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Home > Dissident Left Archive > The role of socialists in the civil war in Sri Lanka

The role of socialists in the civil war in Sri Lanka

by Rohini Hensman, 19 July 2009

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July 1st, 2009

The gruesome finale of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war drew
international attention and considerable concern for the plight of
civilians trapped in the war zone. Many people for the first time became
aware of a conflict which had already claimed more than 70,000 fatalities.
But the publicity tended to obscure rather than clarify the causes of the
war, measures that could have been taken earlier to prevent the bloodbath
at its climax, and what can be done now to advance democratization in the
future. It is especially important to critique the role of socialists,
because some of them have contributed to the rise and entrenchment of
ethnic nationalism instead of constituting alternatives to it.

Independence and After

Prior to independence from the British in 1948, socialist politics was
strong in Sri Lanka, at that time called Ceylon. In 1935, Trotskyists
formed the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which engaged in union
organizing and electoral politics, and, when the Fourth International was
formed in 1938, affiliated with it. The Stalinist minority in the party
was expelled, and later became the Ceylon Communist Party (CCP). In 1940, after LSSP leaders were arrested, their press seized, and their meetings banned, the party decided that the revolution in Ceylon could develop only as part of the In­dian Revolution, and sent LSSP organizers to work with Trotskyists in India. In 1945, party leaders were released from jail and revived the LSSP. Given that capitalism was so much weaker in Ceylon than in India, the Left played a proportionally larger role in the independence move­ment in Ceylon.

Post-Independence, their trade union organizing, activity in the women’s
liberation movement, and campaigns for social security and welfare
programs continued with considerable success. The result was that Sri
Lanka had one of the highest levels of human development of all Third
World countries, with low infant, under-5, and ma­ternal mortality rates
and extremely high literacy rates among both men and women. The contrast with India was striking. Even today, despite decades of neoliberal
policies and civil war, its human development indices remain far higher
than India’s.

Sri Lanka’s was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Left, comprising members
from a variety of linguistic, caste, and religious communities. They
believed that an attack on one section of the working class was an attack
on all workers. Therefore, when the ruling United Na­tional Party (UNP),
which took power at Independence, launched an assault on the citizenship
and franchise of Tamil tea plantation workers (descendents of indentured
laborers brought over by the British from India, and the most oppressed
segment of the Tamil-speaking community), the Left defended them. The UNP was unashamedly a party of the ruling class and its rationale for the
attack on plantation workers was simple: They had voted overwhelmingly
against the UNP in the 1947 elections, helping to bring to power
candidates of the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC, later to become the Ceylon
Workers’ Congress or CWC) in 7 constituencies and Left candidates in 14
more, condemning the UNP to a minor­ity government. Eliminating the
plantation workers from the electorate would help secure an absolute
majority for the UNP in future elections. Their vulnerability as an
immigrant minority, isolated on the plantations from the rest of the
population, made it easier to attack them without arousing public

The Left in Parliament argued that the Citizenship Acts were racist,
anti-working class, and an attack on democracy. Voting on the bills was
revealing: While the CIC and Left voted against them, most MPs of the All
Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), representing the Tamil elite, voted for
them. However, a section of the party, led by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam-who
foresaw that this attack on the rights of one Tamil-speaking community
could be followed by attacks on others-left the ACTC, denounc­ing its
leader as a traitor. They formed the Federal Party (FP), known in Tamil as
the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi or Lanka Tamil Kingdom Party. This party’s
program offered nothing to the oppressed Tamil workers fighting for their
political rights; the area in the North and East claimed for Tamil
sovereignty did not even touch the areas where the plantation workers were
concentrated. Class, caste, and location excluded these Tamils from the
nationalist dream.

