Only a real understanding of history can offer a future for people

TU Senan

An understanding of ‘real’ history is the starting point for fighting for a future. But only a truly materialist approach based on recognising the class nature of society can reveal it. This requires a deep interrogation of the processes under consideration – digging under what is apparent on the surface.

Rohini Hensman’s article in Jacobin (, 11.24.2019) is an attempt to do what seems an impossible task: to summarise the historical background of the current sharp polarisation and tensions among the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, particularly among the minority Tamil and majority Sinhala population, in order to make sense of it. But Rohini’s article requires some additional points and clarifications which we attempt to provide here.

On democracy

It cannot be said that Sri Lanka has yet had full democracy. In fact, no nation can claim that. The bourgeois class was unable to complete its own democratic tasks, which entailed a thoroughgoing land reform, land to the peasants, the solution of the national question with the right of self-determination to the oppressed nationalities, democracy and the development of a modern economy – particularly in the neo-colonial countries. Sri Lanka and the neo-colonial world never achieved even full capitalist democracy, which in itself is limited and the capitalist class still rule. We should also note here that with the term ‘democracy’ here we mean capitalist democracy. Socialist democracy is something that workers fight for and is totally different to that.

We cannot conclude that the bourgeois revolution has been fully ‘accomplished’ even in the west in all of its aspects just because the capitalist mode of production came to be dominant. As Rohini Hensman points out, it is wrong to see the democratic revolution as separate to the bourgeois revolution. How the bourgeois revolution developed – how the capitalist mode of production became the dominant form of production – was not a homogeneous process; rather it was an uneven and combined process. The demands of the working masses in the colonies were met with a brick wall as the capitalists subjugated the resources of the nation and became a deadweight against any improvement – in other words they became a barrier against the capitalist democratic tasks. The term ‘neo-colonial’ was popularised by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. At the time he met a wall of capitalist resistance when he tried to take Ghana forward in terms of democracy and planned production. He, however, did not plan production on a democratic socialist basis, break with capitalism and put forward a strategy to appeal to the workers in Africa with the aim of transforming how the resources in the region and beyond were shared. Analysis of the contradictory forces of uneven development and combined development is a major contribution of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Trotsky drew the conclusion that the bourgeois did not possess the ability to fully deliver on their own the democratic revolution, particularly in the neo-colonial world. This task fell to the working masses.

It was this particular understanding that separated the perspectives and action of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) from that of the Indian National Congress (INC). The LSSP, the first political party to be formed in Sri Lanka, had a Trotskyist core. It had a totally different approach to the INC and built its strength by taking an independent class position and following united front tactics, rather than a popular front, during the Second World War. This is what led British imperialism to treat Sri Lanka differently. The higher levels of democratic rights achieved by the masses in Sri Lanka were the product of a struggle for independence that was understood as a challenge for power to the weak Sri Lankan capitalist elite. However, it is in the survival of this small weak capitalist class that the origin of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka lies. Hatred of Tamils by the majority Sinhala masses was no historical or intrinsic part of their culture.

More on the Origin of Conflict

It is a widespread mistake within liberal narratives to locate the origin of the conflict in the 1983 pogroms against the Tamils. In fact the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and more than 30 other militant organisations were formed well before that. Although the most well-known today, the LTTE was not the strongest militant organisation that existed at the time of the 1983 pogroms. Leaving aside the incorrect assumption that the conflict in Sri Lanka was a ‘civil war’, the year 1983 was not the year when ‘civil war’ started. What the 1983 pogroms did was radicalise many youth. As a result, the militant organisations grew in number. But the militant groups had already been involved in armed opposition to the Sri Lankan state well before that. The 1983 pogrom was also connected to the killing of 13 Sri Lankan solders by the LTTE. If a year has to be pinpointed when the sharp turn took place among youth, it would have to be around 1978. The 1977 election was almost treated by Tamils as a referendum on the demand for a separate state. After that they faced betrayal by the Tamil leadership, who abandoned the promises made in the resolution in Vaddukkoddai. It was then that armed struggle came to be seen as the only path to Tamil rights by many, including the LTTE leadership.

