22 May, 2024


Sri Lanka: Past Experiences & Current Trends

By Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

First let me thank the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council and Darebin Intercultural Centre for inviting me to speak at this Pop-Up Art Studio event.

The biography Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story, which Michael Colin Cooke authored, came into being during the time of my association with the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council. The story presented was based on a series of discussions that Gaetano Greco, Nalliah Suriyakumaran, Michael, Chitra and I had about Sri Lankan politics as practiced currently and in the past. There were strong arguments as Suri came from a LSSP background, Gaetano from Labour Left and Michael from a left trade union background. These discussions signified an alternative view of Sri Lanka’s history that was unavailable at the time. In depicting this alternative view, writing this biography was considered worthwhile.

Sri Lanka’s big mess was not mainly the result of the activities  of the JVP, the LTTE, trade unions, working people, Tamils, Muslims or expatriates. It is due to the socio-economic policies, and political strategies and tactics successive regimes have followed since 1948. Those policies were formulated discriminatively based on peoples’ background such as class, ethnicity, caste, religion and sex. Thus, Sri Lanka’s body politic was unable to develop a wider nationalism that transcended ethnicity. It is such policy calculus that destroyed the country’s social fabric and continues to destroy it even today.

After coming to power, all regimes even those with red appendages broke most of the pledges they had made during elections. As successive regimes imposed more and more economic burdens, people found it increasingly more difficult. During my university days, most undergraduates holding Arts degrees were unemployed. Ironically, even some of those who had medical degrees could not find work. Cost of living pressures, the rights of workers being curtailed by structural reforms as prescribed by the World Bank and IMF; lack of water and land for peasants etc. had been and still are prominent issues in the south. Hence, socio-economic and political context is paramount in understanding the evolution of the political program of the JVP.

The era we live in today is totally different from the environment that existed in the seventies with the introduction of neo-liberalism by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and in Sri Lanka by JR Jayewardene. Capitalist globalisation intensified allowing free flow of capital across national borders for investment, and regulated flow of labour to satisfy production needs of such investment and domestic needs overseas such as in the Middle-East.

The fundamental social changes the Sinhala youth expected in May 1970 from the SLFP led coalition did not materialise. So, the youth set about organizing to implement that radical program for social justice. This flared into the April 1971 Uprising. Whatever the limitations of that uprising, reasons for the conflict point to major flaws in Sri Lankan institutions. Several analysts, historians and academics simply present this uprising as an isolated revolt by misguided youth or the work of a confused guy called Rohana Wijeweera. They place the responsibility for deaths and impairment during the uprising entirely on JVP.

However, the Criminal Justice Commission records show that the JVP was responsible for 41 civilian deaths, killing 63 members of the armed forces and wounding 305 security personnel. In retaliation, the state killed between 5,000 and 10,000 JVP cadre and sympathisers and arbitrarily detained about 25,000 JVP supporters. Many JVP cadre and civilians were extra-judicially murdered not at armed confrontations, but after arrest. Immaterial of the politics we pursued at the time, the capitalist state convicted us for the role we played against the imperial state and the neo-imperial CIA plots. Yet, the criminal nefarious role the state armed forces played during that time had never been subjected to public scrutiny. The story Michael has written portrays my life within that socio-economic and political context.

With state complicity, Tamils in the south were at regular intervals, brutally attacked and tortured, with thousands massacred, women raped and properties destroyed, simply because they were Tamils. Some were burnt alive. So, it was not surprising that the gun rather than the ballot became the tool in their struggle. Since the eighties, reprisals of Tamil militants were similarly brutal and inhumane, engaging in torture, abduction and detention of adversaries, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and killings. Many Sinhala and Muslim civilians including women and children were hacked to death. The conflict grew in intensity and ruthlessness and was militarily defeated. Yet the political conflict that gave rise to that bloodshed continues.

Without talking about the current situation in Sri Lanka, a discussion of the biography Michael wrote will be incomplete. The situation in Sri Lanka appears to be deteriorating rapidly. Obviously, a destabilisation exercise is on aimed at transforming or overthrowing the current regime to bring back those who were previously in power. Ordinary people seems to argue along the lines: ‘this lot is worse than the previous lot. They were corrupt, but did something for the country. This lot is more corrupt, but does not do anything much for the country’.

People sent the previous mob home wanting to achieve good governance through constitutional reforms, reconciliation, controlling corruption, ensuring rule of law and creating conditions for a better economic environment. Yet, everything seems to be stuck in a power game where the focus is either on gaining control of the SLFP, or on providing perks to school mates and friends. Reconciliation can move forward only when the mindset of certain politicians and bureaucrats seeing dissent as unpatriotic is changed; the rule of law becomes paramount; impunity granted to perpetrators of human rights abuses is rescinded and organs of the state are reformed.

