(January 02, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A recent Tamilnet article raised important issues regarding working out a perspective for the struggle of the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka. It is absolutely correct not to look at Sri Lanka in isolation. Socio-economic developments in the region and around the world have an impact on every country.
A correct understanding of the period we are in is also important for working out a perspective to strengthen the struggle against oppression. At the same time this perspective must provide a clear strategy and methods that can advance the struggle. In that respect the discussion that Tamilnet has initiated through these articles is absolutely necessary. Tamil Solidarity publishes the article below as part of our contribution to this debate. We hope to continue the dialogue in future articles and welcome all responses.
1. New period of crisis and struggle
We are now in the midst of the worst systemic crisis for capitalism in generations which is already shaping the world around us. To talk of capitalism is to refer to the profit-motivated economic system that dominates the world today.
Economists now admit that the world is facing the worst financial crisis in history . Understanding the origin of this crisis and how it is changing the way we, the 99% – the working and poor people – view the world, and also understanding the character of the 1% elite – the ruling class who control the wealth – is important to us.
A well-known free market economist such as Nouriel Roubini, who stands out among his colleagues as one of the few who predicted the crisis, points out that the core of the problem is in the way the current system works. The constant shift of income from labour (working people, the exploited) to capital (the exploiters) is the major fault, he warns, and it could even bring down the entire system .
As we know, the tiny ruling elite continues to ignore the systemic drawbacks of the system that cause crises. In an attempt to find a quick fix, the pockets of ordinary working people are further squeezed in order to minimise the diminishing of profit or actual losses of the banks and big business.
This has created enormous anger among ordinary workers as they are asked to pay for a crisis which they did not create. A new era of struggle in the west is emerging with occupations/strikes/demonstrations etc taking place in all developed countries. Suppressing or controlling this emerging struggle also dominates the agenda of the ruling class. In order to protect its interests the ruling class will use the government, police, military, courts, media and everything else it controls against any possible opposition.
In this struggle over an ever-shrinking cake, rivalry between countries will inevitably sharpen, aiding the rise in protectionism and nationalism. Hence the coming period is characterised, even by right-wing analysts, as a period of ‘fragmentation economically and politically’ .
Some analysts on the left not only predicted the crisis, they explained that ‘temporary fixes’ won’t solve the current problem – that this is a prolonged, systemic crisis . The conclusion derived from this analysis is that the period we are entering into is one of minimal growth – if not no growth or depression. This means rising unemployment, lack of investment in public services etc. These conditions will lead to social unrest and a growing will to fight back against the system that will try to maintain its rule.
Prestigious projects of the ruling elite in the west, such as the euro project, have been rocked by a storm with Greece at its epicentre. The European parliament, which promotes itself as a guardian of democracy, is now insisting on un-elected ‘technocrats’ taking control of the affairs of Italy . David Cameron, the British PM, arrogantly announced that he will end the human rights culture . It is clear that the ruling class will try to remain in power by whatever means possible.
From the point of view of the oppressed masses in Sri Lanka, the mark that struggling people will leave on our history is important. Watching the struggle against the most powerful dictators, through the revolutionary waves that spread across North Africa and the Middle East, provided a much-needed confidence boost, as they showed the potential power of mass movements.
We have seen the occupations of Wall Street in the US and elsewhere and the biggest coordinated strike for 85 years in Britain. The struggle of the wider masses is what will define the coming years and the oppressed Tamil-speaking people should try to find a way to strengthen their movement by participating in this global movement.
2. Crisis – Asian, South Asian impact.
The belief that the two fastest growing economies in the world, China and India, can somehow save the world economy is now under major review. What faces China has already been described as the ‘next subprime’ – referring to the subprime mortgages which triggered the financial meltdown in the US in 2008. A Barclays Capital report is just one of many reports that points to the growing concerns about a slowing down of the economy and the ‘decline in trust lending’ in shadow banking which constitutes about 22% of all financing in China. ‘Social and political tensions might be a bigger worry,’ the report concludes.
The Indian ruling elite shares the same fear. Manufacturing industry has already been hit and growth expectations have gone down. The market is largely regarded as ‘unstable’ by investors . ‘India is grappling with high inflation’, reports the Economic Times. India’s growth did not plug the wealth gap, instead it has been widened further. India under Congress rule has created more billionaires and more poor than any other country in the world. About 42% (over 455 million) live on or below $1.25 per day . Over 300 million, however, live on less than 50p a day. India’s per capita income is ranked 139th in the world. India hosts two-thirds of the world’s poor. Among them a staggering 150 million live in slums .
