Political violence in Sri Lanka - Part four
Opportunism of the left
By Lionel Bopage
The ruling elites played the ethnic card to prop up their political fortunes. By turning the class struggle into one of ethnic hatred, they distracted the people from the economic basis of their exploitation. The left failed to counter this blatant chauvinism. In their attempts to achieve parliamentary power they eventually bought into the opportunistic ethnic politics. This led to the eventual debasement of the traditional left, the JVP and the Tamil left groups.
The traditional left stood for the parity of languages, democracy and equality during the fifties and stood by the Tamils during anti-Tamil riots in the south. They also supported a federal setup. However, the turning point came in the 1960s, when the left entered into coalition politics with the SLFP, opportunistically shifting its position on issues that were relevant to
the youth and ethnic minorities.
In the late 1960s, the UF coalition opposed decentralisation of power to the regions. In 1970 the coalition government introduced a policy of standardisation with a district quota system which steeply reduced the proportion of Tamil students (as a percentage of total admissions)17 accepted for science, engineering and medical faculties (de Silva 1978). Dr Colvin R de Silva, who was a leading member of the LSSP, was the architect of the 1972 constitution that
abolished the protections given to minorities under section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution, provided Buddhism the `foremost place', and institutionalised preferential treatment to Sinhala Buddhists in educational and economic opportunities.
Seeing the new left as its grave-digger, the old left decided to wipe out the JVP at the earliest opportunity. Having failed to slander the JVP, it launched a covert terror campaign against it. They used the state apparatus and vigilante groups to repress the JVP. The JVP violently fought back against this brutal repression.
In addition, the coalition government did not seek to fulfil the unrealized political aspirations of the Tamil people despite their demand for equal rights. This provided the basis for alienation between the Sinhala and Tamil people and the systematic harassment of Tamil youth in the form of arbitrary arrests, and detention without trial. As a result, the Tamil youth movement gathered momentum introducing new nationalist alternative solutions to the national question which led to the political violence that can be witnessed even today.
The left and the working class movement need to take a firm and unambiguous stand and state that any proposed solution to the national question should guarantee democratic rights of all the citizens of the island, irrespective of their socio-economic and cultural background.
6. Current Situation
Sri Lanka has a low per capita income but a high level of literacy, low infant mortality and relatively high life expectancy. War, unfair economic policies, poverty and unemployment have seriously dented these indices. The cost of living index and the rate of inflation have been on the rise. The strength of the JVP has dwindled as a result of its collaborative politics and the divisions that occurred as a result. The state security forces have almost captured all the territory previously under the control of the LTTE. This has been a significant military victory to the state and a significant military setback to the LTTE. It is also a major political blow to its goal of establishing a separate state.
6.1. Factors contributing to political violence
In Sri Lanka the emergence of political violence was underpinned by the articulation and assertion of nationalistic and economic demands for justice by the youth. These demands and the resultant political violence were of a dual character, one nationalistic and the other class. One aimed at the capture of state power and the other at autonomy from the existing state. The economic growth and its unequal distribution in the post-1948 era did not placate these
demands; and did not break down the barriers of ethnicity and class. Their violence was a cry
for economic and cultural parity by the younger generations. The response of the state based on `divide and rule' policies slayed any hopes of fulfilling their aspirations.
Collective political violence is embedded as a characteristic of the class society in Sri Lanka and used by the state, and groups oppressed by the state as a norm. State and non-state actors have used political violence including terror to target civilian populations, communities, their leaders and professionals. Regimes have often authorised killer `assassination specialists'18 to silence their opponents, persistently interweaving it with their normal political practices.
Since mid fifties, these `killer squads' have operated in the shadows committing disappearances19 and the torture of political enemies of state. This sort of violent behaviour on the part of states, both domestic and international, has generated other forms of political violence including terror in countries like Sri Lanka.
6.2. Uneven distribution of wealth
Dynamics of uneven development created backwardness in the rural areas of Sri Lanka. Localities where opportunities for secondary and higher education expanded due to welfare measures of the state ironically brought out a lower and upper middle class generation of aspirational youth, who were able to articulate their demands. However, the incapacity of the state to fulfil these aspirations brought about cycles of political violence. Uneven development engenders violence, and in turn violence disrupts development. To get out of this vicious cycle it is necessary to develop self-regulatory mechanisms to ensure the just and equitable treatment of people irrespective of their cultural background.
