Sri Lanka: Tamil leaders fail to advocate vital
united mass struggle
Tamil organisations and self-proclaimed leaders in Sri Lanka have so far refused to come out clearly in support of bringing down the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime. With the position of ‘anybody but the Rajapaksas’ in the past, these leaders have even supported the former general who led the war on Tamils, the most right-wing UNP leadership, and even the SLFP-led coalition. Those forces that received the full support of Tamil leaders have never had any intention of ending the Rajapaksas’ rule or given any concession to Tamils or even accepted any key demands that were prominent among Tamils.
But the current mass protest movement has shown a tremendous determination to end the Rajapaksa family rule and some sections have come forward with supporting some demands of the Tamils. And yet not only do Tamil leaders refuse to give full support to the movement but some sections within their main party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), actively ask Tamils not to take part in the struggle. Two key reasons repeated by them were: “This is a struggle of the Sinhala masses to change their government and Tamils don’t have to be involved in this,” and “Not a single Sinhala person protested when Tamils were slain so Tamils will not come to the streets”.
It is possible to sympathise with those who have suffered in a brutal genocidal war. They have reasons to be bitter. No one came to their aid during the killings that took place in 2009. When tens of thousands of Tamils came to the streets in the UK and a number of western cities, the majority of Sinhala masses did not take part in these protests. The so-called Marxist party, the JVP, at that time, was in collaboration with the Rajapaksa regime. The ‘communist’ parties in India indirectly supported the war in the interest of ending the LTTE’s terrorism. Many anti-LTTE sections within the Tamil community also kept their silence and dismissed the protesters as LTTE supporters.
The mass media in every country simply ignored the massacre that was taking place in Sri Lanka. The initial resolution that the UN passed on this issue was to congratulate Sri Lanka for ending the war. Even the so-called ‘Stop the War Coalition’ in Britain refused to pass even a simple, strong resolution at its conference, despite the demands of Tamil activists taking part in the anti-war movement. This took place at the time when the Sri Lankan government had surrounded Tamils in the war region and driven them into a small strip of land and started killing them. But the self-proclaimed leaders in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka also did not support the mass struggle that emerged then. Many argued against the protesters, claiming that the British parliament and UN would take decisive action. After the end of the war, they focused on lobbying the UN and western parliaments as the only means of ‘struggle’.
Nobody in Sri Lanka came forward to organise any protest in the Tamil areas. It was not a fear of military repression that held them back, but their politics. Without exaggeration, it should be noted here that United Socialist Party (USP) was the only organisation in Sri Lanka that came forward to mount a campaign – and did all it could to oppose war and genocidal slaughter. They also became co-founders of the ‘Stop the Slaughter of Tamils’ campaign which later became Tamil Solidarity. There were a few other small Trotskyist organisations that stood strongly against the war and killing but refused to take any action.
The utter hypocrisy of Tamil leaders and other right-wing pro-capitalist individuals has nothing to do with how the victims of war feel. What these complete ignoramuses ignore is the fact that the Tamil masses are among the most affected by the current crisis. Should the Tamils accept the price rises in fuel and food, and starve? Are no Tamils affected by this crisis? Why preach to the Tamils they should not have a voice about the current economic deterioration? Then how can you expect them to go to vote in the next election? Why are Tamil leaders still sitting in the so-called ‘Sinhala parliament’ and still getting huge salaries?
Those who argue that Tamils have no business in ‘southern politics’ must answer these questions. Does Tamil political representation mean just electing members to the Sri Lankan parliament to support the UNP? Should Tamil political representatives not have any say in any of the policies carried by the parliament? Why do you then need an electoral party? And why go to parliament? Tamil elected ‘leaders’, with the exception of very few, had one thing in common. They consistently stood by their traditional right-wing allies in the south and voted with them on policies that attacked the working class and poor. Though there has been some change in recent times, this has been the history of Tamil parliamentarians for decades. Tamil nationalist rhetoric for them worked only as a cover to hide their right-wing political positions.
So-called self-proclaimed diaspora leaders were no different. They were happy to fall behind western governments rather than support any struggle – or build real opposition. They still consider themselves as friends of the Modi regime despite Tamil brothers and sisters in Tamil Nadu in general standing in opposition to Modi. Some even built ‘Trump for Tamils’ during Donald Trump’s presidency. This is the low level of political leadership that Eelam Tamils have. Most live in an imaginary statehood. Some well-to-do middle-class youth now follow in their footsteps. They occupy the political space of diaspora youth and push the working-class youth to the margin. However, no one openly says they are against building the struggle of Tamils as they fear losing support as a result. But in effect, they all stand in opposition to developing the serious struggle of the Tamil masses.
