The National Question in Sri Lanka
This article is a shortened version of a pamphlet of the same name issued by the Revolutionary Workers Party of Sri Lanka. Although it was originally published in 1984, the analysis put forward here by Edmund Samarakkody has just as much bearing on the political situation today, for his prediction that "the National Question is and will remain one of the most explosive questions in Sri Lanka for years to come" has proved entirely accurate.
The events which have taken place since this piece was written should be briefly summarised. The intensification of repression by J.R. Jayewardene’s United National Party (UNP) government escalated into a full-scale war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil liberation movement, a phase of the conflict now known as Eelam War I. Unable to crush the Tamil movement, and fearing invasion by India, in 1987 the UNP government invited the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to enter the North-East to impose a settlement. However, the dominant Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), refused to accept this imposed settlement, and in the face of continued LTTE resistance the IPKF was forced to withdraw by early 1990. The UNP government then resumed its own war against the LTTE.
The emptiness of the UNP government’s assurances that this war – Eelam War II – would be over within months was soon exposed, and as the conflict dragged on with no end in sight the Sinhalese masses in the South became increasingly war-weary. The result was the election in 1994 of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Peoples Alliance (PA) government. A coalition dominated by the bourgeois Sri Lanka Freedom Party, but also including the Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the PA was elected largely because of its pledge to end the war. However, although a temporary cease-fire was agreed with the LTTE, once in office the PA made no real progress towards negotiating a permanent peace settlement. In April 1995 the LTTE declared that the cease-fire was over and resumed military operations against the government forces, ushering in Eelam War III.
Since then the Sri Lankan Army has registered some successes against the LTTE, notably in taking the Tigers’ stronghold of Jaffna. These military advances have been achieved at the cost of enormous suffering by the Tamil civilian population in the North. The LTTE, meanwhile, has not been destroyed but has retreated into the jungle to continue guerilla operations against the occupying army. A solution to the National Question in Sri Lanka seems as far away as ever.
Attempts by the Tamil people to win equal rights with the Sinhalese through agitation and peaceful methods have been used by the Sinhala bourgeoisie to develop anti-Tamil sentiment among the Sinhalese over the years. Whenever limited mobilisation of the Tamil masses in furtherance of winning equal rights took place, the Sinhala bourgeois governments have answered with repression. The Tamils found that repeated attempts of the Tamil leaders in the Tamil Congress and Federal Party to co-exist and co-operate with the Sinhala bourgeois parties, the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP),3 and their governments were of no avail. It was then that in 1972 the Tamils re-organised themselves into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and adopted the demand for a separate Tamil State – Eelam.4 It is the fact that the 1977 election manifesto of the Jayewardene-led UNP government admitted that it was the failure of previous governments to grant the rights of the Tamils, that led them to demand a separate state.
What happened in and after 1977 when the UNP regime commenced is too well known. Systematic police harassment and violence against Tamil youth in the North led the Tamil youth to take up arms to defend themselves. Continued police and army violence against Tamil youth led to a more determined resistance and armed defensive actions by the youth. The government’s response was the use of South Africa-type repressive legislation, and the sending of an army of occupation to the North.
It was clear from the outset that the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom was part of the plan of the UNP government in its further repression and suppression of the Tamil people.5 It was simply the implementation of a plan of genocide of the Tamil people. And the destruction by violence and arson of the residences, business houses and factories run by Tamils is proof that the break-up of the economic base of the Tamils was the aim of the planners of the pogrom. It was abundantly plain that the beneficiaries of the destruction of the economic base of the Tamils were not mere looters and vagabonds. The beneficiaries were the Sinhala bourgeoisie.
The further proof that the Jayewardene bourgeois government was behind the anti-Tamil movement and the pogrom is what they did, through parliament, even while this pogrom was still continuing. Through the black anti-Eelam law it rushed through parliament, the 16 TULF MPs were sacked from the Assembly.6 Even as the hill-country Tamils, the plantation workers, were disfranchised in 1948 by the first government of the Sinhala bourgeoisie, even so in 1983 the rest of the Tamils have been disfranchised under this law.
