Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

The UNP government and the descent into war

21-1. The advent of the UNP government in Sri Lanka was part of broader global economic and political processes. Following the defeat of the wave of revolutionary struggles in the period of 1968–1975, the ruling classes launched a counteroffensive against the working class, marked politically by the coming to power of the Thatcher government in Britain in 1979 and the Reagan administration in the US in 1980. The following year Reagan, with the complicity of the AFL-CIO, smashed the PATCO strike by dismissing 11,000 air traffic controllers. Monetarist, pro-market policies replaced Keynesian economic regulation as the new benchmark for governments around the world. Beginning in East and South East Asia, a turn was made towards the creation of cheap labour platforms. Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, which were to become the “Asian Tigers” of the 1980s, all offered incentives to foreign investors to take advantage of their low-wage labour. In China, Deng Xiaoping announced his openly pro-market program in 1978.

21-2. In adopting these policies in Sri Lanka, the UNP government drew definite conclusions from the 1975–77 upheaval provoked by Bandaranaike’s tentative turn to a free market agenda. As he began to encourage foreign investment, cut social spending and carry out privatisations, Prime Minister J.R. Jayewardene prepared for war against the working class by strengthening the state apparatus and raising communal tensions to fever pitch to shore up his own social base and divide working people. In 1978, the UNP used its overwhelming parliamentary majority to rewrite the constitution, establishing an executive presidency with sweeping anti-democratic powers, and to install Jayewardene as president. In July 1979, the government rammed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act giving the police powers of arrest and imprisonment without trial.

21-3. While the UNP had promised during the election campaign to address Tamil grievances, Jayewardene rapidly turned to anti-Tamil racialism. In 1976, the TULF had adopted the Vaddukodai resolution calling for a separate Tamil state of Eelam consisting of the northern and eastern provinces of the island. Anger among Tamil youth over the discrimination they faced had led to the formation of various small armed groups. Jayewardene used a minor attack on police in August 1977 to order the army into Jaffna and encouraged a vicious pogrom elsewhere. The government denounced the TULF, which insisted that its electoral successes gave it a mandate to negotiate a separate Eelam. In parliament, the prime minister provocatively declared: “If you want a fight, there will be a fight.” Jayewardene had set the pattern for the rapid descent into civil war. At each stage, the UNP exploited isolated attacks on police to respond with massive state repression and pogroms against the Tamil minority.

21-4. The RCL consistently campaigned for the withdrawal of the security forces from the North and East and to unite the working class. The party insisted that the proletariat was the only social force capable of resolving the outstanding democratic tasks and preventing a rapid slide into civil war. In the climate of communal reaction created by the UNP and supported by the SLFP, LSSP and CP, the RCL’s stand required considerable courage. In 1979, leading RCL member R.P. Piyadasa was brutally murdered for opposing the government’s policies by UNP-organised thugs working with the police.

21-5. Opposition to the UNP government’s program of privatisation and restructuring reached a high point in July 1980 when a broad general strike movement for higher pay erupted. President Jayewardene immediately declared the strike illegal and threatened to sack anyone who joined it. The LSSP and CP declared the strike “non-political” and refused to challenge the UNP government’s emergency powers or to call for it to be brought down. LSSP (R) leader Bala Tampoe did not call his CMU out on strike. The NSSP declared that the strike was simply a pay dispute and bitterly attacked the RCL campaign to transform it into a political movement against the government. As a result of the treachery of these leaderships, the UNP government was able to sack 100,000 public sector workers virtually unopposed, thereby inflicting a devastating defeat on the working class.

21-6. The defeat of the 1980 General Strike—the last major strike by the Sri Lankan working class—opened the door to full-scale civil war. The UNP’s response to any political challenge or crisis was to resort to anti-Tamil provocations that culminated in horrific pogroms in July 1983. After the killing of 13 soldiers by Tamil militants, the UNP government deliberately inflamed communal sentiment by bringing the bodies to Colombo. The following day anti-Tamil violence, in which UNP thugs were prominent, erupted throughout much of the island and on an unprecedented scale. The homes and shops of Tamils were torched and hundreds of people were killed. The government and police allowed the rampage to continue unimpeded for four days and imposed draconian censorship to block any news.

21-7. The murderous pogrom marked the beginning of a full-scale civil war that was to devastate the country for the next quarter of a century. On August 4, in what amounted to a declaration of war, the UNP government rammed through a constitutional change—the sixth amendment—banning the advocacy of a separate Eelam and imposing a loyalty oath on all public servants. For refusing to take this oath, all TULF parliamentarians lost their seats. By December 1983, the Jaffna peninsula had been declared a “war zone.” Outraged by the actions of the UNP government, Tamil youth in their thousands flocked to join the ranks of the various armed Tamil groups.

21-8. In the course of the pogrom, the RCL was targeted for particular attack. The home of Kamkaru Mavatha editor K. Ratnayake was burned to the ground and an attempt to destroy the party print shop was narrowly averted. The RCL defied government censorship. It published a lengthy statement indicting the government and opposition parties and calling on the working class to come to the defence of Tamils. The RCL opposed the war, exposed the complicity of the LSSP, CP and the Indian government, and demanded the withdrawal of the military from the North and East. In May 1984, Ananda Wakkumbura, who was legally responsible for the RCL newspapers, was arrested for violating the sixth amendment and held by police for two weeks. Confronted by a vigorous RCL campaign, the government backed away from prosecuting Wakkumbura.