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Sri Lanka: a new party?

In the aftermath of Rajapakse’s victory in his war against the Tamils, the JVP, the supposedly Marxist party that backed him, has split apart. Peter Main outlines the history behind the split and the prospects it has created.

The split in the JVP opens up the potential for a regeneration of the entire working class movement in Sri Lanka. Ever since the defeat of the general strike in 1980, the movement has been fragmented and effectively paralysed. More than 1700 unions represent less than 2 million workers, there is no central trade union confederation and no workers’ party. The long-standing oppression of the Tamils, in which the JVP played a scandalous role, has created inter-communal tensions that will not easily be overcome.
The Movement for People’s Struggle, MPS, is undoubtedly a left split away from the JVP. Although it is yet to publish its new programme, its leaders have spoken of the need for a new party that will be a “party of the Left” committed not only to open collaboration with other left groups but opposed, in principle, to coalition with bourgeois parties. They have also rejected Sinhala chauvinism and have made it clear that they are conducting an internal debate over the right of self-determination of the Tamils.
It is these, apparently fundamental, changes in political principle and strategy that could allow a re-alignment, possibly even a re-unification, of the workers’ movement.
However, this is still very far from guaranteed. This is not the first time that the JVP or, more properly, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (Bolshevik), has tried to resurrect itself in the aftermath of disaster caused by its own political strategies. The danger now is that the MPS will do no more than rejuvenate that tradition in yet another reorientation, this time towards a more “democratic” and working class strategy.
For some on the Sri Lankan left, this is virtually a foregone conclusion. However, the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, the section of the League for the Fifth International, believes that it is necessary to take every possible opportunity to convince the MPS, in particular its rank and file, and even the rank and file still in the JVP, to complete the break with their past strategy and work towards the founding of a new workers’ party.
Indeed, recognising that this is a strategic need for the working class in Sri Lanka, the SPSL has pursued a united front policy, even towards the JVP and its unions, for several years. While the JVP was in government with Rajapakse we demanded that its trade unions fight to defend their members’ interests against government economic policy. When the JVP split, we welcomed the formation of the MPS and worked together with it on the symbolic convoy from Colombo to Jaffna and in the newly formed Committee Against Abductions and Disappearances.
In response to the MPS’ decision to found a new party, we have published an Open Letter to the whole of the Sri Lankan left and working class movement. In it we propose a conference to launch a campaign throughout the country to found not a new organisation for the 5,000 who have left the JVP, but a new workers’ party based on the mass organisations, primarily the trade unions. Through this campaign the programme and organisational statutes of a new party can be widely discussed in preparation for a national conference to adopt drafts that could, after further discussion, be adopted at a founding congress.
For our part, we have proposed our existing Action Programme, which applies the strategy of Permanent Revolution to Sri Lanka, as the programmatic basis for a new party. We have urged other left groups to formulate in writing their own strategies for achieving socialism on the island. We are, of course, prepared to amend our programme in the light of developments and proposals from other groups. Provided any new party recognises the rights of minorities within it, we would be prepared to implement majority decisions with which we disagreed, providing they were not in themselves unprincipled.
As we say in the Open Letter, the supremacy of the Rajapakse clan “has opened the way for the imposition of a model of development in which the prosperity of the few is to be ensured through a low-wage economy and Free Trade Zones, while the country itself becomes a pawn in the rivalry between China and India.”
If such a development is to be avoided, the fight against it must have as its strategic goal not a period of stable democratic capitalist development, but the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government committed to socialist development and the internationalisation of the revolution to create a Federation of Workers’ States of South Asia.

The twists and turns of the JVP
The Janath Vimukthi Peramu  [JVP], is a product of the decay of the Stalinist movement after the split between Beijing and Moscow in the early Sixties. Its founder, Rohana Wijeweera, was influenced by both Mao and Guevara and developed a strategy in which a new party, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (Bolshevik) would mobilise the youth of the majority Sinhalese community via this militarised political front organisation.
The name, which means National Liberation Movement, expressed Wijeweera’s belief that imperialism was planning to re-assert control via an Indian invasion supported by the “Indian Tamils”, that is the descendants of those transported from India by the British to work the tea plantations.
The JVP was presented as the revolutionary alternative to the “old left”, the Lanka Sama Samaj Party, LSSP, (Fourth International) and the Communist Party, that had entered into coalition government with Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, SLFP, in 1964.
By 1971, Wijeweera was ready to implement his strategy. The rising began on April 5th (to honour the Paris Commune of 1871) but was crushed with ferocious barbarity by the Bandaranaike government, leaving as many as 20,000, mostly youthful, fighters dead, and as many again interned.
The terrible defeat prompted a revision of the JVP’s strategy. It criticised its previous positions as “Menshevik”. The new General Secretary, Lionel Bopage, supported the right of self-determination of the Tamils and the party oriented towards the urban working class as well as the rural masses. In the late Seventies, it collaborated, briefly, with the Neva Sama Samaj Party, NSSP, the re-formed Fourth International section and other Left forces but then turned against them in the general strike of 1980, thus assisting the government in breaking the strike.
In 1983, the JVP participated in communal riots that led to the UNP government banning all the Left parties. The JVP responded by turning to guerrilla warfare against the “threat” of Indian occupation and against the Left who supported the Tamils’ rights. Some 60,000 died in their campaign, which only ended when state forces liquidated virtually the entire JVP leadership; reputedly only one of whom survived.
Once again, a new leadership adopted a new strategy; a turn to electoral politics and alliances and renewal of working class organisations. During the Nineties, this slowly revived the party’s fortunes. Once again, Sinhala chauvinism was the principal policy against a UNP government that was prepared to strike a deal with the bourgeois Tamil forces and India against the separatism of the Tamil Tigers.
In the elections of 2001, the JVP won 16 seats. In April 2004, it won 39 as part of an alliance with President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s SLFP. In the Presidential election of 2005, it backed Mahinda Rajapakse of the SLFP on an anti-Tamil programme. When Rajapakse won that election, the JVP were rewarded with four cabinet posts and enthusiastically supported the most barbaric offensive against the North and East, which were under the control of the Tamil Tigers.
Bizarre as it might seem, there were many within the party, including in the politburo, who still saw participation in government as a prelude to revolution. Despite the Sinhala chauvinism, collaboration with Rajapakse was not popular with working class JVP supporters. To retain their support, the party began to distance itself and, in April 2008, instructed its parliamentary fraction to vote against the Budget in order to force a general election.
However, 10 JVP MP’s disobeyed and kept Rajapakse in office. This overt split led the party to support the Head of the Army, Sarath Fonseka, when he proposed to stand against Rajapakse in the Presidential election of 2009. This was completely thwarted by the arrest and imprisonment of their new found ally. The final act in the drama was the annihilation of the JVP in the parliamentary elections of April 2010 when they lost 70% of their seats.
It was against this background that members of the politburo led the split in the JVP that resulted in some 5,000 leaving to form the Movement for People’s Struggle, MPS.

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