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Price of a dream

On April 5 1971, Sri Lanka’s youth, educated, unemployed and disillusioned with the state, rose in rebellion with a call for justice. Some say they were victims, manipulated by political leaders who feasted on their frustrations while others argue that the insurgents were nothing but terrorists trying to overthrow a democratically elected government. On April 5 1971, a ruling class was rudely awoken to the realities of developing frustrations among the country’s youth, yet they refused to remedy the causes of the uprising, being satisfied by treating the symptoms. They who had the power to change the reoccurrence of history went back to their sombre only to be reminded of their inaction a few years later when the youth of the North rose in rebellion against the perceived discrimination on the grounds of race, while their brothers in the South made the same call for justice citing discrimination on the grounds of class. Even though the uprising in 71 was successfully quelled by the state, the reasons which led the educated youth of this land to a bloody rebellion remain valid even though 36 years have lapsed since their uprising was crushed. On the anniversary of what is now known as the Insurgency of 71, The Nation looks back at the dark moment in Sri Lanka’s history when the youth of the land rose against the state demanding a just society.

By Gihan Indraguptha
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna was first conceived by a few leftist youth at a meeting held at Kalattawa in 1967. Its leader was a charismatic man by the name of Don Nandasiri Wijeweera who had substituted Rohana as his first name. This Russian educated medical student had first toyed with the Communist Party, until he formed his own party with a few loyalists. This was a time when the world was embracing the romantic notion of revolution as a serious option of change and progress. Fidel Castro had done it a decade ago and Che Guevara was propagating revolution in South America with much zeal.

The 71 insurrection was a disaster just waiting to happen. The ingredients for the tragedy were slowly put in to a boiling pot while the ruling elite were embroiled in their own power struggles. By 1970 the population of the country had doubled since independence, and thanks to the free education system most young people had by then acquired some sort of secondary education. Though education gave the promise for a brighter tomorrow, in reality these educated youth faced the indignity of being unemployed even though they were well qualified in paper. These youth were easily persuaded by an eloquent series of lectures delivered by JVP leaders which highlighted the causes of this injustice and presented a revolution as the solution.

By late 1969 the JVP had begun to acquire weapons in order to topple the government. In 1970 Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected as Prime Minister with a landslide majority. However, before the end of that year the JVP’s plan to topple this democratically elected government was in place. Weapons were collected, volunteers recruited and trained for the seizure of state power. However, on March 13 Wijeweera was taken in to custody and sent to the Jaffna prison.

The uprising
Different claims have been made as to who initiated the April 5 uprising. The official commission which was appointed to look in to the insurgency state that Wijeweera while in prison ordered his comrades to attack state institutions and take over power while others say the JVP leader ordered the contrary, for the insurgents to lie low till he was released. Whatever the right version might be the crucial decision to launch an attack on April 5 was taken on April 2 by a group of young activists who met at the Sangaramaya of the Vidyodaya University. Orders were given to attack police stations islandwide on the evening of April 5 while other groups were assigned to capture vital institutions such as the Panagoda Army Camp, SLBC and power stations. A group consisting of the current JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe was tasked with capturing the Prime Minister while another group of individuals were sent to Jaffna to attack the prison and ensure the release of their leader.

Though the state defence forces were aware of the JVP’s activities, they were uncertain as to when and where the group would attack. On April 5 a group of insurgents attacked the Wellawaya police station in the morning which alerted the defence forces of the impending attacks. Due to some miscommunication the group had carried out the attack at 5.30 am in the morning when the actual islandwide simultaneous attacks were to be launched at 5.30 pm in the evening. Even though the police were in a state of preparedness, 73 stations were attacked while some were overrun. Almost the whole of the southern province fell in to hands of the insurgents. Fighting lasted in these areas for up to three weeks. However, the attacks in Colombo failed and the leaders of the movement had no choice but to go underground. The group tasked with freeing Rohana Wijeweera also failed to achieve their goal.

The insurgency marked a turning point for the three armed forces as well. The army moved in to many areas to fight the insurgents, which was the first such confrontation with armed opponents. The air force used helicopters to bomb insurgent hideouts and the navy too was called in to fight the insurgents. With brutal force, superior firepower and support from friendly countries the insurgency was quelled within a matter of weeks but not before thousands of people were killed. The lessons, if any were conveniently not learned. The same organisation having being forced to go underground in 1983 was involved in a more violent uprising in 1987. Within a matter of years since 71 the Tamil youth would also rebel against the state in their case demanding a separate state to end the perceived discrimination on the grounds of race. That rebellion remains yet to be crushed even though it has taken more than 70,000 lives. Even with frustrations brewing among the youth and the discrimination against rural educated youth still remaining, Sri Lanka remains blissfully oblivious to the writing on the wall, till the next insurrection that is.

