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Sri Lanka: The Lessons of Others

March 2, 2010


USP Big Sandy, January 5, 2010

Editors Note: Bill Dunne’s long and well researched article will probably engender some debate and response from readers. The essay provides a lot of detail on the Sri Lankan/Tamil struggle. It also analyzes and draws conclusions on nationalism and national liberation struggles in general. It is this latter question of nations and national liberation, that may draw debate, and 4SM will print further discussion`on this question if we receive responses.’

In the weeks culminating on 18 May 2009, Sri Lankan government forces unleashed a murderous assault on the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). After capturing the LTTE capital at Kilinochchi in January, the army pushed the rebels – and more than a quarter million civilians – into a small corner of the Mullaitivu District of northern Sri Lanka. With the rebels surrounded and cut off, the government mercilessly pounded the area with howitzers, multi-barreled rocket launchers, cluster bombs, and other heavy artillery, reportedly including banned white phosphorous incendiaries. The barrage went on for days, both indiscriminately and targeting hospitals and other civilian facilities as well as combatants. The media and other outside observers were prohibited from the area during the battle. Relief workers were barred from entry as well. Entreaties for a ceasefire and restraint fell on deaf ears. The rebel-held area was compressed to the size of Central Park (in New York City – about 840 acres) – including tens of thousands of civilians – under the relentless shelling.

The LTTE decided to “silence our guns” on May 17 to prevent further Tamil deaths, and rebel official Selvarasa Pathmanathan announced via e-mail that “this battle has reached its bitter end.” But the government killed the two LTTE civilian leaders who arranged the surrender through the Red Cross and continued the onslaught for another day. On May 18, Tamil Tiger founder Velupillai Prabhakaran, Sea Tiger commander Colonel Soosai, and Intelligence Chief Pottu Amman were killed by a rocket in a firefight on the edge of the rebel zone. The following day, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory.

Estimates of the civilian death toll vary from 20,000, 45% of whom were children, in the last three weeks of fighting to 7,500 with 15,000 wounded between mid-January and May. A Red Cross representative said they had witnessed “an unimaginable human catastrophe.” Between 80,000 and 100,000 people have been killed since the civil war began in 1983. Some 300,000 civilians have been herded into 42 detention camps, where conditions and retribution will increase the fatality toll.

We may applaud the end of a bitter and devastating civil war. We may lament the defeat of a militant national liberation movement. We may mourn the loss of a guerilla struggle to repel – indeed, overthrow – the materially superior military power of an oppressive state. We may feel solidarity with the remaining Sri Lankan Tamil people whose separatist aspirations are now virtually certainly unfulfillable for at least a generation. And we may condemn the excesses of the Sri Lankan government (and the Sinhala majority) and other governments’ failure to condemn those excesses for the extent to which the failure legitimizes such tactics.

Aside from those somewhat remote sentiments, however, why should we trouble our minds with all this death and destruction in a land so culturally and geographically far from our own? Why should we cloud heroic visions of our future struggles with such realities as mayhem, massacre and defeat? Why should we look any further than the claims of whatever observers and commentators we like best? We should, very simply, because if we cannot learn from the experience of others, we may end up sharing their failures and missing their successes. And though politically, culturally, economically, and half a world removed from the Sri Lankan civil war, it has important lessons for us. We are, after all, all humans and have increasingly more in common than at odds.


The large, teardrop-shaped island (268 m/432 km max. length; 139 m/224 km max. width; area 25,332 m2 /65,610 km2), southeast of the southernmost tip of India, was known to ancient Greek and Arab cartographers. They called it Taprobane and Serendib, respectively. Europeans later called it Ceylon. It officially became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972 and the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1978. Sri Lanka means “resplendent land” in the Sinhala language. The country is divided into eight provinces: Northern, North Western, North Central, Western, Eastern, Southern, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva. Its capital is Sri Jayewardenapura Kotte on the southwest coast near Colombo, the former capital and largest city.

The demographics

The most common estimates of the population distribution in Sri Lanka orbit 74% Sinhalese, 12% Sri Lankan Tamil, 5% Indian Tamil, and 8% of Arab descent. There is an approximately 1% smattering of other groups such as European-descended Burghers and Veddas, descendants of the aboriginal people. The distinction between Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils is that between descendants of pre-European colonial era invaders and European colonial era immigrants from India. Tamils are the majority only in the Northern District, where they are about 62% of the population. In the Eastern District, they are just over 40%. Tamils are less than 10% in the next most Tamil-populated district, ranging down to less than 1% in the Southern. The Arab-descended are found mostly along the east coast, with some population in the north. The Sinhalese use the Sinhala language, and the Tamils and Arab/Muslims use Tamil. English is spoken by about 10% of the population, generally the most highly educated and most prominent in business. 70% of the population is Buddhist, mostly Sinhalese. About 15% are Hindus, mostly Tamils. Around 8% are Christian and 7% are Muslim.

The history

Sri Lanka’s first human inhabitants left no written records but were likely tribal people of the proto-Australoid ethnic group. The remnants of this population were largely absorbed by later immigrants from India, whose migration to Sri Lanka began in the fifth century B.C. The Vedda people, who currently number about 2,000 and live mostly in the central highlands, are considered the descendants of this aboriginal group.

The first colonial settlers of Sri Lanka were Indo-Aryan tribes from Northern India. Assimilation of the Veddas and synthesis of pre-Aryan and possibly Dravidian components launched the Sinhalese cultural tradition. The resulting colonial settler society grew on several parts of the island. It had its capital at Anuradhapura, established by the third kind of the Vijaya dynasty. Population grew and the island’s north central region was extensively colonized. During this period in the third century BC, Mahinda, son of the Mauryan emperor Asoka, converted the Sinhalese King Tissa to Buddhism. That led to the establishment of Buddhist institutions, and by the second century B.C., the Sinhalese had accepted Buddhism completely. This aided and abetted the spread of the Anuradhapura kingdom’s political control over the rest of the island.

An invasion by the Pandyan Tamils of southeastern India overthrew the Sinhalese kingdom in 432. About 25 years later, however, the Pandyans were defeated and Sinhalese rule restored. But that was not the end of southern Indian Tamil meddling in Sri Lankan affairs. The meddling included putting a quisling Sinhalese dynasty on the throne and involving its kings in dynastic wars between Pandys, Pallavas, and Cholas in southern India. The result saw a series of invasions and raids ending with another south Indian occupation of the kingdom in 993.

