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Rohana Wijeweera - The Age of Innocence, The April uprising & Tragedy or nemesis


By Ajith Samaranayake

The Age of Innocence

Nine years after his death Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna remains as much of an enigmatic figure as he was during his chequered and controversy-ridden life. To be sure a small hill of books, leaflets, booklets and theses have been spawned by the JVP but behind this smokescreen of words the figure of its founder remains as illusive as ever. Who was this man who founded and built a political party which under two decades was twice able to traumatise the political establishment of the day?

Don Nandasiri Wijeweera (who later affected the nom-de-gurre of Rohana Wijeweera in patriotic devotion to the soil) was a native of Kottegoda in the Matara district. His father was a Communist who was devoted to the CP leader Dr. S. A. Wickremesinghe. In fact, later Pieter Keuneman who came himself under a JVP death threat recalled that on a visit to Dr. Wicks' dispensary he had carried the baby Rohana in his arms. The father was badly maimed during an election confrontation with the UNP and this left a deep scar in the young Rohana.

Perhaps it was Dr. Wicks' influence which made Wijeweera think of medicine as a future career or he was perhaps already influenced by Ernesto Guevara but it was to study medicine that Wijeweera enroled himself at Lumumba University. But he had already a nose for controversy for soon he was in the thick of the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute. To radical minded youth of the time the staid Soviet Commissars in their grey suits were appearing unattractive while the epicentre of Communism seemed to have moved to Peking which was passionately supportive of the struggle in Vietnam. It was because of these Chinese sympathies that Wijeweera found that his visa was not renewed when he returned to Sri Lanka on a holiday.

In Colombo Wijeweera lost no time in joining the Ceylon Communist Party of N. Shanmugathasan, the standard bearer of Maoism. Shan's CP was enjoying a golden summer. Its membership was on the rise and its Red Flag union in the plantations was a major force. At least one Member of Parliament (S. D. Bandaranayake) and one Senator (I. Karannagoda) were sympathetic to his ideas and the party had two fairly popular newspapers 'Kamkaruwa' and 'Pragathiseeli Gamana' in Sinhala and an English journal the Red Flag'. It was this organisation, part mass party and part cadre party, which Wijeweera joined in the late 1960s.

In his autobiography 'The Memoirs of an Unrepentant Communist' Shan has spoken rather bitterly of Wijeweera and the circumstances under which he had left with some of his following. We do not know whether Wijeweera ever intended to infiltrate the party or not but it is fairly clear that even then the young Wijeweera had strong political ambitions. There is no reason to believe that he was not disenchanted with the conventional left which had chosen the parliamentary path of gradualism but he was also shrewd enough to perceive that this had created a vacuum on the far left. The only far left parties of the time were led by Edmund Samarakkody and Bala Thampoe, both tainted with their associations with the parlour Bolshevism of the LSSP, and Shan's CP. In the CP itself there was an ugly campaign on the grounds that being a Tamil Shan would not be acceptable as a national leader. In these circumstances Wijeweera undoubtedly saw a chance for himself on the far left.

Wijeweera has been credited widely for identifying the peasantry and its by-product the educated rural youth as potential agents of change whereas the Old Left had concentrated exclusively on the urban working class. Certainly an interest in the peasantry was what led Wijeweera to the CP of Shan but unlike in China where the revolution originated in the countryside the Sri Lanka CP had no significant following among the peasants although it had one outstanding leader Ariyawansa Gunasekera, an old trooper. However, in the CP Wijeweera found a means through which to reach the countryside which held rich potential for housing farms and training camps which could function as JVP bases. But when it came to the 1971 Insurrection it was almost exclusively the educated youth of both town and countryside on which he drew for his cadres.

