Sunday, 31 May 2009

Tiananmen 1989: A ‘human wall’ against tanks and machine guns

Until the evening of 3 June, 1989, the vast majority of Chinese people refused to believe the 'People's Liberation Army' would actually open fire upon them.

This belief went so far that when the soldiers began firing on that night, many thought they were using rubber bullets rather than live ammunition. The Central Military Commission, the top 'communist' party organ that controls the army, led by Deng Xiaoping issued the decree to "use all necessary methods" including live ammunition, because the massive political power mobilised by the people of Beijing had reached the extent of undermining the machinery of the state. Under a situation where the government had effectively lost control, ordinary people had begun to take over the running of the city.

How large a military force did Deng Xiaoping deploy for the crackdown? There is no single estimate for this, but it is believed that around fourteen or so divisions – 200,000 troops – were involved. How many of Beijing's citizens went onto the streets to block the army's advance cannot be reliably calculated either. But to hold back 200,000 or so fully armed, young, strong, and well-trained soldiers, on the roads of the capital for more than ten days is clearly not a feat that can be accomplished by "a few gangsters with ulterior motives". Several studies have calculated that at the end of May and beginning of June, the number of people engaged in struggles on the streets could not have been fewer than 500,000 to 700,000 – or around ten percent of Beijing's population. At the same time among the 200,000 soldiers charged with putting down the mass movement, many lacked the resolve or the spirit to carry out this task.

On 2 June, when the Central Military Commission issued orders to the 38th Army to open fire, its commanding officer Xu Qinxian feigned illness and went to hospital, refusing to sign the order to move his troops. For this, Xu was immediately arrested and later court-martialled. Following a five year spell in prison, this former head of the 38th Army seems to have 'disappeared' without trace.

Based on testimony from several people, including Dr. Jiang Yanyong of the PLA's 301 Hospital, who later became the 'Hero of SARS' for his work in tackling the 'Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome' outbreak of 2003,virtually all the regiments temporarily stationed at various positions along both sides of the capital's Chang'an Avenue declared they would not use force against the mass movement. This forced the top military authorities to withdraw most of the forces moved into the Beijing municipal region, but who had by this time lost the will to fight, and replace them with fresh forces. In the end, only the 38th Army and the 15th Paratroopers arrived at the designated site on time, and indeed it was these two units that carried out the bloody suppression of the movement. Although the total number of people killed is not known, data from various sources indicates it is between several hundred to several thousand. According to the 'Tiananmen Mothers' pressure group, the number of dead for whom names are known is 188, while eyewitnesses counted 1,000 or so corpses. It is said that even the former Vice Premier Yang Shangkun admitted in a private conversation before his death that the numbers killed by the army were more than 600.
Once the Central Military Commission had locked up the commander of the 38th Army, and threatened others with severe reprisals, this army, under the supervision of the vice commander-in-chief of the Beijing military district, the political commissar, and its new acting head, embarked upon a 'killing spree' in order to save their own lives and positions. Even so, the majority of the soldiers of the 38th did not open fire. This was the work of a minority: the elite forces. Evidence from various sources clearly suggests that during the 38th Army's advance through Beijing, the masses defending the students in the Square fought intensely and over a wide area extending from Gongzhufen on the West Chang'an Avenue to Muxidi subway station, and from the Xidan shopping centre to Nanchizi Avenue, and it is in this area that most of the civilian casualties occurred. From the Muxidi subway station all the way to the front of Tiananmen Gate, several tens of thousands of workers and citizens erected a dozen or so barricades, and succeeded in slowing the progress of the troops with their own human wall. The 'riot squads' that did the shooting and then cleared the Square were clearly not ordinary troops – there were no younger soldiers among them. These troops were probably the elite 'scouting teams' of the 38th Army, veterans of the Vietnamese border war of 1979 that was quite famous among the masses.

Yet the people were not scared away by the massacres. As the former researcher at the China University of Political Science and Law, Mr. Wu Renhua, described in his The Inside Story of the Bloody Cleanup of Tiananmen Square in 1989: "I sincerely respect the working class brothers of Beijing, who despite their lack of a high education and rhetorical skills, managed to display an astonishing level of courage and spirit of selflessness when it really mattered. In fact, during the 1989 Democracy Movement, the people who sacrificed themselves the most and possessed the greatest moral courage were not intellectuals or even students, but the working class brothers and ordinary citizens of Beijing. In order to protect Tiananmen Square, and protect the students who were peacefully demonstrating there, they used their own flesh and blood to obstruct the PLA martial law forces that were armed to the teeth, and fought against them with all of their might, without consideration for their own lives. The majority did not have so much as an iron bar in their hands, and the 'weapons' possessed by a minority consisted only of a few bricks, rocks and sticks. And how insignificant these seem compared to the armoured vehicles, tanks and machine guns of the martial law forces!"

Similarly, another eyewitness, Stephen Jolly of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) stated: "... there came thousands of workers, unarmed, including women workers, some of them on bicycles. And this mass of thousands of workers following the troops could not fight them, but they sang the Internationale. The troops at the back just didn't know what to do. Occasionally they would shoot, and everybody would drop, and you didn't know how many were killed because the people each time got up again, and the dead would stay lying among them on the ground. It was almost like waves on the beach just coming in, time and time again, just singing the Internationale." [Jolly, Eyewitness in China, 1989


Even after the 38th Army had passed through, the masses did not abandon the struggle and continued to create road-blocks to obstruct the armies that followed behind them. According to Wu Renhua, citizens took blood-soaked clothes from the hospitals to prove to the soldiers that the 38th Army that had just passed that way really had opened fire on the people, and as a result the troops of the 28th Army were stunned and refused to obey orders, to such an extent that when the Central Military Commission insisted this army "proceed at all costs" using helicopters, a soldier from one of the armoured vehicles of the 28th Army (some say a retired soldier) actually opened fire on the helicopter with his machine gun.

After midnight, the 38th Army entered Tiananmen Square and engaged in a bloody sweep of the site. Ordinarily, whether or not the killings occurred inside the Square or outside its peramiters is of little importance, but both the accounts by Wu Renhua and Stephen Jolly mention that the army really did open fire on people within the Square, and used tanks and armoured vehicles to flatten the students' tents and makeshift shelters. Also on the morning of 4 June near Liubukou, tanks from the 38th Army actually drove into retreating students. Wu Renhua described what he saw with his own eyes, that when three tanks came from the direction of Tiananmen Square, he and several hundred other students climed over iron fences with sharp spikes on top, in order to escape, but the armed police at the gates locked them securely and refused to let the students through. When the tanks drove past, some of the students behind Wu Renhua had been unable to escape and eleven were crushed to death.

Stephen Jolly describes this same incident: "In one instance, the troops were tear-gassing students in the streets. The students fled, many trying to climb over a fence. Eleven of the students who got the brunt weren't able to get over it. So a tank came up, and scraped along the side of the fence, and scraped them to death. They came out as flat as a matchbox, dead." [Jolly, Eyewitness in China, 1989].

Another army that was actively involved in the crackdown was the only rapid-response paratrooper unit China had at that time, the 15th Paratroopers. From mid-May the soldiers of this unit had been 'quarantined', and for a dozen or so days did not receive any newspapers or news broadcasts. The only information they were given was that a counter-revolutionary riot had developed in Beijing that would have to be put down by military measures. In May 2008 the 15th Paratroopers were sent to Sichuan province as part of the relief operation following the massive Wenchuan earthquake. But despite repeated appeals from Premier Wen Jiabao, who was also in the quake zone, senior officers refused to order parachute drops because of poor weather conditions. This apparent insistence on clear skies and no rain or wind, made these paratroopers the butt of jokes on the internet. Finally, the Premier had no choice but to publicly challenge their commanders: "The people are feeding you – the ball is in your court now!"

In the twenty years since the 1989 crackdown, the once respected 'People's Liberation Army' has seen its authority decline among the people. This has been reinforced by repeated corruption scandals among army officers in tandem with the process of capitalist restoration. The saying "500 RMB for a party card, and 500,000 RMB for a regimental command" is a common one in wider society. This one time 'people's army', that was created by a group of dynamic and idealistic intellectuals and downtrodden peasants, has long ceased to play that role.

