The collapse of the ethno-nationalist project of the LTTE and the Tamil Question in Sri Lanka

We received this interesting comment on the recent brutal crushing of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. It highlights the responsibilities firstly of the Sri Lankan ruling elite and its imperialist backers, but also of the leaders of the labour movement in failing to offer an alternative in the past, and of the LTTE leaders, who organised their war from a purely nationalist point of view, offering nothing concrete to the workers and peasants.

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

The ethnic conflict took a toll upon around 80,000 human lives, before leaving the question of the ethnic repression of Tamils unresolved. The recent offensive undertaken by the Sri Lankan government to uproot the LTTE, has resulted in one of the biggest human tragedies in South Asia, over several decades. Apart from the cadres of the LTTE who perished in the war, stepped up since January 2009, 7000 civilians were killed and 16,781 wounded. The Sri Lankan Army lost 6,261 soldiers, with 29, 551 injured and 2,556 permanently disabled. According to an estimate of the UN, more than three hundred thousand 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 to more than 160,000 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.

The Sri Lankan bourgeois, in order to defend its rule, raised an army which is the largest on the globe in proportion to the size of the population and of the country. It already had an army of 120,000 by 2007, which it had replenished with the induction of a further 80,000 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, the 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 the success achieved in it by the Colombo establishment, would have been improbable. By keeping the war plans a secret, the Sri Lankan government succeeded in luring the Sinhalese youth for recruitment in the Army and then used it as cannon fodder to win the war against the LTTE. Even during the war, the Rajapakse government banned all reporting of the conflict from the war zone, while denying access both to foreign and local media in the zone, with express orders to prevent a public outrage on the enormously huge casualties and loss of human lives.

After wiping out the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government has unfolded its plans to further reinforce the already colossal armed forces, by raising its strength to a soldiery of 300,000, which would mean one and a half times 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.

Map of Sri LankaThe Sri Lankan island is inhabited by around 20 million people, out of which 16% are Tamils, spread over the northern and eastern parts of the highland, 8% Moslems who are mostly Tamil speaking and the rest 75% Sinhalese, who occupy the larger south of the island. After occupation of the island, the British colonialists had transported Tamils from India to Sri Lanka, mostly to work as labourers in the tea plantations. While the working class in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) was one of the most radical sections of the world proletariat and had played an immense role in the anti-colonial national liberation movement, through its party the Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) and later the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI) whose members made immense sacrifices, but 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.

Before 1946, the 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 political power, handing over the establishment of the Island to it in 1948, to look after their interests in absentia. The native 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 classes of Sri Lanka and India. It borrowed the ready-made project of national development, like other decolonised countries, from world capitalism, and thus failed to resolve even a single basic problem, including that of nationality, ethnicity, etc. Entrenched in the social crisis, and threatened by the revolutionary proletariat, it resorted to the most reactionary elements, traditions and forces of the past for reliance on and support for its regime. Its fragile regime, however, managed to stabilise itself again and again, in the face of uninterrupted crises, thanks to the betrayals by the leadership of the working class.

The strength of the LSSP, on the eve of transfer of power to the native 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 which was under the leadership of the Trotskyist LSSP, which could be done only by dividing the working class along ethnic lines. The bourgeois has learnt this lesson from the colonial legacy of “divide and rule”. Immediately after taking power in Colombo, the government of the rightist UNP thus got passed the most controversial enactment - ‘The Citizenship Act, 1948’ whereby the Tamil Plantation workers of the highlands 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 the most violent pogroms against Tamil civilians, through Sinhalese chauvinist groups. This Act has virtually sowed the seeds of ethnic conflicts of the future between Sinhalese and Tamils.

Drawing by LatuffDrawing by Latuff In 1953, the rightist elite government of the 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 the 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 the strength of the 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. Bhandaranaike, draped in the Buddhist cloak, which came to power in the 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 between the two communities and this was the avowed aim of the ruling bourgeois.

