All through the last three decades of national oppression, war and armed struggle, Puthiya Jananayaka Katchi (New Democratic Party) has functioned as a political party with Marxist leanings. The party’s general secretary S.K. Senthivel, in an interview to inioru.com (The Tamil version of fromnowona.com ), talks about the post-war Sri Lankan Tamil situation.
Inioru.com: The Sri Lankan President announced that war ended on May 19 and terrorism wiped out. How is the post-war scenario in Sri Lanka?
Comrade Senthivel: It is true that the three-decade long war has come to an end and the armed struggle waged from among the Tamils is defeated. The national contradiction and the chauvinistic oppression, which forced the Tamil nationalist struggle to become an armed one, still remain. The war with blood-shed has come to an end. But the political war continues. The burden of the economic crisis is passed onto all sections of the people.
Inioru.com: If so, how is the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime taking the political struggle further?
Com. Senthivel: The government continues with the military oppression against Tamil national minority and its traditional homeland. It is part of the political struggle. The confinement of nearly 300,000 Tamils in barbed-wire fenced camps in northern Sri Lanka and treating them like convicts is also part of the political strategy. Procrastination without offering any political solution is also part of the political struggle. Sri Lankan government projects like ‘Kizhakkin Uthayam’ and ‘Vadakkin Vasantham’ are nothing but eye-washes.
Inioru.com: How is the post-war scenario in southern Sri Lanka? What is the mindset of the Sinhalese public?
Com. Senthivel: The war victory and the decimation of the LTTE leadership have been welcomed by the people of southern Sri Lanka. The fear about Tamils trying to carve out a nation of their own is one reason for this cheer; military attacks by the LTTE on the Sinhalese and their regions constitute another. Majority of the Sinhalese have accepted the war waged by the Mahinda regime and his claim of fighting terror for these reasons. At the same time it cannot be ignored that a section of Sinhalese people want the Sri Lankan government to offer a fair political solution for the Tamil nationality.
The Sri Lankan President is using the military victory to strengthen his position and for his continuance in power. It will take a while before the people get out of the drunkenness with military success. It is only when the horrific arms of the state machinery built up by the war unleashes its violence on the Sinhalese civilians, they will realize the backlash of the war victory.
Inioru.com: If the situation in South is such, can you explain the situation of the Tamils in North and East?
Com. Senthivel: The defeat of the armed struggle has greatly impacted the Tamil population. Sections of Tamils view the Tigers sympathetically and sections are strongly critical of the LTTE. There is also anger that the Tigers have pushed them into a state of severe oppression. When I met a person, more than 60 years old, released from Manik Farm detention camp in Vavuniya on age basis, he used a Tamil proverb that we lost the loincloth in our desire for a silk dhoti (traditional wear of Tamil men on social occasions like weddings). His words reflect not just the plight of the 300,000 Tamils imprisoned behind barbed-wire fences, but the entire Tamil nationality in the North East of the country.
Inioru.com: From a Marxist-Leninist perspective, who do you think is responsible for the present state of affairs?
Com. Senthivel: It cannot be seen as something concerning individuals alone. It has to do with the social structure, the rulers and the ruled in our country. The role of individuals and the leadership of different regimes in the conflict also cannot be ruled out. The seeds of the poisonous tree of ethnic hatred were sown at the beginning of the last century. Colonial rulers provided the environment and sustenance for hatred between the communities. It is the Sinhala Buddhist upper class elite which benefited by being part of the ruling class. On the other hand, the Tamil elite, while claiming to represent the Tamil masses, conducted elitist politics. Both groups never took into account the aspirations of the working classes among the Sinhalese and the Tamils. They used the rhetoric of nationalism to divert people’s attention. The consequences are now directly felt by the Tamil masses and indirectly by the Sinhalese masses.
Inioru.com: Though you identified the racist oppression as the reason behind ethnic conflict, you have always opposed Tamil nationalism. Can you explain why?