Vijayabahu overthrew the Chola and restored Sinhalese control in 1070 but was forced to move the capital southeast to Polonnaruwa, a more defensible city. Sinhalese power reached its zenith during the Polonnaruwa period, but again was undermined by southern Indian intriguing. Non-Sinhalese groups spread their influence. Finally, a south Indian mercenary called Magha overthrew Sinhalese authority in 1214 and imposed an oppressive regime that trampled the Sinhalese religion and culture. He reigned roughshod for 41 years.

Sinhalese rulers were pushed further south, out of the reach of the Polonnaruwa kings. Plus, the central highland terrain was more rugged and inaccessible to conquerors. Hence, the Sinhalese kingdom was reestablished some 70 miles southwest of Polonnaruwa, the first of many moves. The displaced Sinhalese attacked the Tamil rulers and their quislings, but did not reoccupy Polonnaruwa. The foreign Tamil mercenaries, however, did not have the influence on local rulers and officials necessary to run the irrigation and agricultural system that underlay the feudal vassalage that emerged around 1200. The Sinhalese kings’ authority was also limited; it generally did not extend much beyond their capitals from about 1200. This disorganization led to an agricultural infrastructure collapse. The land could thus no longer support the large population, further forcing the Sinhalese southwest to more arable lands.

During this period, a south Indian dynasty, Arya Chakaravartis, took advantage of the displacement of the Sinhalese southwest and collapse of the Polonnaruwa kingdom after Magha’s death to establish a Tamil Hindu kingdom in the north. This kingdom expanded southward, encroaching on Sinhalese turf, less populated due to the decline in agriculture. Before this kingdom, Tamil communities had been scattered among the Sinhalese throughout the island, and its establishment was the beginning of the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divergence between Tamils and Sinhalese. This separation of the north and east from the rest of the island was exacerbated by fresh migrations from south India after the fall of the Pandyan Tamil kingdom in India in the 14th century.

The second Pandyan empire took advantage of the division, taking much tribute and booty from the Sinhalese. The plunder once included the Tooth relic, a sacred icon of Sinhalese Buddhism. Indeed, the division, weakness, and exploitation of Sri Lanka led to numerous subsequent invitations, including from India once more in the 15th century, during which the Tamil kingdom was made tributary, and by Europeans beginning in the 16th century.

The European occupation/colonization began in 1505 when a Portuguese fleet visited the island. In 1518, the Portuguese received trading concessions and were permitted to build a fort at Colombo. Through political intriguing, bribery, and force, they took control of the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom lands in the southwest by the end of the century. At the instigation of Christian missionaries, the Portuguese succeeded in putting their man on the throne of the Jaffna kingdom in 1591, but invaded again and annexed the kingdom in 1619 to quell continuing resistance. That left them in control of the entire island except the Kandy kingdom in the rugged central highlands and eastern coast. Vimala Dharma Surya, a Sinhalese noble, had consolidated power there. The Portuguese tried to install a puppet queen in Kandy in 1594, but Surya defeated them and made their queen his queen. Realizing he could not expel the Portuguese without naval forces, Surya solicited the Dutch, who made extravagant promises of aid in 1602.

The deal with Surya never materialized, but his son, Rajasinha, concluded a treaty giving the Dutch a cinnamon monopoly and other payment for their aid in capturing Batticaloa and Trincomalee on the east coast, Negombo in the west, and Galle on the southwest in 1630-40. The Dutch also took Colombo, the major city on the island, but they froze the Kandyans (Sinhalese rulers of the parts of Sri Lanka not under foreign control) out of the city. The Sri Lankans laid waste to the area around Colombo and withdrew to their mountain stronghold in the interior. The Europeans were really only interested in control of the ports in any event. The Dutch completed their conquest of the Sri Lankan coast with the capture of Mannar and Jaffna in the north in 1658, completely replacing the Portuguese.

The Portuguese divided the area under their control into four “dissavanies” and kept previous subdivisions. Portuguese officials assumed the highest offices. They used their power to promote Catholicism by handing out lesser offices and lands to converts from the nobility loyal to the Portuguese. Revenue previously due to Sri Lankan kings became due to the Portuguese. Many members of the aristocracy embraced Christianity, and some coastal cities such as Jaffna converted en masse.

The Dutch rule merely took over the Portuguese system. Portuguese officials were replaced with Dutch ones. Sinhalese and Tamils loyal to the Portuguese were replaced with those loyal to the Dutch, to the extent the groups differed. The Dutch extended their control further into the interior than had the Portuguese, but kept the land and production relations intact. The Dutch established courts to administer customary law and attempted to codify it in Tamil and Muslim areas. This turned out to be difficult in Sinhalese areas due to the diversity and complexity of custom, so the administration was on the basis of Roman-Dutch law in Sinhalese areas, further distancing Sinhalese and Tamil. One result was the more rapid spread of private property rights in Sinhalese areas. The Dutch also attempted to replace Catholicism, which they banned, with their brand of Protestantism.
After the Netherlands fell under French control during the French revolutionary wars, the British East India Company moved in on Dutch holdings in Sri Lanka. The Dutch gave them up without much of a fight in 1796. The British made the island the Crown Colony of Ceylon. They also made a deal with the Kandyan king in 1802 to be the protectors of the realm but could not tolerate an independent kingdom: it was simply too expensive. So they took over in 1815 and suppressed a rebellion in 1818. Despite promises to maintain the customary system, the British immediately started implementing a single legal and administrative system for the whole island. English was made the language of government and medium of instruction in schools. The economic system was also completely revamped. State monopolies, compulsory labor, and restrictions on investment were eliminated. Land was sold cheaply to investors. Phenomenally successful coffee plantations emerged around 1830 but were ruined by a coffee disease. They were replaced by phenomenally successful tea and rubber plantations in the 1880s. Many indentured workers were brought from southern India from the 1840s to labor in these agricultural and related industries. Investment poured in, and transportation and service networks grew to support the plantation system, breaking the isolation of the interior. Jobs for the English-speaking were plentiful.

The Nationalists

By the 19th century, a nationalist movement had emerged in British Ceylon that cut across ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines. Initial demands were for reforms allowing for greater local participation within the colonial system; these were ignored. The nationalist movement gained momentum until civil unrest resulted in the arrest of some Sinhalese leaders in 1915. The arrests prompted unification of Sinhalese and Tamil organizations into the Ceylonese National Congress in 1919. Some concessions to nationalist demands were made in constitutions of 1920 and 1924, including the election of communal representatives to a majority-elected (as opposed to appointed) legislature. This produced the first split among the nationalists: the Sinhalese wanted only territorial representation while the minorities preferred to retain the communal representation. The minorities withdrew from the Ceylonese National Congress over the dispute. A new constitution in 1931 implemented a State Council that included both legislative and executive functions and universal suffrage. Since the franchise was overwhelmingly territorial, it had the effect of dividing national leaders and pitting them against one another rather than presenting a national unity front. English-speaking capitalists, largely derived from the old upper castes of all the communities, formed a new social and political elite. That elite was able to wield power through the constitution’s institutions.

