An Insider’s Account Of The JVP – Book Review


By Prof. V. Suryanarayan

Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka – The Lionel Bopage Story (Written by Michael Colin Cooke) (Agahas Publishers, Colombo, 2011), pp. 566, Price US Dollars 25/-

Known to the Arab travelers as Serendib (The island of happy fortune), Sri Lanka, in the post-independence years, was neither happy nor fortunate. The island and its peoples have experienced “a home grown version of internal colonial rule, complete with a ruling class, a caste system and an impoverished peasantry and an ethnic scapegoat”. The book is the “inside story” of Sri Lanka’s indigenous revolutionary movement, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (Peoples Liberation Front) (JVP) – its origin and development, its tumultuous growth, is trials and tribulations and, above all, the policy of repression followed by successive governments. Arbitrary arrest, torture and stifling of dissent were the order of the day during the two revolts led by the JVP.

Lionel Bopage, the son of a petty shop keeper, who subscribed to communist ideology, was attracted towards the left early in life. He gradually gravitated towards the JVP, rose very high in the Party hierarchy, and became its General Secretary. Lionel was closely associated with the JVP for 16 years. But gradually he became disillusioned with the “opportunist politics” of fanning hatred against the Tamil minority groups. Bopage was expelled from the Party and was forced to leave the country in order to escape persecution. He settled down in Australia with his wife Chitra and children. Being a committed leftist, imbued with idealism and anti-racist approach, Lionel still takes active interest in the developments in Sri Lanka. He is deeply sensitive to the fact that there will be no permanent peace in the island, unless the two communities deal with each other fairly on a “cultural, religious and social basis”. The central problems of Sri Lanka, according to Lionel, are the issues of “equity, corruption and human rights. Ethnicity is the ideological cover to mask these realities”.

The book is an unusual political biography. It is written by Michael Colin Cooke, a former public servant and trade unionist, who is well conversant with the cross currents of South Asian politics. It is a “different kind of biography” which narrates Lionel’s role in a crucial phase in Sri Lankan history. Based on lengthy interviews with Lionel and Chitra, this candid, lucid, no holds barred book, is an invaluable source material for understanding contemporary Sri Lanka.

Ceylon was granted independence on February 4, 1948. In Lionel’s words though “the Union Jack was lowered and the Lion Flag was raised” the people did not attain political and economic independence. The British transferred power to the English educated elite, dominated mainly by two clans, the Senanayakes of the United National Party (UNP) and the Bandaranaikes of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The Senanayake clan produced four Prime Ministers and one President and the Bandaranaike clan produced three Prime Ministers and one President. The economy was in the grip of few families. To quote Lionel, “Sri Lanka’s economy is controlled and operated by 41 affluent families …Both (the UNP and the SLFP) have failed very badly to solve the peoples problems in any respect and have aggravated the problem for the benefit of the 41 affluent families who control political power”. As far as the Sri Lankan Tamils are concerned, their politics was controlled and dominated by the English educated high caste Vellala elite. At no point of time did they represent the untouchables of the north and the east, nor did they evince any interest in the tragic plight of the Malaiha Tamils. They also paid scant regard to the feelings of the Tamil speaking Muslims who were keen to foster and promote their separate identity.

The elite politics widened the chasm between the English educated and the Sinhala and Tamil educated masses. Though the SLFP took the initiative in introducing the Sinhala only Act, most of the employment opportunities in the tertiary and the clerical professions were filled by the English educated. This discontent should naturally have been exploited by the left parties like the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Ceylon Communist Party (CCP). While in the early years of independence, they agitated for the betterment of the working class, the leadership of the two parties, who also came from the upper classes, gradually turned opportunist and played second fiddle to Mrs Sirimvao Bandaranaike and her unique brand of politics of catering to Sinhala racism.. Playing on Sinhala chauvinism Mrs. Bandaranaike was able to strengthen her political fold. Lionel has described the phenomenon as follows: The left joining hands with Mrs Bandaranaike was the “greatest betrayal”. Internationally, it was the first time that a Trotskyite Party entered into a Bourgeois government. The pro-Moscow Communist Party had already followed suit. This left a vacuum in the left which the JVP filled.

