Workers Hammer No. 212

Autumn 2010


Stop persecution of Tamils!

Asylum now for all Tamil refugees!

Despite an attempted cover-up by the brutal Sri Lanka regime, evidence is emerging about the mass slaughter that was inflicted on the Tamil people in the North East of the island last year. During the final stages of the Sri Lankan army’s military offensive, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were slaughtered. At the end of the bloody 26-year war by the Sri Lankan armed forces against the Tamil people, the remnants of the Tamil mini-state were destroyed, the nationalist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been fighting for an independent Tamil state for the last three decades, suffered a military defeat and its leader, Vellupilai Prabhakaran, was executed. Some 300,000 Tamils who were trapped in a small area of the North East were interned in horrific prison camps and interrogation centres.

The Sinhala-chauvinist regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was re-elected president in January in a grotesque display of anti-Tamil triumphalism, has continually sought to extract vengeance on the beleaguered survivors of this blood-bath. Over the past year many desperate refugees have lost their lives on the high seas as they attempt to flee to safety abroad. When nearly 500 Tamil refugees managed to make it to Canada, the Sri Lanka regime obscenely tried to vilify them as “terrorists”.

The Canadian government whipped up a racist furore, sending a naval warship on 12 August armed with guided missiles to intercept the barely seaworthy cargo ship carrying the refugees, which had left Thailand in May and had already been turned away from Australia. Canadian police as well as the military boarded the vessel and took the migrants into custody; the majority of the refugees languish in jail while the state demonises them as potential “terrorists”. The Canadian government also vowed to work with Australia and other countries to stop the Tamils from even setting sail. Australia already sends its navy to intercept refugees on the high seas, turning them back or redirecting them to Indonesia, which incarcerates them in Australian-funded detention centres. Those captured in “Australian waters” are imprisoned behind razor wire on remote Christmas Island. Five refugees died and scores were injured last year when their boat exploded after it was seized by the Australian navy. More recently, the Labor Party government there suspended the processing of all new asylum claims by Tamil as well as Afghan refugees and signalled its intent to ramp up deportations.

The plight of the refugees was captured in a 16 August letter issued by the Canadian Tamil Congress which stated:

“We have undergone severe hardships with very little or no access to basic necessities such as food, water, sleeping space, medicine and sanitary facilities. We have traveled for almost four months with much suffering and pain. We have come here, to this wonderful country Canada, to protect ourselves and our family members from the murders, disappearances and violence that still exist in our native country.”

Protesting the government’s racist treatment and detention of the Tamils in British Columbia, our Canadian comrades wrote: “We demand that all those now detained in B.C. be released immediately and that all Tamil refugees be given full asylum! The fight to end the racist deportations and for full citizenship rights for everyone who has made it here is part of the struggle to sweep away the brutal rule of capitalism through socialist revolution” (Spartacist Canada no 166, Fall 2010). The working class internationally must defend the Tamil people! From Britain to Canada to Australia we demand: Asylum for Tamil refugees, fleeing the murderous onslaught by the Sri Lankan government and army!

US imperialism gave clear backing to the Rajapaksa government’s offensive against the Tamils. On 6 January 2009 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 US “does not advocate that the Government of Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE” (Asian Tribune, 9 January 2009). Soon after, a high-level delegation from the US Pacific Fleet Command arrived for “discussions” with the heads of the Lankan security forces (Indo-Asian News Service, 21 January 2009). Only after the army drove the LTTE from its final urban bases in early February did the US and Britain call for a “temporary no-fire” agreement (International Herald Tribune, 4 February 2009).

Over the past year tens of thousands of Tamils in London, Toronto and other cities around the world have taken to the streets in protest at the desperate plight of the Tamil people on the island. The Spartacist League/Britain and other sections of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) have 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 — ie, their right to form an independent state in the largely Tamil North and East. We stand for the military defence 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, following the logic of nationalism, have staged their own inter-ethnic 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 have been visited with particular brutality on the masses of imperialism’s neocolonies in Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent.

No illusions in UN “human rights” hypocrisy

Leaflets for Tamil protests in Britain have appealed to Western imperialist governments and the United Nations to come to the aid of the Tamils. A press statement issued following a July London rally by the British Tamils Forum reports that thousands gathered carrying placards and hoisting flags “appealing to the UK establishment and the UN to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka”. There should be absolutely no illusions that the UN, or the governments in Ottawa, London, Washington or other imperialist centres will defend the interests of the Tamil people. The often heated diplomatic rifts between the Colombo government on the one hand and the UN or the British government merely reflect tactical differences. The imperialist powers, including the UN, would prefer the blood-soaked Sri Lanka regime to adopt a hypocritical concern about “human rights” now that the war has ended. But the vindictive Rajapaksa regime is not about to pay lip service to “human rights” for Tamils. Indeed other repressive regimes such as in Israel, Myanmar and Thailand are beating a path to Colombo to learn how to apply the “Sri Lanka option” — ie mass slaughter — against the oppressed peoples on their own terrain.

