Fred Halliday


In April 1971 a revolutionary insurrection exploded in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Unanticipated by imperialism, and unexpected by revolutionaries elsewhere thousands of poorly armed people rose in organized rebellion against the very government they had voted into power in the previous May. This upsurge marked a totally new phase in the hitherto relatively tranquil history of the Ceylonese state. But the insurrection also had an importance far beyond the coasts of Ceylon itself. A brief resume of the political situation in which it exploded will indicate its astounding and unique character. The government against which the people rose had come to power on a verbally 'anti-imperialist' and 'socialist' platform, and included representatives of the pro-Moscow Communist party and the ex-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja part. It was generally regarded in imperialist circles as a dangerous and dogmatically left-wing regime. Secondly, the resistance to this government did not take the form of fragmented and spontaneous resistance, nor of organized strikes, nor even of initial low - level guerrilla actions: it assumed the form of a widespread armed insurrection, the most advanced and most complex form of all revolutionary combat. Moreover, the organization which led this insurrection, the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (People's Liberation Front), had an extremely unusual political origin and formation: it had developed as a split on the left from a pro-Chinese Communist Party. After working in clandestinity for five years before emerging in the election campaign of 1970, and after a further year of public work subject to constant harassment, it was able to marshal thousands of insurgents against the Bandaranaike regime. Finally, the international line-up of support for the Ceylonese Government represented a wider and more advance degree of international counter- revolutionary intervention than has been seen anywhere else to date. Within a few weeks of the outbreak of the insurrection, the Ceylonese bourgeois state had received military aid from the US, Britain, Australia, Russia, Yugoslavia, Egypt, India and Pakistan; and economic aid and political approval from China.

The Ceylonese insurrection was also strategically of greatest significance for the revolutionary movement in Asia as a whole. In the preceding twelve months, Great Power rivalry in the Indian Ocean had been on the increase, while popular wars in the Gulf (Oman) and Eritrea had consolidated and advanced. The Ceylonese insurrection came a month after the defeat of the US invasion of Laos, and coincided with the popular resistance to Yahya Khan in Bengal. It thus formed part of creeping social conflagration throughout the Asia continent and represented the opening of a new social revolutionary front, in between east Asia and west Asia, at a modal point where the economic and strategic interests of imperialism had previously appeared to be secure. In the twelve months after the uprising, analogous upsurges in the other Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Madagascar further underscored the instability of imperialist control of the whole region. what follows is an attempt to grasp the specificity of recent Ceylonese history, and the nature of the present economic and social crisis in the island, which gave birth to the JVP and the astonishing insurrection of April 1971.

The Advent of Colonialism

Ceylon is a small tropical island, of some 25000 square miles, separated by a narrow defile of water from the Indian subcontinent. It is divided into different regions by both topography and climate. The whole coastal rim, and the northern and eastern interior, form a flat lowland; on the south-center, however, a high massif rises sheer above the plains to dense, forested peaks of over 7000 feet. Overlapping this division is an extremely sharp climatic contrast between a triangular wet zone in the south-west corner of the island, with heavy rainfall, fertile land and irrigated cultivation, and a dry zone haunted by drought and scrub, which occupies the whole of the north and east of the island. In the early pre-colonial epoch, much of this was watered by extensive hydraulic systems, and formed the homeland of the Ancient Sinhalese Kingdoms which vied with the Tamil states in the for north of the island. The network of tanks, dams and canals had, however, fallen into disuse and decay by the thirteenth century, well before the arrival of European conquerors; and, as a consequence, the center of Sinhalese culture and society had shifted southwards to the highlands of Kandy in the south-west. It was in the latter zone that cinnamon was collected wild in the jungles: this spice became the first object of Portuguese plunder in the sixteenth century.

Ceylon underwent a longer historical experience of colonization than any other country in Asia. It bears the marks of this past - some 450 years of European domination - to this day. The Portuguese invaded the island in 1505, and rapidly conquered the coastal lowlands, isolating but not subjecting the Kandyan kingdom in the fastnesses of the south-central highlands. They established a rudimentary but effective trading control over the island, exploiting it for the collection of wild cinnamon, of which Ceylon then had a world monopoly. In the succeeding 150 years they also succeeded in converting a relatively high proportion of the Sinhalese population in the south-western coastal strip, centered on Colombo, to Catholicism, thereby dissociating them both culturally and economically from the Sinhalese in the beleaguered Kandyan uplands. A singular mark of the Portuguese impact on the low-country Sinhalese was their mass adoption of Lusitnaian names. To this day, De Souza, Perera, and Gomes proliferate in the southwest: a phenomenon whose only parallel in Asia is to be found in the Philippines, where the Spanish monastic frailocracia achieved an even more spectacular success in formally concerting and hispanizing the indigenous population. Portugese rule, however, came to an end in 1658, when the Dutch seized their territories in the island in collusion with the Kandyan nobility, during the long Ibero-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century. The new rulers developed and modernized the economic system bequeathed to them by their predecessors. The Dutch cinnamon economy was now based on organized plantations, in which production was rationalized and yields increased. The blockade of the unsubdued highlands was tightened, and the social and political system of late Kandyan feudalism gradually disintegrated within the ring of Dutch forts and settlements which surrounded it. Holland was not interested in mass conversion of the local population, given the more pronouncedly particularist and racist character of Protestantism: but it did introduce the peculiar system of Roman-Dutch law which has survived in the island down to the present.

