News Features

The JVP that was and now perhaps may not be!

By Vindya Amaranayake and Ishara Jayawardane
If ever there was a political party in Sri Lanka that underwent such calamitous transformation, from being a radical Marxist entity to a hardcore democratic nationalist movement, it is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

From its formation in 1966, until today it has walked a tight rope, surviving two uprisings and total annihilation in the hands of the two major political parties – first by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalition in 1971 and then by the United National Party (UNP) in 1987-89.

However, it is undeniable that the JVP has made its presence felt – quite convincingly – in the political arena since its ascent to mainstream politics in 1994. Yet, there has always been one factor, which distinguished the JVP from other political parties that were clamouring for the prize of governmental authority: They never resorted to wash their dirty linen before the public and always stood as a group, in the face of dire criticism over their policies and stances.

But this is no more. The defection of 10 JVP parliamentarians, led by raucous MP Wimal Weerawansa opened floodgates of the party. For the first time in the party’s history, the public witnessed how far the rotten politics of the country has infiltrated the party of ex-rebels.

It must be noted however that, defection is not a novel phenomena to the JVP. In September 2006, the party’s Presidential Candidate Nandana Gunatillake left the party citing irreconcilable differences with the leadership, to function as an independent MP in Parliament. Yet, there was no mudslinging. Internal rifts remained very much internal.

Again in January 2008, Minister Mahinda Rathnathilake’s Media Secretary Sampath Dimuthu Ketapearachchi revealed a party plot to keep MP Sunil Handunnetti under house arrest. During the ensuing weeks, the public learnt that matters were not so rosy within the Red party anymore. Internal affairs begin to leak out and the public smelt a rat in the explanations provided by party stalwarts.
However, never in the history of the party has it witnessed a phenomenon where skeletons were made to perform nadagam before the public, as it is done now. The JVP has always prided itself over their party unity and strong group mentality. While the two main parties crumbled and splintered into smaller parties, so much so that the public were confused over some MPs’ party allegiances, the JVP always stood aloof defying such temptation. They said in one voice – ‘we cannot be bought.’ Even those who opposed the JVP on ideological bases could not fail to notice the integrity of the members when it came to party loyalty.

After his defection from the party, the speech made by Weerawansa in Parliament was critiqued by many not so much because of what he said, but the manner in which he addressed the House: The vocal prowess that made the MP popular was not perceivable. It was similar to a lamentation of a child whose toy was snatched away by a cruel adult. There was no mature political integrity.

The reaction of the party leadership and his loyalists was not dissimilar either. Once fallen from grace, Weerawansa was nothing but some troublesome entity that conspired to destroy the party. His contribution to the party and its development as a nationalist movement is now forgotten.

Banished from Paradise, what does the former hero do – form another political movement, in a move not so different from the members of other political parties.


In retrospect, going all the way back to 1965, it is apparent that dissident politics is not as unfamiliar to the JVP as it is imagined by many today. Rohana Wijeweera, the celebrated founder leader of the JVP, broke away from the Ceylon Communist Party with a group of radicals to form a new movement on May 14, 1965.

Hence, just like the inception of the SLFP, the JVP too hails from a breakaway faction of another political party. Armed with youth drive and passion, the group then led the 1971 Insurrection, which is perceived as a lost revolution today.

After the attempted annihilation and the trials and tribulations, the top leaders of the party were imprisoned. Yet, they rose from the ashes in 1987, to lead another rebellion in the south. The notable difference was that most of the educated and idealistic leaders who were willing to sacrifice their life to form a Communist state were present at the second insurrection.

Many have left the country and many claimed disillusion with regard to their idealist cause in 1971. In a bid to gather their views on the present status of the JVP, The Nation spoke to former insurgent and present Deputy Power and Energy Minister Athula Nimalsiri Jayasinghe (Loku Athula).

His prediction was that the JVP would only be engaged in active politics for the next 10-20 years: “The party will be reduced to oblivion and then we will see only a few bearded red-shirted individuals. By that time they will be old trying to carry the casket of the JVP.”

Commenting on the formation of the JVP in 1965 he said, Wijeweera’s intentions in forming the party was far from being altruistic. “Socialism was a theory that appealed to everyone at that time. Wijeweera used this to recruit members to the party. His intentions were not altruistic. Socialism was a pretext. So, many disillusioned members left the JVP later on and the standard label he gave everyone was ‘the traitor.’ He never cared about the nation,” he said.

Jayasinghe added that the JVP has not changed over the years and its policies remain the same. “JVP has not changed much. The ideas disseminated by Wijeweera remain as they were in 1965.”

He also said that before the 87-89 uprising, Wijeweera had an underground armed organisation while pretending to engage in democratic politics. “The JVP says one thing publicly and the next moment they are ready for a revolution. A genuine revolutionary party will publicly declare their policy.”


PNM retains Weerawansa as General Secretary

Even when he was among party favourites, Wimal Weerawansa was a strong supporter of the Patriotic National Movement (PNM). In fact, he was the General Secretary of the movement. According to PNM Chairman Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, Weerawansa is still the General Secretary and will remain so.

In the meantime, the dissident group has expressed its their intention to form a new political movement with the support of the PNM. In an interview with The Nation, Dr. Amarasekara explained the role of the PNM and the ideology behind the movement.
However, it was apparent that the PNM disseminates an ideology, which is in contrast to the JVP ideology that Weerawansa claims he still adheres to. Therefore, the questions arise whether two groups believing in contrasting ideologies can work together as one political force. Yet, stranger things have happened in this country and only time will tell the future of the JVP and Wimal Weerawansa.

