What does the election in Sri Lanka mean for the Tamil-speaking masses?

The Tamil Solidarity (TS) steering committee met on Friday 18 December 2009 to discuss future plans. One of the most important items on the agenda was the question of what the TS position on the upcoming presidential election should be. The following is a summary of the discussion and points agreed which we would like to propose as a document for the election. 

Pic: Rajapaksa and Fonseka celebrating their victory in Vakarai afetr mass murdering thousands.

What does this election mean for the Tamil-speaking masses? War and repression mean that the Tamil-speaking population has been reduced to less than 15% of the population of Sri Lanka. In the East and in the North, areas where Tamil-speaking people are in the majority, paramilitaries are in control. In the East there is the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) – the Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers and in the North it is the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). These organisations are the voice of the government, they are armed to the teeth, they carry out human rights violations with impunity and they will not allow the election to be contested fairly. The people live at the mercy of these oppressing forces.

Will the Tamil-speaking people be allowed to vote freely? Is there any alternative to the pro-government forces for them?

None of the leading candidates offers any way out for the working and poor masses. In fact they represent a choice of death by machete or death by axe. General Sarath Fonseka, standing for the viciously neoliberal United National Party (UNP) with support from the People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna JVP), actually led the war offensive, butchering the innocent Tamil minority. He worked closely with the Rajapakse government in all its attacks. But now, in a breathtaking show of hypocrisy, he accuses the government of corruption and of denying democratic rights. Both the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapakse, and Fonseka are guilty of suppressing democratic rights and their policies and actions have pushed the workers and poor into destitution. Both are using all kinds of devious techniques to win the next election and neither has shown any sign that their policies will change after the election.

Some in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a political alliance of various Tamil nationalist groups and parties brought together by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the 2002 truce, and Mano Ganeshan of the Democratic People’s Front (DPF) have previously been the only Tamil independent voices. Now the TNA seems to be on the brink of collapse as a significant layer of its leadership is wavering between Rajapakse’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the weak-willed opposition party, the UNP. And the DPF continues its support for the UNP, regardless of its chosen presidential candidate – General Sarath Fonseka!

Previously Mano Ganeshan, the leader of the DPF, was one of the very few Tamil MPs who had enough courage to organise and participate in actions to defend the rights of the Tamil-speaking people. He was a leading organiser of the Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC) together with Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party (USP). Like Siritunga Jayasuriya, he is one of the few who have bravely spoken out against the war and attacks on democratic rights. But, despite his participation in many pickets and activities organised in the defence of minorities, journalists and activists, he has now joined the very forces he fought against.

Among the so-called Tamil elite and MPs, there are some who harbour careerist aspirations and hopes of one day becoming a minister – if the party they support is elected. But for the Tamil-speaking masses, nothing will change. No one in their right mind can ask the people to vote for either Fonseka or Rajapakse, knowing that they are responsible for a range of heinous crimes – from the mass murder of thousands of innocent people to the bloody slaughter of surrendered prisoners in Mullivaaikaal.

Some people have argued that an independent Tamil candidate cannot win, and therefore either the SLFP or UNP must be supported. This idea – that there is no alternative other than the oppressors setting the agenda – is not acceptable. Tamil-speaking people deserve an independent voice. They deserve the opportunity to support anyone who will stand up for their rights, regardless of whether they can win a big victory at this stage or not. With mass mobilisations of workers and poor a candidate opposing the warmongers can win in the next election. We cannot give up the fight and ask people to support either major party in this election. Both the candidates are horrifically oppressive. Scandalously the TNA has taken the side of such forces.

Should we then ask the oppressed Tamil masses to vote for the only Tamil presidential candidate, Mr MK Sivajilingam? Sadly the fact remains that for Mr Sivajilingam there are no major political differences between the TNA and the UNP and he would have joined forces with the UNP if it had not supported the Fonseka candidature. It is only the Fonseka factor that is now keeping a significant section of the Tamil elite away from the UNP – rather than the UNP’s politics. In this respect Sivajilingam is no different from the old Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leaders who betrayed the Tamil masses.

Throughout its history the Tamil elite has made the mistake of taking the side of the chauvinist elite parties who oppress Sinhala workers and poor. It is with these politics that we are determined to break. To support Sivajilingam is to support the anti-working and poor people policies of the UNP and offers no solution to the problems of the Tamil-speaking masses. The ordinary people of Sri Lanka need a candidate with a principled stand against the policies of repression. Sadly Sivajilingam is not that candidate. In early January he was accused of supporting the Bharatia Janata Party (BJP), a major Hindu nationalist party in India whose communalism can rival the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Buddhist nationalist party in Sri Lanka. He has a very narrow nationalist political perspective and has stated nothing about his political or economical programme as a presidential candidate.