Attempts at solving the national question

It is true that Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first election campaign in 1994 raised enormous hope among the Tamils. But it is wrong to claim that she restored ‘democratic rights and freedom’ following her election victory. Her left credentials were strengthened by her involvement in the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP), formed by her husband Kumaratunga. The SLMP was later to become part of the United Socialist Alliance. Chandrika was the daughter of SWRD Bandaranaike, a member of the land-owning class, who formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and won the first election on the basis of making Sinhala the only national language, among other things.

Following Chandrika’s election, she did not follow her parents’ path in her economic policies despite bringing her relatives, including her mother, into the government. Instead she became a ‘natural’ continuation of the pro-capitalist United National Party (UNP) government. In terms of the national question she backtracked on all her promises (some were apparently made in private to the armed struggle groups in a London flat). There is no evidence that her presidency was more democratic and provided more freedom in comparison to previous regimes. It was under her control that major military offensives in the north killed thousands and resulted in one of the largest displacements of Tamils from the north in the whole history of Sri Lanka.

Chandrika made no real effort to solve the national question. She was one of the people responsible for derailing the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) agreement. She was the first president to abuse the executive powers of the presidency as she suspended parliament and declared a state of emergency in 2003 in order to halt the ISGA agreement. Even the capitalist UNP was prepared for some concessions at that time, but its leader Ranil Wikremesinghe lost his power during a visit to the US when Chandrika moved in to take control. So much for this angel of democracy and freedom!

Rohini Hensman makes no mention of this, but jumps to 2004 to level the blame on the LTTE for breaking with peace. Kumaratunga’s effort to “dissolve power to the Tamil majority in the north and east were sabotaged by the LTTE,” she claims. Was the LTTE involved in assassination and breaking peace? Yes. Did they do it with the fetish for war and hatred for peace? No. From the point of view of the LTTE the ISGA was the best they could hope for. But they always feared that somehow the Sri Lankan state would sabotage the process after giving into the pressure of Sinhala chauvinism. In an interview to the press at that time, the LTTE’s political leader Thamilselvan made the very same point. He explained that they were sceptical of any peace imitative by the Sri Lankan state. Every single process to reach even a minimum of agreement was cut short by the Sri Lankan state, which eventually succumbed to Sinhala Buddhist nationalist pressure in order to preserve its survival. But Thamilselvan placed hope in the involvement of the ‘international community’ – the involvement of Norway in the negotiation in particular. But they felt betrayed by the events of 2003. So the LTTE followed their method of killing the betrayers. We cannot hide these historical truths. While making these points, we must also note that the LTTE did not have a clear political strategy. Their military tactics therefore helped to drive the Sinhala masses in a chauvinist direction, or at least helped the chauvinists.

On interpretation of the final phase of the war

Rohini Hensman puts the death toll of the last phase of the war at a mere 40,000, the figure used in many western reports. Of course, it is impossible to measure the horror of 2009 by the death count alone. But for Tamils, the experience is of genocidal proportion. It is not just the number of people who were killed but the percentage of the population that was lost that reveals the impact of the massacre. The UN representative stationed in Sri Lanka at the time, Gordon Weiss, has written a whole book on the detail of the final phase of the war, The Cage. Frances Harrison, a BBC journalist who also covered the peace process in 2004, in her book, Still Counting the Dead, also corroborates with the assessment of a genocidal slaughter. Various reports exist that indicate that the number of killings and disappearances could number well over half a million – this in a population of fewer than two million. Of course, no accurate numbers exist, mainly thanks to the dictatorial regime which blocked all efforts to establish the real truth. The Sri Lankan government however claims that only 9,000 died. In 2009, some of the UN officials themselves were saying that over 100,000 died. But this figure has been revised down as the years passed as a record of the dead became impossible to establish – entire families had simply perished with no one to record it.

