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Nigel Harris

Special Asian Survey


(June 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.48, June/July 1971, pp.10-12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The ruling class of Ceylon has been baptised in fire. Until last month, a certain grudging toleration hung like a mist over the relations between the classes. Today, the real class struggle has been revealed. The fog of ‘leftist’ rhetoric has dissipated. Cynical and brutal, the rulers of Ceylon will go to any lengths to preserve their position.

This revelation of the real state of power has been forced by the steadily worsening crisis of Ceylonese capitalism.The ‘Left’ government of Mrs Bandaranaike which won a quite unexpected landslide victory at the polls in March of last year has been, as always, long on promises and short on delivery. But it has become progressively less easy to maintain the balancing game between revolutionary slogans for the mass audience and strictly conservative action for the foreign financiers and domestic capitalists. To escape, Mrs Bandaranaike needed to find and hunt a scapegoat, preferably on the Left so that the Right would be impressed and extend credit and support to her government.

The economy

The crisis of Ceylonese capitalism is only an extreme version of the problems facing many developing countries. Sixty per cent of Ceylon’s foreign exchange earnings come from tea (and a further thirty per cent from rubber and coconut). World tea output increases two to three per cent per year, but world demand for tea has been stagnant for years. For Ceylon the revenue it receives from exports is sluggish or declining while the price of its imports is rising. The widening gap can only be plugged by foreign loans, but on steadily more and more restrictive terms.

Ceylon already has debts to foreigners of more than £108 million. This sum has tripled in the past five years, and servicing the debt now takes a fifth of Ceylon’s export earnings. Foreign lenders are less and less inclined to extend more capital until they are sure that Ceylon’s economy is going to grow fast enough to repay the loans. The terms of each new loan get stiffer, and the government is less and less able to resist the demands of foreign lenders for control over the Ceylonese economy. The Bandaranaike coalition, while in opposition, radically attacked the terms of loans clinched by the former UNP government; this time, Minister of Finance Perera (of the formerly-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaj) refused to publish the terms of his deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Using foreign aid just to survive – and to fulfill Mrs Bandaranaike’s election promise to double the rice ration – piles up the problems for the future. The economy is not expanded, and new jobs for the rising labour force are not created.

Between a half and one million are said to be unemployed (out of a total population of 12 million), many of them in the age group 15 to 25.The government announced a crash programme to employ 100,000 of them, but this scheme will take a long time to produce any results. Instead of tackling employment, the government concentrated in its election platform on pure demagogy-it would take over the tea industry (the biggest employer with 800,000 workers),the import trade and the banks;it would set up ‘people’s committees’ to represent popular interests in districts and workplaces. But all this was just noise beside the central problem.

The ‘Speech from the Throne’ last June promised boldly that Ceylon would become a republic, nationalization of the banks would be completed, and State agencies would assume direction, but not ownership, of the trade in tea, rubber and coconuts. But in the autumn, an austerity budget showed the real state of play after all the talk (and even that budget was based on an assumed rate of aid that has in fact not materialised). An all round increase in taxes did nothing to help the rising tide of inflation for the mass of the population. Taking over the tea-box import trade and the graphite industry, and abolishing the Upper House of Ceylon’s parliament (where there was an anti-Bandaranaike majority) filled new stomachs. But the government did make a substantial increase in the police force.

If the mass of the population was denied any hope of improvement, Mrs Bandaranaike was not winning friends among the ruling class of Ceylon. What nationalizations there were, plus an incomes ceiling, a compulsory savings scheme to limit dividends and the general spurious populist furore of the government, all induced upper-class anxieties about a rising tide of ‘Bolshevism’. Behind the government lay even more substantial threats. Industrial output has been falling, and the workers have been increasingly prone to strike. Last September strikes in the petroleum and electricity industries prompted the government to introduce a state of emergency under which the army took over petrol and paraffin distribution.

