This article originally appeared in the “Bulletin” in three parts, on November 30, December 7 and December 14, 1990.
There is a civil war going on in the island nation of Sri Lanka. It is a war which is ignored by the capitalist media in the United States and internationally. At present, this war consists largely of an offensive by the US-backed regime of President Ranasinghe Premadasa against the oppressed and largely defenseless rural poor. Particularly the young people in the countryside have fallen victim to the genocidal campaign of the Sri Lankan military and the regime’s death squads.
The murder, torture and disappearance of tens of thousands of peasant youth in this oppressed country thousands of miles away is of burning concern to the American and international labor movement. The ability of this regime to carry out its bloody crimes against the Sri Lankan poor and working people with impunity only serves to strengthen the hand of imperialism and fascist reaction in every country.
At a time when the Bush administration is churning out war propaganda about the alleged “atrocities” of the Iraqi regime in Kuwait, Washington is maintaining the most cordial relations with the Premadasa regime as it literally butchers its own people. Moreover, the US has provided large amounts of military aid to make this grisly work possible.
Until last April, when Premadasa broke off relations with Israel for his own opportunistic reasons, agents of the Israeli Shin Bet spy agency trained the regime’s death squads. Also serving as “advisers” to the criminal Sri Lankan military were members of Britain’s elite SAS counterinsurgency unit working on contract.
At least 60,000 people have disappeared in the southern part of the country alone in just the last three years, according to a recent report issued by a European human rights inspection team. The group, made up of two members of the European Parliament from the British Labour Party and two lawyers, said that scores of people are still vanishing every week as a result of actions by the state security forces.
The group pointed out that the Premadasa regime launched its campaign of state terror against the rural poor under the pretext of suppressing the fascist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a group which began as a Maoist movement in the 1960s and subsequently turned savagely against both the oppressed Tamil minority and the workers’ movement itself. In the course of a bloody 15-month campaign, the JVP assassinated members of the ruling United National Party and far larger numbers of workers and peasants who defied their dictates.
At first the Premadasa government tried to use the JVP as an instrument for bourgeois rule among the rural masses. Sections of the Sri Lankan military served as patrons of this movement, providing it with both arms and recruits. This political maneuver failed, not out of a lack of desire on the part of the bourgeois politicians or JVP leader Wijeweera, but because of the impossibility of reconciling the rural masses to bourgeois rule in Sri Lanka.
The peasant radicalism which underlay certain actions by the JVP ultimately produced, despite the desires of the JVP leadership, a clash between that movement and the government, which the JVP lost. With its patriotic and racialist program, the JVP was both incapable and unwilling to develop that movement into a genuine rural war against the bourgeoisie. At any rate, such a war could not be successful isolated from the struggles of the Sri Lankan working class. But having failed to establish a base for bourgeois rule through the JVP, the regime, even after it eliminated the JVP, was driven into a massive war against the rural population itself. That war is continuing to this day.
Following its assassination of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera and the group’s deputy leaders, Upatissa Gamanayake and H.B. Herath, on November 13, 1989 the regime claimed that the JVP had been smashed. Yet fully a year later, the mass killings continue. Despite the reactionary nature of the JVP’s politics, the state killings of Wijeweera and his lieutenants were aimed solely at strengthening the hand of the bourgeois state terror apparatus and intimidating all political opposition to the regime.
“What bothers us is that despite a government claim that the JVP threat is over, many killings and disappearances are still going on,” Ms. Christine Oddy, one of the European Parliament members said.
“Although the army and authorities deny responsibility for killings and disappearances, the scale is such that the government cannot be absolved from responsibility, either by commission or omission,” stated the report which the team submitted to the European Parliament in the beginning of November.
There is no doubt that killings on the scale of those being carried out in Sri Lanka could only be executed by the state forces. The daily carnage surpasses even that associated with the death squad regime in El Salvador during the bloodiest days of the early 1980s. Asia as a whole has not seen such ferocious repression of an unarmed civilian population since the bloodbath carried out by the Indonesian military following the 1965 coup which toppled the Sukarno government.
One indication of the intensity of the slaughter in Sri Lanka has been the washing up of headless corpses on the shores of the Republic of the Maldives, about 400 miles away.
Eyewitness accounts given to the International Committee of the Fourth International by the Sri Lankan Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL) tell of bodies floating down the rivers, dumped on the streets and strewn in parks.
