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Travelling the Capitalist Road: The Peoples Alliance Government in Sri Lanka

Meryl Fernando

IN AUGUST 1994 the Peoples Alliance (PA) – a coalition of seven parties and groups led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)1 and ranging from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP)2 on the left to the Democratic United National Front, a breakaway group from the right-wing conservative United National Party (UNP), on the right – took parliamentary office after defeating the UNP at the general election. Although the PA only won by the wafer-thin majority of one seat, with the support of the Tamil parties represented in Parliament the new government was able to command a majority of about 30 votes at the debate on the President’s Address to the House. At the Presidential election which followed in November 1994, the Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga stood as the PA candidate, polling a record 62.5 per cent of the vote and routing the UNP which suffered its worst-ever defeat.

In this situation, S. Thondaman, the leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the largest trade union of tea and rubber estate workers, and Sri Lanka’s cleverest exponent of political somersaulting, jumped on the PA bandwagon. Since 1960 Thondaman has been alternately with the SLFP/SLFP-led governments and the UNP/UNP-led governments. At the August 1994 parliamentary elections the CWC, having entered into an agreement with the UNP, had contested the elections on the UNP ticket. Before that, from 1978 to 1994, Thondaman had served the ruling UNP government as a minister under Presidents Jayawardene, Premadasa and Wijetunga. After opportunistically shifting his allegiance to the PA, he was made a minister of the PA government.

While the UNP government had used emergency rule to curb the working class and the parliamentary opposition, the lack of proper leadership was a constraint in rallying the anti-UNP forces to form an effective opposition to the government. The bickerings within the main parliamentary opposition party, the SLFP, revolving around the politics of sister Chandrika and brother Anura, had been another factor which dampened the enthusiasm of the anti-UNP masses and provided a handle to the government and media to attack the disunity of the opposition. However, with the exit of Anura Bandaranaike from the SLFP to join the UNP, this last factor disappeared.

In the Provincial Council elections held in 1993 the UNP, which governed seven provinces, had been defeated in the Western, Southern and North-Western provinces. Chandrika Kumaratunga led the PA to a convincing victory in the Western province. In the Southern province the UNP prevented the opposition from taking over the administration. However, a Supreme Court judgement against the new UNP administration forced fresh elections which provided Chandrika with the opportunity to repeat her success in the Western province in the Southern province too. Thus in the eyes of the anti-UNP masses she appeared as a leader capable of giving the leadership necessary to defeat the UNP. Besides this, she possessed the political qualification of being the daughter of two former Prime Ministers, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Sirima Bandaranaike, both of whom had defeated the UNP.

The UNP regime, 1977-94
When J.R. Jayawardene assumed office in 1977 he had two main objectives: firstly, to amend the Republican Constitution of 1972 to institute an Executive Presidency so that the executive authority would be freed from the trammels of legislative duties; secondly, to introduce an open economy with market reforms. He carried out the first objective in 1978, instituted an Executive Presidency and devalued the role that Parliament plays in a cabinet system of government. Jayawardene, who was already Prime Minister, had himself elevated to the post of President without an election.

He then used his position as Executive President to carry out his second objective of introducing economic reforms. He set out to roll back the nationalisations which had taken place from 1958 to 1976 and to privatise government undertakings in the manner adopted by the Iron Lady of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher. Foreign investors were encouraged to build their factories in the Free Trade Zone, where labour laws were inoperative and employees became actual wage-slaves. In pursuing this programme Jayawardene was prepared to go to any length and crush whatever opposition stood in his way. So when in July 1980 thousands of public sector and private sector employees struck work demanding a salary increase of Rs. 300/= per month to compensate for the increase in the cost of living consequent to a massive devaluation of the rupee after 1977, Jayawardene was determined to crush the strike and have his way.

For the first time in the history of working class struggles in Sri Lanka, the head of state and of the government held a public meeting at Ratmalana, a working class centre nine miles south of Colombo, and told the workers on strike that those who did not return to work by 18 July could consider themselves to have vacated their posts. Jayawardene stuck to his word and according to government estimates 40,000 strikers were dismissed, after which twenty-three of them committed suicide. That was the price he extracted from the working class for his economic policy, to assure foreign and local investors that no dissent would be tolerated. In August 1980 the trade unions called a satyagraha (a peaceful sit-down demonstration) opposite the Colombo Fort railway station, the main station in Colombo, to protest against the dismissals. The police attacked the satyagrahis and a riot followed in which government buildings, shop-fronts and cars parked opposite the President’s house were smashed. The police arrested a number of working class leaders, who were eventually acquitted after a court case that lasted years.