The JVP was an offshoot of the CCP and pro-Peking breakaway group, the Ceylon Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist). Its leadership was home-grown, it did not hold any appeal to the Oxbridge/LSE theoreticians. Both Rohana Wijeweera and Lionel Bopage belonged to the lower castes, they also hailed from the Matara region which used to be the traditional stronghold of the left. Rohana had his higher education in the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, he was a political activist and the political conditions in Soviet Union made him realize that the USSR “was not socialist”. In mid-1966 Rohana and his close associates formed the JVP. Its followers belonged to the disadvantaged and deprived Sinhala-educated families; many were first generation degree holders and were unemployed. The JVP was a cadre-based party, which subscribed to the Leninist concept of “democratic centralism”. It functioned as an underground organization. The main attribute of the JVP was that it adopted Marxism-Leninism to the local conditions. Equally relevant was the mass appeal of Rohana Wijeweera. Rohana held lecture-discussions on five inter-related themes; the ever present capitalist crisis; the Sri Lankan independence; Indian expansionism, left movement in Sri Lanka and the path of the Sri Lankan revolution. As time went on, Lionel became unhappy with certain salient features of the JVP. The Party was totally ignorant about the discrimination carried out against the Tamil – speaking people. As a result, it did not talk about issues relating to language, religion, discrimination, nationality, nation and the right to self-determination.

The JVP insurrection of April 1971, Prof. KM de Silva has pointed out is “perhaps the biggest revolt of young people in any part of the world in recorded history, the first instance of tension between generations becoming a military conflict on a national scale”. The JVP did not have “enough cadres, arms or ammunition to sustain an offensive in Colombo”; even then it decided to launch an armed rebellion on April 5.

Why did the revolt fail? According to Lionel Bopage, the main contributory factor was the “narrowness of its social base”. The “urban proletariat” did not support the struggle; in fact, in many cases, they were active in the counter offensive. They received no support from the Tamils, whether Sri Lankan Tamils or the Malaiha Tamils. What is more, the JVP support was confined to few districts in the Sinhalese heartland.

What tilted the balance against the JVP was the external assistance which the Sri Lankan government was able to mobilize. Mrs. Bandaranaike approached India, UK, USA, Yugoslavia, USSR and Pakistan for military help. India promptly responded sending five frigates to seal off approach to Colombo harbour. In addition, Indian assistance also included military equipment for 5,000 troops, six helicopters with pilots for non-combat duties and 150 Indian troops to guard the Katunayake air port. The revolt was crushed, but it had far reaching consequences as far as political system was concerned. Emergency which was proclaimed in March 1971 continued till February 1977. Thousands of Sinhala youth lost their lives and many more were detained without trial. The armed forces had their first experience in tackling an armed revolt.

In addition to the developments which Bopage has described I would like to add the following information. According to an Indian diplomat, who was working in the Indian High Commission at that time, the JVP cadres had cut off all communication links between Colombo and the outside world. The Indian diplomat took the next available flight from Colombo to Thiruvananthapuram, got in touch with Foreign Secretary TN Kaul and conveyed Mrs. Bandaranaike’s request for immediate help. Indian air force planes immediately took off from Bangalore to Colombo.

Bopage has mentioned that external assistance was provided by Singapore, India, the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Pakistan. The list is not accurate. The countries which Mrs. Bandaranaike approached for help have already been mentioned earlier. Few months ago, I asked the former President of Singapore SR Nathan, who was associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at that time, whether Singapore provided any military assistance to Colombo in 1971. The answer was a categorical no.