Com. Senthivel: Our opposition to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism emerged from a class perspective. All nationalisms – both chauvinism and narrow nationalism – have a class character. It will be dangerous to speak of any nationalism, hiding its class character. This was the tragedy of Sri Lanka in the last century and it continues to date. So, it is important to examine who upholds nationalism and with what motives.
Inioru.com: Are you saying that Tamil nationalism has not fought chauvinist oppression in the past or in the present?
Com. Senthivel: To say that will be as foolish as trying to conceal a whole pumpkin in a plate of rice. What we have been saying is that Tamil nationalism has never taken a progressive line or formulating its policies and in taking the struggle in that direction. In our opinion, nationalism has a capitalist basis and can mislead the people. All three nationalisms in Sri Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – are articulated in that fashion. As a result the working people among all these ethnic groups are not only divided but also made to fight with one another on the basis of race, language, religion and region. Tamil nationalist struggles also have the same attitude. This is wrong and reactionary. It is that approach which has led to the present pathetic situation.
Inioru.com: Do you say that nationalism don’t have progressive features at all?
Com. Senthivel: To argue thus is ignorant. Nationalism has its bases and its limits. A nationalism with reactionary features cannot reach these limits or see beyond them. At the same time, nationalism with a progressive features can advance and pass its limits to enter a socialist domain. Such nationalism will identify its friends and foes and will form alliances to oppose the common enemy.
Inioru.com: Your argument may be true for the former Tamil parliamentary leadership. What do you think about the claim that the Tamil militant movements led by the youth adopted Tamil nationalism with a progressive content?
Com. Senthivel: Some of the Tamil nationalist outfits that you are referring to appeared to be progressive in the beginning. But in terms of ideology, they were confused and vacillating. In addressing the inner contradictions of the Tamil society and in their approach towards the Sinhalese people and India, their stance soon deteriorated to reactionary positions. Having claimed that they were using India and the West, they ended up being used by those forces. In the process, they compromised the progressive ideals that they initially claimed to represent and took refuge in the reactionary features of Tamil nationalism. This led to internecine conflicts. Eventually, they became the new agents of parliamentary opportunism, and compromised with the chauvinistic ruling classes.
Inioru.com: What is your view about the claim that unlike other Tamil nationalist outfits which had deteriorated over the years, the Tigers carried forward Tamil nationalism in a different manner?
Com. Senthivel: As for as the LTTE is concerned, it had most of the reactionary features of Tamil nationalism. Likewise it inherited the call for Tamil Eelam from the conservative reactionary Tamil nationalist leadership in the Sri Lankan parliament. On some issues, like the caste contradiction, they made progressive postures but never took the initiative to address or resolve the contradiction. They thought such a step would weaken them. Till the end, they believed in US and the West. They failed to see if people or liberation organizations who genuinely sought liberation anywhere had imperialist forces as allies. Some of the lower level cadres of the LTTE could have individually believed in progressive and anti-imperialist ideals. But the reactionary features of Tamil nationalism were dominant in the thoughts and deeds of the LTTE leadership.
The Tamil nationalist arrogance of the ‘lineage of those that once ruled’ was inherited by the LTTE. This was evident in Amirthalingam who arrogantly upheld the reactionary aspects of Tamil nationalism, and in Prabhakaran who succeeded him. Amirthalingam was unarmed Prabhakaran, and Prabhakaran was armed Amirthalingam. The reactionary Tamil nationalism of the LTTE becomes evident through this. Thus what is evident from thirty years of Tamil struggle is that despite the shift from the parliamentary democratic path to armed struggle, the reactionary trend dominated Tamil nationalism.
Inioru.com: Would the LTTE’s SOS to US President Barack Obama during the last phase of war be an example of the attitude you spoke of.
Com. Senthivel: The perception that the LTTE has been friendly with the US and the West had been there for some time. The elite among the Tamil diaspora in the US and the West constitute a factor influencing such an allegiance. Besides, the belief that they could create a concept of Tamil Eelam on the lines of the creation of the concept of Israel among the Jews and achieve it with the support of the US and the West has been strong among the LTTE ideologues and leaders. LTTE’s appeal to the Obama administration in the last days of the war was strong evidence of that attitude. There is no need to add further to explain their loyalty to the US.