Trade unionists who dared to protest over issues affecting their workplaces or their service were assaulted with bicycle chains by thugs who were engaged by the UNP. The president of the Ceylon Bank Employees Union was one such victim. In other spheres too the government used its power to crush whatever opposition arose. In the universities after 1977, when students struck over various issues, government MPs organised thugs to assault the students.

In 1980 Edirivira Sarachandra, a notable personality as a dramatist (he was a pioneer of modern Sinhala drama), a university professor and a former ambassador of Sri Lanka in Paris, along with some Buddhist monks, who organised a meeting in Colombo to protest against the degeneration of moral values since the inception of the "open economy", were pulled off the stage and assaulted by UNP thugs. No action was taken by the police to prosecute the assailants.

On International Women’s Day, 8 March 1983, Vivienne Goonewardene, a leading member of the LSSP and a former Member of Parliament, led a group of persons carrying banners to deliver a message of protest to the American Embassy in Colombo. Having delivered the letter the group was peacefully returning when a journalist took some pictures. The journalist was arrested by the police and taken to a police station opposite the American Embassy. Vivienne Goonewardene who went to the rescue of the journalist was manhandled by a police officer who pushed her to the floor and put his foot on her. Under the constitution she petitioned the Supreme Court that her fundamental rights were violated. On 8 June the Supreme Court held that the arrest was unlawful and ordered the state to pay her Rs. 2500/= in damages. On 9 June the police officer responsible was given a promotion by President Jayawardene.

Jayawardene came to power in 1977 pledging that the rule of law would be observed. On the contrary, when the police and UNP thugs used unlawful force against his opponents the rule of law was observed in the breach! The attacks on the working class, workers’ leaders, political opponents and university students by the UNP regime antagonised large sections of the population.

Using the two-thirds majority he had in Parliament, Jayawardene took several steps to consolidate his power and that of his party:

(a) In 1982 he demanded undated letters of resignation from all members of his party in parliament. Obviously the purpose was to use them if any member of his party dared to oppose him. Not one member had the guts to refuse to give such a letter of resignation!

(b) He introduced an amendment to the Constitution that preserved a Member of Parliament who had crossed over or been expelled from his party from losing his seat, unless his expulsion was ratified by more than half of Parliament. Thus members of the opposition were free to join the government, but not vice-versa. (The status quo ante was that any member who crossed over or had been expelled by his party lost his seat.)

(c) A provision was incorporated into the Constitution of 1978 for the imposition of civic disabilities on persons found guilty by a Special Presidential Commission of misuse and abuse of power. Such a Commission was set up in October 1980 and charges of misuse and abuse of power were brought against Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike who had been Prime Minister from 1970-77. Mrs Bandaranaike refused to appear before a Commission that held office at the pleasure of the President and was composed of judges reappointed selectively by the President after 1977. (All judges who held office at the time the new Constitution was promulgated were deemed to have vacated office.) Mrs Bandaranaike made an application to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to quash the findings of the Commission. The Supreme Court made an order granting the Commissioners probing the charges time to file their objections. Twenty four hours after the Supreme Court’s order, Parliament took up the resolution to impose civic rights disabilities on Mrs Bandaranaike and to expel her from Parliament. The resolution was passed with no dissentients from the government party. Thus Jayawardene removed from the political scene the individual who would have been a formidable opponent at the next Presidential election. It has been said that there is a close parallel between the UNP’s Special Presidential Commission law and a piece of legislation passed by the German parliament during Hitler’s time.

(d) In May 1981 elections were held for the newly-created District Development Councils. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF)3 participated in the elections, which were conducted under the proportional representation system for the first time. The government was keen to show that it had some support in the North. Two ministers – Cyril Mathew, a leading Sinhala chauvinist, and Gamini Dissanayake – were sent to the north to spearhead the government campaign. The situation became tense and after shots were fired at a UNP election rally the police and army went on the rampage, burning down Jaffna Public Library and the Central Market. The residence of the radical Member of Parliament for Jaffna was also attacked and gutted. He just managed to escape. However, the elections were held as scheduled. Things that had never happened before occurred during the elections in Jaffna. Election officials were replaced by men hand-picked by Cyril Mathew. A number of ballot boxes disappeared. Some were found to contain more votes than the number of registered voters. Yet, even with all this corruption, the government failed to win a single seat. Curiously it was the fiftieth year of universal franchise in Sri Lanka! The blame for all the incidents lay squarely on the shoulders of Cyril Mathew.

