The recent rally in Jaffna, a Tamil populated capital in the Northern province of Sri Lanka, under the banner “Ezhuka Tamil” (Rise Up Tamils!) has once again posed the question of Tamil self-determination to the fore since the bloody defeat of Tamil Tigers 7 years ago. This demonstration is an indicator of swelling discontent among the Tamil minorities. Despite Sri Lankan State’s victory over the armed separatist Tigers the national question has not been solved in Sri Lanka and the misery of the Tamil population in the North and Eastern provinces have only worsened.
On September 24, tens of thousands of Tamils flooded the streets of Jaffna with posters and banners with various demands that call for the recognition of Tamil’s political and national rights. Shops and businesses in Jaffna shut down in solidarity to recognize the biggest Tamil demonstration since the end of the civil war 7 years ago. Thousands of demonstrators gathered to demand an end to the militarisation, an end to state-sponsored Sinhala-Buddhisization of the Tamil population, an international investigation into mass atrocities committed during and after the civil war, unconditional and immediate release of political prisoners, and the resolution of Tamil national question. Banners and posters littered the air calling for the ‘freedom of the Tamil homeland from Sri Lankan military occupation’.
The leader of the “Ezhuka Tamil” rally was Chief Minister CV Vigneswaran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an alliance group of moderate Tamil nationalist parties. The TNA has a political foothold in Northern and Eastern provinces. While advocating for a federalism and autonomy solution for the Tamil provinces it have been closely aligned with the Sri Lankan ruling party, paying lip service to the grievances of the Tamil masses and using them as a bargaining chip for their own interest.
Vigneswaran himself has recently created a rift in the alliance with his more radical approach to Tamil national question. Upset that TNA has been adopting a moderate line, Vigneswaran broke rank and advocated for Tamils to vote for what he considered “genuine and un-buyable” Tamil nationalists. Vigneswaran has moved to endorsing the more radical Tamil nationalist party, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). In fact, the concluding remarks from the demonstration was from TNPF leader Gajen Ponnambalam who declared that state’s unitary solution was unacceptable and the political aspirations of the Tamil minority towards self-determination and separate homeland must be realized.
The organization of the “Ezhuka Tamil” rally itself, which was led by Vigneswaran, was an indication of a developing split amongst the nationalists, between the moderate camp that seeks negotiation with the Sri Lankan state and the more radical camp that realizes the futility of negotiation alone and would like to press harder for a Tamil homeland. The radical Tamil nationalists can feel the brewing discontent of the Tamil working masses, whose living conditions have worsened since the end of the civil war 7 years ago. They are taping, though hesitantly, into this seething anger, which was demonstrated by the size and militancy of the “Ezhuka Tamil” demonstration. True to their cowardice nature, however, Vigneswaran has attempted to distance himself from the more controversial slogans of “Ezhuka Tamil” rally, claiming that the rally was misinterpreted by the southern Sinhalese media. But in reality the masses never misinterpret their own militant mood during the rally. Radical nationalists of Vigneswaran-type always doubt not only themselves but also the masses, and hence their readiness to backtrack when under pressure.
7 years after the Sri Lankan Civil War: Where do the Tamils stand today?
Seven years after the brutal defeat of the Tamil separatist movement, the Sri Lankan and Tamil ruling class thought they have solved the national question in Sri Lanka by propping up a new government. But the lingering militarization of the northern part of the island and the intensifying poverty throughout this part of the island has made it clear that nothing has been solved fundamentally. The Sri Lankan civil war, known as one of the biggest human tragedies in South Asia, raged throughout the island for 26 years, finally ending in 2009. The defeat of the Tamil separatist movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was achieved through an aggressive state military offensive that killed an estimated 70,000 Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone during the final months of the civil war, a fact that the Sri Lankan state still denies up until today. In total, over 100,000 civilians were killed in the conflict that started in 1983.
The horrific war crimes committed by the state and the military in the final months of the war soaked the soil of northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka with blood. Four months leading up to the end of the war, the Rajapaksa government rallied together over 40,000 Tamil civilians in a safe ‘no fire zone’ in efforts to ‘corner’ the Tigers. After setting up the no fire zone, the military shelled the civilians to death. They also targeted hospitals, food storages and cut off medical supplies. In 2009, the world and Sri Lanka watched thousands of Tamil civilians bombed, raped, tortured and executed at the hands of the military.
While the civil war officially ended in 2009, the horrors of state brutality, poverty, unemployment and despair persist today. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) has reported that more than 70,000 people were still internally displaced in the Northern and Eastern provinces as late as July 2015, 6 years after the end of the civil war, with the majority being Tamil and Muslim minorities. Those who have returned back to the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka now face widespread unemployment, miserable housing conditions and military occupation. Military occupation ensures that people’s land is handed over to the state for private investment opportunities, leaving farmers with no land and fishers with no right to fish. The same report pointed out that in 2014 at least 160,000 soldiers, mostly Sinhalese, were stationed in the North. The Tamil population in the North is just over 1 million, which means that we have one army member for every six civilians. Peace and prosperity that was promised after the end of civil war has never materialized. Today Tamil workers and farmers are trapped in hellish conditions.