The Plantation Economy

Another 150 years latter, Ceylon underwent its third European conquest. Once again, it fell to a new colonial master as a by-blow of international conflicts within Europe itself. The formation of the Batavian Republic in Holland in 1795, ally and client of the Directory in Paris, led to a British attack on Ceylon as part of England's worldwide counter-revolutionary and imperialist offensive against the French Revolution and its sequels. Kandyan feudalism collaborated with the British expeditionary forces as eagerly and short -sightedly against the Dutch, as it had with the Dutch against the Portuguese. Once the Dutch had been evicted, London proceeded to complete the unfinished work left by Amsterdam. In 1815, the British fomented a revolt by the Kandyan aristocracy against the last Kandyan monarch and marched into uplands to depose him at their request. Three years later, when the same nobility rose against British rule in a fierce rebellion in which their villagers participated heroically, they were crushed by the occupiers they had themselves invited into their remote redoubts. A subsequent rising in 1948 was soon stamped out; a communications network was constructed to end inaccessibility of the uplands; and for the first time, colonial rule now covered the whole length and breadth of the island. The military and political preconditions had now been laid for a massive economic transmutation of the island. In the 1830s, coffee was introduced into Ceylon, a crop which flourishes in high altitudes. The principal impetus to this development of capitalist production in Asian Ceylon was the decline in coffee production in the West Indies, following the abolition of slavery there; similarly, the development of mass cotton production in Egypt for the Manchester mills came in 1861 when the US civil war cut off the supply of US cotton to Britain. Speculators and entrepreneurs from England swarmed to the new conquered uplands, and expropriated vast tracts of forest on the higher slopes of the Kandyan valleys from the villagers who had traditionally used them as common lands for fuel and fruit gathering. The right to seize this land was 'purchased' from the British state at nominal prices: it was then cleared and converted into enormously profitable coffee plantations. The Kandyan villagers refused to abandon their traditional subsistence holdings and become wage-workers on these new capitalist estates. Despite all the pressure exerted by the colonial state, they could not be broken into the mould of a plantation proletariat in the nineteenth century. British imperialism thus had to draw on its limitless reserve army of labour in India itself, to man its lucrative new outpost to the south. An infamous system of contract labour was established, which transported hundreds of thousands of Tamils 'coolies' from southern India into Ceylon for the coffee estates. These Tamils labourers died in tens of thousands both on the journey itself, and in the nightmarish conditions of the early plantations. Nearly a million were imported in the 1840 and 1850 alone: the death rate was 250 per 1000. The decimation and super-exploitation of this class founded the fortunes of British imperialism in Ceylon. The creation of this vast immiserized mass not only generated the surplus-value pumped regularly home to London: it divided the oppressed population of the island as well, allowing the colonial state to manipulate and exacerbate ethnic antagonisms between Tamils and Sinhalse in a classic strategy of divide and rule. The coffee economy collapsed in the 1870, when a leaf disease ravaged the plantations. But the economic system it had created survived intact into the epoch of its successor crop. In the 1880, tea was introduced on a wide scale and soon had ousted coffee completely. The main social alteration to which this led was not in the structure of the labour force, which remained as before composed of contracted Tamil coolies, but in the nature of the entrepreneurial units. Tea was more capital-intensive and needed a higher volume of initial investment to be processed. The result was that individual estate-owners were now supplanted by large English consolidated companies based either in London ('sterling firms') or Colombo ('rupee firms'). Monoculture was thus increasingly capped by monopoly within the plantation economy. The pattern thus created in the nineteenth century has remained essentially identical ever since: Liptons and Brooke Bonds rule the Ceylonese massif down to this day. The only significant modifications to the colonial economy were the addition of a rubber sector in the foothills below, and the enlargement of coconut cultivation in the coastal region near Colombo. These three crops, in descending order of importance, henceforward dominate the island's commercial agriculture.


Ceylon's Ethnic Divisions

The importing of Tamil labour levelled off in the twentieth century, leaving a social and ethnic configuration in Ceylon which has fundamentally determined the subsequent character and course of class struggle there. In can now be summed up as follows. 70 per cent of the population are Sinhalese. They are concentrated in the south and center of the island, and are themselves divided into 'low-country' and 'Kandyan' Sinhalese, according to their region of residence and date of conquest by European colonialism; the latter were naturally much less deeply affected than the former, and have preserved traditionalist superstructures (religion and kinship) more jealously. The bulk of the Kandyan Sinhalese are subsistence peasants, cultivating rice in small plots in the upland valleys. Colonial rule, however, by no means wiped out the traditional ruling class which had squeezed this peasantry with its oppressive exactions before conquest. A grasping neo-feudal stratum of aristocratic and clerical landowner, chieftains and monks, which was steeped in reactionary Buddhist superstitions. This stratum was recruited in the upper Goyigama caste and wielded immemorial local power. Keeping to its paddy estates, it did not participate much in the cash-crop agriculture established by the British. The low-country Sinhalese, by contrast, who outnumbered the Kandyan Sinhalese by some 3 to 2, had been exposed to three centuries' more European rule: their social structure was consequently far more hybrid. while many subsistence villages remained relatively untouched, lager numbers of low-country Sinhalese were inducted into the coconut and rubber plantations, while other formed the nucleus of the urban working class that developed in Colombo and other ports in the island. At the same time, the commercialization of coastal agriculture by the British created new opportunities for the profiting from colonial rule, under the participated on a significant scale in the development of the rubber sector, and rapidly dominated the coconut zone. A business elite based on local commerce burgeoned in Colombo. Many of these wealthy and powerful low-country Sinhalese were recruited from the Karawa caste (originally linked of fishing. and hence well below the Goyigama in the caste scale), and were Roman Catholics with Portuguese cognomens. They sedulously imitated and parodied the culture and customs of their British overlords. They were flanked by the small community of descendants from the Portuguese and Dutch themselves, the 'Burghers', who formed an arrogant Eurasian minority in the towns.