So-called Tamil leaders have so far failed to call for protests or Tamils to come out in opposition to the Gotabaya Regime. Most of them have never believed in the mass movement and never did anything to build the mass movement of Tamils in relation to any demands.
There is nothing much different this time. They are, however, not holding back on justifying the inaction of Tamils as though it is a ‘conscious political decision’ of Tamils in general. “Tamils are sceptical,” claims the Tamil Guardian, a completely right-wing dominated paper medium. “Tamil areas are quiet,” claimed another one with appreciation. While saying this, none argue for the escalation of protests or even support the protests that are taking place in the capital.
There is massive anger in Tamil areas against the Gotabaya government. This anger is now dominated by deteriorating economic and social conditions. This so far has not had a mass expression. Despite Tamil leaders holding back the protests, however, there were many going over the heads of these so-called leaders and protesting. If the movement develops further without an attack on Tamils, it is very likely that this will spread across the North and East. (There were mass protests taking place in Hill Country areas). The protest wave that has emerged in Sri Lanka still needs to go much further to become a strong, victorious movement. So far, the centre of these protests has been Colombo. Not only in the North, but many regions have not yet seen significant developments. However, Tamils and Muslims who live in the capital have joined the protests in significant numbers. As the movement develops, we are likely to see more actions taken in the northern areas too.
The point however is to call for action. So far, Tamil leaders have failed to lead. The Tamil Youth Organisation (TYO), a former strong Tamil youth group during the LTTE period that is now almost extinct, released a statement recently devoid of any political content. There is nothing in their statement except the usual call for recognition of the Tamil homeland. Of course, they did not forget to include calling on the so-called international community to deliver on this, as usual. Youth in the north are left leaderless in many senses. Some of them are intimidated enough that they think they will be considered pro-Sri Lankan government or pro-Sinhala if they come out and organise a protest. Meanwhile, the anti-LTTE loyalists are once again raising Lankan flag.
This situation also reflects the heightened national division that exists in Sri Lanka. So-called progressives, the Colombo elites, and the so-called Marxist organisations are all together preaching unity and equality at this stage. The slogan that ‘We are not Tamils, Muslims or Sinhala, we are Sri Lankan’ seems so progressive to a number of them. ‘Abi Sri Lankan’ (we are Sri Lankans) is a slogan that originated from Sinhala nationalists and was used by the Rajapaksas themselves. But the reality is different. There is no such equality in Sri Lanka. Even when the whole country hates Rajapaksa, what prevents these so-called ‘best layers’ from saying that he is also a war criminal? Leave aside the demand for national rights, why do many still refuse to acknowledge that killings have taken place? Why are the key demands of the Tamils carefully avoided?
The protesters so far have not shown any animosity towards Tamils or Muslims. In fact, there are incidents of caring and organising facilities for Muslims who turned up to the protest to end their fast in Ramadan. Protesters organised food and drink for all. Every mass movement brings the best out of humanity. From Sudan to Chile to Myanmar, we see numerous examples of self-organising, protecting each other, organising social needs, etc.
While these are great steps forward, they are still not enough. What demands the movement puts forward and what organisational steps are taken are crucial for the survival and the strength of the movement. Unity can only be forged by coming forward with inclusive demands and programmes that serve the interests of all. Such a discussion must start among the youth immediately.
Unfortunately, some of the big ‘Marxist’ organisations in Sri Lanka stand in the middle as an obstacle. The JVP, for example, refuses to change its old ways. While defending the unitary Sri Lankan state, most of the centres of their campaigns on pandering to Buddhist nationalist sentiment. The majority of the Sri Lankan left consider Tamil militants (the LTTE in particular) as either ‘terrorist’ or ‘fascist’, and will not tolerate any sympathy towards the past struggle. As a result, the only alliance they sought among Tamils is with the worst anti-social elements – who are much hated by the Tamils in general.
A very small section of former militants, bogus ‘intellectuals’, artists whose raison d’etre is simple opposition to LTTE, is what they lean on. These elements are not hated because they are considered ‘traitors’ by the Tamil nationalists, as they often claim, but mainly due to their collaborative politics and self-centred individualism. The ‘Sinhala left’ leans on these small and worst elements amongst the Tamil petty-bourgeois, which creates additional problems for them to reach out to the wider masses. This is another reason why they were never able to reach an active layer in the Tamil community. With their ‘Marxist’ rhetoric, they were very happy to hold on to the Sri Lankan flag while maintaining untouchability in relation to the LTTE flag.
