Elizabeth Clarke.

For the first time since independence from British rule, Sri Lanka was officially declared last Thursday (May 4) to be in a 'war situation'. The president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and her 'People's Alliance' government, rushed through drastic emergency measures aimed at saving the Sri Lankan Army from humiliating defeat at the hands of the seemingly indefatigable Tamil guerrilla forces.

In 17 years of undeclared 'war', the Sri Lankan state has tried to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). 60,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless but the 'Tigers' have not succumbed. Their struggle escalated into the proportions of a civil war as a result of the horrendous pogroms carried out against the minority Tamil population in the early 1980s. Sinhala gangs initially encouraged by the United National Party in government could burn, murder and rape unhindered.

The labour movement, severely weakened by the participation in the of most of its leaders in popular front governments and by defeated industrial struggles, was unable to prevent these horrors. Goaded into guerrilla and terrorist actions by the outrages against their people, the LTTE or 'Tigers' have conducted a relentless armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state with the aim of establishing a Tamil homeland in the North and East of the country where Tamil-speakers are in a majority. The city of Jaffna is regarded as the Tamils' natural capital. Over-run and all but destroyed by the Sri Lankan forces in 1996, it is now home once again to nearly half a million Tamil people and is on the verge of being re-taken by the triumphant Tamil Tiger army.

The dramatic victory on April 22 of the LTTE over a force of more than 15,000 soldiers at the Elephant Pass camp was decisive. More than 1,000 government troops killed and at least as many again must have been captured, along with a large amount of military equipment and ammunition. Now the guerrilla force had its finger on the throat of the whole army operation in the Jaffna peninsular. Estimated to have little more than four thousand men and women under arms, the liberation fighters were getting the better of a supposedly mighty 120,000-strong regular army. The embattled Sri Lankan government, which is expected to face a general election in August (if it does not fall before then), has been appealing to governments like Israel, Iran, Britain and even Pakistan to help with the supply of military hardware. But throwing big bombs into the jungle is unlikely to dramatically change the fortunes of an increasingly demoralised Sri Lankan Army.

Once the military airfield of Palali is within firing range of the Tamil Tigers' powerful artillery, their control of army supply lines, including those for water, could become complete! In this situation, the evacuation by sea or by air of tens of thousands of soldiers as well as terrified civilians becomes imperative. The Sri Lankan government does not have the capability for such an operation and the Indian government, in spite of initially refusing to entertain the possibility, is probably now prepared to organise this kind of 'assistance'. Its reluctance stems from the experience of 1987-90 when the Indian government, of Rajiv Gandhi agreed to police a peace deal with the Tamil Tigers and ended up in armed clashes with them. At this time, a number of left parties, to their shame, supported the then UNP government's appeal to India. The result was around 1,500 Indian soldiers dead and an ignominious withdrawal at the request by the island's government! The military and political crises in Sri Lanka are unfolding behind a shroud of tight government censorship.

The draconian regulations brought in last week abolished practically every democratic and civil liberty. No newspapers were to be published without government permission, no meetings held, no leaflets distributed, no strikes called. Any property or vehicles could be commandeered for government use and development projects would be halted to release funds for the war. Almost unlimited powers of arrest and detention exist on the pretext of dealing with terrorism. All retired army personnel were recalled to active service soon after the fall of Elephant Pass.

