The civil war that has raged, on and off, for over 25 years in Sri Lanka seems to be approaching a horrible endgame, with the remaining fighters of the Tamil minority cornered into a small area by the Sri Lankan army.
Our immediate priority is solidarity with the Tamils against the army slaughter. The history of the conflict also raises broader issues:
• The need for socialists, in situations of communal conflict, to fight for consistent democracy as the only basis for working-class unity.
• The fact that the previously-favoured can become the oppressed. “Support for the oppressed” can never be all that socialists have to say. As Lenin put it: "We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation”.
• “Anti-imperialism” is not a sufficient guide, either. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese chauvinism now reaching a bloody climax rose up wearing “anti-imperialist”, “leftist”, and “socialistic” colours.
Ceylon — as the island was known until 1972 — was ruled by Britain from 1815 to 1948. The Tamils, or, rather, some of them, were a favoured minority under British rule, getting a large share of the administrative jobs.
Ceylon was granted independence in 1948. The Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up three-quarters of the island’s people, came from North India to Ceylon about 13,000 years ago. A section of the Hindu Tamils, concentrated in the north and east of the island, came to Ceylon from southern India about as long ago. For centuries they had a separate kingdom in the north of the island.
Another contingent of Tamils, a bit less numerous, was brought in by the British in the mid 19th centry as plantation workers, mainly in the central highlands.
On the face of it, conditions for peace between the communities looked favourable. For an ex-colonial country, Ceylon had a comparatively high standard of living, with a rudimentary welfare state, mass literacy, and universal suffrage since 1931. Most of the land was owner-cultivated. There was a labour movement, and a real working-class Left, on the island.
The ruling class was heavily anglicised: British, rather than Sinhalese or Tamil, in speech and education. The United National Party, which formed the first government of independent Ceylon, projected itself as bourgeois, liberal, and secular. Its first government contained representatives of the Tamil Ceylon Indian Congress.
But one of its first measures was to exclude the great majority of the “Indian” Tamils — those whose ancestors had arrived in the 19th century — from the status and rights of Ceylonese citizenship.
There was a ferment among the Sinhalese rural intelligentsia — village school teachers and Buddhist religious leaders. They wanted more “anti-imperialism” than they were getting from the UNP.
Solomon Bandaranaike split off from the UNP in 1951 and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Exclusively Sinhalese, it became the prime vehicle for Sinhalese chauvinism as well as being, in populist terms, the “left” party. In parallel, the Tamil Federal Party split from the Ceylon Indian Congress, asserting that the Tamils were a nation.
The SLFP won the 1956 general election and immediately brought in a law to make Sinhala the only state language. After tremendous riots, full implementation of the law was delayed to January 1961.
The Tamil Federal Party had also done well in the election. Its programme was still mild: autonomy for the northern and eastern provinces, parity for the Sinhala and Tamil languages, and civil rights for the Tamil plantation workers.
In 1957 Bandaranaike negotiated a compromise with the Tamils. Tamil was to be one of the languages of administration in the north and east; Sinhalese settlement there was to be restricted; and there was to be a devolution of power to regional councils.
When the deal was made public, in July 1957, there was such an uproar of Sinhalese protest that Bandaranaike abrogated it.
The SLFP dominated populist, “lower-order” politics, with a mixture of communal chauvinism, vague “socialism”, and “anti-imperialism”. But there was a real left in Ceylon, a working-class left.
In Ceylon, Trotskyists — people who had been won to Trotskyism as students in London — had founded the modern labour movement. Their party, the LSSP, set up in 1935, was proportionately stronger than Trotskyism in any other country in the world.
Right up to the end of the 1960s, a lot of the availability of the writings of Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg in the English-speaking West was in pamphlets shipped from Ceylon, where (unlike in the West) the Trotskyists had the resources for a large publishing operation.
The LSSP led a powerful trade union federation; led general strikes in 1947 and 1953; and had representatives in Parliament.
Couldn’t the LSSP have defeated the chauvinists, by providing working-class answers on the social issues on which the chauvinists fed, and tying them to a programme of consistent democracy? Surely it could have done. At the core of the tragedy in Sri Lanka is the fact that, the LSSP, like other, smaller, Trotskyist groups elsewhere, let its politics collapse under the pressure of a desire to adapt to a left-looking populism which presented itself as a revolt of the oppressed.
The LSSP at first championed Tamil rights. One of the main reasons why the UNP government had disenfranchised the Tamil plantation workers in 1948 was the influence the LSSP had among them.
However, the LSSP found itself outflanked by the SLFP in the rural areas. It began to accommodate. In late 1955, and again in 1960, it negotiated no-contest election pacts with the SLFP.
In June 1964 the LSSP joined in a coalition government for six months with the SLFP. That coalition, in October 1964, agreed with the Indian government on compulsory “repatriation” of 525,000 “Indian” Tamils together with their “natural increase” over a 15 year period. The agreement included a promise to give another 300,000 Tamils Ceylonese citizenship — by 1983.
The coalition fell in December 1964, and a coalition of the UNP and the Tamil Federal Party took over. When that government began to talk of “ethnic reconciliation”, the LSSP joined in racist agitation whipped up by the SLFP against the Tamils and “their” government.
In 1970, a “united front” of the SLFP, the LSSP, and the Communist Party came to power. It was a “left” government poisoned by communalism. It nationalised the plantations in 1975 and, in a series of state-capitalist measures, put the state effectively in control of trade and industry.
With a new constitution, in 1972, Buddhism in effect became the state religion; Sinhalese was enshrined anew as the state language; Ceylon became Sri Lanka. The “United Front” government later made some concessions to Tamil rights.
But it was too little, too late. By then many Tamils were militantly demanding a Tamil state (“Eelam”). In July 1983, Tamil guerrillas killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers. Within weeks, communal violence had led to the slaughter of hundreds of Tamils, the uprooting of at least 50,000 of them, and the beginning of a mass movement by Tamils towards the North.
War has raged, on and off, ever since. The Tamil side has been increasingly hegemonised by the “Tamil Tigers”, a ruthlessly militarist group which developed the use of suicide bombings before they became a common Islamist tactics, and is brutal against dissident Tamils and against Sinhalese-Buddhist and Muslim minorities in areas it has controlled.
As the NSSP, one of the Trotskyist groups in Sri Lanka today (splinters from the wreckage of the old LSSP), puts it: “The only unity possible is the voluntary union of the two nationalities. For this, recognition of the right of self determination of the Tamil people is a precondition. Acceptance of equality, autonomy, and the right of self-determination is the only basis for a democratic unity”.