By Dr. S. Narapalasingam
The recent split in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-People’s Liberation Front has revealed the contradictions within the party as well as between ideologies and realpolitik. Besides the clash of personalities between Wimal Weerawansa, the party’s high profile propaganda secretary cum parliamentary group leader and Somawansa Amarasinghe the senior politburo leader, there are other reasons for the rift. Since joining the PA as another partner (the new alliance UPFA with SLFP as the main party), JVP was struggling to retain its distinct identity i.e. party different from the UNP, SLFP and the orthodox socialist parties. The “ultra-nationalist, unitarist approach and its opposition to devolution of powers”, which in effect means Sinhala majority rule “distanced it from the left and democratic political forces in Sri Lanka and abroad”-(The Hindu 2 May 2008). A similarity exists between the JVP and the LTTE in the ways the two rebel groups operated before the former abandoned violence as well as in the nature of their ultimate aims which are unrealistic. Wimal Weerawansa was seen personally close to President Rajapaksa and his influential brother Basil Rajapaksa, who is his senior advisor. He has also been a leading member of the Patriotic National Movement (PNM).
Link with PNM
In the interview (’The Nation’ 4 May 2008) with the Chairman of the Patriotic National Movement Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, the latter told that the dissident JVP leader Wimal Weerawansa was still the General Secretary of PNM. Unlike the JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe, Weerawansa was very much involved with the PNM’s programme. Explaining the ‘Nationalistic Ideology’ of the PNM, the chairman said: “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.” The question is whether this ideology has taken cognizance of the ethnic division, exacerbated by the policies of successive governments which finally led to the war for separate Tamil homeland in the North-East. It is naive to assume that the ‘Nationalistic Ideology’ will bring the much needed unity, stability and peace.
[Protest campaign organized by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna against the opening of UN Human Right office in Sri Lanka on 22nd March 2007, opposite the UN Office in Colombo-pic: jvpsrilanka.com]
The PNM chairman told the Marxist socialist theories failed because these were not built on a nationalistic ideology. He did not consider the JVP to be a Marxist party, although some Marxist slogans were used. “Marxism is a humanist ideology. It never succeeded in the West and it was taken by Lenin in Russia and Mao (in China) and those versions are not Marxism. 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 (Rohana Wijeweera and his associates); the dictatorial anti-human Marxism of Stalin. The JVP has the Stalinist ideology. I wouldn’t call it a Marxist ideology”. Its first leader, Rohana Wijeweera was a former student (dropout) of the Patrice Lumumba University in Russia and a member of N Shanmugathasan’s communist party or the ‘Peking Wing’ which he left in 1965 and formed his own political (Marxist) party-the JVP. According to Dr. Amarasekara, the break up of the JVP is largely the result of the clash of ideologies. Moreover, the followers of Rohana Wijeweera still believe in the radical way of gaining power even though they are in the mainstream of democratic politics and the dissidents, according to the PNM chairman, sincerely believe in the normal democratic process and in the ‘Nationalistic Ideology’ of the PNM.
He also told that the JVP members with the Stalinist frame of mind believe that “socialism can be pushed down the throat” of the people. But then, the same can be said of the nationalism of the PNM and the JVP dissidents, unless it is acceptable to all the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the country. The conditions to realize the concept of one people and one nation have been destroyed by the divisive policies and actions of the power hungry egoistic leaders. This nationalism is another notional view or belief that ignores the real situation. It cannot be imposed on those whose ideas of nationalism are different-not ethnocentric. Ethnocentric nationalism in a multi ethnic country is divisive.
Patriotism is said to be the last refuge of a scoundrel. In the context of the power struggle within the Sinhala polity, it is the refuge of those seeking power deceptively. Patriotism of the desperate power seekers who are keen on exploiting the internal divisions in the society is nothing but jingoism. The JVP has been playing this ‘patriotism’ card carefully to avoid being branded as a racist party. If loyalty to Sinhala nationalism is considered to be the desired patriotism, the latter is also divisive. There must be some political motive for the PNM to have had a hand in the break up of the JVP.
