Mutiny on the Bounty courtesy Weerawansa!

By a strange quirk of fate the activities of the Peoples’ Liberation Front- or more familiarly the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) - seems to run in approximately eighteen year cycles. The leftist organisation staged their first insurrection in 1971 and then orchestrated a second revolt against the state in 1989.

Both rebellions were brutally crushed but now, nineteen years later, the wheel has turned a full circle. There is another uprising but this time around, it is coming from within; some comrades themselves are up in arms challenging the party leadership.

At the helm of the mutiny is Wimal Weerawansa, the charismatic, fashionable if somewhat paradoxical public face of the JVP. The propaganda secretary of the JVP is leading a group of dissident members of Parliament numbering ten and challenging the authority of leader Somawansa Amerasinghe.

The JVP has come a long way since its inception in the mid-sixties when Rohana Wijeweera trudged through the length and breadth of the country conducting his famous ‘panthi paha’ or five classes which was aimed at indoctrinating a mostly young population of party members.

The 1971 insurgency followed which was clinically crushed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Although Wijeweera was given a twenty year prison sentence and packed off to the Jaffna prison, by 1982 he was back in the political arena and contesting J. R. Jayewardene at the presidential poll, after being released by Jayewardene himself.

That honeymoon with democracy did not last long. Under Jayewardene’s Indo-Lanka accord and Ranasinghe Premadasa’s autocratic rule, the JVP believed it had a fertile breeding ground for its revolution, only to be ruthlessly decapitated, with Wijeweera and his generation of leaders -except Amerasinghe- being killed in the 1989 uprising.

In the two insurrections that the JVP staged, the party demonstrated that they would not hesitate to use violence as a means to an end. If the 1971 rebellion was nasty, brutish and short what followed eighteen years later was especially horrendous. It is pertinent to note that the security forces -whom the JVP hails now- were a prioritised target then.

That the JVP returned to democratic politics after such a violent history is both remarkable and welcome. And they swam well within the democratic mainstream: At the last general election, they outwitted the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to have 39 of its representatives elected to Parliament -an exceptional outcome for a party which cannot consistently boast of a vote base of even ten percent of the population.

Since then, the JVP has tried every trick in the book to enhance its writ. It has stoked the flames of war and it has deftly walked a political tightrope, publicly lambasting President Mahinda Rajapaksa regularly but supporting his government in Parliament. 
And now there is a rift. The battle between the Weerawansa and Somawansa factions has been analysed in the media ad nauseum. Some see a class struggle; others say it is merely a clash of personalities. Then there is the conspiracy theory with a hidden hand. We do not wish to revisit that issue here.  

However, what emerges after the fractioning of the JVP is more sinister. Several supporters of the Weerawansa group, including Parliamentarians, have been assaulted in incidents eerily reminiscent of 1989: a knock on the door in the middle of the night followed by physical harassment of a degrading nature. Even members of the Patriotic National Movement (PNM) have also been singled out for this treatment. And the trend is disturbing.

Contemporary Sri Lankan politics is littered with the debris of fractured political parties. The SLFP, the United National Party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress all have their Karu Jayasuriyas, Mangala Samaraweeras and Ferial Ashraffs leading their various factions. And they are all in conflict with the parent party. And there is nothing wrong with that because that indicates a virile democracy.

The disputes that these parties have are fought mostly in the corridors of Hulftsdorp - and not through a knock on the door in the middle of the night. And that is where the JVP has been found seriously wanting.

The JVP must understand that this is an acid test for the party. It is easy to proclaim that a party which withstood 1971 and 1989 will survive one man’s revolt. But as Weerawansa himself said, the bullet from within hurts more. Yes, it most certainly will and the people of the country are watching the Somawansa-Weerawansa battle intently not so much wondering who will win but waiting to see how the party deals with it.

So far, what we have seen has been disappointing. Instead of civilised debate, an attempt at reconciliation or even legal redress there has been unabashed thuggery and intimidation. A party which preaches lofty ideals and principled politics from platforms appears to be unable to resist its primordial urge for the revolution - it wants to lynch those opposed to it, even if they are their own erstwhile colleagues.

Already the general public, sick and tired of the hypocrisy of the leading political parties in the country and saying ‘unuth ekai, munuth ekai’ to them are readying themselves to consign the JVP to the same heap as yet another bunch of opportunistic and unscrupulous politicians. And the JVP is doing everything possible to earn that label.

Surely, the JVP knows that its credibility as a political party lies in the fact that it is different: different in principles as well as in ideology. Its ‘clean as whistle’ image earned for them many votes from a public yearning for change. Now, it seems that the more they change, the more they stay the same.
The JVP should not ask for whom the bell tolls; it is high time they realise that it tolls for them.