Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sri Lanka: The Collapse of the Ethno-Nationalist Project of LTTE and the Tamil Question

We reprint this article here to further debate around its position on the Tamil National Question. It seems to us that New Wave confuses two aspects of the National Question; first the right to self-determination, and second the support for that right in the form of a national liberation struggle.
The article seems to say that revolutionaries consider the national question a formal question stating a position against national oppression only. If that is their position, we disagree. Where national oppression clearly exists leading to a mass national war of independence, as in the case of Palestine, the question is not a formality. It becomes the revolutionary duty of workers internationally to enter that war on the side of the oppressed nation to win the leadership of the struggle from the bourgeoise and to ensure that it goes all the way to a socialist revolution.

However, as the article suggests, the Tamil national struggle may not have had mass Tamil working class support and be in fact a bourgeois project that oppressed not only Sinhalese living in the Tamil zones but also Tamil workers. If this is the case then new wave is correct in refusing to recognise a right to self-determination for Tamils in Sri Lanka since it is in contradiction with social liberation as they put it. In that case the duty of revolutionaries is to unite Tamils and SInhalese behind a revolutionary party for a socialist revolution against both communalist wings of the national bourgeosie.

new wave has responded with this statement:

"Thanks for forwarding the publication of the article on Sri Lanka on 'redrave', from 'the new wave'. We must make clarify ourselves on this point to avoid a confusion which has emerged from the note of 'redrave':

We are for the 'Right of Tamils for Self-Determination' and that up to 'secession', but only for the right. We oppose striving of the Tamil Bourgeois to carve out a separate Tamil statelet and dividing the Sri Lankan working class into Tamil and Sinhalese factions. Support the right, oppose the division! This is in absolute conformity with the principles of Marxism and the experiences of the past history of more than a century. We support 'the right to self determination' not with a view to aid the bourgeois project of 'secession', but with a view that existence of this 'right' and the 'freedom' to secede for oppressed national minority, would remove the ground from under the feet of bourgeois and its demand for a 'secession', which on the contrary is a divisive agenda, harmful for the international unity of the proletariat. Anyway, and with the same logic, the opposition to the 'right to self-determination, up to secession' is equally damaging for the proletariat of both nationalities, being an outright support for the oppressor bourgeois. The two extremes, thus, fall outside the precincts of the policy of revolutionary Marxism. We are for the 'right to self determination up to secession' but we are totally against the bourgeois agenda of secession. We call for the unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, to overturn the bourgeois."

Comradely Yours,
'the new wave'


Rajesh Tyagi/28 May, 2009
[reprinted from New Wave which is an Indian Revolutionary Trotskyist group]

The ruthless suppression of the armed secessionist movement led by the LTTE, at the hands of Rajapakse government of Sri Lanka, has put to an end the 26 years old civil war on the island ongoing since 1983, between Tamil nationalists and the Sri Lankan establishment. The entire top brass of LTTE has been wiped out by the Sri Lankan security forces in cold blood under a pre-plan, simultaneously inflicting enormous sufferings upon the civil population. With this, the project for a separate Tamil homeland, proposed by LTTE in the northern and eastern parts of the island, has also lost the ground, almost completely.

The ethnic conflict took a toll upon around 80,000 human lives, before leaving the question of ethic repression of Tamils, unresolved. The recent offensive undertaken by the Sri Lankan government to uproot LTTE, has resulted in one of the biggest human tragedies in South Asia, over several decades. Apart from the cadres of LTTE perished in the war, stepped up since January 2009, 7000 civilians have been killed and 16,781 are wounded. Sri Lankan Army has lost 6,261 soldiers, with 29, 551 injured and 2,556 permanently disabled. According to an estimate of UN, more than three lakh [lakh =100,000] Tamil civilians are trapped in the relief camps, virtual detention camps being run by the Sri Lankan Army. The 32 such camps in Vavuniya alone are home for more than 1,60,000 Tamil refugees. The government, during the military operation, is stated to have blocked even supplies of life saving drugs to the population trapped in areas dominated by the LTTE.

Sri Lankan bourgeois, in order to defend its rule, has raised an army which is largest on the globe in proportion to the size of population of the country. It already had an army of 1,20,000 soldierie, by 2007, which it had replenished with induction of 80,000 more young recruits, mostly Sinhalese, in 2008 alone. To recruit the Sinhalese youth, it had kept its military plans for a major conflict in complete secrecy. In addition, very low level of youth employment i.e. 22.4 percent of the total youth on the island, facilitated the project of this mass recruitment to the Army. Without this fresh recruitment, the war itself and success achieved in it by the Colombo establishment was improbable. By keeping the war plans a secret, the Sri Lankan Government succeeded to lure the Sinhalese youth for recruitment in the Army and then used it as cannon fodder to win the war against LTTE. Even during the war the Rajapakse Government has banned all reporting of conflict from the war zone, while denying access, both to foreign and local media in the zone, with express motive to prevent a public outrage on the quantum of such huge casualties of human lives.

