The drafting of the new constitution to replace the 1978 constitution has begun even before the 20th Amendment has been through the committee stage in Parliament. The Special Experts Committee to Draft a New Constitution headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva has been allocated offices in the BMICH, and three senior officers of the Ministry of Justice have been appointed to the Secretariat of the Committee. Sittings of the committee have already commenced with meetings being held every Friday. Two formal weekly meetings have already been held.
The other members of the committee are President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, President’s Counsel Sanjeewa Jayawardena, President’s Counsel Naveen Marapana, Prof. Nazeema Kamardeen, Dr. A. Sarveswaran, President’s Counsel Samantha Ratwatte, Prof.Wasantha Senevirathne and Prof.G.H.Peiris. The fact that this Committee has commenced work would have been headline news in normal circumstances but it has been completely overshadowed by the latest Covid-19 outbreak.
For that matter, Covid-19 has drowned out the noise generated over the 20th Amendment as well. The government can be seen to be taking a very cautious approach to this Covid-19 cluster with whole villages and individual establishments being shut down at the slightest suspicion that an infected person may have visited the place concerned. Quite a number of false alarms have been reported but the government is proceeding on the basis that it’s better to be safe than sorry. There seems to be little doubt that the government agencies concerned will be able to get over this latest Covid crisis as well.
Even though yahapalana theorists have raised a mighty caterwaul of protest claiming that the 20th Amendment will give rise to authoritarian rule, the 20A only restores the constitutional provisions that existed before the 19th Amendment, which essentially means that after the 20th Amendment, the President will have the approximately the same power that past Presidents J.R.Jayewardene, R.Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and even Maithripala Sirisena had. Even though the 19th Amendment removed some of the powers of the President, the yahapalana President Sirisena continued to enjoy those powers through other means and it’s only the incumbent President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who has had to bear the full brunt of the 19th Amendment.
Yahapalana sleight of hand
One significant way in which the 19th Amendment sought to truncate the President’s powers was by establishing the Constitutional Council which would have the final say in making appointments to important state positions. After the establishment of the Constitutional Council, the President cannot appoint members and Chairmen of Commissions set up by the 19th Amendment such as the Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, the Election Commission, and several other such commissions without the individuals to be appointed being recommended by the Constitutional Council. Likewise when it came to the appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General and Inspector-General of Police and other such high state positions, any person appointed by the President to such positions had to be approved by the Constitutional Council. Thus either way, it’s the Constitutional Council that has the final say in making such appointments and not the President.
Even though these provisions in the 19th Amendment were supposed to limit the powers of the President, they did not limit President Sirisena’s or the yahapalana government’s powers because the yahapalana political parties working in concert divided up the parliamentary government and the parliamentary opposition among themselves and established a complete hegemony over the Constitutional Council. It goes without saying that if the political backers and promoters of the President have complete and total control over the Constitutional Council, it’s the same as the President exercising those powers and that was the situation during the Sirisena Presidency. President Sirisena’s political setup enjoyed the same powers over high appointments that the political setups of his predecessors did.
Another way in which the 19th Amendment sought to limit the powers of the President was by not allowing the President to hold any ministerial portfolios. Hence the pre-19th Amendment Article 44(2) of the Constitution which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister was repealed. Even though the 19th Amendment never expressly said that the President could not hold a portfolio, the repeal of Article 44(2) was supposed to mean that despite the fact that even under the 19th Amendment, the President continued to be the Head of the Government and the Head of the Cabinet he could not hold a ministerial portfolio. President Sirisena was not affected by this limitation because a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment allowed him not only to assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment so long as he holds the Office of President but also to determine the Ministries to be in his charge for that purpose. So all that President Sirisena had to do was to decide upfront which ministries he wanted. All Presidents do in fact decide upfront which ministries he would hold, so President Sirisena despite the 19th Amendment was able to do what all his predecessors did in this regard.