The Emergency

The Bandaranaike government was threatened on every side. From abroad came demands to cut the rice ration, increase rice prices and scrap any plans for nationalization – as conditions for the loans which alone seemed to be the means for the survival of Bandaranaike’s administration. Domestic capitalists were terrified that the government was going to extinguish them. Meanwhile, the mass of the population was more and more aware that all the promises of a radical new deal made during the elections were being betrayed in intrigue and petty manoeuvres. Something was needed which would simultaneously defeat all these threats, and provide the pretext for a generalised attack on popular living standards (increasing prices, cutting social services, halving the rice ration). The youthful and fragmentary revolutionary left was just the excuse Bandaranaike and her ‘Trotskyist’ and ‘Communist’ allies needed.

For some years, there have been ‘men training with arms’ in the hills. And no doubt they would have continued there if Mrs Bandaranaike’s need had not been so great. There are a number of radical opposition organisations – including the largest, the People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, JVP),and also splinters from the Lanka Sama Samaj such as the LSSP(R) – but none of them was of enough significance to worry the government. Indeed, the JVP supported the Bandaranaike coalition at the time of the election, and had not, except rhetorically, raised the question of seizing power in Ceylon. By last August, the JVP had reached the stage of mass meetings to criticise the government, and the government in its turn harassed JVP militants. JVP membership was drawn primarily from students and the educated unemployed. Despite the fog of rumours and government-inspired fables, there is no evidence that the JVP was very large, nor that it was preparing seriously to attack the government, nor that it had connections with any foreign power (in the early days, it was said, ‘vast’ arms caches of foreign weapons had been discovered; in fact, it turned out,the only weapons discovered were those lifted from the army and police in Ceylon; the North Koreans were expelled as scapegoats for there is no evidence that they were seriously involved with the JVP or any other movement).

The government’s imagination was lively, if inconsistent. Last October, the police claimed that there were 15,000 men preparing an uprising. By March, the number, according to the government,c had climbed as high as 85,000 which – for the benefit of foreign arms suppliers – was happily contrasted with the tiny armed forces of Ceylon (25,000). Other official estimates asserted that there were 4,000 ‘hardcore’ rebels, and 10,000 ‘active supporters’; or 20-30,000 ‘hardcore’ members (that is, those with weapons), excluding other supporters in the cities. And so on. This is the stuff of upper-class nightmares, not of Ceylonese reality. There are of course at least 100,000 potential rebels in Ceylon, but there can at most be only a few thousand actual organised rebels. Yet when the government set out to find a scapegoat for its failures it accidentally met with a sea of hostility which, at least briefly, really did frighten it.

The official explanations as to why the Emergency was called were as diverse as the estimates of rebel strength. The police said the JVP had been planning an armed insurrection for ‘several months’ and that they had attacked the US embassy in March.In fact the attack on the embassy has all the marks of a provocateur’s action: the attackers called themselves the ‘Mao Youth Front’, an unknown group, and the JVP entirely rejected the accusation that it had been involved. But the incident gave the pretext for the arrest of the JVP leadership. On March 16th, the government claimed that there was a plot to kidnap the Social Services Minister, and introduced the Emergency. On March 18th, Mrs Bandaranaike argued that the JVP and others had planned an armed uprising for mid-April. On the 23rd she said it was a plot to seize public buildings and steal guns.

The truth may never be known. But the government used opportunity to slaughter as many of the overt or potential opposition as they could. And the sheer ruthlessness of government forces added desperation to the hunted, so that what began as a demonstration of Mrs Bandaranaike’s power ended as a bloodbath. The numbers killed will probably never be known. The army claims to have made 3,000 arrests (75 per cent of those arrested were between the ages of 19 and 22); another thousand are said to have surrendered under the amnesty. Yet still some of the rebels fought on, with amazing heroism and tenacity. In reply, the government escalated its brutality. In late April, one foreign correspondent observed that

‘Though clearly on the wane, the insurgency had become a cockerel in the hands of the government forces who, not satisfied with wringing its throat, now sought to tear out its giblets as well.’

The ruthlessness of the army and police – like that, of the West Pakistan military in East Bengal – is designed to achieve the most vivid effect on the minds of the mass of the population in the shortest time possible. What is left of the opposition is now concentrated in those areas of the centre and south of the island from which the government draws its main support, from the rural Sinhalese Buddhist areas (not from, for example, the Sinhalese Christian or Ceylon Tamil districts).

