Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Revisiting the JVP: Will They Repeat Their Past?

It has been 39 years since the JVP’s armed insurrection. It was brutally suppressed and their ambitious project to light a revolutionary flame in Sri Lanka ended in a political and military disaster. But the JVP was not vanquished and its leader Rohana Wijeweera (RW) reorganized it. They launched their second military project during 1987-89 and the disaster they faced at this time was unprecedented. RW himself and the entire political leadership were decimated. The history of the party has been inseparable from his own political legacy as its leader and the inspiration RW has continued even after his death. The JVP have never managed yet to replace RW. Now they have given political refuge to the General who is not a JVPer.It is inconceivable that the military hero that led the security forces to defeat the LTTE has landed amongst the JVP which was the mirror image of the LTTE in the Sinhalese South. Will he try to fill the vacuum in the leadership and use it as his political vehicle or will the JVP try to use the General to recover from their recent electoral debacle? If not will the JVP   and the General form an organic alliance that will make their political march constructive and democratic? What will be the JVP’s political future? In Gramscian sense, is the JVP   ‘mummified’ or ‘anachronistic’ at present?

This short essay will try to make some reflections on the future of the JVP on the basis of their political history and the current political moment.

Social base and political character

RW commenced his political career as a conspirator in the Communist Party (Peiking Wing) organizing a faction against the party leadership. Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism (2004) provides a very useful analysis on the political beginnings of the totalitarian leaders and shows how they began their politics in conspirational wings of their parties.RW’s political beginning was not different. In 1965 general election RW had disagreements with the party over two issues; “the emphasis and priority given to trade union activities rather than to general political activity;   and the special attention paid to the Indian plantation workers rather than to the peasantry (Political Violence in Sri Lanka, Gamini Samaranayake, 2008 p.191).This demonstrated very clearly the seeds of the ideological and political character of the future of the  JVP and its class basis when RW started organizing the underground movement. One of his five political classes, titled  ‘Indian Expansionism’  took an anti- Tamil political line and  its political practice can be seen even today in their opposition to any  devolution of power to the Tamil community. His opposition to trade union activities and the loyalty to the peasantry formed the class basis of the JVP: they were overwhelmingly Sinhalese Buddhists youths with rural social origins or sons of the rural peasant families. They had been brought to political awakening by the 1956 electoral victory of the five great social forces. As their core political ideology they were more in tune with the Sinhala Buddist hegemonic ideology as their guiding principal of political activism rather than Marxism -Leninism. They were unemployed young men. This was also characteristic of RW’s social origins. This social base never provided a political stability for the JVP. These youths can be easily persuaded to leave politics and the organization when social opportunities become open to them. Many of the JVP university recruits who come from the rural social background belong to this category of fellow travelers.  They have done relatively well in electoral politics when they collaborated with the SLFP as they did   in the 2004 parliamentary elections. In my view this has been due to the Sinhala Buddhist   ideological affinity between the JVP and the SLFP. The success of this alliance demonstrates the opportunities available by translating this affinity into a politically beneficial electoral union commanding the support of rural social forces. Whenever the SLFP is in power it is the peasantry who are the most dominant socially as well as numerically of the five great social forces finds its dynamism and in turn installs the hope of social mobility in   rural youths.

The SLFP has been historically capable of offering what can be termed as ‘the rural social mobility model’ in keeping with their 1956 ideological and political tradition. Whenever the UNP is in power, they deconstruct this model and the hopelessness pushes the unemployed rural youths to rally around the JVP in large numbers. The UNP’s non-distributive social and capitalist policies further engender the rural sector and marginalize the rural youths. The JVP military projects utilized this fully in the past. It can be argued that the UNP government during 1965-70 created the rural unemployment leading to the 1971 insurrection. A similar rise in rural unemployment under the UNP government between 1977 and 1986 led to   many unemployed rural youths joining the   JVP military project during 1987-89.  The patterns of surges of the JVP membership and their subsequent electoral successes are linked ideologically and politically to its electoral union with SLFP. The JVP’s electoral success in 2004 as a partner of the UPFA gave them a profile of a credible force. Their comprehensive defeat in 2010 demonstrates that they are unable to achieve electoral success without the SLFP. The election results showed that their supporters had abandoned the party. Even politically hosting General Sarath Fonseka (SF) could not save their face.