These were unfortunate times, as the LSSP fell into the trap of coalition politics with the bourgeois parties. The leadership of the so-called Fourth International, which the LSSP was a part of, had lost its orientation. With the re-stabilisation of capitalism on a world scale, this organisation adapted to the new conditions and misdirected its national sections in their individual countries. Leaders like Pablo and Mandel, at that time, did not see any need for an independent movement of the working class either globally or nationally. According to their thinking, under the changed conditions the old parties themselves would be forced to take to a radical path. With this perspective, the LSSP tragically ended up sharing the path with the Stalinist Communist Party of Sri Lanka and entered into collaboration with the SLFP, a bourgeois formation, and supported its government. In 1964, the LSSP members entered into the government itself along with the Stalinist CP, revealing the reformist tendencies that had come to dominate within the party. It formed a United Front not just with the Communist Part, but also with the SLFP, thus transforming the alliance from a United Front of left parties into a classical Popular Front of workers’ parties with bourgeois parties. That front won landslide victory in the 1970 general elections. It introduced a few reforms such as the nationalisation of the plantations, still under the control of foreigners and bringing down the drug prices, but the 1972 constitution prepared under the supervision of the then LSSP leaders, not only restated the privileged positions of Buddhism as the state religion and Sinhalese as the sole official language, it also introduced quotas for Sinhalese in admissions to Universities and employment in the Public Sector.

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

Rohana Wijeweera led a split of radical youth from the Communist Party and created the Maoist leaning JVPRohana Wijeweera led a split of radical youth from the Communist Party and created the Maoist leaning JVP The betrayal of the working class, on the part of the LSSP leaders, was directly responsible for the emergence of communal forces like the Maoist Janata Vimukti Peramuma (JVP), and the separatist LTTE. In 1970, Rohana Wijeweera, organised the JVP mainly from among the Sinhalese students and youth, with a program to bring down the coalition government of Bhandaranaike through urban armed resistance. The movement was soon crushed by the government, with the death of more than 15,000 young activists. The JVP leaders retreated to hiding in the rural areas, but were wiped out by the army. The JVP then turned to parliamentary politics and gradually shifted its position to one of Sinhalese chauvinism rendering support to the bourgeois establishment. In 1980, three Trotskyist activists were killed by the JVP.

The LSSP leaders having had illusions in the bourgeois politicians, once they had been used to hold back the mass movement, were kicked out of the “United Front” government. In the 1977 general elections the LSSP paid a heavy price for its popular frontist politics, losing massively, with the UNP once again coming to power. The UNP immediately started a wave of rabid “liberalisation” policies through economic counter-reforms shifting the burden onto the shoulders of the working class and savagely attacking the labour movement. In opposition to the policies of the UNP government, a strike of the railway workers began, which soon turned into a general strike. The government crushed this strike by jailing all the labour leaders and organising lumpen elemenst on a large scale to attack the strikers.

The failure of strike and the betrayal on the part of the leaders of the LSSP, created an environment of hopelessness and desperation among the working class and a defeatist mood took over for a period, which was accentuated by the stabilisation of the economy through “liberalisation” and counter-reforms. Taking advantage of this general depression and fragmentation of the working class movement, 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.

To their credit, the youth leagues of the LSSP were deployed to protect the Tamils from the thugs, but in the absence of an effective resistance from the working class, state terror became the device with which to widen the ethnic divide. As the Tamil parliamentary opposition remained totally ineffective, activists in the youth wing of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the largest formation of Tamil bourgeois, organised itself into a militant wing and formed the LTTE. Calling for a separate Tamil homeland, the LTTE engaged in armed conflicts and ambushed an army convoy on 23 July 1983, killing 13 soldiers. This resulted in a 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 historically the main responsibility lies on the shoulders of the LSSP leaders in the past, who instead of maintaining an independent class position had entered into coalition politics with the bourgeois and had thus betrayed the cause of the proletarian revolution, which then provided a space for this war.

