This past April, Sri Lanka was rocked by a deadly terrorist attack that killed over 300 people. The Sri Lankan government has since used this as a pretext for cracking down on dissent. In order to understand this situation, we look at the history of Sri Lanka: British colonial rule, the modern neocolonial administration, and the imperialists who jockey to control it—as well as the revolutionary struggles to drive these oppressors out.
In the wake of the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka, the government declared Martial Law and deployed troops throughout the country.
In Sri Lanka over 300 people were killed in the Easter Bombings of multiple churches and high-end hotels. For many, April 21st, 2019 was the first time that they have heard of the country, at least in recent years. Sri Lanka is an island located to the south of India. The main ethnic groups are the Sinhalese and Tamils who are located in the South and North of the island, respectively. While the ruling elite of Sri Lanka often pushes the line that it is a “Buddhist country”, it is a religiously diverse land, and includes Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. And, like many other countries in Asia and the rest of the world, it has been dominated politically and economically by the interests of foreign imperialists and colonial powers for hundreds of years, with its people constantly facing the brunt of oppression from these imperialists and their collaborating local ruling elite.
The media—and the imperialists whose interests they serve—work to keep people in countries like Sri Lanka oppressed. Many leaders in Sri Lanka and abroad sent their blessings to the people who died in the Easter Bombings. The media coverage has largely framed Sri Lanka as a peaceful, beautiful island that was hurt by the evildoers of the world. Some reporters even went so far as to imply that the attacks were dominantly reflective of an ongoing war on Christianity by Muslims. These narratives distort and coverup the neocolonial reality of Sri Lanka for people who may know little about the country. For a long time its people have been living in oppressive conditions created by the Sri Lankan ruling elite and the imperialists that they obey.
This was particularly evident in the summer of 2009, when the Sri Lankan government massacred hundreds of thousands of Tamils in its final efforts to end the Tamil liberation struggle against the Sinhalese Buddhist ruling elite. The hypocrisy of the international corporate media is evident when one contrasts the lack coverage of this massacre. Genuine liberation struggles act against the interests of the ruling elite so none of the imperialists wanted to express their sympathies with the Tamil people’s struggle. As a result, one of the most horrific genocides of the 21st century was barely covered in the corporate media.
Even when there was coverage of the genocide of Tamils, it was only through distorted tales that fit the bourgeois narrative, framing it as a civil war that had ended—and implying that this would bring peace to Sri Lanka—instead reporting on how a liberation struggle was suppressed through genocide. There was the occasional concern expressed by some people of human rights violations that the government committed in the final stages against what the media often referred to as the “separatist, terrorist Tamil organization.”
One of many open mass graves of Tamils during the genocide in Sri Lanka. Thousands were killed by brutal chemical weapons that melted people’s flesh.
These were generally bourgeois attempts to say, “both sides were wrong” and shed a few crocodile tears for the dead. In doing so they completely ignored the root causes of the oppression of the Tamil people at the hands of the imperialists and their lackeys in the Sri Lankan ruling elite. But even this low-level of coverage quickly disappeared from the mainstream press, even while the Tamil people continued to struggle daily against all sort of oppression.
When U.S. politicians suddenly claim to care about the oppressed of Sri Lanka and the struggles that they are going through, we have to realize that they are only doing it out of their own capitalist interests. Their concerns over the Easter Bombings were only meant to promote the Islamophobic “War on Terror” narrative and justify their maneuvers to capitalize on the tragedy and gain an advantage against Chinese imperialists’ maneuvers in Sri Lanka. From studying the aftermath of the bombings we can learn about the role that Sri Lanka plays in the present power struggle between the imperialists, and the ways in which the Sri Lankan ruling elite sells out the population in order to maintain their own status while satisfying the imperialists. Neocolonial relationships are the most prominent modern method of the capitalist imperialists’ oppression of the people, and the Easter Bombings is an important case study which exposes how they operate.
The Colonization of Sri Lanka
In order to get at the core of the Easter Bombings, it is important to understand the general history that led to Sri Lanka’s current neocolonial state. Before the colonial period started with the Portuguese colonization of the region in the 16th century, the Sri Lankan people were already oppressed by the feudal kingdoms. Feudal oppression was not unique to Sri Lanka, but its particular form in Sri Lanka had a decisive impact on how subsequent relations were set up between the imperialists and ruling elite.
After the Portuguese invaded, the Dutch were the next colonizers, and then the British. It is important to note that contrary to the lessons of bourgeois history classes, none of these empires ever conquered Sri Lanka through their “military might”; some of the Sri Lankan feudal kingdoms and the people more broadly put up a resistance.
