Review of a history of oppression: The Tamils of Sri Lanka (2)

Review of a history of oppression: The Tamils of Sri Lanka

by Danielle Sabai

Thursday 2 June 2011,

No less than thirty groups engaged in violent actions of which the assassination of the mayor of Jaffna was the symbolic beginning. Among these groups, some like the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) were left-wing organisations. The LTTE for its part was situated on a nationalist and pragmatic terrain. But they were above all fashioned by the origin of most of the founder members, educated young students from the Jaffna middle class and a rather high caste.

Ethnic tensions worsened throughout the 1970s but the armed Tamil groups remained marginal until the mid-1980s. In July 1983 a second major rupture took place. Following an ambush in which 13 police officers were killed by the Tigers, Sinhalese nationalists unleashed a pogrom in Colombo and its surrounding areas. Several thousand Tamils were killed, houses burned, shops looted. That led to a significant wave of immigration of Tamils to the north of the island and abroad. Following this tragic event, thousands of young Tamils joined the armed struggle and the guerrilla struggle turned into civil war.

No progressive organisation was in a position to offer a political alternative. Sri Lankan democracy had been profoundly sapped for too long a time. In 1977, Junius Richard Jayawardene, elected Prime Minister following the victory of the UNP against the United Front, again changed the constitution, concentrating powers in the hands of a super President. He had created the National Union of Workers (Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya – JSS), in fact, an organisation of hooligans used to intimidate, indeed kill his opponents, break strikes, and attack Tamils. The Sri Lankan working class was more than ever divided according to ethnic lines. The main left parties, the LSSP and the CP, had been contributors to this situation having for a long time renounced their convictions and political principles in exchange for ministerial posts. Everything was in place for a civil war which would lead to new massacres and precipitate the retreat of the workers’ movement as a whole especially after the defeat of the July 1980 strike movement.

The 1980s and the domination of the LTTE

On the other said of the Palk Strait, India was not indifferent to the pressure exerted by the 50 million Tamils living in Tamil Nadu and sympathising with the Lankan Tamil cause. During the 1980s, certain Tamil groups were militarily trained, armed and financial supported by the Indian state’s intelligence arm, the Research and Analysis Wing – (RAW).

Following the Indo-Lanka accords of 1987, India intervened directly in the north of the island. It deployed a “peacekeeping force”. The agreements, signed in July 1987 by the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayawardene, sought to establish a certain autonomy in the North and East where Tamils were in the majority, the fusion of its two provinces (fusion which should be validated by a referendum) and the recognition of an equal status between the Tamil and Sinhalese languages.

But despite a common reference to the Thimphu Declaration [21] which aimed to present a unified and common basis for the many Tamil groups, the political divisions and personal antagonisms remained. Among them, the LTTE would emerge as the dominant group. From the early 1980s, the Tigers organised the brutal killing of the main leaders of the other armed Tamil groups, in particular, those organisations identified with Left and therefore mass-based politics

Moderate Tamil activists, pro-Indian activists, and Democrats not supporting the objective of a separate Tamil state were forced into exile or killed. The TULF was considerably weakened politically by the LTTE’s assassination of its main leaders, A. Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran. By eliminating or forcing into exile the main leaders of the other organisations of struggle, the LTTE destroyed all democracy inside the Tamil national liberation movement. They did not seek to unite the different Tamil-speaking communities of Sri Lanka. On the contrary, in 1990, they were guilty of ethnic cleansing, notably by the expulsion of almost 100,000 Tamil speaking Muslims from Jaffna district in the space of 48 hours. In a certain way, the LTTE shared with the Colombo government that they fought the same criminal conception of an ethnically pure society, rid of every minority.

In the early 1990s, the Tigers no longer had any real opposition. They could then present themselves as the “sole legitimate representatives of the Tamil people” and seek external political support. Their objective of a separate Tamil state became the sole proclaimed objective, separating it from the question of the rights demanded by Tamils and mortgaging any democratic resolution of the civil war.

Some lessons from the history of an oppression

This historic recapitulation of the Tamil question in Sri Lanka allows us to draw valid political lessons for other continents and other struggles which give it a universal scope.

The organisations of the workers’ movement should never abandon a part of their own. One cannot claim to emancipate the workers from exploitation while allowing a minority among them to become the victims of vindictive racism, indeed worse, directly participating in their oppression. Discrimination and violence exerted against an ethnic minority will return later against the workers as a whole and their organisations. Sri Lanka is the sad illustration of it. The Sinhalese workers have gained nothing from the oppression of the Tamils and the LSSP and CP, in allowing them to fall, precipitated their degeneration.

So far as the Tamil Tigers are concerned, full-scale militarisation and maximalism were fed by the negation of the democratic rights of the Tamils themselves and thus the possibility of self-organising struggles. No socialist and democratic society can be created by organisations which justify murder in the name of the necessities of the armed struggle.

In all fights against national oppression, or against the oppression suffered by certain ethnic groups, there is the need to recognize the right to self-determination. The only progressive solution is the defence of equality between citizens, whatever their origin, sex or religion. Today the material and political conditions for the exercise of self-determination rights do not exist. Since Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, its minorities should be granted rights including political, cultural and linguistic rights, to reverse historical oppression or discrimination.

Today, there is an urgent need to address justice and reparations for the Tamils and Muslims who were displaced and dispossessed during the war and for the Hill-country Tamils who are still economically disenfranchised. Rather than so doing, the current government of Sri Lanka has profited from the military “victory” over the Tamil Tigers in 2009 to restrict still further democratic liberties, block any opposition and on this basis attack all workers whatever their ethnic origin. The new trend in economic development further causes uneven development and inequality for the majority of the Sri Lankan people. Therefore, there will not be any progress toward social justice and democracy without linking the political settlement of minorities’ demands with the class struggle of all workers for social justice and redistribution. In that perspective, devolution of state power could be an important step to empowering local communities and minorities against this authoritarian and centred State.