It is the reality today that social, political and economic relations between the Tamils and the Sinhalese have been ruptured to such a degree that any kind of common or joint economic activity has become impossible. This means that 3 million Tamils have broken with the government which they see as their destroyer. This further means that the government will resort to more and more repression. And, inevitably, this means that the armed defensive actions of the Tamil youth in furtherance of Eelam will continue. Thus the National Question is and will remain one of the most explosive questions in Sri Lanka for years to come.
National unity and the imperialists
However, although the Portuguese took over the Tamil kingdom and the kingdom of the Sinhalese in the South (not the Kandyan Sinhalese Kingdom), they did not seek to establish a unified state. They had no problem of realising national unity as their perspective was not to build a capitalist economy but to use their newly-won territory for trading, i.e., exporting cinnamon, etc. In fact they did not seek to bother about setting up a unified administration for these two states, the Sinhala kingdom and Tamil kingdom, that they had conquered. Instead, they had separate administrations for the areas of the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Dutch also continued along the same lines.
It was only after British rule was established that for the first time there was a unified administration for the whole of Ceylon. It was easy to understand that England, which was even then to a large extent an industrially developed and developing country, needed to develop Ceylon in its own image, i.e. to develop a capitalist economy. It followed that one of the essential tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, i.e. the break-up of the feudal state, paradoxically as it would appear, was ushered into Ceylon by the British imperialists. This revolution did not develop from the people but was imposed militarily from the top. What the British did was to superimpose capitalism over the feudal economy which they broke up. Hence, the colonialist plantation economy; that is to say they commenced with capitalism in agriculture and not capitalism in the manufacturing sector.
This setting up of a distorted capitalist economy, and its continuation as such, meant that the essential bourgeois democratic tasks could only be partially accomplished. The manifestation in this regard is found in the unresolved national question in the country.
While the British rulers set about establishing a centralised and unified administration for the whole of Ceylon, there was no attempt at the welding of the nation through uniting the Sinhala and Tamil nations into a single nation on the basis of equal rights for the Sinhala and Tamil people. Connected with the same question of welding the nation for creating the conditions for building of capitalism was the need to end not only national oppression, but also caste and religious oppression.
But we know that the oppression by the Sinhala nationality of the Tamil nationality not only remained but grew. We know how intolerance by Buddhists of other religious minorities remained and grew likewise. We further know caste oppression was a reality throughout the period of British rule and even continued thereafter.
The Sri Lankan bourgeoisie and national unity
And with regard to nationalities and the recognition of equal rights for Tamils vis-à-vis the majority nationality – the Sinhalese cause – in all social, economic and political respects, is crystallised in the right to self-determination, i.e. the right to have a separate state. The right of self-determination of a nation cannot be defined as other than the right to a separate state.
However, as it happened in other backward countries in the epoch of the proletarian revolution, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie having arrived belatedly, and facing the reality of the class struggle, was reactionary in relation to imperialism. It never wanted nor launched any struggle against imperialism, and in the context did not have the need to mobilise any nationalities or other minority groups in that regard. It obtained political power by manoeuvring against other sections of the people and through conspiracy with imperialism. Concretely, thereafter, the Sinhala bourgeoisie won privileges against the Tamils and other groups whilst the imperialist power looked on. In return the imperialists gained a neo-colonialist relationship with the Sinhala bourgeois governments.
The right of nations to self-determination
In its heyday, the national democratic movement was a potent generator of material, moral and cultural advancement for the people. Up to now, national movements, in so far as they are movements to overcome national oppression, remain progressive. This is so especially in the backward countries and among nationalities which are economically and politically subject to capitalist/imperialist oppression, foreign or native, and which have yet to achieve or complete their revolution.
On the question of the meaning and relevance of national movements, one could do no better than let Lenin speak:
"Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.
"Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. The most profound economic factors drive towards this goal, and, therefore, for the whole of Western Europe, nay, for the entire civilised world, the national state is typical and normal for the capitalist period....
"We cannot say whether Asia will have had time to develop into a system of independent national states, like Europe, before the collapse of capitalism, but it remains as undisputed fact that capitalism, having awakened Asia, has called forth national movements everywhere in that continent too; that the tendency of these movements is towards the creation of national states in Asia; that it is such states that ensure the best conditions for the development of capitalism."7
We can now see that in regard to the question of national movements we are in the sphere of bourgeois problems – problems that vitally concern the interests of capitalist development; that concretely in regard to Sri Lanka the Tamil National Question is one of the more important bourgeois democratic tasks that await solution in this country; that the tendency of this movement has been towards the formation of a separate state; and that since 1977 this movement is more pronouncedly moving towards the realisation of Eelam – a separate Tamil State.
Obviously, it is in the interests of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie to have the whole of Sri Lanka for capitalist development, including all the areas inhabited by the Tamils. But that means the Tamils must have equal rights with the Sinhalese, and the winning of the Tamils for an integrated Sri Lanka calls for recognition of such equal rights to the Tamils in all spheres. Concretely, this recognition must be through the recognition of the Tamils’ right to a separate state.
For those who say that the recognition of this right is an encouragement to divide the country and a step towards disintegration, this is what Lenin wrote: "From the viewpoint of democracy in general, the very opposite is the case: recognition of the right to secession reduces the danger of the disintegration of the state."8
The left movement and the national question
Although the BLPI wing of the LSSP correctly referred to the Soulbury constitution as fake independence,9 nothing thereafter was done by all the left parties. After 1948 they simply concentrated on what they believed to be the struggle for socialism. None of these parties understood that the uncompleted democratic tasks, and the issues involved, were powerful levers for the mobilisation of all sections of the workers, the toilers and all the oppressed nationalities, for a common struggle that could well be dovetailed into the anti-capitalist struggle. They failed to understand that the Tamils of the North, the East and the up-country plantation Tamil workers, could be the strongest and the most reliable allies of the working class in the struggle against imperialism/capitalism.
The failure of the left parties to take up the struggle for the uncompleted democratic tasks opened the door for the so-called progressive bourgeoisie to brandish slogans of fake anti-imperialism and democracy. Thus did Bandaranaike enter the political stage raising the slogan of "Sinhala Only" in the name of fighting remnants of colonialism in the administration.10 This is a different story.
What is to be noted is that the left parties did not attempt to identify themselves with the movement of the Tamils for equal rights with the majority Sinhalese people. The LSSP representatives in the State Council (1936) were only pleading with the Sinhalese bourgeoisie to be fair to the Tamils.11 On the issue of excluding the Tamil plantation workers from voting in the Village Council elections, N.M. Perera said: "Common decency demands that those people be treated as human beings.... We only ask that those ... who have permanent interests in this country ... should be given the vote."12
It is significant that often Perera and Gunawardena specifically tried to stress that they were speaking as Sinhalese: "These excessive demands of the Tamil community are partly due to our own fault and the majority leadership...."13 And here is what Philip Gunawardena said on 9 May 1936 in the State Council: "My Party is absolutely against communal representation ... of any nature, of any kind. But, Sir, we have to realise that in this country there is a conflict between the minority and the majority over certain matters, and unless or until we settle that conflict it is not possible for us to have a united people demanding freedom.... After all, cannot the Sinhalese Members be a little more generous? What is the difficulty in having a territorial basis which gives a little more representation to Jaffna Tamils and the Muslim population ...? I feel that it is necessary sometimes to make concessions ... to the minority communities. The majority community can afford to make such generous concessions. That is the position that my Party takes.... I stand and speak as a Sinhalese."14