(e) The 1978 Constitution stated: "Not withstanding anything to the contrary in any other provision of the Constitution ... unless sooner dissolved, the first Parliament shall continue for six years from August 4, 1977, and no longer, and the expiry of the aforesaid period of six years shall operate as a dissolution of Parliament." But, following his victory in the Presidential election of October 1982 against a weak SLFP candidate (Kobbekaduwa), after a lapse of just one week Jayawardene decided to hold a referendum to obtain a mandate to extend the life of the Parliament elected in 1977 by another six years. The reason obviously was that it was clear to him that he could not get the two-thirds majority in the next Parliament which would enable him to continue to amend the Constitution as and when he wanted.

However the reason Jayawardene gave was that he did not want sixty or so "Naxalites" to get into Parliament, which he claimed was just what would happen under proportional representation, since the SLFP had been taken over by Naxalites.4 Jayawardene used the term Naxalites to refer to Vijaya Kumaratunge and his associates, who had played a leading role in the campaign of the SLFP Presidential candidate. Jayawardene alleged that there had been a plot by Kumaratunge and his associates to stage a coup in the event of Kobbekaduwa winning the Presidential election. Accordingly Kumaratunge and several members of the SLFP were arrested and imprisoned until shortly after the referendum, whereupon they were released and the issue forgotten. The obvious purpose of the arrests was to prevent Kumaratunge and his associates from playing a key role in the referendum campaign against the government. A police report issued in July 1983 insisted that there had been a plot but had to admit that there was not much evidence to prove its existence.

The government was determined to ensure a victory for the "lamp" (the symbol for a "yes" vote to extend the life of Parliament) by any and all means. An integral part of this heavy-handed campaign was the banning of newspapers and the sealing of presses. A number of presses which had printed election literature for the SLFP candidate in the presidential election were sealed under the emergency on one pretext or another. Suthanthiran, a Tamil language opposition newspaper published in Jaffna, was sealed as soon as the emergency was declared. Soon after it was announced that a referendum would be held, the Aththa (Truth) newspaper published by the CP, though not its official organ, had carried strong criticism of the proposal as well as reprinting Indian newspaper editorials condemning it and the first of a series of articles by the Civil Rights Movement opposing the referendum. On 2 November it was announced that the CP had decided to campaign with all left parties to defeat the government in the referendum. That very day the Aththa newspaper was banned and the press which printed it was sealed.

In contrast to the suppression suffered by the opposition, the government enjoyed the tremendous advantage of being able to freely promote its campaign through the state-controlled media, i.e. radio, television and a majority of the newspapers. The major newspaper group which was government owned and controlled produced dailies like the Daily News and its Sinhala and Tamil equivalents which were totally committed to the government’s stand and did not carry articles opposing the referendum.

The campaign against the referendum suffered as a result of other obstacles placed by the government. The police refused to grant permits at certain venues on the grounds that they had been booked in advance by the UNP, even when it was clear that the UNP had no intention of holding meetings at those venues. Even non-political organisations which opposed the referendum were subject to violence and harassment by government supporters as well as by the police. The most glaring case occurred when a meeting of a multi-denominational organisation called the "Voice of the Clergy" was brutally suppressed by the police and several thousand anti-referendum leaflets were confiscated. The Assistant Superintendent of Police who was responsible was charged before the Supreme Court in a fundamental rights violation case, and was found guilty and fined. The government not only paid the fine but, as had happened in the Vivienne Goonewardene case, it also immediately promoted the police officer who had been found guilty.5

The way in which the referendum itself was conducted during the campaign and on polling day was an clear erosion of democracy. "Lamp" symbols were flagrantly displayed at all public places throughout the country in breach of the law. Because of intimidation on the eve of polling day, Mrs Bandaranaike withdrew the polling agents from her former constituency, Attanagalla, and the government received a majority of over 20,000 votes there, though in the presidential election Kobbekaduwa had convincingly defeated Jayawardene in this electorate. Polling agents who represented the "Pot" (the anti-referendum symbol) were driven away by gun-toting thugs, and government supporters impersonated "Pot" voters. Impersonation was rampant. Even the vote of Kobbekaduwa, the SLFP Presidential candidate, was impersonated! In certain polling booths voters were forced to mark a cross against the "Lamp" and display the completed ballot paper to the "Lamp" polling agents.

By such means Jayawardene secured a majority for his proposal to extend the life of the 1977 Parliament for another six years. In doing so, Jayawardene struck at the very foundation of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. He took away the right of the people to elect Members of Parliament and abolished the principle that a Parliament is elected for a fixed term.

