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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).




Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small



‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.

However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?

Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.

Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?

It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.

The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.

However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.

The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.

For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.

For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.

The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.

In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.

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A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention



The need of the hour:

BY Dr B. J. C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.

It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.

More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.

Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.

Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.

The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.

We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.


This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.

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Kudurai Madiri Pona



The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.

Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.

Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.

We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.

His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.

The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.

That’s when I decided to change the tide.

‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.

‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.

“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”

That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.

On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”

I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.

That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.

The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.

I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,

“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.

I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.

Kudurai Madiri Pona

– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.

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