When one reads the anguished outpourings of some yahapalanites about the restoration of the Rajapaksas to power, one thing that becomes obvious is that they are blaming everyone and everything else but themselves for their present plight. In reality however, they have only themselves to blame for the failure of their carefully planned and executed project. Viz. the following.
It was never about good governance to begin with
The yahapalana project despite its name was never about good governance. It was a conspiratorial power grab disguised as a campaign for good governance so as to mislead the public. The conspiracy to grab power by the UNP, JVP, TNA, SLMC and other elements took shape originally as an attempt to defeat the Rajapaksa led UPFA government in Parliament in 2007. At that time, there was no talk of yahapalanaya. It was simply a case of using the divisions in Parliament to defeat the UPFA government at the budget that year. If the budget had been defeated, a parliamentary election may have been held and the UPFA may not have been able to obtain a clear majority which would have enabled everyone else to gang up to run the parliamentary government. Thus even as a far back as 2007, the tendency was for everyone else to get together to defeat the Rajapaksas and grab power for themselves. It was only in 2014, that the name yahapalanaya was appended to that project to make it look like a quest for good governance and less like the cynical power grab that it was.
Even though some people portrayed this as a struggle to abolish the executive presidency, once the yahapalana President was elected to power, the rhetoric about abolishing the executive presidency diminished. Towards the end, some yahapalana political parties were saying that the executive presidency should be retained because it gave the minority communities a say and it enabled them to win the presidency by combining the overwhelming majority of the minority vote and a certain proportion of the majority community vote. Yahapalana ministers were openly saying that the presidential election was the easiest election for them to win. In fact after the 2015 parliamentary election, no yahapalana political party wanted to hold any election except the presidential election. So despite the yahapalanaya slogan, what happened in January 2015 was a power grab, a coup pure and simple albeit effected through the ballot.
Over-involvement of foreign parties
Even though what started as an attempted parliamentary coup in 2007 was largely a local affair, foreign parties got involved after the end of the war in 2009. It was the Colombo embassies that insisted that Ranil Wickremasinghe should stand down and make way for a common candidate. The involvement of foreign parties would have brought in money and influence into the project but it proved fatal to the yahapalanites by generating unrealistic expectations of more foreign largess after they come into power. Some ill-conceived actions that the yahapalanites did in expectation of a massive influx of foreign aid to the country following the coup such as stopping all Chinese funded projects and promising massive handouts to the public, finally proved fatal to the yahapalana project.
No plan on what to do after capturing power
Nobody had the foggiest idea as to what they were going to do after they capture power. It was as if a band of illiterate, unwashed pirates had boarded a ship and found it to be full of treasure and damsels. Rapine and the enjoyment of the fruits of power was the only item on the agenda. The UNP for its part, had been so envious of the achievements of the Rajapaksas that their only aim in life was to prove that the Rajapaksas had not done as well as they claimed. They changed the figures published by the Central Bank in a flat footed move to prove that the economy had not grown as fast as claimed under the Rajapaksas. They stopped all work on the projects initiated by the Rajapksas, stored paddy at the Mattala airport and stopped bunkering operations at the Hambantota harbor on the claim that it was making losses. If the UNP had taken over what the Rajapaksas had left and managed it judiciously, the story may have been different. But their inferiority complex over-determined everything else.
Pre-occupation with persecuting the vanquished
To say that the yahapalana government had an obsession with persecuting the Rajapaksas and their followers would be an understatement. An Anti-Corruption Committee was set up under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe along with a specialized police unit the FCID which existed for the sole purpose of carrying out investigations referred to them by yahapalana politicians. From 2015 till 2019, what the public heard most often from yahapalana politicians was the pledge to put the Rajapaksas behind bars. Even today, many yahapalana leaders think their present plight is because they failed to put the Rajapaksas behind bars and end their political careers. They don’t seem to realize that the public backlash would have been much worse if their schemes had succeeded. The public reacts very negatively to leaders who show themselves to be unhinjed and demented and that is exactly how the yahapalana leaders presented themselves to the public.