That the concept "the workers have no fatherland" or the concept of internationalism were only skin deep in the LSSP leadership is shown by the fact that in 1937 LSSP members brought a motion to parliament "not to grant any recruiting licenses under any conditions whatsoever", aimed at a ban on Indian immigration.15
That the LSSP leaders were not unaffected by bourgeois nationalism comes out sharply, and is pointed out by Lerski in his history of Trotskyism in Ceylon: "Related to the official use of Swabasha (indigenous Tamil and Sinhalese) was another nationalistic issue, the Ceylonisation of the Civil Service, an important aspect of the wider struggle for complete independence. In this popular demand the Samasamajists often outdid their non-socialist colleagues in xenophobia."16 N.M. Perera said in the State Council in 1939 on the subject of Ceylonisation: "An appeal was made in this House, and outside of it, to all private employers to get rid of their non-Ceylonese, and employ the Ceylonese.... It is much more important that the culture which is peculiar to the Ceylonese should be imparted to the Ceylonese by the Ceylonese, that our children should be made to imbibe the nature which is purely Ceylonese in our educational institutions than that they should get a foreign culture imposed by the outsiders."17
It was left to the bourgeois liberal B.H. Aluwihare to give the Marxists a lesson in internationalism: "Ceylonese culture is like the Sinhalese people. It is one of the most hybrid things in the Earth. It is born of Portuguese and Dutch culture and it is mixed up today with the British.... When you ask what Ceylonese culture is, the answer is that the culture has come to us from all the ends of the Earth. It has enriched us ... our vision, our mind, our literature."18
Down the ladder step by step
While the categorical position of opposition taken by the LSSP on the issue of the notorious Citizenship Acts, by which nearly one million up-country Tamil workers were disfranchised by the Sinhala bourgeois governments, was a principled one, it remained an isolated act seen as relevant to the development of the working class movement rather than the beginning of a move to suppress all the Tamils.
It was the year 1953 that became the year of the turning point for the left movement. Although the LSSP was clearly leaning on the Bandaranaike-led SLFP (national bourgeoisie), it was still uncertain in regard to its relations with this party. But with the 1953 split that took away one third of the party to join Philip Gunawardena, we find a sharp turn to the right. The basis of the split was that it was necessary to form a coalition with Bandaranaike.19
The language question
Although the LSSP remained firm on its stand on Sinhala and Tamil as official languages with parity of status, between 1955 and the formation of the Bandaranaike government in May 1956, quite early changes were in the offing. The policy of responsive co-operation to the SLFP government was the beginning of the movement towards the SLFP, and away from the position of struggles for the language and other rights of the Tamils.21
Only if the party was rooted in a revolutionary programme, and had an understanding of the dynamics of the Ceylon revolution, was it possible for the LSSP to stand firmly on the rights of the Tamils and against Sinhala bourgeois nationalism. But that was not the case. The next step came in 1963 with the formation of the United Left Front (ULF) by the LSSP, MEP22 and CP.23 With Philip Gunawardena standing firmly on "Sinhala Only" and the CP having adapted to the same position, and when both these parties rejected the LSSP position on the citizenship rights of Tamil plantation workers, the common programme of the ULF unambiguously adopted the SLFP position on both these issues. This was confirmed one year later when the ULF was broken by Perera leading to the formation of the SLFP-LSSP coalition government which was supported by the CP.24 This was the complete betrayal of the Tamil people by the traditional left parties.
It is significant that it was with the presence of two left parties in the second coalition government led by the SLFP that discrimination and harassment of Tamils became worse than ever before.25 This discrimination related to employment, colonisation, promotions of Tamil public servants, and, in the field of education, with so-called standardisation in regard to university admissions.26 There was also systematic harassment by police of Tamil youth, arbitrary arrests, and detention without trial, etc. Thus the traditional left parties not only step by step took chauvinistic positions in regard to the Tamils, but also went as far as sanctioning, through a bourgeois government, the direct police harassment of the Tamils.
Federalism, Eelam and the present struggle
With all its weaknesses, the non-violent satyagraha movement led by the Federal Party, which embraced practically all sections of the Tamil people, was clearly an anti-governmental mass struggle against the oppressive Sinhala bourgeois government, the SLFP. It is not without significance that the LSSP and CP failed even to give critical support to this struggle. They only voiced their opposition to government repression in parliament.
