#77 - Sri Lanka - the poisoned legacy of British colonial rule

December 2006


To the British public, Sri Lanka is probably best known for idyllic photos in package tour brochures describing it as the "Pearl of the Indian Ocean". But for a large part of its population, the island is anything but idyllic. For half a century, it has been plagued by on-going domestic conflicts, which developed into a fully-fledged civil war, nearly a quarter of a century ago. For most of the past 3 decades, the population has lived under a state of emergency.

This is a war which has long ceased to make the headlines here, like so many other civil wars which destroy the livelihoods of millions across the poorest parts of the world. But this year alone, it claimed 3,000 lives and forced 250,000 people to become refugees in their own land - this, according to official figures, which are more than likely to be a cynical understatement of the real impact of the war for the population. Yet, on paper at least, this war is supposed to have been suspended, following a cease fire agreement signed in Geneva, back in 2002. However, in the absence of the political will to resolve the issues on the part of all protagonists, such agreements are not even worth the paper they are written on. At best, they are designed to play for time, at worst, they are used as a cover to prepare for a new offensive.

Like so many civil wars in the rich countries' former colonial empires, the Sri Lankan war is supposed to be a war for national emancipation waged by one ethnic group - the Tamil minority - against the oppression of another - the Sinhalese majority. Of course, each one of these civil wars is a special case in its own right, and Sri Lanka's is no exception. But there is a general pattern which links all of them together in more than one way: the poisonous legacy of colonialism.

This is not to play down the role of imperialism in fanning the flames of these conflicts today - although more so in Africa and the Middle East, where imperialist rivalries and interests have a far greater role in these conflicts, than in South East Asia. Nor should one underestimate the responsibilities of the present ruling classes of the former colonial countries: their greed and criminal policies are responsible for these conflicts and constitute a damning indictment of the capitalist order they enforce in their respective countries.

But without the legacy of colonialism, without the political, economic and social powder kegs it left all over the world, there would have been no more ethnic rivalries or unresolved national questions in these countries than there are today in the rich countries. And the two main colonial powers - Britain and France - bear the chief responsibility in this respect.

Not only did these colonial powers leave behind them a large number of totally artificial countries, whose borders were drawn, in most cases, without the slightest concern for the interests of the populations, whether in terms of natural resources, geography, language or ethnic cohesion. But throughout the colonial era, they treated the populations like cattle, which they transported around their colonies, according to the economic needs of colonial companies, and left them there to their own devices, after their departure.

The enormous profits drawn from the triangular trade between Africa, America and Europe, based on the enslavement of entire peoples and the depopulation of central Africa, provided the British capitalist class with the capital on which it built its industrial and financial power. In Asia, where the pre-colonial societies were better equipped to resist such policies, the colonisers resorted to indentured labour, with the complicity of the native elites. Meanwhile, the colonial powers co-opted members of these elites into their administration, often on the basis of their ethnic background, in order to buy out the support of one selected ethnic group against the others.

When the colonial powers finally conceded independence to their former colonies, after World War II, they left a huge backlog of resentment within their populations - not only against the former colonial rulers, but also against all those inhabitants who appeared, rightly or wrongly, to have benefited from, or co-operated with, the colonial powers. In and of itself, this resentment could have been quickly forgotten, had the populations of the former colonies been faced with the prospect of a bright and enthusing future. And in fact, this was what happened in many former colonies in the early years following independence.

However, disillusion soon followed. The independence settlements had been concocted between the former colonisers and the local ruling classes in such a way as to preserve both the interests of imperialism and those of the local propertied classes. The poor majorities of the populations soon discovered that, while the police uniforms and national flags had changed, their conditions had not improved in the least and whenever they raised their heads to demand some improvement, they were faced with the same guns and bullets as before.

The main legacy of colonialism is not just that while looting the natural and human resources of their colonies, the colonial powers did nothing to develop their economies in a way that would have helped to meet the needs of their populations. Its main legacy is to have actually impoverished these countries, by reducing their production of staple food, while forcing them to meet the cost of expensive infrastructure, which was useful for the needs of western-controlled industrial plantations and mines, but totally useless for the provision of food, providing them with a roof, let alone basic health care.

Against this backdrop of endemic poverty, rival factions in the ruling classes, usually led by politicians who had been groomed by the colonial state machineries, embarked on bitter wars for the meagre bounty attached to political power. In many cases, the colonial rulers had left them with a lever which was ready to be used in their rivalries - ethnicity, in one form or another. And they used it, in the most abject fashion, setting entire sections of the populations against one another, regardless of the cost in lives and suffering, to the point of sparking off long drawn-out civil wars, like in Sri Lanka, with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, the sanctimonious voices of the so-called "international community", that is, by and large, of the former colonial powers, have been distributing good and bad marks to the protagonists of these wars, and generally blaming everyone except themselves for this "violence", as they call it, for which they have paved the way in the first place.

At a time when it is becoming fashionable again among western politicians - Gordon Brown, among others - to hail the alleged "positive role" of colonialism in the poor countries, it is worth exposing such hypocrisy for what it really is. In doing so, our aim is not just to provide a critique of the past role of capitalism. Because, fundamentally, capitalism has not changed since its colonial days, at least not in terms of its cynical disregard for the interests of the populations. The catastrophic cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the populations of these countries is there to prove it. The truth is that the end of colonialism did not mark the advent of an era of reformed capitalism. The fact is that capitalism is just not reformable. What it did yesterday to the populations of its former colonies, at an exorbitant price for these populations which they are still paying today half a century after decolonisation, it will carry on doing tomorrow, whatever the methods it chooses to use.

Going back to Sri Lanka, our aim in this forum is not so much to provide an up-to-date and detailed account of this country's on-going civil war, something which would be very difficult to do in the absence of reliable information. In particular, it is virtually impossible to know anything about the population's attitude to this war, nor about its real involvement in it - which, for revolutionary communists, would be a decisive element in any analysis.

So, instead, we have tried to outline the mechanisms through which British colonialism prepared the ground for this war and how this preparation was used by the Sri Lankan ruling factions in their rivalry for political power, leading to its outbreak and the present stalemate.

The island's peoples

Sri Lanka is a tear-drop shaped island less than 30 miles off the south-east coast of India, which, at over 65,000 square km, is just slightly smaller than Ireland - or 3 times the size of Wales. Its population is around 20 million although probably more than 200,000 live as refugees abroad, due to the ongoing civil war which started in 1983.