The greatest threat to economy is endemic corruption. In Sri Lanka too, corruption has become a way of life undermining the rule of law, impeding development and promoting mis-governance. The political will at the highest levels to rectify the situation appears to have disappeared or diminished. Corruption appears to have also influenced law enforcement and judicial mechanisms. Many governments have come to power promising to eradicate corruption, but it has penetrated almost all political and bureaucratic strata. Ordinary people cannot survive without giving and/or accepting bribes. Charges of corruption, even if laid, usually do not withstand the legal process, and more often never lead to convictions.

The current regime does not seem to have the needed strength due to issues of balance of power. Additionally, it lacks courage due to the indecisive nature of its leaders to act against culprits. When the regime has no conviction, courage or strength to control corruption among politicians and bureaucrats, what could one expect? Having talk shops and issuing grand statements are not enough. They need to be followed through by action. Unless the regime walks its talk, it will be like the previous regimes, who promised good governance and reconciliation, but made democratic spaces even more slim.  When we see that the same old cycle unfolding all over again, we need to be concerned and troubled.

Manoeuvres for destabilisation to capture, maintain or consolidate power have affected the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. The Muslim community must be going through the same mental agony that the Tamils have been during the riots launched against them. This hatred, attacks and violence can easily spin out of control leading to another major catastrophe. It may be that the inaction of the current regime points to a political necessity to maintain a tense social environment for diverting the attention of people away from the country’s prevailing socio-economic issues.

We also need to consider the Islamic fundamentalist currents working for an Islamic Caliphate utilising mass fear and mass violence. We need to vehemently condemn such violence and terror. At the same time, we need to understand that the neo-liberal push to get hold of fossil fuel resources in the Middle-East and elsewhere by inciting religious hatred among Islamic sects and arming each against the other gave rise to this cycle of violence and terror. Certain extremely conservative sects appear to influence and abet some Islamic fundamentalists.

Successive governments bear a heavy responsibility for the scantest attention they paid for protecting the human and democratic rights of the people. They were elected to govern on behalf of all people regardless of their diverse backgrounds, but they did not. We need to recognize the common suffering, the stresses and challenges all people are faced with. Communities become desensitised and the value of humanity become diminished when hatred and conflicts condition their living environment. Propagandists of nationalism use such desensitisation to arouse and exploit complex emotions for their nefarious ends. We encounter many, who have become mentally blinded to adamantly believe that their views are inviolate.

Considering the experiences outlined in the biography Michael authored, we need broader perspectives to understand the complexity of this situation and develop sustainable solutions. Everyone concerned about this situation need to raise their voices against building up this racial and religious hatred, intolerance and violence. We need to build an environment where barriers to communication can be constructively undone.

Thank you very much for your attention.

*speech delivered yesterday at the Darebin Intercultural Centre in Melbourne on the topic Sri Lanka: Past Experiences and Current Trends

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Latest comments

  • 3

    A good evaluation by Dr. LB which opens the door for a wider dialogue.

    1. The present religious tension is artificial. Nobody knows exactly how it erupted. The certain issues raised by a Buddhist Monk didn’t have the velocity to ignite religious riots. Buddhists were actually puzzled over the situation. There were political opportunists and some Muslims behind it. However, it didn’t take the route they expected. An analysis on the political arena in the aftermath of suspects being taken into custody will give an insight of the motive.


    2. There is a dangerous trend of political polarization in money. Throwing millions and billions to change the minds of Parliamentarians is unacceptable. Money in politics have made a large number of Parliamentarians turncoats, a loathsome trend which Sri Lanka should denounce and terminate with all might in order to protect democratic practices. As seen today, money is used by certain power-hungry politicians of present and former, one side of course to retain power and the other side to come back to power, robbing voters’ rights. The Public should not let politicians to deconsolidate democracy.

    The decisive factor for a future government/a change in the present should only be based on principle not by corrupting the minds of some vulnerable Politicians with money. Veteran, power hungry politicians are presenting a harmful example to both senior and young Parliamentarians that accepting bribes and engaging in fraud/corruption are acceptable, which is extremely disturbing. The democratic rights of the public to decide the ruling party and politicians based on their independent judgement should be protected. It is in this light that the Executive Presidency should be retained as otherwise the entire Parliament will be bought by power hungry corrupt politicians who have no regard for voters’ democratic rights. Continued—-

    • 0

      Dear Soma,

      What you have written runs counter to facts. I will select a few points as follows to support my position:
      1. Comrade Rohana started the “Movement”, which became to be identified as the JVP later, in 1967. The five classes came into being only at the end of 1968. The JVP of course wanted a social revolution due to the unjust and unequal system that prevailed. Almost all the leaders of the JVP came from the ranks of the Communist Party, or the LSSP. The “Movement” carried out a campaign to counter the CIA led attempts in Sri Lanka to establish a pro-US regime as they had done elsewhere through conspiracies and aggressions. However, with the elections in May 1970, the coalition of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP presented a progressive election platform, and the JVP supported it with good expectations. However, as soon as they were elected to power with a two-thirds majority, the coalition openly gave up all its election pledged. That is what I refer to in the sentence you have placed emphasis. I never mentioned that the JVP commenced its political activities in May 1970. That is your imagination!

