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The tragedy of 1971 and the farce of 2021



by Rajan Philips

There is no political straight line from the 1971 JVP insurrection to the ongoing Rajapaksa presidency. But the sociopolitical compulsions that gave rise to it and the brutal manner of its suppression left a long shadow over everything that came after. Fifty years on, the shadow still looms and spans the remembered tragedy of 1971 and the real time farce of presidential politics in 2021. The farcical status of the presidential system came into full view last week, with the idiotic utterance of a State Minister that 6.9 million Sri Lankans directly elected “a Hitler” in 2019. And the German Ambassador had to remind Sri Lankans by tweet that Hitler should be “no role model for any politician.”

The 1971 insurrection was launched against the United Front government of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP, elected barely an year earlier, in May 1970, on the Front’s socialist Common Program and with a landslide victory. The leaders of the LSSP and the CP soaked their pens and voices in gall in denouncing the JVP leadership for the uprising, while sympathizing with the followers who perished as cannon fodder in the misadventure.

“An infantile form of negative nihilism,” perorated Pieter Keuneman over Radio Ceylon two days after the insurrection started. Colvin R de Silva esoterically invoked Lenin, dissected Rohana Wijeweera’s own words, and condemned the insurrection as a “foredoomed Ultra-leftist adventure.” Ten years after the 1971 uprising, Hector Abhayavardhana delivered the ultimate verdict of contempt, calling it the work of “a private army (of Rohana Wijeweera) based on the marginalized” rural populations.

But for all their denunciations, the two Left Parties could not prevent the havoc the insurrection would ultimately wreak on their once powerful organizations and the formidable presence they brought to bear in national politics in spite of their electoral frustrations. Every political party in Sri Lanka was shaken by the insurrection. But the Left Parties paid the heaviest price and suffered electoral slaughter six years later, in the 1977 elections.


Insurrection as backdrop

The insurrection started even as the United Front government was preparing a new constitution to sever the island’s last ties to the British Crown and usher in a new Republic based on popular sovereignty. But because of the insurrection, the country became a Republic in 1972, while under Emergency Rule. The LSSP had invested heavily in the project of the new constitution, with Dr. Colvin R de Silva as the obvious Minister in charge. His imposing legal position was that the Ceylonese parliament did not have the power to amend or remove the “unalterable and entrenched clauses” in the Soulbury Constitution. Hence the recourse to having elected MPs constitute themselves into a constituent assembly, separate from Her Majesty’s parliament, and create a new constitution outside the fetters of the old. To create, indeed, as Dr. Colvin would colourfully describe it, “not merely despite the Queen, but in defiance of the Queen!”

The JVP insurrection both disrupted and rushed the process of constitution making. The insurrection weakened the Left and strengthened the Right in the government and in parliament. The new constitution reflected the dominance of the Right and reeked of ethno-majoritarian supremacy. It was also the constitution of the government without the broad consensus in parliament involving the opposition. Absent that broad consensus in its adoption, what was obviously the biggest democratic virtue of Colvin’s Constitution, namely its utmost flexibility including total replaceability, became its fatal weakness.

Another fatal flaw, it is fair to say with the hindsight of 50 years, was the constitutional status of the Head of State. The Head of State in the First Republic was a mere appointee of the Head of Government. Dr. Colvin R de Silva was logically and practically correct, in rejecting JR Jayewardene’s idiosyncratic advocacy for an elected president in addition to the elected parliament – because of the inherent absurdity of counterposing two elected institutions at the summit of the state.

But he (Colvin) left the door open by failing to provide in the constitution an appropriately substantial mechanism for instituting the Head of State. Both flaws played straight into the waiting hands of JR, Colvin’s good friend and old classmate. Even though it was a quirk of history and not any mass movement that had brought JR Jayewardene to that point in his long political life when he was suddenly able to do whatever he wanted to do.

The 1972 Constitution could have provided for much more than feudal appointment of the Head of State by the Prime Minister, and a lot less than the redundancy of direct election by the people that invariably came later with the Second Republic. Insofar as Parliament (the National State Assembly) was the “supreme instrument of state power” in the First Republic, an appropriate provision could have been for parliament to elect the Head of State by a plural majority from among candidates from outside parliament and satisfying whatever criteria that could have been stipulated in the constitution.

