by Tisaranee Gunasekara
VI. ANATOMY OF A FAILURE
There is a picture of Daya Pathirana in death, the first casualty of the Second JVP Insurgency and the JVP first victim; the leader of the ISU of the University of Colombo is shown lying on his back at the murder scene, stripped to his underwear, his eyes staring unseeingly, the mark of the murderers’ blade visible around his neck, a thin red ring. That picture is symbolic of the senseless bloodletting that was the Second JVP Insurgency, its brutality, its indiscriminate nature and its inability to tolerate or compromise.
The JVP failed partly – some would say mainly - because of its own errors. Maximalism was its signature error. It prevented the JVP from entering into a successful compromise solution with the Premadasa administration. It also prevented the JVP from agreeing to play the junior partner with the SLFP. The JVP, like the LTTE, did not want to share power with anyone; it wanted to rule alone. It would have tolerated the existence of other political parties and organisations only on condition of uncritical obedience. Even the SLFP was attacked, and attacked mercilessly, when it proved itself unwilling to abide by all the JVP’s rules.
The other major error on the part of the JVP was its incorrect handling of contradictions. Instead of building alliances with those forces and entities which were anti-government to varying degrees, the JVP launched a merciless assault on many of them, forcing them reluctantly to build alliances with the government instead. Its policy of targeting what it called the ‘unpatriotic’ elements commencing, it must be noted, prior to the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, provided the beleaguered state with badly needed political allies, thereby ending its isolation. Instead of ‘uniting the many’ to overthrow the state, the JVP by its actions united the many against itself.
"The JVP with its indiscriminate and deadly assault on any other person/organisation which dared to disagree with it (this eventually included its one time ally Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and with its arbitrary dictates concerning every aspect of the day to day life of the populace, eventually played into the hands of the state. In the short term the fear psychosis it created was extremely effective. But in the medium term the JVP terror enabled the state/regime to occupy the moral high ground."
The JVP’s failure was not due to its Marxism, as some analysts have argued but to its insufficient Marxism, its inability to have a correct, Marxian understanding of contradictions. The JVP’s problem was not that it was Marxist, but that it was quasi-Marxist. The JVP’s mistake therefore was that it turned its back on both Mao and Ché—on the lessons of national liberation struggles (the Chinese war against Japanese invaders, and the Vietcong’s resistance to the US) and revolutionary struggles (Cuba and Nicaragua). According to Mao “the object of the war is specifically to preserve oneself and destroy the enemy to destroy the enemy means to disarm him or deprive him of the power to resist and does not mean to destroy every member of his force physically” (On Protracted War, Selected Works, Vol. II - emphasis mine).
Discussing the tasks of the Eighth Route Army in the war of resistance against Japan, Mao identified “giving lenient treatment to prisoners of war” as an important component of the political work of the Chinese Communists. “We shall not change it if even the Japanese army carries out its declared intention of using poison gas against the Eighth Route Army. We shall go on giving lenient treatment to captured Japanese soldiers… We shall not insult or abuse them but shall set them free after explaining to them the identity of the interests of the two countries” (ibid, Interview with James Bertram - emphasis mine).
Ché Guevara was similarly unequivocal. “There are always laggards who remain behind but our function is not to liquidate them—to crush them and force them to bow to an armed vanguard— but to educate them by leading them forward and getting them to follow us because of our example, or as Fidel called it moral compulsion” (Venceramos: The Speeches and Writings of Ché Guevara, edited by John Gerassi - emphasis mine). The JVP with its indiscriminate and deadly assault on any other person/organisation which dared to disagree with it (this eventually included its one time ally Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and with its arbitrary dictates concerning every aspect of the day to day life of the populace, eventually played into the hands of the state. In the short term the fear psychosis it created was extremely effective. But in the medium term the JVP terror enabled the state/regime to occupy the moral high ground. Still as long as the legitimacy of its main theme—opposition to the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) on Sri Lankan soil remained—the JVP was able to retain the initiative, despite its other mistakes. This changed when President Premadasa publicly demanded the immediate withdrawal of the IPKF in June 1989. And sans both the political initiative and the moral high ground, the end was not far away.
With his demand for the withdrawal of the IPKF Premadasa stole the JVP’s thunder. On the economic front too Premadasa took a number of measures which left the JVP politically bereft. Premadasa who came from the ‘wrong side’ of the socio-economic track understood the frustration, discontent and anger of the poor and the powerless. In the heady early 1980’s he warned against the dangers of increasing inequality, the only government leader to do so. He understood the mutually sustaining relationship between the anti-people economic policies and the growth of extremist ideologies of all sorts. He knew that the JVP’s challenge could not be faced successfully without dealing with these issues, immediately and effectively.