Participating in a joint campaign with Sivajilingam is another presidential candidate, Vickramabahu Karunaratne. Despite his left profile, he is eager to work with the entire Tamil elite, regardless of their politics. It is not the first time that Vickramabahu Karunaratne and the majority of Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) have made such a mistake. When the Indian army intervened in the north of Sri Lanka in the 1980s the NSSP argued that the Indian capitalist class was progressive compared with the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie and supported the idea of an Indian army intervention. The experience of the Tamil-speaking population of that area disproved this decisively. Even though they now say that it was a mistake, Vickramabahu and his party continue to make similar mistakes as they seem to have little understanding of the national question and how to solve it. Just as the TNA and other Tamil elites continue to cooperate with either leading party, the NSSP cooperates with the Tamil elite without reservation. Abandoning the oppressed working and poor Tamil masses for the sake of electoral gains is not acceptable.

Mr Sivajilingam’s position not to take the side of the oppressors and join forces with the left candidate should be welcomed. However, at a stage where a clear political alternative is needed this marriage of convenience between Sivajilingam and Vickramabahu Karunaratne has only a narrow electoral objective. In Tamil Solidarity we do not believe that they possess a clear alternative for the oppressed Tamil masses, who at this stage need a long-term committed fighting programme to win their rights rather than an electoral stunt.

What should our strategy be? The majority of the exploited Sinhala masses have no interest in supporting either the ruling government or the opposition candidate. They gain nothing from supporting them. However, they have been led to believe that the brutal war was conducted in their interest. But the truth is to the contrary. The exploited Sinhala masses have nothing to gain from the mass killings of Tamil-speaking people. It is the ruling class that benefits from the brutality. We must join with those organising the exploited Sinhala masses against their oppressors. Only when the Sinhala workers and poor stand up for the rights of the Tamil workers and poor can any solution be found. Instead of allying with the oppressive forces who exploit all sections of society, Tamil-speaking people should stand up with those fighting for the rights of ordinary people. We must join with them to build an independent voice.

The most important question is not how we can defeat the current government in this election. Instead it is how we can build this independent force that will change society for the benefit of all the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry masses.

Based on this long-term strategy Tamil Solidarity is interested only in those who are prepared to consistently defend the rights of the oppressed masses.

What the pro-business, ruling elite refuses to acknowledge is that there is an alternative. There are people even in the south who have consistently defended the rights of Tamil-speaking people and workers and poor. United Socialist Party (USP) members have put their lives in danger to speak and organise against the brutal war and oppression. They remain the only voice that is bravely and consistently defending the rights of the Tamil-speaking people. The USP also helped to set up the Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC) that investigates death and disappearances caused by paramilitary operators. They risked their lives to openly condemn these atrocities and to organise pickets and activities.

Media in Tamil Nadu and around the world published widely when USP secretary, Siritunga Jayasuriya, bravely spoke against the brutal war at its height. This was at a time when the defence minister famously declared that you are either with the government and military or against them and accused everyone who spoke against them as being traitors.

The majority of the Tamil politicians, who now argue for a vote for the leading parties, either remained silent or chose to support the government. But political fighters in the USP risked their lives to stand up for the principles and ideas for which they have always stood – standing shoulder to shoulder with the poor and oppressed masses in the fight for their rights. This consistent approach and record deserves respect and it is the USP who the oppressed people, be they Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, should trust. The TNA MPs and other Tamil elites know this fact very well. They might argue that a Tamil candidate would have no chance in the presidential election. The key question is whether any candidate prepared to stand up for the rights of Sinhala workers and poor as well as the rights of Tamil speaking masses. Such a candidate would combine standing in the election with mobilising a mass movement to oust a Sinhala chauvinist capitalist government.

Siritunga Jayasuriya, the USP presidential candidate, helped to set up the ‘Stop the Slaughter of Tamils’ campaign which was the predecessor of the Tamil Solidarity campaign. On the basis of this record and the trust we have built up in our long opposition to the brutal attacks on the Tamil-speaking minority the TS steering committee urges all its members to support a left candidate, Siritunga Jayasuriya in particular.