The Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP): A Lankan Political Tragedy

"The JVP still subscribes to the ‘national liberation struggle model’, the best example of which is the Vietnamese war of national liberation, as their strategic path. Their politics is strategized from this angle."

by Sankajaya Nanayakkara

(December 07, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP) emerged in the Lankan political landscape in the mid 1960s as a result of a split that took place in the then most radical of all mainstream left formations, the Maoist Communist Party of Ceylon, led by the veteran trade unionist, N. Shanmugathasan. The JVP was founded by the charismatic youth leader of the Maoist Communist Party of Ceylon, Patabandige Don Nandasiri (Rohana) Wijeweera with a handful of youthful followers against the politics of class collaboration and to usher in a revolutionary transformation of the Lankan society, economy and culture. The JVP embodied the youth radicalism of the times and was one among many such revolutionary left-wing groups that took root in the south of Sri Lanka during this time.

The History and the Evolution of the Movement

The first revolution against the Sri Lankan state was spearheaded by the JVP in April, 1971. It ended in bloody failure, though most of the top leadership survived the counter-insurgency campaign of the left-of-the-centre United Front government. After the release of the jailed insurgent leaders, the party was reformed in the late 70s. Many of the old guard of the party was replaced by young blood. But Wijeweera remained the undisputed leader of the outfit. He was a man of many avatars: the party theoretician, strategist, publicist, organizer, and so on. Since his fall, no one has been able to fill that vacuum. The reformed JVP engaged in mainstream politics till their proscription in 1983 for alleged participation in the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. During their brief stint in mainstream politics, Wijeweera was able to secure an impressive 2,73,428 of votes and came out as the leading left candidate (out of the three) in the 1982 presidential election.

Unlike the somewhat ‘romantic’ first armed uprising of 1971 which still tend to evoke the imaginary of Fidel and his rag-tag army of guerrillas, the second insurrection was ruthless and fascist in quality. It took the form of a sustained urban guerrilla/terrorist campaign. The armed wing of the JVP, the Patriotic People’s Movement carried out the armed campaign to roll-back the concessions given to Tamils through the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. This marked a major shift in the JVP position with regard to the Tamil national question. The party shifted more towards a hard-line unitary state position that eschewed any power sharing with minorities. As a result, Lionel Bopage, the General Secretary of the party, left the organization in protest with a small following. The second insurrection also ended up in bloody failure and this time the entire high command, except for one, was eliminated by the state and the party machinery dismembered. By early 1990s, the JVP survivors crawled back into the political mainstream from their underground holes and contested 1994 general election and secured one seat, in the deep south, the heartland of the JVP.

From 1994, the political fortunes of the JVP grew. They were able to secure a large number of seats in local, provincial and national legislatures. Turning back on the founding principles of the party, in 2004 they accepted a number of portfolios and joined the People’s Alliance government. Their members penetrated the organs of the state and bureaucracy. With 39 members in the national parliament in 2004, they re-launched themselves as a respectable power, the third force, as opposed to the wild Che Guevara men of the past.

In the ideological sphere of the JVP, there has always been an uneasy cohabitation of two currents: Sinhala nationalism and revolutionary Marxism. Gunadasa Amarasekera poetically illustrated the dilemma of the JVP, in his book Ganadhuru Madhiyama Dhakinemi Arunalu, as the inability of the (Marxist) mind to comprehend the (Sinhala-Buddhist) heart. Wimal Weerawansa’s faction embodied this Sinhala nationalist current in the JVP that grew with a vengeance after its entry into mainstream politics in the mid 1990s. The sociological base of this line of politics consists of respectable and relatively established sections of the intermediate classes of southern Sinhala society who are in the process of climbing the social ladder. These sections are unwilling to give up their hard-earned enviable middle-class lives for some suicidal revolution against a system of which they have now become part of. They have an instant appeal for class collaborationist politics, which finds ideological justification in the need for ‘unity of the nation.’ Moreover, their leaders have now got accustomed to the high-life, which comes along with political office. Was the JVP able to exorcise this demon entirely with the expulsion of Weerawansa and company?