Inioru.com: You have always been dismissive of the demand for a separate Tamil Eelam as an impractical idea. Can you explain the already stated view of your party that it would lead to imperialist infiltration of Sri Lanka?
Com. Senthivel: We, as Marxist Leninists, did not express our rejection only recently. When India played a leading role in the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in the early 1970s, an illusion was created that a separate Eelam could be created in a similar fashion. The belief that it could be achieved with the help of India or the West was propagated among the Tamil people. At the time, we forewarned that this idea was impregnated with the danger of foreign infiltration and that it was an impractical idea. But the Tamil nationalist leadership, to increase its numbers in the Parliament, whipped up ethnic and linguistic feelings, and fed the youth with the dream of Tamil Eelam. They built the illusion of Tamil Eelam citing the precedents of Jews and Israel.
Inioru.com: Although you were opposed to the idea of Tamil Eelam, how far did you take your idea to the masses?
Com. Senthivel: We, Marxists-Leninists, have been propagating the impracticality and reactionary nature of Tamil Eelam demand since the early seventies when the idea of Tamil Eelam was put forth. The Marxist-Leninist party headed by comrade N. Sanmugathasan was an influential party among the Tamil people. Trade union struggles were a reason. The period from the mid-sixties to the early seventies was one when struggles against untouchability and casteism led by the Party scored victories. Our party organized several rallies and seminars to emphasise the futility of the demand for Tamil Eelam.
Two debates on the subject were of historic importance. The first on the possibility of Tamil Eelam was at Aanaikkottai organized by the Bharathi Community Centre. M.K. Eelaventhan of the Federal Party (Tamilarasuk Katchi) led the team that argued that a separate Tamil Eelam was possible. The team from the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party led by me argued that it was not possible. A Tamil pundit from the town who judged the event concluded that a separate Tamil Eelam was not possible and said that the Marxist-Leninist team won the debate. This led to perturbation among the public.
The next debate was held at the Chunnakam market grounds between N. Sanmugathasan and V. Dharmalingam, the then MP for Uduvil. ‘Orator’ C. Subramaniam, a popular educationist and Principal of Skandavarodaya College chaired. Comrade Sanmugathasan pointed out that Tamil Eelam demand was “showcasing the moon in the mirror” (simply deceptive) to Tamils. He also detailed why the demand was impractical.
Both debates were held in 1975, before the Tamil Eelam declaration. I.e., the impracticality of the demand for Tamil Eelam and the prospect of foreign intervention were pointed out even before the Tamil Eelam declaration.
Inioru.com: While rejecting the Tamil Eelam demand, what alternative solution did you put forth for the problems of the Tamils?
Com. Senthivel: Our party has all along insisted that the aggravation of the national question could be averted by recognising the unique ethnic, linguistic and cultural features of the Tamil people and providing regional autonomy. Regional autonomy has long been the policy of the Communists. At a time when the Federal Party advocated federation, the Communists resolved at their party congress held at Valvettithurai in 1954 to adopt a policy of regional autonomy. That was adopted as the policy of the whole party. The Tamil nationalist leadership scuttled the idea by appealing to the emotions of the people. The left as a whole emphasised that regional autonomy within the framework of united Sri Lanka should be promoted without fanning ethnic communalism. But history is that both Sinhala chauvinist capitalist political parties (SLFP and UNP) that vied for parliamentary political power acted to wreck the achievement of such a solution.
Inioru.com: How do you react to the charges that the leftists of Sri Lanka were not sincere in addressing the national question?
