The JVP from insurrection to democracy | Daily News

The JVP from insurrection to democracy

Former President J. R. Jayewardene-Former Prime Minister  Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Former President J. R. Jayewardene-Former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike

The 50th anniversary of the failed first insurrection staged by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) passed almost unannounced this week but provides an opportune moment for reflection on the role of the party in Sri Lanka’s political landscape, its past attempts at gaining power and its future prospects.

The JVP was founded by its first leader and ideologue, Rohana Wijeweera in 1965. Its objective was to stage a socialist revolution in Sri Lanka. Wijeweera had returned to Sri Lanka from Russia, where he was a medical undergraduate at the Lumumba University in Moscow.

Wijeweera began his political life affiliated to the Communist Party (CP) which, along with the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP), constituted the major leftist parties in Sri Lanka at the time. The LSSP and the CP joined forces with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to form the United Front (UF) in 1970.

In the lead up to the 1970 general election, Wijeweera supported the UF but on the condition that Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike should address the issues raised by them. As a result of this, the United National Party (UNP) government had Wijeweera arrested prior to the poll which was held in May that year.

The UF was returned to power with a resounding majority at the general election in 1970 with Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister. Magnanimous in victory, Bandaranaike facilitated Wijeweera’s release from custody. It was then that the JVP leader began preparations for the ‘revolution’.

Socio-political issues

Wijeweera began by recruiting youth. This he did through a series of lectures which he conducted which became known as the ‘five classes’. It comprised of a succinct analysis of the socio-political issues at the time, explaining why the ‘Old Left’ had failed and arguing the need for a ‘revolution’.

The classes were conducted clandestinely and Wijeweera succeeded in convincing significant numbers of youth to join the JVP. By 1971, Wijeweera believed he had sufficient cadres after about an estimated 10,000 youth were recruited. Several bank robberies reportedly funded these operations.

The attack on the Wellawaya Police station on the morning of April 5, 1971 heralded the launch of the insurrection. Later that day, dozens of other Police stations throughout the country were attacked. The worst affected were the Southern districts of the country, where the JVP had its strongest presence.

The Government called in the armed forces to regain control of the Police stations but it took about three weeks to restore law and order. Casualty figures vary and range from about 1,200 to about 5,000 JVP cadres having lost their lives. Most JVP leaders, including Wijeweera were captured.

The Government, on the recommendation of Justice Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike appointed a Criminal Justice Commission to try JVP leaders for their abortive bid to seize power. Following a trial, Wijeweera was sentenced to life imprisonment, later reduced to twenty years on appeal.

Wijeweera was not imprisoned for that long, however. The United National Party (UNP) led by J.R. Jayewardene recorded a landslide victory at the 1977 General Election and Jayewardene ordered Wijeweera’s release. There was then a brief period when the JVP entered the democratic mainstream.

The JVP contested the District Development Council (DDC) held in 1982 when the SLFP and other major parties boycotted those polls. In the same year, when Jayewardene was contesting the country’s first Presidential Election in a bid to win a second term of office, Wijeweera too entered the fray.

Wijeweera came in at a decent third at the election which Jayewardene won, polling 275,000 votes or four per cent of the vote and ahead of established veteran politician Colvin R. De Silva, contesting from the LSSP. However, this dalliance with democratic politics was short lived for the JVP.

A year later, following the Black July ethnic riots of 1983, Jayewardene proscribed the JVP along with several other parties which were accused of conspiring against the government. Following the proscription, the JVP and its leaders went underground, surfacing years later in a brutal insurrection.

Second insurrection

This second insurrection began towards the end of Jayewardene’s second term. The main impetus came after Jayewardene signed the Indo-Lanka Accord creating Provincial Councils to devolve powers to minority communities. The Accord, unpopular with the public, became a rallying cry for the JVP.

The JVP staged an attack on the UNP Parliamentary Group when it first met in August 1987 following the signing of the Accord. The Minister of National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was severely wounded in this attack in which Parliamentarian Keerthi Abeywickrema died.