Following the crackdown, many Chinese people as well as overseas media believed the 27th Army was responsible for the massacre – people could not believe the 38th Army,whose commander had resisted orders from above, had actually opened fire on the people. After all, this was the 'Ten Thousand Years Army' that gained glory on the battlefield during the Korean War. So firmly held was this misconception that during the period of 5-9 June, the 27th Army's headquarters in the city of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, was beseiged by several thousand protesting students, while shops and businesses in the region refused to deliver supplies to it. For this reason, once the 27th Army had returned to Shijiazhuang, its officers from the commanding officer downwards made it abundantly clear to the local government and population that no-one in its ranks had opened fire on the people of Beijing. Consequently, the 38th Army which did have blood on its hands was placed in a very poor light and this led to considerable friction between the two armies.

At the time of the massacre there were fourteen armies stationed in the capital, but the majority of these were involved in no more than a tense standoff and did not actively enforce the martial law decree. Especially after the 38th Army and the 28th Army had collectively refused to obey orders, Deng Xiaoping went as far as ordering the 12th Army, with which he had a close relationship, be moved to Beijing soon after 4 June to guard against a military coup. It was not until 9 June, when Deng was shown on television with the leaders of the army units involved in crushing the mass movement, that the regime was able to breathe more easily.



By Chen Mo,


Tuesday, 26 May 2009



Memoirs of Malaysian communist guerrilla leader hold many lessons for today

This book is important from a number of points of view. The author was the leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which he joined as a 15-year old schoolboy, and which played an important role in two guerrilla struggles – in the Second World War and in the post-war 12-year 'Emergency', in reality a war against British colonial rule in Malaya (now Malaysia). It therefore provides important insights into guerrilla war, in general, and in the struggle for national liberation in the colonial world. The book is also important because of the lessons of Malaya in the post-1945 struggle of imperialism, against what was then the colonial revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The seemingly successful defeat of the CPM guerrillas in Malaya in the 1950s has been invoked, in the past and to some extent today still, as a 'model' of how counter-terrorist measures in the neo-colonial world can succeed. But former British Defence Secretary Denis Healey – once deputy leader of the Labour Party – commented on this in relation to the Vietnam War in the 1960s: "In fact the analogy with the Malayan emergency was misguided. In Malaya the communists belonged almost wholly to the Chinese minority; they were easily identifiable… The Viet Cong, on the other hand, were drawn from Vietnamese in the [Mekong] Delta; they had a long history of struggle against foreign domination, in which the Communist Party had played a leading role since the Japanese occupation in 1944."

Chin Peng is also quite clearly a striking character with an extraordinary story of self-sacrifice to tell. He became the CPM's leader at the ripe old age of 23. Between 4,000-5,000 CPM fighters lost their lives in the struggle against British imperialism, while some 200 members of the party were hanged by the British. A similar tale of repression has come to light recently in a very detailed account about the methods of 'democratic' British imperialism in the suppression of the Kikuyu uprising in Kenya. There, the British established huge concentration camps, employed torture and mutilation of Kenyans, and hanged more than 1,000 Kikuyu anti-colonial fighters.


British imperialism in Malaya had, before the Japanese invasion in 1941, pursued a policy of jailing or banishing to China every suspected communist, ethnic Chinese "they could lay their hands on". A similar fate awaited those communists of Indian extraction who were summarily despatched to the 'homeland'. Notwithstanding this, following Britain's capitulation in 1941 – when the Japanese themselves, according to Chin Peng, were preparing to retreat – a war of national resistance was conducted with the CPM as its backbone. The British at first tried to find a counterweight to the CPM – because of the distrust of the social and class base of the party – but the attempt to find a sufficient number of Chinese who leant towards Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuo Min-Tang (KMT) failed to materialise. Once it was clear that the CPM was the only major force resisting Japanese occupation, the British threw in their lot, for the time being, with them.

The guerrillas initially were very weak but according to the author "could count on the particularly strong following the CPM enjoyed amongst Chinese villages throughout the coastal flatlands". This is a significant remark, indicating that, at this stage, the CPM drew most of its support from the ethnic Chinese. Although it was widened later to involve sections of the Malay and Indian population, this nevertheless indicates the Achilles heel of the CPM, which was to prove quite fatal in the struggle against the British – but more of that later.

Up to 1947, the leader of the CPM was an ethnic Vietnamese who, as Chin Peng comments, commanded "an essentially ethnic Chinese movement…Amazingly, it never became an issue in the day-to-day running of the party in those days."

This may have something to do with the fact that one of the central figures, as a Comintern [Stalinilst Communist International] representative, at the formation of the CPM in 1930, was Nguyen Ai Quoc, none other than Ho Chi Minh, who was destined to play a pivotal role in the Vietnamese revolution. However, Lai Te, the leader of the CPM from the late 1930s, was actually a 'triple agent'; first of the British, then the Japanese during the Second World War, and then of the British, once more, in the aftermath of that war!

The author makes a significant remark in view of the essentially rural guerrilla struggle that was to be pursued later on, when referring to the early period of the CPM's activity in the 1930s: "The party's initial operations centred, naturally, on Singapore as there was a far greater concentration of union movements on the island than anywhere else on the Malayan peninsula."
The arrest and banishment of indigenous Malayans, albeit most of them were of Chinese origin, left a space for an immigrant from Vietnam, Lai Te, to emerge as a leader of the CPM in 1938. Membership of the CPM at this stage, the early 1940s, numbered just over 3,000.

At the same time as having a firm industrial base, the party had also begun to dig roots amongst the peasant population. This became useful once the offer of Lai Te to the British to help them in resistance against the Japanese occupation was taken up. The first detachments of the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) were in action against the Japanese occupying forces from 1 January 1942. Within a few weeks of imposing military rule in Singapore, the Japanese had targeted the CPM leadership. A number of key figures were arrested, including Huang Chen, "the CPM's top intellectual", who was eventually executed. This and other betrayals were quite clearly the work of the leader of the party itself, Lai Te, who quickly transferred his allegiances to the Japanese occupation force. This, however, was only discovered much later.

Circumstances during the war compelled the CPM to organise what was essentially a rural guerrilla struggle because industrial activity had collapsed throughout Malaya and Singapore due to the war and Japanese occupation. The CPM, therefore, set up jungle bases from which to harass and confront the Japanese, with incredible success, given the presence of a traitor in its ranks, moreover, one leading the party itself! This was not without cost to the CPM, as a number of its jungle bases were betrayed, obviously by Lai Te, to the Japanese, which led to the execution of many of its leaders. While the CPM developed its base amongst the rural population, at the same time, it did not neglect the working class: "In Sitiawan we had 40 to 50 members. Among the Kinta Valley mining workers we were soon baosting more than 500 members."

At this stage Chin Peng, already a 'mature' 19-year old, found himself appointed acting chief of the CPM in the Perak region of Malaya. In one area, the resistance troops operated from within a colony of a few hundred lepers. The Japanese feared going near the settlement and the police and troops happily gave the area a wide berth.

The collaboration of the Malayan national resistance forces, under the leadership of the CPM, with the British – from whom they received material support – worked successfully but it was always an arm's length collaboration. In 1943, Lai Te suddenly began to sanction more military activity against the Japanese, obviously expecting them to be defeated by the British forces, which were massing for an attack on Malaya. At the same time, clearly expecting a future conflict with the British, the CPM had prepared an underground army which stashed away 5,000 weapons in jungle caches, many of them previously supplied by the British for the war against the Japanese.

But, rather than preparing for a serious struggle against the British, the programme outlined by the CPM, under the pressure of the traitor Lai Te, was one which mollified them. The CPM received arms and military training but, at the same time, it led the party to water down its programme, from a Democratic Republic of Malaya, which would involve independence from the British, to "self governance".


Chin Peng and his comrades were imprisoned by the Stalinist theory of "stages"; first bourgeois democracy and independence and only later could the social issues, and particularly socialism, be posed. However, only by linking the struggle of Malayan workers and peasants for independence with the social issues – freedom, especially from imperialism, land, peace and bread – would the possibility of real national liberation be posed.