Com. Senthivel: The rightist Tamil nationalists lump together the entire left in this fashion to blame the Left as a whole. Till the mid-1960s, the leftists in this country had been sincere on the nationality question. When the Hill Country Tamils (of Indian origin) were deprived of their citizenship and when the Sinhala Only act was passed and whenever the Tamils, Muslims and the Hill Country Tamils were targeted by the state, the leftists stood by them. But the Tamil leadership did not go with the Left during such crisis situations. After the leftists took to the opportunist parliamentary path, they slipped up and vacillated on several occasions and became voiceless in front of the chauvinistic forces. But there are leftists who kept away from the opportunistic parliamentary path and acted firmly and sincerely on the national question. That part of history has been systematically suppressed. Remarkably, Dr Ravi Vaitheespara, a professor at the Manitoba University in Canada, has researched the role of Leftists in addressing the Tamil national question of Sri Lanka and brought out a number of these facts in his book.
Inioru.com: What was the policy put forth by your party on the national question and what was your agenda?
Com. Senthivel: Our party, the New-Democratic Party, was founded in 1978. The situation then was one in which Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism was thrust forward under the leadership of J.R. Jayawardane in the form of military oppression. It was also the period in which the Tamil nationalist leadership was taken over from the traditional parliamentarians by the armed militant youth movements. Under the conditions, we as a party of the entire working class opposed national oppression. At the same time, we rejected the separatist demand for a Tamil Eelam, as impractical and reactionary. Consequently, the Party emphasised its stand on the theoretical and objective development of a framework based on the right to self-determination to resolve the national question. It urged autonomy for region comprising the North and East which was the traditional homeland of the Tamil people. It also proposed the need for an internal autonomous structure for Muslims, under which their unique features and identity could be preserved. Likewise, it also called for internal autonomous units for Hill Country Tamils. It should be noted that the Second National Congress of the Party stressed the need for such autonomous structures based on the right to self-determination for the Tamil, Muslim and Hill Country Tamil nationalities.
Inioru.com: In this context could you explain the correctness of the stand of your party in defining the national question as the main contradiction?
Com. Senthivel: The determination by the Fourth National Congress of the Party that the national question had developed into the main contradiction was arrived at by studying Sri Lanka’s social contradictions and its ramifications. The national question has been transformed into war and continues without a political solution in a way that it has overtaken the development and intensity of the class contradiction, which is the fundamental contradiction of Sri Lanka. The national question became the main contradiction in a context in which it was sharpened on all fronts. It did not become the main contradiction merely because of the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. To view it thus would be to deny the bases of the national contradiction and to diminish the problems of the Tamil nationality, its existence and future. Even after the decimation of the LTTE leadership and the end of war, the national contradiction persists as the main contradiction. The national question will descend from its position as the main contradiction only when a just and acceptable political solution for the national question is put forward and implemented, constitutionally and in practice. Then the class contradiction will intensify so that the entire people could through class solidarity carry it forward along the line of mass struggle.
Inioru.com: In one of your earlier statements, you had indicated that there were three factors behind the emergence of the national question as the main contradiction and its escalation into armed struggle and war. Could you elaborate on it?
Com. Senthivel: Three sections have contributed to the continuance of the national question as armed struggle and war during the last three decades: (1) the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist capitalist ruling class forces of feudal origin; (2) the Tamil nationalist leadership which upheld narrow nationalism; (3) the Indian expansionist forces and US and western imperialist forces acting behind the scenes. These three sections thus looked after their class interests as well as their survival and future. Meanwhile it was the workers, peasants, fishermen, the oppressed by caste and other toiling masses who bore the brunt of the conflict of the past three decades.
Inioru.com: The demand for Tamil Eelam has sharpened the contradictions in a pluralist Sri Lanka. Meantime Tamil-Muslim relations have deteriorated. What do you think are the reasons for this?
Com. Senthivel: Tamil – Sinhala relations were wrecked and made hostile by the intensity of the already existing national conflict, Sinhala chauvinist oppression and the parochial attitude of the Tamil nationalists who claimed to oppose it. Subsequently, Tamil-Muslim relations were systematically wrecked. Besides the ruling class conspiracy of ‘divide and rule’ the narrow nationalist approach of Tamil nationalists, especially the conduct of the LTTE, sectarian Tamil nationalism caused it to deteriorate further to the point of hostility. Besides, the Sinhala, Tamil, Hill Country Tamil and Muslim nationalisms each adopted positions on the national question which projected their respective reactionary features. Such policies served the interests of the wealthy upper classes in the respective communities and not the welfare of the people or the cause of national development.