Today, official figures give a percentage of 73% of the population as Sinhalese. The Sinhalese are descended from north Asian Aryan settlers who probably arrived on the island between 500 and 300BC. These early settlers were converted to a form of Buddhism, as early as the 3rd century BC, which became closely intertwined with the rule of successive dynastic states later occupying the south, west and centre of the island.

The percentage of the population which speaks the main language of south India, that is, Tamil, is between 18-21%. Part of this group are the so-called Sri Lankan Tamils who claim descent from the Dravidian peoples of south India who came to settle mainly in the coastal regions of the northern part of the island from around 300BC onwards. Then there are the so-called Indian Tamils, some of whom are descended from the plantation labourers initially brought in by the British colonialists in the mid-1800s - as well as the Indian workers who followed thereafter, to work both on the plantations and in the ports and industries in all of the main urban areas. The Sri Lankan Moors are another Tamil-speaking group. Some would be descendants of the early Arab traders who settled around the natural harbours of the island. But here the line between ethnicity and religion becomes blurred since the descendants of Indian Muslims who came to live on the island are also included in this group.

Anyway, there has probably been a more or less constant flow of people to and from the island from the subcontinent, due to its proximity, and also a considerable amount of mixing between all the different peoples who came to live there, including between Sinhala and Tamil. The 450 years of European colonisation inevitably also left descendants who have retained a separate identity. For instance the so-called Burghers who trace their ancestry back to the Dutch settlers of the 17th Century remain a distinct grouping. This was aided by the recognition of their privileged position at the expense of the indigenous people by the British colonial regime, when it took over - and today they are still known as the Burghers, usually recognisable by their Dutch surnames.

So the island has a very ancient history - writings are found which are 2,500 years old - and a rich pre-history as well, since at one point it was attached to the mainland. There is evidence of trade in the naturally growing cinnamon with ancient Egypt, for instance. In the first century AD, the Anuradhapura kingdom even had ambassador in Rome at the court of Emperor Claudius.

Of course, it is impossible to give more than an outline of the island's history in such a forum. As for its more ancient past, the documentation does not exist. However this has not prevented nationalist groupings from using claims to political legitimacy to justify their demands. But we know all too well where this can lead - to the catastrophic situation in Palestine, for instance, where "historical legitimacy" has justified the imprisonment of the Palestinian people behind barbed wire and the subjection of the Israeli population to a militaristic, theocratic state. As far as we are concerned, as revolutionary communists, all those working in the same land should enjoy the same rights, period, regardless of any so-called "historical claim".

In the case of Sri Lanka, suffice it to say, that while there were skirmishes on and off during the first thousand years AD between rival Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms, there were also long periods during which the various peoples managed to live in peace together. In the 11th century, for instance, all the rival kingdoms were united under the rule of a Sinhalese king, whose army actually even invaded India and Burma - a time which is often referred to as Sri Lanka's "golden age" which lasted for almost 500 years.

A strategic asset for imperialists

When Portuguese ships arrived in 1505, they apparently found the island divided once more into warring kingdoms, and thus unable to resist outside invasion. The Portuguese initially established their control over the lowland area around the port of Colombo which allowed them to ply the trade route to the Far East and to dominate the cinnamon trade, displacing the Arab settlers who first fled inland from religious persecution and then were forced to settle on the East coast. The Portuguese had a policy of aggressive conversion of the population to Catholicism, also forcing them to adopt their Christian names, hence the prevalence of many Portuguese surnames.

In 1592, retreating from the Portuguese assault, the Sinhalese kingdom moved its capital to the central mountainous region of Kandy, which they were more easily able to defend. But the Portuguese occupied the lowlands and defeated the northern Tamil kingdom by 1621, appointing their own governor of Jaffna.

In 1602 the Kandyan Sinhalese appealed to the Dutch colonial regime - which was already attempting to gain a foothold in the region - to help get rid of the Portuguese. By 1638 the Dutch forces defeated the Portuguese in Colombo and by 1660 the Dutch East India Company more or less controlled the whole island - except for the kingdom of Kandy. However, the Protestant Dutch proceeded to persecute the Catholic converts and imposed taxes which were an even greater burden on the population than those of the Portuguese.

By the mid eighteenth century, the competing mercantile powers of Europe were at war with each other for domination of maritime trade and dominion over the territories and ports along the trade routes, especially to the East. And it was the British who emerged as victor against the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French. The interests of the local inhabitants of the countries along the way were regarded as a trifling irritant at best and at worst, they were to be wiped out.

By this time the British East India Company had set its sights on gaining Sri Lanka's all-weather port of Trincomalee on the east coast, from the Dutch East India Company. In 1796 the Dutch were expelled from Trincomalee by British ships. Then in the new regional order resulting from the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, the British government ensured it gained exclusive control over Sri Lanka. The island, which the British called Ceylon, after the Portuguese name, Ceilao, became the first British Crown colony.

Within a year the newly established British colonial regime was aggressively attempting to take over the still independent inland kingdom of Kandy as well. It took a second extremely bloody war against the Sinhalese kingdom in 1815, however, before they succeeded in doing so. A Kandyan uprising against British rule in 1817-18 resulted in a partial British recognition of the Kandyan Sinhalese monarchy. Kandy became a British dependency, but under its own local rule.

Plantation economy

The East India Company maintained its monopoly over Sri Lanka's cinnamon trade until 1822, when the colonial government revoked it and brought the sale of cinnamon under its own control.

However, by the 1830s the colonial regime was forced, largely through fall in profits from cinnamon, to end its monopoly and introduce a "laissez faire" policy to encourage private investment in other crops, such as coffee, which was already being grown to some extent, as it had not been controlled by any monopoly.

By this time the island of Sri Lanka was no longer needed for strategic reasons anyway, so the main activity of the colonial governor was to extend the plunder of the island's resources as far as possible for the benefit of the British bourgeoisie - in the context of the consolidation of Britain's Indian possessions. This was the real reason for the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms, which abolished the compulsory labour system, as an obstacle to the free movement of labour and to the creation of a land market. These reforms also instituted what was supposedly a pioneering form of colonial government - in the form of a Legislative Council with three seats for Europeans and one seat each for a Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher representative - all nominated by the governor, of course.