Pakistan is another country in the region that is increasingly aid-dependent and unstable. As part of their measures to counter the trade competition with China, the US and the west are increasing their ties to India and pushing Pakistan to come to some sort of deal with India.
All countries, including Sri Lanka in the region are locked in this developing new geo-political situation. To the north, India is pushing Pakistan to minimise Chinese influence, while controlling Tamil Nadu in the south is crucial for India to increase its economic ties with Sri Lanka. This is particularly true following the discovery of huge uranium deposits in Tamil Nadu – and this is also a key reason for the dramatic change in the imperialist countries’ attitude towards India’s nuclear development . Furthermore India is the world’s largest arms importer , which is another key market that the imperialist powers fight to exploit.
However it is not easy for the central government to counter the nationalist consciousness developing among the Tamil Nadu masses. Many of them identified with the Tamil-speaking people who faced a massacre at the hands of the Sri Lankan government, aided and supported by the Indian government. The huge corruption scandal, originating from Tamil Nadu, further exposes the rottenness of the whole political elite. Ever-rising food and fuel prices also create an increasingly tense situation for the central government.
During the war in Sri Lanka, the political elite of Tamil Nadu, in coalition with the Congress in the centre, managed to hide the major role played by the Indian state in helping the killings. This minimised the possibilities of protests developing in Tamil Nadu. Now, being politically exposed, they can no longer play that role.
A further danger they face is the potential for the struggle against economic deprivation to join hands with the nationalist feeling. Maintaining a close link with the Sri Lankan government will require a tough approach taken in Tamil Nadu to any possible Tamil nationalist developments.
The AIADMK government in power in Tamil Nadu now can easily be utilised to do the same – just as in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India. At the same time the Sri Lankan government has developed a close economic relationship with China through major investment in port building etc. So it would be foolish to expect that either the Indian or Chinese governments will take a bold stand against the Sri Lankan government.
In fact it was the Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Iranian governments who collaborated in aiding the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Tamil-speaking people. These countries still play a key role in blocking any action against the war crimes committed by the current Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka. While the western imperialist powers try to curtail Chinese influence in the region, they have no way of asserting themselves economically without the Indian government’s support. No action against the Sri Lankan government can be taken from outside without the blessing of India.
Furthermore the Sri Lankan regime enjoys a close relationship with the Indian government. This complicates the task of those who want to see the Sri Lankan government punished for its war crimes even if they manage to get the support of one or more western country. Western interests in the region are likely to be expressed through Indian foreign policy. Expecting any governments to act in the interest of pure human rights concerns alone will only lead us to disappointment.
Declining economic growth in the region may mean China closes up its economy a bit more and tries to strengthen its influences where they lie – such as in Sri Lanka. This means they will go all out in supporting regimes, regardless of their poor human rights record, and regardless of any other international or internal opposition. Neither the Chinese nor the Indian government has any better human rights records.
3. Sri Lanka – so-called development and growth
The so-called ‘post war growth’ in Sri Lanka, which has largely bypassed working-class people, has been further limited by the global economic crisis. The current regime is also madly increasing its defence expenditure to maintain its grip on power. Over $2 billion is allocated in the 2012 budget . Even during the peak of the war, defence expenditure did not reach this level. In addition, repayment of debt adds further stress to the economy.
To prevent the ‘exchange rate from depreciating’ the IMF was brought in for the first time through a $2.6 billion loan in May 2009. While ignoring the war crimes allegations and attacks on democratic rights, the IMF was quick to grab the opportunity to exert its influence. It is still withholding the final payment to ensure that the government further implements its demands, such as increasing taxes, wage freezes, and cuts in social expenditure. But the regime faces massive opposition to such policies. The attacks on the pension scheme were defeated after tens of thousands of workers took action. This had been violently attacked and ended up with the killing of a worker. In fear, the government forced a curfew on the day of the funeral.
Chinese and Indian investment has so far, to an extent, helped the economy to avoid collapse. But the slowing down of these major economies will have an impact on Sri Lanka. Furthermore several Indian projects, such as the Sampur coal power plant, and proposed free trade zones, were expected to face more and more opposition locally.