Inioru.com: What was the situation of the Tamils who were oppressed by caste and class amid the Tamil nationalist struggle for Tamil Eelam?
Com. Senthivel: The children of those who declared the demand for Tamil Eelam and the affluent who roared that the “(Tamil) clan that once ruled the land should rule again” went abroad well in time. Those who were depressed by caste were forced to bear the brunt of the war. They bore the burden of the Tamil Eelam struggle. They realize now in terms of caste and class, beyond the bogus rhetoric of Tamil nationalism.
Inioru.com: You spoke of Tamil diaspora. Do you place all on the same footing? Is there not a flip side to displacement too?
Com. Senthivel: The group that I referred to referred to the rich and upper class Tamils who went abroad and not the Tamils who left amid sorrow and misery, because of political oppression in the country and poverty in the family. In the last three decades of conflict, the Tamil diaspora has helped their relations back home and extended help for the common good. That they thus helped to prevent deaths by hunger in the country is a positive aspect. At the same time, the immense sums of money extracted from the Tamil diaspora were spent in wasteful and socially unhelpful ways and for destructive purposes is a negative aspect. While displacement has helped individual families, it has led to losses for the Tamils and to the snapping of the roots that uphold the future.
Inioru.com: What is your proposal for the liberation of Muslims and the Hill Country Tamils?
Com. Senthivel: We do not see the national question in Sri Lanka arising from chauvinist oppression as a matter that concerns not just the Tamils. It also concerns the Muslims and the Hill Country Tamils. So, the political solution should be inclusive of the Muslims and the Hill Country Tamils. Our stated position is that is a precondition for the political solution. The solution should certainly be autonomy with the right to self-determination.
Inioru.com: How do you view the perception that the solution within the framework of united Sri Lanka is impossible since a majority of the Sinhalese are under the spell of the chauvinist illusion?
Com. Senthivel: The Sinhalese are trapped by that illusion owing to the machinations of the ruling classes of Sri Lanka. Geopolitical factors and sustained campaigns by chauvinists too have contributed to it. Under the conditions policies need to be put forward based on the people of Sri Lanka and the prosperous future of Sri Lanka, transcending ideologies and practices relating to ethnicity, religion and language. Although it is a difficult task, a new foundation based on experience has to be laid among the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Hill Country Tamil nationalities and other national minorities. It should be an approach of multi-ethnic nationalism. That will take a lot of faith and effort.
Inioru.com: You referred to India, US and the West as one of the three elements that contributed to the 30 years of conflict. Can you explain their roles?
Com. Senthivel: When the demand for Tamil Eelam was put forward as the Vaddukoddai declaration in 1976, those behind it reposed faith in India to achieve their goal. They also expected the support of the US and the West for the purpose. India, the US and the West covertly endorsed the demand and the emergence of the armed Tamil youth behind the demand. These powers sought to materialise their long term expectations through it. Their activities included: (1) diverting the Tamil youth from the leftist and revolutionary thought process which developed in the 1960s; (2) destroying the young generation among the Tamils with potential to evolve into a revolutionary force; (3) establishing their respective politico-economic-cultural dominance by escalating the conflict; (4) increasing the sale of weaponry.
One taking a socio-historic view of the 30 years of war will not find it hard to recognise these features.
Inioru.com: What is your view of China’s role in the conflict or its infiltration?
Com. Senthivel: As I said earlier, the rivalry of India, US and the West had been most important in the 30 years of conflict. That China, in accordance with its change of track from a socialist economy, has actively sought to reinforce its position in Sri Lanka through the government. China has a string of activities from arms sales to development schemes. But so far they do not match in extent the motives and moves of India, US and the West are against invasion of any external force, be it China or Pakistan. But it is clear that the Chinese threat is being magnified as pretext to strengthen their foothold in Sri Lanka. Our position is that we will reject and oppose any form of foreign forces of domination entering into the country. China and Pakistan are not exceptions.