In addition to the mass killings of rural youth in the South, the regime has resumed its massacre of the Tamil minority in the North and East of the country. The repression in these provinces had been carried out by the Indian Peace Keeping Force, which occupied the area with the agreement of the Sri Lankan regime and the backing of US imperialism following the signing of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987. The Indian troops withdrew in March 1990. Now, after a breakdown in an agreement between the Premadasa regime and the petty-bourgeois nationalist leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the government has resumed its genocidal campaign.
The working class has also come under the gun of the repressive forces. Bloody repression has been meted out particularly to those attempting to defend the rights of the brutally-exploited workers in Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones, where much of the textiles and other products exported to the US are produced. The Premadasa regime promises the multinational corporations operating there a “union-free” environment by murdering those who attempt to organize.
Sri Lanka is now in the seventh year of virtually uninterrupted emergency rule. The declaration of emergency was imposed throughout the country in July 1983 by then President J.R. Jayewardene. The pretext was the massacre of Tamils in Colombo and its suburbs, which had been organized largely by the thugs of the ruling UNP itself.
Under the terms of this decree, the security forces are empowered to arrest people without charges and detain them without trial indefinitely. They can dispose of bodies without postmortem inquiries. The regime can ban anti-govemment publications and outlaw opposition political parties.
In 1988, when Jayewardene turned over power to his successor, Premadasa, he exhorted the security forces to “kill, kill, kill and kill the brutes” and passed the so-called Indemnity Act, which protected all members of the armed forces and police from prosecution for human rights crimes carried out over the previous decade.
The killing has not stopped since. A report released in September by the human rights group Amnesty International entitled “Sri Lanka: A human rights crisis” provides detailed documentation of the crimes carried out by the regime.
“Following the re-imposition of the state of emergency in June 1989, government security forces made little attempt to conceal their resort to widespread murder,” the report states. “Piles of bodies were dumped openly by roadsides, in fields and in cemeteries; others were thrown into rivers. Many bodies were mutilated or burned beyond recognition.
“Toward the end of the year, mutilated bodies of JVP suspects, many of them apparently captives at the time of their killing, were reported to have been left hanging in central points in Kandy town and, in the surrounding villages, severed limbs were seen hanging from the trees.”
Here, it should be noted that the category “JVP suspect” was applied by the security forces and their death squads to virtually the entire population of impoverished rural youth. Conditions in the countryside have continued to deteriorate for the masses of peasants during the four decades since independence. The bogus agrarian “reform” programs imposed by the regimes of the national bourgeoisie have resulted only in the greater polarization between a small class of wealthy peasants and the great majority of the rural population which is landless and faces mass unemployment. The unemployed rural youth were viewed by the regime as a threat and targeted for extermination.
Like the European Parliament inspection team, the Amnesty report also noted that despite the state murder of the JVP leadership last year and the crushing of this movement, the killings have continued:
“In November the government announced that its forces had captured and killed the central leadership of the JVP. However, the killings continued: on 20 and 21 December 1989, for example, between 140 and 200 bodies of men aged between 18 and 35 were reportedly found on roadsides and beaches in Hambantota District. Some had been decapitated; some were left hanging from trees and lampposts; most were naked and some had been burned on tires.”
These young workers and peasants were not killed in armed clashes with the police or army. Rather, they were rounded up and summarily executed. Many of those killed are executed after being secretly imprisoned by the security forces. Tens of thousands of youth still remain in the regime’s concentration camps scattered around the South. Those who are released are frequently hunted down and killed soon after returning home.
The Amnesty report cited the testimony of one young prisoner who had survived the regime’s torture chambers and killing fields:
“One of the prisoners of the group that had just been brought in, who was about my age, was brought into the office. Inspector X shot him with a T56 in front of me. This prisoner was a young man from... His parents own a grinding mill and a tractor. He was arrested while he was driving the tractor. He said this just before he died. One of the army officers who brought him said, ‘He is a JVP supporter.’ I was asked to carry the body outside with another prisoner. This happened [just] before the presidential elections on 14 December 1988.”
The young prisoner reported that on the same day he heard the sound of many other prisoners being shot:
“I heard them cry out, ‘Please let me go! Don’t kill me!’ Then I heard shots.... I later found out that on election day, bodies were dumped all around the area. The body of the prisoner who was shot in front of me was seen ... near Matara with other bodies. They had been burned, but in his case only the lower part of his body was burned so he could be identified.”