The next stage of the Tamil movement was the adoption of Eelam. Of course revolutionary Marxists seek to amalgamate smaller states into large states and not to split up states. But that is a general position. "From their daily experience", wrote Lenin, "the masses know perfectly well the value of geographical and economic ties and the advantages of a big market and a big state. They will, therefore, resort to secession only when national oppression and national friction make joint life absolutely intolerable and hinder any and all economic intercourse. In that case, the interests of capitalist development and of the freedom of the class struggle will be best served by secession."29
If the Tamils decide to continue to pursue Eelam there is no question that it is the duty of the working class and revolutionary Marxists to support the right of the Tamils to self-determination, i.e. the right to demand a separate state. Individual armed actions against the armed forces that harass the Tamils may well be defended, but such actions cannot bring about an end to oppression or the realisation of Eelam. Struggle on the basis of mass mobilisation must replace individual actions. To the extent that the Sinhala masses break away from Sinhala chauvinism, attempts must be made to draw in these Sinhala masses for common struggle against the government on the basis of their own demands.
The way forward for the Tamils
But there is no question of waiting for this solution to fall from the skies. The struggle for the rights of the Tamils must continue, but with different methods. It is basic to the success of this struggle that all sections of the Tamil masses must be mobilised on the basis of their separate demands for struggle against the capitalist government of Jayewardene. Such mobilisation of the Tamil masses need not and cannot be separated from the mobilisation of the Sinhala masses who are also suffering under the oppressive Jayewardene government in numerous ways. Such joint mobilisation will not be a dream if the left parties break sharply from opportunism and Sinhala chauvinism and adopt an anti-capitalist perspective.
It is inescapable that such mobilisation and such struggle calls for revolutionary leadership that has to be built from revolutionaries among the Tamils, the Sinhalese and all sections of the workers and toilers irrespective of nationality, religion or caste. And in regard to the problems of the Tamil people such a leadership must take its stand by unequivocally supporting the rights of the Tamils to self-determination, that is the right to a separate state.
1. The up-country Tamils, who inhabit the central hill areas of Sri Lanka, were brought over from India during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to work on the plantations. As a community they are distinct from the Tamil population of the North and East, which dates from before the colonial occupation of Ceylon. Sri Lanka’s Muslims form a third Tamil-speaking community, which is concentrated in the East.
2. The bourgeois United National Party was formed in 1947 as the result of a merger between the Ceylon National Congress and various smaller Sinhalese parties. It won a majority in that year’s elections and took over the government when Ceylon achieved independence in February 1948. One of the UNP government’s first actions was to introduce legislation which deprived a million up-country Tamils of Ceylonese citizenship and consequently of the right to vote.
3. In 1951, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike split from the UNP to form a new organisation, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It employed populist rhetoric and appealed to Sinhalese nationalism. The Trotskyists regarded it as representing a national wing of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie, although in the course of its move towards coalition politics the LSSP revised this view, characterising the SLFP instead as a petty-bourgeois party.
4. Three Tamil organisations – the Federal Party, the Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress (a Tamil plantation workers’ union led by S. Thondaman) – came together in 1972 to form the Tamil United Front. It changed its name to the TULF in 1976. The Ceylon Workers Congress, which had already distanced itself from the demand for a separate Tamil state, left the TULF in 1978 when Thondaman became a minister in the UNP government.
5. In July 1983, in response to brutalities by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North, Tamil militants ambushed an army truck, killing 13 soldiers. Sinhalese chauvinists used this as a pretext to whip up an atmosphere of vicious anti-Tamil racism among the majority Sinhalese population. Mobs went on the rampage in Colombo and also in the up-country areas, attacking and murdering Tamils, and looting and burning their properties. UNP thugs were directly involved in these atrocities, in the course of which some 3,000 Tamils were killed and 100,000 made homeless.