The Russian Revolution had demonstrated at the beginning of the twentieth century that in "backward countries" the struggle to carry through completely the bourgeois-democratic revolution is only possible by linking this to the changing of society, eliminating both landlordism and capitalism. Chin Peng seems to recognise this belatedly when he states that their main demand was for a "democratic government through elections from an electorate drawn from all the races". Chin Peng states: "I realised the programme amounted to nothing more than a vapid move to appease the incoming British… [It] made no mention of the goal of self-determination for the nation." Lai Te, the secretary-general, was against the militant struggle by the CPM. He preferred a "political posture" involving "co-operation with the British coupled with a concentrated effort on the organisation of labour and the infiltration of the unions". The latter point was correct tactically and was carried out to some extent. But it was not a question of posing either/or, military struggle or "the organisation of the working class". Both tactics should have been pursued in the struggle against the re-occupation of the British.

In fact, the possibility was there for a short period in 1945, following the capitulation of the Japanese and before the arrival of substantial British forces, for the CPM to mobilise the working class and the rural masses to take power and carry through a social revolution. However, to achieve this, the CPM would have had to cut across the ethnic divisions cultivated before the war by the British and carried on by the Japanese. It seems that the majority of the Malay population – particularly in the rural areas – tended to be conservative and swayed by the Malay princes and landlords. But the working class movement in the cities under the banner of the CPM – and including the setting up of democratic committees of action – could have split the Malay workers and peasants away from the Malay grandees. This would have involved a call for the peasants to take the land and drive out the landlords. In other words, the CPM would have had to put themselves at the head of an uprising of the working class in the cities, supplemented by a peasant uprising in the rural areas – uniting Chinese, Malays and Indians – on class lines, with the goal of an independent socialist Malaya, linked to similar struggles throughout the region.

Would such an uprising have succeeded? Of course, nothing is certain in a deep, revolutionary struggle but such a movement had every chance of success. The British had not arrived and were, in any case, stretched militarily. The whole of Asia was in ferment. One thing is certain: the course followed by the CPM, both then and later, led to a defeat. The British bided their time and prepared for a showdown with the CPM, profiting from the mistakes they made.

The weakness of the democratic structures of the CPM – a hallmark of those parties based upon Stalinism – is underlined by Chin Peng. The unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the leadership, facilitated betrayals like those carried out by Lai Te. Incredibly, the "liberation forces" of the CPM and the MPAJA were transformed by the British into a "three-star army", with Chin Peng appointed as a number two officer of what was in effect a force under the control of the British. Chin Peng comments: "Once again, nobody questioned the wisdom of our Secretary General's views. He was the Comintern man and this aura had not left him despite the fact we knew the Comintern had been disbanded in 1943."

According to Chin Peng and contrary to popular understanding, fostered by British imperialism, the CPM was not in the pay at this stage of either the Russian or the Chinese 'communists'. Its funds in the 1930s, during the battle against the Japanese and in the subsequent struggle against British imperialism were raised due to its own efforts and by its own resources. And yet, the "aura" of the Comintern and the methods of Stalinism compelled an unquestioning obedience, which in turn prepared the ground for betrayals and defeats.

One consequence of these developments was the feelers put out by some Japanese military commanders and troops to the CPM for a bloc of "Asians" against the colonial white invader. This was rejected by the CPM leaders despite the fact that the "revolutionary spirit within the party had never run so high. The greater majority of our guerrilla units had, for seven days, been preparing for continuing armed struggle that now would switch to target the returning colonial power." However, the stand of Lai Te and the CPM leadership could not prevent 400 individual Japanese joining the ranks of the guerrillas. This could have become the starting point for agitation amongst the Japanese forces throughout Asia, by a conscious, particularly working-class, force. Unfortunately, the CPM was still in the grip of Stalinist methods and approach. This led subsequently, through orders handed down by Lai Te, to the tragic execution of most of the Japanese who had joined the CPM's guerrilla ranks.

Instead of this being the starting point for class solidarity across ethnic lines, the opposite took place. Even before this, the Japanese fomented clashes between Malay Muslims and local Chinese villagers. The CPM was drawn in to defend these villages from attacks by Malays, resulting in substantial deaths of Malays, not disguised by Chin Peng in his book. These events undoubtedly played into hands of the British, who subsequently fomented divisions between the different ethnic groups in Malaya. Chin Peng, however, stresses the attempts of the CPM to draw Malays into their ranks, which enjoyed some success even in the struggle against the Japanese, with the recruitment and training of some Malays.

However, because of the temporising of the CPM leadership, the British were able to begin to reconsolidate their rule with the establishment of a "temporary form of government" for the Malaya-Singapore region, to be known as the British Military Administration (BMA). Seeking to appease the CPM, some of its representatives were drawn onto the BMA, a just reward for not conducting a struggle against British re-occupation. The guerrillas' intentions were to demobilise with 4,000 weapons handed over while more were secretly buried in jungle caches for future use.

British occupation, however, came together with economic blunders by the British administration. The Japanese occupation currency was declared valueless, which reduced the vast majority of the labouring population to paupers. Food supplies dwindled, prices soared, and the crime rate surged. An embittered population became increasingly hostile to the returning colonials and Malaya became a "cauldron of simmering discontent". The CPM, rather than using this to organise national resistance against the British, "moved to impose a moderating effect and respect for order by encouraging the formation of Peoples Committees". At the same time, clubs and unions and workers' organisations, as well as those for women and young people, sprouted.

The actions of the British authorities provoked massive working-class opposition, with the first dock strike in Singapore, followed by wharf labourers coming out on strike. These strikes were for increased pay but also in protest against handling ships carrying arms for Dutch troops who were then fighting nationalist forces in the neighbouring Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The BMA used Japanese prisoners of war and certain British military units as strike breakers. This upsurge in working class opposition resulted in the formation of the Singapore General Labour Union (SGLU) with a claimed strength of 200,000 members.

Women paraded through the streets demanding rice and a government subsidy of $20 to rescue families from destitution. The British authorities met this with force, shooting down demonstrators. Chin Peng comments: "For British troops to be called out to fire on white unarmed demonstrators demanding better living conditions in, say, Yorkshire or Cornwall, would , of course, have been unthinkable." Of course, British troops had shot down Welsh miners in 1911, under the orders of Churchill, whose government pursued a similar policy on a wider scale against Malayan workers then. Now, it was the 'Labour' government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee that was carryout the repression in Malaya.

It was in 1946, probably through the pressure exerted by the traitor Lai Te, when mass executions of Japanese prisoners of war were carried out by the CPM. Chin Peng states: "I was stunned by the callousness of Lai Te's orders." He points out that some of the Japanese "joined our guerrillas and became fighters once again, only this time not for the emperor but for world communism." Lai Te was later 'eliminated' by the CPM in collaboration with the Vietnamese Communist Party, but not before he had absconded with $1 million of the CPM's funds.

In the midst of all of this, Chin Peng received British accolades and awards. First came the Burma Star, then the 1939/45 Star, and, a little later, he was awarded an even higher accolade. When he arrived at his mother-in-law's house one day, he was informed, "'You have been given a very high British honour. The King has granted you an OBE'… 'The King has given me what?' I blurted, believing my brother was surely joking. I had no idea what an OBE – Order of the British Empire – might be."

But the attempt to placate the leaders of the CPM failed, as this holder of the OBE was not long after confronting the forces of the British Empire that had bestowed this honour on him in the first place.


The prelude to the guerrilla action was the turmoil, economic and social, which followed in the wake of the British re-occupation. "A string of workers' strikes were called in 1946," according to Chin Peng. "All, of course, were organised by the party." But, at the same time, prompted by Lai Te, and no doubt by the British, a new policy line was proposed for the CPM. It was termed the "Malayan Democratic United Front". This proposed a "broad alliance with other political parties" and dovetailed with steps taken by the CPM for the setting up of two political organisations: the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP) and the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU). It is clear that these steps together with the beginning of the formation of what later became the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), led by Datuk Onn bin Jaafar, an amalgamation of 41 Malay associations, laid the basis for the split between the different ethnic groups, which the British were able to successfully exploit.