The scattering of these mutilated corpses on the roadsides of Sri Lanka was one of Premadasa’s favored means of election propaganda, consciously aimed at terrorizing the rural population.
The prisoner said that a few days later he was forced to help dispose of a body of another prisoner who had been executed:
“Around noon, they grabbed X and took him outside. We heard a shot. Then an army guard told me that X had tried to escape. I did not believe him. I saw his body. It had three or four wounds in the back. I and another prisoner were asked to carry his body to the back of the building. He was naked. A civilian working at the camp rolled a tire behind us. We put the body in the center and the civilian put a tire on top and poured a gallon of petrol. I was forced to light the pyre.”
The report adds, “Some prisoners were reportedly set on fire while still alive. In one reported case a person who had been arrested by police in Gampaha District in March 1989 was severely beaten by police and set on fire while fully conscious. He escaped but because villagers were afraid to take him to a hospital, he died by the roadside of bums a few hours later. However, he told his story to the villagers before he died.”
Others have not even survived long enough to make it to the military’s prison camps. They are killed almost as soon as they are abducted. This was the case in one of the more notorious massacres which took place in Nittambuwa, in the Gampaha District on February 27, 1990.
Thirteen young people were grabbed from their homes by masked gunmen who identified themselves as members of the security forces. “They were driven to a jungle clearing at Wavulkele where they were shot,” the report states. “One youth survived, despite sustaining gunshot wounds, and told an opposition member of parliament what had happened. The next morning, the youth took others to the scene, where 12 naked and charred bodies were found. Among the victims was a young woman: according to the survivor, several of the male prisoners had been forced to sexually abuse her. Those who refused were beaten. The survivor reportedly told police that the victims were stripped naked and shot in single file by two gunmen and that he had escaped by striking at the two gunmen when he was called forward to be killed.”
This incident is little different from countless other massacres and summary executions carried out over the last three years. But because of its exposure, the regime was forced to order the arrest of 14 police officers and offer compensation to the relatives of the victims. But by the time the Amnesty report was drafted, there were still no indications that the police involved would actually be charged.
Many of the killings have been carried out by death squads, bands of gunmen organized by the security forces for the specific purpose of murdering unarmed civilians. Most of the participants in these squads are themselves police or military personnel, sometimes in uniform and sometimes in plainclothes. Others are drawn from supporters of the ruling UNP.
One of the best known victims of these squads was Richard de Zoysa, a popular broadcaster, journalist and actor in Sri Lanka, who also served as a correspondent for the Rome-based news agency Inter Press Service.
Richard de Zoysa’s abduction was described in the Amnesty report: “On February 18 at about 3:30 a.m. six armed men arrived at his Colombo home in a Pajero jeep, believed to have been a police vehicle. They threatened to kill his mother when she asked to see their identity cards, stormed into the house and took Richard de Zoysa from his bed. One or two of the abductors wore police uniform; the others were dressed in black. Witnesses noted the [license] plate number on the jeep, which was later found to have been false.
“Immediately after the abduction, Richard de Zoysa’s relatives made a complaint at Welikade police station and appealed to government authorities, but were unable to trace his whereabouts. The Ministry of Defense denied that the security forces were involved in his abduction, but before the body was found relatives and friends had been told otherwise. A politician from the ruling UNP told the family that he had inquired with the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and learned that Richard de Zoysa was in custody, although the same politician later said that he had made a mistake.
“Richard de Zoysa’s naked body was found on February 19, 1990 off Koralawella beach at Moratuwa. Two fishermen brought it ashore and reported their find to the local police. The body was bloated, with gunshot wounds in the head and neck, but the fishermen recognized Richard de Zoysa from his television appearances.”
Subsequently both his mother and her lawyer received death threats for pressing for an investigation into the murder. When the mother identified one of those who abducted de Zoysa as a Senior Superintendent of Police in Colombo, a magistrate ordered the man’s arrest. The police simply ignored the order.
It was not known whether Richard de Zoysa’s murder was ordered by the Premadasa regime over dispatches he had written on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka or for his authorship of a satirical play entitled “Who Is He? What Is He Doing?” which mocked the president.
