Q and As with Lionel Bopage
[size=117]lines co-editor, Vasuki Nesiah worked on the following Q and As with activist-intellectuals Lionel Bopage, based in Canberra and Ketheshwaran (Kethesh) Loganathan, based in Colombo. Lionel Bopage is former general secretary of the JVP and former member of the District Development Council, Galle. Associated with the JVP since 1968, he resigned in 1984. He is currently a member of the Executive Committee, Friends for Peace in Sri Lanka, based in Canberra, Australia. Kethesh Loganathan is currently Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and Head of its Conflict & Peace Analysis Unit. During the 1983 –‘94 period, he was a member of the EPRLF and partook in the negotiation processes spanning the Thimpu Peace Talks of 1985 to the Mangala Moonesinghe Parliamentary Select Committee of 1992. During his involvement in the Tamil national movement as a member of the EPRLF he did not contest in either the N-E Provincial Councils elections of 1988 or in the subsequent parliamentary elections of 1989 and 1994. He resigned from EPRLF in 1995. The views expressed by him are in his personal capacity.
Kathesh and Lionel, both found their home in youth militant movements that fundamentally transformed the political culture of Sri Lanka – one from the South, and the other from the North. Within the EPRLF and JVP, they represented voices of integrity and pluralism that questioned party dogma, resisted the expedient, and promoted internal democracy – but they also represent a fundamental commitment to struggle against the social injustices that birthed these political organizations. Holding onto both these elements, we approached these Q and As with an interest in exploring the alternative paths (lost paths?) that were not taken – a lens into the past that may shed direct some light onto the future.
Q1. Could you reflect back on the origins of the JVP and speak to the mood of the sixties and seventies – perhaps if you could focus on the different social sectors that the militant movement drew upon, the social tensions within the Sinhala community that fed this militancy and so on?
I would like to begin my reflections commencing from the 1950s because the socio-economic and political events during that period have had serious ramifications for the future generations of Sri Lanka.
Left movement and nationalism
The left movement led by the Communist Party (CP) and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was quite influential in early 1950s but was being overtaken by the Buddhist nationalist wave that was rapidly gathering momentum in the south of the country. This wave capitalized upon the progressive sentiments of Sinhala nationalism, a wave that the left parties could not grasp properly. The left parties did not clearly understand the dialectical relationship between the nationalist currents of both Sinhalese and Tamils and the economic basis of the country. Also, they could not harness the momentum of the progressive anti-colonial trends of Sinhala nationalism, though they understood the dangers it would pose in future to the detriment of unity, harmony and cohesiveness of the Lankan social fabric. The left movement introduced and set in motion a powerful social justice agenda, but they were not capable of expanding their organizational base beyond the urban working class or mobilising working people to form a revolutionary mass movement. For example, when the United National Party (UNP) government disenfranchised the plantation workers in 1949, the left did not show much interest in or give priority to organizing them.
Mahajana Eksath Peramuna
The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) was able to capture political power in 1956, by galvanizing only the Sinhalese out of all the social forces colonialism had subjugated. The net positive outcomes of the 1953 general strike also contributed to the MEP’s electoral gains. I vividly remember how my father, a card-carrying member of the CP, switched over, in 1955, to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The former MEP MP of Weligama, the late Mr Pani Illangakoon, was the CP candidate in the 1952 general election. In fact, bulk of the CP machine had switched over to the SLFP by 1956.
The galvanized Sinhala Buddhist wave delivered a significant blow to the hitherto strong left (yet divided on international ideological affiliations), with tremendous far-reaching consequences. This wave also negatively affected the relationship between the left and the Tamil-speaking people. Tamil youth gradually shifted their allegiances to the Tamil nationalist movements and the plantation workers moved away from the trade unions affiliated with the CP and the LSSP.
The MEP government carried out a campaign of ‘nationalisations’ as pledged during the 1956 election campaign. It also implemented the Official Languages Act (Sinhala Only Act) of 1956, gave more opportunities to Sinhala students to study in their mother tongue. As far as the Sinhala nationality was concerned, it was a step in the right direction. However, the government was not keen enough to take steps to address similar issues affecting the Tamil Hindu community. The nationalist social transformation of 1956 did not bring a “1956” to the Tamil speaking people of the northeast. It brought extremely disturbing and disastrous consequences upon the Tamil-speaking population laying the foundation for future militant activities.
This completely contrasts with the political approach adopted by the Indian national bourgeoisie. Their government implemented measures to reinforce English language teaching at schools. Consecutive governments of Sri Lanka seriously downgraded English teaching resource capabilities at schools. Several Christian and Tamil schools continued to teach their curricula in English medium but with the government take over, these schools also had to downgrade English teaching. The pro-colonial bureaucracy was not touched upon by any of these events; they continued to work happily in English, to teach their kith and kin in English in private schools or to send them abroad. To make matters worse, the government did not have a vision or any plans to utilize the skills of the new ‘Sinhala only educated’ generation of youth who would make their presence felt in a matter of several years.
SWRD Bandaranaike, caught among the political currents of Sinhala nationalism, comprador capitalism, Tamil nationalism and the left, ultimately had to pay with his life for going against the interests of the comprador bourgeoisie. Following his assassination, the Sinhala nationalist sympathy brought Sirima Bandaranaike to power. Rising cost of living, lack of employment opportunities and continued discrimination against the Sinhala-educated youth saw the SLFP led coalition defeated at the elections at the hand of a UNP led coalition, in 1965. The Senanayakes, Wijewardenas, Jayawardenas and leaders of the Tamil and Muslim capitalist political parties led the coalition.
The numerical expansion of university campuses and Sinhala education brought new waves of Sinhala rural students to university education, full of future expectations. Due to budgetary restraints, bureaucratic inefficiencies and corruption the universities also were not coping very well. Many students had their destinies pre-determined at the university entrance years having had to choose courses that did not match with the knowledge and skill requirements demanded by the public sector and the private sector. There was a drastic jump in demand for university places and jobs. Not only the expectations of the students of the Arts faculty were dashed; the students of the faculties of science, agriculture and medicine also experienced diminished employment opportunities. In 1968 there were more than 500,000 unemployed youth looking for jobs.