After wiping out the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government has unfolded its plans to further reinforce the already colossal armed force, by raising its strength to a soldierie of three lakhs, which would mean one and a half times of its present size. It is clear that the Colombo rulers are preparing themselves for the future challenges to their regime from their eternal and the real enemy -the working class, emerging from all ethnicities on the island. It is the working class which would be made to bear the burden not only of the recent war, but also of the future plans of the bourgeois rulers to accentuate their rule through the strength of a colossal armed force at their disposal.

Sri Lankan island is habited by around 20 million people, out of which 16% are Tamils, spread over the northern and eastern part of the highland, 8% Moslems who are mostly Tamil speaking and rest of the 75% Sinhalese, who occupy the larger south of the island. After occupation of the island, British colonialists had transported Tamils from India to Sri Lanka, mostly to work as plantation labour in tea gardens. While the working class in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) was one of the most radical section of the world proletariat and had played immense role in the anti-colonial national liberation movement, through its party Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) and later Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI) whose members gave immense sacrifices, was illegalised in 1940 for opposing the war and fighting in the front ranks of the liberation movement, the Sri Lankan bourgeois did not play any role at all in the liberation movement. It remained an auxiliary to the British colonialism.

Till 1946, Sri Lankan bourgeois did not have a party of its own. The bourgeois elite organised the United National Party only in 1946 on the advice of British colonialists, who bestowed upon it the political power handing over the establishment of Island to it in 1948, to look after their interests in absentia. The national bourgeois took power in Colombo, not as a leader of the oppressed nation or in a fight against colonialism, but as direct agent of Imperialism. The only demand the Sri Lankan bourgeois raised was to separate the Island from the Indian State so as to prevent the integration between the working class of Sri Lanka and India. It borrowed the readymade project of national development, like other decolonised countries, from world capitalism and thus failed to resolve even a single basic problem, including that of the nationality, ethnicity etc. Entrenched in the social crisis, and threatened by the revolutionary proletariat, it resorted to most reactionary elements, traditions and forces of the past for reliance and support to its regime. Its fragile regime, however, could stabilise itself again and again, in the face of uninterrupted crisis, for the betrayals by the leadership of the working class.

The strength of the LSSP, at the eve of transfer of power to the national bourgeois by the colonialists, can be gauged by the fact that it emerged as the largest opposition to the government in 1948, where on its call, 50,000 people had gathered for a demonstration against the transfer of power. The biggest challenge before the Sri Lankan government was thus to weaken the labour movement under the leadership of Trotskyist LSSP, which could be done only by dividing the working class on ethnic lines. The bourgeois has learnt this lesson from the colonial legacy of divide and rule. Immediately after taking power at Colombo, the government of rightist UNP thus got passed the most controversial enactment- ‘The Citizenship Act, 1948’ whereby the Tamil Plantation workers of the highland were deprived of the right to franchise and citizenship. While Tamil traders collaborated in that, the BLPI opposed the move. There were demonstrations against the unjust discrimination meted out to the Tamil workers. The government, however, answered them through organising a spate of most violent pogroms against Tamil civilians, through Sinhalese chauvinist groups. This Act has virtually sown the seeds of ethnic conflicts of the future between Sinhalese and Tamils.

In 1953, the rightist elite government of UNP, adopted an economic policy aimed at benefitting the rich, which led to a steep price hike. The LSSP mobilised the working class against it and called for a general strike. Working class actions in cities found an unprecedented support among the rural poor and consequently the entire country came to a grinding halt. The government soon took account of the really grim situation. The cabinet met in emergency on a British warship then anchoring in Colombo harbour and reversed the economic policy without delay.

The proletarian action of 1953, had profound political implications. The bourgeois elite, fearing of the strength of working class, sought refuge in the outdated Buddhist legacy, in order to woo the petty bourgeois peasantry, with a religious appeal. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was thus organised under the leadership of S.W. Bhandarnaike, draped in a Buddhist cloak, which took power in 1956 elections. It passed the enactments declaring Buddhism the state religion and the Sinhalese the sole official language of Sri Lanka. This further aggravated the ethnic divide among the two communities and this was the avowed purpose of the ruling bourgeois.

