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Peter Hadden

Sri Lanka: Only socialist revolution
can end the bloodbath

(June 1987)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 153N, June 1987.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Since 1983 Sri Lanka has been engulfed in a state of near civil war between the right-wing United National Party (UNP) government of President Jayawardene and the minority Tamil community concentrated in the northern and eastern provinces, Recent events – 126 Sinhalese (majority community) slaughtered in the east, 150 killed by a bomb in a Colombo bus station, retaliatory air raids against the Tamil-guerrilla stronghold of Jaffna in the north, killing hundreds – have registered worldwide horror of this conflict.

The world economic crisis plus the time Jag of the revolution have created in the colonial world a cauldron of national, ethnic, racial and religious conflicts and potential conflicts, all irresolvable on a capitalist basis. ‘Paradise Island’ as Sri Lanka used to be affectionately described by the western tourist agencies now stands with the Lebanon and much of India as one of the areas worst affected by national upheaval. For Marxists worldwide, but particularly in Ireland where the problem is not dissimilar, there are many lessons.

Sri Lanka is smaller than Ireland but with three times the population. Eleven of its 15 million inhabitants are Sinhalese and mainly Buddhist, while the three million Tamils, mainly Hindus or Christians, comprise the largest minority. Two-thirds of the Tamil population live in the Northern and Eastern provinces, although in some districts of the latter the Sinhalese are in a majority. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the 900,000 Tamil plantation workers are of more recent Indian origin, brought in by British imperialism as cheap labour. These are a distinct super-exploited group of low caste Tamils who live in the central region of the island.

It was British imperialism which sowed the seeds of the present divisions. Using the tactic of divide and rule they developed an elite among the Tamils who were given university education and came to predominate in skilled occupations and at top levels of the colonial administrative apparatus.

For their part the native bourgeoisie and elite, both Tamil and Sinhalese, played no part in the struggle for independence. The bourgeois Ceylon National Congress called not for independence but for self government within the empire. These pliant lickspittles of imperialism adopted a thoroughly reactionary standpoint and also acquired a Sinhalese chauvinist character, alienating the Tamil elite who had initially participated.

In 1947, in the wake of the independence of India and Burma, British imperialism moved from the top in order to forestall a huge social movement in Sri Lanka, and handed independence on a plate to this Sinhalese elite, in the form of the recently founded UNP.

Four decades of independence have underlined the incapacity of the native bourgeoisie to take society forward. They have ‘progressed’ into worsening impoverishment and ethnic
upheaval. This, despite the fact that Sri Lanka, during the years of the post-war boom, was exampled by capitalist economists as one of the jewels of the colonial world, a ‘miracle’ economy and a ‘stable’ parliamentary democracy.


True, during the boom its main exports, especially tea, did not suffer as harshly from the worsening terms of trade as other commodities. Also there was a limited industrial growth particularly in the agricultural processing industries. For the masses conditions of life were partially cushioned by the gains of a rudimentary welfare state – free education, a health service and food subsidies – forced by the past struggles of the working class. At the time of independence welfare measures took up 50% of the government’s spending.

Yet the other side of the ‘miracle’ gives a more accurate picture of what was achieved. Sri Lanka has become no Taiwan. Three crops – tea, coconut and rubber – still account for 60% of total export earnings. Industrial growth did not bring rising living standards. While per capita production in 1980 was 70% higher than in 1960, per capita consumption fell 10% over the same period. In 1983 GNP per head was $330, placing ‘Paradise Island’, according to this one yardstick.

A regime which cannot improve the all-round quality of life will be unable to knit society together and overcome ethnic or other divisions. Failing to improve the lot of the masses, each bourgeois administration has resorted to some measure of Sinhalese chauvinism to divert attention. This has been the case with UNP governments and with those formed by its main rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by various members of the Bandaranaike family. By a mixture of radical sounding demagogy and Sinhalese chauvinism this party, since the mid-1950s, has had a large base among the rural Sinhalese poor.

The first UNP government deprived the Indian Tamils of citizenship rights and the right to vote. The first SLFP administration, elected in 1956, passed the Sinhalese Only Bill making Sinhalese the national language and giving no recognition to the Tamil tongue. In 1964 the SLFP reached an agreement with the Indian bourgeoisie to solve the problem of the plantation Tamils – by repatriating 600,000 of them back to India.

Such measures plus anti-Tamil discrimination in university places, refusal to grant autonomy to Tamil areas etc., alienated the mass of Tamils. All this should be a salutary lesson to those right-wing nationalists and so-called socialists who argue that, in a united Ireland, positive discrimination would be exercised to undo the ‘privileges’ of the Protestants. The policies of successive bourgeois governments would not have created the present conflict but for one additional factor – the failure of the working class, because of the betrayal by their leaders, to show a way out.

Since the 1920s, the Sri Lankan working class has a proud history of militant struggle. They forced concessions unique in the British Empire. In 1935 the most advanced layers of the class created the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), a revolutionary Marxist party loyal to the real traditions of Bolshevism as upheld by Leon Trotsky.