There was manual work available in rural areas in agriculture, fishing, plantations, mining, and other fields. On the one hand, the products of the entire education system did not match the skill requirements of the economy. A not so educated person from the affluent and influential had access to employment in both private and public sectors, that was not even available to the Sinhala speaking, highest qualified of the rural youth or the urban poor. Also, the psychology of the students after graduation did not allow them to work as farm hands or workers, jobs that did not need university education to perform. Here the emphasis is deliberately limited to Sinhala speaking youth. The Tamil speaking youth faced a similar set of problems accentuated by ethnic discrimination.
Frustration and alienation
As a direct consequence of the language policy and social inequality, the Sinhala only and Tamil only educated youth lost their self-esteem and their confidence in society. They became increasingly frustrated and alienated. Their assertive aspirations grew with a sense of urgency for social justice and an idealistic future that they believed could be achieved with sharing, self-sacrifice, dedication, and determination. They hated the double standards, the hypocrisy and the dishonesty of their former leaders. Their questioning of the existing power structures and institutionalized violence made them increasingly anti-establishment. It is significant to note that relative political calmness prevailed among the up-country Tamil youth who did not have access to higher education, but continued their lives as toilers.
The disadvantaged and the underprivileged of the society had no opportunities for decision-making, they were kept far away from power centres, marginalized from the mainstream society for some reason or the other. This situation provided a natural and ideal opportunity for the “movement” (which was named the JVP at a later stage) to expand its political base. The political work carried out within the trade unions of the Department of Lands and Land Development witnessed the beginnings of the movement deviating from the established traditional left. The trade union newspaper “The Voice of Development” became its first public face. The movement carried out political work among other trade unions but the established trade union leaderships took steps to marginalize those who had views different to theirs.
The students of the university campuses comprising the cream of the Sri Lankan rural youth, who neither had a source of income to survive the university life nor had any means of paying back the mortgages on their parental households borrowed by their parents to pay for their education, were naturally attracted to the JVP. Even the school students were becoming aware of their precarious future with no expectations of employment prospects. The rural youth and the urban poor who were undergoing repression and discrimination due to their background of birth (caste, class, political allegiance etc.) provided the JVP its vital growth hormones. The leadership of the JVP being from the same background did not need much effort to deal with the available political opportunities.
The JVP became the harbinger of the message of social progress and its ideology spread like a bush-fire. This ideology had its own drawbacks, as many intellectual critics have pointed out, but it was Marxist in essence. Rather than believing that their ‘Karma’ is the source of their helplessness, they came to believe that with their commitment, dedication, and effort they would be able to initiate and bring about social changes for the better. This idealism was the basis for their struggle against the corrupt and callous political leadership of the day. They lacked influential family connections, compared to the traditional left and the JVP continued to remain a cadre party.
Allegations have been made that since its very beginning the JVP had tilted towards violence. A parallel question needs to be raised in order to find answers to the allegations. Did the establishment offer any peaceful means and opportunities for the youth to bring about fundamental changes needed to satisfy their youthful aspirations? This requires us to discuss the political situation that was prevalent at that time.
Significant shifts in the national and international political arena in the 1960 decade heavily influenced the birth of the JVP. Neo-colonialism was expanding its tentacles and reinforcing its hegemony world-wide. The USA was applying direct overt force or indirect covert force in the South-East Asia to subject socialist or pro-socialist governments to regime change. For example, regime change in Indonesia carried out by massacring hundreds of thousands of Indonesians had a profound negative experience on the left in general and on the ‘movement’ in particular. The influence of the victorious Cuban revolution against the pro-US Batista regime, successful struggles in Indo-China against their colonizers, and the strong progressive socialist social forces had overarching and encouraging influences on the left.
United Left Front and its betrayal
In the domestic scene, the Sino-Soviet dispute in 1962 brought about further divisions and splits in the CP. Formation of the United Left Front (ULF) in 1963 by the CP, the LSSP and the MEP became a rare occasion of enjoyment for the left forces, though tensions within this formation were evident by the management and organizational difficulties it had been undergoing. The then SLFP government was almost at the edge of defeat in the Parliament by the UNP led forces. It was during this time that the SLFP was able to influence the LSSP to join the ranks of the government. In1964, the majority of the LSSP decided at a national conference to form a coalition with the SLFP and join the government.
The LSSP’s decision to leave the ULF and form a bourgeois coalition with the SLFP was a clear betrayal of the left movement. Reacting to this, Philip Gunewardena broke away from the ULF and formed a coalition with the UNP. The CP also joined the SLFP-LSSP coalition in 1968 to form the United Front, which became a dominant capitalist force for the next decade to come. This situation draws an enormous parallel in analyzing the factors that play an important aspect in the current ongoing relationship of the JVP with the SLFP
The political degeneration of the traditional left has been attributed to the reformist line the majority of the leadership had followed and the lack of revolutionary perspectives for the future. The organizations were mainly founded on systematically recruiting to leadership level, individuals that could exert social influence during the election times (based on feudal and caste relations rather than on the level of class consciousness). Thus the movement had at its disposal an opportunity to make inroads into the rank and file of the traditional left.
The CP and the LSSP leadership commenced making unfounded allegations against the leadership of the youth movement of the new left. They very well knew that the new youth movement had come from their very own ranks and comprised of committed individuals whom they personally knew. Still they were insensible enough to throw mud by alleging that the movement was a scheme of the CIA to trap the youth movement. In fact, the real CIA was backing the UNP government to the hilt acting to protect the interests of colonialism; and the CP and the LSSP making such unscrupulous allegations was tantamount to protecting the real CIA agents.
Defeating the UNP government that advocated establishing a dictatorial regime by folding the electoral map down for twenty years became the priority of the movement. Even the SLFP perceived this threat of a pro-colonial dictatorship and openly spoke against it. In the light of what was happening in the international arena and the statements made by the pro-US elements of the UNP government the JVP had decided to arm themselves. The intention had been to confront a future military government that could be set up with neo-colonial backing.