Language became the next battleground. In 1944, the Ceylon Legislative
Council voted by an overwhelming majority to make both Sinhala and Tamil
official lan­guages for school instruction, public service examina­tions,
and legislative proceedings. But in 1956, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who
had broken away from the UNP to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)
and a coalition, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP or People’s United
Front), fought the elections on the slogan of “Sinhala Only” and won an
absolute majority. A large part of the Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie,
including Buddhist monks, were won over to this agenda in the belief that
it would provide them with jobs by reducing employment oppor­tunities for
Tamils. In the end, not only the mainstream parties, but also the
breakaway Left party, the Viplava­kari (Revolutionary) LSSP of Philip
Gunawardena, voted for the bill, while minority parties and the rest of
the Left opposed it. With great prescience LSSP leader Colvin R. de Silva
observed that Sinhala Only would lead to the creation of “two torn little
bleeding states.”

In 1957, responding to protests by the FP, Bandaranaike signed the
Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) Pact, recognizing Tamil as the language of a national minor­ity and of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, where regional councils with limited powers over administration would be established. A year later, in response to militant agitation by Buddhist monks, Bandaranaike renounced the Pact. Tamils protested in Jaffna by blacking out the Sinhala letter sri which had been substituted for the English letters on vehicle number-plates. This was followed in turn by an orgy of arson and murder against Tamils by Sinhalese hoodlums in other parts of the country, including Colombo. At first Bandaranaike refused to intervene, but when the violence threatened to rage out of control, he handed over authority to the Governor-General, who declared an Emergency. Stopping the riots would have required shooting at Sinhalese gangs, and Bandaranaike wanted to avoid the unpopularity with Sinhalese nationalists that this would cause. Still, his appeasement of the right failed. In 1959, an organization of Buddhist monks, the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna, assassinated Bandaranaike.

If the Left lacked enough strength in Parliament to defeat anti-minority
legislation, it made up for it by the strength it derived from grassroots
organizing. In 1953 the Left organized a hartal (general strike) to
protest against welfare cuts, including the withdrawal of the rice
subsidy, which a visiting World Bank mission had ad­vised. It was a
massive success, leading to the resigna­tion of the prime minister and
restoration of the subsidy. Faced with a choice between continuing to
extend its organizational strength at the grassroots and reaching for
political power, however, the leadership of the Left parties chose the

Abandoning Justice for the Minorities

In 1964, the LSSP and Communist Party formed an alliance with the SLFP,
now led by the widow of the assassinated Prime Minister, Sirimavo
Bandaranaike. This was a popular front in which the program of the two
Left parties was suspended. Their support for the rights of hill-country
Tamils and parity for Sinhala and Tamil was abandoned. Just as earlier the
UNP had opposed the B-C Pact, these parties now opposed a similar pact
between UNP leader Senanayake and Chelvanayakam. Breakaway groups from the LSSP and Communist Party stood by their earlier positions, yet the fact that the only major non-minority parties which had supported minor­ity rights now abandoned that cause shattered working class unity and strengthened Sinhala nationalism with its right-wing agenda. In 1968, the LSSP and Communist Party formed the United Front (UF) with the SLFP, which was elected to power in 1970. Despite its name, this was another popular front. The Left parties justified this coalition by arguing that, while
the UNP was the party of private capital, including foreign capital, the
SLFP was committed to public ownership of the Bank of Ceylon, tea
plantations, public transport, etc., and also to the welfare state.
However, they surrendered their capacity to oppose state policies
discriminating against minori­ties and the unprincipled nature of the
alliance grew increasingly apparent as time went on.

In 1970, the UF government introduced a measure that made a significant
contribution to the growth of a militant movement of Tamil youth. This was
the “stan­dardization” system, whereby the minimum university entrance
marks for a Tamil-medium student were higher than those for a
Sinhala-medium student. The new sys­tem put Tamil students at a
disadvantage by comparison with Sinhalese students from the same social
strata, cre­ating a group of frustrated and embittered Tamil youths.