The JVP and the breakaway JNP
Early 2008 cracks within the JVP began to appear. On March 21 the Party suspended the membership of its parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa. A group of 11 JVP parliamentarians backed Weerawansa and warned of their intent to form a new political movement, unless their leader’s membership was restored. Both JVP groups vehemently oppose the LTTE who are now hated more than ever by the Sinhala community. The Sinhala nationalists back strongly the present government mainly because of its military campaign to destroy the LTTE. The prejudice and apprehension of the Sinhala masses have been exacerbated after the resumption of the war in early 2006. The JVP has no plan to seek a constitutional settlement to the ethnic conflict and the split is not going to make any difference to their stand on the ethnic issue.
According to MP Nandana Gunatillake who left the JVP much earlier and now is with the dissident group: “The new political movement would not be a carbon copy of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna” though it would “follow the original strategies of the JVP”. It would not be based on proletariat; the doors will be open to anyone who is ‘patriotic and progressive’. This shift is considered necessary to weaken other political parties competing for power under the existing political system. At the inaugural meeting held in Colombo on May 14, the leader of the new political party, ‘Jathika Nidahas Peramuna’ (JNP) Wimal Weerawansa said, unlike the JVP their party will be the real alternative to UNP and SLFP and not the JVP. Dissident MP Nanda Gunatillake is its General Secretary. Although the main party depends largely on the support of Sinhala nationalists, its reaction to the formation of JNP (English equivalent ‘National Freedom Front-NFF’) was apparent from the statement that it is useful only for “fanning the sentiments of Sinhala chauvinism”.
In recent months, the JVP leadership has found two enemies to scare the people and portray the party as the only organized group conscious of the impending danger to Sri Lanka that wants to take pre-emptive action to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. JVP regards India as a formidable enemy. Recently the leaders have come up with an additional foe, namely, the imperialistic forces in the West. People are being told that some countries have not abandoned their past colonial design and are trying to keep Sri Lanka under their influence by other means!
It was India that helped the present leader Somawansa Amarasinghe to escape to the West when the then Sri Lankan government was hunting for JVP activists. After the demise of Party leader, Rohana Wijeweera on November 13, 1989 while in government custody, Somawansa Amarasinghe became the only surviving politburo member. His anti-Indian rhetoric was very pungent in his speech delivered at the JVP May Day rally held in the Colombo Town Hall May 1. He said: “We say very clearly that India is an enemy of our country. Those who did not believe it earlier should believe it now. India has signed various pacts with the government. Through them, it is trying to intervene in Sri Lanka and fulfill its objective of dividing this country”.
JVP’s political strategy is also visible in the party’s May Day message. It stated-”the true meaning of the International Workers Day can be realized only by rallying all patriotic forces led by the working people into a broad anti-imperialist front against imperialism and its covert and overt local agents”. It accused the present government of helping the enemies to destabilize the island nation and achieve their sinister aims. “Government’s stupid action without any foresight has made the nation kneel down before our neighbour India and made us an easy prey to the imperialists’ designs. It has become a more serious issue because the Rajapaksa regime under the guise of being patriots and advocating a unitary state have become slaves of the imperialists and thereby supporting separatism.”
Even countries like China and India recognize the dependence of their economies on the outside world and are not hallucinating about losing their sovereignty to the machinations of powerful countries. The JVP has not realized that we now live in an interdependent world and the capital resource and economic dependence is great for developing countries struggling to increase the pace of development and improve the living conditions of the people-many living below the poverty line. It is well known there is no threat from any quarter to democratic countries where the governments duly elected by the people act on their behalf to meet their needs and aspirations. Only those who have some real reason or reasons to fear, will oppose the UN approved ‘R2P’-Responsibility to Protect-as happened recently in Sri Lanka. The plight of the survivors of Cyclone Nargis that hit Burma (Myanmar) is another instance that highlights the difference between dictatorial and democratic regimes. The reluctance of the junta to remove restrictions to enable swift flow of the urgently needed humanitarian aid is the main reason for some concerned foreign leaders to press for making R2P functional.