However relative growth, either through infrastructure development or tourism, will have some impact. Infrastructure, along with tens of thousands of lives, was reduced to dust in the last war. In this situation, even the absolute minimum, such as repairing government buildings and roads, will be seen as an improvement – and development. Even without improving the quality of life there is relative peace and the opening up of small businesses and access to basic utilities such as electricity, mobile phone networks, etc, will have an impact on the consciousness of the masses – a feeling that something is improving. But the actual gains for local people in this so-called development are very minimal.
The government so far has no plans to invest in developing industries or creating jobs – no plans to build new schools or universities or hospitals. The so-called plans for development are directly linked to investment from India and China – which means a significant push for privatisation.
But given the history of struggle it will be difficult for the government to carry through these policies. The major suppression of democratic rights and a continuation of the iron grip on power are likely. People in the south have never experienced such an attack on all democratic rights. The Rajapaksa family controls every aspect of the government. The military, under the control of the notorious president’s brother, is also taking some civil responsibilities such as control of urban development etc.
The conditions in the north are comparable to Indian Occupied Kashmir. People are yet to recover from the shock of the war. For now they have accepted the rule of their oppressors. The government, knowing that the unchallenged authority they have now is limited, is taking all the steps it can to protect the status-quo.
More military camps have been opened up, existing one strengthened. The Sri Lankan military is one of the largest in the world in terms of percentage of its population with over 200,000 military personal. The government has changed the school books, introducing the Sinhala language in all possible ways including on sign posts. Some of them do not even have Tamil translations.
Internally displaced peoples, refugees and war victims are not resettled properly or given adequate compensation. The new generation is forced to accept poverty as the norm. This cannot continue. At a certain stage there will be a challenge from them. Even with a huge military presence and constant intimidation and propaganda, the state machine will not be able to prevent the emergence of various expression of anger.
4. Political developments in Tamil areas
The North and East are almost open prison camps. It is absolutely impossible to talk about free speech or any genuinely independent political forces emerging in these areas now. Even without a major electoral victory it is paramilitary leaders loyal to the Rajapaksa family who control these regions. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), initially set up by the LTTE, is the only big Tamil political party that exists which is not directly linked to the government.
Even in this hostile political climate the Tamil-speaking people in the North and East overwhelmingly voted to support the TNA. However this support and the lack of any other alternative are taken for granted by the TNA leadership. The votes for the TNA were not votes for its policy, but votes against the government. But the TNA looks as though it’s doing the exact opposite of what people wanted.
It is true that the TNA and any Tamil political activists are treated as ‘dummies’ by the government. They are constantly attacked. Unfortunately, a number of TNA leaders already have their eyes set on making easy cash through certain post-war developments. The TNA leadership also feels that the current regime can be negotiated with. What they demand in the negotiation is not exactly made clear to the public. So far they have not demanded anything more than that demanded by the civil societies in the south. They have no view on the economy or on how the budget is allocated, etc. They sit and watch while huge sums are allocated to the military. What they should be doing, of course, is taking an uncompromising stand in defence of the oppressed Tamil-speaking people and putting forward a clear perspective on the struggle – at the very least they should be initiating such a discussion.
Even more scandalously, they have begun to spread the idea that the Tamil-speaking people have to rely on the Indian state to win even minimal concessions. They help to hide the role of the Indian government in the final phase of the war. In fact some even accuse Tamil-speaking people in Tamil Nadu and the diaspora of not understanding the ‘ground reality’. They claim that if anyone defends the interests of the Tamil-speaking people, or speaks out against the war crimes, Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka will be punished for it.
There are others who claim that lobbying imperialist powers such as the government of the UK will further push the Sinhala masses into the hands of Sinhala chauvinists. It is true that we should not create any illusion in imperialist powers. It is also true that like many dictators, Rajapaksa uses anti-imperialist rhetoric to rally support for him on a nationalist basis.
It is clear that the imperialists’ interests in the region are in no way the same as those of the oppressed masses there. Opposing imperialist interests, as well as the national and regional powers, is the task that we are faced with. This is why it is crucial to link up with the struggling masses in the region and around the world – as they are our natural allies.