[1] Buddhism, which emerged in the 6th century BC in India, was originally an interpretation of Hinduism based on tolerance and moderation. Its main divergence with Hinduism rests on the rejection of the caste system. Ceylon is the only place where Buddhism developed by maintaining the caste system

[2] See, Meyer Eric Paul (2009). The Specificity of Sri Lanka: Towards a Comparative History of Sri Lanka and India.Economic and Political Weekly

[3] Descendants of mixed marriages between Dutch or Portuguese and Ceylonese

[4] The word “comprador” designates a bourgeoisie in a developing country drawing its wealth from foreign trade rather than a bourgeoisie having interests in the production of national wealth

[5] In Sri Lanka, Muslim identity does not rest only on religion but has developed as a specific ethnic identity. Although most Muslims speak Tamil, they do not consider themselves as “Tamil Muslims” but as Tamil-speaking Muslims

[6] The first independent government in 1948 was led by D.S. Senanayake and his party the United National Party (UNP).The UNP was the party representing the interests of the comprador bourgeoisie. It won power at independence without ever having led the struggle against British imperialism

[7] For more details on the LSSP refer to Pierre Frank, The Fourth International: The long march of the Trotskyists published by Ink Links, London, 1979, pp 112-117. Ervin, Charles Wesley. “Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Sri Lankan radicalism,” in The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest Ness, Immanuel (Ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Blackwell Reference Online. 07 May 2009

[8] The Federal Party was a party of parliamentarians representing the interests of the Tamil bourgeoisie. The Tamil name of the Federal Party was the Lankan Tamil Self-Governement Party. However, its programme was not addressed to the Tamil workers of the plantations who fought for their political rights but to the Sri Lankan Tamils originating from the North and East of the island.

[9] Solomon Bandaranaike was a rather distant relative of Senanayake in the hierarchy of the UNP, the party of “nephews and uncles”, too distant to hope to come to power .This is what led him to set up his own party, the SLFP, to ensure himself as rapidly as possible an electoral base. There were Tamils among the founders of the SLFP but they left the leadership once the party became aggressively Sinhala Bouddhist. Nevertheless the SLFP always had Tamil members and supporters including in Jaffna and the East even during the years of war

[10] A Sinhalese association defending Sinhalese culture based on the Mahajana Sabha which grouped the rural elites

[11] A general strike and a complete cessation of any activity

[12] For a critical analysis of the position of the LSSP following the hartal of 1953, see: Sivanandan Ambalavaner. Racism and the Politics of Underdevelopment. Race & Class- XXVI-1, and Hensman, Rohini; The Role of the Socialist in the Civil War in Sri Lanka.

[13] The Fourth International publicly disavowed this vote as well as the budget vote the same year

[14] The Ceylon Communist Party was formed in 1943 after the expulsion of the Stalinist current of the LSSP in 1940. This current refused to lead the struggle against colonialism because of the alliance between the USSR and British imperialism during the war

[15] Up to 1985, the RMP (Revolutionary Marxist Party), led by Bala Tampoe, was recognized as the Sri Lankan section of the FI. Another prominent RMP leader was Upali Cooray. Following a division in this organisation in 1981 there was not de facto a functioning section until 1991 when the World Congress recognised the Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya, although Bala Tampoe and the comrades around him continued as individual members.

The origins of the NSSP are in a Left or “Vama” tendency that emerged inside the post-1964 LSSP. This tendency, leaders of which were expelled by the LSSP in the early 1970s, developed around students and lecturers in Peradeniya University then broadened to include working class members of the LSSP as well as more radical older leaders of the LSSP. The Vama tendency became an open organisation in 1977, after several years of maintaining an inside/outside relationship with the LSSP and took the name of Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya (New Socialist (or Social Equality) Party). The NSSP was banned in 1983 after the July pogroms and only legalised again in 1985. Some of its leaders and members were killed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) during the 1987-1990 insurrection and also by the LTTE in the same period. The NSSP is one of the few parties that has consistently defended the right to self-determination for the Tamil people.

The Vama tendency had come into contact with the Militant Tendency (Ted Grant) through its supporters who went to Britain to study. They became affiliated with the Militant international current but developed ideological differences as well as strategic differences on Sri Lanka. The NSSP broke with the Militant tendency in 1988-89 and developed relations with the Fourth International.

[16] The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna was a revolutionary movement but since its beginning it had xenophobic tendencies, regarding Hill-Country Tamil workers saw as fifth-colomnists for india expansionism . It became an unbridled Sinhala chauvinist Party.[[For more on JVP see Skanthakumar, Balasingham. “People’s Liberation Front of Sri Lanka (JVP)” in The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, Ness, Immanuel (Ed), Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Blackwell Reference Online. 07 May 2009.

[17] Coalition formed in 1972 comprising several Tamil parties including the Tamil Congress (ACTC) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and which became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976 after the Federal Party had joined the coalition

[18] Peaceful mobilisations of the type advocated by Mahatma Gandhi

[19] On this subject see UTHR (J) – Chapter 2.

[20] He was elected as an independent but supported the SLFP

[21] On July 13, 1985, the different Tamil groups, meeting in the capital of Bhoutan Thimphu, agreed on three key points: recognition of a distinct Tamil nation and its right to self-determination, the guarantee of the territorial integrity of an independent Tamil state, the safeguarding of the fundamental rights of Tamils outside of their state

About editor 3017 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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