But there were also many feudal chiefs who sold out to the colonizers. They aspired to secure themselves a comfortable position within the empires of the colonial powers. Though resistance movements provided serious pushback against the British, many of the resistance leaders were looking out for their own power, and were not ultimately interested in liberating the people as a whole. Despite not immediately selling out like other chiefs, many found positions within British Sri Lanka after resisting became unfavorable for them.
A British artistic depiction of the suppression of the 1818 Uva Rebellion in Sri Lanka during which the peasants rose up against the seizure of their land. Although painted by the British, it shows the brutality of the reprisals they carried out.
The British colonization brought very severe oppression of the Sri Lankan people. The Waste Lands Ordinance—a colonial law—took away the land that peasants were able to “own” under the feudal system, and the Grain Tax put such a heavy tax on peasants (including those who bought back land they had lost) that it forced them out of their lands again, leaving many to starve. These maneuvers by the British in Sri Lanka mirrored similar ploys they carried out in their other colonies, and globally led to what is known as the Late Victorian Holocaust in which between 30 and 60 million colonized people in the British Empire were killed.
The land that the colonizers stole from the Sri Lankan peasants went to the British crown, and to British plantation owners. Despite beating down the people through all sorts of maneuvers, the British were so afraid of the Sri Lankan peasantry that they would not let hire them because the British were afraid of earlier rebellions by the peasants in 1818 and 1848 in particular. Instead, they brought over plantation workers from British colonized India to work as slaves on the plantations. Like the Sri Lankan peasants, the Indian plantation workers faced intense suffering and death due to the conditions that they were put through.
This contradicts a primary argument used by the contemporary Sri Lankan elite—the scapegoating of people of Indian-origin as the reason for the economic problems of in Sri Lankan. In reality the problems today are the direct result of the ruling elite’s historical collaboration with the imperialists and their shared efforts in the exploitation of the people, including those who were forcibly imported from mainland India. And today, they push for ethnic violence and scapegoating to save themselves from public outrage and opposition.
The End of British Rule and the Neocolonial Present
The devastation of the Sri Lankan people and culture led to anti-British sentiment. Resistance movements and actions formed in response. These movements played a role in preventing the total decimation of Sri Lanka by the British. However, the movements, and the leaders especially, were often dominated by a bourgeois reformist outlook.
The anti-imperialist sentiment of the people was real, but they were time and time again abandoned by leaders who only looked to “demand” that the British give them rights, instead of working to build a militant mass movement to overthrow imperialist rule. These bourgeois reformists would form the Ceylon National Congress (CNC), and acted as the “representatives” of the Sri Lankans under British domination. For the British, working through the CNC was a great way to quell direct resistance, and ensure that their interests would be preserved even after allowing Sri Lanka to become technically independent. The “liberation” in 1948, or transitional state of Sri Lanka from direct to indirect imperialist rule (known as neocolonialism), is an example of this arrangement.
A Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) anti-Muslim rally in Sri Lanka. The BBS is a Buddhist fascist organization with ties to the government which has carried out a series of anti-Muslim pogroms.
From 1948 to the present day Sri Lanka has been a neocolonial country, free in name but actually controlled by foreign powers. Two main parties emerged in this period, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the SLFP being the party that put out a more “progressive” line. Regardless of its initial promises and statements, the SLFP became just as bad as the UNP. They both depend on inducing ethnicity and anti-people nationalist ideas that are used to mask the real economic issues that were plaguing the population. The parties both pushed for Sinhala Buddhist nationalist thought—Sinhalese being the majority of the population—and encouraged violent attacks against minorities such as the Tamils.
Many of these politicians pushed the idea that the Sinhalese Buddhists were the “real” Sri Lankans, and that their economic trouble came from Tamils “stealing jobs” that should be theirs. Often this view was justified through glorification of feudal Sri Lanka, when Sinhalese was the most spoken language. Tamil was seen as an outside language that came from India (though Sinhala also came from the subcontinent), and the politicians often frame Tamils as an invading force that helped to ruin the supposedly great feudal times.
This view is very inaccurate. The feudal kingdoms—both Sinhala and Tamil—never fought for the people, instead they represented the interests of the land-owning classes. It also ignores the complicated migration patterns that formed the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. Many Tamils were brought over by the British as plantation workers. Though there are bourgeois and ruling elite Tamils, these people are more aligned with the Sinhala Buddhist ruling elite and bourgeoisie than the Tamil people. The Tamil-Sinhala conflict only intensified, and no one from the ruling elite (Sinhala or Tamil) did anything to unite the groups, but instead only worsened it by promoting ethnic tensions as way of distracting people from the real causes of their poverty and oppression.