Why have one? – scoffed JR Jayewardene, if the Head of State is to be simply appointed by the Prime Minister. So, six years into the First Republic, Sri Lanka went through a second constitutional overhaul – from a parliamentary system that the JVP had ridiculed and revolted against, to a presidential system that the JVP or anyone else knew nothing about. Regardless, the JVP leaders became the early beneficiaries of the new presidency because Prime Minister-turned-President JR Jayewardene chose to pardon them and free them from jail. In President Jayewardene’s calculations, by letting the JVP out of jail and leaving them at large in the country he would be able to divide and weaken the left and opposition forces. JRJ managed to do that right through his two terms as the first Executive President.

Although the 1971 insurrection was exclusively limited to the Sinhala youth in its mobilization and operations, the insurrection had a demonstration effect among the Tamil youth. Slighted and alienated by the 1972 Constitution, and discriminated by media-wise standardization in admissions to university science programs, the Tamil youth were beginning to foray directly into politics and to them the 1971 insurrection was a demonstration that political violence in Sri Lanka was a feasible political avenue.

In a wholly different set of circumstances, both internal and external, Tamil political violence proved itself to be far more durable than that of the JVP, and took on the proportions of a civil war that dragged on for decades. It took a lot longer and more than one government, even more than one country, to finally isolate, defeat and eliminate the LTTE, the principal force of Tamil political violence. In the end, the LTTE too was militarily decimated just as the JVP had been earlier crushed by the Sri Lankan government. It is twelve years since the LTTE’s defeat, but the shadow of that defeat and the manner of its execution also looms over Sri Lanka and its politics.


International Situation

With the still looming twin shadows of the JVP insurrection and the LTTE war, it is appropriate to ask the counterfactual question as to what other path, or different paths, would the course of Sri Lankan history and politics over the last 50 years have taken if the JVP leadership had not launched the insurrection in 1971. Answers to this question can be explored in two domains – the domestic and the global. The changes in the global domain over the last 50 years have been many and they are also highly significant. Sri Lanka could not have remained insular to the outside changes, and it has not.

In his address to the Criminal Justice Commission that was set up to try the accused JVP leaders, Rohana Wijeweera offered a staggering disclaimer. He both disowned responsibility for the insurrection and blamed others for precipitating it in his absence at the decision making meeting. Writing on the 50th anniversary of the insurrection, Lionel Bopage, another key JVP leader at that time, uses the insurrection as leitmotif to provide an expansive and inclusive background to the 1971 insurrection and to attach a brief peek into Sri Lanka’s descent to corrupt authoritarianism over the last four decades under the executive presidential system.

The inclusive aspect of Dr. Bopage’s recollection is in recounting the acts of discrimination by the state of Sri Lanka against the Tamil minorities in the fields of citizenship and language rights. Such a recounting was not part of the JVP’s five-lecture syllabus that preceded the April (1971) experiment in violence. To their credit, Bopage and a significant number of his former front-line comrades have taken a positive and progressive position on Sri Lanka’s national question, initially involving mostly the Tamils and now increasingly extending to the Muslims. The official JVP, on the other hand, has blown hot and cold on the national question, and the post-Wijeweera JVP even underwent a significant split in 2008 over this very question. Be that as it may.

Bopage in his anniversary article contends that the JVP’s disenchantment with the first budget of the UF government, whose campaign the JVP had supported in the 1970 parliamentary election, and the desire “to bring about the social change” the JVP was looking for, that “escalated into the April 1971 uprising.” While acknowledging, “shortcomings and mistakes were made,” Bopage argues that “the struggle was fundamentally driven by the international situation and the nature of the repression at that time.” He accounts that “under the international and national circumstances … in the 1960s, 51 countries in Africa, North, Central and South America, Asia and Europe had pro-US dictatorships established. The genocidal nature of such intervention was clearly evident in Indonesia.” And the world situation was such that “all the alternative left groups at the time heavily believed on the path of armed struggle.” How did any or all of this apply to the JVP and to Sri Lanka in 1971?

The late 1960s, the formative years of the JVP, were indeed years of youth protests in many countries world-wide. Often, these protests targeted military and bureaucratic establishments, or they were protests against wars, such as in Vietnam, or against apartheid in South Africa. But unlike in Pakistan, closer home, where students led the revolt that finally brought down Ayub Khan after more than a decade in power, there was no political cause celebre in Sri Lanka that warranted an armed uprising. There was no dictatorship in Sri Lanka in 1971. The only time Sri Lanka ever came close to a military putsch was in 1962, and that too was aborted without a shot being fired, due in no small measure to the social and kinship sinews that crisscross institutional boundaries within the state structure.

