End of the road for the armed struggle in Sri Lankan politics

"The failed armed insurrections of the JVP and the LTTE and the tragic evidence of their abuse of the people through their activities present a critical opportunity to discuss these issues."

By Dayapala Thiranagama

(November 25,London, Sri Lanka Guardian) In 1970 we were outnumbered by the JVPers in the University. Their ‘revolutionary message’ was spreading like wildfire among the students. We used to read out passages from Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: An ‘Infantile Disorder’ but it fell on deaf ears. We were branded as traitors. I was told that I would be sent to Jaffna to grow onions and a few of us were also sentenced to death, to be carried out after the victory. They were busy getting ready for the oncoming revolution. That was the misplaced revolutionary zeal and conviction of the youthful revolutionaries in 1971 who, sacrificed their lives in thousands for the ‘revolutionary cause’.

In the early 1960’s the Great Debate in the world communist movement had a profound political effect on the Sri Lankan Left movement. It entirely changed the political outlook of our youths for many decades to come. These political legacies still form a critical element in Sri Lankan politics. China was leading those communist parties who subscribed to the armed overthrow of the existing regimes in their respective countries and the Soviet Union was leading the opposite camp of communist parties, advocating the parliamentary path to socialism. In many countries the communist parties were divided right in the middle along this ideological and political line. The Communist Party of Sri Lanka was similarly divided. The Maoists started arguing that any delay in capturing state power was an unacceptable treachery as the parliamentary path was not achievable or it would involve a non revolutionary long march to socialism. It was argued that the parliamentary route was revisionist and a great betrayal of the aspirations the poor. It was also important that the inspirations of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 had started making its impact on Asia, Africa and Latin America. In 1964, this writer attended a communist party (Peking wing) conference as a teenager in the belief that the only way to achieve social justice was through the armed overthrow of the Sri Lankan state and was convinced at the time that this would be possible. To this purpose, the sacrifice of your life might prove to be necessary. Rohana Wijeweera also attended this conference held in Dodanduwa, a poor fishing village on the Southern coastal belt.

The late 1960s with the emergence of an underground party, led by Rohana Wijeweera suggested that the socialist dream was going to be a reality. His underground movement had made deep inroads into the university student movement. They were also becoming pro-Sinhalese and non-inclusive of ethnic minorities. This demonstrated that the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) would not address the historical grievances of the Tamils. Some of us worked in the progressive student movement at the time had decided not to join the JVP due to their failure to address the issues faced by the Tamil community. Our ideological and political disagreements with one of their political classes titled ‘Indian Expansionism" which threatened the very existence of the Up Country Tamil community were also equally acute. The JVP introduced an underground political culture by creating secret underground political cells. In these underground structures the membership was a very closely guarded secret and at the time it looked as if Wijeweera had cracked the code of the armed revolution and that the Sri Lankan proletariat was at the door of capturing the state power. Then the disaster struck the JVP’s undertakings. Wijeweera, the proponent of armed revolution as well as arguably one of the most effective political motivators of our generation of youths so far was assassinated by the security forces near the Kanatta Cemetery in Colombo on the night of 13 November 1989 ending the second JVP rebellion (1987-89) he had led. The downfall of the JVP also marked the ascendancy of the LTTE in the north, a rise that ended when its leader Prabaharan, the most effective military organizer in the Tamil militancy, was killed by security forces on the Nanthikkadal Lagoon in Mulaitivu on 17 May, 2009. From the Kanatta cemetery to the Nanthikkdal Lagoon for a period of two decades the armed struggle started by the JVP appeared to have been perfected by the LTTE in their attempt to capture state power and carve out Tamil Eelam.The JVP insurrections could not go beyond the confines of the Sinhalese community as ideologically, politically and organizationally they had limited themselves to the Sinhalese youths. The LTTE had based their armed struggle on the narrow Tamil nationalism but extended the theatre of war into the Sinhalese areas. Understandably, the military projects of the JVP and the LTTE never had any collaboration. This gave a huge military advantage to the Sri Lankan state in crushing them.

This article attempts to examine the essential lessons to be drawn by their failures and the validity of the armed struggle itself in trying to achieve political change, democratic rights and social justice.

The main Sri Lanka left parties, the Lanka Samasamaja Party and the Communist Party at the beginning of the 1960s firmly adhered to the parliamentary path to socialism. However, from 1962 onwards the changes that happened in the world communist movement made irreversible changes in Sri Lankan politics. The great debate between China and then the Soviet Union with China supporting the armed overthrow of the capitalist state and the Soviet Union supporting ‘the revisionist policy of the parliamentary path’ as China put it created divisions around the world. The Sri Lankan Communist Party was not immune. The rebels (Peking wing) were led by N Shanmugadasan and the Communist Party (Moscow) wing was headed by Peter Keuneman. The majority of the radical youths openly embraced the Peking wing and Wijeweera organized his secret cells within the party and later he formed his own underground movement by the end of the 1960 which became the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) before the armed insurrection in 1971.