Over reliance on lies and deception
From the very beginning, the yahapalana campaign against the Rajapaksas was based on lies and falsehoods. A factor which contributed immensely to the yahapalana campaign of lies and deception was that the decade of Rajapaksa rule was the very period in which social media like facebook made their appearance and the use of smart phones and computers became commonplace. The lies propagated by the yahapalana cabal over the new media took a toll on the Rajapaksa government. The tactics used to manipulate public opinion over such media was new to Sri Lanka at the time. Today however people are more aware of such manipulation. Almost everybody knows now that there are paid internet activists who make posts for a fee. The yahapalanites spent a lot of time and effort on their army of internet activists. Even in the run-up to the presidential election and the just concluded parliamentary election, the posts on all websites were mostly against the Rajapaksas. But the result of the election shows that such tactics do not work any longer. The people now know how to distinguish a fake comment from a genuine one.
Buying votes with handouts
One of the most self destructive acts of the yahapalanites was to buy votes with huge salary increases for government servants and reduction of fuel prices. They lied their way into power at the presidential election but could not hope to repeat that at the parliamentary election. So they followed through with some of the main pledges they had given at the presidential election in order to win the parliamentary election. This was something the yahapalana government never recovered from. Having increased government expenditure and reduced government revenue at the same time, at some point they had to start collecting the money to offset those losses. Thus 2015 became the year of government largesse and 2016 became the year of increased taxes.
The first yahapalana finance minister Ravi Karunanayake became popular when he increased salaries and reduced the price of fuel and certain essential foodstuffs and he became unpopular when taxes were increased to meet that additional expenditure. After he was forced out of the finance ministry, his yahapalana colleagues sold him down the river, claiming credit for the increase in salaries and reduction in the price of fuel while palming off the blame for the increases in taxes on Ravi K. It was every man for himself and may the devil take the hindmost.
Gross economic mismanagement
It was clear that the yahapalana leaders were expecting huge injections of foreign money into Sri Lanka after the defeat of the Rajapaksas. Given the enthusiasm shown by foreign powers to overthrow the Rajapaksas and the amount of money spent by foreign powers for that purpose, it was perhaps excusable for the yahapalanites to expect that billions in foreign aid was to follow. The foreign powers that backed the yahapalana project for their part would never have thought that Sri Lanka would turn into a basket case overnight. At the time of the regime change in January 2015, Sri Lanka was the fastest growing economy in Asia after China. All that the new government had to do was to carry on from where the Rajapaksas were forced to stop and there would have been no need to bankroll Sri Lanka from overseas.
Gross economic mismanagement led to plummeting growth rates, a plummeting exchange rate, a vast increase of debt as the yahapalana government struggled to meet the costs of all the handouts they gave to get themselves elected. One of the most deleterious effects of yahapalan misrule was the vast increase in foreign currency debt. When no foreign aid was forthcoming from their foreign masters, the yahapalana government resorted to foreign commercial borrowings. Since the market was prepared to give, the yahapalana government took, with all restraint thrown to the winds.
The Central Bank bond scam shows the yahapalana government at its incompetent worst. By what stretch of the imagination did they think they would get away with it, when so many officials of the Central bank saw them doing it? Furthermore, in order to carry out a crooked deal they embarked on a course of action which would drive interest rates upward and have a negative impact on the entire economy. What drove the economy into the ground during the yahapalana years was sheer incompetence and nothing else. All other countries including India, Bangladesh, Germany and the USA were doing very well throughout those years from 2015 to 2019 and only Sri Lanka was going downhill.