The true reason for why the Tamils held certain jobs was more closely related to the Indian plantation worker and Sri Lankan peasant conflict. A divide-and-rule strategy was used by the British to control the labor and the Sri Lankan peasants, and its success in the plantations was replicated in other fields. By pitting the plantation workers against the peasants, and the Sinhalese against the Tamils, the British were able to keep all of the people down. There was little done to revert the damage in the neocolonial transition, to the harm of the Sri Lankan people and to the benefit of the imperialists and Sri Lankan ruling elite. And the fruition of these colonial and neocolonial policies can be seen in the widespread Sinhalese contempt for Tamils, especially those with jobs.
Both the UNP and SLFP never did anything to solve the real economic issues that plagued the Sri Lankan people, and instead helped to further subjugate Sri Lanka for the imperialists by taking World Bank loans and imposing various austerity measures on the people. It was the working class and the peasantry that faced the brunt of these policies, putting them further into economic hardship by the 60s and 70s. The real difference between the parties is that the SLFP had to maneuver while touting a “progressive” line, but this was little more than a mask they put on to disguise their true intentions. For example, in 1964, then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the SLFP nationalized the foreign oil companies. However this was mostly to appeal to the masses that came out in protest in response to the economic troubles at the time. Bandarnaike later reversed this decision due to pressure from the U.S.
PM Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) President Maithripala Sirisena (right) share a laugh. While nominally political rivals, they are united by their shared interest in oppressing the Sri Lankan people.
The Easter Bombings and Inter-imperialist Conflict
The events following April 21st show the current ruling elite’s consistency with their predecessors. Immediately, the military was given an excess amount of power to “deal” with the situation, and a heavier military presence was deployed throughout the country. A nationwide curfew and social media ban were put in place, framed as a necessity to deal with the tragedy. However the approach that the government is taking is not meant to serve the people during a time of tragedy. Instead, the government induced isolation and fear among the population, by taking up Islamophobic “War on Terror” rhetoric that was also being put out by many governments in response to the Easter Bombings, especially the U.S. and China.
The government used that fear and isolation to justify bringing foreign agencies like the FBI to “help their investigations,” and to expand its intensely militarized “state of emergency.” The government arrested over 100 people that they claimed have connections to the individuals and groups involved. But these people were arrested under de facto martial law, without any democratic process. The numerous arrests may be more of a result of the government trying to support its dubious claims that terrorists are rampant on the island.
There is even more reason to be suspicious of the government given the events preceding the bombings. Many reports have come out exposing the fact that the Sri Lankan government was repeatedly warned about the threat of an imminent attack—both by internal security agencies and ones from other countries—however they took no actions to stop an attack. The incompetency and lack of action has a lot to do with the feud between the president, Maithripala Sirisena (of the SLFP), and the prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (of the UNP). After the attack, the blame was passed on to members of lower ranks and rivals. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have a long history putting their political needs in front of the people, just like all the other members of the ruling elite. Therefore their claims about the attacks should be viewed with extreme skepticism.
Islamophobic thought has been put forward through other means as well. Sirisena placed a ban on wearing clothes that cover the face because of “security concerns” over concealed identity. This sort of law is clear attack on Muslim women.
The ban implies that clothes such as burkas and niqabs are security threats. It is notable that Sirisena has been so aggressive with such “security measures,” despite ignoring the multiple warning memos prior to the bombings. One of the most significant examples of the true intent of this policy is the Sri Lankan police’s claim that Muslim American activist Amara Majeed was one of the bombing suspects. Because of this she was harassed and received death threats, and expressed that she and her family were afraid for their safety.
Since the Easter Bombings Sri Lanka has been under Martial Law. Soldiers with machine guns have been deployed throughout the country, in particular in Muslim communities.
After backlash from Majeed and others, the Sri Lankan police admitted the “mistake.” Majeed is of Sri Lankan origin, and wears a hijab in part as a form of protest against these Islamophobic laws. The Sri Lankan government may try to pass this situation off as a mistake, but they have done similar things many times before. Sri Lankans who have done work against the agenda of the state have often been labeled as terrorists, associates of terrorists, or threats to the state. This is then used by the government to justify arresting or even outright assassinating them.