The Nature of the JVP

The following section of the article is to a certain extent based on an interview I had with Anura Kumara Disanayaka, Polit Bureau member and the leader of the parliamentary group of the JVP, in Toronto, in October, 2008.

The JVP still subscribes to the ‘national liberation struggle model’, the best example of which is the Vietnamese war of national liberation, as their strategic path. Their politics is strategized from this angle.

The JVP does not perceive the insurgency in the north as a manifestation of an unresolved Tamil national question. They see it as an issue of Tamil separatism and terrorism, used as a pawn in a wider game of geo-politics of neo-colonialism. This line of thinking is somewhat close to the Jathika Chinthanaya line, which perceives the Tamil national struggle as a conspiracy of western imperialism to destroy the Sinhala nation.

The JVP is working hard at the moment to resurrect their favourite bogey, Indian imperialism. Certain commentators think Indian expansionist phobia of the JVP is an ideological inheritance from its roots to the Chinese Communist Party which has uneasy boarder issues with India.

According to the convoluted logic of the JVP, India is in a process of colonizing Sri Lankan markets and resources. At present they are monopolizing the petroleum market and in the near future they will monopolize the production and distribution of electricity in Sri Lanka. In order to continue with this process, argues the JVP, India needs a favourable political climate in Sri Lanka or at least a window to intervene decisively in the politics of the island. The Indian insistence on a political settlement to the northern insurgency is to create a satellite state in the north through which it can intervene in the country to facilitate its program of colonization. According to the JVP parliamentary group leader, the regime in Colombo has already succumbed to the Indian pressure and given large tracts of land in Sampur to Indian business interests.

The JVP perceives any political settlement to the Tamil national question in the form of regional autonomy as a conspiracy hatched by India to politically weaken Sri Lanka and exploit it economically. Tamils and all others who are in favour of such political deals are in a treacherous alliance with India to further her economic interests in SL. Hence, all attempts of regional autonomy/power sharing should be rejected as attempts by imperialist forces to weaken Sri Lanka to colonize her.

In an attempt to champion the cause of Sinhala nationalism, the Mahinda regime and its nationalist allies like Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Jathika NidhahasPeremuna (JNP) are admonished for succumbing to the pressure of India. The government and its nationalist partners are accused of attempting to give away to the ‘political front of Tamil separatism’ what was won in battle against the ‘military front of Tamil separatism.’ All attempts at cease fires and peace talks are dubbed as treachery by the JVP. In relation to the war, the JVP is gaining the upper hand in setting the agenda of the government. Even after the biggest split in its history that led to the formation of the JNP, the JVP was neither able to rid itself of Sinhala nationalist ideology or synthesize it with Marxism in any meaningful way. They remain in tension with each other, co-habiting the same political psyche, giving the JVP a sort of a split personality disorder. The party is tossed for ever between nationalist and class forces. At the moment, the terms of the JVP political agenda are dictated by the nationalist current in the party. If the conditions become opportune, as in the late 1980s, they might make an attempt at state power through a ‘war of national liberation against Indian colonizers.’

The JVP has proven beyond reasonable doubt that it has nothing to offer to Tamil and other ethnic minority communities in Sri Lanka. Even the Tamil leaders who work with the government are dismissed with contempt as untrustworthy separatists. What the JVP offer is the rhetoric of ethic equality and the willingness to open branches of the passport and the identity card offices in the north and to provide facilities in police stations for Tamils to lodge their grievances in their mother tongue! Their solution to the Tamil national question, to say the least, sounds like a sick joke. The tragic irony in the conflict in Sri Lanka is that the biggest spoiler in any attempt to do justice to oppressed ethnic minorities would be the JVP, the champion of the oppressed Sinhalese in the south.
- Sri Lanka Guardian