The educated youth had hitherto been almost entirely left out of the categories of left thinking. The LSSP and the CP at the beginning had identified the urban workers and the plantation workers as the engines of the revolution they envisaged at the time. But even this was largely confined to organising them in trade unions and sharpening their trade union consciousness. There was no serious attempt on the part of the Old Left to mobilise the working class on revolutionary lines and even if such a sense of idealism had lingered it was squashed by the parliamentary path these two parties took in the 1960's. However, when through an alliance with the SLFP the LSSP tried to go to the villages in 1963 the villages were already in the iron grip of the UNP-SLFP two party system.

It was from this background that the educated youth grew and evolved into a near independent force in politics. Youth politics in the 1950's had been a cosy parlour game, a preparation for entry into the civil service, the university common rooms or politics culminating in a comfortable marriage with a not insubstantial dowry, a leaf straight out of Gunadasa Amarasekera's more caustic short fiction. But by the mid-1960's the wells of white-collar employment were drying up. What is more bi-lingualism was also on the retreat. The new generation was becoming more and more mono-lingual. Denied their great expectations of upward social mobility and feeling let down by their leaders on the Left this great amorphous swathe of the young ranging from unemployed graduates to idealistic secondary school students was waiting for a messiah.

One need not be cynical about this situation. At one time it was fashionable for the Old Left to denigrate Wijeweera as the diabolical manipulator of a petit-bourgeois youth whom he had bedazzled by the quackery of his Five Lectures. Demagogue Wijeweera might have been (or Dr. Tissa as a lot of them knew him then) but there was definitely a strain of idealism in the young of the time as testified to by the monumental sacrifices made by callow young men and women with absolutely no experience of armed struggle in 1971. It was symptomatic of a lacuna in the political system which the Old Left took account of only after the event.

That was Wijeweera in 1971. He travelled by bus and train, walked long miles, slept little and under the most difficult conditions but was always on the move = lecturing, agitating, rousing. Coming late for a press conference with the national press just before 1971 he explained that he had come from Kataragama by bus. His commitment went unchallenged but even then he was a prisoner of the age of innocence. For he believed that the State could be compelled to vacate its power if police stations were stormed and captured by his knock-kneed cadres wielding shot guns, rifles, hand-made bombs and molotov cocktails.

The April uprising

Wijeweera's method of attack did not belong to any Marxist sect or was not derived from any Marxist text book. In part it had features of the Chinese method of the villages encircling the towns and in part the Cuban method of a band of determined guerillas capturing State power through the force of arms. The idea of capturing police stations in one single night and taking key leaders such as the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers into custody was simplistic to the point of naivete but yet it also had a striking boldness about it. It was almost as if the raw, untrained JVPers had mesmerised themselves by the originality of the method they had discovered.

To this end they began amassing arms and experimenting with making bombs. Attempts were also made to establish links with the rank and file of the armed forces. But apart from the premature attack on the Wellawaya police station on the night of April 5 (which gave away the JVP's plans and put the state on the alert) the main reason why the uprising failed was because the political conditions did not exist for an uprising. In his famous tract on guerilla warfare Che Guevara himself has written that as long as a Government exists even with a semblance of popular support an uprising is bound to fail. The United Front Government of the day constituted of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP was not only a popularly-elected Government but it had also assumed office not even a year ago. Some of the JVP's own cadres had supported UF candidates at the previous July's general election. In such a context why did Wijeweera decide to strike ?

When he began building up the JVP during the twilight of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake's rule in the late 1960's Wijeweera could not have been unaware that there was a groundswell of support for the UF. But yet he seems to have calculated that it would be easier for the JVP to capture power from a left-leaning government which had generated mass expectations (and possibly a consequent mass disillusionment) than from a rightwing regime, a calculation which again coloured his thinking during the presidential and parliamentary elections of 1989 when a SLFP victory could not be ruled out.


Two factors

Wijeweera could, of course, always absolve himself by claiming that it was not his decision to strike. He could point to two factors. One was that since the State apparatus was determined to crush the JVP (from the days of the John Attygalle report) the JVP had no option but to hit back. JVP activities were regularly being discovered due to incidents such as the explosion at Nelundeniya when some home-made bombs went off and the attack by the Dharmasekera group on the American Embassy in which a policeman was killed. The second reason he could cite was that the actual decision to strike was taken by those who met at the Sangharamaya of the then Vidyodaya University where he was not present.

