Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage story
This is a book that documents the life story of Lionel Bopage, who was one of the highest ranking leaders of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP- the Peoples’ Liberation Front) and a major figure in the JVP led youth insurrection of 1971 in Sri Lanka, drawing on a series of personal interviews with him. After migrating to Australia two decades ago, he has remained active not only in Sri Lanka related political activities but in the broader Australian political movements for social justice. The book tracks Lionel’s personal and political evolution over the subsequent four decades, placed in the wider socio-political context of this tumultuous period in Sri Lanka.
In many ways this is a deeply personal and richly detailed memoir, as Lionel looks back over the years and attempts to analyse how and why the party to which he committed himself, and under whose banner thousands of heroic youth fought and died, ended up in as the ardent supporter of a reactionary war against a national minority in alliance with the state machinery and its armed forces – the same armed forces who had butchered its own members and supporters only a few years earlier. It is at the same time a historical and political analysis reflecting a serious and honest endeavour to objectively understand what happened and to draw the lessons of (often bitter) experience, not a project aimed at self glorification or demonization of his political or ideological opponents. But it is much more than a biographical narrative of a radicalised and idealistic young student, fired by vision of socialist revolution, who organised and led thousands of Sri Lankan youth in an abortive armed uprising against the Sri Lankan government and experienced in full the brutal repressive power of the state. It is, in an important sense, the story of the generation of youth who were drawn into mass struggles throughout the world during the 1960s, from the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America to the advanced countries of Europe, United States and, indeed, Australia too.
For me, a member of that same generation and Lionel’s contemporary as an undergraduate in the same university in Sri Lanka, reading this book was at one level a trip back in memory lane evoking much nostalgia for lost youth and times past. Reading about Lionel’s personal experience of incarceration revived memories of compatriots who were imprisoned, tortured and in several cases, killed by the police and the military. The book was also a reminder that the way to pay homage to the memory of those who, often at enormous personal cost and sometimes paying with their lives, struggled for a better world is to bring their story and the lessons of both successes and failures of those struggles to the attention of the current generation. In that sense, this book could not be more timely. In Sri Lanka itself the book comes at a time when the JVP, already much diminished in power and influence from its heyday, has undergone a deep spilt that has raised again the many unresolved issues concerning its own history and experiences. Internationally, it comes at a moment when a new global economic crisis is radicalising and propelling into struggle an entire new generation of youth on a global scale. All the issues of theory, history and programme that were posed in the 1960s are posed anew, but in a sharper and much more acute form.
The book is very wide in its scope and requires a much longer review to do it full justice. Without in any way questioning Lionel’s integrity I will make a few critical remarks here about some interpretations and the analytical conclusions in the book – some of these hark back to views that I held as a member of a Trotskyist group that was politically opposed to the JVP while defending it against state repression.
In my view the issues raised in Lionel’s story – including the many debates over issues of programme and orientation – need to be placed not only in the Sri Lankan context but in an even wider global context. (I recognise that the book does not entirely ignore the global context.) The radicalisation of youth in Sri Lanka was an integral part of the 1960s’ international upsurge of militant, sometimes revolutionary, struggles which challenged not only ruling classes and regimes but also exposed the conservatism and reactionary nature of the traditional left leaders and posed the need to build new revolutionary leaderships. As it turned out, building new leaderships that could unite the global struggles and lead to victorious socialist revolutions proved to be too much of a political challenge for that generation, however heroic and self sacrificing many of them were. Even the triumphant achievements of various national revolutionary movements, such as in Vietnam, proved ultimately to be transitory. There became the prelude to re-establishment of capitalist rule and the opening up of national economies to foreign capital and deep integration with the global capitalist system as part of so-called ‘national economic development’. By the 1990s, the national socialist projects that replaced the programme of the Third (Communist) International had led not to the building of socialism in one (or even a number of) countries but to the elimination of even the vestiges of socialism in every country. In looking back at the history of the Sri Lankan left and the JVP, I believe that the impact this had on the intellectual orientation of the radical left needs no emphasis.
Intense debates, divisions and splits characterised and influenced the subsequent evolution of the radical youth movements which emerged during the 1960s. This book documents in considerable detail the nature of these debates within the JVP and gives a sense of the flavour of the times. Youth grappled with issues of enormous historical importance that also had immediate practical relevance for revolutionary practice. In my view, it is important to emphasise that these discussions and debates took place in a global intellectual environment dominated by the triumph of national socialist ideology, where each national revolutionary movement was supposed to formulate their own unique path to socialist revolution. Internationalism was emasculated of its original Marxist and Leninist content and reduced to mutual assistance among ‘independent’ national socialist movements.