By this time, the JVP had reinvented itself as the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV) which was effectively the military wing of the party. It staged a series of attacks on military camps aimed at seizing weapons. This time around, its campaign for the ‘revolution’ was decidedly more brutal.

The JVP targeted those connected to the then ruling UNP. Among those assassinated were Minister Lionel Jayatilleke and Secretaries General of the UNP Harsha Abeywardena and Nandalal Fernando. Actor politician Vijaya Kumaratunga and artiste Premakeerthi de Alwis were also killed by the JVP.

The party also launched a series of strikes and ‘curfews’ throughout the country and began killing members of the Armed Forces. It is believed that the latter strategy alienated the party from the people even though the UNP Government had been in power for over a decade and was not very popular.

The JVP actively sabotaged the 1988 Presidential Election but the UNP candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa emerged victorious. Following his victory, Premadasa ordered a ruthless crackdown on JVP activities. Spearheading this was the then State Minister of Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne.

The insurrection effectively ended with the capture of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera. He was arrested at an estate in Ulapane where he was masquerading as ‘Attanayake’, a planter. Wijeweera was brought to Colombo and made a speech on television before the Government announced his death.

Wijeweera’s death

The exact circumstances regarding Wijeweera’s death remain controversial to this day. Minister Wijeratne announced at a media briefing that Wijeweera was taken to a JVP hideout and was shot dead by a colleague. However, many other theories about his death have circulated in the media.

There was a lull in JVP activity thereafter until the advent of Chandrika Kumaratunga as President in 1994. The person responsible for resurrecting the JVP was Somawansa Amarasinghe, the only member of the JVP’s Politburo to survive the events of 1989. He then assumed leadership of the JVP.

Under Amarasinghe, the JVP re-entered the democratic mainstream and eschewed violence. The JVP’s candidate at the 1994 presidential election, Nihal Galappaththi withdrew his candidature from the poll after extracting a promise from Kumaratunga that she would abolish the Executive Presidency, though this turned out to be a broken promise.

Since then, the JVP has contested Presidential and General Elections and has had mixed results. While it has been able to maintain its status as the third largest political party in the country after the then major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, it has never had a real prospect of forming its own Government.

In late 2001, faced with a Vote of No Confidence, Kumaratunga formed a ‘Probationary’ Government, offering the JVP four portfolios. Kumaratunga famously said that she would do a ‘deal with the devil’ to ensure that her Government remained in power. This arrangement was however very short-lived.

The JVP’s best performance in terms of Parliamentary representation was in 2004, when it contested in coalition with the SLFP-led alliance. Using the tactic of nominating only a few candidates in each electoral list, it secured 39 Seats in Parliament and became a crucial partner in the government.

Since then, however, the JVP has shown promise of becoming the ‘third force’ in Sri Lankan politics from time to time but has not lived up to that promise. This is despite its members subscribing to the principles of being free of allegations of corruption or involvement in other scandals.

Somawansa Amarasinghe retired as JVP leader in 2014, following a series of internal disputes in the party and Anura Kumara Dissanayake has since led the party. A forceful orator with a reputation as an honest and hardworking politician, Dissanayake has however failed to elevate the JVP’s standing.

After not offering a candidate at the 2015 presidential election in a strategic move that enabled Maithripala Sirisena to win the poll, Dissanayake contested the 2019 election. He polled over 400,000 votes or over 3 per cent of the vote, a percentage that was less than what Wijeweera polled in 1982.

In analysing the JVP’s role in Sri Lankan democratic politics after two failed attempts at gaining power through armed struggles, it is noted that the JVP has not realised its potential as a third party despite disaffection with the major political parties - and is unlikely to do so in the near future as well.

This is because the party has stuck to its leftist ideologies at a time when the world is moving away from them. It may also be because the JVP has never really acknowledged that its actions in 1971 and 1989 were flawed and apologised to the nation. It would do well to reflect on these issues, even now.