By the mid-1830s, the British colonial administration was turning the island's agricultural subsistence economy into a lucrative plantation economy for the benefit of British capital. Coffee soon replaced and then far outstripped cinnamon in its yields - and although the state did not have any monopoly, its officials enthusiastically used their positions to invest capital in the new plantations. The experience obtained in Jamaica was put to use. The then governor lifted export duties from coffee and exempted it from the land produce tax. With the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, West Indian coffee production declined and Sri Lankan coffee filled the gap in the world market.

More land for cultivation became available when land acquired from the Kandyan monarchy was sold by the British government. And since there was no incentive for Sinhalese peasants to become plantation labourers, given the fact that the wages were so derisory and also because the harvest season coincided with their own harvests, thousands of seasonal Tamil labourers were brought in from south India for the coffee harvest.

By 1840, when more land was desired by the coffee planters, an ordinance was passed which allowed expropriation of Kandyan peasant land. 80,000 hectares of land was thus appropriated and sold as Crown lands.

Coffee cultivation became the catalyst for development of the island's infrastructure - and roads and railways were built which ended the isolation of the old Kandy kingdom. This involved bringing in more Tamil labour, of course. The Ceylon Bank opened in 1841 to finance the rapid expansion of the coffee plantations.

When the worldwide economic depression of 1846 temporarily hit coffee production, the contradictions which had been developing between the old feudal economy and the new capitalist plantation system came to head. The government imposed new taxes to make up for lost revenue, like a land tax. But it also reintroduced compulsory labour, requiring free labour on road building or a cash payment - which affected mainly the Sinhalese poor and the landless peasants who had no access to cash. Some Temple lands were also now seized, which antagonised the upper caste Kandyans. Another grievance was precipitated among the Kandyans by the administration's policy of opening taverns serving alcohol to plantation workers.

As a result, another uprising against the British occurred in the year 1848. This was not only confined to the Kandyan province. There were also riots in Colombo led by a section of the educated Sinhalese, which were actually inspired to some extent by the radical movement which shook countries throughout Europe in that year. However, unlike the uprising of 1817-18, this was rapidly suppressed - but so severely that the House of Commons in London instituted an inquiry and the governor and his chief secretary were dismissed and all the new taxes, except the road ordinance, were repealed. In addition, from then onwards, a more conciliatory policy towards the Buddhist elite was adopted.

It was during this period that the plantation economy developed throughout the area of the island which had high rainfall and good irrigation, which was mainly the south, west and centre. This development of plantations displaced traditional subsistence agriculture and therefore the production of food for the needs of the population. It meant that the growing of staples like rice was no longer adequate for the island's consumption and a large proportion of basic foodstuffs had to be imported. By the end of the 19th century famine was a common feature in many villages, compounded by endemic malaria. Indeed the increase in the malaria-carrying mosquitoes had been aggravated by the progressive degeneration of the ancient irrigation systems which had been a feature of the Sinhalese kingdoms.

When coffee declined, by the 1870s, this time due to a leaf disease, it was replaced by substitute plantation crops, like quinine, coconuts and then tea and rubber. Tea, which soon overtook the other crops, required fairly large capital investment. This was how British companies soon came to own two thirds of the island's plantations. However, a privileged stratum of indigenous Sri Lankan planters who owned the remaining third grew most of the islands coconut crop, as well as rubber plantations.

The tea estates, which soon came to dominate in the hill country needed a permanent labour force, as opposed to the seasonal needs of coffee. As a result, Tamil labourers now settled permanently on the estates, becoming a large underclass living in appalling poverty which by 1911 reached half a million - then 12% of the population.

The rise of the middle class

The plantation economy and the changing social composition of the island necessitated at least some changes in a colonial regime, where political powers were largely concentrated in the hands of the British governor. The aim was to reproduce the English social hierarchy in microcosm, both by importing British officials and professionals, anglicising a selected few among the indigenous population and endowing them with privileged positions in the administration. Thus was created, as in India, a pro-British elite who were contemptuously called "brown sahibs".

However, while the colonial administration may have incorporated a section of the Sinhalese and Tamil elite, it was run by British officials who remained at the top of the social pyramid.

Moreover, the essential services were not trusted to the Sri Lankans. For instance, once the railways were built by Sri Lankan labour, in the late 1860s and 70s, train drivers and engineers were all imported from Britain.

Just like in India, however, an educated layer of locals was trained for the purpose of providing administrative and professional services for the colony. Initially it was those Sinhalese who occupied the lowlands around the Western ports who benefited - all the more so because the Kandyan elite who were the traditional ruling landowning caste had isolated themselves in the highlands in their attempt to retain their autonomy.

So the lowland urban dwellers, some of whom had originally come from lower castes were the first to take advantage of the privileges granted to those who went into government service and the professions such as law, medicine and teaching.

While the upper ranks of the civil service remained the preserve of British colonials, the lower ranks and clerical positions were contested by a growing number of educated urban Sinhalese and Tamils. In fact a large proportion of the Kandyan Sinhalese elite were at a disadvantage because they did not speak English. What is more, after 1880, prospective entrants to the civil service were required to sit the qualifying exam in London! They therefore to all intents and purposes had to get their education in England, even if this was mitigated by the award of Queen's Scholarships for study in British universities from the 1870s onwards. The governor at the time justified this by saying that "it was impossible for any young man without leaving the island to shake himself free of local ties and local feelings of caste prejudice and insular narrowness as to acquire any independence of thought".None of this changed very much in the higher civil service bureaucracy, in fact quite the reverse: while in 1868, there were 74 Britons and 10 Sri Lankans in the higher bureaucracy, over a decade later, in 1881, there were 84 and 7 respectively.

At district level, local chiefs were, however, used as loyalist collaborators to rule the districts - much as the chiefs and headmen had been incorporated in African colonies like Nigeria.

What is more, by the end of the 19th century, the elite in the Kandyan region were also being incorporated into this system - in order to act as a conservative counterweight to a growing nationalist sentiment for constitutional reform and against caste privileges in the urban areas. To get over the fact that many amongst the Kandyan Sinhalese elite were not able to qualify by passing the civil service entry exams, the governor resorted to his powers of appointment in order to place them in decisive positions. The British were, after all, masters at playing sections of the population of against each other and exploiting divisions for the sake of political expediency.

By this time, Sri Lanka's political evolution was lagging behind the other island colonies like Jamaica, Mauritius and Trinidad, where elections had been introduced for the legislative councils.