Given all these attacks on equality aimed at giving Sinhalese privileges
at the expense of Tamils, it is para­doxical that the first large-scale
violence of Sinhalese against Sinhalese was during the insurrection of the
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front) in 1971, in
which an estimated 5-10,000 people were killed. The JVP drew its
membership and sup­porters precisely from the strata that were supposed to
benefit from the Sinhala Only policies. The depth of dis­satisfaction
among these sections should have alerted the UF government to the facts
that discrimination against Tamils did not benefit the majority of
Sinhalese, and other policies to address issues of poverty and
unemployment were needed. Instead, the UF simply went farther along the
same trajectory. In the name of nationalizing the plantations, which might
have been a progressive measure had it been carried out differently,
plantation land was distributed to Sinhalese government supporters under
the Land Reform Law in 1972 and 1975. Tamil plantation workers and their
families were assaulted and driven out, their dwellings looted and burned;
some were killed and others were left to starve.

The 1972 Republican Constitution-presided over, ironically, by Marxist
Minister of Constitutional Affairs Colvin R. de Silva-not only gave
constitutional status to Sinhala as the sole official language, but also
provided a special place to Buddhism, and omitted the protec­tion of
minority rights; it defined Sri Lanka as a “unitary state,” which thus
became synonymous with a “Sinhala-Buddhist state” The new constitution
also omitted the second chamber of Parliament, the independent Public
Service Commission (intended to guarantee impartiality in public service
appointments), and the Judicial Service Commission (intended to guarantee
the independence and integrity of the judicary). Judicial review of
legisla­tion was also prohibited. Thus, in addition to further depriving
minorities of their rights, the new constitu­tion centralized power in a
manner that could be used against the majority of Sinhalese.

The Destruction of Democracy

J. R. Jayawardene, leader of the UNP that came to power in 1977, engaged
in a wholesale neoliberal trans­formation of the economy and enacted a new
constitu­tion, omitting the right to life and further centralizing power
in the hands of one person, the Executive Presi­dent. Thereafter, attacks
on democracy followed thick and fast. Previously SLFP politicians had used
lumpen gangs to terrorize the population, but these had no
institutionalized status. After 1977, Jayawardene set up the Jathika
Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS or National Workers’ Union), which carried out
similar functions on behalf of the government on a larger scale as an
organized and centralized force. These gangs were used to intimidate
voters in the October 1982 presidential elections, from which
Jayawardene’s main rival, Mrs. Bandaranaike, was barred. When, despite
this, Jayawardene got only 52.91% of votes cast, he used massive violence
to push through a referendum by which the citizens of Sri Lanka supposedly
voted to disenfranchise themselves by can­celing the general elections
scheduled for 1983!

JSS gangs were used to intimidate and kill opposition supporters and
judges who gave verdicts against UNP criminals. They were used repeatedly
against workers and trade unions to break strikes, assault and kill trade
unionists, get members of existing unions dismissed, and even abuse and
assault management personnel who attempted to rein them in. That members of the JSS had protection from the very top was obvious from the fact that the police never acted against them, while around 80,000 public employees who opposed them and went on strike lost their jobs. It has been suggested that this organization compares with the storm troopers in Hitler’s Germany, and certainly in its mode of operation vis-à-vis the labor
movement and opposition parties, as well as its relationship to the ruling
party and police, the JSS resembled an amalgam of the fascist storm troops
and “unions” of Hitler and Mussolini.

The parallel with fascist storm troops is most striking in the way the JSS
was used to assault and kill Tamils, loot and burn their shops and homes,
and drive them out of the areas where they lived. The anti-Tamil pogroms
of 1977 started just a month after the UNP took office. Then in May 1981,
violence broke out in Jaffna, and the targets of widespread arson attacks
included the Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless
manuscripts. This was followed by island-wide pogroms against Tamils,
which were only over-shadowed by the even more gruesome massacres of 1983, which left thousands of Tamils dead. This violence was claimed to be a spontaneous response to the killing of thirteen soldiers by Tamil
militants, but there is ample evidence that the 1983 pogrom was carefully
planned and state-sponsored. Simultaneously, the Prevention of Terrorism
Act (1979) and provisions of the Public Security Act were used as a cover
for the torture, disappearance, and kill­ing of thousands of Tamils by the