One unnecessary outcome of the 1962 coup was the ‘religious and ethnic cleansing’ within the armed forces, that would create its own problems later when Tamil militants took to arms. Otherwise, given Sri Lanka’s size and limited social stratifications, the familial and kinship ties provide a powerful social bulwark against the armed forces encroaching on the political terrain. On the other hand, it was the JVP’s insurrections and the LTTE’s war that pulled the army out of the barracks to the streets and jungles almost as a permanent fact of life.

That all of this had to begin and solidify under a government that included the LSSP and the CP was the worst unintended travesty of the 1971 uprising. Both parties had been persistent opponents of the use of Emergency Rule and the deployment of armed forces against the people. In 1956, the LSSP even called for the disbanding of the army because there were no external enemies. Prime Minister Bandaranaike jokingly responded that he was not going to give the LSSP its revolution on a platter. More to the point, the government that the JVP revolted against in 1971 was a democratically elected government with wide popularity. It was not planning any auto-dictatorship. Its only representational deficit was on account of the minorities. It was a significant deficit but that was not one of JVP’s priorities at that time.

The LSSP as was its wont, saw the emergence of the JVP as “one of the more important by products of the breakdown of Stalinism on the international scale.” If the Lumumba university background of Rohana Wijeweera lent credence to this assessment, the assessment made sense insofar as international socialism was still a viable project. It was so at that time and for more than a decade later. That was the external premise to the JVP’s internal adventure in 1971. But the global situation began to change fundamentally by the time the JVP leaders were freed from jail after 1977. Its biggest local manifestation was the incorporation of Sri Lanka into the global open economy. Politics would not be the same, either nationally or internationally.


(To be continued in three more parts: JVP’s Second Coming and India’s Peace Keeping by Force; JVP partaking in governments; Executive Power and Political Emptiness).




Save the Last Dance for me



By Capt Elmo Jayawardena

A few months ago, I was in Hong Kong, visiting a well-known charity organisation called Crossroads. It was to seek assistance for a project in Sri Lanka. Crossroads has an enormous warehouse filled to the brim with anything and everything; ready to be sent to places where people in need plead.

The store surroundings looked familiar. Then I realised I was standing where the old Kai Tak airport was, now pastured and replaced by the glamour of the new Hong Kong International Airport.

Yes, I have been here before, many a time at that, bringing jet aeroplanes into land on runway 13, turning at the famous Chequered Board at 600 feet and pointing at the short runway besieged by the sea. The final turn and approach was made between sky-scrapers that stood on either side, like sentinels, and one could spot the flat residents’ laundry hanging outside their windows.

The Chequered Board was fixed to the mountainside, big board with orange and yellow squares, clearly to say “Turn now, beyond this is damnation”.

That was Kai Tak, surrounded by hills, minimum length to stop, and the weather gods playing their fancy games so often that we, mere mortals who flew the machines were nothing but puppets on a string.

But we managed; day in and day out to put our aeroplanes down and brake like crazy to make sure we didn’t overrun and tip into the water.

When the skies were friendly, it was a thrill to land at Kai Tak. The runway usually was direction 130 (runway 13) and the wind rolled from the East, nice and steady and we came past Green Island and saw the Chequered Board in front to tell us we have to change direction lest we too got pasted like the Chequered Board on the same mountain. Then came the turn, low and precise to make the final approach, the laundry run, to fly between the buildings and place the wheels precisely at the touch down point to avoid going swimming.

Every time a pilot landed in Hong Kong in the olden days, there was that gleam in the eye. I’ve seen it a hundred times in my co-pilots and I’ve felt the same whenever I made the approach; the accomplishment of doing something right where the demand was high, which sent the adrenalin into overdrive.

The typhoon time was another story. The winds sheared, gusted, backed and veered and the rain swept across the field, diminishing visibility. Dark grey clouds hung low, covering the mountains and the Chequered Board was hardly visible. We went in by the leading lights, which were very powerful strobes that throbbed, giving us a path to follow to take us to the laundry lane. All this was with the wind playing wild symphony and the rain pattering down like machinegun fire. Most times, lining up on the runway for the short final run was almost impossible and that is where the pilot’s skill mattered, kicking rudders and wagging wings like a mad man playing drums just so that the aeroplane landed and stopped all within that little wet and slippery runway with the sea awaiting with open jaws for a luckless pilot’s mistake.

I remember my last flight to Kai Tak, in June 1998. I left home determined to do the landing. Most days, I would let the co-pilot fly, I’ve seen a lot of this airfield and the younger pilots were always grateful for a swing at Hong Kong. But this was my final flight to Kai Tak and I saved the last dance for me, just like the The Drifters sang.