Lionel has provided some vital information which throws light on China’s revolutionary credentials. Lionel was in charge of liaison work with communist countries. After the insurrection he went to the Chinese Embassy to let them know the JVP version of the insurrection. The First Secretary asked Lionel to leave the Embassy premises immediately or he would call the police immediately.

Bopage’s conclusions are worth reproducing: “The repression of the State of the leadership and cadres of the JVP, combined with the latter’s inexperience and their romantic notions of armed struggle, resulted in the premature call to arms. Bad planning, poor communication, rifts within the Party and possible police spies within the organization allowed the armed forces to easily crush the rebellion and launch a campaign of terror against the JVP and its supporters”. Bopage adds, “It was a premature putsch by a faction ridden party of young inexperienced revolutionaries responding to State repression. By doing this the JVP allowed the State to imprison its leadership, murder 10,000 of its cadres, and jail and torture many thousands more”. The Sandhurst-educated Lt Colnel Cyril Ranatunga boasted, “We have learnt many lessons from Vietnam and Malaysia. We must destroy them completely”.

The top leadership of the JVP including Rohana and Lionel were imprisoned. They had an opportunity to introspect on the failure of the revolt. The leadership decided to stop the lecture relating to Indian expansionism. In the Kandy prison, the JVP prisoners had the opportunity to interact with few young Tamil prisoners. The most prominent among these Tamil youth was Santhathiyar of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). It may be recalled that the PLOTE did not believe in whipping up anti-Sinhalese hysteria. It was the only militant organization which held the view that there are possibilities of combined struggle, uniting the oppressed both among the Sinhalese and the Tamils. In fact, the PLOTE had an underground radio station broadcasting in Sinhalese language. But nothing positive came out of these contacts. More tragic, the PLOTE gradually degenerated into a murderous organization and Santhathiyrar himself was killed in Tamil Nadu.

With the SLFP and the left parties routed and the UNP assuming power after the 1977 parliamentary elections, the JVP made a dramatic volte face. It took to the parliamentary path. During the May Day rally in 1977, the JVP had announced its new political path, that it will no longer be a secret organization, but would continue to “spearhead “the struggle of the working class in a democratic manner. During 1978 and 1979 the Party dedicated itself to strengthening the organization and recruiting new members. In 1979 Lionel became the General Secretary and Rohana the President of the JVP. The Party was extremely “perturbed” about the communal violence against the Tamils by the lumpen sections of the Sinhalese population belonging to the UNP. Despite obstacles put by the Government, the JVP began to spread its influence among the Sinhalese masses. It contested the District Council elections in 1981 and won 4 seats in the Colombo district; in all 13 JVP members were elected throughout the country. The Party, with the support of like mined intellectuals, formed a human rights council. A cultural troupe, Vimukti Jee, held musical concerts in different parts of the country. In order to build contacts with the Tamils, the Party also established branches in the north and the east and in the hill country. The Tamil militants did not view these developments in a positive manner; they felt that the JVP was poaching into their “political turf”.

Lionel mentions a heated argument that took place between him and Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka during this period. Dayan was arguing that the JVP “should recognize Eelam as the only solution to the problems of the Tamil people”; whereas Lionel maintained that the JVP will not advocate separation as a solution. It stood for a united Sri Lanka with regional autonomy to the Tamil areas. How times have changed! Dayan has become a great friend of President Mahinda Rajapaksa today and as the diplomatic representative of Sri Lanka, is carrying on a successful campaign for the Government in several world capitals.

The JVP resolved to contest the 1982 Presidential elections and Rohana Wijeweera was fielded as its candidate. The Party’s performance was far below expectations. The leadership hoped that it will get about 800,000 votes, but it polled only 250,000 votes.

The JVP had absolutely no role in the communal holocaust which took place in July 1983. According to the Sri Lankan Government, however, the JVP, the NSSP and the CPSL were behind the riots. The Government media named Rohana, Lionel and Gamanayake as the “chief culprits”. While many JVP cadres went underground, Lionel, after careful consideration, decided not to do so. Soon Lionel was detained and was subjected to severe persecution.

