Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka’s JVP: Political Prospects & Challenges

By Chaminda Weerawardhana

Dr. Chaminda Weerawardhana

The 2015 parliamentary election in Sri Lanka is marked by the rejuvenated presence of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (‘People’s Liberation Front’, known nationally and internationally as the JVP, its Sinhala abbreviation). At this election, the JVP is striving to increase its headcount in parliament, and consequently, emerge as the principle parliamentary opposition. Over the last two decades, the JVP has played a non-negligible role in electoral politics, entering a coalition government with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike in 2004-2006. In the 2014-2015 quarter, the JVP has witnessed special awakening, especially with the appointment of Anura Kumara Dissanayake, a forty-six year-old Physics graduate, as party leader in 2014. As a highly vocal MP, Dissanayake played a frontline role in parliament and beyond lobbying against the excesses of ex-President Rajapaksa’s government, thereby laying the foundation of the political changes of January 2015. As the August 2015 general election campaign intensifies, what follows is an effort to outline several salient factors that characterise the JVP’s present-day developments, policy orientation and persistent challenges. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive appraisal of the present-day JVP. Instead, it is an effort to provide a brief überblick of several salient elements that characterise the JVP’s present and future political evolution.

*Above: Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Source: JVP social media campaign at #gesl2015)

The Syriza analogy: limits and lessons

At a meeting hosted by Puravasi Balaya (Citizens’ Power) a civil society collective that lobbies for good governance, anticorruption and accountability held in Colombo on 15 July 2015, it was reported that a group of academics and artists viewed Anura Dissanayake as Sri Lanka’s Alexi Tsipras. At a surface level, this comparison certainly appears to hold ground. Both Messrs Tsipras and Dissanayake are energetic young leaders of two political movements of the left. The JVP’s increasing popularity is not dissimilar to the Greek voters’ shift towards Syriza in late 2014 and early 2015. However, this comparison also involves aspects that call for acute caution on behalf of Comrade Dissanayake and the JVP. As Syriza’s course of action after the 5 July 2015 Greek referendum’s OXI vote demonstrates, its leadership is largely composed of mildly left-wing elements of the Greek middle class, whose allegiance rests with the European institutions than with the Greek working people. As opposed to the party’s name (‘Coalition of the Radical Left’), Tsipras and Syriza’s frontline leadership have nothing radically leftist about them, Tspiras’s decision to sack left-wing opponents of the post-OXI austerity package providing ultimate testimony to this reality.

The popular mobilization at the referendum was strongly suggestive of the capability of the Greek working class to unite and mobilize – a factor that appears to have sent shock waves down Syriza’s leadership. Hence the hasty move to a new and highly oppressive austerity proposal soon after the OXI vote of 5 July 2015, and the subsequent humiliating capitulation before the banks, the Germans and the EU’s bureaucratic warlords. This was absolutely not necessary in the backdrop of the OXI vote of 5 July 2015, in which the majority of the Greek people – the people who elected Syriza on 25 January 2015 – clearly expressed their view on how the crisis should be managed. Instead, what the courageous working people of Greece are now left with is a pseudo-leftist and pro-austerity government, which prefers to capitulate before EU paymasters with a begging bowl instead of pursuing a demanding yet rewarding path of turning the page, and working in unison with the Greek working class, using the people’s mandate to take full control of the situation to Athens’s hands.

If the OXI vote was Syriza’s hubris point, its post-OXI conduct marked its effective and most deplorable nemesis.

This sorry saga of the Greek pseudo-radical left carries a clear and absolutely invaluable lesson for Sri Lanka’s JVP, already being repeatedly castigated in social media as a lackey of the capitalist UNP and its leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, near unarguably the closest friend of the USA in Sri Lanka. The JVP, this critique avers, is playing a tune that supports and strengthens the UNP’s hands. This is then explained as the result of financial perks received from the UNP and most likely foreign (read ‘western’) donors. The JVP, for its part, has categorically rejected such allegations, and remains critical of the UNP. As the JVP and its leadership gain increased prominence and international attention as decisive players in Sri Lankan politics, the foremost challenge the JVP faces is that of maintaining its policy integrity, of avoiding drifts to the ‘right’ to satisfy International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) demands, while playing a bridge-building and conciliatory role when dealing with rival world powers. The worst-case scenario is that of capitulating the JVP’s policies not only to IMF/WB dictates, but also to the interests of Sri Lanka’s own neoliberal capitalist political and business establishment. In achieving this objective, the JVP requires an extremely sound economic policy agenda, bringing together a network of economists and financial specialists sympathetic to the party’s political ideology.