By 1882, it was the indigenous planter elite which began to call for some modest constitutional reforms, led by the wealthiest entrepreneur, CH de Soysa, who initially formed the Ceylon Agricultural Association - later to be known as the Ceylon National Association. This was primarily in order to protect the interests of Sri Lankan planters. Its initial aim was merely to gain the nomination for the Sinhalese seat on the Legislative Council. This was hardly the nationalist agitation which British Governor Gordon perceived it to be. But thanks to the burgeoning anti-colonial nationalism on the Indian subcontinent, Gordon felt pressurised into establishing two more nominated seats on the Legislative Council, one for a representative from Kandy and another for the Muslim minority.

Although the economic resources of the Tamil regions - the so-called dry zone of the island - were more limited, the Tamil population was far more educated.

The tradition of education and English proficiency was thus well established in Jaffna and the northern Tamil province in last quarter of the 19th century, thus allowing Tamils to occupy a greater number of positions in the civil service compared to their proportion in the population. The Tamils of the north were also influenced by the then burgeoning Indian nationalist movement and therefore tended to take a lead in the initial agitation against colonial rule.

At the end of the nineteenth century, if there were divisions among the Sri Lankan population, they were not along ethnic lines, but were rather social divisions - whether determined by caste, by the rivalry between the feudal-minded Kandyan elite and the emerging urban bourgeoisie and middle class, or between the vast majority of poor and their exploiters.

The rise of the working class

While the permanent plantation labourers were the largest section of the Sri Lankan working class, they had been tied to the planters by semi-feudal relationships. The urban working class that grew up to support the plantation economy in the ports and in inland transport however, were "proper" wage labourers. By necessity, these workers had begun to organise themselves by the beginning of the twentieth century - although as in other colonies, this organisation was often led by the local petty bourgeoisie which began to adopt a more nationalist, anti-colonial stance and demand its political rights.

In fact the first trade union, the Ceylon Printers' Union, which was formed after a strike in a printing company, Cave and co., in 1893 was actually initiated by middle class reformers associated with Buddhist Theosophists and a sort of radical fringe among the petty bourgeoisie.

In 1906, a carters' strike in Colombo was however blamed on "Indian sedition". That said, the first consistent workers militancy came from the railway workers. It was these workers in the locomotive workshops of Colombo who began to resort to systematic strike action to obtain improvements in their wages and conditions, by the second decade of the 20th century.

This was no doubt why it was rail workers who were targeted for arrest after the anti-Muslim riot in Colombo in 1915. This riot, which was also directed against the British authorities, was largely the responsibility of a Sinhalese Buddhist movement whose petty bourgeois members saw the Moor retailers as competitors and chose to incite the crowds against them on the basis of the high prices they charged for some of their goods. 28 trade union activists from the railways were among those arrested even though they had played no part in the violence.

Also arrested at the time were members of a new political organisation - the Young Lanka League. This organisation was established in 1915, and was the first political association to have a policy which was overtly opposed to British rule on the island, apparently inspired by the Indian nationalists. The most prominent of the leaders of this group was AE Goonesinha who was to play a leading role in the building of the Sri Lankan trade union movement and later Sri Lanka's short-lived Labour Party.

After WW1, there was widespread unrest among the urban working class of Colombo due to the shortage of rice, the increase in prices and the fact that there was no increase in wages. By 1920 a series of industrial disputes occurred, first among railway workers and then the first major strike took place in the harbour.

Two years later, the Ceylon Labour Union was founded by AE Goonesinha, and in February 1923 this union led the Colombo working class in a general strike which halted the city's economic life. Although the strike eventually collapsed, it demonstrated that the working class was now a significant force, and determined to play a role on the political scene. The union had already affiliated to the Ceylon National Congress, which had been launched in 1919 and which united Tamil and Sinhalese constitutional reformists around the aim "to secure for the people of Ceylon responsible government and the status of a self-governing member of the British Empire". The radical nationalists, Goonesinha and those in the Young Lanka League however, joined the Congress in the hope that this would transform it into a more dynamic organisation promoting the idea of forceful opposition to British rule, along the lines of what they perceived to be the case in India under the leadership of Gandhi. Although, unlike Gandhi, in their view, the main force to be politicised was the urban working class of Colombo among whom they proceeded to agitate.

However the middle class leaders of the National Congress were not interested - in fact they were alarmed by the working class' militancy. Neither did they support Goonesinha's advocacy of manhood suffrage - which they saw as a threat to the ascendancy of the educated middle class.

The poisonous manipulations of governor Manning

The new governor of the island, Sir William Manning, who arrived in 1919, immediately set about manipulating the divisions in the Ceylon National Congress with Machiavellian skill. He regarded this organisation as a threat to British interests and set about undermining its somewhat fragile unity.

He began to woo the conservative Kandyan nationalists by proposing that any political reforms should incorporate the election of representatives of electorates defined by their ethnic group. This went against the constitutional reforms proposed by united Tamil-Sinhalese Congress politicians, which were based on majority voting. In 1920 a pamphlet appeared which argued that the "lawful and just aspirations of the Kandyans" were threatened by the demands of the "constitutionalists", that is, the Ceylon National Congress. It urged the Kandyans to regard the British as "trustees of Kandyan nationality". The Kandyans politicians, egged on by Manning, then came up with the claim that if the Congress proposals were accepted they would be excluded, as a "minority" in their own right!

Manning then proceeded to try to detach the Tamils from the Congress. In 1921, reforms were instituted providing for a very limited franchise to elect ethnic representatives to the Legislative Council. However, instead of the previously equal representation, there were now 13 Sinhalese elected and only 3 Tamil representatives. Soon after the new Legislative Council met, the Tamils began to campaign for a restoration of the proportion of Tamil to Sinhalese representation. In November of 1921, two conferences were held between the Sinhalese and Tamil leaderships to try to come to some agreement but these broke down over the Tamil representatives' insistence that they retain a special reserved seat in Western Province. Manning ensured that all the minority groups now saw the Congress demands for a Legislature based on majority territorial votes as a threat to their interests.

As for the Kandyans, they formed their own National Congress in 1923, and by 1927 were putting forward a demand for a separate autonomous Kandyan state as a part of a Sri Lankan federation.

In 1927, the Donoughmore Commission arrived in Sri Lanka to find out what had gone wrong with the attempts to arrive at a new model constitution and to suggest constitutional changes which would lead to eventual self-government.