Wijeweera was arrested on March 13, 1971 while returning to Ampara in a hiring car with some others. The next day he was kept at the Batticaloa remand jail and brought by truck on the morning of March 16 to the magazine prison. After being kept there and at the Colombo remand prison Wijeweera and two others, Premaratne and Lal Somasiri were removed to Jaffna in military vehicles. It was from this vantage point located in the northern most tip of Sri Lanka (soon to erupt in its own militancy) that Rohana Wijeweera watched as spectator the party which he founded deciding to take on the might of the Sri Lankan State.

As for responsibility for the attack there is evidence to show that some of the other suspects thought Wijeweera guilty of vacillation and ambivalence during this period. As the Criminal Justice Commission observes in its judgement 'During the cross examination of Loku Athula and again when Wijeweera gave evidence, the proposition was presented that Loku Athula and some other charged, including Sanath who was probably no longer alive, had been independently responsible for the events of April 1971, and that Wijeweera and some other suspects had no share in that responsibility. 'The Commission cites Piyasiri or Kularatne Banda as he was known in the movement as an example of a suspect who was disgusted with this duplicity on the part of Wijeweera and some other suspects and decided to make a clean breast of his part in what he saw as a 'conspiracy.'


Course of action

To be charitable to Wijeweera of 1971 all that we can say is that he himself was ambivalent about the JVP's immediate course of action. For example, we see him telling a meeting at Vidyodaya in July 1970: We are not conspirators. We are not going to stage a revolution without the knowledge of the people. A revolution cannot be staged by seven or eight individuals without the knowledge of the people. It is the people who will stage a revolution.

'Will these problems be solved or not. If they are solved and if a genuine attempt is made to march towards socialism we do not consider who it is. Let it be Mr. Pieter Keuneman, we are ready to forget the past. Let it be even Dr. N.M. Perera or the Prime Minister (Mrs. Bandaranaike)."

But by February 27, 1971 at the JVP's last public meeting Wijeweera spoke thus: 'We are telling you, do you like to proscribe us, then proscribe us, do you like to repress us, then repress us, you are asking us when the revolution would take place. When do you propose repressing the revolutionary movement on a mass scale ? When do you come forward to destroy the proletariat of this country on a mass scale ? When you are taking up arms decisively against the JVP ? We are telling you that the revolution would take place on that day."

Whether the JVP was pushed into staging its insurrection because of State repression or whether it decided independently to take this action (with or without Wijeweera's approval) the outcome was predictable. The uprising was effectively quelled naturally at great human cost although the rebels did hold out for some time in certain remote jungle pockets. The prime suspects were arraigned before the CJC where the movement dissolved in differences and recrimination. Many of them were sentenced to years of imprisonment where under prison conditions they matured and develop in various directions. There were bitter ideological and other disputes behind the prison walls and for Wijeweera himself it was both a tumultuous as well as educative time. Anyway the age of innocence was irrevocably over.

Source: Judgement of the Criminal Justice Commission (Insurgency) Inquiry No. 1 (Politbureau) 1976 - Department of Government Printing.

Tragedy or nemesis

Wijeweera and his fellow JVP prisoners were released by the UNP Government of J. R. Jayewardene which assumed office in July 1977 along with several millionaire businessmen who had been detained on a judgement of the other Criminal Justice Commission which had convicted them of foreign exchange frauds. Wijeweera promptly adjourned to the office of the Ceylon Mercantile Union whose President Bala Tampoe had been one of the leading counsel for several of the suspects at the trial. The press followed him there and he was compelled to address an impromptu press conference. A day later I met a solitary Wijeweera at the same seaside Kollupitiya office of the CMU where he was in a reflective mood. 