      2. You say you attended the JVP classes 5 or 6 years prior to 1971. So, you are referring to at least the year 1965. As the classes were even formulated sometime in 1968, this also is clearly a figment of your imagination.

      3. You say “there were no vigilantes organised by the government as in 1989. Large numbers surrendered on amnesty and they were treated most humanely. They were allowed to complete their educational activities during detention and released with no black mark attached.” There were no need for vigilantes at the time as the youth organisations of the LSSP and the CP did that voluntarily. Initially, even those who surrendered were killed, however, with Ven Madihe Pannaseeha Thero and Rev Tissa Balasuriya and organisations like Amnesty International and Civil Rights Movement raising serious concerns about these killings Mrs Banadaranaike took measures to reign in the security personnel who were engaged in massacres. With political prisoners fighting for their rights, the administration and the regime had to come to certain compromises by allowing facilities for education etc.

      4. You say “Wijeweera contested in 77 to break left votes and help JR”. Again your imagination because the JVP did not contest the 1977 elections, we were behind bars. However, in the Oct 1982 Presidential elections, the JVP proposed to field a single candidate, but the LSSP broke it first. The SLFP candidate’s campaign was sabotaged by the SLFP leaders themselves.

      5. The unlawful role of the security forces, mass killings, detentions and use of torture to sign statements to gain guilty verdicts point to a much bleaker narrative, a narrative that since 1971 has sadly become a common feature in the Sri Lankan political landscape.

      I can go on but what I have cited above will be adequate to show that it is you who has written such balderdash.

      • 0

        Dear dr Bopage,
        This is where we part in our opinion. As for me ’89 was far more brutal than 71 in every aspect. An estimated 50 to 60 thousand were killed in unconsciable cruel manner, a figure that exceeded the toll from the war at that point, most of whom were innocents. But for you 89 is not worthy of a mention in a social commentary on post independent Sri Lanka.- let us not argue but leave to the judgment of those who went through both. After a public lecture by JVP Vijitha Herath I asked him you all are making such a big hue and cry over Rajapaksha corruption and demand investigations but silent on 1989 his answer was now it is futile as the government is UNP!. ———-Soma

  • 2

    3. This Government is hopeless/useless/worthless/pathetic. However, bringing back the former government is not the answer. The regressive mentality/nepotism/dependency/and/corruption in politics marked Sri Lanka’s downfall. For the last 5-6 decades, what is prominent is lack of vision in both SLFP/UNP. We need to have a clear destination and a clear route to reach that destination. That is the reason that future Sri Lanka should be governed by principled Leftist Political Leaders with clear vision/mission/plan of action/strategies to develop the country in all economic/political/social fronts. People should come out of “frog under the coconut shell mentality” and accept the need for an inevitable reform of their thinking and make change that country yearns for.

    4. There is a resurgence of Leftist ideology, where many intellectuals as well as public have begun sharing views. I see this as a future trend. Buddhist Socialism and Buddhist Economics were never tried in Sri Lanka in modern times. Few adjustments have to done, of course. Sri Lanka needs to be a Socialist Buddhist Democracy which could foster social equality, egalitarianism, peaceful co-existence and a non-violent, non-competitive nation.

    5. The Leftist movement is scattered at present. Due to political reasons, all prominent Leftist Political Leaders are where they shouldn’t be. The next should be their turn. We have tried SLFP/UNP governments for over 5-6 decades. The majority of the citizens are totally fed up with both parties. There is no point of going back to power rotation politics which only promotes corruption/nepotism/and/dependency. Therefore, it is time Leftist Political Leaders reach a consensus about their future course of action at the next election and get ready for their turn as the Alternative Force by forming an Alliance of all Leftist Parties.