The J.R. Jayawardene government and the Tamil national struggle
Jayawardene became Prime Minister in 1977 on the pledge to call a roundtable conference of all political parties to resolve the Tamil national question. Once in office, he ignored the pledge and proceeded by various tricks to cover up the bankruptcy of his government on the national question, for which it had no solution to offer. The highest point of such tricks was the so-called District Development Councils, the elections for which in Jaffna ended in a fiasco for the government, as stated above. State terrorism unleashed by the government also resulted in physical attacks on the Tamil estate workers in 1977 and 1981.

On 23 July 1983, thirteen soldiers of the Sri Lankan army were killed in an ambush by Tamil militants in Jaffna. The next day troops had promptly gone on the rampage in the area and killed over forty people, although the newspapers in the South omitted to report this. The bodies of the thirteen soldiers were brought back to Colombo and a mass funeral was held on the evening of 24 July at the city’s central cemetery. That night Tamil shops and houses in the neighbourhood were set on fire. The next morning cars were stopped, and when the occupants were found to be Tamils they were physically attacked and sometimes killed. Trouble spread throughout that day and the days following. An anti-Tamil pogrom was the result, in which thousands lost their lives in Colombo and also in the central areas, where Tamil estate workers were brutally attacked and killed. What was characteristic of the attacks was the involvement of mobs of well-organised goons led by government supporters. Unheard-of atrocities such as burning human beings alive were committed during the pogrom.

On the morning of 25 July forty Tamil prisoners, including Kuttimany of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)6 who had been nominated to Parliament a few months earlier, were massacred in the high security prison of Welikada in Colombo. Two days later, twenty more Tamil prisoners were killed in the same prison. The killings were done by Sinhalese prisoners, but there is little doubt that they were officially instigated.7

Jayawardene kept mum and let the mobs go on the rampage. No effective action was taken to quell the disturbances. When he finally appeared to address the nation on television and radio on the evening of 28 July, he announced that the Sinhalese had reacted to the attempt that was being made to divide their country and that legislation would be introduced proscribing any political party that advocated separatism and forcing all public servants take an oath of allegiance to a unitary state. On its introduction, the legislation unseated the Tamil members of Parliament because they refused to take such an oath. In order to divert attention from its own role in the July pogrom, the government attributed the incidents to a Marxist conspiracy and made scapegoats of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP),8 the CP and the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP),9 none of which had a hand in the July events. All three parties were banned. The TULF too was proscribed.

The Indian government made it clear that unless the situation was brought under control before the end of July it would feel obliged to intervene, if necessary by means of an invasion. Jayawardene despatched his Foreign Minister to London to investigate whether the British government would respond positively in the event of his invoking the Defence Treaty of 1947 in the face of an Indian invasion. The reply was that the British government would not.10

A few months later Jayawardene summoned an All-Party Conference excluding the TULF which he had proscribed. The discussions at the All-Party Conference could not lead to any meaningful conclusion without Tamil representation and by December 1984 the government was talking in terms of a military solution. Fighting intensified between the government troops and the LTTE. A new dimension was added to the situation in April 1985 when riots broke out in the Eastern province between Tamil-speaking Muslims and Tamils.

Talks were held in India on several occasions, with the blessings of the Indian government, between the Tamil militant groups and the Jayawardene government. However nothing emerged that pointed to a resolution of the conflict. When talks took place in August 1986 in Bangalore in southern India, the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was directly involved. He had ordered repression to be launched against Tamil militants from Sri Lanka who were based in Tamil Nadu. His immediate objective was to force the militants to accept his proposal for Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka. In the event of the militants rejecting the proposals he was prepared to disarm them.

On 28 May 1987, Jayawardene announced an all-out offensive in the Jaffna peninsular, known as the Vadamarachchi operation. In response to concern expressed by the Indian government, Jayawardene and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa gave vent to their anti-Indian feelings. Towards the end of July a situation arose where Jayawardene was faced with two options – either an invasion of Sri Lanka by Indian troops with India enforcing a unilateral solution in respect of the North and East, or submission to Rajiv Gandhi and with his aid clinging on to power. On 28 July, Jayawardene signed an accord with Rajiv Gandhi.