UN’s imperialist role in Sri Lanka’s Civil War
One of the demands of the “Ezhuka Tamil” demonstration is for the UN to hold an international inquiry into war crimes and the current militarization of the state. This follows UN Human Rights resolution in October 2015 that calls for a domestic-led inquiry into the war crimes committed by the military and the state in the final months of the civil war, a resolution that many Tamils rightfully feel is inadequate. As a matter of fact the resolution has been cynically drafted to protect the interests of all different ruling parties involved. The wording of the resolution was made vague and ambiguous enough so that whatever inquiry team put together will not have any real teeth to pursue justice for the victims. It is drafted in such a way as to protect the “democratic credibility” of the UN and the main sponsor of the resolution, the U.S., and shield senior figures in ex-president Rajapaksa’s government and military from punishment. The sham of domestic inquiry is already demonstrated by the fact that Sirisena had stated in his election manifesto that he would not allow any political leader to be prosecuted for alleged war crimes. This does not come as surprise, since any genuine inquiry might actually point fingers at Sirisena and his circle, who were part of the Rajapaksa’s government during the end of the civil war.
Although many Tamil workers and peasants are pinning their hopes on UN-led international inquiry we must be clear that the UN is anything but a neutral non-political body. The illusion that an international inquiry could provide peace for the lives of Tamils is just as false as a Sirisena’s promised domestic inquiry. The economic relationships between China, Russia and Sri Lanka had shielded Sri Lanka from being targeted for war crimes at the UN Security Council in the final stretch of the civil war in 2009.
China has invested in many of the naval ports in Sri Lanka to complete a “string of pearls” strategy to secure port access in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean. In an attempt to loosen the grip of China Sirisena has stated that he might scrap large infrastructure projects that were agreed upon with China. However the biggest project to date still resumes. China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), a subsidiary of the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) has started new construction at the Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, which when completed will be the largest port in South Asia. While China has promised to create one million jobs with a proposal to purchase 15,000 acres of land around the port, these jobs will one of low pay and long hours. Meanwhile CHEC was implicated in bribe scandals with the former President of Sri Lanka Rajapaksa, as it funneled $1.1 million to Rajapaksa re-election campaign in 2015 through various proxies in a bid to keep Rajapaksa in power as his regime had been the friendliest to the Chinese interest. It is this same economic interest that secures the Sri Lankan State a Chinese veto at the UN Security Council that prevented any discussion of temporary ceasefire to help Tamil civilians trapped on the front line during the final offensive in 2008-09.
US imperialism also has an interest in Sri Lanka. By the end of 2009 the US had developed closer ties with India while they watched Sri Lanka receive billions of dollars-worth of foreign investment from China. But the removal of Rajapaksa from the government and with it his policy of Sino-Sri Lankan development has now made American interests in Sri Lanka tenable. The US is intent on securing energy resources from the Persian Gulf and maintaining the free flow of trade in the Indian Ocean, and a transit port of Sri Lanka which is located in the southern tip of India is vital for this trade route. In May 2015, the US sent John Kerry to the island for the first official visit by a US Secretary of State in a decade to build new economic and political tie.
With different imperialist interests vying for economic and political influence in the island, it becomes clear that the UN – which is nothing but a den of imperialist thieves – would not be able to guarantee justice for the victims of the civil war, let alone solve the Tamil national question. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government long resisted taking any steps to investigate and prosecute any war crimes by the government forces, and the Chinese State has shielded this regime in order to preserve a peaceful business coalition. The more pro-US Sirisena regime today is following the same footsteps despite their chatter about democratic reforms.
Changing Political Landscape
The victory of Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015, and the ouster of Rajapaksa, signified a changing political landscape in the island. The ruling party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), was split down in the middle, with two presidential candidates from its rank. One faction of the party supported the incumbent Rajapaksa while the other faction rallied around Sirisena during the presidential election. We had a curious spectacle where the United National Party (UNP), the traditional rival of SLFP, threw its support for Sirisena, a SLFP candidate.
Coming into the presidential election, Rajapaksa was certain that he would secure his third term. After all he oversaw the defeat of LTTE and brought “peace” to the island ravaged by decades of civil war. But years of corruption, authoritarian rules, and incompetence in improving the lots of the poor in Sri Lanka was not lost to the toiling masses. Once the carnival of “peace” is over, all of the contradictions in the Sri Lankan society came to the fore.
During Rajapaksa’s presidency the violence unleashed on the Tamil minority and the rebel groups was designed to distract the workers and peasants from his nefarious antics of financial corruption. Rajapaksa and his 130 close relatives in positions of political influence were involved in state enterprises and ultimately used the war against the LTTE to consolidate family rule. His family and its close supporters controlled nearly 70% of the country budget through their portfolios. The past government cleared the government coffers and made the working class of Sri Lanka pay for extravagant expenses and corrupt foreign deals. Sri Lanka now drowns in debt and the country teeters off the brink of bankruptcy and signing additional deals with the IMF for more bailouts. The state owes up $64.9 billion to foreign financiers and the country’s debt-to-GDP currently stands around 75%. Around 95 % of all government revenue is going towards debt repayment, thus leaving very little for social programs for the poor. The country is in a deep crisis.