At the same time, in the immediate post-war period, particularly in 1946-47, and the first half of 1948, a massive strike wave erupted, involving 300 strikes across Malaya and Singapore. Nearly 700,000 man-days of strike action took place during this period, causing extensive disruption to rubber plantations, tin mines, and to merchant shipping traffic through the ports. Alarmed, the British, particularly the Special Branch in Malaya, urged the arrest of 5,000 suspected members of the CPM who were armed – with the support of 250,000 in the 'Min Yuen' CPM sympathisers' organisation. On 20 October, 1947, a massive hartal – a countrywide general strike, involving not just workers but also peasants and the middle class in general, which was borrowed from the examples of India and Sri Lanka – was "monumentally successful". It paralysed Singapore and Malaya. At this stage, the Communist Party controlled, according to Politburo member, Ah Dian, "in effect, the entire plantation workforce of the country… It is the same situation in the mines… It is the same situation in the wharves, in the public transportation companies and with all essential services."

Given this social base amongst the working class, a question arises: why did the CPM later resort essentially to a rural guerrilla struggle? One reason is that they did not seize the initiative at the end of the war to organise to launch a revolutionary struggle for national and social liberation. But even later in 1947, as these strikes indicate, a new opportunity was presented to the CPM to launch a struggle, based primarily on the working class but drawing in the rest of the population, to evict British imperialism. Moreover, this movement cut across social and ethnic divisions. Unfortunately, the CPM did not have the programme or perspectives to utilise this position, trapped as it was within the framework of Stalinist ideas.

Despite this, the government introduced the Federation of Malaya on 4 February 1948, a blow to the CPM's perspective of national independence. This set in train the decision of the CPM to engage in rural guerrilla warfare. To say the least, this was a questionable conclusion to draw from the experiences of the Malayan workers and peasants at this stage. In the book, there is a significant interchange between CPM leaders and a visiting Australian at the time, who was the General Secretary of the Australian Communist Party. This individual remarked how force had been used to eliminate strike breakers and this had a powerful effect on the CPM leaders. Unfortunately, this was a signal for the CPM to resort to the elimination of strike-breakers, to organise "economic sabotage" in the factories, etc. This played into the hands of the British.

The disappointment felt by the re-occupation of British imperialism, fed by the betrayals of CPM leader Lai Te, the increasing repression, as well as the increasing support for the CPM, led them to relaunch the armed struggle against the British. They were quite clearly influenced by the success of Mao Ze-Dong in the Chinese Revolution but their attempt to emulate this was to end in defeat. Their struggle was heroic, but nevertheless a defeat ensued because of the wrong perspectives taken, "pragmatically" and empirically, on the basis of events without a clearly worked-out perspective. Chin Peng gives the statistics on the population of Malaya, which he says consisted at that time of "5,800,000 people of whom 2,200,000 were Malays, another 2,600,000 were Chinese and a further 600,000 were Indians."

Moreover, why engage in a guerrilla war, which by its very nature focussed in the countryside, when such an important class base had been established in the cities and urban areas, as well as in the countryside? The guerrilla struggle of Mao Ze-Dong in China was itself an echo of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, which was a product of the false policies of Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy.

The author makes some significant comments about the ultimate goal of the CPM. On the one side, a military decision was taken to set up "liberated areas" in both the northern and southern regions of the Malayan peninsula. Moreover, they would follow "Mao's blueprint for revolutionary warfare to the letter". Their aim was to establish not a socialist regime but – as in China, Vietnam and, ultimately, in the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe – a "People's Democratic Republic of Malaya". Chin Peng says: "In hindsight, I think we made another critical mistake here. What we should have done was to announce our aim of fighting for the broad concept of independence. This approach should have gone on to emphasise independence for all political persuasions and all races. Our battle cry should have been: Independence for Malaya and all Malayans who want independence."

Here is a tacit recognition that the CPM's struggle was based mostly on the ethnic Chinese, although episodically it got some support from the other ethnic populations. Even this admission is deficient. A mere call for independence, within the confines of capitalism, would not have been sufficient to mobilise the ethnically divided masses. The only way to really unite the majority of all races is to appeal on a class basis – dividing the ethnic populations on class lines – by putting forward a concrete programme on economic, social and ethnic issues, linked to independence but in the context of a socialist Malaya and a socialist confederation of the region. This was clearly not done by the CPM. They conducted a heroic struggle, spelt out b Chin Peng in very simple and clear terms, but the result was a defeat.

Significantly, Chin Peng comments on the linking of the struggle of his party to events in China. He was to become a supporter of the Chinese in the later Sino-Soviet dispute – albeit in a restrained fashion – and participated in the Cultural Revolution, which he approaches in this book uncritically. In that sense, despite the honesty with which he deals with the process of the struggle, as well as the CPM'S and his mistakes, he nevertheless was ideologically imprisoned, and still is to some extent, in Stalinist perceptions, both politically and organisationally. Members of the CPM who travelled to China, either to seek refuge from British repression or in solidarity, were effectively restrained in China by the new Maoist regime.

Some of the most interesting chapters in 'My Side of History' deal with the methods of the British in successfully curtailing the guerrilla war in Malaya. Chin Peng, in particular, stresses the approach of Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs, the rather reluctant director of operations for the British against the guerrillas. The 'Briggs Plan', as it was subsequently referred to, involved the establishment of 'new villages' throughout Malaya. These were fenced, patrolled and fortified centres, illuminated by night and continually monitored throughout the day. They succeeded in complementing the policy of dividing the population along ethnic lines, as well as isolating them as a possible source of food for Chin Peng's guerrillas.

The author is honest enough to admit that the attraction of significant numbers of Malays to the guerrilla forces and, more important, significant support from the poorest sections of Malays, was crucial to the success of this struggle. He states: "As early as 1948, I had looked to creating a prominent Malay unit…Our drive proved highly successful. In a six-month period from late 1949 to early 1950, we were able to attract more than 500 Malay recruits."

Unfortunately, when these recruits were attacked by KMT bandits, organised by the British High Command, they were so raw they fled the field of battle and, through demoralisation melted away or were captured. Chin Peng comments: "We didn't lose a single Malay guerrilla. They just left."

This speaks volumes about the difficulties of attracting the Malay population and, conversely, the success of the British in dividing the Chinese from both the Malays and the Indian population. Isolated, with dwindling food supplies, the guerrillas faced a brick wall. "The realisation that a military approach from late 1948 through to 1951 had been utterly inappropriate was a bitter pill to swallow."

Chin Peng deals with the repressive methods of the British at great length. There is the reproduction in this book of the famous photograph that first appeared in the 'Daily Worker', then journal of the British Communist Party, on 10 May 1952. It showed a British soldier holding the severed heads of two guerrillas. Truly, the barbaric al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorist groups in Iraq, with their beheading of hostages, had good teachers in the form of British imperialism in Malaya, Kenya, and elsewhere in the past.

By 1953, almost five years since the guerrilla struggle to evict the British began, "it was very obvious we held no territory, no liberated zones". The guerrillas were forced northwards over the border to Siam, now Thailand. Chin Peng comments: "Having lived as long as I have, I am now able to enjoy what I can only describe as a levitated view of history. I was instrumental in playing out one side of the Emergency story. Access to declassified documents today gives me the ability to look back and down on the other side and see the broad picture. In the grim days of 1953, my comrades and I were struggling to hold our headquarters together. We plotted and manoeuvred to outfox security force ground patrols and outwit not only enemy jungle tactics but overall strategy as well. Sometimes we succeeded. Sometimes we failed."

By 1953, the guerrilla movement was running into the sand but it had taken a heavy toll on British resources and, moreover, together with processes in the rest of Asia, and in Africa, was making unviable outright military domination of the 'colonies'. Serious reforms are always a by-product of revolution. In a sense, even the failed guerrilla struggle in Malaya resulted in big pressure being exerted on the British to loosen its grip on the peninsula. The peace talks on Indo-China in 1954, the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955, as well as other developments, contributed to pressure from within Malaya for the British to make concessions. As Chin Peng comments: "Making matters more complicated for the CPM were growing indications that Malaya might soon be seriously considering general elections to usher in a form of semi-representational government through a Federal Council firmly under colonial control." Significantly, he also states: "It was very clear neither Moscow nor Beijing saw value in an armed struggle dragging on in Malaya. A military victory for the CPM, it had been decided for us, was out of the question. This was by far the toughest of the tough realities we had had to confront since the outset of the Emergency."

