A tribute to the SEP election campaign in Sri Lanka


The World Socialist Web Site pays tribute to the courageous and principled campaign that the Socialist Equality Party in Sri Lanka has just waged in provincial elections under conditions of civil war, state repression and communalism. It is an inspiring example of the struggle for socialist internationalism and a direct refutation of all those who insist that it is impossible to fight for such a program in a world fractured by myriad national, ethnic, linguistic and tribal divisions.


The overriding issue was the government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The 25-year conflict has not only claimed more than 70,000 lives and brought death and destruction to much of the North and East, but also permeated every aspect of life. The constant physical reminder is the presence of checkpoints manned by heavily-armed troops throughout the island and the threat of arbitrary detention, particularly for Tamils. Political life is dominated by mainstream parties and media that are in one way or another thoroughly mired in communal politics and actively support the war.


The SEP was the only party that opposed the war and demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from the North and East. Its candidates directly challenged President Mahinda Rajapakse’s claim that he was fighting “a war on terrorism”. The SEP pointed out that the roots of the war lay in the decades of anti-Tamil discrimination by successive Colombo governments. Far from fighting for democracy and peace, the government is prosecuting a war to ensure the predominance of the Sinhala elites through the maintenance of a Sinhala Buddhist state.


At the same time, the SEP gave no political support to the LTTE and its program of Tamil separatism. The LTTE has never represented the interests of ordinary working people, but sections of the Tamil bourgeoisie. From the outset, it rejected a political struggle for the unity of the masses and demanded instead a separate Tamil statelet, which never had any viable economic rationale. The LTTE’s worship of the “armed struggle” was accompanied by the physical suppression of its political opponents and the senseless slaughter of Sinhala civilians, which played directly into the hands of the Sinhalese supremacists in Colombo.


The SEP advanced a program to unify the working class and establish its political independence from all factions of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie. Its candidates explained that the war and the exploitation of communal politics had always been directed at dividing workers and buttressing the capitalist state. The war had been accompanied by a relentless assault on the living standards of workers through pro-market restructuring. The only way to end the war, attacks on democratic rights and the widening chasm between rich and poor was through the struggle for a workers’ and farmers’ government based on socialist politics—a Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Eelam as part of a United Socialist States of South Asia.


The struggle for socialist internationalism in Sri Lanka has always required an exceptional degree of political, and indeed physical, courage. From its inception as the Revolutionary Communist League in 1968, the party has come under fire from all sides. Six of its members have been killed—either by the state apparatus or the Sinhala chauvinist gunmen of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Every party member has experienced more than his or her share of threats, physical violence and persecution. To name just two—the Sri Lankan members of the WSWS International Editorial Board: SEP general secretary Wije Dias was incarcerated for 51 days in 1987 for the “crime” of advocating revolutionary politics, and K. Ratnayake had his home burnt to the ground by pro-government thugs in the midst of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom that marked the start of the war.


The election last weekend was held under a cloud of intimidation, political harassment and state repression. Rajapakse and his ministers have repeatedly branded critics, striking workers and protesting students as supporters of the “Tiger terrorists”. This threat is no idle one. Hundreds of people have been murdered by death squads operating in collusion with the security forces. In August 2006, SEP supporter Sivapragasam Mariyadas was gunned down at Mullipothana in the eastern district of Trincomalee. In March 2007, SEP member Nadarajah Wimaleswaran and his friend, Sivanathan Mathivathanan, “disappeared” at a navy checkpoint on the northern island of Kayts. Despite a determined SEP campaign, the government and military stonewalled and refused to provide any information about the two men.


In such a political climate, the constant pressure is to take the easy road, adapt to the prevailing situation and find a place within the orbit of the parties of the national bourgeoisie. Sri Lanka has its share of middle class radical outfits, such as the Nava Sama Samaja Party, whose entire record has been one of promoting illusions in one or other of the main bourgeois parties—which have all proven to be false. The RCL was founded in direct opposition to such conceptions, which found their most developed form in the betrayal of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), when it openly abandoned the principles of Trotskyism and joined the bourgeois government of Madam Sirima Bandaranaike in 1964.


The foundation of the SEP’s program is Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, which holds that in countries of a belated capitalist development, such as Sri Lanka, the bourgeoisie is organically incapable of carrying out any progressive role. Only the working class, by mobilising the rural masses behind it, can carry out the uncompleted democratic tasks, including radical agrarian reform, and begin the socialist transformation of society as an integral part of the world socialist revolution. That perspective was confirmed in the positive in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and a hundred times in the negative throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Throughout the twentieth century, the promotion by various Stalinist and opportunist parties of the so-called progressive qualities of this or that bourgeois leader or party led to one disaster after another for the working class, beginning with the tragic defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27.


The SEP’s protracted struggle for a scientifically grounded perspective is beginning to intersect with the experiences of workers and youth, as the profound crisis of global capitalism generates a new interest in revolutionary politics. While the official election campaign in Sri Lanka was dominated by militarism and divisive communal politics, the SEP’s program struck a chord among those looking for an alternative to the disaster created by successive governments in Colombo. Despite decades of racialist propaganda, the vast majority of working people—Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim—retain an elemental sense of class solidarity and are hostile to the war. Of those who voted for the government, many did so in the false hope that the defeat of the LTTE would bring an end to communal conflict and some improvement in their lives.


The political significance of the SEP’s campaign, however, reaches well beyond Sri Lanka. Its perspective of a United Socialist States of South Asia has an immediate relevance to workers and young people throughout the so-called Third World. In the same way that the origins of the many conflicts in South Asia can be traced to the 1947-48 settlements that divided the subcontinent, the ethnic, communal and tribal tensions and wars that have wracked other parts of the globe also have their roots in the post World War II arrangements that ended the former colonial empires.


In every case, the local ruling elites were handed their “independence” in exchange for guaranteeing to safeguard the economic and strategic interests of their previous colonial masters. The arbitrary patchwork of national borders established by the colonial carve-up of the African continent, or imposed on the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, has been a constant source of frictions and conflicts. In country after country, the political representatives of the bourgeoisie accepted these boundaries and shamelessly manipulated tribal, linguistic and ethnic divisions to establish a base for their own rule.


During the Cold War, these various elites were able to balance between imperialism and the Soviet bloc. Backed by the Soviet and Chinese Stalinists for their own opportunist purposes, leaders such as Sukarno in Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania took on anti-imperialist and socialistic colourations. Their manoeuvrings, however, invariably ended in disaster. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the logic of all the various strands of bourgeois nationalism quickly became evident. One after another, the various proponents of the “armed struggle” and “national liberation,” from the PLO in the Middle East to the ANC in South Africa, made their peace with imperialism, exchanged their battle fatigues for business suits and embraced the capitalist market.


The SEP is the only party that fought courageously under the banner of the Fourth International for the principles of international socialism and refused to bow to the so-called icons of the anti-imperialist struggle. Its election campaign has objectively strengthened the unity of the working class in Sri Lanka and internationally by showing a clear political road out of the morass of poverty, economic backwardness and fratricidal conflict that is the legacy of 60 years of bourgeois rule in the underdeveloped regions of the world.


We call on all workers and youth to carefully study the SEP’s program and its long record of political struggle and to join and build the SEP and new sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International as the new revolutionary leadership of the working class throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.


Peter Symonds