The genuine changes
To be fair, there were in fact a few genuine ways in which President Sirisena’s powers differed from those of his predecessors. The first and foremost of these was that the tenure of the presidency was shortened from six years to five years by changes made to Article 30(2). This was a genuine change and the 20th Amendment seeks to retain this without alteration. Another genuine change was the effective removal of presidential immunity by the 19th Amendment by means of changes made to Article 35(1) of the Constitution. Article 35(1) as amended by the 19th Amendment states that no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the President in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, either in his official or private capacity, provided that this shall not be construed as restricting the right of any person to make a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court under Article 126 against the Attorney-General, in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, in his official capacity.
Making the President subject to fundamental rights litigation basically makes it possible to challenge any action that the President takes. In fact the 19th Amendment specifically stated that the Supreme Court shall have no jurisdiction to pronounce upon the exercise of the powers of the President only when it comes to declaring war and peace – which establishes that the Supreme Court can pronounce judgments on virtually everything else other than that one exception. President Sirisena was subject to this provision during his tenure and this was a genuine change made by the 19th Amendment. But it’s an unusual, and arguably counter-productive change. Even under the 1972 Constitution, the ceremonial President was designated the head of the Executive who was required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 23 of the 1972 Constitution stated that while any person holds office as president, no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him in his official or private capacity.
If one takes the Ceylon Constitution Order in Council of 1946, the Executive power was exercised on behalf of the British crown by the Governor-General who was required by convention as mentioned in Article 4(2) of that Constitution to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Even though the Governor General was the representative of a titular head of state, even he was protected from litigation with the proviso that no act or omission on the part of the Governor-General shall be called in question in any court of law. We see the same protection accorded to the President of India. Article
53(1) of the Indian constitution says that the executive power of the Indian Union shall be vested in the President. Article 77(1) states that all executive action of the Government of India shall be expressed to be taken in the name of the President. Article 74(1) requires the Indian President to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers and the question whether any, and if so what, advice was tendered by Ministers to the President cannot be inquired into in any court. Under Article 77(2) of the Indian constitution, orders and other instruments made and executed in the name of the President shall not be called in question on the ground that it is not an order or instrument made or executed by the President.
Thus we see that in the 1946 Ceylon Constitution Order in Council, the first Republican Constitution of 1972 and the second Republican Constitution of 1978, and even in the Indian Constitution, the actions of the head of the executive had always been given immunity from litigation. If the actions of the executive can be subject to litigation, then it can be argued that the final arbiter if not the wielder of executive power will be the judiciary and not the executive. The immunity of the President from suit was removed on the argument of limiting the President’s executive power. That gives the impression that before the 19th Amendment was passed there were no limits on the President’s executive power.
President never had unlimited power
Two Supreme Court cases presided over by former Chief Justice Sarath N.Silva indicate otherwise. The 2006 landmark judgment in Nallaratnam Singarasa vs the Attorney General stated as follows:
“The President exercises the executive power of the People and is empowered to act for the Republic under Customary International Law and enter into treaties and accede to international covenants However,… such acts cannot be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law. This limitation is imposed since the President is not the repository of the legislative power of the People…. such a treaty or a covenant has to be implemented by the exercise of legislative power by Parliament and where found to be necessary by the People at a Referendum to have internal effect…where the President enters into a treaty or accedes to a Covenant which is “inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law”… such act of the President would not bind the Republic qua state….”
Then there was the famous Waters Edge judgment of 2008 (Sugathapala Mendis and Another vs Chandrika Kumaratunga and Others) where it was stated as follows:
“The principle that those charged with upholding the Constitution – be it a police officer of the lowest rank or the President – are to do so in a way that does not “violate the Doctrine of Public Trust” by state action/inaction is a basic tenet of the Constitution which upholds the legitimacy of Government and the Sovereignty of the People. The “Public Trust Doctrine” is based on the concept that the powers held by organs of government are, in fact, powers that originate with the People, and are entrusted to the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary only as a means of exercising governance and with the sole objective that such powers will be exercised in good faith for the benefit of the People of Sri Lanka. Public power is not for personal gain or favour, but always to be used to optimize the benefit of the People. To do otherwise would be to betray the trust reposed by the People within whom, in terms of the Constitution, the Sovereignty reposes. Power exercised contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine would be an abuse of such power and in contravention of the Rule of Law.”
