri Lanka want peace. Although peace efforts of the past failed to address the national question in its totality and addressed only certain manifestations of the problem, there are lessons to learn from the positive and negative aspects of past efforts. The next and concluding section briefly outlines a principled approach for the resolution of the national problem and the short- and long-term strategies for its resolution.

6. The Search for a Solution

Over a hundred thousand lives probably have been lost as a result of the war; and the GOSL and the LTTE seem to be underestimating the figures. The number of internally displaced is well over 500 000, comprising mostly Tamils, and includes Muslims driven out of the north and Sinhalese affected by war. The Tamil refugee population in Europe, Canada and Australia adds to around 800 000; the number in India fluctuates with the changing situation in Sri Lanka and probably hovers around 150 000. What is important to note is that, of the number killed, a vast majority belong to the impoverished classes of toiling masses such as peasants, fisher-folk and agricultural labourers, and that those languishing in refugee camps in India and Sri Lanka are also from that class background.

All efforts to deal with the national question since the Banda-Chelva Pact of 1958 to the failed peace talks of 2002-2003 have tended to be matters of expediency rather than attempts to deal with the sources of the problem. As a result, any agreement reached is readily scrapped under pressure from interest groups or simply does not lead to further action. The latter is best illustrated by the plight of the CFA of 2002: the cessation of hostilities led to complaisance on the part of the UNP government so that the urgency of solving the national question lost priority.

What brought the UNP government and the LTTE to the negotiating table was not an abstract love for peace or the realisation that the nation question cannot be resolved by war. It was the strain on the economy, the unpopularity of a war that failed to deliver, and pressure from the US that motivated the UNP government. On the other hand, it was the depletion of human and material resources, pressure from a war weary population, and pressure from the US and EU that persuaded the LTTE to negotiate.

The concern of the ‘international community’ is more about ensuring a climate of peace in which imperialism could take full control of the human and material resources and strategic locations of the country. Thus, going by recent international experience, it is futile to hope that any form of foreign intervention including that of the UN will lead to lasting peace or a fair solution to the national question.

All-party conferences and other such forums have proven to be no more than delaying tactics by successive governments which have been unwilling to solve the problem. All government proposals have fallen well short of the aspirations of the Tamil people, and even the report by the Panel of Experts appointed by the President in 2006, whose recommendations were still inadequate but went some way towards addressing some of the major grievances, has been discarded by the President in favour of a proposal by his party, the SLFP, which is totally inadequate. Thus it seems that the government is only playing for time in the hope that it will soon be able to weaken the LTTE sufficiently so that a solution which is palatable to the chauvinists could be imposed on the LTTE and the Tamil people. But this approach will only prolong the war, ruin the already tottering economy, and cause more misery to the people.

The war has proved un-winnable by either side after twenty-four years and needs to be brought to an end. But the government is able to pursue the war because the apparent success of the armed forces in taking control of LTTE controlled areas in the East has mass appeal among the Sinhalese who have been conditioned to think that the war is against terrorism and that the armed forces are winning. That will only lead to further escalation of the war and greater tragedy for the whole country.

The Short Term. Thus the immediate priority is to bring an end to the conflict and take steps that will help the people in the war affected areas to return to ‘normal living conditions’. External pressure alone is inadequate for this and could be counterproductive. The immediate need is for a campaign for peace and the restoration of ‘normal living conditions’. The solution to the national question would be a continuous project that would initially require the establishment and acceptance of basic principles. Implementation cannot be on a rigid basis but evolved in a flexible way on the basis of experience without compromising on basic principles.

Pressure should be brought upon the government and the LTTE through mass campaigns for peace and a political solution that urge cessation of hostilities forthwith to initiate negotiations. Peace talks alone will serve little purpose if urgent steps are not taken to restore ‘normal life’ in the war affected areas. Mechanisms need to be set up to provide essential services and need to be implemented in the spirit of co-operation. While peace negotiations and matters relating to abiding by the CFA would necessarily concern the GOSL and the LTTE, work relating to the restoration of normal life need to be carried out with a leading role for the local communities.

Among immediate priorities are:
1. Cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of all armed personnel from areas with large civilian concentration
2. Reduction in the territory allocated to military camps
3. Resettlement of all internally displaced people in areas of their choice
4. Restoration of the livelihood of the people
5. Rehabilitation of war affected families and individuals and compensation for loss of life and property
6. Restoration of social amenities and services
7. Restoration of freedom of movement for the people and opening of all highways affected by war

It is important that realistic time frames are set for the various phases of the negotiations and the strict implementation of decisions. Two proposals exist that could serve as starting points for determining an interim arrangement for the period of transition to the long term solution. One is the ISGA proposal put forward by the LTTE in 2003 and the other the proposal submitted in 2006 by the Panel of Experts nominated by President Rajapaksha. There is some common ground between the two proposals so that with both parties taking a flexible and conciliatory attitude on matters affecting the well being of the victims of war, it should be possible to arrive at a sensible working arrangement. Popular support and encouragement for the negotiations is essential and the campaign for peace and political solution should be actively pursued even while the negotiations are in progress to counteract mischief by vested interests and forces of chauvinism and extremism.