Testimony was also received by Amnesty from a person who managed to escape from a death squad:
“Five of them came to my house. Others, I don’t know how many, stayed in the vehicle, which I think was a Hiace van without number plates. They had shotguns and wore T-shirts and combat trousers. If I saw them again I would recognize them but I don’t know their names.... When I saw them I tried to run away. They shouted, ‘Stop! Don’t run!’ They grabbed me, put a mask over my eyes and took off my shirt. My parents were crying out.
“My ankles and hands were tied and I was put under the seat of the van.... They drove for about half an hour. Then they stopped the van and brought some liquor. They then stopped at a house and asked for somebody. I heard a girl say he was not there.... They were angry.
“Then we drove off. We drove for about 15 to 20 minutes. While we were driving, they asked me about X. They also burned me with cigarette butts. When we stopped, I was asked to get out. I could feel a cement floor and was asked to step over a wire, which I thought might be a barbed wire fence.”
He was then taken before an informer, who identified him as a JVP supporter. He said he believed that he was at an army camp.
“They grabbed me by my arms and legs and dragged me out.... I was again put in a vehicle. After about 45 minutes, they stopped for a drink. We then drove off again and stopped at a deserted place. I was told to get down. I said I couldn’t stand as my hands and feet were tied. I was dragged out and my hands were untied. Then they cut my blindfold. Several people were still inside the van drinking. Next to me were two others, also with a bottle. One of them stood in front of me with a knife. There were also weapons on the floor of the van. I was asked to take off my sarong. I could smell petrol. I remembered what two friends, who were SLFP supporters and who had escaped the thugs, had told me. I took off my sarong and slung it in the face of the person in front of me, and tried to run away. I jumped to the roadside, which I later found was at Kottawa [in Galle District]. They fired twice at me, but I hid behind a tree. After a while I heard them drive away.”
In many cases, death squads unable to find a person they were looking for grabbed a relative instead. The Amnesty report cites one such case: “a group of about six men in army uniform went to the home of an army deserter in July 1989. His parents initially refused to open the door as it was nighttime, but did so when the men said they were from the army. They told the soldiers that their son had returned to the army a few days earlier, the soldiers did not believe them, searched the house and left. About five minutes later they returned and questioned two other sons who were present, seeking to take one of them away for questioning. The parents begged them not to do so at night, offering to take him to any police station or army camp the next day. The soldiers then threatened to shoot the family. One of the two sons then agreed to go with the soldiers, who appeared drunk. They told the boy’s mother, ‘Don’t plead with us; we have mothers too. We are only doing the duty assigned to us.’ Two days later, the boy’s body was found in a reservoir not far from his home.”
In some instances, heads or other body parts of those abducted have been left on the doorsteps of their families’ homes.
The US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Marion V. Creekmore, was the main speaker at a conference held late last month at one of Washington’s posh hotels. His audience was made up of American corporate executives and businessmen and the topic was “investment opportunities” in that bloodstained island nation.
Creekmore delivered a rousing appeal to the American capitalists to invest in the country. “The reasons are obvious,” he said. “Labor costs in Sri Lanka are among the lowest in Asia, while labor productivity is one of the highest among developing countries.” He praised the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa for acting “to expose the economy to the rigors of the marketplace” and for creating “an open economy.”
He was followed by one Caroline Beeson, director of South Asian affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, who reassured the corporate representatives that the Sri Lankan regime had “control of the political situation.”
No one was so tactless as to ask how the Premadasa regime managed to offer the lowest labor costs together with the highest productivity rates or how it had managed to assert its “control.” The answer to that question involves one of the bloodiest campaigns of state repression in history, in which over 100,000 have been killed and particularly the younger generation in the countryside has been targeted for extermination by the Sri Lankan military and the regime’s death squads. Whole areas have been depopulated in this savage campaign.
Multinational corporations, based in Japan, Korea, Australia and elsewhere, have profited off of low wage rates and labor discipline which is backed up by this criminal repressive apparatus. And they themselves have contributed to the mounting pile of corpses.
In the so-called Free Trade Zones of Katunayaka and Biyagama, the majority of the workers are young people brought in from the countryside where the brutal massacres have been taking place. Many of them are young women, housed in crude barracks and forced to work long hours, making everything from garments to electronic components.
The report released in September by Amnesty International points out that this superexploited section of the labor movement has itself been targeted for severe repression by the regime.
“Workers seeking to protect the rights of people employed in the Free Trade Zone near Katunayaka, where trade union activities are greatly restricted, are among those who have ‘disappeared’, and others are said to have been detained and killed by the security forces,” the report stated.