JVP and APRC
In his speech at the May Day rally, the JVP leader said that “separatism was once again raising its ugly head in the country. The party will crush attempts by the government to introduce a federal power devolution solution through Minister Tissa Vitharana”. The JVP MP Vijitha Herath stressed on May 2 that his party would strongly oppose any All Party Representative Committee (APRC) proposals for a final solution to the ethnic conflict, if the proposals were based on a mixture of Unitary and Federal models. The possibility of APRC recommending such a structure appeared from the statements made by the APRC chairman Tissa Vitharana after his recent visit along with some fellow committee members to the United Kingdom to study the power-sharing and devolution arrangements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Another prominent Sinhala nationalist S. L. Gunasekara Attorney-at-law has ridiculed the APRC and its chairman in his recent article (Daily Mirror 5 May 2008). To quote: “…a peculiar body called the APRC, purportedly engaged in the nonsensical exercise of trying to find a solution to our ‘National Problem’ by devising a new Constitution with provision for ‘maximum devolution’, has just returned after a tour of England and Northern Ireland where they went for more costly ‘private tuition’ on devolution within a unitary Constitution! Trying to solve our ‘National Problem’ by discussing the ‘Irish experience’ of the United Kingdom, is like seeking to acquire knowledge about orthopedic surgery by visiting operating theatres in maternity hospitals!” To some, Centralism, Unitarianism, Majoritarianism and the like are indispensable for safeguarding the Sinhala supremacy. Those who oppose devolution are really against any weakening of this superior status of the ethnic majority Sinhalese which they think is vital for the future of the Sinhala nation.
JVP and LTTE
In the case of the JVP their past awful record has not hindered its emergence as the third largest political party in Sri Lanka. In the April 2004 general election, JVP won 39 seats largely because of the electoral agreement with the PA (SLFP was the main party in the coalition) and the peculiar proportional representation system introduced in 1978. Both the PA and JVP contested the election under the common banner of the UPFA. Dr. A. C. Visvalingam, President, Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance in ‘The Island’ May 3 has noted that ‘Naming and Shaming’ as a method of expressing disapproval does not work in Sri Lanka. Among other cases, he has mentioned the JVP’s past reckless actions, which were different from those of the LTTE only because the former lasted for a brief period. To quote: “Rohana Wijeweera was responsible for leading a movement against the lawful government of Sri Lanka on two separate occasions, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent persons and misled youth. Leading members of the media were among his victims. Inter alia, he caused his followers to rob banks, kill hundreds of innocent civilians in a brutal manner, attack the Katunayake Airport, violate the sanctity of the Dalada Maligawa and attempt to kill Sirimavo Bandaranaike in order to capture state power. For his admirers to ask the public to forgive and forget Wijeweera’s crimes, would be one thing but it is quite a different matter to mislead gullible members of the public, particularly those who were not old enough in 1988-1990 to understand what the public was being subjected to then”. The JVP is now in the forefront condemning stridently the crimes of the LTTE which have been denounced globally and the organization banned in several countries. No sensible person can justify the indiscriminate violence but this detestation should not take the attention away from the causes that transformed the non-violent struggle into a bloody conflict. Even in declared wars there are rules to be obeyed.
The JNP the newly formed party has vowed to find solutions to Sri Lanka’s political problems within ten years! JVP’s way of solving the ethnic problem is also to strengthen the unitary structure and when the power comes in their hands they will deal with it. From their ideology this is understandable, but it is strange that the present SLFP leadership also does not envisage any structural change. In this regard the government’s public statements are very vague blaming the LTTE for the lack of initiative. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressing the Oxford University Student Union on May 13 said: “They (LTTE) have always left the talks, with lame excuses. We are still ready to talk, once we are certain of their genuine intent for a political solution and their readiness to give up arms.” His uncompromising stand on the unitary structure is well known and even the moderate Tamils find it difficult to accept some thing that is the very root of the problem. The common problem with successive leaders is the lack of political will and courage to take corrective actions promptly without succumbing to nationalistic forces. These have also been exploited for their own political advantage.
