STWC fudges over genocide threat

James Turley calls for a serious treatment of the national question by the left

Apart from the debate around Hopi which closed the Stop the War Coalition conference on April 25, proceedings were mostly dull to the point of being soporific. One of the few other exceptions was the emergency motion dealing with the crisis in Tamil regions of Sri Lanka.

The motion - calling for an immediate end to Sri Lankan government action against Tamil rebels, widely reported to have led to humanitarian catastrophe - was moved to wide sympathy from those assembled. A speaker ostensibly in opposition to it seemed in reality to support it. When, however, protests from the floor called from a more vigorously oppositional voice, one duly presented itself. A comrade was unsparing in his criticisms of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, better known as the Tamil Tigers - it was they, through their mendacious and terrorist activities, who had frustrated all attempts towards peace from a largely earnest Sri Lankan state.

At this point Andrew Murray, chair of the session (and of the conference), argued successfully for the motion to be remitted to the steering committee, thus burying a potentially interesting debate in the cold soil of bureaucratic procedure.Yet the question of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, a not infrequent presence in the bourgeois media in various forms, is a burning issue. The emergency motion did not come out of nothing, as the Sri Lankan government embarks on a final military offensive in the north, which is the last LTTE stronghold. The de facto capital of LTTE-controlled territory, Kilinochchi, fell to government troops in January. The movement of civilians, as well as the provision of medical supplies and food, has been drastically limited while the government concludes its offensive.

This marks an end to a long period of ostensible ceasefire, dating back to 2002, though - as with many ceasefires - not one considered entirely inviolate by either side. The struggle between the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka and the majority Sinhalese, distinguished in language, religion and territorial predominance, has been alternately simmering and boiling over since the end of imperial rule on the island the British called Ceylon. It has roots further back even than that, when the local avatars of British power were predominantly Tamil.

Alongside deals with the Americans in the nature of a handover of imperial hegemony, the British - comprehensively outmanoeuvred in the early stages of World War II and in need of all the troops it could muster - began making concessions to local nationalist leaders throughout the empire in return for levies of troops. This was especially true in India, whose own rebellious nationalists drove a hard bargain.

However, the current state of the subcontinent bears witness to the divide-and-rule policy enforced by the British even as they withdrew militarily. Pakistan was established as a separate state, powerful enough to doggedly offset the influence of India proper; what is more, other artificial states were willed into existence, among them the island now known as Sri Lanka. Like Pakistan (and later Bangladesh), Sri Lanka owes its separate existence to the desire of imperialism not to see its interests threatened by a Greater India.

With the abandonment of the Tamils by the British rulers, and their separation from the Tamil population on the Indian mainland, the poles of oppression are reversed; the Sinhalese find themselves not only in the numerical majority, but politically in the driving seat. The civil war, which has pitched the LTTE and ephemeral allies against the government since the early 1980s, apparently draws to a close with this final military offensive. Of course, even if the Tamil Tigers are dissolved, it is impossible to destroy national sentiment with bullets, and the issue will resurface to frustrate the Sri Lankan state again and again.

The Tamil Tigers are not perhaps as infamous as the present world situation could, by imperialism’s twisted logic, demand. For a start, the suicide bombing is an invention of the LTTE. It was they who hit upon the idea of strapping belts of explosives to militants in their Black Tiger operations - so was born a new method of assassination, guerrilla insurgency and paramilitary resistance; so was planted the seed of discord between the masses of people and the militant groups who claimed to act in their name. Despite the protestations of the likes of John Gray, author of Black mass: apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia, the leftism of the LTTE - like many other leftisms thrown up by the anti-colonial tide - was and remains an idiosyncratic and unlikely foe for the imperial order.

Those who still harbour illusions in the revolutionary nationalist upsurges of the post-war era should take heed of the events in this little-examined corner of the world. Its official name is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka - a name which attests to the power of the left. And nationalism is only the half of it - along with Bolivia and certain other unusual suspects, Sri Lanka is one of the few countries to have seen a genuinely mass Trotskyist movement, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Indeed, veterans of the British left will be aware of at least one key personality extracted from Sri Lankan Trotskyism: the redoubtable Michael Banda, one of Gerry Healy’s key lieutenants and an 11th-hour convert to Stalinism after the Workers Revolutionary Party’s fragmentation.

The exact policies of this powerful Trotskyist trend have to be placed in the context precisely of its power. Trotskyism does not have a strategy for revolution beyond the ‘inevitability’ of the formation of soviets outlined in the Transitional programme - engagement on a long-term basis with governmental power is on one level a foreign experience to it. On another, the steadfast commitment to internationalism and opposition to opportunism for which Trotsky is rightly lauded implies class independence from the state - a test entirely failed by the LSSP. Instead, it has engaged repeatedly in bourgeois coalitions, and necessarily shared responsibility for state operations against the Tamils. The natural result is a chauvinist disdain for repressed national questions, and indeed, despite the energy with which the Trotskyist movement has applied itself to the national question, the Sri Lankan permutation remains unsolved.

Attendees to the aforementioned STWC conference were divided on whether the speakers for and against solidarity with Tamils were in somebody’s pay - if not the LTTE, then the Sri Lankan government. It may be true - but the sadder and more profound truth is that it does not need to be true - that the political weakness of the LTTE and the chauvinist deviations of the LSSP are quite enough to distort the discourse over Sri Lanka, without the intervention of money.

As such, what is ruled out is a serious engagement with the national aspirations of the Tamil people, who make up a clear majority in the north and east of the island. It should not be considered a dogma to approach national questions through the prism of self-determination, as self-determinations can conflict; nevertheless, it is clear that the Tamils are not such a case, and that assertions of Tamil identity are compatible in the abstract with the persistence of Sinhalese rule.

The struggles of groups like the Tamil Tigers once were viewed as a model for the revolution’s international spread. In reality they are no such thing. They rely on minority action - carefully planned guerrilla attacks on the government that necessarily cannot be declared openly before society at large. The result is an impossible situation for their advocates - but, more significantly, a theoretical and practical dead-end, in which the philosophical fetishes of the Hegelian Marxists are elevated to political principle, in the light of which the inconvenient political questions that riddle the post-colonial landscape can simply be forgotten.

Communists, as a general rule, support the self-determination of nations. But we also argue for unity rather than division. However much weaker than it admits, the contemporary Indian state is a lesson of sorts - an extreme point in the co-existence of different language and ethno-religious groups. It is not impossible for (say) Punjabi-speaking Sikhs to cooperate with Hindi-speaking Hindus - and it is not impossible for Tamils and Sinhalese to coexist either.

Critical to this possibility becoming a reality, however, is the serious treatment of the national question by the left. Unity has to be fought for - it has to be won against those who offer the easy, often hugely damaging solutions of national and ethnic separatism. Suffice it to say, while it is quite right to demand an end to the Sri Lankan army’s military offensive and the right of civilians to freely return to their homes from the government’s detention camps, no side can be taken in the present conflict - instead, a real solution must be found to the Tamil question, and all chimeras, chauvinist and separatist, discarded.