The co-pilot was young and he mentioned he had never landed in Hong Kong. It was a hard call on me. I could not let this young man go and run through a flying career having never landed in Kai Tak. Maybe, years later his first-officer would ask about the infamous Kai Tak approach and my friend would have to answer that he had never done it.

All in all. the deck was stacked against me, there is something called professional courtesy and out went my last dance, “Son, you take it to Hong Kong”.

The weather was bad, the winds were howling, and we went in. The young man turned at 600 feet and the aircraft was bucking and jumping and he hung in there like a rodeo kid but that wasn’t enough.

With 300 feet to go we were pointing at mountains and the field was almost below us and then I took over and went around to the safety of the sky.

One thing I never did in an aeroplane is if I ever took over from a co-pilot, I never gave it back. I flew it and landed it – that was the golden rule, the safe approach.

The rodeo kid and I were now loitering in the sky to await our turn to make the next run. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt, same co-pilot, years later would be a Captain and when his co-pilot asked him about Kai Tak and how it was to fly in he would have to say “I got one chance and I blew it, couldn’t make the field and the Captain had to take over.”

There was no way I could crucify this young man’s soul, make him poor as gutter water in a field where professional prestige mattered most.

‘Son you take it in, go and land this aeroplane.”

That’s precisely what he did. He waltzed with the wind and came through the clouds and turned at the Chequered Board and flew down the laundry lane and lined up the big 747 on the short runway to land as smooth as Mr. Neil did on the moon.

Then I saw the glitter in his eye – Last dance or no dance, I wouldn’t have traded anything for that look. That’s what flying was all about.

It is possible that my rodeo-kid friend would read what I write and remember. It was all between him and me and the old Kai Tak Airport.

He, I am sure by now, is a Captain. I like to think that he too would at times give away his turn to dance just to see the gleam in a fledgling’s eyes. That should be the legacy.

If not, what would we be worth as professional pilots?

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BY Sampath Fernando

“Every block of stone has a statue inside and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” –

Michelangelo (AD 1475-1564). And he discovered THE DAVID inside a rock of marble around AD 1501-1504.

Barana, the Sri Lankan sculptor, performed a similar act in the 5th Century AD. He was supposed to have accomplished this around 455-477 AD during the reign of King Dhatusena. Avukana is a standing statue of the Buddha near Kekirawa in the North Central province of Sri Lanka. The statue, which has a height of more than 40 feet (12 m), was carved out of a large granite rock face.



There are enough historical records about Michelangelo and his paintings and sculpture. Barana was virtually unknown. My speculation is that he was employed by the king, not for his artistry but merely for his skills to get a Buddha statue sculptured. In ancient Sri Lanka, kings were well known for creating Buddha statues and Stupas (dome shaped buildings to preserve relics).

Whatever the reason both Barana and Michelangelo deserve great honour from us. Why? It is amazing the genius of both of them, how they produced such wonderful work of art without the aid of modern cameras and computers, electromechanical drills etc. Also, how did the Romans carve their tall fluted columns which are perfectly proportioned. The magnificence of ancient Egyptian pyramids goes without saying.



Michelangelo later in life developed a belief in Spiritualism, for which he was condemned by Pope Paul IV. The fundamental tenet of Spiritualism is that the path to God can be found not exclusively through the Church, but through direct communication with God. I speculate than Barana was a devout Buddhist. Buddhism being the only organised religion at the time. As mentioned earlier the kings spent lot of wealth and employed skilled artists to honour the Buddha.



Carved out of the living rock with supreme assurance, Avukana Buddha is a magnificent image. His expression is serene and from his curled hair sprouts the flame called siraspata signifying the power of supreme enlightenment. Although the statue is large and stands straight up with feet firmly planted on the lotus stone pedestal, the body retains a graceful quality enhanced by beautifully flowing drapery clinging to the body.



The magnificent free-standing (still attached to the original massive rock) statue carved out of a single rock is the tallest Buddha statue in existence today. Following the destruction of similar but much larger statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the Avukana Buddha has gained even greater significance in the Buddhist World.



My parents were devout Buddhists and school holidays were combined with a family pilgrimage. So, I was taken to Avukana statue with my two brothers and the two sisters to worship the Buddha. I was only about 10 years old. As I reached my adulthood I began to look up to Buddha for his philosophy.

As an octogenarian, I visited the site on 7 December 2019 and venerated Barana for giving us such a marvellous image of art. A combination of philosophy and art!

“I am still learning” said Michelangelo at the age of 87. I can say the same thing now, seven years ahead.


(The writer taught Applied Physics at The University of Arts London (UAL) and retired as a professor.)