The pogroms of 1983 converted a simmering conflict into a civil war. This
was a direct consequence of the Left’s abandonment of Sri Lankan
working-class soli­darity in the 1960s, which allowed extreme right-wing
Sinhala nationalist forces to become enormously power­ful while robbing
the working class of the capacity to resist. Tamil socialists were
demoralized. Many drifted into Tamil nationalist parties and militant
groups, some were later killed or driven into exile by the LTTE
(Libera­tion Tigers of Tamil Eelam or Tamil Tigers).

This was the background against which the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R.
Jayawardene in July 1987. While recognizing the unity, sovereignty, and
territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, it also affirmed the country’s
multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-reli­gious character. The 13th
Amendment was enacted to make Tamil an official language and provide for
limited devolution of power to the provinces, and the Indian Peace-Keeping
Force (IPKF) occupied the North-East. But within three months, fighting
broke out between the LTTE and IPKF, with Tamil civilians caught in the

Meanwhile, in the South, the state was embroiled in a violent
confrontation with the JVP, whose ideology was a mixture of socialism and
Sinhala-Buddhist national­ism. It had launched an insurrection in 1987 to
oppose the Accord. The JVP’s leader, Wijeweera, had earlier been in the
Ceylon Communist Party (Peking Wing), and in 1966 was disciplined by the
party for his participation in demonstrations against the
Senanayake-Chelvanay­akam pact that provided for the official use of Tamil
and regional devolution of power. Later, Wijeweera led the JVP to take the
position that Tamil plantation work­ers were an arm of Indian
expansionism, and should therefore be repatriated to India. They were also
char­acterized by a putchist conception of revolution and an authoritarian
party structure. After the 1971 insurrection was defeated, many survivors
engaged in a critique of the authoritarian and chauvinist elements in the
JVP’s ideology and left the party.

By 1986, most of those who remained in the JVP, still led by Wijeweera,
were hardline Sinhala national­ists. Their response to those who opposed
them inside or outside the organization was invariably violent. The state,
controlled by the UNP, was no less ruthless and far more powerful. This is
what resulted in the grue­some atrocities and massive death toll
(estimated at 40,000-60,000) during the second JVP insurgency, which ended with the execution of Wijeweera in November 1989. On the pretext of fighting the JVP, government death squads killed unarmed critics,
political rivals, and even dissidents within the UNP, and this repression
went on even after the JVP was defeated. By then, the presi­dency had been
taken over by Premadasa, who opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord. Keen to expel the Indian army, Premadasa supplied the LTTE with arms, ammunition and cement for bunkers. After the Indians withdrew their troops in 1990, hostilities between the Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE broke out again.

Tamil Nationalism: A Parallel Trajectory

Soon after the 1972 constitution was enacted, various Tamil parties,
including the FP (led by S. J. V. Chelva­nayakam and A. Amirthalingam),
the CWC (representing hill-country Tamils), and the Tamil Congress, came
to­gether in the Tamil United Front (TUF). The TUF became the Tamil United
Liberation Front (TULF) in May 1976, after adopting a resolution calling
for a separate Tamil state. However, Alfred Duraiappah, several times
mayor of Jaffna and a popular figure among the urban poor, aligned himself
with the SLFP, led by Mrs. Bandaranaike, and argued for unity between
people of the North and the South. From 1972, the FP launched vicious
attacks on Duraiappah, calling him a traitor worthy of death, and in 1975
he was shot dead by assassins, one of whom eventually became supreme
leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran. It is significant that the
call for his execu­tion was made by the supposedly non-violent leadership
of the FP.