The Tamil population of Ceylon, for its, is even more divided than the Sinhalese. Numerically, it is equally distributed between the so-called 'Ceylon Tamils', who are overwhelmingly the majority community in the Northern Province of the island, and extend in strength down the east coast, and the so-called 'Indian Tamils', who are clustered on the plantations of the central massif. The 'Ceylon Tamils' are those who have resided in the island from its earliest history - indeed, since before the Christian epoch. They form a compact rural society in the north, concentrated mainly in the Jaffna peninsula; this society is organized along rigid cast-class lines. The peasantry was not affected by plantation encroachments, and ekes our a living from arid under the pressure of the exploitative higher caste groups. A trading stratum benefiting from proximity to southern Indian has long been entrenched in Jaffna. The Hindu landowners and businessmen maintain a tight social control of the population by a network of communal influences and organizations. Together with the richer peasants, they provided many of the recruits to the island civil service created by the British, who deliberately promoted a Tamil influx into the colonial bureaucracy and Police in order to batten down the danger of rebellion by the Sinhalese, who constituted the majority of Ceylon's inhabitants. The 'Indian' Tamils, on the other hand, existed in another geographical and social world altogether from the 'Ceylon' Tamils. They formed, as has been seen, a solid mass of captive wage-workers in the central massif, the rural proletariat which produced the bulk of the country's wealth. Given the superimposition of a tea and a rice economy in the Kandyan uplands, these Tamil workers (by the mid twentieth century permanent inhabitants of Ceylon, of course) co-populated the massif with the Kandian Sinhalese peasantry; on its eastern flank, however, where plantations were created out of dense jungles without previous Sinhalese settlement, in some districts they constituted a very large majority. The Tamil rural proletariat does not share village residence with the Kandyan peasantry: it is located in barrack like 'coolie lines' of its own, usually on hills above the level of the Sinhalese hamlets below.

In the early decades of this century, Ceylon - 'Jewel of the Indian Ocean' had become indeed a polished gem in the treasure-trove of British imperialism. It was not only a highly prosperous plantation economy. It was also, largely because of this, one of the most smoothly and easily governed colonies in the Empire. The British were able to use the ethic divisions of the island, crystallized in the pattern of the labour force, to defuse any threat of serious for independence. A basically bipolar system of the Ceylonese type was much more malleable for this purpose than the polyethnic mosaic of India proper, where the sheer multiplicity of regional and linguistic groups cancelled their diversity out of some extent, and created the space for a genuinely nationalist movement against British rule (eventually, of course, itself split by Gandhi's reactionary confessionalism, but even so preserving a trans-ethnic character). Tamil-Sinhalese antagonisms were much easier for English Governors to manipulate. Moreover, the British had at their disposal a uniquely subservient and pliable local elite from both groups, formed by three centuries of European colonialism before they themselves had even arrived in Ceylon. The landowners and traders of Colombo and Jaffna were not only already inured to obeying white overloads. They had no independent sources of capital accumulation such as the much more powerful merchants of Bombay and Calcutta had in India, with its far more developed pre-colonial industries and its much larger post-colonial domestic markets. The result was that no equivalent to the Indian Congress party ever appeared in Ceylon. The indigenous bourgeoisie simply based in the sunshine of Edwardian imperialism and complacently mi-micked its masters. It did not even produce a single political party before Independence - surely a record even in the annals of the Commonwealth. The British themselves paid the best tribute to the matchless obsequiousness of the bourgeoisie-Sinhalese and Tamil -when they voluntarily granted Ceylon universal suffrage in 1931, before any other colony in the Empire, and without a single group in local political life having asked for it! Such was the docility of the fawning parliamentarians of the Legislative Council of the seeming passivity of the masses. (The Conservative MP co-responsible for this happy stroke unabashedly evoked the example of Disraeli's coup in granting the Second Reform Bill of 1867 in British.) Even after the establishment of universal suffrage, no party system emerged: rich notables and dignitaries were elected to the Legislative Council as individuals, and there acquired the 'training' necessary for eventual transfer of administrative responsibility to them.


A Socialist Party

In The last years before the Second world War, however, a small group of Marxist intellectuals appeared on the paralysed political scene in Colombo. In 1935, they formed the LSSP, which campaigned against the imperialist oppression and exploitation of Britain, and attacked the grovelling complicity of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie with it. It elected two members to the state Council in 1936; more significantly, its agitation gradually started to arouse sections of the plantation workers and peasantry. A sudden upswing of class struggle in the rural regions coincided with the onset of the Second World War. The LSSP, which had hitherto been a loose organization grouping all tendencies in the left, now split: a minority which supported Stalin was expelled and the Third International was denounced from positions similar to those of Trotsky in early 1940 . In consequence, the LSSP did not follow path of class-collaboration with the British pursed by the Indian and other Communist Parties once Germany had attacked the Soviet Union. It denounced the British military build-up in Ceylon during the war, and intensified its efforts to mobilize the exploited classes in the towns and countryside against the colonial power. The result was a mounting series if strikes and riots on the plantations, which created panic among the estate-owners and tea companies. Threatened both by the LSSP's uncompromising hostility to its war effort in Asia, and by its political awakening of the Ceylonese masses, British imperialism acted swiftly to cut off the possibility of a national liberation movement under the party's leadership. The LSSP was dissolved in June 1940, and its leaders jailed. Ruthless suppression of underground resistance followed. Many of the LSSP leaders subsequently succeeded in escaping to India during a Japanese air-raid, where they transferred the center of gravity of their activities during the rest of the war. Incipient mass radicalization was thus repressed before if achieved a durable political form in Ceylon.