Not only the country but also the people have already lost immensely because of the futile war. The Tamils have incurred extremely painful losses including many lives as a result of internecine killings. The education of Tamil children has also suffered badly. The cultural damage is immense. The present situation reflects the price of prolonging the violence rejecting all opportunities for a reasonable settlement within undivided Sri Lanka. These are also intrinsic to the country’s tragic saga.
Ironically, the JVP and LTTE with their separate unrealistic aims have lent support to each other by their words and deeds. Each grabs anything done or said by the other that is useful to promote or justify their stands. The JVP press release (’Lanka Truth’ 26 April 2008), following the bomb explosion inside a passenger bus in Piliyandala that killed 26 and injured more than 50 on April 25, stated: “This fury of the tiger terrorists could be halted only by defeating them in the political field just as Security Forces are defeating them in the battle field”. How the peace lost since the ethnic problem that started in 1956 with the enactment of the ‘Sinhala only’ language Act intensified into a gory conflict will be regained without any meaningful changes is a mystery! The effective way of defeating the separatists in the political field is to adopt and implement earnestly a suitable devolution package that makes the case for separation redundant.
To the LTTE, the JVP’s ultra nationalistic stand has been a useful aid in the pursuit of their separatist goal. The separatists have used such viewpoints to justify their claim that the Sinhala polity will never agree to share power with the minority Tamils. While the JVP wants a centralized governing system as in the communist states, the LTTE wants one party authoritarian rule where all residents will have to obey its diktat. The visions of both the JVP and the LTTE leaders lack realism. Both seized the poor socio-economic conditions in their respective areas that prevailed because of the neglect and faults of elected governments to seek power aggressively.
In Sri Lanka, Tamil nationalism became synonymous with separatism only after the rise of ethnocentrism or supremacy of the Sinhalese that intentionally made the minority Tamil speaking people second class citizens. The chronicle that the Tamils are the descendants of past conquerors of the Sinhala land and are a potential threat to the Sinhala race also contributed to this perception. It has played a crucial role in the determination to strengthen and safeguard the unitary system which has bestowed the Sinhala rule over the entire island. No concerted effort has been made to build mutual trust between the ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil communities. In fact, even its importance in forging unity in diversity and nation building was overlooked.
Stability, peace and the much needed rapid economic progress will remain inaccessible, if the distrust and divisive politics continue to hold sway India’s Congress party attracted members from all ethnic communities which helped immensely in sustaining unity in diversity and nation building. There was no similar national party especially after 1956. The LSSP by focusing mainly on the urban working class failed to win the support of all segments of the society that is largely rural and conservative. The communal politics of previous Tamil parties led by affluent upper-class leaders also failed to promote national integration. Some leaders were interested in safeguarding their status in the society.
Division at any cost has been the determined aim of the LTTE. The methods used were reckless that relied highly on violence. There was no dual track approach to win the legitimate rights of the minority Tamils. There was also no lobbying campaign abroad for some degree of self-governance, explaining the reasons for it. The unitary system has been unfair as it discriminated against the ethnic minority Tamils, despite some constitutional amendments and new laws passed by the legislature. These remained on paper without full implementation useful to the governments to indicate their good intentions. The Chief Minister of Tamilnadu M. Karunanidhi, who is well known to be a Tamil nationalist addressing the State Assembly recently announced: “Tamil Eelam is the dream of the LTTE and it will never be a reality.” Stating the obvious is not enough. More is needed to ease the suffering of Sri Lankan Tamils languishing not only in their own homeland but also in Tamilnadu and ensure their legitimate rights and security as a distinct community like the Tamils in India.