The Water’s Edge judgment also quoted a previous 1998 judgment by Justice Mark Fernando, Karunathilaka v Dissanayake which stated as follows: “The immunity conferred by Article 35 is neither absolute not perpetual….Article 35 only prohibits the institution (or continuation) of legal proceedings against the President while in office; it imposes no bar whatsoever on proceedings against him when he is no longer in office…To hold otherwise would suggest that the President is, in essence, above the law and beyond the reach of its restrictions. Such a monarchical/dictatorial position is at variance with (1) the Democratic Socialist Republic that the preamble of the Constitution defines Sri Lanka to be, and (ii) the spirit implicit in the Constitution that sovereignty reposes in the People and not in any single person.”
Keeping yahapalana overkill in check
All these cases were heard long before the 19th Amendment. Thus the proviso to article 35(1) introduced by the 19th amendment enabling fundamental rights cases to be filed against the AG over actions taken by the President was clearly a case of yahapalana overkill. The removal of this proviso and the restoration of the pre-19th Amendment Article 35 does not turn the President into an autocrat. It just provides the executive branch of the government the leeway to exercise the powers vested in the executive. While it’s true that former presidents in Sri Lanka have been accused of being authoritarian, the same accusation has been levelled at former Prime Ministers like Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. Much the same thing was said about Mrs. Indira Gandhi as well.
The person holding the title and functions of head of the government can be as authoritarian or as liberal as he or she is inclined to be. In fact it may be argued by some that Prime Ministers have even greater potential and incentive to be authoritarian because no Prime Minister in the world seems to have term limits whereas almost all presidential systems do have term limits. Even the 20th Amendment will retain the two term limit for the President. Lee Kuan Yew was a Prime Minister but he too was accused of being authoritarian. It just so happens that Presidents tend to attract more charges of authoritarianism than Prime Ministers even though everyone knows at the back of their minds that Prime Ministers who are heads of government can be as every bit as authoritarian as any President holding the position of head of government.
It’s interesting to speculate on why this is so. Is it because the President sits and does his work in grand isolation whereas the Prime Minister sits in Parliament with everyone else and is available to be heckled and booed at? Is it because the President once elected, is very difficult to remove whereas the Prime Minister (at least theoretically) can be thrown out at any moment through a Parliamentary revolt? It has to be noted that under the presidential system introduced by the 1978 Constitution, the President cannot rule without the support of Parliament. In 2001, at a time when President Chandrika Kumaratunga possessed all the powers of J.R. Jayewardene’s presidency, her party lost a parliamentary election and lost her majority in Parliament. She gave all powers to the newly elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasnghe and took a back seat for a while. Despite all the hype about authoritarian Presidents, the fact is that both Presidential heads of government and Prime Ministerial heads of government that this country has had in the past, have been completely dependent on Parliamentary majorities to govern. No President can override Parliament even under the pre-19th Amendment 1978 Constitution.
The British will not learn English, let’s not kid ourselves
The UK and others hell-bent on censuring Sri Lanka for imagined war crimes frequently refer to documents that are based on a report issued by a ‘panel of experts’ appointed by Ban Ki-moon. The Darusman Report is what it is called. There are lots of claims in that document but no one can claim that any of it was ‘independently confirmed.’ The sources will remain a mystery for years to come. In the United Kingdom, they’ve not heard of the word ‘contradiction’ it seems. Certain things that are partisan and come unconfirmed are permissible whereas other stuff that’s independent (unless the UK actually sided with the Sri Lankan security forces in the last days of the war on terrorism) are out of order.
by Malinda Seneviratne
The United Kingdom, it is reported, has rejected Sri Lanka’s request for the disclosure of wartime dispatches from its High Commission in Colombo. Sri Lanka had made the request during the 46th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva a few weeks ago.