Before the election of her party to government as part of the People's Alliance in 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga was vociferous in her promises to do all in her power to end the iniquitous war and oppression against the Tamil people. "Now she has jumped right into the camp of communalism," says Siritunga Jayasuriya, Secretary of the United Socialist Party - sister party of the ISM in Sri Lanka. "She wants to smash the Tamil fighting force and through her actions, will unleash a flood of hatred and violence against Tamil-speaking people and against those, like us, who champion their rights." The fore-runner of the USP - the Marxist Workers' Tendency - campaigned alongside Chandrika's party in the struggle to overthrow the semi-dictatorial rule of the United National Party. In the presidential campaign, the USP stood firmly against her. Now Chandrika is using the methods of the hated Jayawardena and Premadasa regimes of the past decades to suppress all opposition to her policies - including that of the United Socialist Party and, ironically, that of the capitalist UNP - today under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The first day after the emergency clamp-down, however, one national weekly newspaper carried on its front page photographs of the leaders of three parties - the UNP, the 'Left and Democratic Party' (of Vasudeva Nanayakkara) and the USP - and their statements condemning the government's actions. As we go to press, it is reported that an offer by the LTTE to arrange a cease-fire for the evacuation of Sri Lankan troops and to begin negotiations has been turned down by the Sri Lankan government. The fate of at least 28,000 or so soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army, trapped on the Jaffna peninsular, hangs in the balance. So too does that of the PA government and the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Neither aerial bombings with high-powered weapons from abroad nor declarations of 'emergency' or 'war' situations will bring a resolution to the deep-seated conflict in Sri Lanka. It has been caused by decades of economic oppression of the Tamil-speaking people, of violent state repression and widespread violation of human rights. In the run-up to May Day - the day of international working class solidarity - huge pressure was exerted on political parties not to hold the traditional rallies as a mark of respect to the fallen soldiers. But the comrades of the USP in the Left Alliance would not be silenced, then or now. They have been tirelessly campaigning for an end to the war and for talks to be held with a view to implementing the right of the oppressed national minority to decide its own future. They are seen as champions of the Tamil-speaking people and daily risk attack from communal chauvinists now working themselves into a frenzy over the prospects victory for the Tamil Tigers.

The USP is also widely known for its championing of workers' struggles against privatisation and de-regulation and for its socialist programme to end the rule of foreign and Sri Lankan capital over the economy and society. A struggle is under way for all the bans on democratic rights to be lifted and the war to be brought to an end. Today it involves the 'traditional' party of the Sri Lankan capitalist class - the UNP. Tomorrow, this party will show itself once more to be no reliable friend of the Tamil-speaking population and a class enemy of the long-suffering working class and poor peasantry of Sri Lanka. Even the LTTE, as long as its policies remain within the confines of capitalism, will not live up to the aspirations of its poverty-stricken and hard-pressed supporters.

The USP already strives to forge the maximum unity on an honest and principled basis of activists and organisations of the workers', poor farmers' and national to challenge to the bosses, the banks and the land-owners and to pursue the struggle to a conclusion with the elimination of the economic and national oppression of capitalism.

From Siritunga Jayasuriya - USP Sri Lanka General Secretary by phone from Colombo, Sri Lanka, 9/5/00

"One point on the statistics of this horrific war. According to official figures, during the term of office of the People's Alliance government, 9,721 soldiers of the SL Army have perished and 10,581 of the LTTE fighting force (before the latest offensives). In the same period, military expenditure in this conflict has been 500 million rupees. That means it has cost them 18 million rupees to kill each LTTE cadre (over $200,000)!

"On the latest situation: The whole 'war footing' drama came to the scene, not only because of the war situation in the North. Chandrika has failed to deliver any goods, even after her re-election for a second term as president. None of her promises have been fulfilled. "Ministers' and MPs' salaries were increased one month ago and back-dated for two years! At the same time, workers have been struggling to live because of sky-rocketing prices. There has been a huge campaign of workers moving into struggle against her policies.

Government workers have been demanding an increase of 3,000 rupees a month. A mass protest was scheduled for tomorrow - 10 May. "At the same time there have been the struggles against privatisation - of workers in the post, for example, and in the phosphate-producing industry who came to Colombo on a mass protest one month ago. Another demo. was in the pipeline. Now these protests have been banned.

"Electricity bills will be increased from the 1st June by 20%. All this so-called 'war footing' is aimed at cutting across the increasing mass anger on the part of workers and poor people. It won't help them win the war, but is an attempt to undermine the opposition of workers to the government.

"On all corners, the Chandrika government is on the defensive - over economic, political, social and military policy. It is using the 'war offensive' to try and protect itself from the fire! "The Indian government will not interfere unless it gets a request from both sides. The government should drop the 'war footing'. It should talk with the LTTE and put a stop to this bloody war.

"We want to rally together the left and workers' organisations in a broad platform, against the militaristic dictatorial steps being taken in the name of the 'war footing'. We are calling all forces to join hands against the government. We need maximum support to get this war stopped and to defend the rights of all workers and oppressed people in Sri Lanka."