Moreover, UMNO had begun to emerge as a significant force, under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman. The amalgamation of Malay parties saw the emergence of a significant political force which was pressing for a kind of staged process of 'independence'. Moreover, Tunku had indicated a "non-communal approach to politics". This was a reversal of the unrelenting Malay nationalist programme of UMNO, of only two years before. UMNO had, moreover, consolidated a broad nationalist front involving the Malayan Indian Congress and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). All of this compelled the CPM to undertake peace negotiations, which at that stage broke down. However, the Baling talks, although initially unsuccessful, was a staging post along the road towards the winding-up of the guerrilla force. But the CPM refused to accept the proposals for its complete capitulation, insisting on recognition of its struggle and fighting for the possibility of political space within the new set-up. However, the British had concluded at that stage that an unconditional surrender and the humiliation of the CPM was necessary, in view of the ongoing battle unfolding in Indo-China, particularly Vietnam, which was to result in 1975 in the outright defeat of US imperialism for the first time.


The most disturbing part of the book is the account of the process of disintegration of the guerrillas in the camps, resulting in fratricidal internal struggle and the execution of 'traitors', some of who were subsequently found to be innocent. This is an indication of the lack of democracy within the CPM, just as the execution of MK guerrillas in exile in the camps of the South African ANC indicated a similar disease of Stalinism (the source of ongoing discontent with the South African Communist Party to this day). Chin Peng, in this respect, provides some very useful information, highlighting the authoritarian character of the Maoist regime in China. At one stage, this took the form of Deng Xiao-Ping demanding a complete about-turn by the CPM in 1961, when they were about to wind up their military struggle. Deng insisted that the military struggle should not only be maintained but stepped up. Military and financial resources were made available by China. This was largely motivated not by the interests of spreading revolution to the rest of Asia but to enhance the position of the Chinese in Asia and worldwide.

However, an about turn was affected by the same Deng in 1980, when it served the interests of the Chinese bureaucracy. Deng had "created a very friendly atmosphere" for Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore and its leading political figure, since independence from Malaysia, in a visit to Beijing. Chin Peng comments: "Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution, we in the CPM had joined in the general anti-Deng clamour. Pointedly, he hadn't bothered to meet me since his return to power in 1978. I therefore felt, as we hadn't spoken for 14 years, there must be a very sensitive matter he wished to discuss with me [when Chin Peng was summoned to Deng's presence in 1980]." Deng immediately demanded the closure of the CPM's radio station which broadcasted regularly from China to Malaysia. This was a quid pro quo for Asian countries such as Malaysia lobbying for recognition of the Khmer Rouge, then supported by the Chinese. Chin Peng asked Deng Xiao-Ping when he would like him to cease broadcasting from Hunan Province in China. Deng replied, "The sooner the better… Lee asked me to stop the broadcasts immediately."

Despite the weaknesses of the CPM they struggled on until 1987 when successful 'peace negotiations' initially began, ironically, in the Thai resort island of Phuket, one of the scenes of devastation caused by the recent tsunami. Once more, complete surrender was demanded, which was again rejected by the CPM, but through negotiations an agreement was eventually arrived at. When all hostilities ceased, the total number of CPM members was 1,188; 694 were Thai-born and 494 claimed origins in peninsula Malaysia. They were given a temporary grant and promised integration into Malaysia. Chin Peng declared: "As Malaysian citizens we pledge our loyalty to His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the country. We shall disband our armed units and destroy all weapons to show our sincerity in terminating the armed struggle." Chin Peng never returned officially to Malaysia but has continued his exile in Thailand, up to the time of the publication of this book.

Despite his experiences and the bitter pill of ultimate defeat, Chin Peng restates his faith in the socialist future for Malaysia and the world. The tragedy of those like him and his followers was that he was trapped within a Stalinist framework. His and his comrades' heroic struggle was doomed, partly because of the objective circumstances, which were not a simple replication of China or Vietnam, and partly through the mistakes, some honestly admitted, by Chin and the CPM leadership. He states: "I am still a socialist. I certainly still believe in the equitable distribution of wealth, though I see this could take eons to evolve… In the Malaysian context, I have definitely dropped the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the central concept for an administrative blueprint."

Genuine Marxism long abandoned the formula of "dictatorship of the proletariat" because of its association with the dictatorial bureaucratic regimes of Russia, Eastern Europe and China. However, its original usage by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, meant workers' democracy. This idea retains its full validity today.

'My Side of History' is a book full of many lessons for the modern generation seeking the correct means of struggle against capitalism in Malaysia and worldwide. It is a cautionary tale about the limits of guerrilla war. Those with a keen eye will seek out the lessons of this important book, the role of the working class in the socialist revolution, the need for democracy of the parties that fight for such an idea, and the absolute necessity for workers' democracy in the state that ushers from a revolution, in transition between capitalism and socialism. We can salute those who heroically fought against British imperialism but the new generation, standing on their shoulders, must learn the lessons in preparing for the new socialist future.

Published by Media Masters, Singapore, 2003. 527 pages


4 MARCH 2005

Monday, 18 May 2009



The Sri Lankan government is engaged in what it sees as its final battle to defeat the dwindling Tamil Tiger forces in the north of the country. It ignores all pleas, including now from the United Nations, to suspend fighting in order to release thousands of men women and children to safety.

The ghastly civil war in Sri Lanka, that has been raging for more than 25 years, appears to be ending in what an International Red Cross worker called "Nothing short of a catastrophe". As the Sri Lankan Army broke through what appeared to be the last defences of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on 20 April, tens of thousands of terrorised civilians poured out in a dazed mass. Hundreds of thousands, including an estimated 50,000 children, had been trapped in a tiny strip of land euphemistically called by the government a 'no-fire' zone but described by a Human Rights Watch director as "one of the most dangerous places in the world".

Hospitals and churches in which survivors sheltered were bombed. Doctors struggling to treat the horribly injured, who dared to raise their voices against the carnage and the blocking of medical and food aid, face disciplinary action. The United Nations reported 4,500 killed in the first three months of this year. Hundreds more were slaughtered in the merciless onslaught by the Sri Lankan Army north of Mullaitivu aimed at "crushing" the LTTE and forcing its leaders into complete, unconditional surrender.

"How the war ends will be critical to Sri Lanka's future," warned Robert Temple of the International Crisis Group. If in a "bloody massacre", its memory "would be used to incite decades more war and terrorism". In the same issue of the Independent on 22 April, Asian affairs expert, Charu Lata Hogg, predicted: "Victory in the battlefield will remain hollow; an aggrieved minority at home and an embittered diaspora abroad will ensure that peace remains elusive in Sri Lanka". It is doubtful whether any Tamil – inside or outside Sri Lanka - will ever forget these last few months of wholesale carnage or forgive the ministers and generals they hold responsible.

The living hell for those who have lost their homes, family members, their livelihoods will not end soon. Starving mothers will still be unable to suckle their babies. Famished children will continue to die from illnesses brought on by malnutrition. Men and boys, sometimes girls too, will continue to be taken at gunpoint from their families. Herded into concentration camps, surrounded by barbed wire, inadequately housed, fed or cared for, thousands more Tamil people will die and thousands more will lose hope of ever living a normal life.

Humanitarian organisations and aid agencies still struggle to get into the area. So do journalists and TV crews. Sri Lankan media personnel and opposition figures who dare to tell the truth about the Rajapakse dictatorship and its frenzied 'war on terror', have become targets for the killers on motor bikes or in white vans who do the dirty work of the state. Many have left the country to survive.

Socialists in Sri Lanka the country are living through one of the darkest periods in their history. Leaders of the United Socialist Party, affiliated to the Committee for a Workers' International, have consistently warned that a military defeat of the Tamil Tigers will not bring an end to the deep-seated national conflict in Sri Lanka. Capitalist commentators, like Mark McDonald reporting from Colombo to the International Herald Tribune, say the same. Anger at "decades of official marginalization, resentment over discriminatory education policies and suppression of the Tamil language by administrations dominated by the Sinhala Buddhist majority will linger...". (Tamils make up around 17% of the 21million population and Sinhalese about 74%.) As he points out, other issues bear down on poverty-stricken Tamils in the central plantation areas as well as in the war-devastated North and East. Massive government investment in schools, infrastructure, housing and job creation are needed in addition to genuine political autonomy and freedom from discrimination.