The dispatches from the then British Defence Advisor, Lt Col Anthony Gash were never referred to in any of the many ‘studies’ on Sri Lanka’s bloody struggle against terrorism. Indeed no one would have known of them or what they contained if not for Lord Naseby invoking the UK’s right to information laws to obtain them.
Gash’s dispatches clearly prove that there were no war crimes committed by Sri Lankan security forces, certainly not the kind that the terrorist lobby (strangely or perhaps not so strangely bed-fellowing with rogue states such as the UK and USA) and indeed these bed-fellows claim have been perpetrated.
British authorities pretended for years that there was no such information available. Now they can’t deny these dispatches exist. And therefore they’ve come up with an interesting disclaimer. The UK now faults Gash for not obtaining independent confirmation of reports he had sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Key word: ‘now.’ This was NOT the position originally taken by the FCO.
Alright, let’s take the CURRENT position at face value. Couldn’t the UK table the dispatches in all relevant forums with such caveats/disclaimers? That’s just one issue. There’s another. Yes, the business of ‘independent confirmation.’ What’s independent and what’s confirmation?
The UK and others hell-bent on censuring Sri Lanka for imagined war crimes frequently refer to documents that are based on a report issued by a ‘panel of experts’ appointed by Ban Ki-moon. The Darusman Report is what it is called. There are lots of claims in that document but no one can claim that any of it was ‘independently confirmed.’ The sources will remain a mystery for years to come.
In the United Kingdom, they’ve not heard of the word ‘contradiction’ it seems. Certain things that are partisan and come unconfirmed are permissible whereas other stuff that’s independent (unless the UK actually sided with the Sri Lankan security forces in the last days of the war on terrorism) are out of order.
It seems to me that the authorities in the UK don’t know whether they are coming or going. Well, maybe they do know that they are severely challenged in logic, in intellect, in moral standing etc., but believe that the world someone does not notice. A third possibility: they just don’t care.
The United Kingdom, with respect to the UNHRC resolution and all matters relevant to it, then, hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory, but what of that considering that shamelessness is the blood-stained batch on its coat of arms, so to speak?
Let’s humor them, though. There’s a lady called Sarah Hulton. Let’s assume she knows English. Let’s assume she has some skills in language comprehension. Let’s not assume she values truth, justice and being honorable for we shouldn’t kid ourselves too much. Nevertheless, we can ask some questions.What’s the value of hearsay? Do we discard ‘word’ and if so which words? If we pick some words and junk others, what criteria should we employ? The Darusman Report, for example, is ALL ABOUT HEARSAY. We have to assume that until we know who said what, for only then can we talk of reliability of source.
We have reports that toss out random numbers without a shred of substantiation. Is that OK, Ms Hulton? If Gash is unreliable, how can any report based on some other report that is based on hearsay be okay?
Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not about truth and reconciliation. The United Kingdom values lie over truth, injustice over justice, violation of all basic tenets of humanity over their protection, theft over property rights, plunder over protection. The British are yet to reconcile themselves regarding the many crimes against humanity they have perpetrated or, at least, benefited from. Seeking justice and truth from such people is silly. Seeking honor from the dishonorable is silly.
And yet, in Geneva and in other places where bucks and bombs count more than truth and justice, countries like the United Kingdom will prevail. For now. For now, we must add, for we know that nothing is permanent. For now, the reports of idiots and/or the politically compromised will be valued over those of impartial, dispassionate individuals such as Gash.
Let’s get this right. The British are not just bullies. They are cowards. Intellect is not their strong point or even if they are sophomoric at best, they are bullish enough to push aside the truth. It’s about ‘by any means necessary’ but obviously not in an emancipatory sense of that phrase, as used by Malcolm X. So when they talk of truth and justice, reconciliation and peace and other such lovely things, let’s keep in mind that it’s all balderdash. When they talk of ‘victims’ it is nonsense because without ‘wrongdoing’ that’s established, there can be no ‘victims’. Mr Hulton is not sleeping ladies and gentlemen. The United Kingdom is not sleeping. The Foreign and Commenwealth Office in that country is not sleeping. They are pretend-sleepers. They cannot be woken up.