In the meantime, Rohana Wijeweera, the founder of the JVP and several political activists were arrested and remanded in custody. Several members to the left of the CP and the LSSP assisted the movement in challenging the charges laid against those that were kept in custody. The government intelligence agencies such as MI 5 were surprised, being not aware of the breadth and the width of the movement they were unraveling. The intelligence agents and the news media labeled the movement as the “Che Guevara movement”. The movement was not unhappy about this nickname but really did not take it up as its name.
United Front and its pledges
The movement had decided to support the United Front at the general elections held in 1970. Many speakers and activists of the movement contributed to the election campaign of the United Front. The United Front fought on a strong anti-imperialist policy platform including the nationalization of colonial big business enterprises, which was very popular in many developing countries at that time. The election brought the United Front to power by more than a two-third majority in parliament.
Within weeks of coming to power the leaders of the United Front, in particular, NM Perera commenced singing a different song, backtracking on the radical election pledges that were made. They were providing all the reasons on the earth why election pledges cannot be implemented not only in the short term but also during the life term of its government. Rohana and most of the political activists were released from custody. The movement commenced its first public political campaign with a public lecture in July 1970 at Vidyodaya University (renamed University of Sri Jayawardenapura). Main thrust of the lecture was devoted to responding to the CIA allegations of the CP and the LSSP. In addition, it brought to light the decision of the ‘group of 21’, the central committee of the movement at the time, to call itself the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
At its first biggest public meeting in Colombo on 10 August, Rohana declared the following: 'We will continue to support the government if they progress towards socialism, they will receive all our support, but if they fail to reach the socialist goal, then we will not do so'. As the government discredited itself, the JVP rapidly grew in popularity. The public campaign of the JVP worked very well among the rank and file of the traditional left who believed in election pledges of the United Front. The JVP was gradually expanding its base not only among the youth but also among workers, peasants and plantation workers. Disappointment and disillusionment with the excuses for not implementing pro-socialist policies while implementing pro-capitalist policies provided the basis of the gains the JVP made in a very short period of time, devastating the bases of traditional left. By the end of 1970, the JVP had become the strongest left force in Sri Lanka.
Q2(a). How would you characterize the historical record of the JVP and its different phases?
The 1971 insurrection was the first major insurrection of the Sinhala youth against the State since the rebellions of 1818 and 1848 against the British. The 1971 uprising also showed the notion, “a revolutionary social transformation cannot be achieved in a Buddhist country”, was a myth. A large portion of youth had become totally alienated with the social establishment to such an extent, as I previously pointed out (see my response to Question 1), that they were willing to dedicate and even sacrifice their lives to effect revolutionary social changes. This broke down the popular belief that the average Sinhalese would be more than willing to undergo suffering and difficulties and still remain in silence.
I would characterize the JVP as a semi-proletarian movement of the rural youth, landless peasants, the unemployed and other oppressed sections of the Sri Lankan society. The main aim of the JVP was achieving social justice for the oppressed and equitable resource and income distributions. In the 1960s and 1970s the social polarization and alienation was increasing than ever before. The JVP strongly believed that the ruling classes and dominant social groups never wanted to share their economic, social, and political power, and saw the solution to this problem lay in the transformation of the entire social framework for the better. The JVP activists did not engage in political work to gain personal benefits such as employment, personal promotions etc. If that was the aim then to join the UNP or the SLFP was a better option for them. The ruling class and dominant social groups including those of the traditional left seemed to have believed that the youth movement was misguided, abnormal and power hungry. The bureaucracy and the intelligence sources looked at the JVP only from a comparative point of view with their own background.
I will now briefly outline the different phases of the progress of the JVP.
Formation of the ‘movement’
Nine individuals led by Rohana Wijeweera formed the movement in May 1965. By the time Rohana alias Loku Mahaththya was expelled from the CP (Peking wing) he had laid a strong foundation for building the new movement. To finance the movement it had established two agricultural farms in Hambanthota and Anuradhapura. The movement was of the view that it should arm itself to confront the potential threat of a neo-colonial dictatorial regime that could have been established by the pro-US elements of the then UNP government. The movement was able to establish some contacts within the armed forces. In 1969, it started holding educational camps based in the famous five lectures.
At the end of 1969 the ‘group twenty one’, the first central committee of the movement, met. The Mao Youth Front led by GID Dharmasekera was expelled from the movement in 1970. In May 1970 Rohana and several other activists were arrested, but they were released following the May 1970 general elections, which brought the United Front (UF) government to power. The first public event of the JVP was held at Vidyodaya University in July 1970 and the news organ of the JVP, ‘Janatha Vimukthi’ came into circulation in August 1970. Since then the JVP started publishing ‘Rathu Balaya’ island-wide, ‘Rathu Lanka’ for the working class, and ‘Rathu Kekulu’ for children. The first public rally was held in Hyde Park in August 1970 and the newspapers of the day carried a statement issued by the secretaries of the SLFP, the CP and the LSSP ‘urging’ the people to fight the rightwing reactionary force. The Secretary to the Ministry of Defence declared that the JVP was public enemy No. 1 and that it had to be eradicated.
In September 1970, in an act of self-defence, the JVP again decided to arm itself with whatever weapons they could get hold of. The massive propaganda campaign the JVP launched in late 1970s, which comprised of island-wide poster campaigns, selling 50,000 copies of the central party organ ‘Vimukthi’, large public gatherings and political lectures, led to its rapid expansion, except in areas where Tamils, Muslims and Christians were predominant. The leadership of the JVP consisted mainly of individuals born to rural Sinhala Buddhist families. The nationalist militant movements in Tamil areas were in the offing but the JVP did not have the capability to do its propaganda work in either Tamil or English. The JVP interpretation of the class forces leading the socialist revolution would also have made the Tamil activists hesitant to join the JVP ranks.