The commissioners accepted that the franchise should be widened - in fact the reforms of the early 1920s had granted the vote to only 4% of the population. The Commission therefore now proposed that all males over 21 and females over 30 should get the vote. In implementing this recommendation in 1931, in fact the Colonial Office brought the age limit for females down to 21 as well. This actually meant that Sri Lanka became the first Asian country with universal franchise, even if what the population was allowed to vote for fell far short of its aspirations!

The Commission also came down totally against representation on ethnic grounds even though the minorities' organisations were almost unanimous that it should be retained. So candidates were to stand for election to a State Council on the basis of territorial constituencies, whose members were then grouped into seven executive committees - which the Commission asserted would allow the Sri Lankans to be suitably "trained" for their political tasks while preserving the supreme authority of the governor over all legislation.

By 1931, the so-called Donoughmore Constitution was implemented and the first general election for the first State Council was held. The result of universal suffrage was the election of constitutionalist Congress politicians as well as AE Goonesinha. One of the first calls that the Board of Ministers made was for an end to the recruitment of Europeans to the Ceylon Civil Service. However at this point the Colonial Office would not allow it.

In fact this period of transitional government, which lasted from 1931 to 1942, and which coincided with the Great Depression before being interrupted by WW2, saw two parallel political developments. On the one hand, there was the foundation of left-wing working class political parties, but on the other, there was the formation of reactionary nationalist parties.

Reformism discredited

Goonesinha's Ceylon Labour Union had gone on to lead a number of successful strikes in the late 1920s - in the harbour in 1927, amongst taxi drivers and industrial workers in 1928 and among tramway workers in 1929 - a strike which was violently repressed by the police who shot dead 5 strikers, caused the workers to set fire to a police station.

However by this time Goonesinha was coming under the influence of the British Labour party, which was now advocating Mondism - that is direct collaboration with the employers for the sake of industrial peace and preserving capitalist profit. After a visit to Britain in 1928, he signed an agreement with the newly-formed Sri Lankan Employers' Federation to undertake to prevent lightning strikes, and to provide the employers with notice of any planned action.

This was a big mistake. As a result of Goonesinha's shift to class collaborative politics, he began to lose credibility among working class activists. Nevertheless in 1931 he founded the Sri Lankan Labour Party.

But now, with the economic depression the working class was in serious difficulties. Sri Lanka was an export dependent economy and as a result of the 1929 crash and consequent world-wide slump, it lost a large part of its national income. Over 9,000 Sri lankans and 84,000 Indian Tamils lost their jobs between 1929 and 1932. 100,000 immigrant plantation workers were obliged to return to India, which meant the government just exported its most serious unemployment back to India. Minimum wages were reduced, temporary work was stopped and even the wages of permanent employees in state service were levied.

The country had hardly begun to recover from the depression, when large areas were devastated by a the worst malaria epidemic of the century. The government failed to respond and it was by organising relief work amongst those affected, that the left wing groups which had emerged out of the Lanka Youth League gained significant support among the poor.

As a result of this, as well as the working class campaigns directed against British colonial trappings and honours, the pro-independence activists were able to establish themselves as a political force on the left.

Meanwhile, following Goonesinha's shift to a Sri Lankan version of Mondism, a growing number of unions came to be dominated by the left-wing and self-proclaimed Marxists still organised in the Lanka Youth League.

In 1933, with increased competition from Japanese textiles on the market, employers announced a reduction in wages in Colombo's main textile mills. The 1,400 strong workforce of the largest mill on the island, the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills, went on strike. The strikers petitioned the Labour Ministry and asked Goonesinha to intervene on their behalf. But instead of supporting their strike he urged them to return to work since they were breaking the agreement he had signed with the Employers' Federation to give notice of any strike.

As a result, the strikers decided to approach a lawyer who was a member of the Youth League to take up their cause. This allowed the Youth League to intervene in the strike and to set up a new union. The government and the employers refused to recognise it or negotiate with it. Goonesinha actually helped to organise strike breakers from among the Sinhalese harbour workers - which was additionally inflammatory because the strikers were in the majority Malay. The government intervened and imposed a settlement of the dispute. Nevertheless, this experience, allowed the Youth League to play an increasing role thereafter in the trade union movement.

The ascendancy of the Left

In fact, a new party soon emerged out of this Youth League in 1935 - the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (which stands for Ceylon Equal Society Party), or LSSP. Although it asserted its Marxist credentials, it was really a rather wide umbrella which included many who were only vaguely socialist minded, together with activists who were influenced by Stalinism and a few who had been won over to the Trotskyist programme. What was important about the LSSP, however, was that it managed to build up a working class membership relatively quickly, mainly among the urban skilled and unskilled workers in Colombo. And soon it succeeded in developing its organisation among the mainly Indian tea plantation workers, who formed probably the largest single section of Sri Lankan working class at the time.

The conditions of these workers had somewhat improved from their past semi-slavery, since welfare measures had been brought in the late 19th century. So free housing was meant to be supplied - which were never more than shacks, however - as well as rudimentary medical facilities. However it was only on a few very lucrative estates that Indian workers and their families benefited from these measures.

Despite the fact that immigrant workers in Colombo readily became involved in the union movement initiated by Goonesinha in the 1920s, no consistent attempt had been made to organise the plantation workers at the time. In the late 1920s however, K Natesa Iyer, a former who had been an associate of Goonesinha, had played a pioneering role in organising the plantation workers into their own union. This union had then formed its own political party for representation, the Ceylon Indian Congress, later known as the Ceylon Workers Congress. However, a gulf remained between these immigrant Indian workers and the urban working class but also between them and the Sri Lankan Tamils.

In the 1930s a campaign to organise workers on the estates where there was no union representation was given impetus by the arrival in Sri Lanka of Mark Bracegirdle, a British-Australian apprentice planter. Shortly after his arrival on the tea plantations he contacted the LSSP, offering to "help" the movement after he had witnessed the way in which the plantation workers were treated. He initially spoke on the LSSP platform in Colombo, causing something of a stir as he was the first white man to do so. He was also asked by Natesa Iyer who was now the member of the State Council for Hatton constituency to help organise an Estate Labour Federation in Nawalapitiya, south of Kandy.