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Identity issues continuing to fuel Mid-East conflict



On the face of it, the decades-long Middle-East conflict is all about who controls which plot of land in the chronically conflict-ridden region. For example, the powder keg city of East Jerusalem is claimed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. On and off, the city erupts in violence on account of its disputed nature and we are just witnessing a new round of such blood-letting. Ownership of real estate seems to be at the heart of the conflict. But there is more than meets the eye in the conflict and land ownership is just one vital aspect of it.

As important as land and issues relating to material well being that grow out of it is religious identity and connected cultural markers that are seen by the Israelis and Palestinians as defining them as ‘nations’. This accounts for the centrality of East Jerusalem to the complex problem which is the Middle East.

In the latter city are places of worship which are seen as being of the utmost sacredness by the groups concerned. For example, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is sacred to Islam and therefore the Palestinians, and which came under attack in the current round of violence, is located in East Jerusalem. Likewise, numerous are the sites in East Jerusalem which are sacred to the Jews. The Temple Mount is one such structure which is revered by the Jews. But many of these places of religious worship are revered by almost the entirety of the communities of the region, although some groups proclaim exclusive ownership over them.

It is for the above reasons that pronouncements to the effect that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’ could be anathema in the ears of a considerable number of Palestinians and many of those of the Islamic faith. Recognizing this statement as true and factual could be tantamount to conceding that all Islamic sacred sites in East Jerusalem should come under the complete control and jurisdiction of the Israelis.

To very many sections professing the Islamic faith in the region, conceding East Jerusalem to Israel would be unthinkable because East Jerusalem is integral to their identity as a people or as a ‘nation’. This is the reason why they would see themselves as fully justified in taking up arms to defend their perceived ownership of East Jerusalem. And ‘native’ places and locations are almost sacred to most communities and ethnic groups because those are the sites where they could practise their religions and cultures. The same line of reasoning holds good for traditional Jews. Since East Jerusalem is home to numerous sites that are sacred to them they would see themselves as justified in possessing the city by even the force of arms.

It is in view of the foregoing that former US President Donald Trump could be said to have destroyed peace prospects in the Middle East to a considerable measure by fully endorsing the position that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’. By doing so, the former US President legitimised Israel’s complete hold over the city. But the truth is that ownership of the city is bloodily contested and this has been so for decades.

The question could be asked as to why one group should consider it unthinkable and revolting that the other group should exercise controlling power over religious sites that are claimed by it as well. In short, why are these group antagonisms so deep-rooted? We go to the heart of the Middle East conflict with this question.

In fact, the ‘enmity’ could be centuries long. Its roots could lie in the ‘myths of origin’ churned out by hard line sections in both communities. Both Judaism and Islam revere Abraham, seen as the originator of most theistic religions of the Middle East. Abraham is believed to have had two sons of different natures. At the popular level, each of the adversarial groups in the Middle East sees itself as deriving from the ‘better-natured’ of the sons. Like most popular myths, these notions die hard among the more impressionable sections.

However, there is no denying that land and territorial disputes have been keeping the flames of conflict and war ablaze in the Middle East. This is true of today as it was at the turn of the last century, when the British were seen as implanting the Jews in the land of Palestine at the expense of those who were already inhabiting it. That is, the Palestinians of today. The Jews were seen as growing in number in Palestine and they very soon laid claim to a state of their own in Palestine. Thus were sown the early seeds of the conflict which has bedevilled the region to date.

As matters stand, Israel controls to a considerable degree all contested areas in the conflict except the Gaza strip where the militant group Hamas exercises extensive governing control, backed by some staunchly pro-Islamic extra-regional states. At present, the religious unrest in East Jerusalem has invited the military involvement of Hamas, which development has, in turn, triggered off a spiral of violence between the Israeli security forces and Hamas. At the time of writing, the violence has claimed more than 30 lives.

It is highly regrettable that the violence is occurring in the holy month of Ramadan. It is hoped that the international community would intervene to end the violence and make a fresh effort to work out a political solution to the conflict.

A scrutinizing look at Middle East developments over the decades would indicate a close link between land issues and identity questions. These factors could be said to have been mutually-reinforcing. To the extent to which the Palestinians see themselves as being deprived of land and other means of livelihood, to the same degree are they seeing themselves as suffering on account of their religious identity. This trend aggravates religious tensions. Economic issues deriving from land questions trigger a sense of being victimized on account of religious and cultural markers.

Accordingly, US President Joe Biden has his work cut out. If he is serious about bringing peace to the Middle East, he will launch a fresh bid towards evolving the two-state solution. Under this formula there is a possibility of resolving land issues equitably.



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