Leaving aside this one-sided view of the scale of the massacre that took place in the final phase of the war, Rohini Hensman also makes an incredible claim that the LTTE and government of Sri Lanka shared responsibility for the immense scale of loss of life. Did the LTTE kill civilians in the last phase of the war? Yes. Did they use the civilians as human shields? Yes and no. The LTTE did try to stop civilians fleeing to the military-controlled areas. Many of them were stranded with scattered and disorganised LTTE cadres. Many civilians had some links with the LTTE in the past and had a genuine fear of going into military territory. It should also be noted that the majority of the civilians were surrounded by the military that was relentlessly bombing them, including after they had moved to so-called ‘safe zones’ declared by the Sri Lankan military. The LTTE’s aim was not to stop the civilians leaving these ‘safe zones’ but was focused on saving themselves by mingling among civilians. In this instance, given the targeted air bombardment of buildings marked with a Red Cross, it had no impact on the Sri Lankan military who did not discriminate between civilians and militants. But the final and desperate action of the LTTE was chaotic and not organised. The aim of the majority of the loose cadres was to survive. Hence it is difficult to see how the ‘human shield’ term fits in here. But some of these cadres certainly committed war crimes. But they are not on a par with the Sri Lankan government. This is not only about who killed how many, etc. but it is related to the imbalance of power and the situation that existed on the ground. It is absolutely wrong to suggest equivalence between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

It is with this dodgy view that some liberals (who call themselves progressive and even at times Marxist) took the position not to oppose the attack on LTTE during the war. For example, the now inactive Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), that Rohini Hensman is familiar with, took the position not to comment on the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military but asked both parties to leave the civilians to escape to safety. But this position is flawed. At that time, the Sri Lankan government was claiming there were only 50,000 in the military-surrounded areas and among them around 5,000 LTTE members. We knew then – which has been proved now – that there were over 300,000 civilians surrounded by the military and heavily bombed. Activists like us feared the worst at that time – a mass killing – which unfortunately came to pass. In these circumstances we did not take the liberal position – or a Stalinist position like that of the Communist Party of India (Marxist – CPI[M]) who argued the same. The CPI(M) position flowed from their opposition to the LTTE and their position of opposing the right to self-determination. (The only tie they had in Sri Lanka was a loose connection with the JVP).
But some activists, including Marxists from a Sinhala background, like Siritunga Jayasuriya from the United Socialist Party (USP), took a totally different position. We demanded an immediate end to the war. The war had to be stopped and the killings must end immediately – even if it was going to save the so-called ‘terrorist LTTE’. We said we wanted to save the 50,000 (in reality 300,000) even if we save 5,000 LTTE cadres. We were not prepared to tolerate and witness the slaughter of tens of thousands in order to kill around 5,000 scattered new recruits of the LTTE. Stopping the war was not down to the LTTE at that stage but was entirely up to the Sri Lankan military. The LTTE was a wounded tiger fleeing at that stage. The Sri Lankan military’s mission was to chase and kill regardless of any loss of civilian life which was decorated by the phrase ‘collateral damage’. Placing the LTTE and Sri Lankan government on an equal footing at this stage is grossly mistaken, and shows a lack of real understanding of the on-the-ground reality. The campaign Tamil Solidarity (then called ‘Stop the Slaughter of Tamils’) was initiated in March 2009 soon after the fall of Kilinochchi, knowing that the war was over and what was taking place was a chase and kill.

What brought down Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in 2015?

It was not Sobitha Thero – a moderate Buddhist monk who brought down Mahinda, as Rohini Hensman implies, although he played an important role. Among various factors, the establishment of the ‘freedom platform’ led the mobilisation against Mahinda Rajapaksa. This project was initiated by the left – the revolutionary left – and the United Socialist Party specifically. The situation was so bad that even the capitalist UNP joined forces in this project. The USP, a small but very high-profile socialist organisation in Sri Lanka, faced lots of critics at that stage as being compromisers due to the involvement of the UNP. But the USP made it clear many times that what was established was a platform; not a coalition, any electoral pact or anything of that sort. A bloc with the UNP in that platform (not as a real connection but from the point of view of mobilisation) to reverse the dictatorial direction was vital. Following the 2015 election UNP leader Ranil Wikremesinghe himself gave unusual credit publicly to Siritunga Jayasuriya as a brave initiator of this project. Siri is well known for warning about Mahinda Rajapaksa when he won the presidency for the first time in 2005. Siri, who came third in that presidential election, used the platform of giving his post-election speech to deliver a stark warning to Mahinda to his face. He said he was the first “Sinhala president” – do not unleash the dogs of chauvinism. Many media quoted this, including the Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka, in a recent editorial following this election, as warning of the new phase that opened up in Sri Lanka.

