Sri Lanka: On the March Back to Civil War?

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Since the beginning of April this year at least 300 civilians have died as the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has begun to unravel.

The ceasefire had been negotiated with the help of the Norwegian government in 2002 and brought to an end a war that had been going on since 1983. However, it did not resolve the issues that had caused the conflict in the first place.

The conflict arose from the failure of Sri Lankan political parties to remove the poisonous legacy of British imperialism. Following standard practice, the colonial government built a local base of support by manipulating ethnic divisions. They privileged the indigenous Tamil minority, mostly Hindus with a small number of Muslims, who lived predominantly in the north and east, while discriminating against the mostly Buddhist Sinhala majority. The British colonialists also imported migrant workers from the adjacent Indian state of Tamil Nadu to work in the tea plantations, so creating a second quite distinct Tamil community.

The result of this divide and rule was that nationalism in Sri Lanka developed mainly among the Sinhala majority and embraced an increasingly aggressive Buddhist aspect. After independence in 1948, governments of every kind discriminated against Tamils. By the late 1970s that discrimination had led to the growth of a separatist movement - with a legal party called the Tamil United Liberation Front, and the guerrilla fighters of the LTTE (commonly known as the Tamil Tigers). By 1983 the situation had collapsed into civil war. The LTTE demanded independence, while the government attempted to preserve the integrity of the state by force.

The 2002 ceasefire happened because neither side was able to win militarily, and the civilian population was completely war weary. The collapse of the ceasefire is a result of the fact that neither leadership really wanted to cut a deal. Somehow each thought that they could manoeuvre the other into giving up. The predictable result is that both leaderships came under pressure from elements in their own side who thought that by talking they were making too many concessions.

Last year Sri Lankan president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was replaced by Mahinda Rajapakse, who is seen as a hardliner and ran on a platform of "reviewing" the 2002 agreement. Even if he only meant this as an election ploy, it sent a message that the government was prepared to restart the war.

Dirty tricks

A split has emerged inside the LTTE, with an eastern commander, Colonel Karuna, setting up on his own and starting a civil war inside the LTTE. At this point an underworld of dirty tricks kicked in. There are rumours that the Sri Lankan army is supporting Karuna in order to weaken the LTTE - thereby hoping that this will make its own violent solution easier to accomplish. In April there was a suicide bomb attack on the chief of the Sri Lankan army, and an attack on a Sri Lankan navy patrol that left 13 sailors dead. No one is sure whether the attacks were organised by the LTTE leadership or by disaffected elements within it, but the net result has been an upsurge in violence against Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces and a slide towards a war mentality.

It is possible that the government and the LTTE will pull back from the brink. But a resolution will only come if Sri Lankan politics can break from the ethnic nationalism that has consumed Sri Lanka since 1948. Here lies the constant problem. Large socialist parties were formed in the colonial period. Uniquely, at the end of the 1930s, the majority of the Communist Party supported Trotsky against Stalin and went on to form the largest Marxist party, the LSSP. A significant Communist Party continued to exist and activists from both parties were involved in the development of large trade unions.

The tragedy was that by 1970 both were drawn into government alliances with the main Sinhala nationalist party, the SLFP. This fatal compromise prevented them from promoting a decisive break with the politics of ethnic nationalism. In the 1970s this pattern continued, with a split from the Communist Party - the JVP - which moved from radical socialism to ethnic nationalism (although their supporters still parade their socialist credentials based on what they were, not what they have become).

Ethnic nationalism means war without end, punctuated by periods of truce. If Sri Lankans are unlucky, one of these truces is about to break up. The socialist parties have long had the capacity to end this state of affairs but they can only realise it by breaking from ethnic nationalism and ending their alliances with parties like the SLFP. Otherwise the whole sorry cycle will start once again.


Barry Pavier is a lecturer at Bradford College.