On the 3 April 1937 he addressed the Nawalapitiya workers exhorting them not to allow the planters to break labour laws and to fight back. The planters immediately demanded that governor Stubbs deport him and he was served with an order on the 22 April to leave the country within 48 hours . The LSSP however, spirited him away into hiding and began a campaign to defend him. At the Mayday rally in Colombo placards appeared saying "We want Bracegirdle - Deport Stubbs!" The publicity surrounding this move by the LSSP was considerable and helped to raise its profile. In the State Council the 2 LSSP members, NM Perera and Philip Gunawardena won a vote of censure against the governor. In the end, although Bracegirdle was caught by the police, he won his case in court on the grounds that he was only exercising his right to free speech.

At the beginning of November 1939 and continuing for the next six months, a wave of spontaneous strikes hit the British-owned plantations aimed at winning the right to organise. By now LSSP activists claimed to be leading the new All Ceylon Estate Workers Union. On the 19 of January on the Mool Oya estate in Central Province, a worker was shot and killed by police. The strike wave then spread like wildfire throughout the Uva province. Unfortunately the strike was broken by heavy police repression, aided by floods which cut Uva province off for over a week. But on the eve of the war, it seemed as if at least a section of the plantation workers were at last in the position to regard themselves as playing their rightful role in the island's working class movement.

From wartime repression to a rushed "independence"

After World War II broke out, the LSSP took a stand against any contribution to the war effort by the Sri Lankan working class, arguing, quite rightly, that this was an imperialist war, with which the working class in general, and even more so the working class of a colonial country, should have nothing to do. Whether it was because of the LSSP's opposition to the war or because of its role in the recent plantation strike wave, or probably because of both, the colonial authorities imprisoned its leadership, thereby forcing the party underground. But this did not stop its activists from carrying on their agitation amongst workers, which paid off in 1941, when strikes occurred in Colombo harbour, the granaries, the textile mills, the gas company, in the municipality and on the buses.

The island was put under military jurisdiction for the whole duration of the war, while the British government traded the support of the Sri Lankan privileged against the promise of what the War Cabinet described as "full responsibility for government under the Crown in all matters of civil administration. This was a very far cry from independence or even real autonomy, but it was more than enough to buy the subservience of the island's propertied classes. Sri Lankan politicians were invited to prepare a draft constitution which was finally presented to a commission headed by Lord Soulbury, in September 1944.

One of the main bones of contention in this draft was the composition of the future assembly. While a few Tamil politicians demanded a 50% representation for the Tamil-speaking minorities as a whole, the final proposal provided for 60% of the seats being allocated to Sinhalese, 16% each for Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils and the remaining 8% for Muslims. Soulbury, who believed he could not get the Commons to endorse such an ethnic-based quota system, negotiated a complicated alternative, which involved one seat for 75,000 people and one seat for every 1,000 square mile of territory. On the face of it, this alternative system seemed more palatable. But in reality, in addition to being significantly biased in favour of the Kandyan rural population, it paved the way for the systematic gerrymandering of constituencies which was subsequently to become the rule. In fact, in the first general election, which was held in 1947, the proportion of Sinhalese MPs was way above the quota originally proposed, at 67% - a proportion which was to reach 80% by the 1970s.

Once the war was over, London proceeded with its plans. Sri Lanka was to become a "dominion" within the Commonwealth on the basis of the constitution agreed by the Soulbury commission. However this was meant to be a gradual process and no deadline was actually set. As it happened, unforeseen events rushed the Labour government to act, in the form of a wave of labour unrest which spread across the country, culminating in a general strike, in 1946. The political influence of the LSSP and the recently-formed Communist Party, was growing, and both had taken a clear stand in favour of full independence. What was at stake, against the backdrop of the population's growing anti-colonial feelings, was the political survival of Britain's trusted allies among the Sri Lankan politicians, particularly in the right-wing United National Party (UNP) which dominated the elected colonial institutions.

So, in July 1947, London announced the granting of "full responsible status within the Commonwealth to Sri Lanka. A general election was held in September, which returned a minority UNP government with 42 seats out of 95, while the left-wing parties won 18 seats and the Indian Congress won all the 8 seats allocated to the plantation areas. And, in February 1948, Sri Lanka became the first of the British Crown colonies to gain independence.

However, this did not mean that Sri Lanka was free from London's interference - even if British governments washed their hands of most of the subsequent crises in the country. A governor-general invested with considerable powers remained as a minder for the island's institutions. Not only did he have the power to appoint six unelected MPs in addition to the 95 elected members of the legislative assembly, but he also appointed half of the 30-strong Senate - a kind of House of Lords without the aristocracy. In fact, the whole Sri Lankan institutional system was copied on British institutions, including in their most absurd details. For instance, there was no annual Queen's Speech to announce the government's plans for the year, but there was (and still is) something similar, called the "Speech from the Throne", even though there was no throne.

Even more importantly, the small print of so-called "independence" included an agreement whereby Britain was allowed to intervene militarily in the island if it was needed, while the British army, Navy and RAF retained their bases in Colombo, Trincomalee and Katunayake. In fact, the Sri Lankan were to remain under the muzzles of British guns for another full decade.

The Indian Tamils under attack

The first UNP-led minority government, under prime minister Senanayake, was really a family affair - something which was to be repeated subsequently again and again. Of the 14 ministers he appointed to his government, he chose members of his family to hold all the main posts except for one. As to the opposition "shadow" cabinet, which was institutionalised according to the British model, it was headed by the LSSP leader NM Perera.

To all intents and purposes, this was a weak government. In fact, the UNP only managed to retain its parliamentary majority by securing the support of some of the 21 independent MPs - and that kind of support tended to be rather volatile.

So, Senanayake proceeded to seek ways of bolstering his support in the electorate, in case a new election was needed. And since anti-colonial nationalist feelings seemed to be high, judging from the success of the left-wing parties, Senanayake sought to strike the nationalist chord of the electorate. Except that, given his party's past subservience to the country's colonial masters, Senanayake could not credibly resort to anti-British demagogy - and probably he did not want to, anyway. Instead, he resorted to the crassest form of nationalist demagogy by whipping up anti-Indian xenophobic prejudices among the population, over the question of Sri Lankan citizenship.

Indeed this question had been left unresolved under the Soulbury constitution. Having been originally designed for a transitional period in which Sri Lankans were to remain subjects of the UK, it contained no provisions to determine who had the right to claim Sri Lankan citizenship and who did not. And when, under the pressure of labour unrest in Sri Lanka, London decided to go one step further than initially planned, by removing some of the legal limitations imposed on the Sri Lankan government's sovereignty, no such provisions were written into it. As a result, it was up to the new regime to decide who would and would not be citizens of the new country.