Independence Struggle

For two decades or so this party played a magnificent role at the head of the working class. It led a struggle for independence, opposed the war and was suppressed. In 1953 when a UNP government reduced food subsidies it led a Hartal (a one-day general strike and mass mobilisation) which paralysed the country. Despite military repression, including the shooting of a number of workers, the Hartal was victorious, among other gains forcing the Prime Minister to resign. During its revolutionary period the LSSP upheld the rights of Tamils and made particular gains among the plantation Tamils.

Yet by the late 1950s, and particularly during the 1960s, the LSSP leadership degenerated along reformist lines. The delay of the world revolution, the absence of any mass Marxist party worldwide, decades of parliamentary participation plus a strong party apparatus but without clear perspectives – all these were factors.


Open evidence of this degeneration came in 1964 when the LSSP leaders concocted a deal with the SLFP and briefly’ formed a coalition government. During the late 1960’s the LSSP formed a block with the Communist Party and the SLFP and in 1970 a Popular Front government of these parties was swept to power winning 120 out of 157 seats. This government, despite certain measures of nationalisation, was a government of austerity and repression. It cut food subsidies and ended up with food rationing. It massacred and imprisoned those who took part in the adventurist and abortive 1971 JVP uprising of mainly petty-bourgeois and rural youth. In return for its ministries the LSSP had to accept its share of culpability for all this.

National Question

On the national question the years of the Popular Front were disastrous. In 1972 a new constitution was proclaimed. This gave recognition to the Sinhalese language and to Buddhism. A clause which had been in the old British negotiated constitution protecting minority rights was dropped. That such steps should be taken by a Popular Front government was a double blow.

The Tamils were alienated not only from the Sinhalese bourgeois parties but now also from the workers’ parties. So instead of the Tamil opposition being driven behind the class opposition of the Sinhalese workers, the Tamils were driven to nationalism and to the blind alley of individual terrorism.

It was no accident that it was in 1972 that the Tamil Tigers, the largest of the Tamil guerrilla groups, was formed. Nor that the Tamil bourgeois parties united in 1976 to form the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and to declare for Ealam, a separate Tamil state, as opposed to the previous demands for regional autonomy. In Ireland it was the failure of the working class organisations to seize their opportunities in 1968–9 which paved the way for two decades of sectarian upheaval. So the disastrous crimes of Popular Frontism prepared for a decade of UNP reaction, communalism on a scale hitherto unseen, and the threat of civil war in Sri Lanka.

The 1977 election resulted in a landslide for the UNP led by Jayawardene. The TULF became the main opposition. For the first time since the 1930s the working class parties had not a single representative. A wave of UNP inspired at tacks on Tamils set the tone for what was to come.

Free-trade zone

Jayawardene aimed to create a new Taiwan by turning Sri Lanka into a glorified free trade zone of foreign multinationals. To do so he had to smash the resistance of the working class. Step by step this government has moved to eliminate democratic rights and set up a bonapartist regime similar to the other tin-pot dictatorships which predominate in the colonial world. These authoritarian moves are a sign, not of the strength but of the weakness of Sri Lankan capitalism, which can no longer afford the measures of democracy it allowed in the past.

First in 1978 a constitutional amendment established an executive Presidency. Jayawardene became President and proceeded to strengthen the powers of his office. In 1980 attacks on striking workers forced the recently formed Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) to call a general strike. Because betrayal by the leaders of the other workers’ parties this strike was defeated. 80,000 public sector workers lost their jobs in the victimisation which followed.

This defeat allowed Jayawardene to take a further step along the bonapartist road. In 1982 he won a second term as President and followed this success with a referendum which postponed parliamentary elections.

Economic upturn

Jayawardene achieved these successes partly through coercion but partly also because of an upturn in the economy which had afforded him a certain room to manoeuvre. During the seven years of the Popular Front, 1970&ndash:77, there had been an average fall in production of 1% per year. Between 1978–84 production rose by an average of 4.5%. Unemployment fell from 26% in 1977 to 12% in 1983 (official figures).

Remittances from abroad helped boost government revenue. Money sent home by the 100,000 Sri Lankans working in the Middle East is second only to tea exports as a source of foreign exchange. Foreign aid, given to prop this reactionary stooge of imperialism, has also been an important factor. Sri Lanka receives more foreign aid per head of population than any other Asian country.

The moves to bonapartism were accompanied by increased repression of the Tamils. Special legislation (Prevention of Terrorism Act) was passed and states of emergency declared. The impotence of the TULF, and their expulsion from parliament, strengthened the hand of the guerrillas, especially the Tamil Tigers. A cycle of guerrilla and terrorist activity and military repression was established.

In the summer of 1983 this cycle of violence reached a new phase. In a systematic anti-Tamil pogrom hundreds of Tamils were killed and lens of thousands driven from their homes, fleeing via refugee camps to the Jaffna peninsula or to Tamil Nadu in India. Today there are an estimated 100,000 Tamil refugees in India. All this has swelled the ranks of the Tigers. Such is their strength that they are now in virtual control of the Jaffna area. The battle lines of a civil war for control of the north and east are clearly drawn.