By early 1971, the government of the SLFP, LSSP saw the JVP as an imminent threat and designed plans to eliminate it. The army and police commenced setting up the 'Counter-Insurgency Units' to co-ordinate anti-JVP work, of which Peter Keneuman, a leader of the CP, had played a major role. The intelligence of the JVP indicated that the Attorney General was drafting special legislation to achieve that end. The law enforcement agencies, in the name of protecting ‘law and order’ were violating the rights of the youth movement to conduct their legal democratic political activities. As a result, holding public meetings, selling party newspapers and engaging in political propaganda work were disrupted.
The Mao Youth Front killed a police officer during a demonstration outside the US Embassy on 6 March 1971. The JVP immediately declared that it had nothing to do with this incident. The JVP had come to know the political links between the leaders of the demonstration and the UF government. In early March 1971, the JVP was proscribed and Rohana Wijeweera was detained. On 16 March, the UF government declared that they have discovered a JVP 'plot' to overthrow the government. The leadership of the UF government used the US Embassy killing as a pretext to declare State of Emergency. It imposed a dusk-to dawn curfew, provided the security forces with full powers of arbitrary arrest. In March, it carried out the first act of war by implementing the third part of the emergency regulations empowering the security forces to dispose of dead bodies without post-mortem examinations or informing the relatives. The JVP undoubtedly took this step as the launch of their ‘search and destroy’ strategy. By the end of March, thousands of JVP cadres had been in custody. This created the explosive situation of April 1971.
Pre-1971 period of the JVP was also full of factionalism and splits. Many groups had moved away from the JVP due to political differences. The group led by Dharmasekera was prominent in this regard. In addition, some left the organisation due to personal reasons. Also there were factions that by remaining within the organisation wanted to capture it through internal power struggle. Factionalism brought disastrous consequences into the JVP. At the end of 1970 factionalism had at its core personal matters that led to serious implications during the period of insurrection. Despite working together due to government repression at the end of March, the mistrust between the two factions was so vast that each faction was taking life and death precautionary steps to protect their own factions.
It is still debatable whether the 1971 April insurrection was a short-term plan to capture state power or not. It was an action plan to defend our rights for political existence. In fact, the two factions within the JVP apparently adopted two different lines of action. One faction proposed that going into immediate offensive was the best defence, which had been the ideological position of the JVP. The other faction was concentrating more on getting Rohana Wijeweera out of detention using all available means. At the same time I accept the fact that if capturing state power was not the long-term goal of the JVP then there was no strategic reason for its existence. However, in hindsight I believe, the reaction and opposition to the inhuman state plan to search and destroy the JVP could have taken other forms, which could have led to mass agitations and protests against the government repression. Its original decision to arm itself, in self-defence, generated an ascending vicious spiral of violence. Some intellectuals continue to interpret the insurrection as an occasion of misconduct of misled youth and quick to condemn them. These pundits have intentionally kept a blind eye from the major societal causes for the violence and have become apologetics for the corrupt, family bandyist regimes, and the social layers that have been passive in terms of social change.
During the insurrection, the CP and the LSSP set up home guards to protect police stations and to search and destroy JVPers. The UF government introduced repressive labour laws banning the distribution of handbills and posters within the workplaces without employer permission and arresting all those who did not report to work. While carrying out a systematic purge of the workplaces, the government decreed that in recruitment to the armed forces, anyone under the age of 35 should be totally excluded in forming the National Service Regiment. Hundreds of JVP cadres sacrificed their lives in combat and non-combat situations, and thousands were arrested and destroyed by security personnel trained and motivated in cold-war political ideology. After capture, some were burnt alive, buried alive and some were cut to pieces using chain saws. Even some of those who surrendered following the call of the then Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranaike were killed.
The following statements vividly summarise the political ideology of the armed forces: Sandhurst trained Lt. Col. Cyril Ranatunga, military coordinator of Kegalle district during the insurgency and later appointed as a diplomat, was quoted as saying: 'We have learnt too many lessons from Vietnam and Malaysia. We must destroy them completely.' Another officer was quoted as saying: 'Once we are convinced prisoners are insurgents we take them to cemetery and dispose of them.' Despite subsequent denials, in later weeks, hundred of bodies of young men and women were seen floating down the Kelani river near Colombo, where they were collected and burnt by soldiers. Many were found to have been shot in the back. Thousands, who believed in and showed their commitment to immediate social change became frustrated, disappointed and disillusioned. Some compromised their positions, reconciled with the power circles, and incorporated themselves in the ruling political establishment.
The pre-1971 period dominated by ultra-left adventurist tendencies of the JVP was replaced, after 1972, with a more balanced approach. The period of 1971 to 1972 was a period of reflection on the past policies and practices of the JVP. The prison life with all its turbulence was an oven in which different political thoughts and currents melted into forming the new thinking of the JVP. Dropping the entire political lecture on Indian expansionism, revision of the political lecture on ‘the path of the Lankan revolution’ with less emphasis on military aspects, complete moving away from the sectarian political influences, development of policy frameworks in the form of a policy declaration, study of the national question and bringing it to the fore in political agenda, emphasis on organization of the urban and rural proletariat were some changes that worth mentioning.
The second wave of public rebuilding of the JVP began in 1976 and after November 1977 when all political prisoners sentenced under the Criminal Justice Commissions (CJC) Act were released with the then UNP government repealing the Act. The JVP gradually moved towards limiting itself to parliamentary forms of struggle. The party structure significantly changed with extending electoral organizations. Anyone could become a member of an electoral organisation simply by filling an application and paying a fee. The principles of democratic centralism in the party organisation received less emphasis. When an individual or an organization within the JVP had disciplinary problems, there were many occasions when the party acted in a bureaucratic manner. In the party's Politburo and Central Committee severe disagreements developed when solutions to these problems were discussed.
Between 1971 and 1983 the JVP recognized, in principle, the right of nations to self-determination accepting it as based on Leninism. However, it continuously rejected agitating for the rights of non-Sinhala people. In the face of discrimination and repression against the Tamil people the Central Committee remained deadly silent. Following the 1982 presidential elections, in which the JVP received less than satisfactory results, the JVP turned its back on the recognition of the right to self-determination and stated that even Lenin rejected its validity under a socialist governance. The JVP refused to accept that the country's specific social and historical conditions have brought the national question to the forefront as one of the primary conditions for the survival of capitalism, while at the same time the national question has created an irreversible crisis for capitalism. The signs of the JVP becoming servile to Sinhala nationalism were eminent. At the beginning of 1983 there was no difference between what the JVP was advocating and what an orthodox parliamentary party would have been advocating on the national question.