Sirisena came to power promising reforms at all levels. It is a classic attempt by the ruling class to bring reforms from the top to prevent revolution from below. Rajapaksa and his close circle had not only discredited the ruling party SLFP in the eyes of the masses but also the whole edifice that is capitalism, and thus a section of the ruling class - represented by Sirisena – moved against him to protect the whole system.
Sirisena’s victory could not have been done without appealing to Tamil minorities and other Christian and Muslim minorities on the island. Rallying the Tamil vote in the northern regions of the island was the Tamil National Alliance, who threw their support to Sirisena on the condition that he recognizes the right to autonomy for the Tamils, moves forward with demilitarization, and repeals the Prevention of Terrorism Act that has been used primarily to politically persecute the Tamils. However after more than one year grovelling under the Sirisena regime, the TNA found that nothing has fundamentally changed and the Tamil masses whose living conditions worse with each passing day are growing impatient. Crack begins to appear in the bourgeois TNA, as indicated by the rebelling Vigneswaran and the “Ezhuka Tamil” rally.
The National Question Unresolved
Seven years after the decisive defeat of the Tamil nationalist armed struggle, the national question in Sri Lanka remains unsolved. The continued military presence in Tamil areas makes Sri Lanka in a very literal sense “a prison house” for the Tamil people. Furthermore, the Tamil toiling masses face not only political persecutions but also economic hardship imposed on them that is becoming increasingly unbearable every day. Tamil youth face high unemployment rate, about 60 percent in main northern towns such as Mullaitivu, Jaffna and Kilinochchi as of 2014. The median household income in the North is about $37 per month, while the national figure is at $53. Land grab has become more extensive since the end of the war, with the army occupying lands from displaced Tamils for lucrative large-scale property development, construction projects and many other business ventures that will fill their pockets.
The resolution of Tamil’s national question is therefore linked to the question of jobs, bread, and land. The Tamil youth, workers, and peasants consider the attainment of the right to self-determination as intrinsically connected to the solution of their economic problems. And the “Ezhuka Tamil” rally was the first shot for the reawakening of the Tamil masses to fight for their rights to determine their own fate freely and with dignity. Through this mass mobilization the Tamil youth, workers and peasants has struck fear not only to the hearts of the politicians in Colombo but also the Tamil bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist leaders in the TNA who is worried that the participation of the masses – whom they consider to be “politically uneducated” - could ruin their neatly prepared negotiation tactics with Colombo. The Sinhalese ruling classes are quick to order the TNA leaders to take the rein on the Tamil nationalist movement lest it goes out of control, and the latter is only ready to grovel to the former to protect their position at the head of the movement.
“Ezhuka Tamil” rally shows us a glimpse of what can be achieved with the method of mass mobilization, i.e. direct participation of the masses in the political arena. The bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaders of TNA show nothing but contempt to mass action. Meanwhile they have nothing to show with their so-called “moderate and measured” tactics of parliamentary negotiation. As a matter a fact it is the abject failure of their moderate and compromising methods to improve the lots of the Tamil toiling masses that sparked the “Ezhuka Tamil”. This does not mean that the past LTTE’s method of so-called armed struggle is the solution. The leadership of LTTE was petty bourgeois nationalists with arms in hand, and they shared with the current TNA leaders the same contempt to direct mass revolutionary actions. They are but two sides of the same coin.
What is lacking today in Sri Lanka is a revolutionary organization tempered in the idea of Marxism and Bolshevism, that is capable of: 1) waging the struggle for Tamil’s right to self-determination through mass revolutionary actions based on the working class in alliance with the peasants; 2) connecting the struggle for the right to self-determination with the struggle for socialism, because under capitalism even a formally independent Tamil Eelam would still be at the mercy of imperialism; 3) drawing a clear class demarcation with Tamil bourgeois and liberal elements that cannot be trusted and will betray the movement; 4) fighting under the banner of proletariat internationalism, which in the first instance means putting the class unity of Tamil and Sinhalese working class above everything else. It is only with such organization that the revolutionary energy of the masses, like the one we witnessed at the “Ezhuka Tamil” rally and also many other mass demonstrations currently breaking out in Sri Lanka, can be harnessed to break the chain of oppression that bind the Sri Lankan toiling masses. Any organization that does not ground itself on Marxism and Bolshevism will inevitably find itself capitulating to chauvinism and consequently leading the struggle to bloody defeat. The task of the new generation of revolutionary fighters in Sri Lanka, on both side of the divide, is to return to revolutionary Marxism, to the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, to learn from past mistakes and build anew a Bolshevik organization free from the burdens of past defeats. We call on revolutionary Sri Lankan youth and workers to join the ranks of International Marxist Tendency as we build revolutionary Marxist organizations all over the world.