Yet despite a catalogue of atrocities, including the butchery of civilians on both sides, events have not yet come to a decisive head. In part this has been because of the pressure of US imperialism on both Jayewardene and the Indian bourgeoisie to find a compromise solution. In part it is also due to the strength of the working class in Sri Lanka, whose organisations remain basically intact, and who act as a restraining factor on Jayawardene’s bonapartist ambitions.

However the situation cannot continue indefinitely. Any settlement allowing the Tamils a measure of autonomy would not be enough to satisfy the Tamil youth, would pose the immediate problem of a Sinhalese minority in these areas, would inflame the Sinhala chauvinist element and could provide nothing more than a breathing space. Talks on such a deal broke down at the end of last year. As the violence continues the stakes tend to be raised on all sides and the likelihood of even such a temporary settlement appears increasingly remote.


The economic upturn which assisted Jayewardene is running out of steam. Commodity prices have fallen, this year’s agricultural output will be severely affected by drought and a growth of no more than 2% or so in the economy seems likely in 1987. This gives the already unpopular UNP Government very little room to manoeuvre.

On the other side Ghandi’s Congress government in India finds itself weakened almost by the day. It is the ruling party only in a minority of the Indian states and can ill-afford to do deals with Jayawardene which would antagonise the 50 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu.

A continuation and probable escalation of the conflict now seems most likely. Neither a continuation of the present nightmare nor a conclusive military victory for either side would do anything for the Sri Lankan masses, Sinhalese or Tamil.

Jayawardene, as we go to press, has launched a bloody military attack on Jaffna by land. This attack may well compel the Indian ruling class to intervene under Tamil population. An Indian invasion would mean the partition of the island with the Indian army annexing the north east and the plantation area in the central highlands.


It would be a Cyprus solution, but in the context of this poor and under-developed country, much worse. The Sinhalese would be left with a truncated and impoverished state and a vicious military government. Indian rule would create no Garden of Eden for the Tamils. Already India contains ⅓ of the world’s poor. 40% of its citizens eke out an existence below the minimum poverty line. Living standards are lower than in Sri Lanka. The Tamils would quickly discover that they had exchanged one military jackboot for another.

Where there was Sinhala domination there would now be Hindi domination. On the other hand victory by the Tamil Tigers and the creation of a separate state, or Ealam, would in practice solve nothing for the Tamils. As with the creation of Pakistan in 1947, it would be born in communal slaughter, particularly in the areas with a Sinhalese majority on the east coast. As a state it would be unviable and destitute. 80% of Sri Lankan industry is in the southern area around Colombo. While the desire for Ealam is an understandable expression of opposition to repression and discrimination, a capitalist Tamil statelet would lead to even greater impoverishment of the Tamils.

The only way the conflict can be resolved is on a socialist basis. Within a socialist Sri Lanka the rights of all minorities could be guaranteed. While the past decade has been one of defeats for the working class there has been one important step forward. In 1977, following the refusal of the LSSP leaders to call a party conference, a revolutionary tendency within the party itself convened the conference, won a majority and established the NSSP. This party has returned to the revolutionary traditions of the old LSSP. It has been in the vanguard of the struggles of the working class against the UNP government. It led the general strike in 1980. The potential impact of its ideas is well understood by the regime, so much so that Jayawardene accused it of part responsibility for the 1983 riots, as a pretext to drive it underground and imprison its leaders. The allegation is doubly scandalous since the NSSP have a proud record of upholding the rights of the Tamils.

Working Class

The fate of the Sri Lankan working class depends on the ability of the NSSP to win the leadership of the working class and build a mass force which, by demonstrating in action that it is prepared to struggle all out to change society, can draw behind it all layers of the oppressed including the Tamils.

Lenin commented that the socialist revolution in Russia would not have been achieved had the Bolsheviks not adopted a correct position on the national question. So it is in Sri Lanka.

Central to the struggle of the masses against the UNP and the other capitalist forces must be a programme to unite Tamil and Sinhalese workers and rural poor.

While opposing individual terrorism, socialists must uphold the right of the Tamil workers to self-defence against the threat of pogrom. The working class must stand for an end to repression, the repeal of all emergency legislation, for an end to discrimination, equal rights for the Tamil language, full citizenship for the plantation Tamils and an end to caste prejudice. It must stand not only for the maximum autonomy for the Tamil areas, but also for the right, should they so wish, to secede and set up their own slate. While in practice advocating unity in a socialist Sri Lanka the Sinhalese working class must bend over backwards to demonstrate to the Tamils that they have no interest in coercing them.

In this way a struggle to overthrow capitalism in Sri Lanka can be prepared. This would not be by the use of false methods of the Tamil guerrillas such as bombs in Colombo, but by the mass struggle as in the 1953 Hartal. A successful socialist revolution in Sri Lanka would be the beginning of the socialist revolution in India and Pakistan. A socialist federation of the Indian sub-continent would mean the resolution not only of the national question in Sri Lanka, but of the multitude of such problems and potential problems which are festering as the open sores of capitalism throughout the entire region today.

As in Ireland it is a clear choice. Either the working class will achieve a socialist solution or it will go down to defeat overwhelmed by the disaster of communal blood letting.

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