Thus, after the war, Britain was able to arrange a leisurely 'transfer of power' to a Ceylonese oligarchy that had scarcely even feigned an independence movement against it. The prospect seemed an extremely fair on for neo-colonial stability. Ceylon was not plagued by over-population of the Indo-Pakistani type. It had less than 8 million inhabitants, whose per capita standard of living was by now well above that of the sub-continental mainland. During the war, its traditional rice imports from Burma had been cut off; to prevent the danger of social unrest in time of war, the British were obliged to establish an official rationing system and to fix the price of imported rice at state cost somewhat below its market levels, while simultaneously guaranteeing price for domestic paddy producers. The practical result was a welfare system of subsidized rice, which was continued after the war when world prices rose considerably. A complementary characteristic of the British legacy was the exceptionally high level of education in Ceylon - again rendered possible because of the small size of the island and therefore the comparatively modest cost of a school system to imperialism. Literacy was thus some 65 per cent in 1945 - an extremely high figure for Asia at that time. The social and political significance of both these mechanisms - very atypical for any colonial or ex-colonial country - are evident: they reflect an unusual capacity of the state to control the population by peaceful mystification r 9ther than physical repression. Budget allocations expressed this Ceylonese peculiarity dramatically: as late as a decade after independence, state expenditure on food subsidies and social services, including education, was no less than ten times that times on the armed forces. The latter were to remain miniscule by comparison with the norm in the so-called Third World, some 4500 men in 1962.


Family - Bandyism

It was this apparently tranquil land which the British handed over to the Ceylonese oligarchy in 1948, after the latter had hastily formed the United National Party. The UNP was duly installed on office, after elections under a special British-made Constitution, replete with a 'Defence agreement' which gave Britain a naval base at Trincomalee, an airfield at Katunayake, and training control of the embryonic Ceylonese Army, which was liberally stocked with British officers. The provincial bourgeoisie of Jaffna had created its own ethnic party, the Ceylon Tamil Congress, which collaborated with the UNP government. The opposition was provided by the re-emergent LSSP (itself temporarily split into two wings) , which affiliated to the Fourth International but now found itself sealed off from the plantation workers by a separate 'Indo-Tamil' communal organization sponsored by the British: its base was henceforward mainly in the urban working class of Colombo and the island's small trade-union movement. The UNP regime which now presided over the frist eight years of independence was one of unbridled, old -world reaction. The Prime Minister and symbol of the 'best of the British tradition' was Don Stephen Senanayake, a plutocratic landowner whose fortunes were derived from the graphite mines on his inherited estates, and whose political style was a comico-repulsive replica of the English ruling class. Senanayake's regime was run by a family clique whose corrupt nepotism had few parallels anywhere sles in the world, outside perhaps the monarchies of Saudi Arabia or Ethiopia. Thus; D.S. Senanayake himself was not only prime Minister, but Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs; his son Dudley Senanayake was Minister of Agriculture; his nephew John Kotelawala was Minister of Commerce; his cousin J.R. Jayawardane was Minister of Finance; while another nephew, R.G. Senanayake, subsequently became Minister of Trade. The only prominent member of the UNP Cabinet not integrated into the nexus of 'family-bandyism' by kinship to Senanayake Senior was S.W. Bandaranaike, who held the important portfolio of Local Administration. The government's first and most fundamental act was to rush through the infamous Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act No. 48 of 1949 , which at one stroke disenfranchised of the totality of the 5000000 strong Tamil plantation proletariat of Indian origin. Bandaranaike was later to be found of calling Ceylon the 'Asian Switzerland', because of his allegedly neutral foreign policy. In fact, no soubriquet could have been more appropriate. For the Ceylonese bourgeoisie, like the Swiss, had now succeeded in excluding the central core of the working class which produced the bulk of its surplus-value from the political framework of the nation altogether: Ceylonese capitalism, like Swiss, was to be built on the backs of 'foreign' workers with not even the most elementary formal rights of citizenship within the country. The UNP regime thus in advance rendered totally important any parliamentary perspective for the Ceylonese Left, and set rolling the avalanche of rabid Sinhalese chauvinism which was to crash over the country in the next decade. After this basic achievement, the Senanayake government did very little: virtuallyno new economic development was promoted, although the Korean War boom temporarliy hiked Ceylonese export prices to record heights.

In 1952, Senanayake died - appropriately enough, from a riding accident during a mock-English equestrian outing. A violent tussle between his son Dudley Senanayake and his nephew John Kotelawala ensued for his succession. Lord Soulbury, the English Governor - General, arbitrated in favour of the son, much to the chagrin of the nephew. Dudley Senanayake's premiership, however, was cut short by the first major social crisis after independence. World rice price had rocketed because of the Korean War, to a point where the traditional rice subsidy alone took 20 per cent of the total budget. Faced with sudden economic difficulties, the younger Senanayake slashed the rice subsidy, stopped school meals and hoisted rail and postal charges. The Left, led by the LSSP, promptly mobilized the masses to resist this direct attack on their standard of living. A day of civil disobedience or Hartal was called, backed by a general strike launched by the main non-communal trade unions. The popular response was deployed the Army to suppress the armed of serious planning or leadership, the Hartal was crushed. But the younger Senanayake was badly damaged by the crisis, and had to resign. His swashbuckling cousin Kotalawala took over the premiership. The rice subsidy was partially restored, and various foreign policy initiatives were undertaken to brighten Ceylon's image abroad (entry into the UN in 1955); but by now the political isolation of the UNP - widely dubbed the 'Uncle-Nephew Party) - and the hatred of the masses for its super-anglicized landowner and comprador oligarchy was manifest.

In 1956 Kotalawala called a general election. The UNP was now for the first time confronted by a major bourgeois rival, led by Solomon Bandaranayake before the full extent of the latter's 'family-bandysim' became apparent. Disgruntled by the preferment of the younger Sananayake and Kotelawala over his head, he had seceded from the UNP in the early fifties. Bandaranayake was of virtually identical social background to the Senanayake clique. He was the son of a low-country owner of vast lands in the Western Province, who had been the Maha Mudaliya or 'Chief Native Interpreter' to the British Governors in the previous century - the top ceremonial position of the tame local aristocracy in the nineteenth century. He was married to the daughter of one of the highest Kandyan chief. Bandaranayake's aim was to propel himself into power by building a political machine that could defeat the UNP. He saw his chance with the growing unpopularity of the Kotelawala government. The increasing social radicalism of the rural masses could be used as a battering -ram for his own ambitions. Naturally, Bandaranayake could not mobilize this discontent for anti-capitalist goals: to do so would have been to contradict the very reason for existence of this big bourgeois. At most, he offered the masses the watery palliatives of a few municipal nationalizations (port and bus companies) of the sort that any self-respecting advanced capitalist country had accomplished long ago, and the termination of the defence agreement with Britain. But onto this otherwise feeble potion he mixed one searing toxic, to make the heads if the masses swim until they could no longer see their real class enemies: religious and racial chauvinism.