Later, the annihilation of the TULF leadership, including the murder of
TULF leaders Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran by the LTTE in Colombo in 1989, was strongly reminiscent of the murder of Bandaranaike by Buddhist monks. Just as Bandaranaike had done, the TULF leaders had created a
Frankenstein’s mon­ster which eventually destroyed them. The LTTE also
destroyed many others supposedly fighting for the same goal, a separate
state of Tamil Eelam. Wholesale massacres of the cadres and leadership of
TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation), EPRLF (Eelam People’s
Revolutionary Liberation Front, socialist in orientation) and other groups
wiped out the LTTE’s potential rivals. Tamil civilians who dissented from
LTTE policies were also killed, especially those who rejected the goal of
a separate Tamil state. These victims included leading figures in the
fight for Tamil women’s rights, Rajani Thiranagama (1989) and Maheshwari
Velauthan (2008). Within the LTTE, there was complete subjection to the
totalitarian rule of the leader, Prabhakaran. Anyone who disagreed with
Prabhakaran or posed a challenge to him was branded a traitor and killed,
typically after incar­ceration and torture. Just as the inherent
authoritarian­ism of Sinhala nationalism expressed itself in the brutal
repression of Sinhalese, the inherent authoritarianism of Tamil
nationalism expressed itself in the brutal repres­sion of Tamils.

However, Prabhakaran made a fatal mistake when he tried to liquidate
Karuna Amman, his Eastern com­mander, who expressed dissatisfaction with
LTTE poli­cies in 2004. Despite a confrontation in which hundreds of
Karuna’s supporters were killed, Prabhakaran failed to destroy Karuna
himself, who then formed the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP or
Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers) and teamed up with the government of Sri
Lanka to defeat the LTTE. Karuna’s defection illus­trates another feature
of Tamil nationalism: its margin­alization and exclusion of large sections
of Tamil-speak­ing people. One of the Eastern commander’s complaints was
the marginalization of Eastern Tamils. The Tamil nationalist agenda of the
LTTE also excluded some of the most oppressed Tamils, hill-country Tamils
and Tamil Dalits (ex-untouchables). It also engaged in massacres and
large-scale ethnic cleansing of Tamil-speaking Muslims.

Given the reactionary character of the LTTE, it is all the more anomalous
that some Sinhalese leftists who had refused to make concessions to
Sinhala nationalism now gave critical support to the LTTE. For independent
Tamil socialists opposed to the LTTE, this meant the loss of the
solidarity of their Sinhalese comrades. Since the pretext for this
betrayal was the “right of nations to self-determination,” it is worth
examining this issue in some depth in the context of Sri Lanka.

The Right to Self-Determination

To this day there remains near-universal acceptance among Marxists of
Stalin’s definition of a nation as a “historically-constituted, stable
community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory,
economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”
While it is doubtful whether there exists any nation on earth answering to
these specifica­tions, this monocultural ideal of a nation is certainly
cherished by fascists everywhere, including the Nazis. Achieving it in
most countries would entail marginal­izing or eliminating minorities by
methods ranging from assimilation to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Still,
this is the definition of a nation we must keep in mind when evaluating
the Lenin-Luxemburg debate on the right of nations to self-determination,
defined as the right to a separate state.

Apart from a reactionary minority, Marxists from Marx and Engels onwards
supported national indepen­dence for the colonies. While West European
countries acquired their colonies abroad, Tsarist Russia annexed many
neighboring lands and the debate arose in con­nection with a clause in the
Russian Marxists’ program dealing with these peoples. In the ensuing
debate, Lenin took the position that the clause referred specifically to
Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it and its
neighboring countries were going through national movements. He insisted
on the right of nations like the Ukraine to have separate states, and
contended that denial of this right would merely strengthen Great Russian
nationalism. Luxemburg disagreed even with the phrase “right of nations to
self-determination,” asking, Who determines the will of the nation? Her
fear was that right-wing nationalists would be supported by socialists, to
the detriment of the working class.

