Sri Lanka’s ‘Thrasthawadi’

The Janata Vimukthi Peramuna presents itself as a Marxist organisation, and the affinity with Maoism was initially quite obvious. But it can never sustain itself on imported ideology married to terror politics.

Along and drawn-out crisis confronted the left parties of Sri Lanka in the 1960s, particularly after the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party entered into a coalition alliance with Sirimavo Bandaranaike´s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1964. This action led to a series of splits within the collective Left movement, and disgruntled young radicals such as Rohana Wijeweera went on to found the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, the People´s Liberation Front) in late 1967 as a movement dedicated to armed revolution. Wijeweera had started his political career as a youth sympathiser of the Ceylon Communist Party (Moscow Wing), and was later attracted to Maoist politics while a medical student in the Soviet Union. When his student visa was not renewed as a result, Wijeweera returned to Sri Lanka in 1964 and joined the Ceylon Communist Party (Peking Wing) which had split from the CCP (Moscow Wing) the year previously. But soon Wijeweera and his radical colleagues lost confidence in the Peking Wing´s ability to foster armed revolution. They also saw the party´s preoccupation with trade union politics as indication of its unwillingness to grant the peasantry its legitimate place in revolution.

In the initial phase of its emergence, the ideology of the JVP, or more correctly its operational slogans, were a collection of ideas borrowed from Stalinist Marxism, Maoism, and a romanticised throwback to the Cuban revolution with cult emphasis on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. However, the movement appealed to educated Sinhala rural youth mainly because it articulated their fears, especially regarding rising unemployment. In fact, the JVP never had a political ideology in the strictest sense, only a set of popular slogans camouflaged in Maoist and Guevarist rhetoric. At the same time, from its very inception, the JVP also indoctrinated its cadre with a very clear anti-Indian bias.

The JVP planned for an insurrection based on the Cuban model, in which a sudden armed uprising by party cadre would lead to a popular revolution. So it initiated an insurrection on 5 April 1971, attacking over 70 police stations countrywide. At that time, the media did not even have a name to call the rebels, and at first they were known awkwardly as "Che Guevarists". Later, a Sinhala term "thrasthawadi", meaning "terrorist", was coined and also used in English.

The insurrection failed in spectacular fashion in a country where, even though there was growing unemployment, the pre-requisites of a revolution were generally lacking. Besides, the rebels were badly trained and equipped, and lacked funds and foreign support. Colombo´s authorities brought the situation under control within a couple of weeks, with military assistance from countries as diverse as Pakistan, India, Singapore, Yugoslavia, England, the United States, Egypt – and the People´s Republic of China, which firmly supported the crushing of the rebellion. The military killed a few thousand rebels, and many more surrendered or were arrested, to be tried under the draconian presence of a Criminal Justice Commission. Many were handed long prison sentences in 1975-1976.

Terror Begets State Terror
The JVP received a second lease of life after the defeat of the SLFP in the parliamentary elections of July 1977. Fulfilling an election promise, J.R. Jayawardane of the newly elected United National Party (UNP) government freed JVP prisoners in November. The organisation seemed to transform itself into a mainstream political party, abandoning the advocacy of armed revolution and engaging in parliamentary politics. In fact, the Front took part in two important elections, the District Development Council Elections of 1980 and the presidential elections of 1982, in which Wijeweera put himself forward as a candidate.

This "mainstream phase" was soon to end, however. In December 1982, the UNP government decided to extend its rule without holding general elections on the basis of a rigged referendum. This clear breach of democratic faith disillusioned the JVP leaders, who had tried to work within the electoral process in the hope of gaining some legitimate parliamentary representation. In August 1983, soon after the widespread anti-Tamil violence of the previous month, the UNP government proscribed the JVP and two other leftist parties for allegedly orchestrating the violence with the aim of toppling the government. Ironically, much of the violence against Tamils had been the handiwork of UNP members assisted by the party´s trade union, the JSS (Jatika Sevaka Sangamaya).

The JVP leadership went into hiding and the organisation remained underground and in the background until 1987, when Indian armed forces landed in northern and eastern Sri Lanka on the mandate of the so-called Indo-Lanka Accord, the purpose of which was to contain the Tamil Tiger-led insurrection in those areas. The JVP´s well-established anti-Indian position now became the key to its growth and legitimation. The organisation even gained a certain nationalist aura for its prophetic genius in opposing Indian expansionism. The JVP was thus handed its new set of slogans; it appealed to the Sinhala masses by depicting the Jayawardane government and Tamil political formations as pawns of Western and Indian imperialism out to divide the country.

From a self-proclaimed radical left youth organisation, the JVP rapidly metamorphosed into a fiercely nationalistic, Sinhala-centric outfit. The JVP called upon the "patriotic masses to rally against the traitorous UNP government in order to save the motherland". Even though the party continues to deny it, during this time the JVP also formed the Deshapremi Janata Vyaparaya (Patriotic People´s Movement) for the specific purpose of carrying out military action, including assassinations of political enemies. With the much-hated Indo-Lanka Accord providing the required impetus, the JVP was ready, once again, to use armed rebellion to capture state power.