It is no surprise that anti-Muslim riots arose soon after the bombing, striking fear into the hearts of Sri Lankan Muslims. On May 13, a Muslim carpenter was killed by a mob in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan authorities’ condemnation of the mob violence should not mislead us from seeing the ruling elite’s involvement in creating the anti-Muslim sentiment.
The bombings opened a new way for the ruling elite of Sri Lanka to connect the problems of the Sri Lankan people to global, imperialist-backed anti-Muslim sentiments. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been explicit about this: “The danger is not over, we are now a victim of global terrorism. Even if we have arrested or killed every terrorist responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks, extremists abroad can still cause trouble for us. We need intelligence sharing with foreign partners to deal with this challenge.” From this the message is clear, the Sri Lankan government plans to let foreign intelligence agencies run wild within their borders! Perhaps they will allow the CIA to set up a secret black-site prison and torture chamber.
The anti-Muslim sentiments are fostered in part by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups and individuals. These forces promote the messages and actions of the ruling elite, and are often themselves members of the ruling elite. The attitudes towards Muslims of reactionary forces are very similar to the attitudes towards the Tamils in earlier times (and the discrimination against Tamils is still significant but less intense than in the past). These right wing forces try to portray Muslims, like Tamils, as foreigners who are coming to the country to dominate Sri Lanka.
The influence of Arab countries in Sri Lanka along with globally promoted Islamophobia help to justify thought and policies that hurt Sri Lankan Muslims. Like in the past, modern members of the Sri Lankan ruling elite need to maintain ethnic conflicts in order to mask the true nature Sri Lanka’s neocolonial existence. Though there have been Christian-Muslim tensions, these have arisen mostly in response to the bombings. The Buddhist nationalist ruling elite’s role in fostering these tensions against non-Buddhists is the main factor.
The Hambantota port is only one of a series of projects China has built globally as part of their effort to become the most powerful empire in the world through the Belt and Road Initiative.
The imperialists also need the “War on Terror” justification in order to legitimize their own schemes. Competition between the U.S. and China is intensifying as they vie for control of neocolonies, and Sri Lanka is one of these neocolonies. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SFLP presidency, which began in 2005, he courted a relationship with China, opening Sri Lanka up for their imperialist plunder. In exchange, the Chinese imperialists helped the Sri Lankan government to suppress the Tamil Tigers—armed revolutionaries who waged a struggle for Tamil liberation from the late 1970s until 2009. China sent millions of dollars of arms and other investment and support to Rajapaksa’s government.
China was not the only foreign country which helped to suppress the movement—the U.S. and India also took part—but China was able to secure a big share of control of the country because of their military aid in suppressing the Tigers. After the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, Rajapaksa took out loans from China for developing the Hambantota Port, located in the south of Sri Lanka. This port was part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, through which the Chinese imperialists aim to overtake the U.S. as the leading world superpower. The loans that China extended to Sri Lanka had particularly high interest rates; a practice that China and other imperialists have long used to gain further control of neocolonies.
The debt became so bad that in 2017 Sri Lanka gave a 99-year lease of the port to China, effectively ceding control of the port to the Chinese state and military. And even though Sri Lanka says it is not meant to be a military base for China, it is clear that the imperialist country has other plans. In 2014, a Chinese submarine arrived in Colombo; in 2019, after the bombing, they donated a frigate to the Sri Lankan Navy when some Sri Lankan some sailors and officers went to China for training. While all this amounts to selling out the Sri Lankan people, it was a great win for Rajapaksa. Through these maneuvers he was able to get his name on an airport and secure election financing from China. Of course, it was not just Rajapaksa. Sirisena, who was elected in 2015, has further increased China’s influence in the country despite calling for “national sovereignty.”
At present Sri Lanka is caught in the imperialist conflict between the U.S. and China. As part of neocolonialism, various imperialist powers are able to invest in countries like Sri Lanka and compete for control. Recently, the competition between the U.S. and China in Sri Lanka has reached a fever pitch. This is reflected in various maneuvers by members of the Sri Lankan elite. For example, Sirisena has been dead-set against relations with the U.S. Pretending that he hasn’t been building closer ties with China, he claimed, “Some foreign forces want to make Sri Lanka one of their bases. I will not allow them to come into the country and challenge our sovereignty.”