Ceylon became independent without a fight on 4 February 1948. Pre-independence elections empowered the United National Party (UNP), formed by a coalition of nationalist and communal parties. It was dominated by the English-speaking capitalist elite and selected Don Stephen Senanayake as prime minister. The party, however, did not represent the vast majority of Sinhala-educated, Tamil-educated, illiterate, and tradition-oriented people and engendered discontent among them. At the same time, economic problems started to emerge as export prices fell, and imports and population increased. Ironically, an improved and expanded educational system contributed to the instability by creating a large number of educated people who could not find work.

This political and economic disenfranchisement propelled a coalition of Sinhalese nationalist groups to power in 1956. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) selected Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, an England-educated lawyer, as prime minister. His government made Sinhala the official language, gave Buddhism, to which he had converted from Christianity, “primary place,” and instituted a nationalist socialism. These policies alienated Tamils, Christians, Buddhists, and even some Sinhalese factions and fomented Sinhalese-Tamil riots in 1958 over Tamil demands for recognition of their language and an autonomous area in the north and east of the country. In 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a disgruntled Buddhist monk. His widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, took over the SLFP and formed a government in 1960. She continued implementation of Sinhalese national socialism, nationalized the schools and continued nationalizing the economy. The Tamil Federal Party was banned in 1961.

Continued economic problems, such as employment, shortages, state business failures, and inflation pushed communal issues into the background and dragged the UNP to the forefront in 1965. Don Stephen Senanayake’s son, Dudley Shelton Senanayake, led the party in pursuing a capitalist agenda. This fueled inflation and inequality. To combat this direction, the SLFP formed an alliance with two Marxist parties and won a landslide victory in 1970 on an anti-capitalist platform with Bandaranaike as prime minister again.

The reforms implemented were too slow and tepid for both the Tamil and Sinhala educated youth, and revolutionaries among them founded the People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna – JVP). This group launched an armed struggle against the government from the left in 1971. After heavy fighting, the rebellion was snuffed out with aid from the British, the Indians and the Soviets.

Bandaranaike and the SLFP continued efforts to reduce inequality and extend nationalization. A new constitution was enacted in 1972 that renamed Ceylon the Republic of Sri Lanka, made Sinhala the official language (again), and gave Buddhism “the foremost place.” But the economy continued to deteriorate with unemployment topping 15% by 1977.

On 5 May 1976, Velupillai Prabhakaran founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a successor to the Tamil New Tigers. The tiger symbolizes not only ferocity, but differentiates from the Sinhalese, whose symbol is a lion (singha) and appears on the Sri Lankan Flag. Ideologically, the creation of a separate Tamil state was the LTTE’s only goal. Other Tamil groups included the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRLF), the Tamil Eelam Organization of Students (EROS), and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The LTTE ended up opposed to all the others and fought most of them. Initially, the LTTE expressed its militance in attacks on police and local officials. It also maintained official and unofficial ties to, and received support from, the Indian Tamil state Tamil Nadu, as did other Tamil groups.

In the face of continuing economic decline, the capitalist UNP regrouped and defeated the SLFP in elections in 1977. Junius Richard Jayawardene became prime minister and implemented austerity measures, privatization policies, and other capitalist prescriptions for economic malaise. Anti-Tamil riots almost immediately ensued, perhaps as a diversion from economic travails – a capitalist prescription for political malaise – more than national chauvinism. In 1978, a new constitution was promulgated renaming Sri Lanka the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and providing for a president as head of state. Jayawardene thus acceded to a presidency with expanded powers, and Ranasinghe Premadasa became prime minister. Nothing was done to address Tamil grievances, and anti-Tamil riots ensued again in 1981.

The War

Tamil attacks on police and local government escalated as the Tamil insurgency became more organized. An LTTE attack on the Sri Lankan military precipitated anti-Tamil riots in July of 1983 in Colombo, the then capital, and other cities around the country. Substantial evidence shows the attack was merely a pretext and that the mayhem wrought on Tamils and their property was planned and organized. Some 2000 were killed, including 53 who died under questionable circumstances in a prison outside Colombo, and $150 million in damage – a lot in a poor country – was done to Tamil property. Most observers acknowledge this as the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war. Powerful politicians’ willingness to foment inter-communal violence appears to have grown from factional struggles within the ruling UNP where caste-connected business rivalries had created tensions. The Vahampura, for example, had been supplanted in business dominance by Karawa and Tamil competition.

In an all party conference that ran for virtually the entirety of 1984, the Jayawardene government sought to defuse the communal issue and its potential for violence. The talks centered on granting autonomy to all of the country’s districts with district councils on the local level and a council of state composed of the chairs and vice-chairs of the district councils. Tamil representatives opposed the plan because it did not include special links between Tamil areas. Sinhalese groups opposed the plan as a giveaway to the Tamils. The talks did not resume. Armed conflict escalated.

The stalemate in negotiations led to Indian involvement. Tamil groups were already receiving aid and support from both official and unofficial sources in Tamil Nadu, India’s southeastern state, and 100,000 refugees had already landed in Tamil Nadu. This increasing involvement presented a problem for the Indian government of Rajiv Gandhi, which wished to avoid promoting nationalist sentiments in India with its own religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversities. The instability in Sri Lanka had exactly that potential. In addition, the conflict was attracting foreign powers to meddle in the area as the Sri Lankan government sought military assistance from countries whose influence in the area India found problematic such as the U.S., China, and Pakistan. The Jayawardene government, with little prospect of a peaceful domestic settlement, escalating Tamil insurgency in the North and East and a resurgence of the JVP, had a common interest with the Gandhi government. The two governments thus signed an accord offering the Tamils autonomy in a combined northeast province of Sri Lanka and provided for an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. The Tamils were not consulted in the deal.

In late 1987, India sent 42,000 troops to implement the accord, part of which was disarming the LTTE. The LTTE resisted, and despite heavy fighting, the IPKF could not suppress the LTTE. Premadasa of the UNP defeated Bandaranaike of the SLFP in the 1988 elections and became president when Jayawardene retired the next month. Nationalist pressure impelled Premadasa to negotiate a withdrawal of the IPKF. The IPKF withdrawal was completed in March of 1990 and the Sri Lankan army took over the counterinsurgency. The LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi for his troubles in 1991.