It is through these relentless actions that the idea of a ‘common candidate’ emerged. If anyone had to be credited it is not the Sobitha Thero but Kumar David who had been writing and speaking on this in various media. Of course, Siritunga and the USP wanted a left common candidate. This did not come to pass as the momentum took a different direction with the involvement of Sobitha and the division that opened up inside the SLFP. Rohini Hensman has ignored all these processes. As a result her summary article ignores the role of socialists and thousands of brave activists.

How did Rohini Hensman miss this? How come she completely overlooked the role of the revolutionary left? It looks like she has taken the ‘easy way out’ to satisfy the tuned-in audience who may have a hard time believing the role of ‘tiny left Marxist’ groups. Sri Lanka is one example among many across the world where even a very small Marxist force has made a significant lasting impact. It is this history that led to the commanding support among Tamils for the USP. In the last presidential election the USP was the only party that endorsed the demands of the Tamils put forward collectively by five key Tamil parties. The well-known former chief minister openly acknowledged support for Siritunga. How did Rohini Hensman miss this? These are not insignificant events but vital for any Marxist who wants to work out a strategy for the left.

What strategy for the left?

The last part was the weakest part of her article. Rohini Hensman is completely wrong in assuming that the left supported the capitalist UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa. Who did? Record numbers of candidates stood in this election. Almost all the left parties stood their own candidate. Maybe with the exception of the party of Vickramabahu Karunaratne, almost all the left stood in opposition to both candidates. It would be completely wrong to support the UNP candidate, even in this polarised election. Rohini Hensman makes a vague proposal of “bringing together the ULF, JVP and a plethora of smaller left parties to form a viable democratic – socialist alternative” for the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Among many of the revolutionary left the experience of the 1960s still weighs heavy on their shoulders. It was the gross betrayal of the once-mass party the LSSP that started the deterioration of the left and working class strength in Sri Lanka. The eventual betrayal of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) that was formed to break away from that process gave a good opportunity for the bourgeois to break the back of a once strong working class in Sri Lanka and carry out pogroms against minorities.

The task of the Marxist left is not to succumb to lesser evilism but to build a real choice: a platform for working-class struggle, not just to win in the election but to deliver on all the democratic demands and get rid of capitalism once and for all. This is never an easy task. It can also not be forged by a mere summation of the existing fractured parties and organisations. A united left of the kind that Rohini Hensman is speaking about is not new and has been tried many times without success.
In the last years many dialogues have taken place among the left parties in Sri Lanka, including various attempts to forge unity. The JVP has not been part of these discussions as they are not considered a serious left party any more. They have become almost a weak left version of the SLFP. It will take a mammoth change inside the JVP before they could come forward with a platform that has a clear left perspective and demands. A previous attempt to change the JVP split the organisation in half in the recent past.

Even among other left parties there is no agreement, particularly on the national question. In the recent presidential election debate, one of the leading Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members in London accused all these parties of not following Lenin. Except the USP, and to an extent the NSSP, none of the parties has an approach to the national question that stands in the tradition of the Russian Revolution, of which Lenin was one of the main leaders. This question remains an Achilles heel for all the left in Sri Lanka. Can unity be forged without taking a position on the national question? Even that is not possible as there exists huge differences on other issues – such as the approach towards the unions, the democratic demands of the Muslim population, the land rights of the Hill Country workers, etc. let alone positions on international issues and internationalism. Even the possibility of an ‘electoral pact’ turned out to be impossible task.

Even if this unity by a summation of existing left forces can be forged by a magic wand, it is not enough. What is needed is a real engagement of the working class in particular. What position do the unions take – can they be changed? That is the key question. The organised working class coming together to form an independent platform would be a real start. This of course should be on the basis of establishing proper democratic structures and clear perspectives, including on the national question. The last election showed the possibility of bringing together Tamil, Muslim and Hill Country oppressed workers with the Sinhala workers. Eluka Tamil (Arise Tamils) events in the north and east showed some possibilities of mobilising the masses. This, by the way, is regarded as imperfect or tainted by Tamil nationalism by the ‘progressive sorts’ who are determined to keep away from it. There is no perfect solution. However real unity will only come through mass participation – with a strong working class presence – in opposition to all types of atrocities. It is this that will push forward the democratic demands and win.