However, Wickremesinghe, his UNP rival and current PM, has been much more open to being a U.S. lackey. In July 2019, he was in talks with the U.S. to sign a State of Forces Agreement, which would grant the U.S. the ability to build a military base inside the country. The U.S. military personnel at this base would be subject to U.S. law instead of Sri Lankan law. This would effectively protect them from any prosecution for crimes they commit against the Sri Lankan people. The U.S. and its supporters argue that the agreement would help the U.S. keep Sri Lanka sovereign and defend against Chinese influence. Wickremesinghe is trying to form the type of connections with the U.S. that Sirisena and Rajapaksa have with China. The only way to overcome this impasse is for the masses to come together in revolutionary struggle against the ruling elite of Sri Lanka and their imperialist masters.
A early women’s brigade of the Tamil Tigers. In addition to fighting for the liberation of Tamil people, the Tigers also fought against patriarchy and caste oppression.
Sri Lanka’s revolutionary movement is at a low-tide right now, but the country has a rich past full of numerous examples of revolutionary struggles and mass rebellions. None of these movements completely succeeded in overthrowing the elite and kicking out the imperialists. However, they showed great unity among the masses, and struck fear into the hearts of the oppressors. One such example took place on August 12, 1953, when leftist forces joined against the then UNP government in response to big increases in rice, railway, and postal rates. These austerity measures were an attempt to resolve the economic crisis created by the ruling elite through bleeding the people dry. The mass protests frightened the government and “reformists,” which led to mass repression. However, despite this crackdown on the protest movement the prime minister resigned shortly thereafter. Another mass rebellion took place on May Day 1963, in which thousands of people marched for International Worker’s Day, and expressed their immense dissatisfaction with the dominant SLFP and UNP parties. That May Day protest was so successful because of a high level of working class organization and strikes against the economic issues that the government had created. The strikes led to the unity of various trade unions under the Joint Committee of Trade Unions (JCTU).
However, perhaps most notable in the revolutionary history of Sri Lanka is the struggle of the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers were a revolutionary group that fought one of the longest national liberation struggles in Sri Lanka. They fought against the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ruling elite and the Tamil co-conspirators with these elite, who were together scapegoating and oppressing the Tamil minorities. Through the revolutionary struggle they were able to liberate the northern parts of Sri Lanka, and operated their own communities there. This caused great alarm among the imperialists and the Sri Lankan ruling elite, who ended up working together to suppress them. The Tigers put up a long and heroic fight. Even against such overwhelming force, their eventual defeat was primarily due to their own internal issues and not simply the might of the oppressors.
Analyzing the Sri Lankan movements of the past teaches us the positive and negative aspects of these struggles, along with conditions specific to Sri Lanka. All this needs to be considered by future mass movements in the neocolony. Many past mass struggles could have been more successful, but were eventually led in negative directions by opportunist leaders and members. This is not unique to Sri Lanka, but rather something that every revolutionary movement has to deal with. The only way to be prepared for that is to be principled, ensure that leaders are principled, and that members within the movement receive good political education.
After the defeat of the Tamil Tigers the struggle for a liberated Tamil Eelam faced a temporary setback. However, a strong international solidarity movement worked to raise mass awareness of the Tamil genocide.
Unlike the U.S. and Britain, there is hardly even a pretext of democratic rule in Sri Lanka (and in reality there is no real democracy for the masses in those countries either). The ruling elite are very quick to pull the trigger, both literally and metaphorically in the sense of unleashing mass repression on almost all forms of protest. This is also an obstacle that revolutionary movements in Sri Lanka must confront. What’s more, there are deep ethnic divides in the country. Past revolutionary movements struggled to overcome these divides. The broad masses of people in Sri Lanka have a real class interest in overthrowing the ruling elite and kicking out the imperialist plunderers. So there is a basis for them to come together and struggle against their common oppressor. But they also need to handle various ethnic chauvinisms and biases among the people. Foreign working-class revolutionary movements can also provide a guide for what can be done in Sri Lanka. The revolutionary movement in the Philippines in particular provides some key lessons. Like Sri Lanka, the Philippines is a neocolony in the middle of U.S.-China competition. Despite mass state repression, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Filipino people, and a series of dictators, the movement has persisted and has become more influential in its fight for the people. For the past fifty years it has been growing in strength and provides a shining example to the people of Sri Lanka and the world that a better world is possible and the mighty and powerful oppressors can be overthrown.
The need to liberate Sri Lanka is contrary to dominant media that relegates the country to a “nice tourist destination.” But such false narratives are quite flimsy. In learning a bit of the history of the country, looking at past mass struggles in Sri Lanka, and learning from other movements internationally, it becomes clear that there is a way forward for the people. The road ahead is torturous, and the masses of people will certainly be attacked again and again by the ruling elite and their imperialist sponsors, but despite this the future is bright.