These were unfortunate times as the LSSP falling into the trap of the then bogus leadership of the Fourth International (FI) to which it was affiliated, which under Michael Pablo and Ernest Mandel, had lost its orientation. With the re-stabilisation of capitalism on a world scale, the then leadership of FI, adapted to it and misdirected its national sections to adapt themselves to the political situation existing in their individual countries. Pablo and Mandel did not see any need for independent movement of the working class either globally or nationally. According to them under the changed conditions the old parties themselves would be forced to take to radical path. With this perspective, the LSSP shared the path with Stalinist Communist Party of Sri Lanka and entered into collaboration with the SLFP, and supported its government. In 1964, the LSSP members entered into the government itself alongwith Stalinist CP, demonstrating complete degeneration of the party. It made a United Front with Stalinists and SLFP which got a landslide victory in 1970 general elections. It introduced a few reforms like nationalisation of the plants still under the control of foreigners, and bringing down the drug prices, but the 1972 constitution prepared under supervision of LSSP leaders, not only restated the privileged positions of Buddhism as the state religion and Sinhalese as the sole official language, it introduced quota for Sinhalese in admissions in Universities and employment in Public Sector.

The working class found the leaders of LSSP sharing the political rostrum with the bourgeois, their mortal enemy and acquiescing in its policies. The working class was pushed into frustration and hopelessness.

The betrayal of the working class, on the part of LSSP, directly led to the emergence of communal forces like the Maoist Janata Vimukti Peramuma (JVP), and the separatist LTTE. In 1970, Rohan Vijeveera, organised JVP mainly from among the Sinhalese students and youth, with a program to bring down the coalition government of Bhandarnaike through urban armed resistance. The movement was soon crushed by the government taking toll upon the lives of more than 15,000 young activists. The JVP leaders retreated to hiding in rural areas, but were wiped out by the army. It then turned to parliamentary democracy and gradually shifted its position to Sinhalese Chauvinism rendering support to the bourgeois establishment. In 1980, three Trotskyist activists were killed by the JVP.

The LSSP having illusions in the bourgeois leadership, was kicked out by it from the United Front government. The 1977 general elections decimated the LSSP, with the UNP once again coming to power. UNP immediately started a wave of rabid liberalisation through economic reforms shifting burden to the shoulders of working class and savagely attacking its movement. In opposition to the policies of the UNP government, a strike of Railway workers began, which soon turned into a general strike. The government crushed this strike by jailing all labour leaders and organising lumpens on a large scale to attack the strikers.

The failure of the strike and the betrayal of the leaders of LSSP, created an environment of hopelessness and desperation among the working class and a defeatist mood took over for the time being, which was accentuated with the stabilisation of the economy through liberalisation and reforms. Taking benefit of this general depression and disintegration of the working class, the bourgeois UNP government, in order to further demoralise and weaken the working class by widening the ethnic divide, once again resorted to anti-Tamil pogroms. The youth leagues of LSSP however were deployed to protect the Tamils from hoodlums, but in absence of an effective resistance from the working class, the State terror became the device to widen the ethnic divide. As the Tamil parliamentary opposition remained totally ineffective, activists in youth wing of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) the largest formation of Tamil bourgeois, organised itself into a militant wing and formed LTTE. Calling for a separate Tamil homeland LTTE engaged in armed conflicts and ambushed an army convoy on 23 July 1983, killing 13 soldiers. This resulted in new spate of anti-Tamil pogroms, where 3000 Tamils were massacred at the hands of Sinhalese chauvinist groups. Thus started the long drawn out war on the island for which the main responsibility lies on the shoulder of LSSP leaders, for their betrayal of the cause of proletarian revolution, which provided space for this war.

As for LTTE, since the days of its emergence, it remained a petty bourgeois organisation, with a limited and reactionary separatist program of a Tamil homeland. It attacked and killed the Sinhalese and Moslem poor with impunity and thus assisted the Colombo establishment in widening the ethnic strife among the working class of both communities. It relied upon the same rabid communalism against Sinhalese working class, like the Sinhalese chauvinists did against Tamil workers. It started to form a pseudo-socialist rhetoric, but soon found itself not only in the arms of local Tamil owners of Transport and Trade, but remained dependent upon this or that big foreign power, in addition to support from wealthy Sri Lankan NRIs. At one time it counted upon support of the Indian Government under Rajiv Gandhi and agreed to the IPKF, the Indian Security force to take charge in Sri Lanka, under the Indo-Sri Lanka accord. The devastation it brought to Tamils in Sri Lanka is part of the history. Even after its abrogation, LTTE continued to curry favour with other powers. Its 2-3 million dollar annual budget continued to be financed by big powers. Out of this budget it could maintain a navy (sea tigers) and an air force in its embryo, which though was no match for the colossal power of the Sri Lankan state and the Imperialism as a whole, which Rajapakse could mobilise against it. Even then, LTTE continued to appeal to the United Nations, a forum dominated by big powers in the hope to mobilise support of sections of big powers for its project of separate Tamil homeland.