The JVP also rejected to establish dialogue with any of the Tamil militant organizations. Even if certain militant Tamil organizations had originally engaged in terrorist activities, if they were prepared to take a progressive path, how could the JVP have refused to engage in dialogue with them with the aim of bringing them under the umbrella of socialism? What advantage the JVP, the country, or the socialist revolution would have gained by saying that the JVP would be subjected to repression if it enters into a dialogue with Tamil militants. In 1983, even without such a dialogue, the JVP was accused of having ties with the Tamil militancy! I feel that the JVP could only have expected to rally the Tamil people around the banner of revolution if and only if the JVP identified with the problems of the Tamil people in parallel with the problems of the Sinhala and other peoples and agitated forcefully demanding solutions to their problems. The JVP could not have expected this to happen by separating itself from the problems of the non-Sinhala people.
Initially, in 1977, there was general agreement to take united action, forming alliances on specific issues and working on a united action program with other left parties. However, by 1983 this tendency had become minimal. The educational program of the JVP did not entertain the possibility of tactical alliances with anti-UNP capitalist parties and the traditional left. Even when the need for such an alliance had arisen, the opposition that sprang from within and the leadership fear that this would create divisions within the party had resulted in abandoning such efforts half way through. The JVP needed the support and solidarity of other organizations only when it had been faced with repression or other difficulties. Due to this sectarian nature, the leadership of other organizations was able to build up in their membership an amount of distrust and wariness towards the JVP.
In July 1983 by hatching a conspiracy, the UNP government proscribed the JVP and drove it underground. The real reason for the proscription was that the JVP had grown to be a strong national political force that posed a threat to the UNP government. JR Jayawardena would not have come to this conclusion without false inputs provided by the government intelligence sources. For instance, the UNP propaganda, concocted against the JVP, stated that there had been May Day posters that ‘the JVP will come back in three months’. This was nothing but sheer fabrication, and everybody knew that the JVP May Day rally did not carry such silly slogans. However, I had expressed concerns that a militant May Day demonstration in 1983 may make the government over-assess the JVP strengths.
While the old left kept silent, several civilian organizations and breakaway left parties and groups demanded lifting of the proscription of the JVP. In spite of mounting evidence that the JVP had no involvement whatsoever in the riots, this did not move JR Jayawardena to lift the proscription of the JVP. In December 1983, the JVP leadership rejected my request to come to the open pledging that, if required, I would arrange a group of imminent persons to accompany Rohana. In 1985, the JVP decided to build an underground organisation and to use the national problem to its advantage.
Instead of relying on people power, in late 1985, they had based their hopes on their armed strength. The vicious cycle had just begun. Daya Pathirana, leader of the Colombo University independent student union movement was assassinated at the end of 1986. The security forces, its paramilitary units, and vigilante groups such as green tigers, PRAA, Black cats, Yellow cats and Ukussa (Eagle) had commenced assassinating the JVPers. Many JVPers and civilians disappeared after arrest. The JVP, in 1987, had established its military wing ‘Deshpremi Janatha Vyaparaya’ (DJV) which had carried concentrated attacks out on selected security targets. The UNP and the JVP vowed to destroy each other. The JVP terror campaign in earnest appeared to have begun in 1987, with the DJV decision to declare curfew and kill civilians who do not abide by its orders.
Meanwhile the July riots which the government created had exacerbated the Tamil militancy in the north-east. In mid 1987 India air dropped supplies over the north east. They had just deferred a full-scale invasion. Indian involvement in training Tamil militants had come to light. 1986 saw the formation of ‘Mavubima Surekeeme Vyaparaya’ led by the JVP, denoting a major shift towards anti-Indian rhetoric.
The Signing of Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in July 1987 had been used by the JVP and chauvinist forces to make rural Sinhala youth indignant against the government and to arouse anti-Indian sentiments. Apparently, the five lectures had been redrafted to reflect the new thinking of the JVP. The lecture, Indian expansionism had been revived giving it a new lease of life. The JVP had proposed a national liberation government under a national liberation united front. The new JVP slogans carried anti-Accord and an anti-Indian twist. Accusing JR Jayawardena of betraying the motherland, the JVP had started appealing to nationalist sentiments to liberate the motherland and accused everybody else being agents of “Indian imperialism”. Selling and buying Indian goods, wearing Indian sarees, and consuming Bombay onions, Masoor dhal etc. had been banned.
The JVP had started assassinating not only the UNPers, but also the SLFPers and the supporters of the United Socialist Alliance. Vijaya Kumaranatuga was killed in early 1988. Government politicians maintained torture chambers island wide with the assistance and involvement of the top brass of the security forces. Thousands had been taken to these chambers, tortured, maimed, and killed. With the LTTE withdrawing from the Accord, the IPKF guns were aimed at the LTTE. India formed Tamil National Army (TNA) to fight against the LTTE. By 1988, the massacre of Sinhala civilians by the LTTE became advantageous to the JVP. By late 1988, people in the south were under the dual power of the UNP government and the JVP mini-government. Rate of killings by both sides had reached a daily figure of hundred, at the time the highest in the globe.
In December 1988 at the presidential elections, instead of appealing to people to express their will by voting at the provincial council elections against the repressive regime, the JVP used violence to prevent people from casting their votes. The JVP election strategy overlapped with the election strategy of the repressive regime. Having come to power President R Premadasa lifted the emergency, freed detainees and asked the JVP to engage in main stream politics. It was too late. The state repression, police death threats and fear psychology would have prevented the JVP leaders from coming to the open. The JVP who drew immense popular support in rural areas shifted its slogans, in July 1989, giving emphasis to driving the Indians out. However, the JVP activities, such as curfews, transport strikes lack of opportunities to get health care, food and children’s education started affecting the ordinary working people rather than of the rich. People were forced to take strike action under death threats.