Once a rebel...

By Jayashika Padmasiri
Was the 1971 JVP insurrection a lost cause? People died, some went in to hiding, and innocent people were killed by both the insurgents and the government. All these incidents are part of history now. A vast number of people, the numbers range between 15,000 and 30,000, died due to the insurgency. Some of the eternal questions posed from time to time as we talk about the 1971 insurrection are: Who killed who? Who is responsible? Who started it? What made them start it? But this question has different answers depending who you talk to. All these questions are important but even though three decades have passed the answers seem distant as they were in 1971.
The Editor in Chief Ravaya Victor Ivan, a prominent activist, is one person who was apart of this insurrection. The 7th accused in the trial has come a long way since his insurgent youth. After many years, today, how does he feel about the insurrection?

“It was a waste of time, lives and energy and I’m really sorry for it. I do not believe that any insurrection can bring any solution for any country any more. Nothing was gained; people suffered and are still suffering. A suppressed state is the only thing that can come out of an insurrection. We were all young and full of emotion. We had a plan to gain power but not to govern. It was a dream, a nice but dangerous dream. To acquire power if you take arms, the result will be that the state can suppress these kinds of things. I read a lot and wrote a lot when I was in prison. And now I have learned that without arms and violence we can achieve things. There will be struggles, but no violence, like Gandhi we can achieve things. The present JVP is in the mainstream now, but still their ideology is backwards. They are against any federal system or foreign influence. I believe that when one is young, if you’re not a socialist then you will never learn anything, first socialism, and then liberal” said Victor Ivan reflecting on his role in the insurrection and how he has moved on since.

Our country has seen many heroes, kings and leaders. The country has seen how people gain power, cling to it and how they fight for power. But these heroes fall, their ideologies change, some die, while some give up. And the system, that these heroes tried to change or fight against still lay corrupt and sometimes they themselves get corrupt in the mist. There is a famous song by John Meyers called “waiting on the world to change”. The words go like this,
“It’s hard to beat the system
When we are standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change”

We all wait till the world changes. But the 1971 insurrection, revolution or what ever it was, whether we are sorry for it now or not, it was one step that some people took to change the world, without waiting, like we do now.

Revolutionists never die

“Whenever ya see a cop beating a guy
Wherever a hungry new born baby cries
Wherever there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me ma’
I’ll be there
Wherever somebody is struggling for a place to stand
For a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody is struggling to be free
Look in their eyes ma,
You’ll see me!”

By Rathindra Kuruwita
What makes Che Guevara special? What make him the poster boy of an idealistic generation? What in him impressed the otherwise cynical and sceptical Jean Paul Sartre to describe Guevara as “the most complete human being of our age”. What makes millions around the world consider him more a god than human 40 years after his death? To find an answer to these questions we might have to look beyond his ideology. To understand his everlasting appeal we might have to turn to our childhood, folklore and popular culture.

Let us look at a familiar tale of a romantic hero. He comes when the entire country is in peril, when the country is in the brink of collapse. Either it could be an evil knight holding the beautiful princess in captivity or a fire breathing dragon terrorising the country or it maybe the evil king oppressing the innocent. As I said, he comes, defeats the villain and restores law and order. Then instead of settling down and marrying the beautiful princess he refuses the crown and walks away into the sunset seeking new adventures, new people struggling to be free to make the world a better place. The man may come in different guises; knight in shining armour, a cowboy or a gentleman highwayman but the story remains the same.

He might also come in the form of a rebel. And that is the myth of Che. He is interconnected to other myths and legends so that he’s no longer human but a secular saint. Like so many epics, the story of the obscure Argentine doctor, who abandoned his profession and his native land to pursue the emancipation of the poor of the earth, began with a voyage. This voyage is the familiar story of the boy coming of age through experience, Che the romantic doing what he had to do in Cuba and mysteriously leaving the revolution to continue the struggle against oppression and tyranny. This always reminds me of the Western classic “Shane” in which the cowboy rides in to the night after defeating the bad guys, turning his back to the love offered to him and making the neighbourhood a ‘good place for a boy to grow up”, his death in Bolivia while fighting for the freedom of a nation that was not his own evokes the death of Lord Byron in Greece. That Christ-like figure laid out on a bed of death with his uncanny eyes almost about to open; those fearless last words (“Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man”) the anonymous burial and the hacked-off hands, as if his killers feared him more after he was dead than when he had been alive: all of it is scalded into the mind and memory of those defiant time.