The JVP and Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics

The JVP’s past positions on Sri Lanka’s ethnic question have been somewhat unbecoming of a progressive and inclusive left-wing political movement. In the late 1980s, the JVP was fiercely opposed to Indo-Sri Lanka united efforts to address the issue through a programme for limited devolution (which included military cooperation and the deployment of an Indian peacekeeping force on Sri Lankan soil). Having staunchly opposed the 2002-2004 peace process and market reform drive, the JVP played a vital role in bringing ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa to power in 2005. It also strongly endorsed the 2006-2009 military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The JVP’s rise in the mid/late 1990s and 2000s in mainstream politics involved a hybrid juxtaposition of a socialist outlook and strongly Sinhala nationalist perspectives. However, in the post-war years, and especially since the appointment of Anura Dissanayake as party leader, there has been an effort to admit that the JVP ought to have been more sensitive to the predicament of war-affected Tamil people in the northern and eastern provinces.

Today’s JVP emphasises inter-ethnic coexistence and equality. At the 2013 Northern Provincial Council election, the first of its kind in the post-war phase, the JVP produced a pamphlet entitled ‘An approach to solve the national question’, emphasising the reduction of military presence in the Northern Province, and an expression of solidarity with the war-affected Tamil people. In the wake of a rising tide of anti-Muslim violence in 2014, for example, the JVP resolutely stood for ethnic harmony, non-violence and coexistence. It campaigned against the Rajapaksa regime’s Sinhala nationalist majoritarian political agenda at the January 2015 presidential election.

The mainstream Tamil political parties remain deeply polarised on grounds of caste, class and political persuasions. The TNA, for instance, is exclusively led by high-caste (mostly Vellalar) Tamil men, whereas the EPDP commands the support of a largely non-Vellalar community, but is not immune to caste-based discrimination in its rank and file. In this backdrop, the JVP has the potential to launch a campaign on a non-sectarian, caste and class-unbiased basis, emphasising leftist perspectives of equality, fraternity and reconciliation. Despite persistent challenges to develop a strong support base in the north and east, it is in the JVP’s best interests to delve further into the Tamil and Muslim-majority electoral districts at future elections.

The JVP is contesting the August 2015 parliamentary election in all electoral districts including the predominantly Tamil electoral districts in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. In many districts, JVP lists include candidates from the Moor community. Concerning Tamils, the JVP faces a strategic need to offer a viable ‘alternative’ to ethnic Tamil political parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) when contesting in electoral districts with large Tamil communities. An understanding of this reality – and a desire to question the caste-and-class polarisation of Tamil politics – is reflected in the JVP’s decision to field Ramalingam Chandrasekar, a trade unionist from an up-country Indian Tamil (Malayaga Tamil) community, to head the JVP campaign in the Jaffna District. Whereas it may represent a substantive challenge to market the JVP in the Jaffna District in the absence of a ‘local’ (i.e. Jaffna Tamil) candidate, choosing Comrade Chandrasekar is a laudable decision, as it represents an albeit small but non-negligible step in providing the Tamil electorate with an ‘alternative’ to the usual electoral practices of ethnic Tamil political parties. As a Marxist-Socialist political entity, it is in the JVP’s best interest to strongly campaign against caste discrimination and the repression of people 4to recesses of poverty and deprivation on the basis of caste and class. In a similar vein, the JVP has included Anthony Jeeva, a senior Tamil literary figure, also from a Malayaga Tamil working class background, in its National List.