Posturing as the champion of Sinhala Buddhism against 'alien' and 'privileged' elements in Ceylonese society, Bandaranayake feinted an attack on the low-country Christian elite behind the UNP while in fact delivering rabid demagogic thrusts against the Tamil working class and peasantry. He himself was a turn-coat Anglican who had adopted Buddhism, so furthering his political career: he now whipped up religious frenzy against the non-Sinhala population in Ceylon by denouncing their sinister 'usurpations' of the central role that Buddhism should play in national life. The very name of his party was a confessional programme in itself. Sri Lanka means 'Holy Ceylon' and designates precisely the messianic chauvinism that is inseparable from Buddhism in the island. For religiosity and racism cannot be dissociated in Ceylon: the local brand of Theravada Buddhism claims, much like Judaism, that the Sinhalese are a 'chosen people' and that Ceylon is their sacred island. divinely elected to its unique historical and spiritual destiny by Buddha himself. This wretched mystification naturally excludes the island other minorities from any equal role in national life. Bandaranayae thus campaigned raucously for 'the exclusive use of Sinhala as an official language' in Ceylon - again ostensibly attacking English while in fact suppressing Tamil. The banner of 'Sinhala Only' rapidly mobilized the rural notables in the Kandyan uplands, in particular. Bandaranayake was able to rally the landowners, monks, teachers and Ayurvedic physicians in the villages of the massif against corrupt 'cosmopolitan' and 'foreign' influences. this stratum had been comparatively by-passed by the UNP, and now struck out vigorously for an increased share of power. Much the most important component of this group was the Buddhist sangha or monastic orders. These Buddhist orders were everywhere large landowners in the Sinhalese villages. It so happened that the year 1956 was the 'Buddha Jayanti' or 2500th anniversary of Buddha's decease and death-bed consecration of 'Sir Lanka': the UNP government had alreadly allocated massive state funds to celebrate this mythical event. In a climate of frenzied clerical fervour, a formidable phalanx of Buddhist monks or bhikkus was formed into Eksath Bhikku Peramuna or United Monks Front, at the behest of the ambitious and unscrupulous Venerable Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thero. Buddharakkhita controlled the Kelaniya temple and had been a founder member and patron of Bandaranayake's SLFP since its inception in 1951. Swarms of his acolytes now criss-crossed the island urging the population of 'be ready to sacrifice your life for the Restoration of Buddhist Ceylon': innumerable bonzes virulently anathematized the 'westernized' Kotelawala and his UNP. Buddharakkhita himself lavishly dispensed the ample funds of the Kelaniya temple, in a personal tour by chauffeured limousine, for this holy cause. He was later to state that his own contribution to Bandaranayake campaign was of the order of 100000 rupees.

Swept along on a tide of foaming clericalism and racism, laced with 'anti-imperialist' c ant, the SLFP won a massive triumph in the general elections of 1956. In no sense whatever was the victorious party more 'progressive' than the UNP ; nor did it represent the 'patty bourgeoisie' , as was often alleged abroad, although it had a strong petty-bourgeois like the Senanayake clan. The SLFP organization did rest on a more traditionalist and Kandyan-oriented sector of the propertied classes than the UNP: paddy - owners, for example, predominated over plantation-owner in its parliamentary ranks - on other words, the rural interests behind its were at this date more linked to rice than to rubber, coconuts or tea and were here less directly tied to imperialism. But these were no less malignant or reactionary in their exploitati8on of the poor peasantry and landless labourers. The Buddhist sangha gained enhanced corporate power. the urban Karawa businessmen and merchants who had previously backed the UNP financially without participating in its political leadership now simply switched their funds to the new, regime in exchange for similar pay-offs. From this point of view, the SLFP was simply the alternative party of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie. However, there is no doubt whatever that Bandaranayake had succeeded in capturing, canalizing and confiscating the deep frustration and wrath of the impoverished rural masses, both Low-Country and Kandyan Sinhalese, which had been accumulating against the old order represented by the UNP. The function of his rabid clerico-chauvinist demagogy was precisely to divert the pentup anger of the poor against their class brothers of another ethnic group: the Tamils. Moreover, it was precisely the prior historical absence of a genuine nationalist movement against the British which permitted a belated intoxication of the masses in a pseudo-nationalist movement against the Tamil. Bandaranayake's party thus appropriated and perverted both the gathering social crisis in the countryside and national sentiments bottled up under the English and never released against them. This is what gave is its false dynamism and mass energy, and made the SLFP potentially a dangerous enemy of the workers and peasants than the discredited Uncle-Nephew Party itself. Events were to show this conclusively within a short space of time. Even is the SLFP represented a different faction of the bourgeoisie, it was equally incapable of fighting imperialism or of freeing the masses at home.