The Citizenship Act, which was passed in 1948, was a blatant attack against Indian Tamils, who were treated as "foreigners", regardless of how much they had sweated to line the pockets of the British plantation operators and their Sri Lankan intermediaries. This Act was so restrictive that it did not just require citizens to have lived long enough in the country. It required that their fathers be born there, and, in the case of foreign-born citizens, that their grand-father and great-grand-father be born in Sri Lanka. In fact it was tailor-made to deprive Indian Tamil plantation workers even of the limited citizenship they had enjoyed under British rule. Moreover, since most of them had settled permanently in Sri Lanka, they were automatically deprived of their Indian citizenship by legislation which had just been adopted in India. As a result, in one fell swoop, almost a million men, women and children who had settled to work in Sri Lanka became stateless, and therefore vulnerable to any kind of pressure from the exploiters.

Not only did this Act point a finger at the Indian Tamils as "foreigners", thereby making them convenient scapegoats to divert discontent among voters, not only did it bolster the UNP's credentials as protector of Sri Lanka's interests, but it seriously undermined a large section of the country's working class - a section which happened to have made a demonstration of its capacity to fight and to join ranks with Sinhalese workers only two years before. This, of course, could not have been a coincidence. And the Sri Lankan privileged were certainly rubbing their hands with glee at this punitive treatment.

Despite this attack on the Tamil minority, Senanayake managed to woo the conservative leader of the six Sri Lankan Tamil MPs, Ponnambalam, to support his government and eventually to join it as industry minister. Having thereby split the Tamil's political forces right down the middle, Senanayake pushed his agenda even further by restricting the electoral franchise to Sri Lankan citizens. So, the Indian Tamils who had enjoyed the universal suffrage introduced by the British in the 1930s, were now also deprived of any political right. By the same token the UNP had removed from the electoral register a large section of voters who traditionally voted against its candidates.

The rise of Sinhalese populism

The UNP, however, was far from being united behind Senanayake. Being a regroupment of several parties formed for the sole purpose of securing a right-wing majority after independence, it was the scene of on-going factional fights. Eventually, in 1951, one of its strong men, Solomon Bandaranaike broke away from the UNP to form a new party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was to play a decisive role in the subsequent years.

An upper-class Christian and British-educated Sinhalese lawyer, Bandaranaike was above all ambitious. At first, he tried to capitalise on the discontent created by the government's anti-Tamil policies. Not that the SLFP took a very clear position against these policies. But it made some gestures, for instance by getting two Tamils elected as party vice-presidents.

This was a period of growing economic crisis in Sri Lanka. The trading boom caused by the provision of food to the western armies during the Korean war was coming to an end. The country's economy had hardly changed since World War II and remained entirely dependent on agricultural exports for which demand was shrinking on the world market. By 1953, the UNP government decided that the time had come for it to get the population, and particular its poorest classes, to foot the bill for the regime's on-going deficit. Rice subsidies were brutally stopped, resulting in the price of this staple food increasing three-fold. At the same time, the regulated price of sugar was increased, free school meals were ended, rail and postal prices were doubled.

These measures, which were threatening a whole section of the poor with starvation, were also undermining the standard of living of the petty bourgeoisie. This was an explosive combination, which led to a huge demonstration of anger in the form of a "hartal" or general strike on August 12, 1953 - the first large-scale social unrest faced by the new regime since independence. The UNP government was totally unprepared for this and panicked. A state of emergency was declared and protestors were met with the bullets of the army. Eventually, the prime minister was changed and the rice subsidy restored, together with social peace.

However, a victory had been won by the masses and this, in and of itself, created a new situation. The SLFP was waiting on the sidelines for its time to come. Having tested the mood created by the 1953 hartal, Bandaranaike's language began to change. "Anti-imperialist" and "socialist" jargon, mixed with vibrant expressions of nationalism, began to appear in his speeches. This was all demagogy and empty phrases, but it was designed to allow Bandaranaike to be identified with the so-called "progressive" character of the emerging non-aligned movement.

The fact that this was all demagogy was illustrated by another turn he took, in 1955, this time to the right, in order to woo the increasingly virulent Buddhist lobby, which was campaigning for Sinhalese to become the official language of the country. The SLFP's official policy was suddenly changed 100%, in favour of Sinhalese becoming the official language, with, it added, "reasonable use of Tamil" Of course, this about turn was justified by the nationalist concern to get rid once and for all of the dominant role of English in Sri Lankan institutions. But in the name of this allegedly "progressive" nationalism, Bandaranaike embarked on a strident Sinhalese chauvinist overbidding against the ruling UNP, in the run-up to the 1956 general election.

It must be said, that Bandaranaike's chauvinism was nothing new. In the late 1930s, he had already set up a small party promoting Sinhalese nationalism. He, himself had converted to Buddhism as a gesture of rejection of Western culture. With such credentials he could pose as a credible champion of Sinhalese chauvinism in his rivalry with the UNP, no matter how far the UNP went in its anti-Tamil demagogy.

As a result of this two-pronged demagogy, aimed at tapping the frustration of the poorest against the UNP with a few progressive-sounding phrases, while wooing xenophobic, if not racist prejudices, among the Sinhalese majority, Bandaranaike managed to top the poll with 51 seats out of 95 - while the UNP was reduced to only 8 seats.

In accordance with its promises, the first act of the SLFP-led government was to pass what came to be called the "Sinhala-only" act, which made Sinhalese the country's only official language. However this did not work out quite the way the Sinhalese chauvinists had hoped for. Their targets were the Tamil minority but also the relative advantage that English-speaking people - mostly those educated in Christian schools - had in finding jobs. However, there was no way Sinhalese could overnight become the only official language. English speakers retained the benefits they had enjoyed, and among them a disproportionate number of Tamil petty-bourgeois, who tended to pay more attention to schooling because, as a marginalised minority, getting a government job was their only way up the social ladder.

Regardless of its effectiveness, however, the "Sinhala-only" act was yet another step towards lending respectability to Sinhalese chauvinism for the sole purpose of serving Bandaranaike's political ambitions. In the end, however, this criminal policy did not help Bandaranaike to win the wholehearted support of the Sinhalese chauvinists. In 1959, after only three years in office, he was shot dead by a Buddhist monk who, according to what transpired at his trial, was probably part of a conspiracy by reactionary elements of the SLFP who would not tolerate Bandaranaike's occasional winks to the left.