When in February 2009 David Miliband, as foreign secretary under the then Labour government, addressed a meeting of the Global Tamil Forum in London (alongside the present Tory foreign secretary, William Hague) furious Sinhala chauvinist protests in Colombo attacked the British High Commission and burned an effigy of Miliband. Needless to say Miliband used his speech to the Global Tamil Forum to denounce the LTTE, describing it as “a terrorist organisation which committed countless atrocities”. This is rich, coming from a spokesman for a government that has responsibility for the brutal occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq that have led to countless thousands of deaths.

The Colombo government also went foam-flecked in June when UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon appointed a three-member advisory panel, which was intended to deflect external pressure from human rights groups and figures in the US Congress. But this toothless UN body drew mobs of government-backed protesters onto the streets of Colombo, where the UN office was besieged and a cabinet minister, Wimal Weerawansa, went on a hunger strike. In response, the UN made it abundantly clear that the panel’s aims are to award the Sri Lanka regime a “human rights” stamp of approval. A UN statement of 9 July said the panel’s objectives include the “fostering of reconciliation” as well as “reflecting the commitment by Sri Lanka to the promotion and protection of human rights”. The UN panel will also assist the “Lessons learnt and reconciliation commission” set up by the Rajapaksa regime to investigate why the 2002 ceasefire ended — ie to take the heat off the army and put the LTTE into the frame.

The UN is preparing a whitewash of the Sri Lankan military’s heinous crimes and of the “democratic” imperialist powers who backed the Sri Lankan state in carrying out its brutal war against the Tamil people. The UN panel was set up over a year after the war had ended and amid widespread anger when information about Sri Lankan atrocities against the Tamils began to leak out into the public domain. Moreover, the UN itself was under criticism. A report in the (London) Times said that Ban Ki Moon’s chief of staff, Vijar Nambiar, was told in late May 2009 that “at least 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the Sri Lankan government’s final offensive” (30 May 2009).

In addition to aiding in the murderous anti-Tamil offensive, the “democratic” imperialist powers — the US, Britain, Canada — have declared the LTTE a “terrorist” organisation, as has the European Union, effectively giving the Lankan regime a green light for its attacks. As we wrote in protest against the Tony Blair Labour government’s Terrorism Act 2000 which outlawed the LTTE, among other organisations:

“This Labour government has committed heinous crimes at home and abroad — from the bombing of Serbia and Iraq to drumming up anti-immigrant racism. The British state itself is an international force for terrorism — it carried out colonial massacres in Ireland, Asia and Africa — yet it brands political organisations from the Indian subcontinent and Ireland as ‘terrorists’. This illustrates what British ‘justice’ and democracy is all about — the capitalist state is the repressive apparatus which defends the private property and rule of the bourgeoisie against the working class and oppressed.”

Workers Hammer no 176, Spring 2001 

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. The deep communal division in Sri Lanka today is itself a legacy of divide-and-rule by the British imperialists who incorporated many Tamils into the colonial administration. But following independence the Sinhalese displaced the Tamils in government service and in access to higher education. The agitation for a chauvinist “Sinhala only” language policy, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the mid-1950s, codified anti-Tamil communalism as official policy and unleashed a wave of anti-Tamil pogroms.

The national chauvinism of the Sinhalese ruling class led to growing communal polarisation that culminated in massive bloodshed in 1983 with government-inspired pogroms against the Tamils, many thousands of whom were murdered. 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 JR 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

Lessons of bitter defeat

The dire situation of the Lankan Tamil people today is testimony to the reactionary logic of nationalism. It also confirms that under capitalism, where 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. Prior to 1983 there was considerable economical and geographic interpenetration of the Tamil and Sinhalese peoples. But the bloodletting and mass population transfers of 1983 forced a separation of the island’s peoples. Tamils were increasingly compacted in the North and the East, which had been largely Tamil but had also historically been a region of mixed populations, including a substantial Muslim component. 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.