The report cites the case of Herath Mudiyanselage Ranjith, a machine operator who was detained by security forces and apparently killed after he complained about dangerous conditions where he worked, following an accident in which two workers lost fingers in a machine. The company responded to the complaint by firing him. He then sought help from the Katunayaka Legal Advice Center, which had been set up to provide advice and legal assistance to FTZ workers.
The report stated:
The Advice Center contacted his employer to arrange an internal inquiry into the suspension to which an advice worker was to accompany Ranjith as an observer. Both men attended the inquiry on the afternoon of October 27, 1989. When it was over, they left on one bicycle but neither of them reached home.
The same evening two men were seen by witnesses being detained by men, who were presumed to be police and who used a white Hiace van, near the Katunayaka playground. The two had been knocked from the bicycle—which was later found to belong to Herath Mudiyanselage Ranjith—before being taken away. The next day two bodies were found nearby: they were burned beyond recognition but it appears that they may have been those of Herath Mudiyanselage Ranjith and the advice worker accompanying him, Madurappulige Lionel. Relatives who had asked about the two men at Peliyagoda police station were told that neither of them were in custody there.
One of those present at the inquiry had alleged that a representative of the employer had telephoned the police to inform them that the inquiry had been completed, but this has been denied by the employer’s representative and the police. However, suspicion persists that the two men were victims of an official action.
A few days before his ‘disappearance,’ Madurappulige Lionel is said to have received a threatening telephone call from a police officer in Negombo, who said he had been given powers to deal with ‘busybodies’ at the Legal Advice Center. The police continue to deny that Herath Mudiyanselage Ranjith or Madurappulige Lionel were detained, and their abductions were reportedly referred to the Crime Investigation Department, although apparently without result.”
The case of these two workers is similar to those of tens of thousands of others in Sri Lanka. They have been abducted by the police who, despite the testimony of eyewitnesses, deny any knowledge of their arrests. Most are subsequently tortured and executed, with their bodies secretly burned or dumped. In many cases, the “disappeared” have remained unaccounted for years after their detention by security forces.
I am the luckiest mother in Sri Lanka, because at least I got my son’s body back,” Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu told Amnesty International. Her son, the well-known journalist Richard de Zoysa, was abducted and killed by a police death squad last February. “I could give Richard a decent funeral and, as hard as this sounds, at least I know he’s really dead. There are thousands of other mothers out there who just don’t know, who are still simply sitting there and waiting.
The Amnesty report describes a human tragedy commonly associated with the worst of the US-backed death squad regimes of Central and South America, with relatives searching for their loved ones from one barracks or police station to another, constantly being told by the authorities that they know nothing about their “disappearance.”
Those that complain or seek to continue the search are often themselves targeted by the death squads. Witnesses are likewise afraid to testify for fear that they too may be shot. In a number of cases, security forces have abducted and murdered lawyers who had filed habeas corpus petitions on behalf of those who have “disappeared.”
“To whom can we complain?” one of the relatives said to Amnesty International. “What wrong have we poor people done? No one in our country will investigate this attack.”
The great majority of the “disappeared” are young men from the poor rural areas. One such case reported to Amnesty came from a woman who found her “disappeared” son, only to lose him again:
In December 1987 my son was arrested by some unnamed men while he was on his way to work. From that day until March 20, 1988 I spent time crying and thinking about my son. In March 1988 I was informed that he was being held in the ... prison camp. With great difficulty I went there to see him. I saw my son that day and found that his memory had been affected. He had been tortured and inhumanly assaulted by the police. He had been hit on his head with a large baton. From March until September, I visited him every month. I did not visit him for about four months from October 1988 because of the adverse situation prevailing in Sri Lanka during this period. I went to the camp in January 1989, but he was not there. Upon making inquiries I was told that he had been released, but to this day my son has not come home.
Beginning in 1988, the report stated, the number of abductions carried out by groups of plainclothes death squads escalated markedly. In many cases, relatives of the victims or other witnesses have recognized members of these squads as police or army officers. The report cited one such case:
On September 12, 1989, soon after midnight as she and her husband, mother and two children were sleeping, the woman heard the doors of her house being broken down. She got up and saw two people with torches. One of them asked for her husband. When her mother turned on a light, the woman recognized one of the men as a Sub-Inspector of a named police station and the other as an officer of the same police station. ‘Thereafter a few persons entered my house one by one... and took my husband onto the road just outside the house.... We heard my husband shouting under assault. Just before my husband was taken, my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter cried and one of the [police officers] placed his gun at her mouth and shouted ‘shut up.’