Following are excerpts of the interview with Dr. Amarasekara:
Q: What is the ideology behind the PNM?
“Our ideology is something called a Nationalistic Ideology. What we want to do is to collect all the nationalistic forces and present an ideology to the people based on a kind of civilisational consciousness. We tried to achieve a civilisational ideology, which cuts across all these political lines. Till we achieved independence there was no national liberation struggle, unlike in India. As a result, we never had a national ideology. After 50 years of independence we have not been able to build a national ideology.”

Q: Do you mean to say that Marxist socialist theories failed because they were not built on a national ideology?
Yes, the pity of it is that they took it in a very simplistic manner. They never understood – probably at that time there was no thinking on these lines.

Q: What brought forth the formation of a movement such as the JVP?
The JVP would never have come up if not for the 1956 change. It was the 1956 change that took politics to the rural masses. The main change was that politics was taken to the rural masses. Up to that time, politics was ruled by the elitist class in Colombo. For the first time, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and other nationalist forces took politics to the rural masses. Prior to that, there was another event of great importance – 1944 free education. For the first time, C.W.W. Kannangara took English education to the masses and created a form of intelligentsia. Bandaranaike took politics to the rural areas. These were the two events that gave rise to the JVP, who came from those classes in the rural area. They are called the ‘Children of ’56.’

What constitutes the JVP is the rural youth. If after ’56, the SLFP had a vision, if they knew where they were going, then, if they had changed the economic policy and political policy and had vision and acted and looked after the children of that intelligentsia, the JVP would not have come up as a political force. What happened was after ’56, the SLFP never acted with a vision. As soon as they came to power they didn’t know where they were going, they had a simplistic vision as well. They never realised that if they had acted properly with a vision, the youth would not have banded to form a JVP. After ’56, the rural youth had some access to education, they were aware of their political crisis but they were not looked after. They were really a frustrated underprivileged class and also with petty bourgeois ambitions. A semi educated rural youth who knew that they should have a place in the sun. The onus goes to the SLFP.

Q: How do you perceive the 1971 insurrection?
By 1971, Rohana Wijeweera, who was a bit of a romantic, thought he could get hold of the rural chaps. However, after the failure of the ’71 insurgency, he matured and decided to enter the political stream. In ’83 as they were making a mark, J.R. Jayewardene banned the party, which was a great mistake. When they were banned on one completely false pretext, they were blamed for the Black July even though they had nothing to do with that. As a result, the JVP went underground and resorted to insurrections and violence.

Q: Do you call them Marxists?
I wouldn’t call them a Marxist party. They may use some Marxist slogans and so on. Whatever it is, Marxism is a humanist ideology. Of course, it never succeeded in the West and it was taken by Lenin in Russia and Mao and those versions are not Marxist. The way it ended up in Russia was Stalinist, an anti-humanist dictatorial party in the name of Socialism. It was the model that appealed to these boys: the dictatorial anti-human Marxism of Stalin. The JVP has the Stalinist ideology. I wouldn’t call it a Marxist ideology. You can see the JVP after J.R., once again they entered the democratic mainstream. During the insurrection of ‘87 they displayed utterly inhuman and despicable behaviour. One could say that they had no access to democratic means and had to resort to violence. Then they once again entered the democratic stream and banded up with SLFP.

Q: How do you perceive the rift within the JVP today?
Where the break up is concerned, I feel that it is a clash of ideologies. As usual, the personalities maybe involved. This is definitely a clash of ideologies because basically as I told you, the JVP believes in revolution and though they have entered the democratic process, I don’t think they have much faith in the democratic process. I think they are basically in that Stalinist frame of mind: That socialism can be pushed down the throat. However, Wimal Weerawansa belongs to a new generation. He is not a man who was involved in the insurrection of ’87-89, he was a man who joined the party as a school boy. And I think he was exposed to much of these debates, intellectual debates and discussions. Probably he was also influenced like that. He happens to believe in the democratic process and believes in our national ideology.

In fact, I knew that at some stage that could happen, that these two ideologies can’t go together. It had to happen at some stage. And I think it has happened. I think what is preferable is for Wimal to take over the party and get the party to agree with him and in that context I think it is a very good thing that happened. Somawansa’s faction must rethink and adjust themselves. They must rethink because of the fate that the Marxists have suffered in this country. Somawansa must think very seriously.

Q: What is the future of the JVP ?
I think, if they are going to have a future they must rethink where they have gone wrong. Some ideological change is necessary.


Weerawansa’s political ideology

Meanwhile, The Nation spoke to JVP strongman Anura Kumara Dissanayake to learn the party’s reaction to Weerawansa’s intention to form a new political movement. “It is anyone’s right to form a political party. We cannot deny that. This is one such instance.”

When queried whether Weerawansa’s absence is going to create a void in the party, Dissanayake said that when anyone leaves any entity, inevitably, there is going to be a void. But he affirmed that the party will not be weakened by the void, but it will remain as strong as ever.

Referring to the conflict at hand, he said, “Our party is based on three main values: Discipline, principles and trust. In the absence of one, a member cannot stay. The reason why Wimal is out of the party is because we adhere to our principles. Otherwise, he would still be here. It also means that there is still discipline within the party.”

He added that all those who say that the party has been weakened, can see the party’s strength in the near future. Dissanayake also said that if the party has weakened, there would not have been such a strong public participation at their May Day celebration on Thursday. “The fact that the people are there, means that we are still strong.”
However, the attempts made at contacting members of the dissident group were not successful.