Subjected to unmentionable torture, captured JVPers had provided information on the whereabouts of the JVP leadership. Rohana had been taken into custody in November 1989 and assassinated the same evening. The UNP gained military victory by killing about 80,000 people. The capitalist class was able to drown those who opposed the system in rivers of blood.
My belief is that the JVP should have negotiated with the government between 1984 and 1987. The JVP violence provided the government with justification of its massive terror campaign. In a way this may be interpreted a return to pre-1971 politics. Nevertheless, there were major differences. Similarities were that they used Indian expansionism as the ideological front to fight the regime. They fell into a similar trap of relying on arms rather than on people. The differences are that in 1971 the JVP was demanding the UF government to implement the election pledges of the UF government and to carry our economic reforms that benefited working people. However, in 1988-89 the demand was for the government not to implement a proposed bourgeois democratic solution to the national problem, which the UNP had pledged in its 1977 election.
Having embraced adventurism at the end of 1980s the JVP has commenced since 1990s oscillating back to traversing the right wing route. It has now made a major shift towards class collaboration with the bourgeois leadership of the PA, thus taking a comparable route traversed by the old left in the 1960s. The JVP agitates claiming that Sri Lanka's territorial integrity, unitary state, national independence and sovereignty are in grave danger. They want to defeat separatism and stop division of the country militarily and ideologically. They oppose negotiations with the LTTE unless they drop the demand for separation and disarmed, which is politically equivalent to a complete surrender.
Worst is their statement that there was and is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka! With regard to the national question they have joined hands with Sinhala chauvinist groups. Condemnation of terror by the JVP is one-sided. While condemning the terror campaigns conducted by the LTTE, they praise the terror campaigns conducted by the security forces as patriotic. They emphasise that there are favourable conditions worldwide to eradicate terrorism. This indirectly implies is that Sri Lankan government should invite US-led terror coalition to eradicate the LTTE.
The JVP denies the democratic right of peoples to self-determination as obsolete. To justify their position the JVP leadership has even resorted to falsifying the political position taken by Lenin, the vast wealth of international experience, and the real-life experiences of the peoples struggling against national oppression. Rejecting "right to self-determination" as an invalid principle for the world today, they claim that after the 1917 Russian revolution, even Lenin discarded this concept. Looking at the Soviet Constitutions during the time of Lenin and afterwards is more than sufficient to remind and convince any serious political activist that the right of self-determination was and is a living principle practised universally. What currently happens in the world objectively supports the assertion that right to self-determination is alive and well, as a principle. Rejection of the democratic right to self-determination is strongly compatible with the agenda of Neo-liberalism and National Socialism. The JVP claims that they reject any racism or communalism and promote equality and democracy to all peoples, but in reality, the JVP opposes any decentralisation of power. Even a cursory look at the history of the socialist camp would justify discarding such bogus and baseless views.
This position coincides exactly with the position of the US led capitalist globalisation agenda because they no more recognize national sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of peoples. The US rejects the peoples right to self-determination. The JVP, which opposed neo-liberalist agenda in August 2001, has apparently adopted a new policy at its October 2001 party congress. Its policy is as follows: "We shall adhere to a foreign policy aimed at creating and developing of globalisation and a new world order that ensures social justice, equality, democracy and environment protection." Well and good! But this policy has to be understood in the broader context of the JVP policy platform which states that the JVP shall absorb what is best from the East, West and North, South and discard the garbage.
The JVP has moved away from Marxism-Leninism though it does not say so in public. Instead of demanding the capitalist state to grant rights of the working people, at least for the express purpose of exposing the incapability of the capitalist regimes to do so, the JVP tells people to wait until their ‘saviour’ acquires power to bring them heaven. It does not wish to make a self-critical appraisal of its past and is competing with the old left to cover up the responsibility of the capitalist regimes for the current political situation and in the process covers up the real current state of affairs. In reality, the JVP has become an appendage and a broker for keeping in and bringing back the capitalist regimes to power. Their activities are strengthening the hand of counter-revolution and imperialism. When coupled with their policy assertions it is safe to conclude that the JVP has altogether moved away from the left policy platform.
Q2(b). How was the political landscape of contemporary Sri Lankan politics shaped by youth militancy of the JVP?
There have been arguments that the 1971 insurrection helped to reinforce the security apparatus of the capitalist state. I agree. Since 1971, until recent times, the governments have continuously used emergency regulations to curtail dissent among Sinhala and Tamil populations. The security apparatus has been expanded both quantitatively and qualitatively. Now one can find hundred thousands in the forces with technically superior land, sea and air equipment. I need to pose the reverse question, where an insurrection, a localized armed intervention, a general strike, or an election campaign has been unsuccessful, had not such activities strengthened the opponents camp both quantitatively and qualitatively? If a struggle is successful this argument would not arise. I do not mean that one should struggle just for the sake of struggling. At the same time ‘strengthening the opposite side’ cannot be used as a logic to suggest that one should not engage in a struggle because its defeat always strengthens the oppressor!
The failed insurrection made the United Front (UF) government to introduce minor reforms such as land reform, nationalization of several business ventures, and implementing some economic self-reliance measures. People’s Committees were established but the people constituted only the supporters of the UF government! These half-measures did not at all represent a realization of the aspirations of the Sinhala youth who rose up in April 1971.
I should mention here that the 1971 insurrection and the post 1971 JVP activities had negligible influence on the radicalization of Tamil youth. The Tamil people as a whole did not play any part in the insurrection. The leadership of the JVP consisted mainly of former members of the Communist Party (Peking wing) but of Sinhala background only. Allegation that Rohana Wijeweera broke away from the CP (Peking wing) because he was anti-Tamil does not seem to hold any water. If the allegation is true, one needs to pose the question, then why did Rohana join the CP (Peking wing) led by Mr N. Shanmugathasan, a Tamil, at all? A better suggestion would have been that the JVP had its strong ideological position that a minority based political organization cannot lead the socialist social revolution to victory. The fate of Iraqi government established by General Abdul Kareem Casem had been frequently cited as an example.