Those abducted in this manner are transported into a secret network of detention camps, torture chambers and killing grounds run by the security forces, in most cases never to return. The Amnesty report cited one case of a person who survived to give an account of his experience:
In August 1989 five armed men wearing civilian clothes drove up to the home of X. They took X away, blindfolded, in an unmarked vehicle, together with X’s landlord and a student who was also at his home. X was held for seven days at an army camp set up in a school in the Colombo area. He was blindfolded for most of this time, and regularly interrogated. He was tied to a chair for four days without being given access to toilet facilities.
“On his fifth day of detention, he was put in a room with his landlord. Both men were handcuffed to a bench, and X saw bum marks and lacerations on the landlord’s chest, and noticed that several of his teeth were broken. X asked the landlord what had happened to the student. Both of them had been forced to drink petrol: the landlord had last seen the student vomiting and then being put into a vehicle along with a tire. The landlord was later released; the student has ‘disappeared.’
The treatment meted out to these prisoners is routine. The Sri Lankan security forces have perfected the most barbaric methods of torturing those who fall into their hands. The Amnesty report stated the following:
Reports of torture of prisoners by members of the security forces in the South have been widespread. Torture has sometimes been so severe that it has resulted in prisoners’ deaths. The methods used reportedly include beating with sticks, batons, rubber straps and pipes on various parts of the body, including the feet and the genitals; assaulting detainees while they are suspended, hanging by their thumbs, from a beam or a tree; tying detainees onto a bench and assaulting them with rods and pipes; electric shocks and burning, including of the penis,; pulling out hair; forcing detainees to inhale smoke from burning chilies; and forcing chili powder into the anus, penis and mouth. Several detainees have described a form of torture known as the dharma chakra (“wheel of the Buddha’s teaching”) in which they were stripped naked and tied in a squatting position, with their wrists bound together around their shins and their ankles tied. A pole was then passed under their knees and they were suspended upside down from the pole. They were then rotated, causing injuries to their arms and legs, and beaten. Men and women prisoners have reportedly been raped, and male prisoners have said that they were forced to sexually abuse female prisoners.
Many prisoners have been kept in the custody of the agency which is responsible for their interrogation, in the contravention of international standards prescribing safeguards against torture. Amnesty International has received numerous reports of the torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners held in military and police custody.
Many reports speak of prisoners being kept blindfolded for weeks on end, with the result that they later suffered eye problems when exposed to bright light. In addition, prisoners have reportedly been held in ankle-irons connected to chains hanging down from the ceiling. They have also been tied to each other while in detention.
The Amnesty report included one account by a student who was arrested by the army in December 1988. After being beaten with rifle butts and transported to an army camp, he was thrown into a pit 12 feet deep and barely eight feet in diameter where he was kept with other prisoners. He described his interrogation:
I was shown the apparatus in the room. Lieutenant X turned on an electric switch and I saw a red-hot iron, one soldering iron and one iron rod. They used this, I found out later, to beat prisoners, and every time it hits your body you get an electric shock. I was told to face the wall and beaten with an S-lon pipe. After this, Lieutenant X ordered [another soldier] to take me away and hang me up by my thumbs. [The soldier] put a shoelace around my thumbs and then a nylon thread under this. The nylon thread was attached to a pulley and a soldier on the other side pulled me up. This was outside, from a mango tree.... While I was hanging there I was beaten with S-lon pipes filled with sand. I was not blindfolded. It lasted about ten to 15 minutes. After a while, my whole body went numb. Even now, after my release, my thumbs sometimes feel as if they are shivering. I feel a kind of vibration in them. When I was dropped to the ground I could not stand. I fell down.... The next day my ankles were tied together and I was hung upside down at the same place under the mango tree. This time I was beaten on my buttocks. All this time I was naked. I was beaten with an S-lon pipe. Then a barrel of water was put under me and I was dropped in it for a few seconds, then out, then in again and so on. Again, this gave me a kind of numb feeling after a while. I did not actually lose consciousness but I became totally without energy, totally numb.