By the mid 1970’s a radical student organization called the ‘Tamil Student Movement’ had emerged which in turn gave rise to the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) and Tamil Liberation Organization (TELO) in 1972.The LTTE was formed on 5 May 1976 under the leadership of Prabaharan. In 1981 there was split and Umamaheswaran formed the Peoples Liberation Organization of the Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). It was reported that there were about three dozens similar smaller groups in the Tamil community during this period but there were not more than five groups that came to full prominence in their political activism. The EPRLF and the EROS which was part of the original Tamil Student Movement also made their presence felt in the Tamil politics. All these militant organizations had declared their ideological and political allegiance to Marxism-Leninism and were committed to the armed struggle to achieve a separate Tamil state for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. At the time in 1983 the LTTE presented itself as a Marxist oriented organization with a programme drawn up by Anton Balasingam, its ideologist, for a "Socialist Tamil Eelam".With the JVP adopting an armed revolutionary line it had made a historic departure from the existing Sri Lankan political culture and in turn it made a huge challenge to the Sri Lankan old Left parties from which they never recovered. One would argue that the JVP’s armed rebellion in 1971 made an impact on the Tamil politics as they demonstrated the possibility of employing organized armed political violence, even though they were decimated by the security forces in the 1970 and 1980’s.

The LTTE and the other armed groups’ adoption of violence had a devastating effect on Tamil society. The use of armed political violence has brought critical social and political changes into both Tamil and Sinhalese communities since the beginning of the 1970’s but these changes have not produced positive results in expanding political and democratic spaces in the country. The JVP’s re-emergence as well as its continuation of the ethnocentric political line in Sri Lankan politics is marked with the strengthening of pro Sinhala sentiments making it harder in expanding the democratic political space within the Tamil community. In fact they have been arguing for contracting the Tamil democratic political space and opposing any devolution of power to the Tamils.

For any armed political line to achieve political legitimacy and create decisive socio-economic and political change, strong mass based political structures, organized and developed in resolving their political grievances are necessary. There should be a revolutionary vanguard political party to lead the masses. The exceptions to this were the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the overthrow of Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979 by the Sandinista Army. It is also essential to demonstrate and to convince the people that the ruling classes are unable to respond to the demands made and the democratic political space is closed. When the JVP launched the 1971 insurrection there was no legitimacy for an armed uprising and the democratic political space was widely open. There was a Left wing popular government in power elected in the previous year. In their second uprising between 1987-89 the JVP was still in the underground but there was no justification for an armed uprising as the government in power was making demands for the IPKF to withdraw from Sri Lanka.What was clear in the JVPs demand was a desire to stop devolution of power to the Tamils, and their armed violence was directed against expanding democracy and political rights under the 13th amendment to the Tamils in the North and East. They hounded and gruesomely murdered the left political and trade union activists, civil society and political leaders in the South who supported the 13th amendment to the Constitution. These displays of brutal violence were designed as warnings in themselves, a tactic also adopted by the LTTE.

The Tamil Tigers drew their legitimacy from the historical grievances the Tamils had suffered under the successive governments and the inability for the Tamil people to meet their legitimate aspirations within a united Sri Lanka. In the general election of 1977 the TULF won the elections on separatist demands and the Tamil Tigers have often reminded us that they had mass support for their military project in pursing Tamil Eelam. But their demands could have been met and the historical grievances could have been resolved by reconstituting the Sri Lankan state within a united Sri Lanka if they still pursued the democratic struggle. The Tamil Tiger’s military project had not incorporated mass political structures. They annihilated other militant groups and the TULF leadership and emerged supreme. They also assassinated other political activist who did not wish follow their political line. They destroyed civil and political leaders as well as activists who could be in the forefront in achieving the Tamil democratic rights. They forcibly evicted the Muslims from Jaffna and attacked innocent Sinhalese in boarder villages, thus completing their journey to becoming a neo-fascist outfit. The use of division and suppression of democratic voices even within the Tamil community meant that the LTTE could never command broad democratic support. Both the JVP and the LTTE in their lack of mass base and support of the broad masses of the people had to resort to violence, propaganda and manipulation to get support, leading to the creation of an oppressive and anti-democratic political culture that could never allow any alternatives.

During 1987-89 the JVP forced people to join the processions in villages and cities and those who were disobeyed their diktat were severely punished. Similarly the LTTE during the Eelam wars forced innocent civilians to withdraw with them and finally used them as human shields. These demonstrate how easily the armed political movements could take away the rights of the masses for whom they professed to fighting for. This also shows how they would treat people once they achieve their power. Both organizations started off as left wing militant organizations. The JVP particularly drew their inspiration from the Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara but they failed to observe Che’s fundamental advice. Che in his famous Guerrilla Warfare wrote that "where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintain at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted" (P.8).When the JVP launched their insurrection in 1971 and their second insurrection from 1987 to 89 the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not been exhausted. Similar conditions could be seen in relation to the Tamil armed project launched by the Tamil Tigers in the early 1980s.