Once on office, Bandaranayake promptly rammed through a 'Sinhala Only' Bill. He also terminated the Defence Pack with Britain and nationalized the Colombo Port Authority and Omnibus Company. But these measures were strictly a sideshow. No agrarian reform, needless to say, was implemented, despite pre-electoral promises to this effect. Meanwhile, the reactionary ideological concoction of 'Buddhist socialism' served to distract the masses and stoke up chauvinist hostility against the Tamil communities. The logical and predictable result of this propaganda was a wild anti-Tamil pogrom in May 1958, which wreaked a terrific toll on the minority throughout the island. After this achievement, the government moved on to mizzle the urban working class by passing the Public Security Act in 1959, the most savagely repressive law in the whole arsenal of Ceylonese bourgeois legislation, specifically designed to crush strikes and demonstration by the oppressed wherever necessary; is was liberally used by both the UNP and the SLFP in the years to come. This, however, was to be the culmination of Bandaranayake's career. For the very forces of clerical chauvinism which he had unleashed and manoeuvred with such calculation now had no further use for him. Buddharakkhita had come to be know as 'Buddy Racketeer' as he in his turn honeycombed the SLFP organization and built up a private financial empire from his luxurious air-conditioned flat behind the Kelaniya temple. Thwarted in one of his crooked deals over a government rice contract and impatient with the slow-down in the anti-Tamil drive and after the riots of 1958, Buddharakkhita ordered the execution of the politician he had helped so decisively to loft into power. Like a South Asian Dollfuss, Bandaranayake was gunned down by a hired monk on his own verandah in September 1959 - victim of the clerico-chauvinism he had himself promoted and symbolized.

A brief period of parliamentary confusion followed. Then in June fresh elections were held. Leadership of the SLFP, in the best traditions, now devolved on to Solomon Bandaranayake's closest relative - his wife Sirimavo Bandaranayake. It was she who presided over another electoral victory and a new five-year government. Scarcely any new policies were implemented, however. The immobilism of the Sirimavo Bandaranayake regime was accompanied by a second flowering of 'family-bandyism'. Her nephew Felix Bandaranayake became the key figure in the Cabinet, controlling the critical Ministry of Finance, and the Parliamentary Secretaryships of External Affairs and Defence; while her cousin William Gopallawa was made Governor-General two years later. Working -class unrest soon erupted in a sequence of demonstrations and strikes throughout 1962, by dock and transport workers and others. Then, in 1963, a broad trade - union front hammered out a common programme of 21 demands of an economic, but anti-capitalist, character and began mass struggles for it. Seriously threatened for the first time by an opposition to its left, the Sirimavo Bandaranayake regime reacted by offering to co-opt the LSSP into its government in exchange for a few token concessions. This manoeuvre was aimed at breaking working class resistance by buying off and integrating the most important section of its traditional leadership. It was succeccful. The LSSP accepted Sirimavo Bandaranayake's offer and was forthwith expelled from the Fourth International. The LSSP, in its origins a courageous vanguard in struggle against the British, had degenerated into a standard reformist organization. Its political principles and will had been submerged under the torrent of pseudo-radical chauvinism that marked the rice of the SLFP, and it had now become only the miserable ruins of its former self. Henceforward it abandoned any vestige if socialism and decorated a ferociously rightist and obscurantist bourgeois government, by doing so accepting the Sinhalese suprematism of the Bandaranayake clan to boot. It was promptly set to work strike-breaking for the regime in late 1964. A small minority of genuine revolutionary militants had broken away from it form the LSSP (R), headed by the trade-union leader Bala Tempoe, secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union. The major achievement of the Cabinet was the notorious Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, which henceforward legalized the mass deportation of Tamil workers to India.

The coalition SLFP-LSSP government, however, lasted only eight months before defections from it led to its defeat. New election were held in Januray 1965. They resulted in a come-back by the UNP, which reconquered enough of the rural vote to from a new govenment, and to underline the inter-changeability of Ceylon's two main capitalist parties. Now under Dudley Senanayake's leadership once again, the UNP outdid even the SLFP in professions of Buddhist zeal and was not far behind in neutralist piety. The whole calendar was reorganized to make the Buddhist Poya holy days the (irregular) rest days of the week henceforward. Humble applications to the World Bank produced modest loans; the Italian ENI was induced to finance an oil refinery. Much more important, the UNP systematically suppressed the wage-demands and social protests of both the urban rural masses, reducing the rice ration and cutting expenditure on education. Using the Public Security Act passed by the SLFP six years earlier, the UNP ruled for no less than three and a half years of its five years of tenure under emergency regulations. By the end of this time, the Ceylonese masses were in a mood of unprecedented and nation-wide dissatisfaction and militancy.


The Economy in Crisis

During the late 1960 Ceylon's neo-colonial political and economic structures were, silently, starting to come under critical pressure. There were three general indices of this situation: Ceylon's sinking export income, growing foreign debt, and escalating unemployment. As the most recent census (1963) indicated, Ceylon has a distinct urban working lass, but the majority of the population are employed in the rural area, in agriculture and in rural handicrafts.

TABLE - 1  


 Agriculture, forestry, hunting, fishing




Power and Hydro-power








Trade, Banking, and Insurance


Transport and Communication




Occupations inadequately described




Since 1963 there has been no significant alteration in GNP remained almost constant, rising from 12 per cent to 13 per cent (at constant 1959 factor cost prices); the major source of income continued to be services and agriculture.

 TABLE - 2


Source: Central Bank of Sri Lanka- Annual Report for 1969


Amount (Millions of Rupees)







Agriculture, forestry, fishing




Manufacturing, mining, quarrying, electricity etc.








Trade, transport and other services




Gross Domestic Product




Net factor income from abroad




Gross National Product




 Yet this dependence on primary agricultural products was far greater for export earnings than for production as a whole. Nothing was done to lessen this dependence and the Ceylonese masses suffered increasingly from declining exports price and rising import costs. In 1967, a typical year, total exports were Rs. 1690 millions: of these 63 per cent (Rs. 1061 m) came from the export of tea, 17 per cent (Rs. 282 m.) from the export of coconut. In other words, 90 per cent of all Ceylon's export earnings came from the exports of three primary products. Throughout the 1960 the income generated by these exports steadily fell.