Critics, such as the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) have accused the JVP of sham support for minority rights, describing its suggestions for improvement, especially vis-à-vis the Tamil question – such as limiting militarisation – as cosmetic at best. Despite its new policy of inclusion, equality and coexistence, there is a need for the JVP to clarify its positions on the core issue of addressing Tamil grievances through political reform. What is the party’s position on devolution? Does it advocate the existing model of limited devolution, or more extensive devolving of powers to the provincial councils? What, in sum, is the JVP’s official stance on the political pull and push factors such as the ‘Tamil Nadu-Delhi-Sri Lanka’s Tamil question’ paradigm and the role/s of Tamil diaspora pressure groups? The party’s official policy lines on these interrogations require clear, concise and unambiguous articulation.

The only alternative to two-party neoliberal politics?

Today’s JVP also presents itself not as the ‘third force’ of Sri Lankan politics, but as the one and only alternative (Sinhalese ekama vikalpaya) to the existing two-party system composed of the UNP and SLFP (and their respective coalition partners) which have held power since Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) gained Dominion status in 1948. In justifying this argument, the JVP primarily emphasises its credentials as a stern advocate of anticorruption, transparency and accountability in the use of public funds. On the anticorruption front, the JVP faces little rivalry from the two mainstream political persuasions. In the opposition benches, the JVP has been a strong (if not the strongest) advocate of anticorruption, good governance and accountability. During the JVP’s short stint in government (2004-2006), its ministers and deputy ministers established a reputation as advocates of financial discipline, reducing maintenance costs and ensuring transparency. A number of people’s representatives who held ministerial and deputy ministerial responsibilities at the time are presently on the JVP’s frontline leadership. Indeed, the JVP’s ‘public face’ is composed of extremely talented orators, and the near-totality are university graduates. However, the JVP’s political trajectory is such that its frontline leaders are also long-term, full-time party insiders, with few of them having worked outside party politics in other specific career paths, or in international organisations prior to entering politics.

International Connections?

Internationally, the JVP maintains a support network in the worldwide Sri Lankan (especially Sinhala, and to a lesser extent, Sri Lankan Moor) diaspora, with senior leaders visiting countries and cities with substantial Sri Lankan communities for lectures and promotional activities. The JVP is also connected to like-minded political entities of the left in several countries. The Progressive Party of Working People (Cyprus), for instance, invited the JVP for their 22nd Congress on 4 June 2015. Janaka Adikari, a lawyer and a JVP Central Committee member (who is also in the JVP National List for #gesl2015), represented the Inter-Company Employees’ Union (ICEU) at the 104th Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva on 1-13 June 2015.

Despite such links, the JVP still has long way ahead in developing a sound network of international relations, with like-minded political parties, progressive pressure groups, writers, bloggers and think tanks. While the JVP runs its own news media, it will be in the party’s favour to develop an independent think tank connected to the party, and bring together academics and activists on a platform of collegial interaction and exchange. Given the JVP’s political orientation, it is essential to equip its rank and file with resource persons with a high command of foreign languages, especially Chinese, Spanish and French. In the context of increasing electoral successes for Podemos in Spain (headed by the extremely charismatic politician and academic, Dr Pablo Iglesias), the on-going rise of Jeremy Corbyn MP in the UK Labour leadership context, it is pivotal for the JVP to develop links with genuine political formations and politicians of the left, and engage in processes of exchange and sharing.

Combating negative reputation

The JVP continues to suffer negative reputation, acquired principally due to its armed struggle against the government of Sri Lanka, first in 1971 and secondly in 1971. Today, one of the key accusations levelled against the party include its record of violent activism in 1988-1989. The JVP leadership has publicly apologised for the deaths and destruction caused during the armed rising, and has strongly reaffirmed the party’s present-day position in electoral politics. Despite such measures, many a voter still tend to stigmatise the JVP, associating its present political role with its role in the 88-89 violence. In the 2015 general election campaign, JVP candidates have been considerably successful in raising public awareness on the reasons and political context that prompted the JVP to violent resistance in 1971 and 1988-1989.

Gender Justice: missing in action?