As for the LTTE, since the days of its emergence, it remained a petty bourgeois organisation, with a limited and reactionary separatist programme 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 divide between the working class of both communities. It relied upon the same rabid communalism against the Sinhalese working class, as the Sinhalese chauvinists did against Tamil workers. It started with 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 even 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 the Tamils in Sri Lanka is part of history. Even after its illegalisation, the 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, although being no match for the colossal power of the Sri Lankan state and imperialism as a whole, which Rajapakse could thus mobilise against. Even then, the LTTE continued to appeal to the United Nations, a forum dominated by the big powers, in the hope of mobilising support of sections of the big powers for its project of a separate Tamil homeland.

However, these illusions of the LTTE in the big powers, proved fatal. The big powers, continued to play a double game, by assisting in aggravating 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 ends. In 2008, China sold $75 million dollars’ worth of weapons to the Sri Lankan government. In 2007 India had supplied arms worth $21 million; in 2006 the Ukraine supplied weaponry worth $22 million and finally Israel sold arms to the tune of $16 million in the year 2000. China assisted the Colombo government by time and again playing down international criticism of the mass civilian killings carried out on the island and in turn was given a strong strategic foothold in Sri Lanka by wining access to a key port on the island, near to the world’s premier shipping lanes.

Thousands of Tamil civilians were staying in government camps after fleeing the fighting in the north. Photo by Zelmira Sinclair/UNHCR.Thousands of Tamil civilians were staying in government camps after fleeing the fighting in the north. Photo by Zelmira Sinclair/UNHCR. The LTTE never raised an issue against the acute exploitation of the Tamil Tea plantation workers in the highlands. The concept of Tamil Ealem, as perceived by the LTTE, remained through and through the idea of a bourgeois statelet on the island. This was the idea favoured by the aspirant Tamil bourgeois who wanted to establish direct links to world capitalism through its own political power over an independent Tamil Ealem, by-passing the bourgeois establishment in Colombo under Sinhalese domination. Many times it has repeated the idea that the models for Tamil Ealem are 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. The LTTE never proved itself to be any different from the Colombo establishment, as far as its class and political character go. In the region under its domination, it treated the Sinhalese minority in the same way as the Tamil minority was treated in the south. Its dreamland of Tamil Ealem, even if realised, would not have been different in any fundamental manner to 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 due its limited nationalist perspective that the 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 power bourgeois states, on whose support it counted for its success, betrayed it at the crucial moment. Even the conscious sections of the Tamil working class had turned their back on its campaign for a separate Tamil homeland, realising that it meant nothing but another capitalist state. The limited support it could mobilise among the Tamil youth, could not validate its otherwise essentially invalid programme of establishing a capitalist Tamil statelet. The support behind it was in essence the result of a 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 away because of the proximity of the leaders of the LTTE to the rich and because of 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, the LTTE leaders had ordered their forces to fire upon the fleeing Tamil civilians from the war zone.

In our epoch, there being no scope for any combined national project of the working class and the bourgeois, much less in the countries with a belated development, the slogan of the national state has lost the meaning it once had. The struggle against national oppression and for national liberation, so far as it has any meaning and relevance for the working class, is an integral part and subordinate to its historic task of social liberation. Separated from the task of social liberation, the national question loses its essential meaning for the working class. Only the rightist and centrist petty bourgeois advocates still chant the sermon of the nation-state as an intra-class concept and not as a genuine social liberation. For us Leninists, the theoretical meaning of the “right to self-determination of the nation, even up to secession” has always been a recognition of the right to secede combined with a political resolve on our part against the national oppression of minorities. While we defend the right to secede, we do not raise the demand of secession and division of states into statelets. These divisions run counter to the interests of the working class and are the agenda of an aspirant native bourgeois.

Doubtlessly, the cadres of the LTTE have displayed an enormous spirit of 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 cadres must not deter us from evaluating, from the standpoint of the working class, the shortcomings of the politics of the LTTE leadership and from calling into question the correctness of their perspective, under which this war was prepared and fought.

The true liberation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka will come from the future struggles of the workers, peasants and poor, against the policies of the bourgeois and landlord elite on the island. The road advocated by the LTTE leaders has failed. Another road is possible, and it can only be found on the path to socialism.