Concentration camp hell and Tamil rights

Jim Moody finds incoherence and obfuscation on the Sri Lankan left over self-determination

Now that the government of Sri Lanka has defeated the Tamil Tigers militarily, its supporters are cock-a-hoop. As if the death toll were not high enough already, chauvinist mobs are clamouring for revenge on the entire Tamil population. Genocide is far from impossible.

Apart from casualties of the Sri Lanka armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), at least 7,000 civilians have been killed since the beginning of this year, including numerous children. Many died as a direct result of the army shelling. This was no accident. Attacks on civilians were intended to demoralise the Tigers’ popular base.

Some sections of the Sri Lankan media have been honest enough to report what was going on. “One of the deadliest [attacks] took place on Saturday May 2, when artillery shells struck Mullivaaykaal hospital in the government-declared no-fire zone, killing 68 persons and wounding 87 ... The attack took place after the Sri Lankan military was provided with the exact coordinates of the hospital premises three days back …

“The massacre is calculated to coerce the civilians, said a rescue worker, citing leaflets air-dropped the previous day with [president] Mahinda Rajapakse’s message asking civilians to come to the SLA side. A female volunteer doctor was killed on the spot. Three medical staff sustained injuries, one of them paralysed. The main outpatients department of the makeshift hospital was attacked at 9am, when the hospital was very busy with outpatients. There were more than 400 wounded patients accommodated in and around the building. The second attack came as the medical staff and volunteers were engaged in clearing the attacked area of the hospital”.1

With the war over at least for the time being, government camps currently contain an estimated 300,000 Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs). They are forbidden from moving freely in and out of the camps in contradiction to UN stipulations. In effect, the Sri Lankan government is keeping them in concentration camps, failing to provide more than barely adequate food and below minimal levels of medical care. Needless to say, the living conditions in the camps are squalid.

Only recently, Dan McDougall became the first foreign print journalist to visit these camps. A couple of weeks previously, in early May, three Channel 4 journalists had been seized, handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department for interrogation, and deported. Their report exposed the abuse of Tamils in internment camps in Vavuniya. At the 6,000-strong Pulmoddai IDP camp, officials told McDougall that these were happy campers. However, as he reported, “... later a charity worker gave us a very different view: ‘The children, their mothers, their grandmothers, they can’t get out. They are trapped behind barbed wire with guns trained on them, innocent children. This is a prison camp, a Nazi-like detention camp that evokes the worst fears of humanity.’”2

However, the Sinhalese government and military elite sweep such reports aside. Government-approved media basically accuses NGOs operating in the camps as conniving with the LTTE: “Attempts to smuggle out youth from camps housing internally displaced people (IDP) prompted the government to impose restrictions on visits, a senior government official said yesterday. Human rights ministry secretary Rajiva Wijesinha said certain persons with the connivance of non-governmental organisation workers were involved in this plot.”

Sri Lanka’s secret police, the State Intelligence Service (SIS), is certainly sniffing out victims: “A thorough screening” of IDPs is underway in the camps. The purpose is to “identify persons who were either guerrilla cadres or had links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.”2

The liberal US-based Human Rights Watch has called on the UN to “push for full protection of internally displaced persons and their fundamental rights to liberty and freedom of movement .... The council also should press the Sri Lankan government to give humanitarian organisations, the media and human rights organisations full access to areas from which they were barred during the fighting. And the council should seek specific commitments by the Sri Lankan government to address continuing human rights violations, particularly those faced by the country’s Tamil minority.”

Sinhalese triumphalism, let alone revenge, by definition promises to further alienate the Tamils, who make up about 19% of the island’s population, and this can only store up more problems for the future. Either the left gets its act together and the working class takes the lead, or under the banner of Sinhalese chauvinism the country will descend further and further into the depths of barbarism.

Poles reversed

Once the privileged agents of British colonialism, the Tamil elite found itself the butt of popular resentment after independence in 1948. This was cynically exploited by populist politicians. Indeed the poles of oppression were gradually reversed. Indian-born Tamils were denied citizenship. Prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike pushed through the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, whereby the language of the Sinhalese majority became the only officially recognised one.

Throughout the 1950-70s there were anti-Tamil pogroms. Thousands died. In the name of equality Tamils were denied university places and the government oversaw land redistribution to Sinhalese in the east of the country. In point of fact there were mounting demands by chauvinists to send the Tamils ‘back’ to India. Many did leave voluntarily, and not only to India. To date some 800,000 Tamils have emigrated.

As a result of mounting Sinhalese oppression there were also increasing demands for a separate Tamil state. The LTTE was founded in May 1976 committed to a programme of creating  a Tamil Eelam (the ancient Tamil name for the whole island). In the following years the Tigers carved out a state within a state through a protracted guerrilla struggle.

But the liberation brought by the LTTE was always that of an armed camp. Critics of the LTTE were often answered by means of a bullet. This inevitably had its concomitant in the LTTE itself: political disagreements were seen as acts of mutiny. There was an east-north LTTE split in 2004. Nevertheless, faced with a Sinhalese government bent on a military solution, the Tamil masses, especially in the north, had little choice about who to support.

The left

What is singularly dreadful in Sri Lanka is the state of the left. In 2004, just before the general election, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party signed a memorandum with the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance, becoming part of its election platform.

‘Official communist’ parties such as that in Sri Lanka excuse their support for bourgeois government coalitions in ‘third world’ countries by claiming that they are in some way anti-imperialist. CPSL’s sole MP, and general secretary, DEW Gunaserkara, got his reward. He serves as minister of constitutional affairs. But in so doing the CPSL sacrifices working class political independence and has excused attacks on the Tamil national minorities. The unity and stability of the nation comes first.

The LSSP is no different. It is Sri Lanka’s oldest political party, though only emerged as a major political force in the 1940s. Originally founded by a small group of Trotskyists in 1935, in 1940 the LSSP split and its expelled pro-Moscow faction formed the United Socialist Party (USP), the forerunner of the Communist Party of Ceylon (CPC) and today’s CPSL. Despite its early Trotskyist credentials, once the LSSP joined a bourgeois coalition government in 1964, the Fourth International expelled it from its ranks.

Several Trotskyist sects descended from the LSSP operate, but without any parliamentary success:

USP secretary Siritunga Jayasuriya came third in the Sri Lanka presidential election in 2005, receiving 35,405 votes (0.36% of the votes cast), which put the group on the map. But, while the USP stands for the Tamil people running the majority Tamil areas, and asserts its support for self-determination, at best it is unclear that whether this would include the right to secede.

On the other hand, the NSSP has given longstanding support to full Tamil self-determination. Recently the NSSP general secretary reiterated this stand: “The right of self-determination of Tamil-speaking people is a foremost issue in modern Lankan society ... The only unity possible is the voluntary union of the two nationalities.”5

Nonetheless, the NSSP seems incoherent about achieving this aim, despite having campaigned on it for decades. It fails to suggest specifically that the working class of Sri Lanka needs to be in the forefront of the democratic struggle.


1. Tamil Guardian May 13.
2. News of the World May 24.
3. Sri Lanka Sunday Times May 24.
4. One LSSP (R) MP was Edmund Samarakkody; see his The struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon, available at www.bolshevik.org/history/smk/SMK01.htm
5. V Karunarathne, ‘Right of self-determination of Ilankai Tamils’ (NSSP/Left Front website: www.nssp.info/InDepth/SelfDetermination.html).