One is reminded of a song from ‘My fair lady,’ the musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’. Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? That’s the title of the song. When the English learn English — now that would be the day! Right now they speak some garbled language devoid of any logic or reason. It works for them.
Colonial-speak is a possible name for that language. It is an excellent communications device in all things antithetical to the high ideals, the furtherance of which was the reason for the establishment of the UNHRC. Indeed that has become the lingua franca of Geneva. The British know this French, pardon the irony! Ms Hulton knows it, as do her bosses in London as did their ancestors whose crimes against humanity are left out from the history books.
We are not talking of the past though. It’s the present. It’s ugly. As ugly as the past, only it’s come wearing other clothes. Nice ones. Not everyone is fooled though.
[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]
Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew at Anuradhapura
One day President JRJ telephoned me from Nuwara Eliya. He was wont to occasionally telephone me direct in the past. He informed me that PM Lee Kuan Yew would be arriving in Anuradhapura two days later, with Minister Gamini Dissanayake in attendance. I was to give the PM of Singapore the ancient city treatment for 40 minutes, and to remember to show him where Fa Hien the Chinese pilgrim cried, during his sojourn at the Abhayagiri monastery.
So I arrived at the appointed meeting place, the Tissawewa rest house where the Singapore PM and his party were having refreshments. I saw Murthy of the Overseas Service, who told me that I was expected, and that both the Singaporean PM and his wife were “top lawyers” who were educated at Cambridge. I was to expect searching questions.
I went upstairs to see a long table replete with refreshments, Lee Kuan Yew seated at the centre and Gamini D. standing by. I addressed him in Sinhalese, identified myself as Raja de Silva and said that I had come to guide the visitors around Auradhapura. At this point the following conversation took place:
Minister Gamini to Lee Kuan Yew: This is Raja de Silva of the Archaeological Department who will be acting as our guide.
LKY to RHdeS:
Are you in charge of this station?
It comes under my archaeological control, Sir.
Are you in charge of this district?
The district comes under my archaeological control, Sir.
Are you in charge of this Province?
This Province and the whole country comes under my archaeological control, Sir.
LKY (looking satisfied):
Where did you learn your stuff?
In an old university in England.
Where was that?
In Oxford, Sir.
Whatever reason did you go there for?
Sir, for the same reason you went to Cambridge.
LKY (all smiles, turning to his wife):
Did you hear that? He has gone to Oxford.
From then on the PM of Singapore spent much time at certain spots and my 40 minute time limit was ignored. At one point in the Abhayagiri area, at the splendid remains of an image house, the following dialogue took place.
It was here that Fa Hien, the Chinese pilgrim, saw a donatory. Chinese silk flag and his eyes were brimful of tears.
Your President told me about that.
It was altogether an enjoyable outing.
Raja de Silva
Retired Commissioner of Archaeology
The New Old Left turns 50
by Malinda Seneviratne
Revolutionaries, self-styled or otherwise, are hard to imagine as old people, the exception of course being Fidel Castro. Castro grew old with a Cuban Revolution that has demonstrated surprising resilience. Che Guevara was effectively stilled, literally and metaphorically when he was just 39, ensuring iconic longevity — and the wild haired image with a star pinned on a beret is a symbol of resistance and, as is often the case, used to endorse and inspire things and processes that would have horrified the man.
Daniel Ortega at 75 was a revolutionary leader who reinvented himself a few decades after the Sandinistas’ exit was effectively orchestrated by the USA in April 1990. He’s changed and so has the Sandinistas. Revolutionary is not an appropriate descriptive for either.
