Twice, the Sri Lankan state crushed the JVP movement and preoccupied itself with the Tamil war in the north and east. In the south, conditions which gave rise to the JVP and its brand of bloody politics fester.
The worst period of political violence and terror experienced in the Sinhala-dominated southern parts of Sri Lanka unfolded between 1987 and 1989, in the attempted take-over of state power by the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (jvp, the People´s Liberation Front) and the government´s counter-insurgency campaign. That period of terror has now become part of the collective history of violence in South Asia.
Through the early 1980s, there had been a steady institutionalisation of political violence in the Tamil-dominated areas of Sri Lanka, with an escalating confrontation between state security forces and various Tamil guerrilla groups. This was mostly concentrated in the war-ravaged operational zones in the northeast and the largely-shielded Sinhala population was affected only when bodies of dead soldiers were returned to their kin in sealed coffins.
When the JVP-led insurrection exploded in the south in 1988, it took Sinhala society completely by surprise. But were the JVP and its modus operandi, as well as the ruthlessness of the government´s counter-insurgency campaign, all that unexpected?
Upheaval in Our Midst
Ben Okri, in his 1993 novel Songs of Enchantment, writes: “We didn´t see the mountains ahead and so we didn´t sense the upheavals to come, upheavals that were in fact already in our midst, waiting to burst into flames.” The jvp´s rise was already heralded by the trends in Sri Lanka´s political and social history.
The Sinhala-speaking rural hinterland of the country´s south was slowly filling up with unemployed youth, and frustration was peaking. Meanwhile, from the very beginning of its rather long reign the United National Party (UNP) government had institutionalised the use of violence in routine politics. It had taken to openly using criminal elements to coerce or eliminate political opponents, and UNP leaders who maintained highly dangerous private armies had a role in establishing a gun culture in the country. The UNP, therefore, had already done its part in subverting law and order and in the devaluation of human life, when the JVP revolt erupted.
Politicians and policy-makers, as well as social scientists, were caught unawares by the scale of the terror that swept the south. They had been distracted by the dream of transforming Sri Lanka into a so-called NIC (newly industrialised country) by the year 2000—the talk of the day. Instead, what we had was a country with a large number of angry, jobless youth without a future.
The worst of the violence was over by 1989, almost as suddenly as it had appeared. The rulers claimed that “normalcy” had been restored. JVP violence was “controlled” by unleashing an equally brutal reign of terror by the state. Insurgents and those suspected of terror were eliminated by military and police units, as well as by death squads sponsored by agents of the ruling UNP. The jvp´s strength ebbed completely with the army´s arrest and extra-judicial killing of its leader, Rohana Wijeweera, and his deputy.
Colombo´s politicians and pundits prefer to see the entire JVP phenomenon as an aberration—but only because it took them completely by surprise. But if the violence of the late 1980s itself was an aberration, the contributing factors that lay behind it were anything but that. Those factors have not yet been dealt with.
A New, Softer JVP?
Soon after Wijeweera and his deputy were killed, handwritten posters appeared in parts of the country with the words: “Simply because two plates have been broken, the hotel will not close down.”
In fact, it would now appear that the hotel did not close down. In the Colombo cocktail circuit, amidst political gossip and the gloating over Sri Lankan cricketing successes, in hushed undertones one hears of a JVP re-grouping. And indeed, while the JVP has temporarily removed itself from the terror equation, the organisation is currently active in local universities in Sinhala-domi-nated areas. In many, they control the student unions. The JVP is also working in areas it had a significant presence in before the crackdown, and it has an MP in the national legislature.
How is it that the JVP is raising its head again, from what appeared to be almost total decimation only five years ago? To comprehend this development, we must try and understand the fundamental reasons that gave rise to the JVP in the first place.
The ´development´ activities that the UNP undertook during its 17 years in power, in keeping with its so-called open economic policies, catered mostly to the interests of international capital and the Sri Lankan urban-business elite. Rural areas, like Uva and the Southern provinces, were neglected and became one of the most economically backward areas in the country. This was where the JVP struck its roots deepest.
Speaking in early April this year, a peasant in Moneragala in Uva province gave vent to the deep-seated anger of the rural populace: “Their development is for themselves,” he said. “Their development is in Colombo.” The inability of the politicians and policy-makers to comprehend this discontent had led to the JVP´s rise.
