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‘Solution bleak, but do not give up,’ veteran Marxist reviewed

[TamilNet, Saturday, 21 November 2009 22:17 No Comment]

A_Sivanandan “Fifty years of ethnic cleansing have wiped out whole generations who knew any sort of peace, and made cohabitation with the Sinhalese people virtually impossible,” says veteran Marxist A.Sivanandan on the political future of the island of Sri Lanka in an interview to the December 2009 issue of Race and Class. The 87 years old ideologue, who in his younger days “had no sense at all of being a Tamil” in the south, and who now feels “not only for the Tamils but also for the Sinhalese people,” further said: “The Sinhala elite has transformed the country into a counter-insurgency state like Colombia, in which repression, torture, imprisonment without trial and disappeared people are institutionally embedded. I don’t think anything now can be done from above, let alone from the debased self-interests of the ‘international community’.”

On flow of capital deciding polity in the island and how solutions to Tamils are not in the international agenda, he said:

“It was under Jayawardene that the country’s opening to foreign capital really began:

“Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie itself has changed: there is no more national bourgeoisie, but rather an internationalized bourgeoisie serving multinational corporations.

“Over the past thirty years, the opportunities offered up to overseas capital have mostly been in the West and South of the country. But now, with the defeat of the LTTE, the North and East have been opened up for exploitation.

“The US has established a new department of USAID, which apparently plans to set up industrial zones in joint ventures with local entrepreneurs; China is planning an FTZ for manufacturing microchips, while India is reportedly going to take over Jaffna High Security Zone and turn it into an FTZ. Israel is also involved in farming and food production in Batticaloa and Monaragala, while Iran is investing in oil processing installations in Colombo and Trincomalee. Japan also has a very influential role, as the main donor—it accounts for over 40 per cent of aid money in Sri Lanka.

“The Tamils have simply been off the radar. The total number, who have died since 1983 is around 80,000, according to UN estimates—many times more than Miloševic´ killed in Kosovo. And yet the West simply stood by and watched. This despite the huge numbers of Tamils who fled to the West—Canada, the UK and Australia combined have half as many Tamils as today’s Sri Lanka.

“The humanitarian brigades of the West remained largely silent while innocent Tamils were being slain. Some in the West want Pakistan to become as ruthless as Sri Lanka in dealing with the ‘enemy within’.”

* * *

Mr. Sivanandan, whose leftist political career started well before the independence of Ceylon, brought out his outlook of more than six decades of political course in the island in a nutshell in the 20-paged interview:

Citing the three kingdoms, one of them Sinhala, one of them Tamil and yet another a mixed one at the advent of colonialism in the island, Sivanandan says the unification was brought in for the purpose of British Colonial capitalism but they prevented a unified anti-colonial movement from taking shape:

“Colonial capitalism needed the island to be unified as an economic unit, but it did not want the different communities to come together in any other sense. The British strategy was to divide politically in order to integrate economically. One of the main instruments for this was to provide Tamils with educational opportunities and use them to staff the administrative apparatus. While economic wealth remained in the hands of the old Sinhala feudal elite, the public services, train stations, post offices and so on were all run by Tamils.”

Sivanandan deviates from the often-repeated and malice dipped formula of Sinhala ultranationalists that has been picked up by some outside academics too, that Tamils under colonialism were well off in ‘development’ than the Sinhalese: “There were no big Tamil landlords [...] education was the only route to jobs and social advancement for Tamils. Under British colonial rule, many Tamils were sent to fill bureaucratic posts in one or another malarial station in the interior, to open up the country, as it were.”

* * *

“The first steps towards ethnic cleansing were taken under the government of D. S. Senanayake, in 1949,” Sivanandan says, adding that in 1956 “the UNP had also joined the communalist game—there was a Dutch auction in which it promised to make Sinhala the sole official language within five days; Bandaranaike outbid them by saying he would do it within 24 hours.”

According to Sivanandan events of 1956 which were antecedents to the 1958 pogrom, were “the start of the two tracks towards ethnic cleansing: the official and the unofficial, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, each overlapping and reinforcing the other.”

“If Solomon Bandaranaike had cut out the Tamils’ mother-tongue, Sirimavo brought them to their knees,” he says on later course of politics that paved way for Tamil militancy:

“At a stroke, she cut the ground from under the feet of Tamil youth. Up till then, they had not been affected directly, and had followed in their fathers’ footsteps—arguing for peace talks, reconciliation, federal arrangements. But now their land had been taken from them, and then their language, and finally their chances of earning a living: they had been robbed of their future. Tamil youths saw that the electoral-bargaining approach of the Federal Party had produced no results, and they had no allies in the South: the LSSP, to its eternal disgrace, was part of Mrs Bandaranaike’s racist coalition government. It was only at this stage that the Tamils took up arms: when they had no other choice.”

* * *

On JVP, he said: “The Janata Vimukhti Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front) was formed in 1965 by young Sinhalese Marxists, as a split from the pro-Chinese Communist Party [...] they had not addressed the Tamil question except to put forward a thesis on ‘Indian expansionism’, which served only to stir up animosity against the plantation workers.”

The attitude of outside world to save state in Sri Lanka, however repressive it could be, was first evident in the 1971 JVP insurrection, Sivanandan says:

“In April 1971, the government responded with fierce repression—helped by the full complement of outside powers: Britain, the US, the Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan, Yugoslavia all offered their assistance. Thousands of Sinhala youths were massacred by the police and army; there were bodies floating in the rivers.”

“It was a clear sign to any Tamil group that might be considering doing the same—and a dry-run for what was to come when they did.”