Premadasa was assassinated in 1993, and his prime minister, Dingiri Banda Wijetunga took over the presidency. The next year, former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, took over as prime minister and later president when the People’s Alliance (PA) party won elections. Her government arranged a ceasefire with the LTTE, but it endured a scant three months. Fighting resumed in 1995, and the government captured the Tamil capital Jaffna. The war continued inconclusively for the next four years, with the rebels and government each attacking the others’ bases and carrying out bombings (the Tamils did many by suicide and improvised munitions, the government with aircraft and artillery) and assassinations.

In 1999, the LTTE almost got Kumaratunga in a suicide bombing at an election rally; she lost an eye, but won the election. Her new government tried to negotiate autonomy for the Tamils, but failed. Kumaratunga was subsequently unable to maintain a coalition that would give her a parliamentary majority and was forced to dissolve parliament and call new parliamentary elections. A victory by the UNP made Ranil Wickremasinghe prime minister, but he acceded to a ceasefire mediated by Norway and the beginning of peace talks with the Tamils in 2002.

The next year, however, Kumaratunga accused Wickramasinghe of giving the Tamils too much, suspended parliament and took over the defense, interior and information ministries. She called early elections in 2005, and a coalition led by her party won. She appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa prime minister. An agreement between the government and the rebels to share distribution of tsunami disaster aid caused another crisis. In that atmosphere, a JVP withdrawal from the government, escalating Tamil attacks, and the assassination of the foreign minister led to a declaration of emergency rule. Running to replace Kumaratunga who had lost a battle to evade term limits, Prime Minister Rajapaksa formed a coalition with the JVP (then nationalist anti-Tamil), the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), and Buddhist nationalists with which he squeaked out a win in the 2005 presidential elections on an anti-autonomy-for-the-Tamils platform. Contributing to the victory was an LTTE boycott.

At the same time the government was in such disarray, so were the Tamils. The so-called Karuna Faction, named for its leader, former LTTE Commander Colonel Karuna (the group was also later known as the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), seceded from and opposed the organization. Heavy fighting followed, and Tiger charges that the government had armed and instigated the Karuna Faction, along with widespread ceasefire violations, let LTTE leader Prabhakaran to declare the ceasefire dead in November of 2006.

The civil war intensified during the remainder of 2006 and throughout 2007. Casualties on both sides mounted rapidly. 20,000-30,000 people were estimated killed from 2006-2008, at least 10,000 of them civilians. Government forces captured the entire eastern province. LTTE forces stepped up suicide bombings in the south and impressment. The Rajapaksa government officially abandoned the ceasefire in January of 2008. Provincial elections in May of that year made TMVP leader Pillayan (S. Chandrakanthan) Chief Minister of the Eastern District of Sri Lanka, and allied government candidates won other offices. Karuna became a member of parliament in October of 2008, which created tensions between his followers and those of the TMVP. Fighting ensued between the groups in the eastern province. In March of 2009, Karuna became a government minister (for reunification) and he and many of his people joined the SLFP. The Rajapaksa government made a lot of promises about power sharing and development (unfulfilling a year later) and was freed to concentrate on the LTTE in the north. The LTTE capital at Kilinochchi fell on 2 January 2009.

The Teaching

The mainstream view of national liberation struggles is “to the victor go the spoils,” or, perhaps, “the victor writes the history.” In this view, if a national liberation struggle manages to throw out the old imperialists, monarchy, dictatorship, or other political overlord and free its people from the exploitation and oppression of whatever elitist cabal, then it becomes the legitimate government. However it characterizes the ancien regime is the way it was and legitimizes the new government – indeed, makes it heroic. Until that victory, the rebels are terrorists and various other sorts of bad, and governments are “security forces fighting to restore law and order.” In a more progressive, leftist, view, the legitimacy of the particular struggle is analyzed before and through the struggle becoming an armed one. Popular forces can thus be heroic and worthy of support when it is most important. The chances of “power to the people” becoming more than a slogan are thereby increased and of needless war reduced. Such analysis is often difficult, fraught with shades of gray, and too often gets reduced to automatic support for any insurgents, virtually all governments being worthy of overthrow nowadays.
In this specifically Sri Lankan context, the answers to the legitimacy questions are neither so easy nor clear. Were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam the legitimate expression of Tamil people’s aspirations for freedom and self-determination? Or were they the thin edge of Tamil and/or Indian imperialism and the Sri Lankan government’s Sinhalese nationalist response legitimate national defense? Or was the LTTE merely a weaker elitist mob trying to rip off a hunk of the field so uneven against Tamils they could not compete with the bigger mob in the larger country?

The Sinhalese themselves have a pretty good nationalist argument. They were there first, or at least were the ones who displaced and absorbed the aboriginal people of the island. That is not to say “firsties” is the dispositive criterion in determining the legitimacy of nationalist claims. But it is a factor in the national calculus. And to the extent the record can tell us, the Sinhalese did first occupy the area the Sri Lankan Tamils now claim as their home and – and it is even now not exclusively Tamil. The Sinhalese were pushed out through not just one but several invasions by the original Tamils from India, from whom the eighth of the population who are Sri Lankan Tamils are descended. Those invasions damaged the existing culture and its infrastructure enough to cause demographic shifts. Even in the era of European imperialism, Sinhala land was under threat by Tamils. The British settled about a million Tamils from India in traditionally Sinhalese areas to work tea and rubber plantations. These were the forebears of the 5½% of the current Sri Lankan population who are Indian Tamils.

The invasions and the prospect of their repetition from just across the few miles of the Palk Strait raised concerns among the ethnic Sinhalese that their territory, national identity, and control over their cultural lives were at risk as Tamil nationalism emerged in pre-independence Ceylon. Most of the Tamil nationalist groups had connections in and support from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in Dravidian India. LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham is quoted as saying, “As a race of people, we are Tamils, and we have our roots in India. India is our fatherland…” and spoke of “renewing” the relationship with India. Such sentiments did not inspire confidence among Sri Lankan or Sinhalese nationalists. Plus, the Sinhalese felt up against the wall: the territorial origin of the North Indian Indo-Aryan immigrants, the proto-Sinhalese, who first landed in Sri Lanka does not share much of the Sinhalese culture, and the Sinhalese have diverged mightily from that in any event. The Sinhalese language and religion have changed and, unlike Tamil, Sinhala is not spoken and the recent incarnation of Sinhalese culture is not practiced anywhere else. Coupled with the linguistic differences, there is the Sinhalese religious mythology that the Buddha entrusted the Sinhalese with safeguarding “true” Buddhism. The Indian/Hindu experience of religious intolerance around India’s partition from Pakistan also argued for Sinhala nationalism. While it is easy to scoff at any inclusion of religious fantasies in political theory and public practice as disastrous, it must be recognized that the fantasies are important to their possessors. Part of the Tamil argument is religious as well: that their practice of Hinduism is somehow undermined by the Sinhala practice of Buddhism.