Luxemburg made it clear that socialists, being opposed to all oppression,
were duty-bound to oppose national oppression. Lenin, on his side,
conceded that the prime consideration was self-determination of the
proletariat, and that “no Russian Marxist has ever thought of blaming the
Polish Social-Democrats for being opposed to the secession of Poland.”
Both these theorists opposed nationalism, Lenin in imperialist Russia,
Luxemburg in oppressed Poland; the main goal for both was the advancement of revolutionary inter­national socialism. So why did the disagreement arise? Surely because both tried to elevate a contextual policy into a universal one. It is vitally important for socialists to oppose
imperialist oppression, as in the cases of Iraq, Afghanistan, and
Palestine. Indeed, all oppression of one nation by another should be
opposed. But the demand for an ethnically or religiously “pure” state of
the sort that the Taliban has been trying to construct is a reac­tionary
demand by parties hostile to the working class movement. As such, it
deserves no support from social­ists, especially in Sri Lanka where,
despite areas where one community or the other might predominate, Tamils
are dispersed within a population comprising other minorities as well as
Sinhalese, with mixed workplaces, neighborhoods, and even families. A
genuinely working class program in such a context opposes all forms of
oppression and fights a unified battle for workers’ rights, as in the
LSSP’s program in Sri Lanka immediately after Independence.

There was, in fact, an ideal opportunity for launching such a struggle in
1994, when a left-of-centre People’s Alliance (PA) government and
President Chandrika Kumaratunga were elected to power on a platform of
peace with justice for Tamils. After decades of extreme right-wing
repression, the government restored demo­cratic rights such as freedom of
expression, freedom of association, and the right to form unions and
engage in collective bargaining in the parts of the country under its
control. A new constitution was drafted by a Tamil MP and legal expert,
Neelan Thiruchelvam, and an undertaking was initiated to give parity to
Tamil, make discrimination illegal, devolve much more power to the
provinces than under the 13th Amendment, and do away with the dictatorial Executive Presidency. A ceasefire was declared to negotiate a political settlement with the LTTE. But the LTTE broke the ceasefire and restarted the war in 1995. In 1999, they assassinated Thiruchelvam and tried to do the same to President Kumaratunga. Yet throughout this period sections of the Left in Sri Lanka and elsewhere continued to give critical support to the LTTE and its agenda. After another ceasefire agreement was signed in 2002 a new peace process was started with the mediation of the Norwegian government. Again there was a mood of reconciliation in the country and an offer of a federal solution from the government in fresh negotiations. Again, Prabhakaran scuppered it, assassinating more of his Tamil opponents to tighten his stranglehold on Sri Lankan Tamil politics.

On each of these occasions, the LTTE used the ceasefires to kill critics
and dissidents, and prepare for war. Preparations for war included forced
conscription of thousands of child soldiers, a feature that character­ized
the LTTE throughout its career. In the last stages of the war, press-gangs
were sent out with quotas for the number of children they had to abduct,
failing which they themselves would be sent to the front line. Parents
ad­opted desparate measures to evade these press-gangs.

How can we explain Left support for the LTTE in such circumstances? This
is a typical example of doctrinal­ism: the dogmatic application of a
formula (in this case, the right of nations to self-determination) in a
context where it is completely inappropriate. The LTTE’s agenda of a
separate state of Tamil Eelam was reactionary, and Luxemburg’s caveat was
eminently applicable. Yet many leftists, including Fourth Internationalists, despite hav­ing a presence in Sri Lanka which should have alerted them to the widespread existence of mixed communities and to the fact that Tamil nationalism simply rein­forced Sinhala nationalism, were unable to engage in a concrete analysis of the situation and come up with a genuinely socialist alternative.

Thus during the carnage at the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, some
socialists supported the LTTE even while it was using civilians as human
shields. Others were part of a government bombing and shelling of those
same civilians! Unless sections of the Left which have aligned themselves
with Sinhala nationalism as well as those who have aligned themselves with
Tamil nationalism return to internationalist working-class politics,
engage in a concrete analysis of Sri Lanka in its global context, and
reformulate their program accordingly, the crisis in that country is
likely to continue, albeit in a different form from the dreadful civil war
that has just ended.


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