A democratic solution to the Tamil national question could be achieved only on the basis of directly having discussions with the Tamil liberation organisations and acknowledging the national rights of the Tamil people. But the accord was a conspiracy between Jayawardene and Rajiv Gandhi behind the backs of the Tamil people. It was not possible for Rajiv Gandhi as the leader of the Indian capitalist class to carry out the democratic task of solving the Tamil national question. He intervened because Jayawardene’s pro-imperialist policies caused concern to the Indian capitalist class about possible threats to India’s interests in the region. Besides this, because of the racial affinity between the Tamil people of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, it was natural that India would take an interest in the Tamil national question of Sri Lanka.

The main parliamentary opposition party, the SLFP, opposed the accord. Sinhalese chauvinists who were opposed to any concessions being granted to the Tamil nation also opposed the accord on the grounds that it was a betrayal of national sovereignty. The JVP vehemently opposed it and became the foremost party peddling Sinhala chauvinism. Declaring that anyone who supported the accord was a traitor, the JVP raised the slogan "Death to the Traitors!’ True to its slogan, the JVP organised hit squads which killed hundreds of persons who supported the accord, including leftists and SLFP supporters too.

In August 1986 when Rajiv Gandhi took a direct interest in the Tamil national question of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP),11 LSSP, CP and NSSP hailed Gandhi’s efforts and predicted that peace was at hand. In fact it was the duty of Marxists to defend the national sovereignty of Sri Lanka, which had been established by breaking from the clutches of imperialist rule. The accord and the consequent introduction of thousands of Indian troops into the North and East was a violation of Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. Therefore it was imperative that Marxists should have demanded the immediate withdrawal of Indian troops.12

Ranasinghe Premadasa succeeded Jayawardene as President in January 1989 and took certain liberalising measures. He lifted the state of emergency and released JVP political prisoners, much against the advice of top police officers. He came to power on the promise that he would send back the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) which was now at war with the LTTE. Premadasa started talks with the LTTE in April 1989 which went on for fourteen months, during which period the LTTE regrouped and fortified itself. The LTTE was supplied with arms by the government to conduct its war against the IPKF. When the IPKF finally left in March 1990, the LTTE walked into the camps vacated by the IPKF, and occupied and fortified them.

In the South of the island, JVP killings continued. Premadasa reimposed the emergency in July 1989 and gave the army a carte blanche to wipe out the JVP. The JVP insurgency was met with counter-terror. Besides the army, armed groups of government supporters went into action against anyone suspected of JVP connections. Thousands were killed and most of the bodies were burnt on discarded tyres to prevent identification. Disappearances of young men and women were a daily occurrence. It was estimated that there were between 60,000 and 100,000 disappearances.

Fighting erupted between the LTTE and government troops in June 1990 and the LTTE immediately massacred over 600 policemen in the Batticaloa district in the East. It was alleged that they had been asked by the government to surrender. Finally Premadasa himself was assassinated on 1 May 1993 by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber while participating in a government May Day procession.

At the time of the parliamentary elections in August 1994, D.B. Wijetunga was the President, having succeeded Premadasa after the latter’s assassination. Wijetunga had antagonised the Tamil parties represented in Parliament by declaring that there is no ethnic question, only a terrorist question, and that terrorism must be crushed. Speaking in metaphorical language, he said that the Tamil creeper must entwine itself around the Sinhala tree.

Privatisation under the UNP
After 1977 the UNP government proceeded to privatise the public sector enterprises. By the time its rule ended in August 1994, 41 government-owned enterprises had been privatised.13 The public sector enterprises had been run as statutory corporations. To privatise, the corporation was converted into a limited liability company and then shares were sold to the private sector – 60 per cent of the share capital to one buyer and 30 per cent on the stock exchange – while 10 per cent of the shares were to be gifted to the workers of the corporation. This procedure provided opportunities for the ruling party to grant favours to their supporters and there have been allegations of corruption on a massive scale – that the corporations had been under-valued and sold at giveaway prices. It will suffice to cite two instances:

1) 60 per cent of Kelani Tyres Ltd shares were sold to Nova Lanka Ltd at Rs. 8/= per share when the Cabinet-appointed Committee had approved a price of Rs. 25/64 per share. 15.6 million shares were offered. Nova Lanka Ltd paid only Rs. 125 million for the 60 per cent equity stake. A consortium of bankers including the state bank, the Bank of Ceylon, took over the liability of Rs. 275 million which Kelani Tyres owed the government of Sri Lanka. The government was thus paid off.14 The Kelani Tyres factory was a gift of the Soviet Union to the government of Ceylon.