But capitalism in Sri Lanka, at its weakest and most indebted state since independence, is incapable of fulfilling these demands. The majority of the Sinhala workers and small farmers have felt no benefits of being part of a favoured majority. The vast sums needed to finance the war have caused prices on basic goods to fluctuate wildly with inflation reaching as much as 30% in some periods. It is also behind the sharp rise in the number of unemployed private and public sector workers.

Regional power play

The 'end' of the war has long been promised by the Rajapakse gang in power. Even this year it was going to be finished by 4 February - Freedom Day, marking independence from the British and a good day to celebrate freedom from terrorism! Then it was going to be the Sri Lankan New Year – 13 and 14 April, or in time to affect the outcome of the next round of provincial elections on 25 April. At the latest, it seems, the war had to be over by the end of April to qualify for a massive $1.9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. If the loan is secured and the war continues, this foreign currency will be used for the procurement of more deadly armaments – from Israel, Iran, Pakistan … If not, it will be used for payments in the region of $900million on the massive loans already taken to pay for the war. One of the conditions laid down by the IMF is a 50% devaluation of the rupee which will mean massive increases in the cost of living.

International capitalism has urged an end to the civil war in Sri Lanka for its own reasons. Mainly in order to get back to the business of making profit out of trade and industry but also to capture lucrative contracts for reconstruction and development. This applies especially to India which now has vast interests in Sri Lanka.

Satya Sivaran, a 'frequent visitor to Sri Lanka' on behalf of his Church, wrote to the 'Campaign against the slaughter of Tamils', exposing the real reason for India's support for the murderous Rajapakse government: Ashok Leyland and Tata Mercedes enjoy a near monopoly for heavy vehicles and Bajoj for auto rickshaws are the only brand available in the country. More recently the Indian Oil Corporation has leased the prestigious and strategic Trincomalee Harbour for berthing their tankers.

Abbey Naidoo wrote in February in the South African Post: "India has revealed a duplicitous and murderous collaboration with the genocidal regime in power in Colombo. Not only deaf to the pleas and cries of its own Tamil population to intervene in this murderous onslaught, it actively assists the regime in the supply of military hardware, the training of strike aircraft pilots, the supply of military expertise and the provision of military advisers on the ground".

In the view of the Financial Times of 26 February, one of the factors behind the impending military defeat of the Tamil Tigers was "the competition between India and China for regional influence [which] has led to a huge inflow of Chinese money and arms - with no tut-tutting about Sri Lanka's appalling human rights record". But, it maintains, the seeds were sown five years ago with the defection of the Tigers' commander in the East, Karuna, who took half their army over to the side of the government.

Chauvinist Reaction

Two years later, whipping up 'patriotic', anti-Tamil reaction, Rajapakse came to power. He had the support of the Sinhala chauvinist JVP (People's Liberation Front) and the Buddhist monks' organisation the JHU. For the first time in Sri Lanka's history, a president was elected on the votes of Sinhalese only. He proceeded to tear up a four year old cease-fire brokered with the LTTE by Norwegian emissaries, and to ruthlessly pursue his goal of becoming the first Sinhala ruler of a "united" Sri Lankan state.

The LTTE, led by Velupilai Prabhakaran, had once controlled nearly the whole of the North and East of the island. Not only was there a kind of Tiger civil service, and border control points manned by LTTE forces. There were tax officers, police and even Tiger speed cops. It had at least 12,000 fighting cadres – land forces, naval fighters (the 'Sea Tigers'), a merchant navy and a primitive 'air force' capable of carrying bombs to Colombo from the Wanni jungles. The tactic of using human beings as suicide bombers was a gruesome but deadly invention of the LTTE and carried out by the venerated 'Black Tigers'. Enormous heroism and self-sacrifice was shown by young fighters but terrible consequences flowed from the military and political methods employed. One of their blunders was to instruct Tamils not to vote in the presidential election of 2005 – a tactic which allowed the rabid chauvinist, Rajapakse to defeat the UNP leader Ranil Wickeramasinghe by a small margin.

They had already been mortally wounded by the defection of Karuna. Now he has gone the whole way - joining the ruling SLFP and being and been rewarded with the post of minister of national integration! With him, in effect, was lost the whole of the Eastern part of the territory claimed to be part of the Eelam homeland.

The Tigers imagined they could win an all-out military victory against the Sri Lankan state and the 50,000 soldiers sent against them. They made spectacular advances in the early stages but were severely hampered by the banning of their organisation in Europe, the US, Canada, India and elsewhere and its effect on funds and supplies. In the end their fighting force probably amounted to little more than 1,000 in their last redoubt near Mullaitivu. But a return of guerilla warfare is inevitable, as long as the Tamil people provide the water in which the fish can swim safely.

Right of self-determination

"The absence of war is not peace!" as the New York Times was reminded recently by a retired Indian Army general. Ashok Kumar Mehta had participated in his country's ill-fated peace-keeping mission in the late 1980s. (This involvement of Indian government troops was firmly opposed at the time by those members of the Nava Sama Samaja Party who were later to become the Marxist Workers' Tendency, fore-runners of the United Socialist Party of today, and by the international leadership of the Committee for a Workers' International. It was tragically borne out that the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie were not those of the ordinary working and poor Tamils. They ended up shooting and killing the very people they had supposedly come to defend and many of their own number perished.)

Socialists maintain that national conflicts, fostered by imperialism and exacerbated by the privations and inabilities of capitalism to provide for all, cannot be overcome on a capitalist basis. The struggle for socialism has inscribed on its banner the basic democratic demand of the right of nations to self-determination. The early Sri Lankan Trotskyist leader, Colvin De Silva warned that not giving the Tamils' language the same equal official status as Sinhala would engender national resentment capable of dividing the two communities. He adopted the formula: "Two languages one country; one language two countries" which unfortunately was not implemented.

The United Socialist Party, has unflinchingly defended the right of the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka to live without fear of oppression or discrimination. It has also had inscribed on its banner the right of the Tamil people to self-determination, up to and including separation and independence, if they wish it. No government of Sri Lanka has allowed the people to freely express what they see as the best arrangement for protecting their rights. The 'Tigers' have always claimed to represent the Tamil people and have broad support. But they have never fully tested their political feelings in a genuine democratically-conducted referendum and have sometimes shown themselves intolerant of political opposition.

On the other hand, there are those who were on the Sri Lankan left who have given up on advocating the right to self-determination, let alone idea of socialism. Some have ended up in the camp of the present chauvinistic, anti-working class government of Rajapakse. Others have allied in elections, in an unprincipled fashion with capitalist parties such as the United National Party.

When it has been necessary to form a temporary front with some of these forces on a single issue such as 'Stop the War' or no to dictatorial powers, this has been done by the USP in a principled and careful fashion, maintaining an independent programme for a struggle against capitalism. Marching separately, striking together.

The USP has also put forward the idea that, if a separate state or large measure of self-rule was established, within it there should be guarantees of the rights of minorities within it, up to and including autonomous areas for Muslims and for Sinhalese people. In elections in the East of the island, the USP has been the only party with candidates on its list from all three main communities – Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala. There and in the Hill Country, USP campaigners have warned against false friends of the poor and working people in the form of the unprincipled leaders of the Muslim Congress and the Ceylon Workers' Congress who tend so often to take the side of whoever wins! For this, election candidates and campaigners of the USP have been physically attacked and also imprisoned on faked charges.

In the present situation in Sri Lanka, with not one of the major problems resolved, no outside force can change the situation. The United Nations Security Council finally discussed, on April 22 how to bring an end to the humanitarian nightmare in Sri Lanka. But, as faithful representatives of their own ruling elites, as usual, no agreement was reached to 'interfere' in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. A few weeks ago, New Labour in Britain finally decided to send an envoy, Des Browne, to Sri Lanka. He was not even allowed into the country – the move dismissed by the Rajapakse government as a "Disrespectful intrusion" into Sri Lanka's affairs!

Getting away with murder

The astounding silence of the big powers has allowed the Rajapakse government to literally get away with murder – mass murder! And with no witnesses. Only when it was too late to save the lives of thousands of men, women and children, did western governments begin to make their faint voices heard. And only when hundreds of thousands of furious Tamils turned out for mass protests across the world and when desperate young men in London, Australia, Canada and India have been showing themselves prepared to die, through hunger strikes or self-immolation, to get justice for their people.