One of the areas in which the JVP is an appalling low performer is in terms of parity and gender representation in its rank and file and in electoral politics. Like other parties, the number of female candidates contesting the 2015 general election under the JVP ticket is extremely low, and the party’s visible frontline does not include any female leaders. As Surekha Samarasena, a novelist, notes in an interview, supposedly left-wing politics (not only the JVP) also suffer from considerable gender inequality, with female members being reduced to trivial positions and secondary responsibilities, deprived of the opportunity to move to higher levels of leadership and responsibility. If the JVP is to emerge as a progressive, left-wing political force and the quintessential alternative to bi-party neoliberal politics, it is of the utmost importance to take concrete action to address the gender gap in the party (and in Sri Lankan politics at large), by adopting a firm policy of parity and equal representation. Had its #gesl2015 electoral lists included equal numbers of educated and suitably qualified male and female candidates, the JVP would have marked a unique forward step in Sri Lankan politics. This is definitely a target that the party and its leadership ought to aspire at future elections.

Conclusion: Marxist-socialist or Maoist Guevarist? Understanding the present-day JVP

Critics of the left have often described the JVP as not Marxist-Socialist, but Maoist and Guevarist, and is a political movement that comfortably fed into discourses of Sinhala ethno-nationalism. This argument maintains that the JVP ignores class struggles, the rights of working people and vulnerable groups, presenting a false image of a leftist party while embracing majoritarian nationalism and agendas of larger capitalist political parties. At given junctures of the JVP’s distant and recent political evolution, this critique may certainly have held ground.

Today, however, the JVP repeatedly emphasises a commitment to pluralism and ethno-national coexistence. At all its public engagements, it also emphasises the rights of vulnerable groups, regularly raising the case of workers within Sri Lanka, Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East, South Korea and elsewhere, and calling for justice to working people who were assassinated while protesting against the Rajapaksa regime’s repressive policies. Despite this overt articulation of a discourse of rights and equality, today’s JVP is as vulnerable as ever to the pangs of right-wing politics, in which larger parties of the right may seek to ‘use’ the JVP for their political ends. On the international front, the JVP’s rise in national politics risks attracting pressure from neoliberal political agendas, from the India/USA/EU axis as well as from China’s string-of-pearls strategy in the Indian Ocean. In addressing such issues, it is vital that the JVP clearly articulates its priorities, and develops close ties with like-minded, sincerely left-wing political groups and politicians in both East and West. As the JVP is set to emerge as a decisive contender in national politics after the August 2015 general election, the worst faux-pas to be strictly avoided, either as the leading opposition party or a as a future contender for governmental power, are indeed a) a Syriza-type domestic capitulation before the wealthy and influential political and business class, and b) an international subjugation to neoliberal politics and financial terrorism.


Additional Reading (selected list):

Alles, A.C. 1990, The JVP-1969-1989. Colombo: Lake House.

Chandraprema, C.A. 1991, Sri Lanka, the years of terror: The J.V.P. insurrection, 1987-1989. Colombo: Lake House.

Godahewa, I. 2012, Failed revolts in Sri Lanka, 1971 and 1987-1989 : indepth analysis of a senior intelligence officer. Pannipitiya: Opro Printing and Publishing.

Uyangoda, Jayadeva, 2008, The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Split, Economic and Political Weekly, 43:18, 8-10.

Venugopal, R. 2008, Cosmopolitan capitalism and sectarian socialism: conflict, development and the liberal peace in Sri Lanka, PhD thesis, Department of International Development (Queen Elizabeth House) and St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

Venugopal, Rajesh, 2010, Sectarian Socialism: The Politics of Sri Lanka’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Modern Asian Studies, 44:3, 567-602.

Wijeweera, Rohana [erroneously spelt ‘Rohan’ in the publication], 1974, Speech before the Ceylon Criminal Justice Commission, 2 Nov. 1973. New Left Review, I/84 (March/April 1974)

*Born in Sri Lanka, educated in France and in Northern Ireland, Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana is a Belfast-based political analyst. Dr Weerawardhana can be reached at cweerawardhana02@qub.ac.uk.

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