When Saturn moved to the house of Aries after 30 years at 1.27 pm on 17 April 1998, some politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties in Sri Lanka went off abroad hoping to escape the malefic influences. Some newspapers regarded as ´hostile´ by the ruling People´s Alliance had a field day reporting astrologers who said that the next few months were going to be particularly bad for those born under Aquarius. Those newspapers took pleasure presenting a doomsday scenario and naming the ministers who had flown off.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga made haste to tell her party MPs that the April planetary changes were actually good for her personally as well as for the government. When a newspaper claimed that she was in Europe as the celestial changes were occurring, the state-owned television channel moved swiftly to reassure the public that she was very much in Colombo and attending to her duties. The same telecast presented a favourable forecast for the country following the planetary changes featuring an astrologer who used the opportunity for some free advertising: “Ordinary readings Rs. 50,” said the sign in front of him. “Special reading Rs. 250.”
While the mainline politicians of the People´s Alliance and the opposition United National Party were thus indulging in “planetary politics” and sizing up each other´s chances at the August provincial council elections, a third force that twice attempted to overthrow Sri Lanka´s elected governments by armed insurrection was organising to mount a bid for power at the next general election due at the turn of the century.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People´s Liberation Front) was getting ready to stage a big May Day show in Colombo. The party has protested obstacles put forth by the police for the demonstration and believes that the government is planning a crackdown on them. The JVP vehemently opposes the devolution package with which the People´s Alliance hopes to end the civil war that has bled Sri Lanka white during the last 15 years.
According to Tilvin de Silva, the ´JVPs general secretary, the government is using the state media to prepare the ground for the crackdown. He insists that the party´s militant past is now behind it and that they were now very much in the democratic mainstream (see Himal, “Sri Lanka´s South Still Smoulders”, May 1996). The JVP takes credit for ´educating´ the people about the ill-effects of the devolution package and says that the government, sensing the JVP´s role in creating the growing opposition, is seeking to terrorise its activists.
Sri Lankans well remember 1988-89 when the jvp´s military wing nearly pushed the country over the brink into anarchy. The security forces, whose family members had been threatened by the JVP, cracked down brutally on the rebels under orders of the UNP government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Thousands were killed and bodies floating down rivers and so-called “tyre pyres” on the roadside were the order of the day. The JVP leadership was liquidated and normalcy restored at a heavy price on life and limb. The methods used were undoubtedly extra-legal but were claimed to be necessary given the circumstances.
There is no escaping the reality that many sheep died with the goats. Private grudges were paid off under cover of the insurgency. with politicians and others exploiting the forces´ willingness to bump off anybody branded JVP. With the change of government in 1994, various commissions of inquiry have probed disappearances and excesses by the forces. There has also been a lot of witch-hunting, all of which means that the security forces will be far less willing to act the way they did during the height of the JVP´s second adventure.
Today, few remember that when the JVP launched its first insurrection in 1971, the government of the day comprised the present constituents of the People´s Alliance. Then, too, there was a harsh crackdown and similar extra-legal killings. The difference was that the 1971 insurrection was smaller than the attempted putsch of 1988-89, and required less state terror. Many analysts believe that the scale of Sirimavo Bandaranaike´s rout in 1977 was partly due to the JVP´s determination to see her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its left allies roundly defeated to settle the score of 1971.
There is no doubt that both the United National Party and the People´s Alliance have a solid block of support each. “It´s like money in the bank,” said one analyst. “Whatever the issues, the two sides have their committed core of supporters who will always vote for them.” But the floating vote that both sides woo is now increasingly turning to the JVP which, regardless of its present professions, has a history of armed insurrection. With the number of military deserters in the country, and the increase in crime attributed to them, along with the support that the JVP had always shown itself capable of mustering in the universities, the established parties must recognise the re-emergence of a monster.
The economic policies of the People´s Alliance are no different from those of the United National Party. This is why the failure of the government, whether PA or UNP, to keep their election promises will force increasing numbers of voters to think beyond the established parties. If the JVP welshes again on its promise of working within the democratic structures, Sri Lanka will be hard pressed to fight both the Tamil Tigers in the north and a Sinhala insurgency in the south.
The last time around, the Indian army was brought in to fight the Tigers and the JVP jumped onto the SLFP bandwagon to oppose the UNP government on that score. Soon it had escalated its protest into a full-scale insurgency that frightened all established political parties in the country, both in government and opposition. Some Tamils too are now reported to be joining the JVP, which claims to be non-racist. Even though it might not win an election, the party is now showing its ability to command significant support. Its showing at the August provincial council elections will be keenly watched to spot its place in the political constellation.