2) The Nylon 6 Plant of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation with a capital of Rs. 600 million, which was valued by the chief government valuer at Rs. 1.2 billion, was sold to a South Korean investor with local backing for a mere Rs. 125 million.15 A Presidential Commission appointed by Chandrika to inquire into malpractices in public bodies later found the former Power and Energy Minister guilty of "misuse and abuse of power" in connection with the Nylon 6 Plant transaction.16 This sale set the precedent for disposing of state assets at dirt-cheap prices.

Profit-making public enterprises such as the State Distillery Corporation and Ceylon Oxygen were similarly sold far below their market value. The Norwegian investor who bought Ceylon Oxygen for a mere Rs. 60 million is reported to have recovered the investment in the first year of operation, without making any technological improvement or investment in plant and machinery.17

The Peoples Alliance in power
This record of contempt for democracy, of thuggery and corruption, and the pursuit of an unwinnable war explains why the UNP lost power in 1994. Voters turned to the PA as the only force that could defeat the UNP at the polls. But has the PA during its three years in government offered a real alternative to the policies of the UNP?

On the positive side the government has reinstated most of the public sector workers who were dismissed by Jayawardene as a result of the July 1980 strike, although nothing has been done with regard to the strikers in the private sector who were dismissed. Government teachers have been given a salary hike. Lack of hostel accommodation for university students has been a burning problem and was the cause of several strikes during the 17-year rule of the UNP. Steps have been taken to alleviate the problem to some extent. Also three Presidential Commissions were appointed to probe the fate of 60,000 missing persons who disappeared during the suppression of the JVP in the late 1980s.

But workers who supported the PA to defeat the UNP in the belief that a PA government would be sympathetic to workers’ grievances were soon disillusioned. Shortly after the government took office, the price of bread was reduced to Rs. 3.50 a loaf from Rs. 4.50. But from time to time the price was increased on the grounds that the subsidy was unsustainable, and now a loaf costs Rs. 7.00. Before the 1994 elections the PA had promised that it would introduce a charter to protect workers’ rights. In 1995, with much pomp and fanfare, the government produced a document called a Workers’ Charter, which recognised the right of workers to organise and made it compulsory for employers to recognise trade unions. The trade unions asked that the principles laid down in the charter be put into a statute so that it could be legally enforced. Instead, in the face of opposition from the employers, the government has put the charter into cold storage.

Since the working class had been suppressed by successive UNP regimes since 1977, it was only to be expected that with the overthrow of the UNP there would be an upsurge of working class activity in pursuit of wage increases and the redress of wrongs committed by management during the period of UNP rule. Soon after the Presidential election in November 1994 there was a rash of strikes. In certain instances workers held their employers hostage until their demands were granted. Such was the desperation of the workers! Factory owners – both foreign investors and local industrialists – raised their hands in horror.

The workers of a foreign-owned factory, Ausell Lanka, who were on strike in the Free Trade Zone just north of Colombo, were addressed on television by Chandrika, who called on them to get back to work before they ruined the economy. This was a foretaste of things to come and was indicative of the fact that the government did not intend to be conciliatory towards workers’ struggles. When the Ausell workers started a march to Colombo to make representations to the Labour Minister, they were tear-gassed and shot at by police. Thirty-eight workers were injured.

At the end of May 1996 a United Front of trade unions brought 11,000 workers, including the electrical engineers of the Ceylon Electricity Board, out on strike against the proposal to privatise the generation and distribution of electricity. The power supply was cut off and the water supply too came to a halt as there was no electricity to turn the water engines. The result was three nights of darkness and three days without water!

The government came down hard on the strikers. Strike leaders were harassed and arrested. Government MPs of the Mulberry Group18 who intervened to try and bring about a stoppage of the strike were frowned upon by Ministers. A Deputy Minister of the government who was himself a former trade unionist led a crowd of government supporters – some of whom invoked the return of President Premadasa for a day or two! – in a demonstration against the strike opposite the Electricity Board office in Colombo. There were other demonstrations led by government MPs in a couple of townships close to Colombo.

The government also showed its hostility to the working class by banning the May Day demonstrations on 1 May 1996. Using presidential powers, on the eve of May Day Chandrika promulgated an emergency regulation banning the demonstrations. The reason given was that there was a security risk. When the NSSP demonstration started moving, the police fired tear gas, baton-charged the demonstrators and injured seventeen persons. However, the police permitted the LSSP to conduct its demonstration, which in fact proved that there was no security risk.

From the very outset the Chandrika Kumaratunga government accepted that the private sector was the main engine of economic growth. Accordingly the government continued the privatisation programme launched by the UNP governments. The regional plantation companies have been privatised and the government-owned Steel Corporation has been sold to the South Korean Han Jung company. The steel factory was a gift from the Soviet Union to the Ceylon government in the mid-1960s. When the Steel Corporation workers struck in December 1996 against the sale of the factory, the police intervened to break the strike and arrest the strike leaders. After a few weeks the strikers were forced back to work.

The government has sent clear signals to the private sector concerning its policies. The 1997 budget provided a series of incentives to the private sector – "the main engine of growth". The various Chambers of Commerce and Industry hailed this budget as definitely investor-friendly and development-oriented and a major step in the right direction. The government is firmly travelling the capitalist road.

The Peoples Alliance and the national question

Chandrika came to power on the pledge to stop the war in the North-East and to restore peace. The massive vote she got at the Presidential election was the result of the people’s desire for peace. Five months after her election as President, there was a cessation of hostilities between government troops and the LTTE, and talks commenced. But the government had no solution to the national question to offer the LTTE. The mere expression of goodwill and good intentions on the part of the government was not sufficient to bring an end to the war. After a hundred days of talks the LTTE started fighting again in April 1995.

Chandrika, who started as the defender of peace, now had to defend war. Her position was that the war had been forced on her by the LTTE, and that the LTTE not the Tamil people was the enemy. On 3 August 1995 the government announced devolution proposals for the Northern and Eastern provinces. These proposals were presented to Parliament on 17 January 1996, and up to now a Parliamentary Select Committee has been discussing the proposals. However the proposals have not been submitted to the LTTE. The government has a two-pronged strategy – the war against the LTTE and "the political solution to redress minority grievances" – which has received the backing of the major capitalist countries.

With the objective of weakening the LTTE militarily, after 1994 the government acquired modern weapons, aircraft and boats for the navy to fight the LTTE. Defence expenditure increased from Rs. 23 billion in 1993 to Rs. 48 billion in 1996. In December 1995 the armed forces captured the Jaffna peninsular, which had been under the control of the LTTE since 1990, and later captured more territory south of Jaffna. Several months after the military offensive, tens of thousands of people who had left returned to Jaffna and other areas. The LTTE was thus confined to the jungles in the North, although they have since gained strength in the East.

The LTTE still retains the capability to launch surprise attacks. On 9 January 1997 the LTTE carried out a devastating attack on the Elephant Pass and Paranthan base complex south of Jaffna. The army high command admitted that 225 officers and men were killed and 400 wounded in the battle, and that a dozen 130mm and 122mm calibre artillery were lost. (Whether these were destroyed by troops to prevent the LTTE from seizing the guns or whether the LTTE destroyed them is not clear.) The LTTE was forced to retreat after suffering heavy casualties – according to a Defence Ministry statement, 500 LTTE men and women were killed or wounded in the fighting. More recently, on 6 March 1997, 800 cadres of the LTTE launched "a human wave-upon-wave attack", to quote an army officer, on an army camp about four kilometres south of Batticaloa on the east coast. Fighting continued for five hours. 200 rebels were killed and over 120 wounded, while the Sri Lankan army lost 64 soldiers including two officers.

The LSSP and the CP in government
The LSSP engages in mild criticism of the government in press statements to explain its displeasure on occasions like the banning of the May Day demonstrations in 1996. However, in Parliament its support for the government is solid. On a few occasions it chose to register its protest by abstaining on the vote to extend the emergency, which is extended monthly. The CP is much closer to the government and hardly criticises it.

Both the LSSP and the CP maintain that the unity of democratic forces is necessary for the implementation of the government’s programme of work. Thus their continuation as part of the government is assured. The CP, of course, always stood for popular front politics, while the LSSP has been practising popular front politics from the time of the first SLFP-LSSP coalition in 1964. In recent years attempts were made to unify the two parties in one organisation. In fact an agreement was reached and a public announcement was made, although due to opposition from the CP rank and file the merger was aborted. Both parties have chosen to travel the capitalist road.

In this connection it is worth quoting an extract from the section "Our Task Today" in the political resolution adopted by the LSSP conference in March 1978: "The capitalist class of Sri Lanka sees no future for itself except in alliance with foreign capital. This was manifest in the concessions given to local capitalists by Mrs Bandaranaike’s government in its last two years. It is plainly evident in the first budget of this UNP government. The adoption by the UNP of the IMF’s recommendations, in line with the attitude towards the developing countries shown by the capitalist states of Western Europe and the USA, is seen in the efforts to cut subsidies given to the masses, the attempt to remove protective controls from the economy and establish the rule of market relations in an open economy .... It is also seen in the threatened denationalisations. All these actions serve the UNP’s purpose of travelling the capitalist road." Every word in this statement is applicable to the present government.