He described an even more savage interrogation which took place four or five days later:
This time, [the Lieutenant] was there. He took off my blindfold and forced me to look at the apparatus. Then he blindfolded me again and put handcuffs on me. I felt two people grab me. Then I felt somebody putting a burning cigarette on my feet. I was crying out and tried to hide under the table; I knocked into chairs. I don’t know how many times this person burned me, but after a while it felt like my whole feet were on fire. I shouted out. Some of them were laughing at me, others were shouting at me to tell the truth. Then they used the electric drill. I had been shown this drill before and they threatened me with it. The drilled in my left shin. I was conscious but did not feel anything.
The mass slaughter which has been directed by the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa against the impoverished rural masses, and most particularly the youth, is the loathsome expression of the national bourgeoisie’s inability to resolve any of the fundamental national and democratic demands of the Sri Lankan people.
The Sri Lankan bourgeoisie came to power without even the slightest pretense of a struggle against colonialism. Rather, it was awarded a flag and a parliament as part of the counterrevolutionary 1948 settlement through which British imperialism carved up the Indian subcontinent and attempted to assure its continued subservience to imperialist interests.
For more than four decades, the native ruling class has attempted to maintain its power by fomenting racial hatred among the Sinhalese majority population for the Tamil national minority, which is concentrated in the North and East of the country, and by attempting to divide the working class from the peasant masses.
The current bloodbath against the rural poor in the South was preceded by a racist war against the Tamil minority which was waged under Premadasa’s predecessor, President J.R. Jayewardene. Many of the same methods of massacres, death squad killings and torture which the state forces are using against the Sinhalese youth in the countryside were first perfected against the Tamils.
By the late 1970s, the regime gave its security forces extraordinary powers through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which specifically permitted the military and police to detain suspected opponents of the regime without charges or trial and hold them for prolonged periods. There are over 680 recorded cases of people “disappearing” while in custody of security forces in the northeast during the genocidal campaign waged by the Sri Lankan army in the area between 1979 and mid-1987. Thousands more Tamils were killed or held as prisoners.
In July 1987, the regimes of Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi signed an accord providing for the invasion of the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka by the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The Indian troops were brought in with the express purpose of crushing the Tamil liberation movement and bolstering the rule of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie, which was able to move its armed forces back to the South, to turn against the working class and oppressed peasants.
Between the signing of the accord and the withdrawal of the IPKF last March, the Indian army carried out a bloody campaign of repression against the Tamil people.
One of the worst single acts of brutality carried out by the Indian occupation forces took place in the northern village of Valvettitturai on August 2, 1989. The report released in September by the human rights group Amnesty International described the incident, which was apparently carried out in reprisal for an ambush of Indian forces by the Tamil liberation organization, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE):
A few hours after the clash, members of the IPKF reportedly returned to Valvettitturai, a known LTTE stronghold, and rampaged through the town killing 52 residents, many of whom are believed to have been defenseless and deliberately killed, and setting fire to houses and other property. The IPKF cordoned off the town for two and a half days, denying access to medical personnel who were trying to reach the injured.
In some cases IPKF soldiers entered houses where people were taking refuge and shot them. Twenty people were sheltering in the house of 60-year-old Vengadasalam Subramaniam when IPKF soldiers entered.
‘All of us then went forward raising our hands. [Vengadasalam Subramaniam] too went forward raising his hands and attempted to speak to the soldiers. But the soldiers started firing. Those in the front fell down.’ Vengadasalam Subramaniam was killed along with eight others, including 70-year-old S. Hlayaperumal; two 11-year-olds, Rajaguru Javanaraj and Aathy Sundareswaran; one-year-old Ganeshalingam Sashi and three women.
Brutal acts of terror were carried out on a constant and seemingly random basis as part of the Indian bourgeoisie’s policy of attempting to crush the Tamil liberation struggle. The Amnesty report cites a typical incident:
Two sisters were reportedly killed by Indian soldiers in their home in Udupiddy on February 15, 1989, the day of the parliamentary elections. Their home was close to the IPKF camp and the soldiers regularly passed by. On election day, a soldier who was passing through the compound fired his gun at the roof of the main house. A group of nearby soldiers heard the shots and rushed toward the sisters’ house firing their weapons.
The soldiers questioned the sisters, who explained that the fining had been initiated by a soldier. The soldiers started to leave. Then, according to the testimony of the sisters’ brother: ‘When they had gone about 10 yards, two of them turned towards us and shot at us. Two of my sisters, Elizabeth and Joyce, were hit by the gun shots. My sister Joyce was carrying in her arms her three-year-old child.... Both sisters fell and died instantaneously.’