That discontent persists. And it is in the southern hinterland that one finds indications of a re-emergence of the JVP and the politics of extreme violence that it represents. After all, the angry comments of the Uva peasant were directed not only at the UNP, which was defeated in the general elections in 1994, but also at the present People´s Alliance government of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The new JVP is clearly attempting to distance itself from the savagery with which it is associated. Recently, a JVP activist went to the extent of claiming that much of the atrocities attributed to the movement was, in fact, unleashed by the state. But such opinions are not taken seriously by the average person, and the soft approach merely reflects its realisation that the public mood is totally opposed to violence. The collective trauma of the late 1980s is still a disturbing memory.
Hardly a Spent Force
The JVP´s activities were considerably weakened by the government crackdown and the lack of a widely recognised leader in the model of the late Wijeweera. Nevertheless, the JVP is hardly a spent force for a number of reasons.
First, irrespective of the disruptions caused to its organisational structure, many of its leaders at regional levels managed to escape the state´s campaign of counter-terror. A majority of those killed by agents of the state were mere local level activists, or, in some cases, national leaders. Many other victims were not even linked directly to the movement, but were caught while acting under duress (such as in putting up posters or taking part in demonstrations). Many innocents were killed when they were wrongly identified as JVP sympathisers by informants. Hard-core cadres do exist who can re-organise the movement at the regional level, irrespective of the problems of leadership and organisation nationally.
Second, and more importantly, the frustration and anger of the youth in economically and socially backward areas have not dissipated. The People´s Alliance may have replaced the UNP, but there has been no tangible upturn in the average peasant´s quality of life. In fact, the cost of living has increased significantly over the past year-and-half, with no corresponding rise in average income levels.
Much of the lethargy evident in Sri Lankan polity is due to weak governance, which can be attributed to the nature of coalition politics, where problematic MPs and Ministers have to be tolerated even at the risk of angering the populace. At the same time, given the real and imagined security risks posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), many politicians of the ruling coalition have distanced themselves from the public. Speeding luxury cars with tinted glass, and cordons of tight security separate the leaders from the masses. While the Colombo analysts may not pay much attention to the symbolic value of such a separation, it matters to people in the provinces who feel terribly marginalised.
The costly and unwinnable war which Ms Kumaratunga´s government initiated after the failure of its peace talks with the LTTE has diverted much-needed funds as well as the attention of politicians and policy-makers away from the problems of the south. In the economically depressed areas such as Moneragala, Wellawaya, Hambantota and Anamaduwa, the People´s Alliance has fallen from its high pedestal. In many parts, the party has become extremely unpopular within a short span.
Third, among many rural youth there is a general lack of confidence in mainstream politics, both of the left and of the right. They feel that the rural sector has been betrayed by the politicians, who will never be able to deliver real advancement. The traditional left is, in any case, a spent force. The UNP, on the other hand, has serious internal problems that retard its attempts at re-organisation, and also has the 17-year shadow of corruption and state-sanctioned violence against it.
The loss of confidence in the traditional political formations has left a sense of hopelessness. While this collective frustration does not necessarily translate into enthusiastic support for the jvp, the existential dilemmas faced by the populace today does provide ample space for youth unrest and the kind of politics which the JVP represented not so long ago to emerge again. Moreover, it is also clear that the Sri Lankan state will not be able to deal with the underlying social instability without first politically consolidating itself. Such a consolidation seems quite unlikely anytime soon in the context of the present coalition setup.
With the widespread popular discontent in the country, and the Chandrika government´s singular inability to respond to them, southern Sri Lanka could well become volatile again. The only reason why this might not yet happen is that the decade-old memory of the JVP-led violence—and the UNP´s reaction—is still fresh. This may be why, despite the frustration, people are not flocking to the folds of the jvp. The blood on the hands of the organisation has not completely washed off.
Not Whether, but When
On the other hand, certain recent violent actions attributed to the JVP strongly suggest that the organisation has not really learnt from its own immediate history, irrespective of its public attempts to distance itself from past violence.
Perhaps, rather than focus only on the JVP, the proper question to ask is whether, in the context of prevailing conditions, the kind of politics that the JVP once represented can emerge again? On the basis of available information, the answer is ´yes´, and it is only a matter of ´when’.
Politicians, policy-makers and influence-peddlers who rarely venture beyond Colombo´s air-conditioned malls and hotels, and the community of social scientists engaged in advising providers of international capital on the relative safety of Sri Lanka´s investment climate, are likely to underestimate the potential for another phase of sustained violence in the south—with or without the JVP. For many politicians and their advisers, not dealing with a problem is a way of coping.