By Lionel Bopage –
Prior to becoming the General Secretary and afterwards until I left the party, it was mainly I, who dealt with the Police and the government regarding the state’s repressive actions against the party. Of the Politburo members, comrades Rohana, Gamanayaka and S D conducted party activities in the open. As comrade Rohana was the main target of threats from the state and outside, he often did not spend much time at the party head-office. Nevertheless, I cannot offer any further insight than to guess the emotional condition under which comrade Rohana would have left Colombo without discussing his decision to go underground with the General Secretary of the party who remained in the open or even without informing him of that decision.
The factors that would have led to such an emotional condition in the party leadership could be summarised as follows: at a Politburo meeting held in June 1983, comrades Rohana and Gamanayaka took a position of rejecting the right to self-determination regarding the national question. I pointed out that the Politburo does not have the right to change party policies and informed them that if they were to do so, I would immediately resign from all the responsibilities and the membership of the party. The Politburo was aware that this political issue would lead to a decisive split within the party. The members of the Politburo, particularly comrade Gamanayaka, requested me not to leave the party and agreed to take a decision on the issue after discussing it at a full plenary session of the Central Committee. Following this, a full plenary session of the Central Committee was suddenly called in July 83 at comrade Vijitha Ranaweera’s residence in Witharandeniya.
At that meeting comrade Rohana moved a resolution to reject the right to self-determination, the accepted party policy until then. Comrade Amarasinghe seconded that motion. I argued that accepting the right to self-determination was the correct policy and that Marxist-Leninists have recognized and continue to recognise that right as a democratic right to be won under a bourgeois democratic rule. I reasoned out that our responsibility was to convince the left-wing Tamil groups of the value of fighting for socialism rather than a separate state, building a broader movement working with progressive groups country-wide.
At that Central Committee session, Comrade A D P Rathnayaka, a member of the Politburo at the time and still living in Sri Lanka, also spoke against comrade Rohana’s motion. Despite our urging, the Central Committee almost unanimously supported comrade Rohana’s resolution. After the Presidential Election in 1982, certain discussions of a clandestine nature started taking place within the party about the issue of right to self-determination. To bring those discussions into the open, we organised a massive symposium in December 1982 at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo. Comrade Rohana spoke about the prevailing political situation and comrade Gamanayaka about the attacks on the working class. I spoke about the national question and the right to self-determination. Afterwards we gave an opportunity for a long question and answer session. However, no one asked any questions that rejected the right to self-determination.
It was surprising that most of the leaders of the Central Committee, who had previously accepted and advocated on public stage the right to self-determination as a bourgeois democratic right, remained entirely silent and changed their position in an instant. I don’t know whether it was the blind devotion or a ‘conversion’ that made them do so. However, with that I decided to resign from the party but made up my mind not to do so immediately. Before I left the party, I had a duty by the party membership to clarify the differences I had developed with the party leadership. Yet, in the wake of the July 83 pogrom launched with government’s intervention and then our detention, all that became impossible to achieve.
With the party having nothing to do with the racial riots, I considered it my duty and responsibility to unconditionally defend the party against state repression. I did so without any emotional difficulty. I firmly believe that those who were detained and later released along with me would affirm this matter. At the Politburo meeting in June 1983, I had cautioned the leadership that I would be resigning from the party in case of a policy change. Nevertheless, the attitude of the leadership towards me after the Central Committee meeting in July 1983 became clearer from their action of not discussing with me or notifying me of the decision to go underground while I still was the General Secretary active in the open.
Comrade Gamini states that by June 1983 the party knew that the Jayewardene regime was going to repress it in a massive way. He emphasises that the party:
1. held discussions with the party activists in every district;
2. should have predicted that repression as a leftist movement and in light of the farcical referendum; and
3. received information at the time about the preparations to repress it.
According to the information he has, not only the state proscribed the party and offered financial rewards of 50,000 Rupees to anyone, who would provide information on the whereabouts of comrades Rohana and Gamanayaka, but also the party through secret police circulars, became aware of several conspiracies “to confirm comrade Rohana’s death “during an attack if he was taken into custody” and an order issued to the Police in case of a tip off “to arrest him after being shot to death”.
Comrade Gamini says that even in the midst of such a dire situation during the early period, comrade Rohana tried to get the ban on the party lifted. Comrade Gamini refers to my comment that the Minister of Finance at the time, Mr Ronnie de Mel was prepared to appear for comrade Rohana. He adds that he overheard at the time, comrade Piyadasa Ranasinghe telling comrade Rohana that Mr Ronnie de Mel had advised for him to go to Maldives at least for a short while, as J R had become ‘frantic’. Despite the prevailing situation, comrade Rohana did not wish to go abroad and worked intensely in organizing the party clandestinely. Even he rejected the proposition comrade Prins Gunasekara had made and refused to come to the open until the party proscription was lifted.
Under the state of emergency, when the three parties were proscribed, the allegation made was that in the guise of communal riots they conspired to capture power using force. The state also announced that the property of anyone who provided protection would be confiscated. The government named leaders of the three parties as persons of interest to be arrested. However, it was not during that period financial rewards were offered to anyone providing information on the whereabouts of comrades Rohana and Gamanayaka. It was done sometime during August and September 1983.
The assessment the State Intelligence had provided to the government on the JVP had strongly influenced the decision to continue the proscription of the party. I learnt later that the immediate context for the proscription was a police report against the JVP, Deputy Inspector General Subramaniam Vamadevan had provided to the President. He had also informed the President that those who came to attack his residence in Narahenpita were a group of JVPers. Mr. Vamadevan had a close relationship with the leaders of the old left and a hostile attitude towards the JVP.
At those early stages, I have no evidence to state that the government had given orders to annihilate the party or to assassinate its leaders. However, a letter comrade Rohana had written in October 1983 to the President mentioned about an order to assassinate him as well as an attempt the Police and army officers had made to do so. He had also stated that certain sub-inspectors had been issued with secret orders to eliminate him. In the latter part of that letter, he emphasises on the terror activities of the separatist organisations in the north and demands the government to stop having discussions with them.
Despite comrade Rohana’s claim of an assassination attempt, in fact, political assassinations started with the JVP assassinating comrade Daya Pathirana around 1987 and the government unleashing a terrible and cruel terror campaign by 88-89. Country-wide, death squads hunted the leadership and the cadres of the JVP. The government employed police, military, special military units and para-military units. Furthermore, they had deployed killer groups such as PRA, Yellow Cats, Green Cats, Scorpions, Eagles etc. Nevertheless, it should be very clear that it was the UNP government’s proscribing the JVP and implementing state terror in 1983 that led to the violence and massacres thereafter.
Comrade Gamini says, a party decides its political journey within the prevailing repressive circumstances and that the history is created “not on the basis of interests of various individuals who were in the party leadership, but in the face of various historical political contexts”. If as he states, the party was aware of the conspiracies “to confirm comrade Rohana’s death during an attack if he was taken into custody” and an order issued to the police in case of a tip off “to arrest him after being shot to death”, one could reasonably ask whether the only prudent course of action the JVP could have undertaken was for the party to go underground as a whole.