Viewed in this context, the Official Language Act of 1956 may be seen as a nationalist act rather than an imperialist one. It made Sinahla the sole official language (which is still the official language, though both Sinhala and Tamil are now recognized as national languages). This act is widely cited as so egregious an attack by the Sinhalese majority on the Tamil minority that it precipitated the long slide toward civil war. Even some of its Sinhalese perpetrators undoubtedly saw and intended it as an act of oppression.

Others, however, saw it in the context of decolonization. The British had made English the language of government and of instruction in schools. Sri Lankan nationalists thus understandably wanted to replace the language of their erstwhile colonial exploiters. Some of the Sinhalese also saw the Tamils as collaborators with the British and as having been unduly favored by them with jobs, etc. and thus viewed any linguistic concessions to the Tamils as soft on colonialism. Others were more pragmatic: a single language for government would be more efficient, especially considering that some three quarters of the population who were Sinhalese would have to learn Tamil to fully understand the workings of their government if Tamil were made a language of government. Sinhala-only did result in some Tamil and English speakers having to leave government and prevented them and Tamil-only speakers from participating in it as much as they otherwise might. This result was intended by extreme Sinhalese nationalists, who used decolonization as a cover for disenfranchisement, and merely accepted by other politicians as a compromise price for elements of their agendas. Thus even so apparently discriminatory an action as an official language law excluding one community’s language cannot be construed as so one-sidedly wrong (if at all wrong under the circumstances) as to completely justify Tamil nationalism or completely condemn Sinhalese nationalism.

The British, with centuries of experience at imperialism, were also good at fomenting the divisions that facilitated their rule. Pressure from a unified, Ceylonese, nationalism wrung concessions from the empire. These included an elected majority in the legislature written into the 1924 constitution. The incorporation of both communal and territorial representation set the nationalist leaders against each other, the minorities preferring the former, Sinhalese the latter. In 1931, once the nationalist movement had begun to regroup after fragmenting over the communal versus territorial representation issue, the imperialists implemented a new constitution providing for a legislature overwhelmingly elected territorially. This not only gave the appearance of (and actually did) favor the Sinhalese, it put nationalist leaders in direct competition with each other instead of leaving a situation conducive to presenting a unified front for independence. (Even if the conditions and inclination for the British to grant independence had been present at the time, there were also capital commercial interests at stake.) Importation of Tamils from India, many of whom also spoke English and thus were more employable in British business, also sowed division. It led to a perception that the Tamils were favored by and therefore collaborators with the imperialists. Also influential in the division was capitalism. An elite of English-speaking entrepreneurs financed/employed by British capital morphed out of both the Tamil and Sinhalese upper classes. They had an interest in misdirecting popular discontent stemming from growing privation among the poor and less educated, away from the capitalist economic practices that concentrated wealth in fewer and unaccountable hands. This was the forerunner of the neoliberal capitalism that aggravated and exploited national divisions and was behind the national chauvinism that eventually expressed itself as national socialisms that bore more resemblance to fascism than to liberation.

By 1970, discontent with the socio-economic state led national liberation to give birth to popular liberation forces. The Marxist People’s Liberation Front (JVP), driven by radical youth from both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, were unable, however, to adequately challenge the nascent neo-liberal capitalism. Radicals were able to push the debate sufficiently to the left that the mainstream nationalist opposition party (SLFP) coalition won a landslide victory on an anti-capitalist platform. But despite social welfare programs such as food and medical care subsidies, the elected government’s commitment to anti-capitalism was only election-deep. The revolutionaries thus sought to overthrow that government in 1971 but were defeated.
Whether the socialists were precipitant in resorting to armed struggle or the contradiction was precipitated by circumstances beyond their control is an open question. The outcome suggests prematurity, but hindsight is always 20/20. What is clear, however, is that the radicals did not pay enough attention to the weakness induced by the nationalist dichotomy within both their own party and the society they purported to represent. Illustrating that failure is the later resurrection of the JVP as a rightwing national socialist party and anti-Tamil riots just a few years later. Such internal division and attendant distrust, disorganization and reduction of mutual aid could not have helped but undermine both the theory and practice of revolutionary struggle and armed revolutionary struggle in particular. After the defeat of the uprising, none of the economic problems were solved; verily, they became more acute. Hence, despite many voices for national reconciliation, nationalist conflict escalated – in the instigation of which ruling class institutions were clearly implicated. And of the contending groups, only one minor one, the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), had a revolutionary platform, unfortunately secondary to its nationalism.

Left unaddressed, the Sinhalese-Tamil nationalist contradiction spun out of control until the sides fell not only into inter- but intra-communal warfare. What constituted the ‘nation’ and what must be done to preserve/advance notions of national identity and purity and interests became increasingly rigid to the point at which the national line was dictated and policed by politically and militarily dominant factions. The emphasis shifted to the national and away from liberation. Tamil nationalist/revolutionary organizations engaged in military operations against each other, assassinated each others’ officials over differences in how to wage the struggle and what was Tamil, and attacked non-Tamils within their communities for no other reason than that they were not Tamils – became imperialists in their own right. Sinhalese leaders, groups and individuals did similarly, assassinating leaders who were ‘too soft’ on the Tamils, forcibly suppressing dissident formations like the original JVP, and targeting long-time Tamil neighbors and associates in areas outside the Tamil-claimed parts of Sri Lanka. The LTTE went so far as to massacre and dispossess the Muslims in Tamil areas even though they were Tamil speakers and largely supportive (at least initially!) of a Tamil homeland. The result of this ‘ethnic cleansing’ was political entities in which glorification of a narrow vision of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ led to imposition of that vision on pain of death, even on fellow nationals. That tracks closely the definition of fascism.

There are other theoretical and practical lessons the Sri Lankan civil war has to offer. Many of the LTTE insurgents’ military tactics have found – and will find – application in other struggles in the future. Some, such as the use of conscripted child-soldiers and suicide bombers, show that these are not revolutionary but reactionary tactics and are illegitimate. The LTTE also used guerilla land, naval and air power, almost unprecedented among insurgents who generally cede the air and water theaters and thus many lives and operational possibilities to the enemy. Many of the non-military tactics through which the Tamil insurgents supported their struggle are also instructive and will be emulated by future rebels. They raised money from a large diaspora of primarily Tamils, but also other like-minded people, and also sent cadre abroad to support the war at home. Though one may argue that the cohesion of the (an) ethnic group facilitated the fundraising, it is more likely a strongly ethnic appeal circumscribed and reduced the effectiveness of the effort. What is not arguable is that the LTTE’s international work illustrates the principle that such asymmetric warfare in the modern era requires support from and “rear areas” outside the conflict zone.