After two major military debacles the JVP is today following the parliamentary path and this has to be welcomed. However, it has been very silent about its violent history. However, it has been very silent about its violent history due to two reasons. Firstly they mercilessly killed their political opponents. Secondly, because of its erroneous politico-military line thousands and thousands of young people were butchered by the security forces. The JVP manipulated the politically and militarily ill-equipped youths to make a frontal attack on the capitalist system and its armed forces at a politically non-opportune moment. It is essential that they tell the people of Sri Lanka what they have learned from these tragedies and how they will avoid similar tragedies happening in the future. Are they really sorry about the murders they committed in the name of the revolution? It appears that they have neither political will nor courage to review their past mistakes The LTTE is also should apologize to people for the senseless murders they committed in the name of liberation.

Both parties would have established a one party state if they had won, states where people’s freedom would have been severely curtailed. They would have abolished civil society and this was demonstrated clearly when the Tamil Tigers established their de-facto state in the Tamil areas. Within a one party state there is no room for dissent. What we need is not a one party dictatorship but a multi- party democratic state with the guarantee of basic freedoms and a programme for social justice. We need political leaders who are trained in the democratic struggle and not those who were organizing and leading armed struggle against the state in the jungles. Such leaders would hardly understand that the needs of our people. Their ability and understanding of basic freedoms fundamental to healthy a democratic culture is non-existent. The manner in which Prabaharan assassinated his political adversaries and the JVP’s death sentences against those who did not subscribe to their ideology demonstrate this. In killing their political adversaries both the JVP and the LTTE did not show any difference or any mercy. It is encouraging that today the JVP MPs talk about democracy and people’s freedom to have different political opinions but they must tell us why they assassinated so many activists during 1987-89 and what they will do in the future in similar situations. This will be inconvenient for the JVP but they need to have answers for these issues if they want to be a responsible political party to lead the people of Sri Lanka.

It was also noticeable that in both communities when the armed struggle was ongoing the very destructive and inhuman side of armed combatants was brought to the fore as never before in Sri Lankan politics .It was also apparent that the militant leaderships had no control over those or were in agreement with such a violent and gruesome political culture. They have demonstrated a prelude to a totalitarian dictatorship in their pathway to state power. Both the JVP and the LTTE started destroying the social fabric in the cities and the countryside when they eliminated their political adversaries.

In Sri Lanka at present there is a great need to build a well functioning civil society in both Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Without a well functioning civil society it would be difficult to fight the authoritarian tendencies of the state and ensure that people are able to enjoy their freedom. It is hoped that the Sri Lankan ruling class would endeavour to meet the democratic aspirations of its people by expanding the political space and ensuring that its citizen would be able to enjoy social justice by overcoming the acute social and economic inequalities that exist in our country. The ruling class should be politically farsighted enough to restructure the post colonial state to fulfil the aspirations of its minorities, particularly the Tamils. This is the challenge that we all face in resolving Sri Lanka’s violent history and building the foundations for a more inclusive and equal society.

The political parties or armed organizations that would follow the armed path to the state power from the very inception restrict the basic democratic rights. When a capitalist democratic states starts becomes an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian the response from revolutionary parties appears to be a totalitarian repressive state which would close the remainder of the capitalist democratic space abolishing the civil society altogether once they come to power. The irony is that armed insurgents are fighting against an authoritarian system but their victory would be the abolition of their own freedom. At times this would be worse than the freedom enjoyed under the capitalist democracy. If a way forward is not developed to preserve the most fundamental democratic freedom people were able to enjoy under capitalist democracy, it would be criminal to the change the system. No dictatorship is acceptable in any form to govern the masses of people. If there is no creativity in convincing people that they will enjoy more than what they were able to enjoy under the capitalism, it would be hard for socialists to obtain the mass support. The most disturbing political issue living under the one party system would be the lack of basic democratic rights for its citizens. If one would not hesitate to envisage what would be the life like under such a system one has to find out the life under the Tiger totalitarianism or how the JVP was trying to manipulate people in order for them to capture power. This demonstrates that the armed combatants’ arrogant behaviours further erode people’s ability to enjoy their democratic freedoms.

When militant organizations acquire arms to effect political change, having access to arms itself creates dynamism of it own and their hesitance to use them against their own people wears thin when they want to impose their will on masses. Both the JVP and the LTTE made catastrophic political and military judgments and miscalculations sending thousands and thousand youth to death and destruction. These issues should be widely debated and provide opportunity for the people to express their views if the basic democratic rights of the people are taken seriously by the militant groups. Do we want them to create a state apparatus where dissenters are taken away after a knock on their door at midnight, never to be seen again, simply due to the possession of different political views from the ruling classes? Such regimes create legitimacy for such actions by branding their political adversaries as traitors of the authoritarian state should be toppled because they do not respect peoples’ right to dissent and life and enjoy democratic freedoms how can we tolerate such repressive measures against the people from a so called ‘socialist’ state? Under such states even the minimum democratic safeguards that capitalist democracy offers would not exist.

The failed armed insurrections of the JVP and the LTTE and the tragic evidence of their abuse of the people through their activities present a critical opportunity to discuss these issues. These debates should open up new vistas in relation to the basic democratic rights of the people and the future of Sri Lanka.
-Sri Lanka Guardian