Sri Lanka: The politics of the Frontline Socialist Party -- interview with Premakumar Gunaratnam
Premakumar Gunaratnam. Photo by Peter Boyle.
August 8, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- Premakumar Gunaratnam, an ethnic Tamil from Sri Lanka, who now has Australian citizenship, returned to his home country in September 2011 to help organise the launch of a new left party, the Frontline Socialist Party (FLSP), a major breakaway from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front). He had been a JVP activist for three decades and a member of its underground political bureau since 1994. In an extensive interview with Peter Boyle for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal and Green Left Weekly, Gunaratnam reported how he was abducted by a group of armed men between 4 am and 5 am on April 7, just two days before the scheduled launch of the new party.
He spotted 15-20 armed men in civilian clothes from a window on the first floor of the building he was staying in and he tried to escape, unsuccessfully. “They kept me in my room for between 15 to 20 minutes and tortured me, including sexual torture. Then they blindfolded me, took me downstairs and forced me into a van.”
Gunaratnam was driven for 30-45 minutes to another place, where the torture continued in what seemed to be a small office. He remained blindfolded for the next 72 hours, except for a few minutes while his photograph was taken by a man wearing a balaclava.
“I saw then, in those few minutes, that it was an office with desks and computers. They were abusing and humiliating me and asking about my political work, the new party, where I had been in the previous seven months and who I was working with. They asked me about the accusations that I had LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] connections – a story that had been spread by the government and the media it controlled – but it seemed to me that they did not believe this themselves.
“From the way they treated me in the first eight hours I had the feeling that they were going to kill me. I was handcuffed and my feet were tied together. I was on the floors and they kept kicking me. They didn't give me any food or water in that time. It was not a real interrogation, which I had previously experienced in 1989-1990 when I was in military custody. This time they were just torturing me.”
Gunaratnam recognised the behaviour of his abductors, particularly in relation to each other, as that of members of the armed forces or the police. Occasionally he overheard phone calls they made to their superiors about what to do with him.
Another leading FLSP activist, Ms Dimuthu Attygalle, had also been abducted just the night before Gunaratnam was picked up. However, he was not aware of this at the time of his abduction. During the first few hours of his detention, Gunaratnam heard the voice of a woman who was being interrogated in the same place, a voice he later recognised as that of Attygalle. Later that night, Gunaratnam was moved to a different location.
There was such a big public outcry over these abductions in Sri Lanka and in other countries, including in Australia, that the Sri Lankan government came under a lot of pressure. After three days both FLSP leaders were released by their abductors. Two other leading FLSP activists, who were abducted in Jaffna on December 9, 2011, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan, remain "disappeared".
Gunaratnam was taken to the police by his abductors to the police, who seemed to be expecting him, and later he was deported to Australia.
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Peter Boyle: What was the political basis of your break from the JVP?
Premakumar Gunaratnam: Number one was class collaboration. The JVP had become part of the government coalition in 2004 and had continued this class collaboration since then. Finally, the JVP supported the ultra-rightist former army commander General Sarath Fonseka in the 2010 presidential elections.
Since 2001 there has been an internal debate unfolding in the JVP. Over the last decade there was a huge debate in the party about class collaboration.
In 2010 there was a convention and 95% of the members had come to the conclusion that they would not fall behind that line [of class collaboration] again. We had a self-criticism and said that this class collaboration was wrong.
At the same time we had a self-criticism to some extent of our nationalistic policies in terms of the national question in Sri Lanka. So that was the second issue.
But what happened is that the people who controlled the JVP's registered political party used their positions to work against the will of the party members expressed at the 2010 convention. This took place between August 2010 and September 2011. So last year the conflict came to a climax when these people conspired against some political bureau and central committee members. They conspired to remove four members from the political bureau, including Comrade Dimuthu and Comrade Jayakoda and another two comrades, who were not in the registered party but in the in the political bureau.
What exactly is the FLSP's position on the national question in Sri Lanka? Doe the new party recognise the Tamil minority as an oppressed nationality with the rights of national self-determination?
Unlike the JVP, we in the FLSP believe that there is national oppression of the Tamil people and the Muslim people. But in the present circumstances in Sri Lanka we do not believe accepting self-determination or devolution of power for the Tamil majority areas will help to solve the national question. On the contrary, it will worsen the situation. At the same time we believe that there is a national oppression against the minority communities.
We believe a solution should be based on democracy and equality but it is not going to be a reality under the present neoliberal capitalism. And also a solution should be able to unite the different national communities but not to divide them. Division of nationalities means division of oppressed classes. It doesn't strengthen the class struggle but courses further weakening.
We do not encourage the drawing of vertical national lines but work towards uniting proletarians of different national communities for the sake of advancing the class struggle.
Imperialist powers, including India, preach and encourage so-called devolution of power and self-determination according to their political agenda in the region. But at the same time we oppose the unitary state concept, as it further widens the differences between different national communities. Both unitary and federal state structures represent the same neoliberal capitalism at present.
We should practice a socialist program instead a social-democratic program. In Sri Lanka there are number of unfinished democratic revolutionary objectives, including the national question, which has to be accomplished under socialism. The FLSP believes that an effective and practical political program should be implemented to unite the working class and the peasants among different national communities. The "Movement for Equal Rights" is our first move towards this direction.