However, these illusions of the LTTE, in big powers, proved fatal. The big powers, continued to play a double game, by assisting in aggravation of the crisis on the island and then seeking material benefit out of this crisis, manoeuvring between the warring parties, solely for their own political designs. In 2008, China sold weapons to Sri Lankan government for $ 75 million, in 2007 India had supplied arms for $21 million, in 2006 Ukraine supplied weaponry for $ 22 million and finally Israel had sold arms for $16 millions in the year 2000. China assisted the Colombo government by time and again deflating the international criticism of the mass civilian casualties committed at its hands on the island and in turn got a strong strategic foothold in Sri Lanka by wining access to a key Sri Lankan port, next to world’s premier shipping lanes.

LTTE never raised an issue against the acute exploitation of the Tamil Tea plantation workers in the highland. The concept of Tamil Ealem advanced by it remained through and through the idea for a bourgeois statelet on the island. This was the idea favouring the aspirant Tamil bourgeois who wanted to establish direct links to the world capitalism through its political power over the independent Tamil Ealem, by-passing the bourgeois establishment at Colombo under Sinhalese domination. Many times it has repeated that the model for Tamil Ealem was the ‘Asian Tigers’ i.e. the capitalist states, like South Korea and Japan. The whole idea of this dreamland of Tamil Ealem was to take hold of the statelet and then offer the cheap labour of its workers and peasants to world capital. LTTE never proved itself distinct from the Colombo establishment, as far as its class and political character goes. In the region under its domination, it treated the Sinhalese minority in the same way as Tamil minority was treated in the south. Its dreamland of Tamil Ealem even if realised, would not have been different in any manner than the Sri Lankan State. More recently, it had taken resort even to a hindu religious stance, making religious appeals to Hindu supremacists in India by shouting that the Sri Lankan security forces were destroying the hindu temples.

It was from this limited nationalist perspective, that LTTE failed to muster any support among the Sinhalese working class, or even among the Tamils in Tamilnadu. Instead of appealing to the world proletariat it continued to appeal to the bourgeois states. However, the big powers-bourgeois states, on whose support it counted for its success, betrayed it at the crucial moment. Even the conscious sections of Tamil working class had turned their back upon its campaign for separate Tamil homeland, realising that it means nothing but another capitalist state. The limited support it could mobilise among the Tamil youth, cannot validate its otherwise essentially invalid program of establishing a capitalist Tamil statelet. The support behind it was in essence the result of failure of the working class leadership and its political crisis. Even this support base among the poor specifically among the working class was gradually eroding because of the proximity of the leaders of LTTE to the rich and the policies it adopted, in the areas under its control, favouring the rich while shifting the entire burden of the war upon the shoulders of the working class. As reports from the war zone show, LTTE leaders have ordered firing upon the fleeing Tamil civilians from the war zone.

In our epoch, there being no scope for any combined national project of working class and bourgeois, much less in the countries with a belated development, the slogan of national state has become obsolete, losing all its political significance. The struggle against national oppression and for national liberation, so far as it has meaning and relevance for the working class, is integral part and subordinate to its historic task of social liberation. Segregated from the task of social liberation, the national question has no meaning at all for the working class. Only the rightist and centrist advocates of petty bourgeois, still chant the sermons for dogma of nation-states, when the same has lost all revolutionary significance. For us Leninists, the theoretical meaning of the ‘right to self-determination of the nation , even up to secession’ has never gone beyond a formal recognition of this right and a political resolve on our part against the national oppression of minorities. We are strategic opponents of the demand of secession and division of states in statelets. These divisions, run counter to the interests of working class and are the agenda of aspirant native bourgeois.

Doubtlessly, the cadres of LTTE have displayed utmost sacrifice and courage in this war against the Sinhalese chauvinist Colombo establishment, responsible for handing out ethnic discrimination and injustice to the Tamil minority. But this note of appreciation for the cadre, must not deter us from evaluating, from the standpoint of working class, the shortcomings of the politics of LTTE leadership and from calling into question the correctness of their perspective, under which this war was prepared and fought.

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