Marxism like any established religion cannot be the sole foundation of a political system, especially in a democratic country where the sovereign power rests with the people. Like any religion, Marxism also has certain principles and collective beliefs that are useful in governance even under a truly democratic system. But ethnocentric nationalism has no use at all in a pluralistic and democratic country like Sri Lanka. It is the source of dissent and division, because of the deprivation of the rights and privileges enjoyed by one powerful community to other powerless ethnic groups in the society. The concerns and aspirations of the different ethnic communities especially when they are not uniformly mixed in the different regions of the country cannot be addressed satisfactorily by a regime dominated by one ethnic group.
Basically, the problem lies in the contradiction between centralistic rule controlled by one ethnic group and governance based on the equitable sharing of powers among all the diverse ethnic groups. In a multi-ethnic country, if important decisions are made by one ethnic group without the consent of other significant groups, democracy becomes meaningless to the latter. This is somewhat similar to the situation in a totalitarian system where the decisions of the powerful leader(s) at the centre are imposed on all the people, disregarding their needs and aspirations. Any system that has no built-in restraints by way of adequate checks and balances will tend to be dictatorial, corrupt and biased in favour of the ruling class. It cannot be beneficial to all sections of the society and the country. This is precisely what happened after independent Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka. Many provisions of the first constitution that provided for some checks and balances were removed in collaboration with Marxist and Trotskyite ministers in the then coalition government. It was a strange combination of Marxist and Sinhala supremacist ideologies
The world today is very different from what it was at the time of the industrial revolution and the aspirations of the people are also different not only from the economic but also from other perspectives. Freedom now means much more than the elimination of slavery. Marxism is also outdated since the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists is not as bad it was a century ago. Capitalism like democracy may not be the ideal method but there is no better choice for the well-being of mankind in the modern world. In the end how the system benefits all the people equitably depends on the leadership responsible for administering it. The trust of all the people regardless of their ethnic or other group/regional differences in the system and the governments is crucial for unity, peace and progress. Since the mid 1950s, the ruling parties in Sri Lanka failed to win this collective trust of the Tamils. In the case of the JVP, the leaders have not considered this to be important for realizing their political ambition.
Commenting on ‘The Island’ editorial April 19 statement – “The JVP is known for signaling left and turning right and making U-turns on the wrong way to Utopia”, Jayatissa Perera a veteran in modern political history of Sri Lanka has explained plainly “Why do Marxists make U-turns” in ‘The Island’ of April 26. “It is because they are wise enough to realize sooner or later that Marxism is only a dream. Marxism which promised so much, no more wars, no more class system, no more rich and poor, no more exploitation of man by man, ended up in a brutal dictatorship, like under Stalin who succeeded Lenin, sending all dissidents to Siberia or killing them.
Colvin, for instance, who denounced the rich as those engaged in ‘perjury by day and forgery by night,’ always had one foot in Hultsdorf, just in case! Who thought that N. M. and Philip, who told the country that the only way for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was through Marxism, by destroying the capitalist, imperialist, reactionary forces and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat would one day join their bitterest and sworn class enemies and even become ministers in a capitalist government? Philip who breathed fire like a dragon at the mention of the UNP joined it as a Cabinet Minister and waved goodbye to Marxist Leninist-Trotskyist revolution”.
Jayatissa has quite confidently stated: “Weerawansa and Somawansa will remain eternal foes like N.M. and Philip or the Bodhisatva and Devadatta. They will continue signaling left and turning right and making U-turns on the wrong way to Utopia. Marxism is nothing else!” As pointed out by him, there is a serious attitudinal problem with the political leaders coloured by biased opinions, beliefs and traditions that divide people into various diverse groups. Their own narrow short-term interests take precedence over national interest, which has no common meaning even within the Sinhala polity. Many cannot appreciate the beauty of unity in diversity. Without the attitudinal change no system will help to unite the people as equal members of one Nation and improve the prospects for a better future for all. This vital change will not happen without the intervention of the civil society. The media also has a crucial role to play in bringing the desired change. The future of the country that was earlier the model for others desiring peace, tranquility, welfare and security can no longer be left solely in the hands of politicians. This was the grave mistake made after independence.
[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]