The national conflict in Sri Lanka, so little reported in the mainstream UK media, is visibly deepening. In 2006, the recently elected president Mahinda Rajapakse in effect ended a ceasefire agreement brokered by the Norwegians in 2002.
The Sri Lankan Army launched an offensive on the east of the island to wrest control from the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), successfully capturing all its strongholds there. 220,000 people fled the area between April 2006 and March 2007, and their land was seized by the military for the establishment of free trade zones; most of these Tamil people still live in temporary shelter. Maybe 4,000 people were killed in this period, and throughout the small island, with a population of some 20 million, two million are internally displaced. In August 2006, the government shut down the A-9 motorway, isolating 600,000 Tamils in the Jaffna peninsula, and has maintained an iron grip on the island with seemingly permanent emergency laws and ever more draconian anti-terror measures allowing indefinite detention without trial.
Three Tamil MPs have been killed under Rajapakse, all critics of the government; the latest, Maheswaran, the only Tamil MP ever elected in the north from the main opposition party, was gunned down on New Year’s day this year. Maheswaran was due to report to parliament on 8 January about evidence he had of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party’s involvement in abductions and extrajudicial killings. The group’s leader, Douglas Devanda, is a close ally of the president. Other outspoken MPs have had their security removed either as a threat, or in the case of Maheswaran, a direct prelude to their assassination. The co-founder of the Civil Monitoring Commission, Mano Ganesan MP, still faces this fate for recording and exposing the litany of human rights abuses perpetrated by all sides.
In the face of mass opposition, Rajapakse had to withdraw his notification of October last year banning the publication of information about the war, yet in the last year 14 journalists have been killed and many newspapers, radio and TV stations have been shut down. Despite criticism of the government from all quarters being routinely branded as support for terrorism, protests against harassment of media workers spread last week to the main state run television company. After the fifth such attack by government goons last Friday, workers planned a protest for the Monday and were locked out of their premises by the state authorities; they then staged a sit in at Independence Square.
Following a 20% increase in military spending in last December’s budget, amounting to 30% of the entire annual government income, and the official and unilateral withdrawal from the peace agreement on 3rd January, the government’s only strategy now is to attempt to wipe out the LTTE once and for all, stepping up the increasingly hollow patriotic rhetoric, with pledges to do so by June, then August, then the end of the year.
Whatever the prospects of this, what is certain is that the misery of all the people of the island will become more intense, especially the Tamil population. Last December 18,000 troops were deployed in the Tamil areas of Colombo and ended up detaining over 2,000 Tamils, most of whom were released after even the most extreme of Singhalese chauvinists deemed the operation to be excessive. Earlier in the year non-resident Tamils in Colombo were rounded up to be evicted to Jaffna, though most were released and later invited back by Rajapakse.
Underlying and connected to this warmongering is an economy and ruling class in crisis, with Rajapakse seemingly willing to take things to the brink.
Inflation is the highest in south Asia, reaching 24% late last year. 40% of expenditure services the high interest debt accrued through years of war. The prices of basic food commodities and fuel have increased, as all around the world. However, December’s budget reintroduced import taxes on basic goods to fund the war, taxes that it had been forced to scrap the March before under pressure from an increasingly angry working-class.
Trade with the US, which accounts for 40% of exports, is threatened by the developing US recession, and diplomatic relations between the two countries are at a low, with the US cutting off military aid and publishing a scathing dossier on human rights abuses recommending UN monitoring, which it refused to withdraw after its ambassador was summoned and reproached.
The Sri Lankan government has managed all the same to find ready donors who raise no such stipulations on democracy and human rights. China, seeking resources and influence along the sea routes, in direct rivalry with India, has increased its assistance fivefold to nearly $1 billion, building a new motorway, a new port in Rajapakse’s home town and developing two power stations.
This clearly worries the Indian ruling class, who are also angry at the procurement of arms from Pakistan; India’s contributions have grown to nearly $500 million this year despite cutting off direct military support.
Similarly, last November 27, on the LTTE heroes’ day, while security was stepped up across the capital, Rajapakse was meeting the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; Iran has pledged some $1.6 billion in credit, mainly to purchase Iranian oil.
February 4 marked the 60th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence from the British empire. The ceremonies, a grotesque display of military might, was a grim stage-managed affair boycotted or avoided by all the opposition, and excluded any mass participation or celebration. Indeed, the capital was essentially a place of siege by the Rajapakse police state.
It’s worth recalling the prescient words of a Trotskyist leader Colvin de Silva at the the time in a statement entitled “Independence Real or Fake”, even though he later — in a mammoth betrayal — joined the chauvinist and capitalist government:
The essence of this change lies not in any passage of Ceylon from colonial status to the status of independence, but in the change-over of British imperialism in Ceylon from methods of direct rule to methods of indirect rule… The native exploiting classes of Ceylon have been handed over, well nigh completely, the task of administering British imperialism’s interests in Ceylon. British imperialism has retired into the background, although it has not in any sense abdicated.”
The government pushes forward with lay-offs and plans to privatise water and sell off the electricity board to foreign companies. What lirrle growth the country has achieved increases the gap between rich and poor. Some trade unions have warned that this year will be one of militant class action. There have been strikes among postal workers, health workers, on the plantations and on the docks, but the majority of unions are tied to the government or other parties supportive of the war. The ultra-chauvinist party of the Buddhist monks has called on trade unions to suspend all action to support this year of decisive war.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty last week signed the appeal issued by the NSSP, the Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International (see www.workersliberty.org/
story/2008/03/17/socialists-across-world-declare-solidarity-sri-lankas-tamils), in solidarity with the beleaguered and harassed Trotskyist movement in Sri Lanka, speaking out against war and chauvinism in defence of Tamil rights, fighting for working-class unity against a ruthless capitalist government in crisis.
In the a future issue of Solidarity, we will publish a more in depth history and analysis of the politics of Sri Lanka that have led to this current horrific state of affairs. Please contact me at email@example.com to discuss how socialists can develop solidarity work here in the UK with Sri Lankan socialists.