The Tamil use of the political process within Sri Lanka, which never acknowledge the secession of the Tamil-claimed northern and eastern areas of the island, will also be further debated: was their tactical participation in and boycott of various Sri Lankan national elections effective or a liability either generally or in particular elections? On the one hand, electoral politics can wring concessions for the movement and for civilians in the line of struggle as well as gain attention for the nationalist cause. Boycotts also allow an oppressor state to ‘democratically’ enact repressive measures unopposed and farther out of the sanitizing light of public attention. A boycott by the LTTE of presidential elections in 2005 arguably allowed a Sinhalese anti-autonomy faction to take over the government; an autonomy agreement would have turned out far preferably to the actual result – which was not unforeseeable in 2005. On the other hand, many nationalists claim that participating in the institutions of the oppressor state lends the enemy legitimacy and is thus collaboration. TMVP participation in provincial elections and Tamil defections to the SLFP in 2008 arguably divided the movement, marginalized the LTTE, and emboldened the government, undermining the armed struggle and making a satisfactory negotiated end to the conflict less likely.

Political process by a breakaway movement is not limited to existing institutions. LTTE conduct in the free zones they occasionally held also offers both positive and negative political lessons. They established banking, police, education and other institutions that would prefigure, demonstrate and practice the new society they wanted to create. This is essential in inducing populations to accept and support the new paradigm, to see it as an improvement on the old. It is also necessary to facilitate the paradigm’s development both within and beyond the free zones. But the LTTE also used its power in an oppressive and exploitive manner as in extrajudicial killings of opponents, confiscation of property and expulsion from LTTE-held areas. The political lesson of that is how the struggle was undermined from the start by its nationalism.

The Lesson

In the context of revolutionary struggle more broadly than Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan experience (and that of many other areas) tells us that conflating nationalist struggle with revolutionary struggle is a mistake. The two may be fellow travelers on occasion, and on occasion national liberation may be a useful tactic in furtherance of the planetary revolution humanity so desperately needs. Nationalism as a revolutionary strategy, however, is a demonstrated failure. The Tamils could not make it work with uncommon advantages: a large diaspora; a big, populous adjacent area in which they were culturally dominant (Tamil Nadu in India); a disciplined and committed political and military organization; a bumbling, heavy-handed opposing nationalism; and substantial evidence the national division was aggravated deliberately by ruling class interests. Indeed, notwithstanding the sacrifice of multitudinous revolutionary cadre within national liberation movements, too many of those movements have been co-opted and used against the proletariat because they confused nationalism with revolution. Why would anyone think the ruling class more broadly will not continue to use so effective a weapon as pitting proletarians against each other with nationalisms to maintain its hegemony?

With only rare exception, the “nations” that have (heroically) thrown off the yoke of imperialism in the past 60 years or so have not realized the revolutionary potential that seemed virtually in hand when they kicked out the last imperialist. Some have even backslid into dictatorship, deteriorating economic circumstances, and intra-communal struggle that have worsened the plight of the people in whose name the leadership of victorious movements directed people’s war. While self-determined poverty may be preferable to a gilded cage, revolutionary struggle can and should improve people’s lives materially and socially as well as politically. Poverty, oppression and exploitation at the hands of wavers of the same flag are a cage of another sort. The failures of national liberation in that regard may be blamed on imperialism and its legacy, but that argument carries its own rebuttal: nationalism could not cope with that legacy and/or allowed the new bosses to stop with liberation but without revolution.

The theory was that in coming out of feudalism or colonial subjugation, the national liberation struggles would tear hunks off imperial capital until they devoured it. The rotted skeleton of the old order would then sink into history’s muddy bottom. We, the people, would roll imperialism up from its ragged edges. The new ‘nations’ would then go through a bourgeois democracy phase that would develop industry and commerce, from which an industrial proletariat would emerge and unite with the peasantry to assume power and equitably redistribute the social wealth. Well, the national ‘liberation’ struggle theory of revolution has not worked out that way.

Instead, national liberation, with rare exception, installed strong man regimes with only a nodding, if any, acquaintance with democracy. In those regimes capitalism rules, frequently financed by imperial capital and regulated by its watchdogs like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is okay in such regimes for the citizenry to be impoverished while a small elite is obscenely wealthy. Leadership does not share popular travails. In many cases, policy is determined in imperial capitals or financial centers and given to those elites to impose on their fellow ‘nationals,’ which they do for a sliver of the imperialist pie.

Nor does imperialism appear to be collapsing, despite liberation of virtually the entire world from direct imperialism. On the contrary, imperialism has learned more from nationalist/revolutionary struggles than have we, the people. Imperial capital – which, itself, has supplanted feudal imperialism – has replaced, for the most part, expensive direct occupation and administration of colonies with soldiers and bureaucrats from the imperial country with indirect occupation and administration by neo-liberal (and sometimes not liberal) regimes and militaries drawn from indigenous populations. So it went in Sri Lanka, where a Sinhalese and Tamil business elite safeguarded imperial country interests by resisting the emergence of revolutionary opposition with nationalist instigation. And, for the most part, exploitation and oppression in imperial capital interests have continued in the new countries wrought by national liberation. Access to food and water, housing, medical care, and security in that access have generally not improved to the extent it would cut into largely expatriated profits. Nor has control of rank and file people’s economic, political and even social lives been substantially devolved to them with few exceptions. Looked at another way, the attainment of nominal (and only nominal, given financial and trade dependencies) independence has also not greatly impaired the neo imperialists’ ability to exploit and oppress and has not kept their relative power from actually increasing. Verily, far from tottering toward collapse, the neo imperialist regimes that practice this ever more global capitalism that enables tidal waves of money to wreak more havoc than yesteryear’s gunboats have flourished.
Moreover, what are revolutionaries talking about when they talk about nations? It cannot be absolute, sovereign nations in which people in a geographic (or cultural) entity can do whatever their leadership desires without consideration of the desires of anyone outside the entity. Nowadays, humanity is too dependent on resources like energy, trade, oceans and atmosphere that must be produced and/or used collectively. No ‘nation’ can build a Chernobyl or a dam or a bituminous burning power plant on its border with another, either morally or without the expectation of repercussions, flout trade agreements and norms, plunder the fisheries upon which many nations depend and are already collectively held, or spew filth into the skies when boundaries are drawn upon the ground and everyone reaps the wind. Neither can the world afford ‘sovereign’ ‘nations’ compelled to ‘defend’ themselves with nuclear weapons when even a regional nuclear war that ended with only a few score Hiroshima-sized detonations would usher in a nuclear winter that would kill literally hundreds of millions of people outside the conflict zone. Even now, the interdependence of humanity is acknowledged by international law, even if it is honored more in the breach than the observance. ‘Sovereign’ geographical ‘nations’ were – and remain – obsolescent ruling class institutions intended to facilitate exploitation and control, both internal and external. And if nations are not and cannot be absolutely sovereign, what are they but provinces of a world state? Why not acknowledge the obvious and move forward?