It is, however, essential that the campaign for the restoration of peace and an interim solution to the national question does not lose sight of the role of imperialism and the need to resist imperialism and its attempts to manipulate the national problem to serve its agenda of imperialist globalisation.

Recent events have shown that the bourgeois chauvinist state has begun to train its guns against left and progressive forces among the Sinhalese who are opposed to the war, and in the process initiated an onslaught against democratic and human rights. Thus the liberation struggle of the oppressed nationalities should prepare itself for the prospect of new alliances in the struggle against the chauvinist state, even in the short term.

Long term. A just and resilient long term solution to the national question needs to be based on the principle of the right to self-determination. That right cannot be reduced or restricted to be the right to secession but instead be seen as the right of each nationality and ethnic group to determine freely its mode of coexistence with other communities. While the right to self-determination for nationalities with a contiguous territory would readily include the right to secession along with the freedom to determine the form and degree of autonomy that the nationality would have within the union, nationalities and ethnic groups who cannot define a contiguous territory for themselves should enjoy the right to determine the form of autonomy that is appropriate to them.

Autonomous regions and administrative units should be set up as necessary to protect and develop the socio-cultural identity of an ethnic group and facilitate its educational and economic development. An ethnic group could exercise its choice to decide whether it wants a separate autonomous region or unit for itself or share it with one or several other ethnic groups. This will be of particular advantage to the Muslims and Hill Country Tamils. The Muslims could have autonomous regions which are predominantly Muslim in the East and autonomous units elsewhere which may be exclusively Muslim or shared with another ethic group. The situation for the Hill Country Tamils will vary with region according to the variation in their population concentration. The approach suggested here will be of particular benefit to national minorities like the Attho whose territory is under constant threat from chauvinism, and give them the opportunity to adapt to the changing environment at their own pace without fear of losing their cultural identity.

The kind of right to self-determination discussed above is the opposite of ‘the right to internal self-determination’ adopted by the United Nations some years ago, where the right to self-determination is curtailed to deny the right to secession. Marxist Leninists cannot make the principle of self-determination restrictive and thereby a licence for communities that could be defined as nations or nationalities with a contiguous territory to dominate national minorities.

It is premature to propose any particular model for devolution of power and for the setting up of autonomous regions and units. However, the Soviet Union, China, and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas in the 1980s offer a variety of options; and China and Nicaragua have shown that it is feasible to recognise ethnic groups with population as small as several hundred as national minorities and set up autonomous units to defend and develop their ethnic identity. Lenin and Mao Zedong had warned communists about Great Russian chauvinism and Han chauvinism, respectively, and urged communists to be on the guard against such thinking. Nationalism thrives because of oppressive social conditions and will survive as long as those conditions prevail. The challenge before us is to eliminate the conditions that transform what are essentially friendly contradictions among nationalities into hostile contradictions.

To demand that the LTTE should disarm before peace talks or negotiations to resolve the national question is unfair. An oppressed people have the right to defend themselves and armed oppression cannot be met with bare hands. However, there are questions of democratic rights, political freedom and struggles against social injustice within the Tamil community that cannot be lightly brushed aside in the name of unity or as matters that could wait until liberation. On the contrary, democratisation of the struggle and encouragement of political freedom strengthen liberation struggles.

The struggle against chauvinist state oppression will persist until and even after a negotiated settlement, but not necessarily as armed struggle. Armed struggle is an option that a liberation movement does not readily discard. But what is important is to develop other forms of struggle and expand the scope of the struggle by broadening the base of the struggle.

The militarization of the Sri Lankan state entered a new phase since 1983 and several hard won rights and freedoms have been taken away in the name of fighting terrorism. National security should not be allowed to be the pretext for denying democratic and fundamental rights; and if the current trend is not challenged, arrested and reversed, the country will sooner than later come under the jackboots of anti-democratic chauvinists like the JHU and the JVP.

One should seriously consider the prospect of the struggle for democratic, human and fundamental rights soon becoming a common cause that will be as important as the struggle against national oppression or even superseding the latter as a struggle against imperialism and local reaction. The task of the left, progressive and democratic forces will then be to bring together the struggles against all forms of oppression and direct them against the local oppressors and their imperialist masters.

S Sivasegaram is a prominent Tamil poet, activist and scientist from Sri Lanka.

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