In India it was the pressure of mass, sometimes violent, demonstrations in Tamil Nadu - of striking students and lawyers - which finally evinced the mild pleadings from Sonja Gandhi and one or two government leaders for Rajapakse to agree to a permanent cease-fire. But he will still bank on support from the majority in Sri Lanka, including some Tamil people, who simply want the war over.

The dictator-president in Sri Lanka, rules through decree, the use of vast emergency powers and also sheer thuggery. War weariness has not been enough to guarantee him the kind of victory he wants in the provincial council elections of 25 April in Colombo. It is reported that he has ordered the release of convicted gangsters from the prisons to go to the Tamil areas and wipe out the traditional support for the main opposition bourgeois party - the United National Party. At the present time this party stands for peace. Its leader, Ranil Wickeramasinghe, when the UNP was last in power, was instrumental in getting the 2002 cease-fire to hold, allowing some respite to the minority Tamil population and to the Sri Lankan Army forces. He was under great pressure particularly from US imperialism, to bring the costly war to an end and continue to open up the Sri Lankan economy to further investment and exploitation by foreign capital.

It was his party, however, which was in power in the early '80s when the full-scale war was started. The UNP had got a landslide victory in 1977 with 140 votes to eight for the SLFP. In the north, the Tamil United Liberation Front won a clean sweep of all 18 seats, standing on the programme of a separate Tamil state. These two developments came in the wake of the betrayals of working and poor people by popular front governments of the capitalist SLFP with left parties, but the sharp attack by the UNP on the gains of the past, and its driving down of living standards, provoked an all-out public sector general strike in 1980. After it ended in defeat and mass sackings of trade union and party lefts, the government turned to pursue a civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

On 24 July 1983, the bodies of 13 soldiers killed by the Tigers were paraded on the streets of Colombo. Mobs were given military protection and government vehicles to move in. Up to 4,000 Tamil people were slaughtered in just a couple of days. More than 18,000 homes were attacked and damaged and more than 100 workplaces and 20 garment factories were destroyed. 150,000 lost their jobs and over 100,000 Tamils were made refugees. President Premadasa justified this tragedy saying the Sinhala people must be given respect but that anyway the pogroms against Tamils had been organised by the left parties!

Today the United National Party poses as the friend of the workers, of the Tamils and of all peace-loving citizens. They have decried the war but made few moves to organise real mass opposition against it. The nearest it came was at the time of the funeral of the murdered newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickeramatunge. They have not done well in the recent provincial elections.


The ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party has won decisively. In the East it was with the help of another LTTE renegade, Pillayan and his thugs. In the Ratnapura area and in the central Hill Country, where Tamils of a different origin from those of the North are the majority, Rajapkse was still able to win big votes. Corruption and intimidation are endemic in Sri Lanka's elections, but the promise of a swift end to the war and its drain on resources and emotions, won out. Sinhalese families with sons in the army, many as economic conscripts, longed for an end to the fighting. Every village in the South has been flying the white flags of mourning for the numerous soldiers lost in the dacades of fighting.

The United Socialist Party has been reluctant to stand in the recent elections which, in the circumstances are a farce and serve only to strengthen the Rajapakse warmongering clique. But the USP has a responsibility to voice the anguish of the Tamil-speaking people, to defend their rights and to campaign for united mass action to change society along socialist lines.

When the war is supposedly over, there will be no long-term solution under this government. The JVP and JHU chauvinists, who will never settle for any kind of devolution, may well come onto the streets to create a triumphal communal atmosphere. They and the government even may feel strong enough to carry out physical attacks on Tamils and political opponents alike.

The government may well go for snap elections in the Jaffna area to claim the war is over and that Tamil people can have some measure of choice over their representatives. They will aim to install compliant Tamil politicians. They will refuse any real element of self rule, especially if it means implementing the 'thirteenth amendment' (to an earlier cease-fire agreement) which would link the north and east as one entity. But after the bloody 'end' of the longest running conflict in Asia, the Tamil people, if consulted, will not now settle for integration into a unitary state.

Elections taking place in these conditions are a farce. The idea of the government is to move quickly to repeat the experience in the East where military victory was followed up fraudulent and violent elections to get a compliant local administration into power. There are said to be plans for the government to organise Sinhala settlers to move into the war-torn areas of the North in the way that Jewish settlers have been 'planted' in Palestine's West Bank, for example.

Whatever manoeuvres, strategies, emergency powers Mahinda Rajapakse has surrounded himself with, in the end, relief at the end of the war will give way to new anxieties - over the lack of a settlement to the national conflict but also to the crippling costs and conditions of life. The war has consumed vast resources – up to$5million a day. Before the civil war, in 1982, defence spending was just 0.5% of the country's GDP. Today it takes more than 5% – putting Sri Lanka in the top 20 biggest military spenders worldwide. The total has gone from 96bn rupees to 200bn in two years. The country's current account deficit has gone from 1.5bn to 3.6bn rupees. Prices of essential food and fuel have spiralled. The rupee in the wage packet has plummeted.

In his appeal for solidarity action on April 8, Secretary of the USP, Siritunga Jayasuriya, pointed out what the effects have been already of the global downturn: "More than 300,000 employees out of a total workforce of 6.1 million employed in the private sector have lost their jobs, with more than 50,000 being dismissed during the past three months. More than 50 companies and factories have been closed due to the present crisis situation and the Labour Ministry has done little to protect the employees who have lost their jobs.

The working people of Sri Lanka will resist paying the price for the crisis on top of the huge war burden. The Tamil people most direly affected by the war will want to see something in return for their huge sacrifices. The workers' movement and the socialist forces will be rebuilt to fight back. An end to war and a lasting peace can be achieved through a mass, united struggle of the working and poor of all communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim – for a harmonious socialist society.

Clare Doyle, CWI



Three months after Israel's war against Gaza that killed nearly 1,400 people, 314 of them children, and wounded thousands, conditions in the strip remain appalling and are worsening rapidly. The UN estimates that over 4,000 houses were destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force's (IDF) bloody assault and thousands more were badly damaged. Thousands are still huddling in tents.

Despite a pledge of $4.5 billion for reconstruction made at an international donors conference at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last March, repair work to Gaza's war-shattered infrastructure has yet to begin.

The Israeli regime still enforces cruel sanctions, first imposed after Hamas won a majority in elections to the Palestinian Authority in 2006. This means at least 90% of people in Gaza suffer regular power cuts and the rest have no electricity at all. An estimated 100,000 people out of a population of 1.5 million only get running water once in every two or three days.

The previous Israeli government attacked Gaza to try to get re-elected in February's general election and also to try to reassert the Israeli army's military dominance, following its defeat in the 2006 war on Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the government was replaced by a new right-wing coalition led by Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud party. And whatever the IDF's short term military gains, the slaughter of Gazan men, women and children will not bring peace or security to the people of Israel.

Gaza faces starvation and remains a gigantic prison camp. Israel continues its military assaults despite the so-called ceasefire. This cruel oppression and injustice will inevitably lead to more conflict, in which the working class and poor, Palestinian but also Israeli Jewish, will suffer most.

Although Hamas was militarily weakened by the IDF onslaught, rival Palestinian organisation Fatah has not gained from this, as its leadership is seen as compliant to imperialism. However, Hamas has no alternative strategy that can advance the cause of the Palestinians.

A return to indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas and other forces, or renewed suicide bombings in Israel, would be counter-productive in the Palestinians' struggle for liberation.

The Palestinians clearly have a right to armed defence. This would be best conducted through democratically-organised Palestinian defence committees. Mass action, for example against the blockade, would help to push the Palestinian struggle forward and could win the support of Israeli Jewish workers in the process.

'Two states'?

Hopes that the election of US president Barack Obama will lead to a fundamental change were already undermined by his silence during the Gaza war.

The Obama administration now says it will push for a new round of peace talks, eventually leading to a "two state solution". But the right wing Netanyahu government does not recognise the right of Palestinians to statehood and continues to build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Under intense US and EU pressure, it is possible the Israeli government will be forced to engage in talks and it could make some secondary concessions. But this will not lead to the creation of a genuine and viable Palestinian state. Indeed, the Palestinians will be asked to make the real 'sacrifices', such as dropping the demand for East Jerusalem to become their capital and for the right of return of refugees, and will be asked to accept some Bantustan-style 'state'.