Drawing the lessons from a bitter defeat is difficult, but necessary. For Tamil (and Sinhalese) pro-working-class activists who are reeling from this massive defeat, the chief political lesson is that the programme of nationalism has proven bankrupt for the oppressed Tamils. We base ourselves on the Trotskyist programme of permanent revolution, a programme for the semicolonial countries which means the industrial and agricultural proletariat must lead all the oppressed in the struggle against semi-feudal backwardness that is the heritage of centuries of colonial subjugation, a struggle which can attain victory only through the overthrow of capitalist rule and the establishment of proletarian power.

The core of this programme is proletarian internationalism: a perspective for socialist revolution not only in Lanka but throughout the Indian subcontinent. Developments in Sri Lanka do not take place in isolation but are subject to developments in the international situation. The venal ruling class is beholden to the imperialist powers and the Sri Lankan economy is dependent on foreign investment and on the European Union as a market for the island’s textiles. The working class  — including textile workers who are mainly women, and the strategically placed “Indian Tamil” tea plantation workers in the central highlands, descendants of a deeply exploited population brought in from India as indentured labourers by the British — are class brothers and sisters of the more powerful working class in India and elsewhere. We fight for Marxist workers parties throughout South Asia that can unite the working people and oppressed in the struggle for workers revolutions which provide the only road to liberation from the poverty, oppression and national chauvinism that are endemic to capitalist rule, particularly in the neocolonies.

The authentic programme of Trotskyism is today upheld by the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). The once-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) abandoned the interests of the proletariat and the defence of the Tamil people when it entered the Sinhala-chauvinist government of the SLFP in 1964. This was prefigured by the LSSP’s support to the “Sinhala only” campaign against the Tamil minority. Again in the 1980s, government terror against the Tamils drew the line sharply between revolutionists and fake Trotskyists, who capitulated to Sinhala chauvinism.

At the time of the 1983 pogroms, our international tendency was virtually alone on the left in initiating and joining protests internationally in defence of the Tamils. Noting that the blood-bath 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.

Prior to 1983 our organisation had upheld the right to Tamil self-determination while counselling against separation, arguing in favour of united working-class struggle for Tamil freedom and socialist revolution in Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and its extension through the Indian subcontinent. But as we wrote, “in the wake of the mass killing of Tamils, the bitterness and hostility between the peoples of Ceylon has evidently become insurmountable at least in the short run”. While calling for the right of Tamil Eelam, we also noted: “The bloody communal struggle argues that even with proletarian revolution in Ceylon and South Asia generally, a federated socialist republic in Ceylon will be necessary to achieve the unity of Tamils and Sinhalese on a basis of justice and equality” (Spartacist [English edition] no 35, Autumn 1983).

At the same time we noted that the prospects for an independent Tamil capitalist state in the underdeveloped North were poor. Nor would the formation of such a state ensure the national survival of the Tamils, who were interpenetrated with the Sinhalese majority throughout much of the island. On the other hand,  the establishment of a federated socialist republic of Eelam and Lanka would be a beacon to the oppressed and subjugated masses throughout the subcontinent, including among the 65 million Tamils across the Palk Strait in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

In the years of civil war that followed the 1983 pogroms, 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 ceasefire 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 ceasefire and then withdrew from it entirely in early 2008.

Today, contrary to imperialist hype about reconciliation and a return to “stability” on the island, the Rajapaksa family oligarchy makes little effort to maintain even the trappings of “democracy”, having even locked up Sarath Fonseka, who was head of the military during the war on the Tamils and who challenged Mahinda Rajapaksa for the presidency in the last election. Stable bourgeois democratic rule is not on the historic agenda in Sri Lanka, nor is a democratic resolution of the oppression of the Tamil minority. Washington’s central strategic goal on the island is a stable regime that can provide access to the strategic deep-water harbour of Trincomalee in the Eastern Province.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have engaged in brutal “ethnic cleansing” and a bloody process of “Sinhalisation” has forced hundreds of thousands of Tamils to leave the area while those who remain live under a state of siege. Large tracts of land are still prohibited areas and in all likelihood Tamils will not be allowed to return to certain locations. Foreigners and journalists are still restricted from travelling to the North, where permanent military cantonments are being built on former Tamil areas. Many Tamil refugees remain in camps in the North and thousands of alleged LTTE cadres are held in camps to which relatives, aid organisations or the Red Cross have no access.

The struggle to forge a new, revolutionary party in Lanka must begin with the understanding that the eradication of national oppression and true social progress for the peoples of Lanka and the region will come when the barbaric rule of capital and the divisions inherited from imperialist domination are overturned through socialist revolution. Lasting national and class justice for the Tamil working people will be secured through rule by the workers and peasants in a socialist federation of South Asia, and the extension of proletarian revolutions into the imperialist centres.