By ‘natural allies’ we don’t mean an opportunistic ‘alliance’ just to advance ‘our own’ interests, but instead one based on an understanding of the that brings us together. The struggling masses’ interests – decent living conditions, democratic rights, national rights, etc – are diametrically opposite to the interests of the ruling/oppressing class, whose main interests are to increase profit by increasing their grip on power and devising further exploitive measures.
This also means that we oppose any emergence of support for the ruling elite – either through the TNA or in the form of the ‘Dravidian’ parties in Tamil Nadu, who are willing to compromise our interests to seek ‘allies’ in the ruling parties. At the same time we must go beyond ethnic/caste/religious or any other division to link up and strengthen our struggle. In this respect it is absolutely correct to identify any progressive forces in the south to work with. This also means that we take up the issues that unite us. Expressing solidarity and participating in struggle will bring us to a common platform of struggle.
When the working people in the south are willing to struggle against the attacks on their rights and conditions, Tamil-speaking people should express solidarity and try to participate. At this stage most Sinhala workers may not understand or be prepared to accept the demand for the right to self-determination of the Tamil-speaking people. But we should extend our participation in strikes and other struggles at least for two key reasons. First these attacks are against everyone, and it will be the oppressed Tamil-speaking people who will bear the brunt of them. Furthermore it is through the language of struggle that the southern working people will come to understand the plight of the Tamil-speaking people in the north. It is this solidarity that will cut across chauvinist propaganda.
The Sinhala chauvinist government however will try to counter this through divisive propaganda and blaming the Tamil-speaking population for all sorts of things including the driving down of living conditions, as they have done over the past 70 years. The experience of southern working and poor people will eventually help them realise who is really responsible for their deteriorating conditions. And they must come to know that the oppressed Tamil-speaking people will be with them when they prepare to fight back.
The demand for the right to self-determination of the Tamil-speaking people arose out of the national oppression led by Sinhala chauvinist governments that mobilised the Sinhala people’s support while continuing to exploit them. The Sinhala masses have sacrificed many democratic rights and have seen no significant improvements in their living conditions. Instead the consolidated dictatorship is threatening to sell all that was won in the past struggles such as free education, health care etc. The Sinhala masses’ support for the right to self-determination of the Tamil-speaking people is in no way a threat to their existence or conditions. Instead, it would bring closer together those struggling against the rotten system that exploits both Tamil and Sinhala peoples.
The perspective for linking up the struggles in India is similar. The oppressed masses in Tamil Nadu struggling against the centre with its huge power will not get far alone. Linking up their struggle with that of the oppressed Kashmiris, tribal people etc is what sends fear into the belly of the ruling elite in India, who are very weak when you consider the number of people who will join the platform for struggle when it emerges.
Furthermore there is a unique situation developing in the region. For the first time in recorded human history a staggering 230 million young people aged 14 to 21 years will be moving into adulthood at the same time. While big business looks at this figure greedily to make more money , they refuse to explain where employment will come from to accommodate them. With the perspective of a slowdown in the economy, not all these youth will join the employment market.
Those youth born after the so-called ‘opening’ of the economy to neoliberal exploitation also have a higher antagonism towards the super-rich and corporate India. These youth do not have any real alternative but to enter into struggle. With a possible rift at the top with huge corruption scandals involving all the major parties, the struggle of these youth and working people will take centre-stage in Indian politics in the coming period.
The Indian state is the main enemy for the Tamil Nadu masses. Their understanding of its oppressive role is higher than that of the diaspora Tamils or those in Sri Lanka. At the same time the fight against the Indian regional bully will not be possible without engaging those who are struggling against it from within India. Thus building the struggle in Tamil Nadu against the oppressing state and central government is crucial. It is this struggle that will give strength for any fight-back that could develop in Sri Lanka.
For Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka this task of finding an ally in India is made much easier through a common language and culture. However there is enormous misunderstanding between these communities. We must initiate more discussion – not just about present day politics and perspectives but also about history. Much disagreement and confusion stem from this lack of depth.
So the task before us is not a ‘quick fix’ but rather a prolonged battle of building a joint struggle. But the wind is now with us – the rising global struggle and the increase in understanding of the rottenness of the capitalist system and the crisis it causes; the growing realisation of the class character of those who fight and those who oppress; the recognition of ‘them and us’ in society. All these are simplifying the task of building our political battle. – ( Tamil Solidarity)