Under capitalism and imperialism, a genuine 'two state' solution is utopian.

The US as 'peace-broker' is currently involved in daily combat operations from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is also confronting the Iranian regime, causing huge instability and resentment throughout the Muslim and Arab world.

Every important gain made in the history of Palestinian struggle has been the result of active mobilisation of the mass of Palestinian people.

Also, in Israel, united class action would see the working class and poor oppose the national oppression carried out in their name, and lead to a struggle to overthrow the Israeli capitalist class, as part of a struggle to overthrow all the corrupt ruling elites of the Middle East.

The building of mass independent workers' organisations, in the territories, in Israel and across the Middle East, is urgently needed as a first step towards a socialist solution to end the misery endured by Palestinians.

It is these forces, alongside the youth and workers around the world who showed great solidarity with the plight of Palestinians during huge demonstrations against the Gaza war, which will lead the struggle for a real, lasting solution - democratic socialist states across the region, including a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel.

Niall Mulholland, CWI

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The great recession

Who now would dispute that world capitalism is facing its worse economic crisis since the 1930s?

Previous slumps, like 1974-75 and 1980-82, mainly affected the advanced capitalist countries, and overall growth in the world economy remained positive. Now, for the first time since 1945, there is a synchronised global downturn, with an absolute decline in world output (aggregate GDP) and trade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is predicting a fall in global output of 2.7% in 2009, with a 4.3% fall in the OECD area (made up of 30 of the most developed economies). It projects a further fall of 0.1% in OECD area output during 2010 and a modest 2.3% growth in the global economy. However, it warns that there is a serious risk of continuing negative growth rates.


The US economy, according to the OECD, is likely to contract by 4% this year, Japan's by 6.6%, and the euro area of the European Union (EU) by 4%. It would not be surprising if the actual figures turn out to be even worse.

In recent years, world trade grew two or three times faster than global output. Since last year, however, the volume of world trade (worth around $13 trillion annually) has fallen sharply. The World Trade Organisation predicts a 9% fall in trade (by volume). However, the OECD predicts an even worse decline of 13%. (World trade grew by 8.5% in 2006 and 6% in 2007.)

Exports have been hit by a generalised, world-wide collapse of demand and the seizing up of export credit normally used to finance about 90% of the international shipping of goods. Major exporters have suffered falls of between 15% and 40% in their exports. China, for instance, relied in recent years on exports of consumer goods to the US and EU. As these exports have been cut back, China's manufacturers have cut their orders for producer goods (for example, machine tools, motors, and other equipment), hitting manufacturing exporters such as Japan and Germany and raw material exporters like Brazil.

At the various summits of the major capitalist states – G8, EU, G20, etc – the leaders have all declared themselves in favour of free trade and continued globalisation, warning of the dangers of protectionism. But according to the World Bank, since the November 2008 G20 meeting, 17 members of the group have taken a total of 47 trade-restricting steps.

Given the greatly increased integration of world trade and investment over recent years, there is unlikely to be any return to the virtual seizing up of trade that occurred in the 1930s. Depression-era protectionism was a very blunt instrument, with the US imposing nearly 900 import duties, which provoked widespread retaliation from its competitors. Today, tighter licensing requirements, import bans, anti-dumping measures and environmental protection rules are more likely to be used.

Obama has promised to revive world trade talks. But the Doha round negotiations were stalled even before the financial crisis, and finally broke down in July last year. Now, the US is itself adopting protectionist measures. For instance, Obama's Keynesian stimulus package includes a 'Buy American' clause that forbids spending on public works "unless all of the iron, steel, and manufactured goods used in the project are produced in the US." An amendment in the Senate to remove this clause was defeated 65-31 (no Democrat voted for its removal). It was softened by an additional clause that called for the Buy American clause to be implemented in ways that are compatible with WTO rules. But this is far from ruling out protectionist measures.

"That clause sends a terrible message to our trading partners", comments Edward Glaeser. "We are embracing an industrial policy that encourages other countries to bolster their own domestic industries and shut out foreign producers". (International Herald Tribune, 7 March) The US's NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico, also fear that the Obama administration will use labour and environmental protection rules to exclude some of their exports from the US.

Neither free trade nor protectionism will provide an easy way out for capitalism. Sheltered by protectionist measures, big corporations will raise their prices, squeeze wages, increase their profits, and postpone investment in new technology.

The global downturn was triggered by the financial crisis. In turn, the sharp fall in production and trade, and the world-wide surge in unemployment, has exacerbated the financial crisis. Governments have injected trillions in order to bail out the banks and other financial institutions. In contrast to 1929-30, they have prevented a catastrophic collapse of the core banking system and the financial infrastructure. One estimate puts the total cost of the US bank bailout (cash injections together with loan guarantees) to be a staggering £11.6 trillion. (Observer, 29 March)

Yet the crisis is far from over. As the downturn deepens, banks are being hit by defaults in prime loans, commercial property mortgages, credit card debt, student loans, etc. The IMF has now released an updated estimate of losses for the world financial system. Total losses are now expected to be a phenomenal $4.1 trillion. Last October, US losses on loans and securities were estimated at $1.4 trillion; they are now expected to be $2.7 trillion. The IMF expects losses of $1.2 trillion in Europe and $150 billion in Japan.

Most of the US losses arise from securitised loans linked to sub-prime housing loans. The losses of European banks, especially in Sweden, Austria and Belgium, are linked to loans to East European countries (like Hungary, Estonia, Romania, etc), formerly referred to as 'emerging markets'. Capital flows to these economies have plummeted, throwing Eastern Europe into crisis – with a major knock-on effect on Western European banks. East European governments are among those in the queue for IMF loans to avert collapse.

After the London G20 summit in early April, it was announced that the IMF and World Bank would inject $1.1 trillion into the world economy through loans to governments. However, the New York Times comments: "Some of the money has yet to be pledged, some is double counted and some would be counted as a 'synthetic currency' [special drawing rights] that is not actually real money". (How Much is the $1.1 Trillion in Aid from the G20 Really Worth? 9 April)

Around $500 billion of the $1.1 trillion is supposed to be direct funding of the IMF by major contributors, like the EU, Japan, and the US. So far, less than half has been forthcoming, and the US contribution depends on Congressional approval. The $250 billion of trade credits is not all new money; much of it will simply be rolled over from previous trade loans that have been repaid. The $250 billion of special drawing rights (credit against which governments can borrow) will be allocated to IMF members, and it is then up to them to extend loans to the poorest countries.

Obama recently said he saw "glimmers of hope" for the US economy. Capitalist leaders everywhere are desperately searching for the 'green shoots' of recovery. But this is premature. The rate of decline has slowed. This undoubtedly reflects the massive sums used by governments to bail out the banks and finance huge stimulus packages. Central banks in the US, Japan and Britain have reduced interest rates to near zero and resorted to 'quantitative easing', effectively printing money.

But this is not the same as a recovery. A sustainable recovery will be held back by several things that will not be easily overcome. There is massive overcapacity in the world economy, and this may well give rise to deflation, a general decline in the prices of manufactured goods (which will depress investment). There is a huge overhang of debt. Households, businesses and governments will all be forced to try to reduce their debt burden in the coming years.

Through the bailouts, for instance, a mountain of debt has been transferred from the banks to governments. Keynesian-type deficit spending is also increasing government debt. The OECD-wide fiscal deficit will reach about 8.7% of GDP next year (11.9% in the US). Protectionism will impede the revival of world trade. This is not a normal cyclical recession. It is likely to be much longer than previous post-1945 recessions, with a slow recovery. Some commentators are calling it the 'Great Recession' and, although not likely to be on the scale of the 1930s, it will have depression-like features.

The burden of the crisis inevitably falls on workers, poor labourers and small farmers. Unemployment means poverty and suffering for many millions. G7 unemployment is projected to rise to 37 million by the end of this year (and official figures always underestimate the true numbers). According to the ILO there were 190 million unemployed world-wide in 2008, and another 50 million will join their ranks this year. Globalisation, it was claimed, was reducing poverty, but the ILO now admits that "poverty reduction is unravelling". There are 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day.

Lynn Walsh, CWI

May 2009