In travelling the capitalist road Sri Lanka has to compete in particular with the third wave of Asian countries – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – with their huge, low-wage labour forces. Sri Lanka’s savings rate which is about 15 per cent of GDP is low and foreign investments are absolutely essential for any economic development. Arising out of the government’s economic policies, a political development that could be anticipated is close collaboration between the PA and sections that support the UNP but want political stability in furtherance of the interests of capital. A factor that could influence such a development is the government’s determination to crush workers’ resistance to the privatisation programme.

As we have seen, since the PA took office workers in two major sectors – the Electricity Board and the Steel Corporation – struck against privatisation. Chandrika put forward South Korea as a model country which developed in a period of 25 years or so due to hard work and iron discipline. Even as she was telling the steel workers so, hundreds of thousands of workers in South Korea struck work to protest against a new labour law, rammed through Parliament on 26 December 1996 by the ruling party, which allows employers to lay off workers, set flexible work hours and use part-time labour. President Kim Young Sam was forced to order the rescinding of the arrest warrants made out for the twenty most prominent strike leaders.

The internal contradictions of capitalism are such that with capitalist development, while some jobs are created in new factories, owners of existing enterprises attempt to lay off labour – the Steel Corporation, which was sold to Han Jung of South Korea is a case in point; in other enterprises exploitation as before is pursued to maximise profits – Kotgala plantation company, for example, which trebled its profits in two years, refused to submit to the demand of the workers for a bonus, and the workers struck work.

The major strikes which have taken place since the PA took office have been defensive actions against privatisation and for security of employment. Trade unions in other sectors which have supported these strikes have joined picket lines, but have not been able to call even a one-day token strike. The task of Trotskyists in this situation is to do everything in their power to help the workers to unite for action.

The need of the hour is a United Front of all fighting organisations of the working class for the defence of mass political rights, for full trade union rights for all workers, the defence in particular of the right to strike, against all repressive and anti-democratic legislation, against the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and the defence of the living standards of the masses against the capitalist offensive of both local and foreign capitalists. The Trotskyist organisations must take the lead in building such a United Front.


1. The SLFP was formed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. In contrast to the United National Party, from which it was a split, the SLFP has traditionally expressed the interests of a "national" wing of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie (editorial note).

2. The LSSP was founded in 1935 as a broad-based socialist party. It adopted a Trotskyist programme in 1940 and affiliated to the Fourth International, expelling a Stalinist minority who went on to form the CP. The LSSP was expelled from the Fourth International in 1964 after it joined a coalition government with the SLFP (editorial note).

3. The Three main Tamil organisations – the Federal Party, the Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress – formed the TULF (originally the Tamil United Front) in 1972. The CWC left the TULF in 1978 after its leader Thondaman was offered a ministerial post in the UNP government (editorial note).

4. The Naxalites were a Maoist guerilla organisation which operated in West Bengal in the 1970s (editorial note).

5. See Rajiva Wijesinha, Current Crisis in Sri Lanka, 1986, pp.67-8.

6. Originally one of a number of Tamil militant groups, the LTTE established its exclusive domination over the Tamil liberation movement from the mid-1980s onwards by wiping out its rivals (editorial note).

7. Wijesinha, Current Crisis in Sri Lanka, pp.85-6.

8. The NSSP was formed in 1972 as the result of a left-wing split from the LSSP. It was originally part of Militant’s international organisation but has since joined the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (editorial note).

9. The JVP was formed in the late 1960s under the leadership of Rohanna Wijeweera, a former member of the Maoist youth organisation. In 1971 it organised an abortive uprising, which was brutally crushed, against the SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition government (editorial note).

10. Wijesinha, Current Crisis in Sri Lanka, p.83.

11. The SLMP was a breakaway from the SLFP founded in January 1983 by Chandrika Kumaratunga, her film-star-turned-politician husband Vijaya and T.B. Ilangaratne, a former SLFP minister.

12. The Workers Marxist League put out a pamphlet in September 1987 denouncing the Gandhi-Jayawardene accord as a fraud.

13. Ceylon Daily News, 11 August 1994.

14. Island, 4 November 1994.

15. Ceylon Daily News, 3 November 1994.

16. Sunday Observer, 16 March 1997.

17. Island, 2 June 1994.

18. So-called because the MPs said that they had no access to the authorities that mattered, but had to go round and round.