If a capitalist government in Sri Lanka implements some form of devolution of power to the [Tamil majority] north and east would the FLSP oppose it?
Devolution of power is a slogan imposed by India. We don't want to divide the country into ethnic territories. We won't oppose any form of democratic reform. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the government are pushing power devolution but we are going to explain to the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala people that this is not a solution for the national question.
What is the FLSP's attitude to the government's final military solution to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebellion? Do you see it as a national victory?
No, no, it is totally wrong and it is not a national victory. Because of this war the armed forces have been strengthened and these armed forces are now attacking the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim working class. So it is quite clear this is not a national victory.
This does not mean that we accept the policies of the LTTE or its methods of struggle in the past. Both the government and the LTTE acted as reactionary forces against the working class.
We have made a self-criticism of the JVP's role in strengthening the government, this right-wing regime and the capitalist state itself over the last decade. Before this decade the ruling class in Sri Lanka was in crisis. It couldn't form stable governments. They collapsed in 2001 and 2004 but with the JVP's support it was strengthened, along with its huge military apparatus.
What is the position of the FLSP on the demand for the release of political prisoners, most of whom are detained because the government alleges they supported the LTTE?
Our position is quite clear. The government should release all political prisoners regardless of their political views. We are holding protests around this demand.
Recently the regime released General Fonseka because it suits the regime's political agenda and not for any democratic principle. There are still hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and they should be released.
While the regime has lifted emergency rule but undemocratic laws, like the Ant-Terrorism Act, are still in force. This law needs to be repealed.
There are reports that under cover of military occupation in the northern and eastern provinces, the lands of Tamil people have been stolen and given to people in or linked to the military. Is this true?
Yes, I believe it is true. First, the military occupied the lands illegally and by force and are implementing what they call a “military plan”. Under this military plan they can use any land in whatever way they want. They are taking the land from their rightful owners and leasing them to Indian multi-millionaires and to Chinese companies.
What is the FLSP's attitudes to the calls for government and military leaders to be brought up to account for war crimes and atrocities carried out during the war against the LTTE?
The Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people were all affected by this war. There were atrocities by government forces and by the LTTE as well. I don't see that a war crimes investigation imposed by the US or other imperialist forces will advance democracy in Sri Lanka. The Mahinda Rajapakse regime is trying its best to act according to the wishes of the US government. The foreign minister of Sri lanka met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and since the pressure for a war crimes tribunal from the US has eased.
The US was only using the threat of war crimes tribunal to pressure the Sri Lankan government into acting according to their agenda in the region. That's our view.
If someone wants to have a real investigation into war crimes it needs to investigate all the war crimes. It is very clear that towards the end of the war, thousands of innocent people were killed by the government forces. But it is also true that over the previous two decades thousands of innocent people were killed by both the government and the LTTE. So a real investigation must look at all the war crimes.
What is the state of the ruling class in Sri Lanka today?
The governments of Sri Lanka have followed neoliberal policies since 1977 at the behest of the ruling class. It is destroying humanity and destroying our society. But it is not only an economic program it is also an ideology that is infecting the masses and so we have to fight this as well.
Neoliberalism is now inside people's minds. You can see this with what has happened to the trade unions in Sri Lanka. When we were with the JVP we led the biggest trade union movements. But we had time-tabled fights for wages and conditions every year in November and then the struggle would stop and the these fights were easily absorbed by the system.
We needed to find a way to turn it, instead, into a fight against the system but we failed to do this. Finally we ended up helping strengthen the capitalist state.
The high points of the JVP were marked by strong support from youth, particularly in the south. What is the current state of the youth movement and how are young people responding to the formation of the new party?
Unfortunately, the JVP has not been able to mobilise the youth over the last decade. We couldn't understand neoliberalism and in particular how it was affecting the youth. So our tactics to mobilise the youth did not work. Now, in the FLSP, we are trying to understand the situation.
We think that while the working class is the vanguard, the youth are the most energetic and creative section. But now we see that youth are alienated from politics. Actually not only the youth but all the people are alienated from politics so we need to find ways to politicise them. This is our biggest challenge.
What is the balance of support between the JVP and the FLSP in the representatives parliamentarians and provincial councils?
The JVP fell into pragmatism and relied mainly on elections to mobilise its supporters. Nevertheless the JVP's electoral popularity has been declining over the last few years. In 2004 we had 41 seats in the parliament. In the 2010 election we only got four seats but we did not contest in our own name but as part of the Democratic National Alliance (with General Fonseka) so there are no more JVP parliamentarians. Three of the Democratic National Alliance parliamentarians support the JVP now and one supports the FLSP. There are a few provincial councillors elected as JVP and they are evenly divided between the JVP and the FLSP.
The majority of the JVP's organisers and full-timers split off and have joined the FLSP. This is in the district organisations, the student, youth and women's sectors – especially in the youth sector. We had some problems in the trade union section and we are going to form a new trade union federation.
We are also going to introduce some new organisational structures as well. We are creating new structures, alongside existing trade unions, to organise the workers' sector. In the hospitals, for instance, we are forming common unions for doctors, nurses and attendants where traditionally each had their own union. We will also organise with broader than industrial organisations that take up not only the workplace issues of the workers but also their broader concerns.