Workers Vanguard No. 930
13 February 2009
Defend the Tamil People!
Army Bloodbath in Sri Lanka
The following article was written by our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste of Canada, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
FEBRUARY 5—Many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Tamil civilians have been killed in a murderous offensive by the Sri Lankan army, whose aim is the destruction of the Tamil mini-state in the North and East of the Indian Ocean island. At least 30 people were killed on January 22 when troops bombed a makeshift health center in Vallipunam, a village the government had declared to be in a “safe zone.” The last functioning hospital in the area came under fire in early February, killing at least 12 and forcing its evacuation.
The army has driven the nationalist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been fighting for an independent Tamil state for the last three decades, out of the northern Jaffna Peninsula and from its last urban bases. Besieged by 50,000 soldiers backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships, at least a quarter million Tamil civilians are trapped in a small area of the northeastern jungle, without access to shelter, clean water or food. The government has banned relief agencies and the media from the war zone and even threatened to expel reporters from CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC from the country for airing video clips of the devastation.
The working class internationally must protest the murderous onslaught by the Sri Lankan government and army! Around the world, tens of thousands of Tamils have taken to the streets in protest. Fifty thousand protested in Toronto on January 30, filling downtown streets for five hours on a weekday afternoon. Another 50,000 marched in London the next day. The government of India’s Tamil Nadu state ordered the closure of all colleges and student hostels to prevent a threatened student strike in support of Lankan Tamils.
The Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste of Canada has joined protests against the massacre, distributing literature in solidarity with the besieged Tamils and putting forward our proletarian-revolutionary perspective for national and social liberation. We have long upheld the right of self-determination for the Tamil people—i.e., their right to form an independent state in the largely Tamil North and East. We stand for the military defense of the LTTE against the army assault and demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the Lankan army from the area.
At the same time, we give no political support to the LTTE—bourgeois nationalists who, carrying out the logic of nationalism, have staged their own interethnic attacks on Sinhalese villagers and expelled Muslims from the historic Tamil city of Jaffna, the capital of the northern region, while employing murderous violence against other Tamil nationalist groups. Our perspective is the fight for Marxist workers parties throughout the region that can unite the working people and oppressed in the struggle for workers revolutions in Lanka and throughout South Asia. That is the only road to liberation from the poverty, oppression and national chauvinism that are endemic to capitalist rule and visited with particular brutality on the masses of imperialism’s neocolonies.
Roots of Sinhalese-Chauvinist Terror
The roots of the decades-long Tamil insurgency lie in systematic discrimination against the Tamil people by successive Sri Lankan governments following independence from British colonial rule in 1948. As part of its racist divide-and-rule strategy, Britain had brought elements from the largely Hindu Tamil minority into the administration of its colony, then known as Ceylon. The post-independence regime, based on the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, began to displace Tamils from government service and access to higher education. Especially with the passage of a Sinhala-only language law under the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) government in 1956, the national chauvinism of the Sinhalese ruling class led to growing communal polarization.
The grisly climax came in 1983 with government-inspired pogroms against the Tamils, many thousands of whom were murdered in wholesale massacres. Tamil homes and businesses in the capital, Colombo, were burnt to the ground, often with the occupants inside. Following the 1983 pogroms, orchestrated under president J.R. Jayewardene of the United National Party, we wrote:
“The massive atrocity taking place in Sri Lanka marks a watershed in that island’s history. The bloodletting and the mass population transfers have set the economy back at least a decade and are forcing the separation of the peoples. J.R. has ripped the country apart, massacring many thousands and forcing the survivors into a virtual ‘bantustan’ in the barren North.”
—“Massacre in Sri Lanka,” Spartacist (English edition) No. 35 (Autumn 1983)
The previous economic and geographic interpenetration of the two peoples was largely severed in blood, and Tamils were increasingly compacted in the North and the East, which, while largely Tamil, had historically been a region of mixed populations, including a substantial Muslim component. The dire situation of the Lankan Tamil people today is testimony to the reactionary logic of nationalism: under capitalism, when two peoples are interpenetrated within the same territory, the national rights of one people can only be expressed at the expense of the other people. Only the overthrow of capitalism through workers revolution can lay the basis for the equitable resolution of the conflicting national claims of the peoples of Sri Lanka.
Sinhalese chauvinism, designed and instigated by the Lankan ruling class, has been wielded to assert domination over both the Tamil and Sinhalese workers and oppressed, to head off any popular revolt by preventing working-class unity. For their part, the LTTE and other Tamil nationalists have long dismissed the struggles of the strategically placed “Indian Tamil” tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. The ancestors of this deeply exploited population were brought in by the British as indentured laborers starting in the 19th century.
At the time of the 1983 pogroms, our comrades initiated and joined protests in cities around the world against the massacre. Noting that the bloodbath had “catastrophically altered for the foreseeable future the prospects for common class struggle between the Sinhalese working class and the oppressed Tamil minority,” we raised the call for the right of Tamil Eelam—a separate Tamil state in the North—and for a federated socialist republic of Eelam and Lanka as part of a socialist federation of South Asia.