From marginalisation to civil war

Politically, the three decades which followed the "Sinhala-only" act, were marked by an escalation in the measures taken against the Tamil minority. Rival politicians embarked on a systematic overbidding aimed at wooing Sinhalese chauvinist prejudices - always at the expense of the Tamil minority. Even when they carried out what appeared to be a "progressive" policy, Sinhalese demagogy was never far beneath the surface.

For instance, in 1960, Mrs Bandaranaike, who had taken over as prime minister, after the murder of her husband, nationalised all schools in the country. In Sri Lanka, the school system was a legacy of Britain's 19th century education system. All schools were religious schools, a majority of them being Christian and the rest Buddhist. These schools were taken over by the state - with the exception of 38 prestigious Christian schools, which remained the preserve of the upper classes. This move could have led to the development of a bilingual, secular and integrated education system, had this been on Mrs Bandaranaike's agenda. But this was not her objective. Rather she was yielding to the pressure of the Sinhalese-Buddhist groups, protesting against the dominance of Christian schools and the "excessive" space that most of them gave to English and, for some of them, to the Tamil language. These groups wanted the "Sinhalisation" of the education system, in accordance with the "Sinhala-only" act. And although Mrs Bandaranaike was not in a position to satisfy its demands, she went as far as she possibly could to keep these groups happy - thereby reinforcing them, once again.

One after the other, the measures taken by successive governments resulted in an increased marginalisation of the Tamil-speaking minority. For instance, under the pretext of conceding to Tamil rights, education in Tamil areas began to be carried out in the Tamil language only. Sinhalese was not taught, not even as a second language, nor English in most cases. So for the Tamil-speaking educated youth, the traditional avenue of government jobs became a dead end, due to the requirement to be fluent in Sinhala, thereby leaving a large number of educated youth without a job or any prospect in life. Likewise, the level required for entry to universities for Tamil students was increased, compared to their Sinhalese colleagues, under the pretext that the proportion of students of both backgrounds had to reflect the relative proportion of both ethnic groups in society - to all intents and purposes, this became a quota system designed to reduce the number of Tamil students.

Meanwhile the domination of the Sinhalese-Buddhist reaction was entrenched in the political institutions. The 1972 constitution declared Buddhism the official religion of the state. The 1978 constitution went one step further, by making the institutions of the state not only responsible for the protection of Buddhism but also for the advocacy of its ideas. Therefore, from being an indirect monarchy, as part of the Commonwealth, but a secular one, according to the terms of the 1947 constitution, Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972, but a theocratic one!

This political escalation went together with an escalation of anti-Tamil violence throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, in which the Sinhalese chauvinist groups, the respectable right-wing parties in government and the state machinery all shared a heavy responsibility. No-one can tell how many people died in these riots and pogroms - among the Tamils, mostly, but also among ordinary Sinhalese, because they happened to live in the same houses or the same streets as Tamils who were targeted by pogromists. No-one can tell either, how many Tamils were killed, and in many cases tortured, during operations conducted by the police and army, in the northern and eastern Tamil-dominated areas.

The fact is that it was the state and the ruling clique of the Sri Lankan capitalist class which started this civil war, long before the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, started their own struggle in 1983.

A catastrophic cost

As was said in the introduction, giving an account of the civil war itself is not within the scope of this forum. But this war has come at a terrible cost for all the populations concerned, and particularly for the poorest, those who do not have the means to flee to some safe shelter abroad, nor to afford the permanent service of a private army of body guards.

Beyond the immediate human cost of a civil war, beyond its long term economic consequences for the population, whatever its outcome, the paralysis it creates will have lasting repercussions for the generations to come, because it also entails an exorbitant moral cost for the population as a whole.

This moral cost applies just as much to those who are fighting the regime in the name of Tamil nationalism. Indeed, there is nothing heroic, let alone romantic, in the struggle waged by the young Tamil fighters. Terrorist methods, and more specifically suicide attacks, may be weapons now typically used by the weak to fight a far better equipped military machinery. But with what effectiveness and at what cost? The fact is that the LTTE has nothing to offer the young militants it orders to blow themselves up in the name of the struggle for an independent Tamil country, which they will never see.

Of course, from the point of view of the Tamil Tigers' nationalist leaders, there is a rationale for all this. They may brush shoulders in Geneva or elsewhere with diplomats in order to gain international recognition and backing against the Sri Lankan government. But it is the blood shed by the young nationalist fighters on the ground, which allows them to gain such recognition, by demonstrating their capacity to generate blind devotion and obedience among the population on whose behalf they claim to speak.

Just as there is a rationale for the LTTE leadership in what they call the "armed struggle": it is not a struggle they can win by military means and they know it, just as well as the ruling clique in Colombo knows it. But in the name of this "armed struggle", they can establish their own state machinery, which amounts to a dictatorship over their own people - thanks to the military discipline which is demanded by the war. And, by the same token, they can demonstrate to the western powers, as well as to the Sri Lankan capitalist class, their ability to police their people and their willingness to protect capitalist interests.

It is not for nothing, for instance, if, in a recent decree on land designed to be implemented in the areas it controls, the LTTE made a point of stressing that privately-owned land would be left alone, whether it is cultivated or not and regardless of the needs of landless refugees. No, the capitalists have nothing to fear from them!

What is so terrible about the situation of the Tamil population today is not only the drastic toll taken by the civil war from among its ranks. It is also the fact that the reactionary policies of the strong men of Colombo have pushed the Tamil minority into the arms of its worst enemies, who are using it as cannon-fodder in pursuit of their nationalist objectives - but without any concern for the interests of the population.

In this, the Sri Lankan working class movement also bears a heavy responsibility. For the sake of occupying government seats in coalition with the SLFP, left organisations such as the LSSP and the Communist Party abandoned their traditional opposition to Sinhalese chauvinism. As if it was not in the interest of both the Sinhalese and Tamil working class to nip in the bud the reactionary forces which were raising their heads!

There is hope, however. The Sri Lankan working class has a long standing tradition of organisation and struggle. Such a tradition is never lost. And there is every reason to be confident that at some stage - if it is not already the case - a section of the youth will rediscover this tradition and realise that the only real enemies of working people, whatever language they speak, are their exploiters and their system of capitalist oppression.