Revolutionaries also cannot be talking about gender or race when they talk about nation. Gender ‘nations’ could not be securely independent for long without an oppressive relationship. Racial ‘nations’ could exist, but there is no physiological basis for drawing a hard line between this ‘race’ and that ‘race.’ Humans share 99.99% of their DNA, meaning there s an overwhelming argument that there is only one race: the human race. Artificial constructs of race have been socially manufactured to serve various interests, but the fact remains that there is more variation between individuals within those constructs than across the lines defining them. More than that, the old artificial constructs of race rooted in pigmentation and geographical origin are no longer relevant, to the extent they ever were: more relevant nowadays are traits like blood and tissue types and intelligence, which are distributed in equal measure across all of humanity and thus no basis for invidious discrimination. Hence, it would be impossible to fairly determine citizenship of racial nations.

The notion of race nations also poses some other tough political questions. Could someone be dispossessed or deported or otherwise subject to the pains of non-citizen/alien status on the basis of denunciation as foreign by someone(s) darker or lighter or with a more favorably shaped head (or whatever the defining ‘racial characteristic)? And since ‘nation’ is predicated on ‘race,’ race is the defining national identity characteristic and thus transcendentally important, with the ‘purity’ or one’s racial pedigree determining one’s place in the hierarchy of the race nation? If so, and given that there is no real physical basis for race, how would the purity be assessed and by whom? Further, if race is the defining national characteristic, then class is secondary and potentially out while monarchy, dictatorship, bourgeois democracy, and fascism are all potentially in. Even if one accepts the necessity for a bourgeois democracy phase and does not count the current regime as that, those potentials would have to be eliminated in theory and practice before a national liberation movement could be revolutionary. And those are only internal questions; if nations are the result of unbridgeably separate races, what is the relationship of the nations to each other? Historically, the relationship between such intrinsically separate nations has been competitive and capitalistic at one end, predatory and imperialistic at another.

Since revolutions cannot be talking about geographical or racist nations, they must be talking about cultural nations. Language, religion, gender roles, racism, xenophobia, traditions, style (literature, art, music, dress, architecture, food etc.), social institutions like economic legal, educational, and political systems, amongst other things, comprise a culture. People who share a similar basket of references in these regards may consider themselves a nation. In fact, that is the basis of most nations today.

But what is culture, really? Culture is nothing more than a set of practices that have evolved among a group to facilitate the conduct of their daily affairs toward satisfying their human needs. It is a fluid thing that changes, or should change, in response to changing circumstances – and that circumstances will change is the one universal constant. Culture cannot be ossified into something rigid, unchanging, inviolable without diminishing its utility in helping its adherents cope with a changing reality. It has to be able to respond to new conditions such as economic, demographic, climactic shifts and improved information that exposes ‘traditional’ tenets such as racism and sexism as counterproductive. In that sense, culture is like any other tool or piece of technology. One patches and modifies and upgrades and repairs the shoe, shirt, can opener, car, computer, software, until it can be replaced with something better as in more useful – whereupon the old one is junked. Cultural technology also has to be sufficiently flexible internally to accommodate differences within the culture, given that culture is more something that has evolved organically than through a set of hard rules, and even its users see and use if differently. Making culture a basis for nationalism necessarily deprives it of these attributes of modification and flexibility and prevents its replacement with better practices.

Beyond that, culture itself has so far been an imperfect instrument and thus a flawed basis for defining a people or nation, let alone THE people. Culture generally has not prevented and even spawns, incorporates and promotes exploitive and oppressive social institutions both locally and globally. Part of this inclusion of cultural tenets that stuck is the very evolutionary nature of culture. Practices and attitudes that may be an appropriate or at least understandable response to emergent conditions often persist past their usefulness. So it goes with cultural praxis born of ignorance. This evolutionary error and cultural inertia lends culture to manipulation by elites who have the power to create and define at least the appearance of the emergent conditions and may also define themselves as the nation or state. The resulting cultural norms may not – and have in fact proven not – to be in the interests of the actual nation – the large majority class brethren and sistren who share way more interests across all boundaries than they do not. The legacy of thus created cultures past are what made people think ‘people’ is not already plural and humanity consists of competitive, exclusive, and irreconcilable nations that can only be adversarial and not familiar.

The prescription

Revolutionaries thus should be talking about building a new culture that will incorporate the best elements of previous cultures, alloy them with new and innovative thinking, allow people a range of cultural choices where best practices are not obvious to them, and leave the exploitative and oppressive baggage all cultures carry like capitalism, sexism, racism, etc., in the recycling bin of history. Humanity is now at a place where it not only can, but must, engineer such social technology, create a culture of struggle for the most equitable social reality in which all people will have the greatest possible freedom to develop their full human potential, a human culture on and through which can be founded a human nation. History has been an ebb and flow of learning from the successes and failures of previous social, economic, technical developments in an upward, positive trend of increasing control of humanity’s social, economic and technical environment. But that power also carries the potential to crash the system for everyone and certainly the large majority if we allow it to be engineered so that minority elites can pursue their narrow interests at the expense of all others.

We, the people, are no longer entirely subject to the vicissitudes of the material world. We have learned how to engineer elements of the physical world to better suit our needs. We eat food hunted in climate-controlled aisles and gathered form store shelves and cooked without fire, wear clothes mass-produced from synthetic materials, live in glass and steel shelter, ride and fly instead of walk, and live to multiples of our ancestors’ ages. We have learned to build the social and technical infrastructure on which all that is predicated, occasionally in quantum leaps. So why can we not do that for culture and nation: design and build them as we would have them? And since we are building to improve the lot of humans generally, why would that not be a human culture and nation? Why would we be content to leave humanity’s direction and condition to the vagaries of evolution while skewing that evolution toward benefiting a few local elites at the expense of the global majority, ensuring the evolution would not move us toward the greatest good for the greatest number?