This is the international environment that shaped the evolution of the political positions of the Communist Party and the ex-Trotskyist Sama Samaja Party towards the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), ultimately leading to the move by both to join the SLFP dominated government and participate in the butchery of thousands of youth in 1971 and later in the racist wars against Tamils. In the book, the degeneration of traditional left leaders like Colvin R de Silva appear to be attributed primarily to their social background and entrenched ‘elite’ attitudes and personal relationships. I believe that this was a secondary factor. The basic factor was the de facto abandonment of an internationalist revolutionary perspective and its replacement with a Sri Lankan national ‘socialist’ programme. During the early 1950s the LSSP quietly dumped its previous programme that had emphasised links with the Indian working class in favour of a political alliance with the Sri Lankan SLFP. It made absolutely no attempt to support the building of a revolutionary movement in India.
It is said in the book that “in coalition with the SLFP they introduced progressive economic measures and often took an anti-imperialist stance on world issues and local affairs’(p. 418). In my view, the characterisation of the SLFP as ‘progressive’ was a fundamental rejection of the Marxist programme and an indication that even the LSSP – which had earlier vehemently attacked the Communist Party over this issue – was rapidly moving towards abandoning its programmatic insistence on the need for the working class to take power in alliance with the peasantry and moving to adapt itself to the SLFP in a parliamentary setting; it was therefore no mystery that the revolutionary ardour that was generated by the Hartal in 1953 led not to a renewal of the LSSP’s revolutionary programme but to an electoral alliance with the SLFP a mere two years after. The LSSP had shifted from revolutionary politics based on the perspective of leading the working class to take power, to using the influence it had over the working class to pressure the SLFP to grant it some concessions. From then on it was a short step to abandoning all parts of its programme, including the opposition to the Sinhala Only as official language, in its desire to remove obstacles to forming a governing coalition with the SLFP.
In my view, this rejection of an international outlook and programme was also the key factor that shaped the debate within the JVP on national rights of the Tamil minority. As Lionel points out the JVP attitude towards national minorities did not at the beginning start from a position of racist chauvinism but in its evolution it led inexorably to a position where the JVP became the most ardent proponent of war against the LTTE and the most consistent support of the Sri Lankan military.
It is my strongly held conviction that in today’s world situation, a nationalist orientation would be even more reactionary and destructive than in the period leading up to the First World War. The 20th century proved to be not only the era of wars and revolutions but also the era of ultimate practical refutation of ‘national socialist’ programmes. The new generation must not get trapped in the same bankrupt and reactionary ideological trap. Recognising specific national peculiarities and circumstances is one thing but giving the national state primacy in terms of political programmes and perspectives is another thing.
I believe that debates over these issues and clarity over political perspectives are essential if a new generation were not to repeat all the mistakes of our own generation. I welcome this book which can be the trigger for the revival of these necessary debates and salute Lionel for maintaining his commitment to social justice and for having the intellectual courage to go over and review his own life of committed struggle. This is not a book that attempts to justify every step of his political life or that of his companions, or to demonise his political opponents on the left, but reflects a genuine attempt to achieve a sober understanding of why so many individuals despite the commitment and personal courage they showed in that early period of struggle and conflict subsequently ended up as contemptible political opportunists and traitors to those ideals and values. This is why, despite my differences of opinion and critical remarks, I wish to reiterate that Lionel and Michael have done an enormous service not only to the new generation of youth in Sri Lanka but throughout the world who are seeking answers to the political challenges that they face in coping with the unfolding global crisis that threatens to dwarf the great Depression of the 1930s by providing a serious – though personal – analysis of the events that shaped the past four decades of history. I look forward to Sinhalese and Tamil translations of the book in the near future.
Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage story is available in Sri Lanka for purchase in all main bookshops, and overseas by paying the cost plus postage with Paypal at http://michaelcolincooke.blogspot.com.
Sisira Jayasuriya is currently Professor of Macroeconomics in the School of Economics and Finance at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He is also Director of the South Asia Research Facility. He was the Director, Asian Economics Centre at the University of Melbourne until his move to La Trobe University in 2008. He has to his credit many books and publications mainly in the field of economics research. His current research is on trade, product fragmentation and multinationals; agricultural reforms in India; food security and poverty issues in Asia and the economics of natural disasters. He was a contemporary of Lionel in his days at the University of Peradeniya.