With regard to military and terror tactics, it is not surprising that struggles, wherever they occur, even when their political and social goals are different, consciously and unconsciously exchange their experiences. Regular contact between organisations is not a necessity for achieving such transfer of experience. The JVP would have learnt from the military forces; the military would have learnt from their international trainers and the JVP; the LTTE would have learnt from RAW, Mossad and the JVP. The JVP would have learnt from the LTTE. The struggles world over will reinforce each other in the use of different strategies and tactics, for achieving their objectives. On the other hand, the politics of the JVP and the LTTE had taken an increasingly interactive nature. Commencing from mid 1980s, the JVP had used for its propaganda work, the terror acts conducted by the LTTE on Sinhala civilians. The JVP made it a point to completely ignore the state terror conducted on Tamil civilians. Similarly, the LTTE may be making use of the politics of the JVP and Sinhala chauvinists to reinforce their demand for a separate state.
The JVP also failed to win the support of the plantation working class. The concept of Indian expansionism put forward by Mao Tse-Tung was the basis of one of the political lectures of the JVP. This lecture interpreted the social consciousness of plantation working class as pro-Indian because of their Indian origin and close cultural proximity to India. However, the JVP never discussed the issue of their disfranchisement. As leftists of Sinhala origin, we were not aware of such issues, which also reflect upon the one-sided political consciousness provided by the traditional left. Many JVP cadres including some prominent members went to the extreme of comparing working conditions of plantation workers with those of chena (landless) workers in the dry zone, which the audience could have interpreted as anti-Tamil.
Some allegations have been raised against the JVP that the caste factor played a role in selecting its leaders. My view, in this regard, is different from that of Victor Ivan. To the best of my knowledge, caste had never been a factor in the JVP politics. When we were in the JVP, we had no concern about anyone’s caste. However, I would say the so-called low caste people in the south were inspired, to a certain extent, by the militancy of the JVP. In other words, the existing caste oppression in the south did encourage the oppressed to join the JVP, as the oppressed Tamils in the north willingly joined the LTTE.
In hindsight, one could raise the question: Was it worth paying such an exorbitant human and economic cost to achieve social changes? I have no direct answer to this question rather than to say that the answer depends on how one looks at it. When people rise up for their rights they do not do so based on a cost-benefit analysis! The only logic seems to be a fairer world is beneficial for the oppressed people than the existing one. It is the ruling class who do such cost benefit calculations to see how much they would earn as net profit by waging war to capture more resources. For the oppressed it is a matter of their future existence, survival and not a carefully measured calculation!
My response should not be taken as disregarding the cost of the struggle. Thousands were killed in 1971, mostly after their arrest without any inquest, more than fifty thousand behind bars during the period of the insurrection, the sorrows and sufferings brought on the families of those killed on all sides are heavy costs to have paid. The economic cost of the war to the government was not so heavy. The youth saw themselves as harbingers of progress while the state apparatus looked at them as communists that should be got rid of. In a comparative cost analysis was not it the state apparatus that had done more in terms of destruction of property and ridding human life. The destruction of whole villages in Elpitiya, Kegalle and Kurunegala by surround and destroy tactics using aerial bombardment I do not need to remind. All this was done by highly qualified professional killing machines in the name of containment of communism!
One could argue that the sacrifices the oppressed people have made in achieving what they have achieved so far, have they been worthwhile? In the long term humanity has come to this stage through their struggles against the bondages of slavery and feudalism. The generations who committed their lives to the struggle against slavery and feudalism have made us enjoy certain degrees of freedom. In the short term one could point out that the successes achieved in struggles have been reversed due to the fault of so-called communist and socialist dictators, and ask why bother to change capitalism anyway. This logic goes contrary to the general human nature and effort! Humanity has achieved so much because of their consistent struggle against failure. I believe that whatever the cost may be, the people will continue to fight against injustice and bondage and for achieving justice and freedom.
The leadership crisis that existed before 1971 continued even after 1977. Although lack of intellectuals in the leadership could not be artificially overcome, the methods adopted to make the intellectuals participate in party activity were not so successful. The extent to which certain individuals broke the confidence and trust placed in them by the party before 1971 needed no repetition after 1976. Except for one group who left the JVP due to ideological differences, everyone else left mainly because of problems of personal nature. Lack of suitable people to hold responsibilities at the Politburo created a major crisis and several members of the Central Committee had to be absorbed in. Desirable characteristics and features in the leadership of a revolutionary party had left the JVP leadership. Factionalism reappeared. After disciplinary enquiries some members of the Politbureau and the Central Committee had to be expelled from the party membership. As seen in post 1984 period, these individuals repeated the experience of 1971 by becoming executioners of the JVP.
Q3. Could you highlight the issues around which there were key debates/divisions within the JVP regarding alternative paths? What were the key-registers of internal debate?
Key debates within the JVP came to a peak while we were behind bars, after the 1971 insurrection. These debates were on issues such as the failure of the 1971 insurrection, modes of armed struggle, Indian expansionism, and Marxist ideology. The prisons had been converted into ‘university colleges’ where the majority of political prisoners had been engaged in debates mainly of constructive nature. However, the JVP activists imprisoned at Hammond Hill, Jaffna had apparently maintained a virtual prison within the state prison by carrying out constant threats and physical attacks on their political adversaries. Incidents of physical violence also took place in other prisons and ‘rehabilitation’ camps but were not prevalent. Several attempts had been made to assassinate JVP leaders who continued to defend the JVP.
Failure of insurrection
The debate on the 1971 insurrection centered on the nature of the attack. The JVP could not successfully launch a simultaneous and dispersed attack on 5 April 1971, as it planned. Due to reasons not revealed so far, there had been attacks on 4 April at Moneragala and Wellawaya. One theory suggests that one faction of the JVP had already taken a decision to attack on 4 April. The other theory suggests that the decision to attack had been just mis-communicated. Personally, I tend to believe the first theory, though it is based on circumstantial evidence only. The attack on 4 April made the security apparatus vigilant and to stand-by island-wide. In Colombo, declaration of curfew in the evening of April 4 accompanied preparatory armed drills conducted at all security establishments.