The answers to those questions suggest it is incumbent on anyone who would revolutionize human society such that war and poverty and exploitation and oppression are banished from the world to design and implement the social technology requisite to a human nation rather than wait for it to evolve (or not). It IS a matter of choice and not of unbridgeable divisions: people in Alabama and New York, Teas and California, despite markedly different cultures, recognize themselves as part of a larger entity, have common in addition to separate government, will not make war against each other even though that was not always the case; so it goes between Quebec and British Columbia; so it goes in Europe, where people increasingly see themselves as Europeans first and whatever other nationality second; so it goes in India, already a nation of nations, Tamils included. And those situations were evolutionary. We can accelerate the process.

Cultural purists may object, insisting that culture is a sacred object, immobile and unchanging –that it is what it is, and cannot be altered lest it become what it ain’t and thus doom all its practitioners to loss of ‘identity’ and worse. Of course, the argument for cultural rigidity ignores the changes wrought on all cultures by social and technical give and take and the resulting fact that no culture is the same as ‘tradition’ would have it. In no culture are eyeglasses, motor vehicles, computers, medical imaging, etc., ‘traditional’ except, perhaps, in the emerging modern culture – which is not old enough to have tradition, at least in the sense meant by ‘traditionalists’ who would cling to the old ways merely because they are old. To the extent that people in underdeveloped/overexploited parts of the world do not drive, fly, air condition, telephone, e-whatever, etc., the new culture revolutionaries need to build would extend access to those benefits (and perhaps the new cultural software would reduce that access where it has reached levels that actually impede popular pursuit of happiness). Nationalist insistence that culture must stay as it is or that aid not be mutual but extended at arm’s length from one separate and distinct entity to another (or not) either impedes the equalization or sets up a new imperialism. Just as production has become socialized, so its blandishments need to be as well, so all of its rewards are and must be globalized rather than locked up in nations pursuing their own interests foremost. Current nationalist visions, however, deny the possibility of a united humanity, accepting instead the divisions of race, ethnicity, gender and culture as inherent and irreconcilable. After all, they claim via the world wide web, it has always been that way.

The conclusion

It seems almost a human trait to root for the underdog, especially where it was never an overdog. This is particularly true where the image is one of valiant fighters waging heroic battle against long odds for a just cause – for a revolutionary cause. That is the image most people on the left had of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in their 26-year armed struggle for national liberation and a homeland independent of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state. It was therefore easy to mourn the brutal suppression of the LTTE for the war crime it was and misapprehend the lessons this defeat might hold for the people who aspire to make revolution elsewhere.

The picture of a plucky LTTE challenger to an imperial boot on the aspirations of the Tamil people callously destroyed by an oppressor state, however, is the product of an incomplete and one-dimensional, romantic analysis that fails to distinguish between revolution and nationalism. Left out is the fact the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka had a pretty good nationalist argument in itself, and the historical circumstances gave the Sinhalese reason to fear their own colonization. That might not have been the most astute assessment of the situation, but it resonated with the ignorant and fearful. Also left out of the picture is that only one of the many Tamil nationalist groups was actually revolutionary, and that one was suppressed by the LTTE. There was no history of democracy within the LTTE and no guarantee that an LTTE state would not be an autocracy. Indeed, its structure suggested a strong man regime like the ones that disserved so many other ‘liberated’ countries. Dedication to cause and heroic fighters worthy of admiration do not mean the cause is most just or will – or should – achieve victory.

The nationalists on both sides divided the embryonic Sri Lankan nation into competitive rather than cooperative sides, the seeds for which were sown by British imperialism tending its own garden. The Sinhalese initiated the post-colonial nationalist conflict with legalistic attacks on Tamils and tilted the field so the Tamils could not resist effectively in the political forum. Revolutionary forces opposed to that and the ruling class mismanagement (from a popular perspective) sought to overthrow the government but were defeated. That was a wakeup call to the nascent Sri Lankan ruling class, which included both Tamil and Sinhalese members. Thereafter, intercommunal violence began and accelerated, instigated in large part by that ruling class and its religious handmaidens. Divide and rule is a ruling class tactic that predates national or revolutionary consciousness.

Perhaps worse than inter- was the extent to which intra-communal violence was fomented as dominant factions on each side, but most egregiously the Tamil side, sought to draw ethnic lines more sharply and make the ‘nation’ more monolithic. Many people were killed, dispossessed, disenfranchised in the name of enforcing adherence to the ‘proper’ national vision. Whether the LTTE would have continued those practices against Tamil opposition in a Tamil state is a moot question, though the LTTE structure and practice suggested it would. Making the agreement that would have satisfied most of the nationalist demands short of a nation when that was possible and victory had become unlikely. It is still too early to tell the extent to which the Sri Lankan ruling class will use its nationalist regimentation and fears in the aftermath, but the continued internment of 127,000 Tamils in camps as of 1 December 2009 does not bode well. Nationalism thus made the struggle resemble one for fascism more than liberation.

The LTTE focus on a nationalist revolution rather than a revolutionary nationalism limited its support. The government’s appeal, particularly externally, was less focused on the nationalism and much more on counterterrorism. That allowed it to garner support from disparate sources, including Israel and the former Soviet Union. Though the LTTE derived some support from other national liberation movements and their supporters, its narrow nationalism limited its appeal and thus ability to obtain more widespread military, political and economic support. While the commitment and skill of a movement’s cadre can sometimes overcome disparities in resources, they could not in the LTTE’s case.

The people of Sri Lanka generally would have been better off had they worked out the nationalist differences back when they had a foreign colonizer (and even before that, in order to avoid having a colonizer). Had they presented a revolutionary nationalist front wherein class was the primary distinction, the nationalist division would not have spun into civil war and all the blood and treasure and development opportunities that squandered. Verily, had the post independence revolutionary trend been more effective at the organization and execution of its own revolutionary challenge to the post-colonial regime, the result would have been more like Cuba, which also had racial and ethnic divisions with which to contend and still managed to defeat the imperialists’ puppet regime and bring a much bigger piece of the benefits of revolution to its people.

Although the quarter century of the LTTE’s struggle and its bloody end can teach us much about the theory and practice of armed struggle, its most important lesson is that nationalism is at best obsolescent as a revolutionary strategy – in fact, is not necessarily revolutionary. Indeed, it can actually be used to undermine, forestall, divert, and even prevent revolution. Nationalism might have some tactical uses, but what the world and all its subdivisions need is an all people’s struggle for a world-wide socialism that will both democratize the world and redistribute its wealth more equitably and sustainably.

Bill Dunne (10916-086)
USP Big Sandy
P.O. Box 2068
Inez, KY
USA 41224
[address updated April 2010]

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