Inioru.com: Can you elaborate on your party’s agenda based on Marxism Leninism to address the national question of Sri Lanka?
Com. Senthivel: The Party has already clarified it in terms of its Marxist Leninist stand. Based on it, it has proposed a path for the resolution of the national question of Sri Lanka. It has categorized the Tamil people’s struggle as belonging to three periods and proposed the path for the fourth period: (1) the period from the Ramanathan-Arunachalam brothers to G.G. Ponnambalam ending with the rejection of the 50-50 power sharing demand;
(2) S.J.V. Chelvanayakam’s period since the Federal Party demanded a federal system of government to a change in their demand for a separate Tamil Eelam;
(3) the 30 years during which Tamil youth took to armed struggle to win their demand for Tamil Eelam and the struggle met with destruction recently under the leadership of V. Prabhakaran. (4) The fourth stage should be one in which the struggle should be led by toiling masses including workers, peasants, fishermen, and those oppressed by caste as a mass struggle. Its aim can only be to achieve autonomy for the Tamils and Muslims in a merged North-East that constitutes their traditional homeland with the right to self-determination within the framework of united Sri Lanka that will unite the people. In this fourth stage in which the people determine their own fate, it should be explained and impressed upon the Sinhalese people that autonomy and self determination do not mean secession and that they are based on equality and unity and the independence and prosperity of the whole of the country. It should be explained that they, thus, include the rights and aspirations of the Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils. Sinhalese democratic, progressive forces should be brought into this struggle in a way that they play an important role. It is this that the Party has clearly pointed out to be the path to be taken by the Tamils to resolve the national question.
Inioru.com: What is your view of the proposed Trans-national Tamil Eelam Government?
Com. Senthivel: The concept of setting up a trans-national government of Tamil Eelam is not the wish of the entire Tamil diaspora. It is the wish of those who consider themselves to belong to the Tamil upper class elite that once ruled the land. This seems to be inspired by the Zionist dream of the formation of Israel. In which case, it will have the backing and conspiratorial advice of imperialism. It will once again drive the Sri Lankan Tamils into a dangerous situation and negate their just struggle and the just political solution that could be achieved through that struggle. Decisions on the future policy and course of struggle of the Tamil people should be based on their past experience in their own land, and not something decided and imposed by the wealthy elite among the diaspora.
250,000 Tamils have been killed in the course of the last three decades for the impractical demand of Tamil Eelam. Nearly 50,000 youth belonging to various Tamil militant movements died as militants in the name of liberation. Many thousands are still imprisoned. Around 500,000 people live as displaced persons. 300,000 people are living a life of misery in barbed-wire fenced IDP camps. People have lost property worth many billions of rupees in the course of these thirty years. More than 100,000 women who have lost their husbands and children in the North and the East live in agony. Many thousands of people are maimed and crippled.
The misery and the impact of all this destruction and the blood stains have not gone away. There are no solutions or proposals to address these problems. In this situation, some want to form a “trans-national government of Tamil Eelam”. If they would only come to the Vanni or the North to propose it, they will know the consequences.
Inioru.com: Finally, to what extent do you think that the Tamil people will accept and implement the policies put forward by your party?
Com. Senthivel: It is true that, in a hardened conservative environment of the Tamil people, the impact of the thinking of the capitalist elitist class with feudal lineage is strong even in politics. Yet there are among them the exploited working classes and those who are oppressed and denied social justice, based on caste. Among them the Party has a strong support base. We are firm and confident that we will expand that base and popularise our policies among all the people.
But it is a major challenge requiring swimming against the current. It is our duty and responsibility as a Marxist-Leninist part, to identify correctly the social contradictions and put forward the appropriate path of struggle based on the appropriate policies. To accept and carry them forward concerns the people. In this matter, we cannot deal with the people in the way that the militant movements led by Tamil youth or the LTTE did. That will not be the Marxist-Leninist approach, nor will it be moral. We will take carry forward our mass-based political work patiently and steadily among the people, based on past experience and practice. We have faith in this approach.