It was at this interview that Wijeweera said that his first priority was to find a suitable location for establishing a party office. He appealed to any 'benevolent capitalist' (insisting that there was indeed such a breed) who had some suitable space to offer it to the party drawing attention to the fact that the JVP was in straitened financial circumstances. The next Sunday's 'Observer' carried the story and the JVP did indeed get a location at Dematagoda as a result to set up its first headquarters as a mainstream political party. Later it moved to a place at Bloemendhal Road above the Weerasinghe saw mills which was just a stone's throw away from the head offices of the Upali Group.

The role of the JVP during this period has been surrounded by controversy. The parties of the Old Left which the JVP in turn had treated with the deepest hostility viewed it with suspicion as a cat's paw of the UNP and an instrument to divide the Left movement. This suspicion was fuelled by the fact that the JVP managed to get for its May Day rally the Town Hall grounds which was traditionally the venue of the main parliamentary opposition party. Favouritism on the part of the then Local Government Minister Prime Minister Premadasa was alleged but Mr. Premadasa's defence was that the JVP had booked the venue a year ahead before everybody else. The situation was also compounded by the fact that the JVP adopted a sectarian attitude towards common trade union struggles keeping itself aloof from the campaigns in which the other parties, most notably the LSSP and the CP, took part.



This was due partly to sectarianism and partly to the suspicion and hostility the JVP still harboured towards the Old Left parties. It still saw itself as the spearhead of the revolution and the leading independent left force in the country. Meanwhile it was involved in the student movement in particular and contested the District Development Council and local government elections.

Within the student movement too the JVP insisted on imposing its thinking in the classic Stalinist manner. There was no space for dissidence or debate, no deviation from the Holy Grail. But among the university students and the broad radical youth the JVP made immense advances during this period and its May Day demonstrations and rallies were marked by a pageant-like character. Just as in the pre-1971 period it had made a new art form out of the political poster during this period the JVP mounted spectacular platforms for its May Day rallies.

The JVP being new to the parliamentary game if perhaps made a miscalculation based on this support. Certainly this was borne out at the first Presidential Election when Rohana Wijeweera suffered a considerable setback in his bid to challenge the incumbent President. Even he would not have expected to defeat President Jayewardene but his final tally was very much less than what he had expected. But yet on the basis of this support the JVP would certainly have done fairly well in any parliamentary election subsequently which is why the postponement of parliamentary elections by way of the notorious Referendum the same year and the proscription of the JVP the next year constituted such blows to the democratic political system.

Although the JVP by now was a mainstream democratic party, Wijeweera constantly harboured doubts about the party being proscribed. These doubts grew somewhere in the beginning of 1982 when there was an attack on the Kelanitissa Power Station and an attempt to pin this on the JVP. Wijeweera summoned a press conference at the Bloemendhal Road office to refute this and accuse the Government of the conspiracy to ban the JVP, a conference which was marred by an unnecessary argument he got into with this correspondent and another colleague of 'The Island' (where I was working then). But what I can recall even in the midst of that unexpected explosion which left all of us bewildered was his conviction that the 'capitalist Government was out to get them' a belief which came to pass in July 1983 (only months later) when undercover of the anti-Tamil riots sparked off by sections of his own party President Jayewardene proscribed the JVP, the NSSP and the CP.

The JVP languished in the underground until August 1987 when the signing of the Indo-Lanka Agreement between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene and the induction of Indian troops to the North and the East offered it the opportunity to revive itself. The signal for this was the blow struck by a Navvy rating at Prime Minister Gandhi just before leaving Colombo, a blow which carried with it all the populist-radical emotions of that broad swathe of the lower middle class youth which constituted the JVP's political base.