Rohana Wijeweera is seen as a rebel by some, naturally those who are associated with the party he led for 25 years, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), widely referred to by its Sinhala acronym, JVP. He led two insurrections and was incarcerated alive on November 13, 1989 in the Borella Cemetery during the UNP regime that held stewardship during the bloodiest period in post-Independence Sri Lanka.
If he was alive today, he would be almost 78-years old. Imagination following the ‘ifs’ probably will not inspire comparison with Castro or Che. Not even Ortega, for the Nicaraguan actually helped overthrow a despotic regime and, as mentioned, succeeded in recapturing power, this time through an election.
Wijeweera did contest elections, but he is not remembered as a democrat. Neither he nor his party showed any success at elections during his leadership. In any event, as the leaders of what was called the ‘Old Left’ as well as people who are seen as ‘Left Intellectuals’ have pointed out, the 1971 insurrection was an adventure against a newly elected government whose policy prerogatives were antithetical to the world’s ‘Right.’ As such, although the JVP had the color and the word right, moment and act squarely placed it as a tool of the capitalist camp, it can be argued.
As for the second insurrection, the JVP targeted leaders and members of trade unions and political parties who, although they may have lost left credentials or rather revolutionary credentials, were by no means in the political right. That such individuals and groups, in the face of the JVP onslaught, ended up fighting alongside the ‘right’ is a different matter.
Anyway, this Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the first insurrection launched by the Wijeweera-led JVP. Of course that ‘moment’ was preceded by preparation and planning that was good enough to catch the United Front government led by the SLFP by surprise, but the entire adventure needs to be examined by the longer history that came before.
Wijeweera belonged to what was called the Peking Wing of the Communist Party, formed after the USSR and China parted political/ideological ways. When Wijeweera broke away from the Peking Wing he was barely out of his teens. What he and others dubbed as the ‘Old Left’ were at the time seen as having lost much of its previous revolutionary zeal. Entering into pacts with the ‘centrist’ SLFP gave credence to this perception. There was, then, a palpable void in the left half of the political spectrum. Wijeweera and the JVP sought to fill it.
It’s easy to play referee after the fact. April 4, 1971 was inauspicious one could argue. The entire strategy of capturing police stations, kidnapping/assassinating the Prime Minister, securing control of the state radio station etc., describe a coup-attempt rather than a revolution. There was no mass movement to speak of. There wasn’t even anti-government sentiment of any significance.
Nevertheless, it was an important moment. As Prof Gamini Samaranayake in his book on the JVP pointed out, the adventure revealed important things: a) the state was weak or rather the security apparatus of the state was weak, and b) armed struggle was now an option for those who aspired to political power. Indeed these two ‘revelations’ may have given some ideas to those Tamil ‘nationalists’ who would end up launching an armed struggle against the state and would so believe that victory was possible that they would try their luck for 30 long years!
Had April 4 not happened, would we have ever had an armed insurrection? If we did, would it have been different from April 1971 and 1988/89? That’s for those who enjoy speculation. Maybe some creative individual with an interest in politics and thinks of producing fiction based on alternative realities might try his/her hand at it. It would probably make entertaining reading.
The April 4 adventure ended in an inglorious defeat. Wijeweera himself was captured or, as some might claim, planned to be captured (a better option than being killed, as hundreds of his followers were). The captors did not know who he was until he himself confessed. He spilled the beans, so to speak, without being urged to do so.
The JVP, thereafter, abandoned the infantile strategy adopted in April 1971. The party dabbled in electoral politics for a while after J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP offered a general pardon that set Wijeweera free. Wijeweera and the JVP would focus mostly on attacking the SLFP thereafter. Others who were arrested opted go their individual ways. Some went back to books and ended up as academics (Jayadeva Uyangoda or ‘Oo Mahaththaya’, Gamini Keerawella and Gamini Samaranayake for example).
Others took up journalism (Victor Ivan alias Podi Athula and Sunanda Deshapriya). A few joined mainstream political parties (e.g. Loku Athula). Many would end up in the NGO sector (Wasantha Dissanayake, Patrick Fernando and Sarath Fernando). Their political trajectories, then, have been varied.