A great change was taking place in Lionel’s political convictions during this period. Even though he felt that it was his duty to defend the Party while in detention, Lionel had already decided to resign from the Party before his arrest in 1983. This was not an “easy decision” because the JVP was his heart and soul for sixteen years. The differences between Lionel and the Party leadership related to four main aspects: 1) The line of the Party in organizational matters; 2) The 1982 Presidential election; 3) The lessons not learnt from the 1971 insurrection and 4) the national question. His attempts to change the Party line did not succeed and he had “no choice, but to resign”. Lionel’s letter of resignation is included as an appendix in the book. Lionel was unhappy with the decision to embark on a premature revolution in April 1971, but as a loyal party worker he accepted the responsibility. The path of armed struggle turned out to be “destructive one”. Similarly the decision to field Rohana as a candidate in the Presidential election had “negative influence” on the Party. In fact, Lionel seconded the motion to field Rohana as a candidate. He should have suggested alternative courses of action, but did not do so, because he was a loyal member of the Party and, what is more, “because of the lack of knowledge on my part”. A bad trait in his personality, Lionel confesses had been “to remain silent” on subjects in which he disagreed with the Party. After 1977, the massive publicity campaign gave the Party considerable visibility, but the failure “to engage in educational activities” created a situation where the Party disintegrated. As a result the Party lost heavily.

The basic difference between Rohana and the Party leadership related to the “national question”. As a Leninist party, the JVP recognised the right of nations for self-determination, but it applied a different principle to the Tamil question. The future of the Party, according to Lionel, depended on equating the Tamil problem with our problem and agitating forcefully to solve them and not by separating the two. Lionel concluded the resignation letter by reiterating that he “had no personal animosity towards any comrades within the Party…I will, therefore, not work against the JVP. I hope to work as an independent Marxist”. After his resignation, Lionel was approached by former JVP members who requested that he should form another political party. Then Minister for National Security, Lalith Athulathmudali sent feelers that if Lionel joined the UNP he would be released immediately.

Sri Lanka has undergone dramatic transformation since Lionel left the JVP and migrated to Australia with his wife and children. An important milestone was the second JVP insurrection after the conclusion of the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) on the invitation of President Jayewardene. During this period the JVP rose like a “phoenix”. The leadership felt that it could extend its influence if it successfully exploited the anti-India sentiments. The Party, therefore, shifted its slogan from “socialism through class struggle” to “liberation through patriotic struggle”. Capitalising on the Sinhala backlash, the JVP became the champion of Sinhala extremism, spread its own brand of violence and following the dictum of “punishing the traitors” systematically assassinated political opponents. The JVP posed itself as the protector of the Sinhala-Buddhist society. The violence of the JVP was met with greater violence of the Sri Lankan armed forces. The period 1987-89 is popularly known as Bishana Samaya (Days of terror). During those days, the two rivers in the South Mahaweli Ganga and Kelaniya Ganga were clogged with dead bodies and foamed with blood.

I do not propose to dwell on the twists and turns of the JVP in the succeeding years, because Lionel had no role in it and it is also not the main focus of the book. However, I would like to point out that the record of the JVP on the Tamil issue had not been completely a negative one. During the stewardship of Chandrika as the President and Ranil as the Prime Minister, the Government enacted a legislation which conferred Sri Lankan citizenship on the residue of the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact. Not only the UNP and the SLFP, but also the JVP championed the cause of the people of Malaiham at that time.

The underlying problems which gave rise to the JVP still remain. Successive governments have not learnt any lessons from the past. And unless lasting solutions are found to the travails of the Sinhala –educated masses, the reservoir from which the JVP drew its strength will continue to remain. The Sinhalese society will be in a state of ferment in the years to come.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently associated with two think tanks in Chennai, the Center for Asia Studies and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. His e mail address: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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