Anti-Indian slant

The JVP had always had a distinctly anti-Indian slant exemplified in the Indian expansionism which it had propounded in its Five Lectures in 1971. The agents of this expansionism as it identified them were, however, not the big non-national businessmen of the Pettah (the TRP holders) but the impoverished plantation workers of Indian origin which the JVP saw as a sinister Fifth Column. This was, however, in keeping with the fiercely patriotic line which some of its speakers expounded in 1971 which saw the JVP's revolt as continuing a line originated by Keppetipola in 1818 and continued by Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda in 1848. In his conversation with me in 1977 (after his release) Wijeweera did admit in private that this line could be construed as communalist but as the National Question burgeoned into an armed struggle by Tamil youth against the State and India's influence over Sri Lanka's affairs grew accordingly Wijeweera was to return to this with devastating effect.

Here too, however, there was a characteristic ambiguity. In his monumental work on the National Question released in the mid-1980s Wijeweera had adopted a much softer line on India arguing that the alliance between US imperialism and the UNP Government with its strong dependence on the West was basically anti-Indian and inspired by its hostility to the socialist policies pursued by Mrs. Gandhi's government. However by 1987 with the IPKF firmly entrenched in the North-East and the Jayewardene government cornered the JVP began playing the patriotic card resurrecting the ghost of Keerthi Wijebahu who had routed the Tamil invaders and united the country.

Was this opportunism on the part of the JVP or did it genuinely believe that a patriotic war could rally the country round its standard and drive away the unpopular government? Whatever the answer may be there was certainly no room here for a socialist struggle or even a constitutional alliance between progressives belonging to all communities. The struggle was seen in narrow terms as one between the patriotic JVP - DJV combine and all the other parties including those of the Old Left who had supported the devolution scheme under the Indo-Lanka agreement.


New generation

It is not known how much Wijeweera, now living the life of the planter Attanayake in Ulapane, was in command of this situation. Just as in 1971 he watched the action from the Jaffna prison here too he saw it distantly from the Kandyan hills. Meanwhile, a new generation had come into the JVP. Knowing little of socialism or caring even less for it they were a new class of lumpen youth reared on television and fascinated by the daredevilries which they saw on the screen. This they attempted to transfer to real life by gunning down people on powerful motorcycles and closing down shops by merely handing over a little note. Some of them were services deserters brought up in a climate quite different to that of a revolutionary party. This was not even romantic madness but a form of hallucination induced by the delusion that if enough people were killed a revolution could be created sans a revolutionary situated or the apparatus of armed struggle.

Just as in 1971 this was again an enormous miscalculation. Thousands died both at the hands of the JVP as well as the state-sponsored death squads which unleashed their counter terror. Wijeweera had by now being deserted by all his old comrades. The last to go had been Lionel Bopage who had remained almost to the last. Only Gamanayake was left. The two of them were killed within hours of each other and cremated anonymously in the incinerator at Kanatte in the stealth of the night.

In last week's Ravaya (a newspaper edited by Victor Ivan one of the principal accused in the 1971 trial) its political columnist describes Wijeweera as the politician who was most attractive to radical youth and the only politician who penetrated the remotest countryside with his message. But what did he do with all that potential, asks the writer? A sobering thought. Wijeweera realised by the mid-1980s perhaps just as the Old Left hand realised if years before, that a revolutionary situations did not exist in Sri Lanka. By this time he too had become a bourgeois politician playing at the parliamentary game. But this system still saw him as an outcast. He was driven underground and again he resorted to arms and again at heavy cost.

Wijeweera attempted two armed uprisings in Sri Lanka (one on semi-classical Marxist lines, the other pure anarchism) but there is reason to believe that he could not use a firearm. The CJC report reveals that in 1971 he carried a pistol which he was given for his safety in his waistband. But yet he was either revolutionary or foolhardy enough to dream of a revolutionary seizure of power. He seemed to believe that he possessed a unique formula for this not known to any category of Marxist theory. But again and again he was condemned to be the outcast although perhaps in a last desperate bid to recompense he assumed the visage of the proprietary planter, the rentier capitalist. Yet the system was too wily for him.

(@ Sunday Observer)

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