From the Socialist Party of Australia paper, " the Guardian"
THE TORTUOUS history of Sri Lanka took an important step forward with the election in 1994 of a Popular Alliance government.
The new government was committed to changes in the constitution to provide for a devolution of power to the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka.
This would extend to the Tamil people a measure of autonomy and, so the government hoped, provide the basis for ihe gradual settlement of the vicious armed conflict which has been going on in Sri Lanka since the end of the 1970s. This report comes from The Guardian, weekly paper of the Socialist Party of Australia.
THE ISLAND of Sri Lanka has a land area similar to that of Tasmania and a population of 17 million people. Before the arrival of the Western colonialists, Sri Lanka had hern settled by migrations from India -- Sinhalese and Tamils. About 70 per cent are Sinhalese and 30 per cent Tamil.
Sinhalese populated the southern regions of the island, while the Tamils concentrated in the northern and eastern areas, although now, more Tamils live outside the northern and eastern regions than in it.
The first Western conquerors to come to Sri Lanka were the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 17th and 1801 centuries. In 1796 the British arrived and defeated the Dutch and Sri Lanka became a British colony.
In the immediate post-Second World War period, the national liberation movements of the colonial countries became powerful mass movements and the British were forced to agree to Sri Lanka's demand for political independence. This was proclaimed in 1948.
The Sinhalese majority formed the first independent governments but they had to overcome many difficulties to achieve economic and social progress. Sri Lanka's economy was relatively small and undeveloped.
While the former colonialists had to give up direct political control they continued to wield considerable economic power and were able to influence political developments through their many contacts. They also promoted ethnic conflicts.
second class citizens
The first independent government regarded the Tamil people as second class citizens. While Sinhalese replaced English as the official language at the time of independence, it was not until 1978 -- 30 years later -- that the Tamil language was accepted by the Sri Lankan state as an official language alongside Sinhalese.
Successive Sri Lankan governments maintained an anti-imperialist attitude, joined the nonaligned movement, cancelled defence agreements with Britain and took over British military bases on its territory, but continued to maintain discriminatory policies towards the Tamil minority.
A United Front government in 1970 nationalised the tea plantations and the oil industry, but did not solve the ethnic problems.
Due to a number of economic problems, including a period of drought, an armed insurrection occurred in 1971 led by a People's Liberation Front, whose members were mostly unemployed school leavers. A state of emergency was proclaimed and the insurrection was resolutely put down by the government.
hn 1976 the Tamils formed a United Liberation Front and demanded the formation of a separate Tamil state in the northern areas of Sri Lanka. In 1977 the United Front government was replaced by a conservative government in a landslide vote.
In 1978 a new constitutionwas adopted which established a presidential system of government, the president being elected on the basis of adult franchise together with a 168-member Parliament.
The protests and demands of the Tamil minority became increasingly militant and often involved violent protests and armed struggle.
From 1977 to 1994 Sri Lanka was ruled by a conservative government which attempted to 'solve" the Tarnil problem by force of arms and continued the discriminatory policies which the Tamil minority vehemently opposed.
Initially, the Tamils were denied Sri Lankan citizenship and because many were dependent on agriculture (tea and rubber) they were particularly hard-hit economically by the continued domination of these markets by the international corporations.
Plantation workers were denied a minimum number of days of workand there was widespread unemployment of young people on the tea and rubber plantations.
The previously nationalised tea plantations are now being privatised in a response by Sri Lanka to the World Bank and the IMF. Tllis further aggravated the social and economic problems of the Tamil people who provide most of the labour used on the plantations.
A resolution of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka adopted in February 1995 said: "Due to widespread unemployment, continuing discrimination and social inequalities, the Tamil youth are becoming increasingly restive. The existing situation provides a fertile ground for these youth to be attracted to militant movements among Tamils."