The Front´s use of threats, intimidation and political violence escalated in two phases, with the provincial council elections of 1988 and the presidential elections of December 1989. The JVP regarded the provincial councils, established by Parliament in 1987 through a constitutional amendment, as anti-Sinhala and anti-national. Its terror tactics made for very low voter turnout, as low as 8 percent in the JVP-dominated Hambantota district in the Southern Province.

The tactics used during the presidential elections were even more brutal, and protest actions were widespread, although they were never quite spontaneous. Industrial strikes crippled the country, and in April 1989 the Front succeeded in shutting down the country for six days. That year, the JVP also started using landmines against the military and police in the South, with devastating effect. There was increased killings of innocents, said to be was due to the JVP´s decision to arm criminal elements.

Only 55 percent of the registered voters cast their votes in the presidential elections, marking the lowest turnout in any Sri Lankan general or presidential poll. Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP was elected president with only 27 percent of the vote.

It was also in 1989 that JVP leaders made a significant tactical error: they challenged the security forces head on. Perhaps frustrated by the fact that army and police personnel had not deserted and joined its ranks en masse, the Front now demanded that all members of the security forces and police resign from their posts. Those who did not would be killed together with their families, it warned. In some places, the threat was carried out. For the first time, the armed forces and police had their own reason to eliminate the JVP.

The JVP developed a false sense of invincibility, over-estimating its own power and capabilities. Whatever heroic halo it had soon disappeared, however, as its use of terror became increasingly excessive and irrational. The year 1989 saw not only the worst of the JVP´s violence, but also the unleashing of counter-terror by the government. The full extent of state power had never been used to combat the JVP during Jayawardane´s presidency, but the situation changed dramatically with Premadasa´s assumption of office. A state-sponsored reign of terror soon overtook in scale and brutality what the JVP had been able to achieve.

The terror of the JVP, meanwhile, came to an abrupt end with the military´s capture of their leader Rohana Wijeweera and his deputy Upatissa Gamanayake. The rest of the top leadership was also soon eliminated, as those captured were summarily executed. For all practical purposes, by 1990 the JVP was non-functional, its organisation in disarray.

Operational Ideology
Even as its top two leaders were killed, however, JVP posters appeared in many parts of Sri Lanka, claiming: "Just because two plates are broken, the hotel will not be closed down."

The "hotel", it appears, is not closed, even though it is not clear who is running it. Even as there was wholesale elimination of the Front´s uppermost echelons, there were a few leaders who survived. Some, such as Somawansa Amarasinghe, escaped to England, from where he now claims through fax messages to be the JVP´s rightful leader. District-level leaders who managed to escape the state´s dragnet are unwilling to accept such claims from overseas.

Presently, the JVP appears to be trying to settle its internal conflicts with the goal of re-asserting itself. It is once again preparing to prove its amazing ability to spring back after devastating suppression. One reason for the organisation´s resilience is that the JVP never maintained a dogmatic ideology, but rather a set of slogans that changed according to the socio-political climate.

For instance, the 1971 JVP was sympathetic to the concerns of the minorities, whereas the JVP of the late 1980s opposed any concessions to Tamils. Today, too, it opposes the devolution package proposed by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, which would grant substantial autonomy to Tamil-dominated provinces. The JVP uses the Sinhala nationalist argument that the package would divide the country.

In other words, the JVP has the ability to offer the masses, and specifically Sinhala youth, what they want to hear even if such positions violate the very Marxist principles the movement claims allegiance to. In the context of the devolution debate, the JVP is opposed to any notion of self-determination, which forms a bedrock principle of Marxist thought.

On the other hand, the aspirations that the JVP represents are very much a part of contemporary Sri Lankan reality. As long as the frustrations and the anxieties of the youth persist on the scale at present, political formations such as the JVP will continue to be there to exploit and articulate the rage. Under such circumstances, there is also no reason to import standardised ideologies such as Maoism or Marxism.

Today, the JVP once again gives the impression of having become a legitimate political party, claiming to have learnt from its mistakes. But the Front, as with the UNP (presently out of power), has yet to show any kind of public remorse for the death and destruction it caused in the late 1980s. Far from apologising, the JVP´s general secretary Tulin Silva claimed in a recent interview that his party had never indulged in any violence. According to him, all the mayhem was the work solely of the UNP.

This kind of vulgar revisionist rewriting of recent history will not have an effect on the people who suffered. Their memories, at least, cannot be revised as easily. For them, as victims of torture and beatings, and for thousands of women who have become widows, the track record of the JVP, and its partner in violence, the UNP, will be a constant reminder of politics gone berserk.

In real terms, as far as the rank and file are concerned, the JVP was and will continue to be a party of Sinhala Buddhist rural youth, representing their frustrations and their loss of faith in mainstream political parties. Given current trends, the organisation is unlikely to register a significant electoral victory without publicly expressing remorse for its violent activities, and without dealing with the murderers and torturers in its midst, and surely not without a clearly formulated plan of action for the future.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian