by C.A. Chandraprema
What comes into the mind of the ordinary person on the street when he or she hears the term ‘witness protection’ or ‘victim protection’ would be the need to ensure that victims of crime or witnesses are given the protection they need. For example, the eatery owner in Ratmalana whose establishment was subject to a spectacular drive by shooting by members of an extortion gang, is a victim of violence and needs to be protected from the gangs that were after him. Likewise there are key witnesses to various crimes who need to be protected. While giving adequate protection to victims and witnesses is necessary, laws that turn victims and witnesses into predators, who are able to use the law to hound suspects, and browbeat the law enforcement authorities and even the courts is an obvious perversion of justice.
In this respect, the provisions of the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of 2015 which was signed into law on March 7, 2015, requires further scrutiny. The stated objectives of this Act are to set out, uphold and enforce the rights and entitlements of victims of crime and witnesses, to provide assistance and protection to victims of crime and witnesses and to enable victims of crime to obtain compensation from persons convicted of having committed offenses against them, and to set out duties and responsibilities of the State, judicial officers and public officers towards the promotion and protection of the rights and entitlements of victims of crime and witnesses etc. All these are no doubt laudable objectives, but the manner in which these objectives are to be realized according to this Act, gives rise to many questions.
Turning victims into blood hounds
Section 3(f)(ii) of Act, No. 4 of 2015 states that victims will have the right to inquire into the progress of the investigation being conducted into the complaint presented by the victim of crime, by means of a query addressed to the police station or other authority conducting the investigation, the Attorney-General or the Registrar of the Court, as the case may be, of the dates fixed for hearing and the progress and the disposal of judicial proceedings relating to the offense complained of by the victim of crime, including the non-summary inquiry, trial, appeal and application in revision.
The victim will also have the right to inquire from the officer-in-charge of the relevant police station or other authority conducting an investigation, the Attorney-General, the Registrar of the Court or the Superintendent of Prisons, as the case may be, of the dates fixed for the release on bail, the discharge of the suspect, the institution of criminal proceedings against the accused, the conviction, sentence or acquittal of the suspect or the accused; and the date for the release from prison of the convict, and the reasons therefor. Investigating and punishing people for the commission of a crime is the responsibility of the state. But Act No. 4 of 2015 seeks to make it the business of the purported victim to personally pursue the case against the purported criminal to the very end.
It’s only with regard to a few crimes like assault or rape that the perpetrator may be known and identified upfront. In criminal matters, more often than not, an investigation is necessary before a suspect can even be identified. Yet this Act seems to assume that the alleged perpetrator will always be known upfront to the alleged victim. If it’s a case of a victim knowing upfront who exactly had committed the purported crime against him, it will be a different matter but if a victim is unaware of who committed the crime against him and has to wait until the police names a suspect following an investigation and then invokes the provisions of this Act against that suspect, horrific miscarriages of justice could occur.
In certain places, the Act states the painfully obvious. Section 3(g) for instance upholds the right of a victim of a crime to present, either orally or in writing, a complaint to any police officer, in any police station or other unit or division of the Police Department and to have such complaint impartially and comprehensively investigated by the relevant investigating authority. It’s for that very purpose that the British colonial power created the police force that we have today. The Act states that having made the complaint, victim is entitled to be represented by an Attorney-at-Law during an investigation, including criminal and forensic investigations and magisterial inquiries into the alleged offense and make necessary representations to the appropriate competent authorities who are conducting such investigations.
Next of kin of victims are also victims
The victim also can obtain certified copies of Cause of Death forms, Post Mortem Reports, Medico-Legal Reports, Reports of the Registrar of Finger Prints, Reports of the Government Analyst and any other report of an expert and reports filed in the Magistrate’s Court by the Police. In other words, the victim is authorized to breathe down the necks of the entire law enforcement apparatus including the police and the judiciary and this at a stage when the perpetrator of the crime is still obviously unknown. Mercifully, there is a provision to say that where an application is made to obtain certified copies of the reports referred to above, the Magistrate to whom such application is can refuse to issue such reports if the police are of the opinion that the issue of such Reports would prejudice the on-going investigations.
The victim is also allowed to present written communications or make representations through legal counsel to the Attorney-General, before, during and after the investigation and before and during the conduct of judicial proceedings, including the non-summary inquiry, trial and appeal. The victim is also allowed to present written communications or make representations through legal counsel to an investigator, who is conducting an investigation into the offense and to be entitled to receive a response in regard to such communications or representations made. Can any good result from a victim being able to bring pressure on the investigators, the Attorney General and even the courts right through the appeal process as well? Not only is the victim entitled to make representations to all these bodies, he is entitled to receive responses as well. This is guaranteed to slow down the legal processes even further by placing unbearable workloads on the police, the AG’s Dept. and the courts.
Furthermore, the victim is entitled to be present at all judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings relating to an offense, unless the court, or tribunal determines, for reasons to be recorded that such victim’s evidence would be materially affected if he hears other evidence at such proceedings or the due discharge of justice could be secured only by the exclusion of such victim from being present during the hearing of certain parts of such proceedings. Following the conviction of the offender and prior to the determination of the sentence, the victim is entitled to either personally or through legal counsel, to submit to court the manner in which the offense concerned had impacted on his life, including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life, property and any other aspects concerning his life.
If an appeal or application in revision is presented by a person convicted of having committed an offense, the victim can submit to court that adjudicates upon such appeal or application in revision, the manner in which the offense concerned had impacted on his life, including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life and property and any other aspects concerning his life. If a
grant of a pardon or remission of sentence is being considered with regard to that convict, the victim is entitled to receive notice thereof and submit to the person granting such pardon or remission, the manner in which the offense committed had impacted on his life including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life, property and any other aspects concerning his life. Whoever drafted this law has clearly been watching too many blood vendetta movies.
The manner in which which this Act defines a ‘victim’ is of pivotal importance to this discussion. According to this law, a
‘victim of crime’ can mean a person who has suffered injury, harm, impairment or disability whether physical or mental, emotional, economic or other loss, as a result of an act or omission which constitutes an offense under any law, or a person who suffers harm as a result of intervening to assist such a person. The term ‘victim’ can also be applied to any member of the family and next of kin of such person, dependents and any other person of significant importance to that person. It’s indeed a law to facilitate the pursuit of blood vendettas by other means. Needless to say that if this law is taken to its logical conclusion, what we are looking at is an avalanche of litigation and paperwork that will bury the law enforcement authorities and the courts more effectively than the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii.
According to the Act, a victim of crime is also entitled to receive a sum of money from the government to defray the costs of breathing down the necks of the law enforcement authorities, the AG’s Dept. and the courts. Under the provisions of the Act, apart from victims, witnesses too are entitled to receive from investigating, quasi-judicial and judicial authorities fair and respectful treatment. A witness shall not be harassed or intimidated, coerced or violated as a consequence of providing information relating to the commission of an offense. Furthermore, a witness shall be entitled to protection against any real or possible harm, threat, intimidation, reprisal or retaliation. This however was always the case, even before Act No. 4 of 2015 was enacted. The intimidation of witnesses was never looked upon with approval by anybody in this country.
Institutional backing for victims
In addition to all the provisions mentioned above which enable victims to breathe down the necks of the police, the AG’s Dept and the courts, there is provision in the Act for the creation of a National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses which is to be run by a Board of Management. The duties and functions of this Authority is to receive complaints relating to and investigate into an alleged infringement or imminent infringement of any right or entitlement of a victim of crime or a witness, investigate and inquire into such alleged infringement or imminent infringement and to require any relevant authority to take such appropriate corrective measures in that regard.
The victim and witness protection Authority shall have the power to conduct investigations into an alleged or an imminent infringement of a right or entitlement of a victim or witness, and to require any person other than a judicial officer or a Commissioner of a Commission to appear before the Authority and to produce before the Authority any document, a certified copy thereof or other material in his or its possession or custody, including the reports of investigations, information book, extracts and officers visiting book extracts of the police, for examination and copying; to require any person other than a court or a Commission to provide to the Authority in writing, any information which it or he is likely to possess; interview and record the statement of any person other than that of a judicial officer or a Commissioner of any Commission; and make an application to any court or Commission and be entitled to obtain certified copies of any proceedings of any case.
The Authority is also entitled to enter into, examine and record any event, location or process taking place in any place, including an investigation, inquiry, trial or other proceeding. In other words, if the victim is unable to breathe down the necks of the police, the AG’s Dept. and the Courts, he or she can get the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses to do the job on his behalf. Section 14(1)(f) of the Act states that the Authority may solicit, accept and receive donations, gifts, bequests and grants from sources within or outside Sri Lanka and to apply the same for the proper discharge of it’s duties and functions. Section 24(3) states that the Authority shall not solicit or obtain any assistance from any foreign government or national, foreign or international organization without the prior sanction of the Attorney-General and the Secretary to the Ministry of the Minister in charge of the subject of Foreign Affairs. But that really means nothing. All that the AG and the Minister of foreign affairs will do is to ensure that the funds come from legally acceptable sources.
Act No. 4 of 2015 is a highly suspect piece of legislation from beginning to end. Why do we need foreign aid to maintain a body meant to look after the interest of victims and witnesses? This will enable interested foreign parties to use the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses to browbeat the police, the AG’s Dept. and even the Courts until they have their way with regard to cases they have an interest in. Any person who fails to comply with any requirement imposed by the Authority will be guilty of an offense of contempt of the Authority which shall be punishable by the Supreme Court as though it were an offense of contempt committed against the Supreme Court itself! Where the Authority determines that a person is guilty of an offense of contempt against the Authority, the Authority may transmit to the Supreme Court, a certificate setting out such determination. Any document purporting to be such a certificate shall be received in evidence, and be deemed to be such a certificate without further proof, unless the contrary is proved. In any proceeding for the punishment of any alleged offense of contempt against the Authority, no member of the Authority shall, except with his own consent be summoned or examined as a witness even by the Supreme Court!
The National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses is not the only institution that has been set up to look after the interests of victims and witnesses. Act No. 4 of 2015 further states that the Inspector General of Police shall, in consultation with and following such guidelines as shall be issued by the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses establish and maintain a special police Division to be called the ‘Victims of Crime and Witnesses Assistance and Protection Division’ for the purpose of providing assistance and protection to victims of crime and witnesses. A Senior Superintendent of Police, who comes under the supervision of the nominee of the Inspector General of Police appointed as a member of the Board of Management of the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses shall be placed in charge of the Division.
The duties of this special police Division shall be to provide protection to victims of crime and witnesses and to investigate by itself or with the assistance of any other police officer, into complaints, allegations or information pertaining to threats, reprisals, intimidation, retaliations or any harm, harassment, coercion or violation being committed on victims of crime and witnesses and their property. The Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of 2015 will only serve to skew the course of justice and to give interested foreign parties a handle on selected cases being heard in Sri Lankan courts.
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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