The resolution blames the former conservative government of Sri Lanka for its failure: to: "integrate the Up-country Tamils into Sri Lankan society as equal citizens even after they had won their citizenship. There: are a large number of laws which segregate them from the rest of society and treat them as second class citizens.
United Front government
The People's Alliance government elected in 1994 is made up of the Sri LankanFreedom Party, the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the Lankan Sama Samaja Party which is also a socialist party. There is general agreement on basic policy -- broadening of democracy, the abolition of the Executive Presidential system, a Political solution to the ethnic problem and ending the north-east war, and maintaining social welfare at a satisfactory level.
The Communist Party resolution says that a consensus has emerged which recognises the right of the Tamils of the north and theeast toregional autonomy.
"The Party, while recognising the right of the Tamils to self determination advocates that this right should be exercised in fa vourof regional autonomy within a united Sri Lanka."
Its main objectives in government are to broaden democracy and cause the adoption of a new constitution under which the peoples' sovereignty is exercised through Parliament and to have an electoral system which is truly proportional and that provides for maximum representation for both ethnic and political minorities.
End ethnic war
The Communist Party will work for a poitical solution to the ethnic war and safeguard existing social welfare measures and will press for socialjustice. A fundamental aim is to defeat "communal politics and movements which advocate politics of terror".
"Communal politics" -- that is divisions along ethnic and religious lines -- "poses a grave danger, not only to the establishment of communal amity, but also to the restoration of national unity, ensuring the integrity of the country."
The Party says that: "reaction is promoting movements which advocate terror politics in order to draw the disgruntled sections of the youth away from the progovemment forces and more importantly, to prevent them from being attracted to the Left parties."
The government is facing substantial constitutional difficulties in implementing its adopted pro- gramme.
Changes in the constitution require a two thirds majority vote of Parliament and this is not possible without the support of at least a proportion of the conservative UNP parliamentarians.
While the clauses of the constitution extending autonomy to the Tamil people are widely supported they have not yet been Implemented. The same problem confronts changes to end the Executive Presidential system. This also requires constitutional change.
The left parties propose that the necessary legislation be introduced into Parliament so that the struggle for these reforms can be brought to the floor of Parliament and into the public domain. But the President has, instead, put them before a Parliamentary Select Committee in which they have become buried and the object of political manoeuvering.
The dissatisfaction of the left parties is growing with this state of affairs. They also oppose the privatisation policies being pursued by the President.
Recently, electricity workers held a one-week strike to protest at the privatisation of the electricity system. A group of progressive Parliamentarians assisted in the settlement of the dispute which resulted in the privatisation being suspended.
Poverty and distress
Sri Lanka's economic situation has made no progress since the early 1970s and the policies of the World Bank are increasing poverty and distress.
It is a travesty that the main foreign currency earner for Sri Lanka the 200,000 Sri Lankan women who have been 'exported" to Middle Eastern countries as housemaids.
In an attempt to attract foreign capital investment, Sri Lanka set up a "special economic zone". In this zone international garment manufacturers exploit mostly women workers in slave-like conditions.
When it was set up this zone was excluded from Sri Lanka's industrial legislation which offers some protection for workers.
Because of differences over the implementation of agreed policies, the left parties are threatening to resign from their ministerial portfolios, but will not act to cause the government's defeat.
Sri Lanka's agony continues. The economic position of the people is either stagnating or getting worse; the Tamil people have not yet had autonomy extended; and there is a political stalemate in Parliament. In these circumstances popular discontent is likely to increase.
An important political development is the adoption of a process leading to the amalgamation of the two left parties -- the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the socialist Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
These parties aim to increase their representation in Parliament, the provincial councils and local authorities and to build up a powerful network of mass organisations representing the workers and peasants, the youth and students, the women and other sections of society.
The left will propagate socialist ideas and explain its present policies in relation to its socialist perspective
It is to be hoped that Sri Lanka can take that course, defeat the conservative counter-attack and the disastrous policies being imposed on Sri Lanka by the World Bank