6. The UNP government used its parliamentary majority to pass a law excluding from parliament any party which refused to swear allegiance to the unitary Sri Lankan state.
7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.20, pp.396-7, 399.
8. Ibid, p.421.
9. After World War II the Samasamajist movement was split between the LSSP and the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (Ceylon Unit) (BLPI), which later changed its name to the Bolshevik Samasamaja Party. The two groupings merged in 1950 to form a united LSSP. The Soulbury constitution, named after Lord Soulbury who headed the commission that drew it up, formed the basis on which Ceylon became an independent state within the British Commonwealth. The BLPI attacked this as fake independence, on the grounds that the British armed forces retained bases in Ceylon, and also because the country remained economically dependent on British imperialism.
10. The slogan of "Sinhala Only", representing the demand that Sinhala should replace English as the sole official language in Ceylon, was raised by the SLFP in the mid-1950s. This became law in 1956 after the election of an SLFP-led government headed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
11. The two LSSP representatives elected to the State Council in 1936 were Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera.
12. G.J. Lerski, Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, 1968, p.52. The emphases in this and other quotations from Lerski’s book have been added by Edmund Samarakkody.
13. Ibid, p.53. The speaker was N.M. Perera.
14. Ibid, pp.54, 55, 57.
15. Debates in the State Council of Ceylon, 3 September 1937.
16. Lerski, p.60.
17. Ibid, p.61.
18. Ibid, pp.61-2.
19. A reference to the faction led by William Silva, Henry Peiris and Reggie Perera which split from the LSSP in 1953. The grouping entered into relations with Philip Gunawardena’s group and the Communist Party, but then gravitated towards the SLFP. In 1956 William Silva became a minister in S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s government.
20. Philip Gunawardena and his supporters refused to participate in the 1950 unification of the two rival Samasamajist parties. He formed a separate organisation – the Viplavakari (Revolutionary) LSSP.
21. When the Bandaranaike administration took office in 1956, the LSSP parliamentary group adopted a policy of "responsive co-operation" towards the new government. This policy, which was opposed by Edmund Samarakkody and others, was withdrawn the following year under the impact of mounting conflict between the government and the trade unions.
22. The 1956 election was won by an SLFP-dominated coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (the Peoples United Front – MEP), which included Philip Gunawardena’s organisation. The coalition broke up, and in the 1960 elections the SLFP stood in its own name, with Philip’s party adopting the title MEP.
23. The United Left Front was opposed by the LSSP left wing as an unprincipled alliance. Their objections were outlined by Edmund Samarakkody in a document entitled "Whither the LSSP?"
24. In 1964 the LSSP entered into a coalition government with the SLFP, then led by Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, the widow of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who had been assassinated by a Sinhalese-Buddhist extremist in 1959.
25. The SLFP was the main component in a coalition government elected in 1970, which also included the LSSP and the Communist Party.
26. Under the SLFP-LSSP-CP government, the ministry of education systematically discriminated against Tamils in university education. "Standardisation" was the name given to a system whereby Tamil students were required to score higher marks than their Sinhalese counterparts in entrance exams. The imposition of standardisation along with a system of district quotas resulted in a steep decline in the proportion of Tamil students accepted for science, engineering and medical courses.
27. The 1948 split in the Tamil Congress resulted from its failure under G.G. Ponnambalam’s leadership to defend Tamil rights against the UNP government. An opposition led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam broke away to found the Federal Party.
28. The Language of the Courts bill extended the "Sinhala Only" legislation by requiring Sri Lankan courts to conduct their proceedings in Sinhala. The satyagraha was a method of peaceful sit-down protest which had been developed in India during resistance to British colonial rule. The Federal Party’s action, supported by thousands of Tamil volunteers, succeeded in blocking access to district administrative offices and effectively paralysed government in the North and East. The SLFP government responded by declaring a state of emergency and placing the Tamil areas under occupation by the Sri Lankan army, which suppressed the protests with considerable brutality.
29. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.20, p.423.