The government has crossed its Rubicon. It can no longer play the Left rhetoric waltz to charm its mass audience. And the more ‘Left’ the Cabinet member is supposed to be, the more he has been required to stand up and be counted in these troubled times for Ceylonese capitalism. Leslie Goonewardene, Lanka Sama Samaj Minister of Communications, proclaimed in The Nation that the rebels were ‘right-wing reactionaries’, a view echoed by Colvin da Silva (LSSP Minister of Plantations). Pieter Keuneman, Communist Party Minister of Housing and Construction, went a little further and dubbed the JVP ‘new-style fascists’. Government Ministers proclaimed, not the struggle for socialism, but their firm intention to ‘protect democracy and the democratic way of life which the people of Ceylon have cherished and preserved through the years’. But a ‘Left’ government does make some difference: originally the last massive onslaught on the militants still fighting was timed for May 1st; but the government felt it would be indelicate to launch such a repression on international labour day and postponed the attack for a few days.

Few others have emerged with much more credit. The pro-China Communist Party compaigned consistently against the JVP, helping the government by calling them terrorists. Sanmugathasan, the leader of this group, originally hoped to share in the election spoils and secure ministerial office in Mrs Bandaranaike’s government. But he lost his seat in the election. His loyalty to the coalition did him no good, for both he and his deputy were arrested during the Emergency. But it may be that others, within the government, had their loyalties strained. The parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Planning (R.D. Senanayake) was arrested quite early on. An LSSP MP, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, leader of the party’s youth organisation, was arrested for ‘complicity’ in the ‘revolt’, which might suggest that some of the LSSP youth sympathised with the JVP. The private secretary to the Minister of Information (B.S. Perera) also appears to have been detained. Outside the government, all the leading members of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation were arrested or dismissed.


The JVP militants have now a clear idea of who their friends at home are. And abroad the picture is no less clear. There was an unseemly rush to prop up the Bandaranaike regime and provide it with the instruments of repression – six US, six Russian, four Indian and two Pakistani helicopters; six MIG 17s and twenty armoured cars, with Russian staff, from the Soviet Union; a quick injection of small arms and 18 army scout cars from British imperialism; and five Indian anti-submarine frigates patrolling the coast. The Russian MIGs are said to have been immediately used to strafe rebel areas in the north central region. More assistance came from Yugoslavia, Egypt and Australia. The Chinese government wrote to Mrs Bandaranaike on 26 April offering a long term, interest free loan of £10.7m, and congratulated her government on defeating the insurgents.


The government seriously underestimated the potential for revolt and overestimated the army’s capacity to suppress the left. The JVP underestimated the ruthlessness and cynicism of Mrs Bandaranaike and were caught relatively unprepared. For the JVP and other revolutionary groups, the lessons are hard and bitter. Despite enormous heroism and tenacity, the left has received a setback. Without links with the organised workers of Colombo, the revolutionaries were unable to threaten the government from behind its back. The opposition has been forced into the more isolated areas, and it will take time for it to recover. But when it re-emerges, the crisis of Ceylonese capitalism will have reached a much more extreme state.

On the one hand, Mrs Bandaranaike – for short-term political gains – has created an army that will not, as it has in the past, passively accept its role as watchdog to the civilian government. Defence expenditure has tripled through the emergency; the resources going into defence will mean there is less for development, for job creation, which means there will be more opposition, and so the need for more defence expenditure. On the other hand, the cost of the military operation has made the immediate economic prospect, critical before the emergency, now catastrophic. The tea and rubber trades have been brought to standstill, and the rice output has been cut: export earnings and the basic food supply of the population are simultaneously threatened. The middle and upper classes have no doubt been terrified into supporting Mrs Bandaranaike, and perhaps foreign lenders have been impressed with her commitment to defend the Ceylonese outpost of world capitalism, but at fearful cost.She has delivered such a crushing blow to the economy that the class struggle is bound to escalate even more dramatically in the future. And then the only force capable of holding the country together will be the army, no doubt also tricked out in Leftist rhetoric. But the army cannot solve the central problem either.

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Last updated: 6.2.2008