He added: ‘At the IPKF camp I was asked to sign a prepared statement in English.... It was to the effect that the killing of the two women was by the LTTE.’ He refused to sign it.
In the wake of the IPKF withdrawal, the Sri Lankan military has renewed its operations in the northern and eastern provinces and the killing is continuing.
As the Sri Lankan Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Communist League have pointed out, the hideous crimes carried out by the bourgeoisie have been made possible by the servility and treachery of the reformist, Stalinist and centrist leaderships in the workers movement. The reformist LSSP, the Stalinist CP and the centrist NSSP all supported both the intervention of the Indian Army in the North and East and the launching of the vicious pogrom carried out under the pretext of crushing the fascist JVP in the South.
This glorification of the Indian occupation and support for the repression in the South served to alienate all sections of the oppressed population from the official leaderships of the workers movement. All of these parties are fully integrated into the rotten bourgeois state structure of Sri Lanka.
Only the RCL has conducted a consistent and unrelenting campaign in defense of both the right of the Tamil minority to self-determination and of the rural poor against the oppression being carried out by the security forces.
The bloody events in Sri Lanka have underscored the complete incapacity of the national bourgeoisie of playing, or even maintaining the pretense of, any sort of independent or progressive role in the historically oppressed countries. Internationally, bourgeois nationalist regimes which in the past posed as the leaders of the national struggle today openly function as servile appendages of world imperialism, ensuring cheap labor supplies for the free trade zones opened up by foreign capital.
But the ignoble collapse of bourgeois nationalism by no means signifies the disappearance of burning democratic and national questions. On the contrary, the intensification of imperialist oppression and the unprecedented subservience of the national bourgeoisie make these issues all the more explosive.
Under the present conditions in Sri Lanka, as throughout the oppressed countries, there is no social force which will defend the interests of the peasant masses, as well as those of the oppressed nationalities, outside of the working class. This class alone can establish genuine national unification and political independence by means of its own independent revolutionary struggle.
The only way out of the nightmare into which the bourgeoisie and imperialism have plunged Sri Lanka lies in the mobilization of the peasant masses and all the oppressed behind the leadership of the working class on the basis of a revolutionary program.
This requires a resolute campaign to mobilize the independent strength of the labor movement in defense of the rural masses and against both the atrocities being carried out by the Premadasa regime’s security forces in the South and the racist war being waged against the Tamils in the North and East. Such a campaign is being conducted only by the Sri Lankan Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Communist League, which bases itself on the theory of permanent revolution.
The essence of this perspective in the backward countries is that the basic democratic and national questions—national liberation, self-determination for the national minorities like the Tamils, and the realization of the democratic aspirations of the peasant masses—can be realized only by forging a revolutionary alliance between the working class and the peasantry against the bourgeoisie in the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
While only such a revolutionary struggle can defeat the bloody schemes of the Premadasa regime and its imperialist backers, the genuine and concrete solidarity of the American and international labor movement is now of the utmost importance for the embattled Sri Lankan masses.
This means the imposition and enforcement of working class sanctions against the bloody rulers of Sri Lanka, including a boycott of the country’s exports, fully 25 percent of which find their way into the United States.
The labor movement must give its own answer to the hideous terror being unleashed by the Premadasa regime. It must organize a genuine campaign of solidarity with the Sri Lankan workers and peasants who are the victims of the military and fascist death squads.
This means first and foremost the imposition of a complete labor boycott on all products and materials from Sri Lanka.
Longshoremen should refuse to handle all cargo coming from Sri Lanka.
Garment workers should refuse to use cheap textiles produced in Sri Lanka.
The boycott should be backed with a ban on all garments, tea and other consumer goods produced in Sri Lanka and sold in the US.
The demand must be raised for the immediate cutoff of all US military and economic aid to the Premadasa regime.
Protests and labor sanctions should be extended to all those US-based multinationals which seek to profit off of the repressed and super-exploited labor of the Sri Lankan workers by setting up plants in that country.
The Workers League, in solidarity with the International Committee of the Fourth International, will continue to fight for the fullest political and material support for the Revolutionary Communist League and to thereby assist its Sri Lankan comrades in carrying forward the immense revolutionary responsibilities with which their party is posed as part of the world socialist revolution.