As import price rose over the same period, Ceylon came to have a growing foreign exchange deficit. The deficit rose steadily, from Rs. 95m in 1957, to Rs. 349m in 1966, to Rs. 744m in 1969.

TABLE - 3 

Loss Of Import Capacity Due To Change In The Terms Of Trade

(in Millions of Rupees) (1959 Base)

Source: Ferguson's Ceylon Directory, 1970-71




Three Major Coconut Products

All Products




















































The political reason for this degeneration were clear enough. Ceylon's economy was controlled by a coalition of imperialist firms and a local bourgeoisie parasitic on, and participant in, this exploitation. The precise workings of this relation can be shown by an analysis of Ceylon's major export, tea. 35 per cent of all tea estates (comprising 29 per cent of all tea-growing lands) were directly owned by British ('sterling') firms, such as Liptons and Brooke Bond, while British capital was also strongly represented in the Ceylon-registered 'rupee' firms that owned another 30 per cent of the estates. But these crude ownership statistics understated foreign control of Ceylonese tea since its marketing was almost entirely in the hands of foreign, mainly British, agency houses. British capital controlled the buying, pricing, marketing, shipping and insurance of Ceylonese tea. In 196769 millions pounds of tea were sold by the agency houses at Colombo auctions, and another 110 million pounds were sold at London Auctions in Mincing Lane. Only 8 million pounds, under 2 per cent, were sold directly by Ceylon to foreign purchasers. Ceylon's subjection to imperialism was also shown by the markets for its tea: the major buyer is the UK (35 per cent in 196830 per cent in 1969), followed by the US (7 per cent in 1968, 10 per cent in 1969), Australia (8 per cent in both years) and South Africa (7 per cent in 1968, 6 per cent in 1969). The only major purchaser not an imperialist country is Iraq (9 per cent in 1968, 8 per cent in 1969)

Ceylon's continued dependence on its traditional primary exports and the vested interest of the ruling class in these commodities thus had an inevitable concomitant: growth in Ceylon's foreign debt and hence in external political control over the island. The surplus for investment, and for financing the foreign trade deficit, had to come from foreign loans and running down Ceylon's foreign exchange reserves.


TABLE - 4 


Source: Central Bank of Sri Lanka- Annual Report for 1969


















 Yet this foreign credit was used only to a very limited extent to check the deterioration of the economic situation as a whole. Industrial production did not rise as a percentage of total output, while imports of consumer goods, in particular food, continued to rise. For example, in 1970 Ceylon spent more just on importing chillies than she earned from tourism, and rice (a Ceylonese crop) formed 15 per cent of all her imports. Over two fifths of Ceylon remains tropical forest, and the potentiality exists for the island to become a net exporter of food-stuffs: in 1971 they made up 53 per cent of her imports. the existing relations of production had been such that Ceylon's foreign exchange position continued to decline, together with its internal economic situation, while direct foreign political control through the IMF and other imperialist agencies correspondingly increased.

This overall deterioration was reflected in the rise in domestic unemployment - itself highlighted by two additional factors that generated intensified popular reaction to it. These were the steep rise in population and the extremely high literacy level in Ceylon. In 1946 Ceylon had a population of 6.6 millions; by 1970 it had almost doubled to 12.5 millions, and population density had risen from 263 persons per square mile in 1946 to 536 in 1970. At the same time, the average age of the population had fallen steadily so that by 1971 8.5 millions out of a total of 12.5 were under the age of 35. This rise in population has reflected the high standard of public health, and a developed set of public services which is also, as has been seen, reflected in the education system. Ceylon, with free primary and secondary education, today has the highest literacy rate of any capitalist country in Asia after Japan - 80 per cent by official figures. There are 5000 primary school and 5000 secondary school, and nearly everyone under 35 has had both primary and secondary education. Every year 100000 new school leavers come on to the job market. Yet, in contrast with this extremely advanced level of education and welfare services, average per capita income in 1971 was $132. Moreover, the ruling class was not only failing to develop the economy but was throwing increasing number of young Ceylonese out of work. Unemployment, even by official accounts which report only the registered unemployed, rose constantly.

Official estimates for 1970-71 suggest an accelerating rise. An estimate for early 1971 spoke of 585000 out of work, out of a total available labour force of 4.4 millions. In his October 1970 budget speech N. M. Perera had, more realistically, stated that: 'It is roughly being estimated that the number of unemployed people in Ceylon, at the moment, adds up to 70000. 



Source: Ibid.





















On top this came another direct consequence of the decline in export earnings. The tea exports, produced by imported Tamil labour, had historically been the financial basis for the welfare programme used to placate the Sinhales masses. Hence the system ensured that the masses were doubly disarmed - they spilt by ethnic divisions, and drugged by welfare concessions. The collapse of the export system forced the government to cut back on the welfare service - successive budgets instituted charges for services that had previously been free - and cut back on the rice subsidy. At the same time the pauperization of the Sinhalese who had depended on the export earnings in other ways highlighted the common class character uniting Tamil and Sinhalese.

The Rural Sector

the economic crisis was felt most severely in the rural areas. Agricultural production is dominated by four crops - the three export crops (tea, rubber, coconut) and rice grown for domestic consumption. In 1968 tea was grown on 597490 acres, rubber on 674539 acres and coconut on 1.2 million acres. rice lands covered 1742469 acres. Productive relations within these different sectors are quite varied. In the tea sector the dominant form of land ownership is the tea-estate, where over 80 per cent of the labour force are Tamil of Indian origin. In 1968 only 17.8 per cent of tea lands were owned as small-holding by Ceylonese farmers; 29.14 per cent were owned by British companies, 25.93 per cent by Ceylonese companies and 24.15 per cent by Ceylonese entrepreneurs. Rubber and coconut lands, on the other hand, were held more by individual Ceylonese small-holders, and coconut in particular was know as the 'small man's crop' since over 70 per cent of all coconut-producing lands were held in units of 20 acres and under. Small holding is even more predominant in the rice-growing areas.