Although the LTTE flag is blood-stained, it is also looked to by many of the younger generations who were born after the war as a symbol of struggle. How brutally the Sri Lankan military massacred the LTTE at the end of the war adds to this. This flag in the past was also associated with the attack against the Sinhala population, division of the country and attacks against the Muslim population, etc. In fact, it was the fearmongering of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists that created such hatred against Tamil militants. These wounds need to be healed.
The Tamil youth should be aware of the antagonism that exists against the past militarism and the mistakes made There is no going forward without acknowledging past mistakes. Similarly, the Sinhala youth must come forward to understand the plight of Tamils and their demands and understand the reason why it is still important to maintain certain traditions of past struggles.
What the JVP and Co. lean on amongst the Tamil community are the forces of class collaboration and those who do the politics of compromise. They stand diametrically opposed to all struggles. Some even call themselves ‘Marxist’ and ‘left’. But we must look beyond these words. See their actions and their alliances. Do not seek an alliance with them if you are to build a real united struggle.
At the same time, it should be common sense not just for the left of any progressive section to understand the antagonism that any national flag brings with it. Sri Lanka is probably the only nation where a so-called ‘Marxist party’ carries around the national flag and holds them at their events and marches. How can they hope to win the best Tamil youth to their side while holding the national flag and giving prominent space to Buddhist monks, etc? The JVP has never seriously departed from Sinhala chauvinism. This JVP tradition must be broken.
The Tamil Solidarity campaign (TS) has organised many open discussions about the mistakes of the past, the flag issues and the need for working with the Sinhala left and progressive forces. TS does not decide to work with anyone based on their ethnicity but on their political perspective. Though TS organises mainly among Tamil-speaking people, it has established very close links with many Sinhala activists. TS is not a socialist organisation, but it works closely with the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the United Socialist Party in Sri Lanka, and many other socialist organisations in various countries. TS also actively campaigns among the Tamil community for the need for a united struggle and the importance of having a flexible approach when it comes to building unity.
Organisations like the JVP were never able to advocate Tamil rights among the Sinhala working class. None of these so-called Marxist organisations, including a small Maoist organisation, are willing to accept Leninist views and policies on the national question. The fear of losing the working class if Tamil rights are acknowledged is a bogus fear and deliberate excuse. The reality is that many youths who turn towards these organisations are very open. The old leadership lingers on with their old ways. Youth must reject them and come forward to build a far-sighted Marxist organisation with a clear perspective.
Tamil Solidarity fully supports the protest movement that is taking place in Sri Lanka. TS argued in the past that it would support all trade union actions and mass action against the Gotabaya government, even if there were racist elements in its ranks. TS is fully aware of the impossibility of building ‘pure’ movements that can end this regime. People carrying the Sri Lankan national flag should not be seen as a barrier to taking part in a united struggle to bring down this regime, for example. TS has never supported any attack against the workers, farmers and poor in Sri Lanka.
Better conditions for all
This key demand of ending Gota’s regime and his family rule is connected with bringing better conditions for all. It does not mean support for the IMF, World Bank, Indian and Chinese states, or any right-wing opposition forces. TS strongly believes that new mass forces with far-sighted programmes must be built and we continue to advocate for it.
his of course will not be built by the coming together of left forces alone. It will have to be on the basis of wider numbers of working people coming together and drawing in all sections of society. This demands a programme that is acceptable and delivers on the demands of all. It will have to be on the agreement that all forms of oppression based on caste, gender, religion and ethnicity are opposed. Though the Sri Lankan government has committed heinous crimes against the Tamil and Muslim populations in the name of the wider Sinhala masses, the responsibility lay with the state alone.
The Sinhala masses are deceived by talk of Tamil ‘threats’ raised by right-wing regimes to maintain their power. Mass movements should distance themselves from the past crimes of these governments and serious action should be taken against the Rajapaksas. All assets of the Rajapaksas should be confiscated, and their crime against humanity and various corruption charges must be investigated.
Any serious movement will have to support all democratic rights. This can only be delivered by a government that is led by working people – a socialist government. As a start, a revolutionary constituent assembly should be organised by holding elections for representatives from all constituent parts of the country. Such an assembly could start the work on delivering all rights and better conditions for all.
The demands for national rights, including special (or national) rights of the Muslim people, should not be restricted. Tamils can be asked voluntarily to be part of Sri Lanka but it cannot be forced on them. Not just federal rights or autonomy, but the right to self-determination of Tamils should be respected.
On the basis of a united struggle, and with all full rights granted, Tamils could voluntarily choose to be part of the confederation to plan the resources for all. Bringing about such unity is not only entirely possible but also will have a huge impact on the whole South Asia region, leading the way forward for a South Asian Confederation of socialist states.