Subsequent to winning the Presidency Premadasa concentrated on dealing with the socio-economic causes of political unrest. The Premadasa Risorgimento was aimed at breaking the destructive symbiosis between poverty, alienation, discrimination and extremism. As the insurgency raged he unveiled the Janasaviya programme (JSP) and pressed ahead with the Housing programme because he understood that moderation and democracy could not be fostered without such ameliorative measures. It was not accidental that Hambantota was one of the areas chosen for the first round of the JSP and the 1989 Gamudawa was held in Mahiyangana – both considered to be bastions of the JVP. The following comment by Tarzie Vittachchi, Sri Lanka’s most pre-eminent journalist and a former director of the UNICEF provides an excellent into the political impact of the JSP on the communities which was the natural support base of the JVP:
- “I have seen the Janasaviya programme at work in the Southern province, in the fortress so to say of the JVP. I have been quite staggered by what I saw. I expected to see perhaps a hostile community who was resentful of the government’s offensive against the JVP. At the best I expected to see a cynical and demoralised community, but what I saw was something quite unexpected. For the first time I have seen a village community of Sri Lanka fired and energised and putting their hands to their development work. They were not waiting merely for government assistance. They had taken the initiative, they were organising their work, they were allocating resources. In fact they had taken charge of their affairs…. This was democracy at work” (Sri Lanka: Towards a Multi Ethnic Democratic Society? Report on a Fact Finding Mission – Neville Jayaweera)
Extremism of any one sort encourages and fosters extremisms of other sorts. The corollary between market fundamentalism and racial/religious fundamentalism has been commented on by many. Similarly the de-prioritisation of man in the economic process can undermine democracy itself, as the Sri Lankan experiences demonstrate. An unbalanced economy cannot invoke balanced responses from the people and such imbalanced responses cannot but undermine democracy and the rule of law. As Premadasa put it “the best defenders of our democracy are an enlightened people” (A Charter for Democracy) and a populace beset by falling living standards with malnourished children cannot by definition develop the logic and reason needed for enlightened thinking. If man is downgraded in development, that development will be threatened by man, and, as history shows, the rage of man is far more destructive than the ill effects of any economic crisis can ever be.
"What was different about the Premadasa response to the JVP was not his willingness to negotiate because even his predecessor was willing to negotiate; what was different was his willingness to address the political and socio-economic issues raised by the JVP. That was why Premadasa succeeded where Jayewardene failed."
Despite his rhetoric about ‘murgayo’ and ‘sarpayo’, what was lacking in President Jayewardene’s response to the JVP was not a willingness to negotiate; what was lacking was an ability to address those political issues which enabled the JVP win the support or sympathy of a sizeable section of the Southern society. Jayewardene’s approach swung back and for the between military assaults and attempts at negotiations. Neither worked. The pure militarist approach did not work because, quite apart from the JVP’s hunger for power, there were real political and socio-economic issues which kept the fires of the insurgency raging. Negotiations were impossible because of the maximalist nature of the JVP. Jayewardene would have been willing to make considerable political and socio-economic concessions but only as part of a deal with the JVP. Given his ideological predispositions it was impossible for him to make unilateral concessions to the poor and marginalised Sinhalese – the main support base of the insurgency - as a way of isolating the JVP. What was different about the Premadasa response to the JVP was not his willingness to negotiate because even his predecessor was willing to negotiate; what was different was his willingness to address the political and socio-economic issues raised by the JVP. That was why Premadasa succeeded where Jayewardene failed.
It would not have been possible for the state to defeat the second insurgency without the JVP’s maximalism which rendered impossible any compromise and without its incorrect handling of contradictions which turned neutrals, potential sympathisers and former members into diehard enemies. Even so, the critical factor which paved the way for the crushing of the insurgency was the willingness and ability of the Premadasa administration to address the socio-political issues which enabled and justified the insurgency. With the setting up of the Joint Operations Command under the political direction of Sirisena Cooray, the focus of the state’s military counteroffensive shifted from the periphery to the very heart of the JVP. Instead of abducting and killing poster-pasters and unimportant functionaries, the armed forces and the police concentrated on tracking the top leadership. As its slogans were rendered ineffective, one by one, the JVP found itself devoid of all socio-political camouflage, and thus vulnerable to the military assault of the state. Sans its attractive liberator’s façade, the bloody tragedy that was the Second JVP Insurgency came to an abrupt end in November 1989.