Cynical disregard for propriety
The yahapalana government had little or no regard for the optics of what they were doing. They put off the local government elections for three years, regardless of the negative impression that such postponement of elections creates in the minds of the public. In 2017, just as the provincial councils were to stand automatically dissolved, they suddenly brought committee stage amendments to a Bill that had been introduced in Parliament earlier to increase women’s representation in the PCs and changed the system of elections to the provincial councils for no other reason than to avoid holding the elections. So desperate were they to prevent PC elections from being held that when the Attorney General said that the Bill had to be passed with a two thirds majority, the government bargained with the smaller political parties in the corridors of Parliament and agreed to increase the proportional representation quota from 40% to 50%.
Thus the local government elections system which was passed just weeks earlier, has a 40% PR quota while the PC elections system has a 50% PR quota. The system of elections to the local government institutions was also changed by committee stage amendments brought to a Bill that had been introduced in Parliament earlier, to correct some technical errors in the Local Government Elections Act. When President Sirisena dissolved Parliament, instead of taking on the challenge of an election head on, as any self respecting political party would have, the yahapalana government and their partners in the yahapalana opposition went to courts and got the dissolution annulled and hailed that as a triumph for democracy. They were oblivious to the fact that the people were watching all this. The people take a very dim view of the postponement of elections as was seen in 1977. Little wonder that every election held after 2015 was a landslide for the SLPP.
Gross abuse of the minority communities
From the very beginning, the entire yahapalana regime change project was predicated on organizing block votes against the Rajapaksas combining the vast majority of the minority vote with a minority of the majority community vote. The Tamil vote block was organized by giving them unrealistic pledges to the effect that if Sirisena is elected to power all Tamil aspirations will become a reality overnight. This was akin to the TULF slogan of 1977 – If you vote for the TULF today, you will have Eelam tomorrow! Until around 2012, many Muslims were with the Rajapaksa camp and they had to be got out of that marriage and lined up against the Rajapaksas. In 2012, a group of monks were taken to Norway at the expense of the Norwegian government and six months after they returned, an anti-halal movement materialized out of nowhere and transmogrified over time into a generalized anti-Muslim campaign which culminated in the Aluthgama clashes of 2014.
Former JHU activist Asoka Abeygunasekera in his book titled ‘Yuga Peraliya’ on the 2015 regime change project recounted how the JHU had sent Ven Hedigalle Wimalasara Thera into the Bodu Bala Sena to act as Gnanasara Thera’s handler and to get what they wanted done by the BBS. If the Tamil voters were deceived and organised, the Muslim voters were flogged and organized. One strategically taken photograph was used to convince the Muslim voters that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was in league with the monks formenting anti-Muslim sentiments. The Mulsim political leaders knew fully well what was going on, but for their own parochial interests, they went along with the yahapalana project. The Tamils and Muslims were thus lined up for a power project and used for the purposes of others. Five years later, the end result of all this has been that the majority Sinhalese have consciously lined up to prevent such manipulation.
Lack of proper leadership
All of the above indicates that the yahapalana project did not have proper leadership. It was just a collection of unprincipled opportunists who got together to overthrow a successful government and grab power for themselves. No self respecting political leader would have engaged in the kind of underhand manoeuvers and charlatanism that led to the regime change project of 2015. Once they had grabbed power through various subterfuges, they thought they had discovered the way to remain in power for ever by combining the vast majority of the minority vote with a minority of the majority vote to win presidential elections.
The reason why some yahapalana ministers and leaders went out of their way to insult the Sinhalese and the Buddhists was to show the minority communities that they were with the minorities and against the majority community. When the Easter Sunday bombings took place in such a backdrop, that was the clearest sign to the people that the yahapalana government because of its politics was in no position to deal with any threat coming from within the minority communities or from overseas. The five years of the yahapalana nightmare were by far the blackest chapter in Sri Lankan politics. We may have faced adversity in earlier times due to world crises such as the food and fuel crises of the 1970s or the terrorism of the LTTE and the JVP, but never has the country suffered like this due to bad politics.
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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