Many commentators hoped that the effects of the tsunami would bring peace to Sri Lanka. At the end of 2004 it seemed that the fragile peace that had ended the 20 years civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers, was collapsing. For a moment after the disaster it seemed that everyone would work together to rebuild the country. Now these hopes seem to be crumbling.
The Sri Lankan army has entered Tamil refugee camps and there are continuous reports that aid is being withheld from Tamil areas. People fear that this is a prelude to a resumption of fighting.
The conflict came out of the colonial period. The island, then known as Ceylon was first colonised by the Portuguese in 1505, then by the Dutch, and finally by the British in 1815. They developed tea and coffee plantations in the central hills, and brought in large numbers of Tamil workers from south India as labourers.
Tamils are a separate people from the Sinhala majority. They have a very different language, and while the Sinhalas are mainly Buddhist, most Tamils come from a Hindu or Muslim background. There are two separate Tamil communities. Most Tamils live in the north and along the east coast, and have been there for at least 700 years. They are socially and geographically separate from the Tamils brought in to work on the plantations.
The British colonial government built a base of support by manipulating ethnic divisions and giving privileges to minority groups. The middle class of the original Tamil community got low level government jobs and access to education. These advantages were modest, but they created bitterness in the Sinhala nationalist movement that developed in the early 20th century.
After independence in 1948, the new government deprived the Tamil plantation workers of the vote. The strong trade union and socialist movement never managed to bridge the gap between the communities. Sri Lanka was unique in having a strong socialist movement with both a large Communist and a Trotskyist party. But by 1970 both of these were in alliance in government with the main Sinhala nationalist party, the SLFP. In 1971, the government brutally suppressed a socialist breakaway party, the JVP.
Mrs Bandaranaike, the SLFP leader, tried to shore up Buddhist support by making Buddhism the official religion in 1972. She changed the country’s name to Sri Lanka. In response, the LTTE was formed as a guerrilla group in the north east. In the 1977 elections the Tamil United Liberation Front won all the parliamentary seats in the Tamil north and east.
The situation deteriorated. In 1983, after 13 soldiers were killed in an LTTE ambush, there were widespread anti-Tamil riots which left hundreds dead. This sparked a full-scale war.
The Indian army intervened in 1987. The Indians quickly clashed with the LTTE, and were compelled to withdraw in 1990. The revived JVP flipped over from socialism into rabid nationalism, claiming that the campaign for Tamil independence was an imperialist plot. They rapidly became the most bitter opponents of the LTTE, demanding a solution by violence.
The government launched offensives in the 1990s that devastated most of the north. The LTTE carried out bombings in the capital Colombo, and wounded president Kumaratunga in 1999. She lost elections in 2001, and in February 2002 the new prime minister signed a ceasefire with the LTTE. Talks collapsed in April 2003, and in November the president sacked the government. Elections produced a coalition government.
The Sri Lankan government has used the tsunami disaster as a cover to exert its authority and launch a new offensive against the LTTE. The politics of discrimination and ethnic hatred have brought disaster to Sri Lanka. The tragedy is that socialist parties have been sucked into supporting the nationalism of “their” governments.
The disaster has given everyone a chance to say “enough”. If Sri Lankan socialists do not take it, the prospect is very grim.