In the 25 years of civil war that followed, at least 70,000 civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands of Tamils driven into exile or squalid refugee camps. The LTTE managed to compact a Tamil mini-state in parts of the North and East and eventually signed a cease-fire agreement with the Colombo government in 2002. But the Sinhalese-chauvinist army’s provocations never stopped. After the 2005 election of hard-line SLFP president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ruled out even autonomy for Tamil regions, the government abrogated the cease-fire and then withdrew from it entirely early last year.
While its troops massacre Tamils in the North, in the South the government has cracked down on civil liberties. Tamils living in Colombo have been ordered to register with the police, and hundreds have been expelled from the city. Journalists critical of the government have been killed. On January 8, Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, was gunned down by armed men on motorcycles as he drove to work. The murdered journalist, who was harshly critical of the government’s conduct of the anti-Tamil war, had received a threatening call from President Rajapaksa warning that he would be killed if he continued to speak out.
Imperialist Green Light for Army Terror
The calls for the Tamil protests in Canada and Britain have featured appeals to Western imperialist governments to come to the aid of the Tamils. A protest call in Toronto, for example, called for pressure to be put on the Canadian government to “intervene immediately to stop the war.” There should be no illusions that the governments in Ottawa, London, Washington or other imperialist centers will act for the liberation of the Tamil people. In fact, the imperialist powers have overwhelmingly supported the regime’s murderous anti-Tamil offensive. Over the past 12 years, first the U.S. and then Britain, Canada and the European Union have declared the LTTE a “terrorist” organization, effectively giving the Lankan regime a green light for its attacks. The workers movement in the imperialist centers must oppose the anti-terror witchhunt, which has seen Tamil organizations banned, their offices raided and individuals railroaded to prison (see “Protest Ottawa’s Ban on Tamil Tigers!” Spartacist Canada No. 149, Summer 2006).
U.S. imperialism in particular has given clear backing to the Rajapaksa government. On January 6, the American ambassador in Colombo issued a statement welcoming the fall of the Tigers’ administrative capital, Kilinochchi, to the Lankan army and affirming that the U.S. “does not advocate that the Government of Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE” (Asian Tribune, 9 January). Soon after, a high-level delegation from the U.S. Pacific Fleet Command arrived for “discussions” with the heads of the Lankan security forces (Indo-Asian News Service, 21 January). Only after the army drove the LTTE from its final urban bases in early February did the U.S. and Britain call for a “temporary no-fire” agreement (International Herald Tribune, 4 February).
Washington’s central strategic goal on the island is a stable regime that can provide access to the strategic deep-water harbor of Trincomalee in the long-contested Eastern Province. Successive Sri Lankan governments have engaged in brutal “ethnic cleansing” in the area. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been forced to leave, either into exile abroad or to relatively safer areas of the island. Those who remain live under a state of siege. A rare eyewitness report by a North American journalist, Stephanie Nolen of the Toronto Globe and Mail (27 January), paints a chilling picture of the army occupation in her article, “How Can People Say This Is Peace?”:
“Ninety-eight people were abducted in this area last year, snatched off the streets by the infamous white vans with no licence plates that are used by government security agencies. Eighty-five other Tamils simply disappeared
“The streets of Trincomalee, banded every 150 metres or so with checkpoints where Tamils are grilled about who they are and where they are going and whether they can prove they do not support the LTTE, offer a grim vision of what the north will soon be like.”
Nolen describes the government’s stepped-up “Sinhalization” campaign: “Historic sites commemorating ancient Tamil kingdoms have, in the months since the government took control of the area, suddenly become memorials to Sinhalese kingdoms. Some Tamils stopped at checkpoints can no longer give the names of their home villages, because those places have new Sinhala names.”
Toward a Socialist Federation of South Asia
While the Tigers appear to have suffered a decisive military setback, this by no means equals the end of the Lankan conflict. The communal divisions fostered by the regime are too deep, the dispossession and violence against the Tamils too profound, to offer a prospect of a lasting peace between the peoples.
As Marxists, we continue to denounce Sinhalese chauvinism and defend the rights of the Tamil people, including their right to a separate state. But the hard fact is that the eradication of national oppression and true social progress for the peoples of Lanka and the region will come only when barbaric capitalist rule and the divisions inherited from imperialist domination are overturned through socialist revolution. It is crucial that the most advanced pro-working-class elements, Tamil and Sinhalese alike, draw the lessons of the present desperate pass. This includes drawing the lessons of the betrayals of the once-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which abandoned the interests of the proletariat and the defense of the Tamil people when it entered the chauvinist SLFP government in 1964.
Above all, it is necessary to fight for class independence from all wings of the exploiters and for an internationalist perspective, looking in the first instance to the powerful and growing working class across the Palk Strait in India. What we wrote in Spartacist in the wake of the anti-Tamil pogroms 26 years ago remains true today:
“Today Ceylon experiences the bitter fruit of decades of betrayal and defeat in the class struggle. The early LSSP tradition of defense of the Tamil masses was destroyed by the popular-frontist accommodation of the Sinhalese ‘left’ to the communalist SLFP; today these parties are anathema to the Tamil liberation fighters. It is necessary to begin again in the light of all experience since the British departed
“What is desperately needed is to further the building of a Trotskyist party in Sri Lanka, necessarily substantially based among the exploited Tamil masses. The struggle for the national rights of the Tamil people is vital to forging such a party. Lasting national and class justice for the Tamil working people will be secured through permanent revolution—rule by the workers and peasants—and a socialist federation of South Asia.”