  • 0

    Dr Lional Bopage,

    You say “The fundamental social changes the Sinhala youth expected in May 1970 from the SLFP led coalition did not materialise. So, the youth set about organizing to implement that radical program for social justice. ” I never expected to read such balderdash from a senior JVP veteran. JVP began organising much earlier during the previous UNP regime. What is the gap between May 1970 and April 1971? So you organised such a big revolution in 11 months, that is assuming you were dissatisfied from day one.. …… I was in the university in April 71 and I myself had attended Wijeweera’s secret meetings 5 or 6 years earlier. Though the state machinery sprang into action and large number of JVP fighters were killed there were no vigilantes organised by the government as in 1989. Large numbers surrendered on amnesty and they were treated most humanely. They were allowed to complete their educational activities during detention and released with no black mark attached. They became engineers, doctors and accountants who late would behave as worse capitalists. Sirimavo’s ”rehabilitation’ exercise won praise world over. So much so that without exception, yes WITHOUT EXCEPTION all JVP seniors joined SLFP including all rank and file. Even present president Sirisena spent 1.5 years in prison and later joined SLFP. Mahinda Wijesekara lost two brothers but joined SLFP. This event I consider as one of the most noteworthy in our history. Wijeweera was only imprisoned by Sirimavo , but you know his fate later under your UNP buddies. I can clearly understand your agenda behind your quoted statement. ————–JVP always supported UNP to gain power. Such is your inferiority complex. Wijeweera contested in 77 to break left votes and help JR. During the last election they were in forefront of regime change agenda hatched by all reactionary forces – AKD earned the title Rathu Aliya. You JVPers are ungrateful b*******s . You are just what the upper class in the society say who you are – uneducated, jealous village bumpkins. I would rather vote for TNA than JVP.. Any comments Doctor Bopage?——–Soma

  • 0

    What Soma says is true.

    Many detest JVP They have no future. The ideology-less present JVP is stranded in the high seas. Anura Kumara has paved the way for JVP’s demise which is inevitable at the next General Election.

    What we need in Sri Lanka is more ideology less politics.

    The Leftist Movement should be revived. Amongst many Leftists, two Leftist Leaders have a great future. One is a Veteran Leftist Politician with a family name but not overly popular among the people while the other Leftist Leader is much younger to him, hailing from an ordinary family, who has a unique name among the community. I hope they both realize that they have a remarkable potential in leading the country.

    • 0

      Dear Champa,

      Thank you for your previous comments, but see my response to ‘balderdash’ Soma and what that person says has many untruths. Comments are riddled with factual inaccuracies thus making his comments politically irrelevant.

      • 0

        Dear Lionel

        My reply to Soma was not for the entire comment, but for the last part. Therefore, it applies only to present JVP which is hopeless. I have seen Soma’s interesting comments on various other issues at some other sites, too.

        Yes, I read your reply. I am not a JVPer and I don’t have first hand experience with them like Soma or you. I appreciate the views of both of you. Thank you.

  • 1

    What Soma has written is a true commentary of the JVP’s past that LB has tried to whitewash. When Wijeweera was released he contested at the Presidential elections only to receive 4.3% votes. How can the heinous crimes that JVP committed in 1987 -1990 be justified? If , as Wijeweera admitted , the essential conditions for a revolution were not ripe in 1971 , did they become ripe in 1987?

    In 1987 when Tilvin Silva was arrested by the Police in Wadduwa, Tilvin was carrying a T56 to attack Palliyamankada Special Army Camp. The Army was at war against the LTTE at that time. Tilvin was the military wing leader of the JVP for Kalutara district.

    In spite of his treacherous act Tilvin Silva escaped punishment and forgotten his terrorist past.

    Given the enormous destruction that JVP inflicted on the country , for LP to declare that their impact on the country was negligible , is a great insult.

    • 0

      Dear Lankamitra,

      See my response to ‘balderdash’ Soma’s erroneous comments regarding what you deem to be factual. I resigned from the JVP in 1984 and I cannot clarify or justify what occurred in the 1987-90 period. However, the whole episode was initiated by the UNP regime, who proscribed the JVP in July 1983, using the pretext that the JVP was behind the 83 Black July riots against Tamils in the south. In fact, it was some leaders of the UNP who were behind those riots. Even after the decision of the Criminal Investigation Department and the Attorney General’s Department that the JVP had nothing to do with the riots, the proscription was continued. What led to this proscription was the legal challenge the JVP filed in courts against the UNP’s violent rigging of the referendum held in Dec 1982.

  • 0

    LB: “…….the Criminal Justice Commission records show that the JVP was responsible for 41 civilian deaths, killing 63 members of the armed forces and wounding 305 security personnel. In retaliation, the state killed between 5,000 and 10,000 JVP cadre and sympathisers and arbitrarily detained about 25,000 JVP supporters………….”. The then GoSLs used excessive brutal force to put down the insurrections. The JVP message has been buried.
    Unfortunately the present JVP has done nothing to remember the dead. Their silence over the Matale mass grave is obscene. JVP is very much Sinhala centered

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