The JVP is still around. For the record, the ‘Old Left’ is still around too, although not as visible as the JVP. We still have the CP (Moscow Wing) and LSSP, as well as their off-shoots. Individuals who wished to be politically active, either joined the SLFP or the UNP or else were politically associated with such parties, even if they didn’t actually contest elections.
The JVP still talks of Wijeweera but this has been infrequent. It’s nothing more than tokenism, even then. The party has politically aligned itself with the SLFP and the UNP at different times and as of now seems to have been captured by the gravitational forces of the latter to a point that it cannot extricate itself or rather, finds itself in a situation where extrication allows for political crumbs and nothing more. The Marxist rhetoric is gone. Red has been replaced by pink. There’s no talk of revolution.
The high point in the post-Wijeweera era was returning some 40 members to parliament at the 2004 elections in a coalition with the SLFP. However, the decision to leave the coalition (UPFA) seems to have been the beginning of a serious decline in political fortunes. It demonstrated, one can argue, the important role that Wimal Weerawansa played in the party’s resurgence after the annihilation of the late eighties. In more recent times, the party suffered a more serious split which had a significant impact on its revolutionary credentials. The party’s radicals broke ranks and formed the Frontline Socialist Party, led by Kumar Gunaratnam, younger brother of the much-loved student leader Ranjithan (captured, tortured and assassinated sometime in late 1989).
The JVP, led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake, has done better than the FSP in elections thereafter, but the split also saw the former losing considerable ground in the universities, the traditional homelands of recruitment if you will. The spark went out as well. There’s palpable blandness in the affairs of the party. At the last general election the JVP could secure just 3% of the vote.
The JVP is old. Too old to call itself the ‘New Left’ (by comparing itself with the LSSP and CP). The FSP is ‘new’ but it poses as the ‘real JVP’ and as such is as old. There’s nothing fresh in their politics or the ideological positions they’ve taken. In fact one might even argue that now there’s no left in the country. It doesn’t mean everyone is in the right either. There’s ideological confusion or, as some might argue, ideology is no longer a factor in Sri Lankan politics. It’s just about power for the sake of power. That’s not new either, but in the past ideological pretension was apparent whereas now politics is more or less ideology-free. Of course this means that a largely exploitative system and those in advantageous positions within it are the default beneficiaries.
Can the JVP reinvent itself? I would say, unlikely. There’s a name. It’s a brand. It’s off-color. It is politically resolved to align with this or that party as dictated by the personal/political needs of the party’s leadership. Wijeweera’s son Uvindu is planning to jump-start the party with a new political formation, but adding ‘Nava’ (new) doesn’t make for the shaving off of decades. Neither does it erase history. Its potential though remains to be assessed. Maybe a decade or two from now.
So, after 50 years, are we to say ‘we had our first taste of revolution or rather pretend-revolution and that’s it’? The future can unfold in many ways. A half a century is nothing in the history of the world. It’s still nothing in the history of humankind. Systems collapse. Individuals and parties seemingly indestructible, self-destruct or are shoved aside by forces they unwittingly unleash or in accordance with the evolution of all relevant political, economic, social, cultural and ecological factors.
People make their history, but not always in the circumstances of their choice. The JVP is part of history. They were in part creatures of circumstances and in part they altered circumstances. Left a mark but not exactly something that makes for heroic ballads. Time has passed. Economic factors have changed. Politics is different. This is a different century and a different country from ‘Ceylon’ and the JVP of 1971.
The JVP is not a Marxist party and some may argue it never was, but Marx would say that a penchant for drawing inspiration from the past is not the way to go. One tends to borrow slogan and not substance that way. April 4, 1971. It came to pass. It was followed by April 5. The year was followed by 1972. Forty nine years have passed. A lot of water has flowed under the political bridge. Good to talk about on anniversary days so to speak. That’s about it though.
[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]
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