The decline of the economy affected the two rural sectors in distinct ways. The Tamil workers on the plantations are not peasants but, as we have already noted, rural proletarians, and they have a special history and situation. They still remain isolated in communal and semi-company unisons, set apart from the rest of the Ceylonese population. The potentiality and need for change within that sector have been increased in the past decade. With the spread of health facilities the population pressure has increased. At the same time the introduction of new agricultural methods, especially cloning, has raised productivity and lowered the area of cultivated land. Hence on the one hand there has been a rise in the amount of land potentially usable for growing other crops to substitute for imports, while on the other unemployment has risen so that in 1971 54000, i.e. 20 per cent of the men on the tea plantations, where unemployed, and of these 43000 were aged between 15 and 19. The other 80 per cent worked on average 16 - 18 days a month.

The workers in the non-plantation sector peasants, or the descendants of peasants, rendered landless by the gradual development of capitalism in the countryside and by demographic or economic pressures on the land. Pre-capitalist village relations had not been destroyed but had altered with the encroachment of capitalist relations and with the increasing pressure of population. The Ceylonese population tripled between 1911 and 1970 but, despite movement to the towns and some increase in the amount of land cultivated, the average cultivated area fell by 50 per cent from 27 to 13.5 acres. What this plainly meat was a rise in the number of totally landless peasants and in the number of those with too little land to subsist on, who had to work part of the time for other landowners. In the 1960 30 per cent of the peasantry were landless peasants working as sharecroppers. As the non-plantation sector continued to dissolve, successful capitalist farmers were able to expand by buying land from indebted peasants and hiring those they had expropriated. The obvious measures to counter these trends would have been land reform and increases in productivity, but both were blocked by the hierarchized structures of village life.

In 1958 a minimal land reform act, the Paddy Lands Act, was passed. It purported to guarantee the tights of those who worked on lands or rented them, and it setup 'cultivation Committees' to enforce this and carry out the agricultural development laid down in the law. The response of the landowners was to evict their tenants-there were 14500 cases by the end of 1959 and over 40000 cases by the end of 1971. Only 7000 cases of restitution were recorded. The legalist and propertied ideologies of those who administered the low prevented it from being implemented. The committees in general were powerless or in the hands of rich peasants. A similar fate befell the attempt to set up cooperatives: 14400 were set up, of which 5000 went bankrupt and the rest were controlled by rich peasants and bureaucrats.

Dumont analyses how the social structure prevented technical developments that would have increased productivity. He shows the sharecroppers had now incentive to use fertilizers to increase production, since they would benefit little from this. He shows how peasants wanted proper strong hoes, mammoty, to till the ground, but were provided only with Ceylonese-made ones that break easily. Poor peasants were prevented by the rich from forming unions and cooperatives, and the shortage of land gave the landlord a control over the peasants he might otherwise not have had to the same degree. MPs and civil servants used state funds for their own purposes in rural areas; initiatives from the top were not matched by spontaneous enthusiasm from below, and local initiatives were blocked by lack of support from above. Too much emphasis was laid on grandiose projects: Dumont points that small hill-side dams can be built without using any foreign exchange and at a cost of Rs.500-1000 for every hectare irrigated. The Mahaveli project, trumpeted by the Colombo regime, will certainly bring electricity, but it has a 38 per cent foreign exchange component and the cost a hectare irrigated is Rs. 16000. Because of the lack of mass enthusiasm labour was under-utilized, water was wasted cropping was inefficient, import substitution was ignored. the result was the continued decline of the rural non-plantation sector.

In the two and a half decades from independence to the 1971 insurrection there was no agrarian reform, while foreign loans were used to finance the import of consumer goods and the building of costly public works. The concatenation of rural crisis, unemployment and high literacy can be seen very clearly in the official estimated figures for early 1971. The total number of unemployed was estimated to be 585000; of these 460000 were in the rural areas, 230000 were under 19 years of age, and 250000 were aged from 19 to 24; 167000 of these had been to secondary school or university. The contradiction between the vital needs and aspirations of the unemployed educated youth of Ceylon and the structural limits of Ceylonese capitalism had reached explosion point.

Little echo of this developing social crisis was to be heard in the Colombo Parliament. Ceylon's parliamentarianism was regarded in bourgeois circles at home and abroad as an index of its 'developed political status: in fact, it represented its extreme backwardness, the failure of its ruling class to evolve an even token anti-imperialism and the chasm that real separated an imported and imitated political system from the real life of the Ceylonese people. During the 1960s both ruling parties were forced to take superficial note of the economic dangers to this system, and proclaim measures that pretended to check them. Ambitious plans for industrialization and import substitution were announced; foreign borrowing rose and selected businesses were occasionally menaced with 'Ceylonization'. But the neocolonial character of both UNP and SLFP naturally precluded any substantial moves to challenge Ceylon's dependence on imperialism. A liberal Ceylonese economist, writing in 1968, described this situation in measured, if euphemistic, tones:

"All political parties affirm that among their principal objectives is that of economic development. But neither of the major political parties who contend or power has put up a programme which the electorate may reject of approve. In consequence elections have been fought on considerations other than the overtly economic. One may conjecture here that this attempt to belittle of even ignore the seriousness of the consequences that follow from a slow rate of economic growth follows from a failure of leadership. This hyp2othesis is. on the face of it, denied by the eagerness with which each government has taken to economic planning. In 1946, while Ceylon was still a Crown colony, the Board of Minister published the Post-War Development Proposals. In 1954 the Government published a Six Year Programme of Investment. In 1958, the Government issued a Ten Year Plan. It may be said without prejudice to the authors of these publications that planning has consisted of little more than good intentions, providing employment opportunities for a few men who read economics at the university. Good intentions however, are a dozen to the penny, and one looks hard for leaders who convert these good intentions into programme of action."