The decision to launch attacks in Colombo was conditional on the arrival of reinforcements from Kegalle and Kurunegala. This did not happen. The JVP District Committee of Colombo had to call off the attacks planned for 5 April. Even in the areas captured by JVP in Elpitiya, Anuradhapura, Kegalle and Kurunegala districts, the leaders were not able to actively mobilise the working people in support or implement major reforms such as land redistribution. And lumpen elements in these areas had taken advantage committing crimes in the name of the JVP.
The armed struggle could not continue due to three major reasons. There were no element of surprise, no attacks on a single city target, and no plans for long-term sustainable struggle. Not having its own sources of arms supply the JVP had to rely on the traditional practice of acquiring arms from the enemy. This would have been viable in a long term protracted guerrilla war involving concentrated attacks, but the simultaneous, dispersed and short term nature of the insurrection required the acquisition of better weapons within a short time frame. This was not achievable within the first few days of the offensive. If the communication structure did not fail it would have been still possible to launch fresh attacks before the State received weapon reinforcements on 8 April. Even the reinforcements that arrived at the airport could have been in JVP hands if its communication and command structure remained intact. Within several weeks, armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships surrounded the JVP camps and destroyed them.
In the aftermath of the insurrection, Rohana Wijeweera took the position that the decision to launch the insurrection was politically suicidal. Many comrades started questioning as to why Rohana, at group discussions and public rallies prior to insurrection, made statements to the effect that when the capitalist regime starts its repression the revolution will begin, and that best defence is to go on the offensive. While in prison, I used to ask Rohana how we could have avoided taking a decision to attack when he had subjectively prepared the whole organization to go on the offensive if the government were to declare war against it. When confronted with such a situation, he usually remained silent, changed the subject, or posed the question why we could not have retreated. Those held in other prisons posed similar questions. He was so frustrated that one day he told us that he was quitting politics for good. I had written to comrades in other prisons a small note stating that Rohana has decided to quit politics. However, having found this note inside a book ready to be dispatched Rohana promised to respond to the questions and wanted me to destroy the note. However, he was not courteous enough to show us what his response was.
Politics and militarisation
The debate on politics and militarisation of the JVP had not been carried through to its conclusion. The Leninist position of relying on peoples’ power to meet state repression and the position of relying on arms and military strength do represent neither identical positions nor represent contradictory extremes. Working class leadership is the important factor in this formula. Military strength only complements its struggle when it is appropriate and necessary. Emphasis and reliance should have been on peoples’ power rather than on the strength of arms. The JVP could have explored other options available for defending its political rights. For example, leading of everyday struggles of the working people while exposing the treachery of the bourgeois aligned traditional left, united action of groups interested on a minimum program of protecting democratic rights, and peaceful protest campaigns for raising awareness could have been useful tactics.
Dilemma of the JVP lied in formulating how to survive the repression unleashed against it while still engaged in continuing its political activities. Majority of the population was unaware of what the 1971 insurrection was about. Many had been deceived by the false propaganda that the JVP was planning to kill all children under five years of age and all elders above fifty years! Acts of terror carried out by the JVP during the insurrection were rare but included assassinating of informers who had allegedly assisted the security forces against them. In a war, survival of combatants becomes priority and correctness of terror acts becomes secondary unless consciously managed. The allegation that the hatred of the JVP towards the security forces led to this insurrection, I reject. It was the political leadership of the state that guided the security apparatus aroused with extreme ideological hatred against the JVP!
Party and class
The nature of the political organization, in particular, the relationship between the party and the class was the topic of another JVP debate. As noted by Trotsky, ”Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
The revolutionary party is not a substitute for or an equivalent of the working class. The two entities are different but interactive and interdependent. The working class is engaged in an unconscious but constant struggle against capitalism. The party differs from mass working class organizations such as trade unions, workers’ councils in that it is a vanguard organization comprising dedicated class-conscious workers. Its task is to raise class-consciousness of the working class, transforming their spontaneous activities against capitalism into an organized and united form consciously directed towards achieving socialism. Those who believe in spontaneity do not accept the need for a party organisation. However, it is the centralized party organization, in general, that leads to bureaucratic tendencies and organizational rigidities!
History is not an automatic mechanical process that inevitably brings socialism at the end of capitalism. The party and the class do not exist in a vacuum, but in an environment of spontaneous activity of working people, constant counter-revolutionary threats, massive psychological warfare, lack of resources, internal divisions, and agent provocateurs and destabilisers planted within. These factors severely affected the JVP and became more isolated in an increasingly hostile environment. In these circumstances, the party degenerated into making a series of substitutions, the party substituting itself for the working people, the central committee (CC) substituting itself for the party, and the leader substituting for the politbureau (PB) and the CC. The JVP had neither discussed nor understood the dialectical relationship between the party and the class properly. Before and during the insurrection the JVP had been acting as the perceived ‘working class’, putting itself in the place of the working class, the very same process that led to the degeneration of the Bolshevik party of Lenin into the bureaucracy of Stalin.
The JVP leaders, while in prison, had lengthy discussion on its political education program. As a result, the content of the fifth political lecture was revised. The new lecture emphasized that the Sri Lankan revolution would take its own specific path and repetition of any previous successful or unsuccessful models of revolution was impossible (See my response to question 4). TheJVP also decided to drop the lecture on Indian Expansionism from its education program. Except for occasional communal remarks of Rohana that exposed his biased mindset there were no chauvinist policies incorporated in the political program or policy declaration of the JVP.
After imposing sentences, when detained at the Magazine Prison, Rohana and I discussed the necessity of drafting a policy declaration. We agreed to do this as a joint exercise. In the meantime, I was taken to Bogambara prison for two weeks, where I had the opportunity to talk to the Tamil youth long detained under the Emergency Regulations, for raising black flags against the 1972 Constitution drafted by Colvin R de Silva. Santhathiar and others who were among the youth had already exchanged views on matters relating to the JVP, the CJC trial, and the problems in the south. They gave me a summary picture of the problems of the Tamil people. This discussion laid the foundation of my future research work on the national problem, the results of which had been confirmed