6.3. Rapid militarisation
One of the priorities of the state has been spending vast sums of money on the war. The estimated defence expenditure for 2009 is Rs. 177.1 billion, an increase of about seven percent from the previous years. However, the actual expenditure may exceed the budgeted expenditure. In 2008, the budgeted expenditure was Rs. 166 billion, but when military procurements on hire purchase are taken into account the figure becomes more than Rs. 456 million a day, or more than Rs. 8,536 per person. Militarisation has created a war industry on which the country depends on. Rural villagers receive an income when their young ones join the forces or receive compensation in case of their death or `missing in action'. The armed forces have rapidly expanded. The increasing militarisation of society has significantly
contributed to the increasing political violence and the aggravating trauma related stress in the society as a whole.
6.4. Who are responsible for instigating political violence
In 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977 and 1983 Tamils in the south were brutally attacked; some were tortured; thousands were massacred in cold blood simply because they were Tamils. The state was complicit in this process. So it is not surprising that the gun, rather than the ballot, became the tool for many Tamils in their struggle for self-determination. Violent reprisals of the LTTE have been similarly brutal and inhumane.20 The current conflict has grown in its intensity and ruthlessness. The lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the war torn areas are at risk today. The conduct of a war should not be an excuse to maim, kill and destroy the internally displaced people and civilians.
6.5. The state and the government
It is difficult to project future scenarios as the state or the LTTE has not succeeded in eliminating one another. As the cycle of violence turns vicious, the state uses intangible, uniformalised, extra-constitutional and extra-judicial forms of violence in their counter- violence strategies. As Major General Sarath Fonseka puts it (National Post 2008):
`I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people. We being the majority of the country, 75 percent, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country…We are also a strong nation... They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.'
Under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) `stimulating racial intolerance or violence by words or actions' are considered terrorist acts. While journalists like Mr J.S. Tissainayagam are held for writing articles criticizing the actions of the government, Sinhala chauvinists are made exempt? Is this a clear indication that the government represents the interests of only one ethnic group? Controlling the state's own bureaucrats from contributing to anti-Tamil sentiment is essential. The Tamil people are entitled to protection of their physical security because they are also citizens of Sri Lanka. This protection cannot be taken for granted as evidenced from what has happened in the past and what is happening now.
6.6. Military solution or political solution
Erosion of civil liberties and degeneration of democratic institutions in the last four decades due to political violence have resulted in more than one hundred thousand dead, mostly civilians, and hundreds of thousands displaced, who have become refugees in their own land. There are thousands of war widows, orphans, invalids, and millions of people walking around with mental scars.
Military defeat of the LTTE will not solely resolve the country's crisis. Successive governments have used nationalism to divide and rule the working people. The Tamil people have been at the receiving end of systematic harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. Over the past two years, hundreds of people have been abducted and made to disappear. As the government has no solution to the socio-economic crisis, a military victory over the LTTE will assist the state to keep control over the working people for some more time. The country is at danger of becoming a chauvinistic police state where non-Sinhala people will have to live under the mercy and grace of the majority.
17 This issue is contested by Sinhala nationalists on the basis of proportion of ethnicities in total population, For example, see International Foundation of Sri
Lankans undated, Are the Tamils discriminated in Sri Lanka, United Kingdom
18 paramilitary forces, secret police, and thugs
19 In Sri Lanka, it is alleged that commencing with Major General Richard Udugama (cousin of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranayake) in 1958 in the north, through to Major General Tissa Weeratunga in 1979 in the north, and General Janaka Perera and Major Gener al Sarath Fonseka in 1989 in the south, and again in 2000 in the north, to Major General Sarath Fonseka in 2006 in the north have been in charge of such operations.
20 For example in early 1990, the LTTE massacred hundreds of Muslims in the Eastern Province. Then they expelled about 80,000 Muslims from the Northern Province. They were given from two hours to 48 hours to leave. With their departure commenced the ransacking of their possessions. The physical, economic, social and psychological suffering to which the entire Muslim population in the North was subjected to continues to this day.
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