So that may provide an answer why millions around the world feel a strange affinity towards Che. For us Sri Lankans, who live in a nation plagued with politicians that never seem to know when to let go, a leader who does his duty and leaves without clinging to power seems little short of miraculous. But in a time when the example set by the great man is relevant to the political context, sadly, the political parties who claim to be influenced by Che seem to be moving in a diametrically opposite direction to the one he took.

Che never took the easy roads to power. He didn’t try to stir petty emotions to reach his goals. No pointing fingers at a scapegoat to hide his own inabilities. Most importantly he didn’t want to replace a ruler with another and criticize him for not being able to live up to unrealistic expectations. He believed that he had to find an alternative to the system, not alternatives in the system. It is a pity to see a political party which modelled itself upon Che’s teachings, degenerated into an organization that represents everything Che hated; racism, intolerance and blind faith. Che’s ideas were always ahead of his time. He showed the way to the society he wanted to change, the masses, because he knew they needed proper guidance from men with a vision. But what do we see in Sri Lanka, the revolutionary party is behind its times ironically seeking inspiration from the very society it wants to change.
Forty years down the line what is the relevance of Che? His guerrilla tactics might not be relevant in today’s world and neither are his philosophical musings. But his love and compassion for his fellow human beings seem to be his most important legacy. As the late Tupac Shakur said “every revolutionary act is an act of love” so what does that make Che’s act of love?

“Never, never, never again!”

Somawansa Amerasinghe is the only leader of the 71 insurrection yet to remain with the JVP. While many of his insurgent colleges moved on to other fields or joined other political parties, Amerasinghe remained with the JVP and holds the dubious honour of being the only surviving member of the JVP’s 1989 politburo. He believes that there was a need for the 71 insurrection and significant achievements were made as a result of it. Speaking to The Nation Amerasinghe said that it was the insurgency which resulted in the 1972 republic constitution. “We were accused of rebelling against the queen. We pointed out that there is no Sri Lankan Government at that time but one of the queen. It was this which led to the 72 constitution that made us a republic”. Amerasinghe who was one of the members tasked with capturing Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on April 5 recalled that there were traitors among the leadership. Speaking of Rohana Wijeweera, the current JVP leader said that Wijeweera was one of the great leaders if not the greatest leader that the country had since independence. “He formed a political party that could never be destroyed by undemocratic forces. The JVP has come along way since its early days and has learned much from its violent history” according to Amerasinghe who added “we believe in reforms as well as we believe in revolution. Now we are a mature party, the need for a revolution should come from the people”. On the crucial question of whether his party will ever resort to a same type of revolution to change the prevailing system the answer is definite from Amerasinghe, “never never never again, that is history, we have learned from it”. - (GI)

Loss of youth

Like many youth insurrections, the 71 insurgency was crushed with brutal force. The sustenance of the prevailing system was more important than the means by which it was achieved. Though many a heinous acts were committed by both the insurgents and the security forces during that time, one such incident shocked the whole country because of its sadistic cruelty.

Katharagama was a hot bed of insurgent activity after April 5. Until April 16 the area was under the control of the insurgents. However, with the arrival of an army unit led by a young lieutenant the situation was brought under control. On that day the police arrested a group of girls thought to be associated with the insurgents. Among them was 20 year old Premavathi Manamperi, who had become the festival queen at the previous year’s Avurudu festivals in Katharagama. Having tortured the girl throughout the night the army officer couldn’t gather any important information from the young activist. This made him furious and on the next day the lieutenant made Premavathi strip her cloths and walk naked across the town while being kicked by the officer and one of his men. Near the post office the lieutenant opened fire on the girl with his automatic riffle. After ordering the body to be buried the officer returned to his camp to be later told that she was still alive. On two separate occasions soldiers returned to shoot her after being informed that she had not died. Finally the life of the beauty queen of Katharagama ended when a bullet was fired at her head. She was just another victim of the anti insurgency which killed an estimated 30, 000 youth by some counts. Yet the brutal murder of the young girl shocked a nation and brought home the price paid by the youth for their dream of a just society. -
(GI)

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