Political violence

The JVP has been one of the main contributors to the violence that pervades Sri Lankan political culture. The current leadership of the JVP has conveniently forgotten their violent political behavior and how they assassinated their political critics and dissenters without any mercy. They killed students, trade union and political leaders, even journalists. Again this kind of political criminality could be traced back   the issue of RW’s opposition to giving emphasis and priority to trade union activities when he was making it    an issue of resignation from the CP (P). In 1989 they assassinated George Ratnayake, Communist Party affiliated General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Jathika Gurusangamaya in 1989 in Habaraduwa who was a comrade and close friend of mine. In the same year they killed LW Panditha, the Communist Party affiliated a prominent trade union leader in Colombo. They killed Vijaya Kumaratunga the political leader who was determined to stop the war and offer a political solution to the ethnic issue. They did not even spare the student leaders. One of them was Daya Pathirana, President and the founder of Independent Student Union at the Colombo University. There are others who were killed. All of them supported the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as a political solution. This goes back again to the second issue of RW where he opposed the special attention given to the Indian plantation workers. RW’s anti- trade union and anti Tamil political ideology had become the guiding principle for its militant project. The JVP was also responsible of assassinating Premakeerthi de Alwis a talented journalist who worked for the SLBC.

When the current JVP leadership campaigns for political and democratic rights including the suppression of journalist by the current regime they need to accept their own serious political mistakes and responsibility during their violent years. So far they have never acknowledged the responsibility. Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian sociologist and postmodern philosopher makes a clear and compelling ethical argument against political violence in following words. ‘One thing that never ceases to surprise   the naïve ethical consciousness is how the very same people who commit terrible acts of violence towards their enemies  can display warm humanity and gentle care  for the members of their own group’ (VIOLENCE , Six  Sideways Reflections,2009, p 40). They are not enemies but they are people who JVP claimed to be fighting for. It was not their enemies the JVP had assassinated but those who had different political opinions in the Left in relation to democracy and basic democratic rights of the ethnic minorities in this country. It is inconceivable to politically rationalize the decision of the General who headed the Sri Lankan army to ally himself with the one of the most politically irresponsible parties in the country. The JVP’s failure to discuss their violent history, the armed strategy to capture state   power and the lessons they have learnt from their tragedies shows    their commitment to democracy and basic democratic rights is not reassuring at all. This where the JVP is ambiguous and out of fashion with the democratic battles in coming years.

The Future

As long as the UPFA are in power the JVP’s ability to influence the rural constituency is very limited because of two basic reasons. The Sinhala hegemonic political ideology as a political asset has been seized by the UPFA who are able effectively to capitalize on it for their own political advantage. The JVP’s ideological affinity to the Sinhala Buddhist ideology will remain but will be politically ineffective in the face of the UPFA’s political dominance. However, any political solution offered to the Tamil community will be used by the JVP to revive its fortunes in the rural constituency. Secondly the UPFA’s ability to implement the “rural social mobility model’, encroaches into a traditional source of JVP support base .These two factors will continue to keep the JVP in its “mummified” state. The General will try to repay his political gratitude to the JVP for providing him with a political domicile but this will not be adequate to reviving the party’s political fortunes.

The likelihood of the JVP’s ability to come to life from their mummified political position depends on how the UPFA will take politics forward with the massive mandate it has received. If the government gives free rein to its politically authoritarian tendencies it will provide new opportunities and greater space   for the JVP to make inroads into their support, given the political forces and groups that would suffer due to such political suppressions. This can lead to another disaster. The real danger is that when the state displays authoritarian tendencies the JVP has in the past made a grand miscalculation regarding the closure of the democratic space. In the past, such miscalculations have led them to towards the armed struggle. Their class base of rural youths can be easily manipulated for such an adventure.

Sri Lanka needs a political party that can guarantee democracy and social justice for all its people, including devolution of power to ethnic minorities. The UNP is incapable of providing real opposition because of their recent electoral defeat and their feeble leadership. Secondly the UNP also cannot be trusted on these issues. There will be peaceful agitations and demonstrations on localized issues based on unequal access to land and resources, unemployment, ethinic and gender discrimination, police brutality and environmental issues all over the country in coming months and years. These issues will not just go away   and the government cannot resolve these issues using violence and brute force.

It remains to be seen how the government will resolve the issues of political democracy and basic human rights and how they will employ the huge democratic mandate they have received in the face of dissent and political   opposition. If the language of the government is suppression, the JVP, despite their history of brutal violence against people they claimed to be representing and despite their anti-Tamil and anti-devolutionary political discourse, will experience a dangerous political resurrection.