* * *

“The killing of a policeman in Jaffna in 1979 allowed Jayawardene to declare a state of emergency and pass the PTA, which allowed civilians to be imprisoned and tortured with official sanction. The army was sent to Jaffna with instructions to ‘wipe out terrorism in six months’. From then on, it was a struggle between the Tamils and an occupying army.”

1983 pogrom against Tamils had official support, points out Sivanandan.

* * *

According to him, Tamil militancy “was a strange marriage of bourgeois-romantic historicism with radical Marxist ideas that generated more and more contradictions as time went by.”

In the analysis of Sivanandan, the degeneration of Tamil militant movement started much earlier when Tamil groups having the same end-goal started fighting amongst themselves and chose the path of eliminating anyone who stood in their way, instead of winning over people who disagreed.

The ultimate self-defeating came because “the military tail had begun to wag the political dog” he says adding that “unlike the resistance movements in Algeria, Vietnam, the Portuguese colonies in Africa and Bangladesh, the Tigers were politically underdeveloped and militarily over-determined. Weaponry was in command, not politics. This was a critical weakness, and it created the conditions for the final defeat in 2009.”

He also cites the defection of Karuna whom he sees “a sort of Ceylonese equivalent of Abbas or Karzai” and says “The reason he [Karuna] gave for splitting in 2004 was that Prabhakaran was only concerned with the Jaffna Tamils, and not about those in Eastern Province, the Batticaloa Tamils. But I think he found he was getting nowhere, and realized he could make a deal with the government.”

“This is what allows the Rajapakse government to claim it has not been waging war on Tamils as a whole. The Colombo elite played on the divisions, split the Tigers and won over a layer to collaborationist politics.”

While many of the Tamils firmly expected India would come and help them, especially as there were 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu, the IPKF taking over from the Sri Lankan army in its war against the Tamils, the massacre of civilians by the Indian troops, the military defeat of the IPKF at the hands of the Tigers and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi are other issues discussed by Sivanandan.

* * *

On Left politics in the island and on the LSSP, the first political party of the island in pre-independence days, Sivanandan says, “Ceylon was the only country in the world where the largest left party was Trotskyist, and where the CP split off from it rather than vice versa.” But he adds “the LSSP leaders played key roles in the sorry story that followed. When Bandaranaike was re-elected in 1970, it was Colvin R. de Silva, one of the founder-members of the LSSP, who drafted the new constitution enshrining Sinhala chauvinism—notably in the change of the country’s name to ‘Holy Lanka’.”

* * *

However, Sivanandan was self-contradicting, like many of his ilk among Tamils, and the self-contradiction stems from refusal to deviate from considering the island as a single unit for political analysis.

On 1952 rice-riots that made the cabinet in Colombo to flee to a ship in Colombo harbour, Sivanandan says: “This was the very height of civil protest and resistance; the whole country was united by the strike. But then the Left simply caved in: they agreed to talks with the government, and then allowed it to return to power even though they had gained nothing. The LSSP and CP by this time had an entirely middle-class leadership, and they seemed to take fright at their success. I think the Left’s subsequent degeneration can be traced back to this moment.”

The same Sivanandan speaks differently on LTTE agreeing for Western-mediated peace when they were successfully taking on Chandrika government in 2001.

“At this point, remarkably, the LTTE dropped its demands for a separate state, saying regional autonomy would be enough. It seems to me that these talks could have succeeded.”

Sivanandan knows talks couldn’t have succeeded under the given conditions, which he himself brings out. Many other analysts believe opting for peace than fighting ahead was the beginning of degeneration of the Tamil struggle.

Sivanandan who says that decades long events have made cohabitation with Sinhalese people impossible for other ethnicities and “the sixty years since independence have produced an ethnocentric Sinhala-Buddhist polity founded on feudal customs and falsified history, in which the ethnic majority is guaranteed its power forever,” still see “seedlings of hope” in “former LTTE figures now in exile” in their political struggle “not talking about Eelam.”

On his own exile after 1958 pogrom, Sivanandan comes out with a touching story about his own daughter, who grew up in Colombo’s Sinhala surroundings and to whom he one day casually enquired about a man coming out of a relatives house: "I said: ‘Who is that uncle?’—that being the term we use for almost everybody. She was only four or five, and said in Sinhalese: ‘That’s not an uncle, that’s a Tamil.’ I decided I had to leave—I couldn’t live in this place any more."

Sivanandan was able to go, but why shouldn’t Tamils choose to live in the island have their own country at least until the Sinhalese are able to come out of the Mahavamsa myth that doesn’t see Tamils as human beings. What leftist ideology stands in between?

“Buddhism is seen in the West as benign and peaceful. The history of my island teaches otherwise,” says Sivanandan.

He rightly predicts that the Sri Lankan state “is not simply going to give the Tamils their rights. And its authoritarianism means that the next people to suffer will be the Sinhalese themselves.” Yet, like the powers of vested interests, he doesn’t want to end the single State in the island that is causing eternal misery.

* * *

What so ever, the octogenarian ideologue comes out with a guiding statement at the end of his interview: “What is important, and I say this as someone in my eighties now, is not to give up. To carry on writing and speaking the truth and fighting every atrocity. These are the seeds that we can sow. Who knows but that one day they might bear fruit.”

This is exactly what the voice that is coming from the diaspora circles now: The struggle has not been surrendered militarily and it cannot be surrendered politically. Tamils have to tell what they want loudly and clearly to the world and register their claim in no uncertain terms without fear or without being hijacked by anyone in their polity. The Eezham Tamil struggle for liberation is of universal dimensions now, addressed to entire world polity and humanity.

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