By Dayan Jayatilleka –
As an indicted veteran of the 1980s, the period that Jude Ratnam’s movie ‘Demons in Paradise’ deals with, I can see the darkness gather. In a sense it is slightly crazier and therefore even more ominous.
The JVP of the 1971 insurrection was at least in part, the product of the UNP’s alienation of the university student community in Peradeniya and Colombo, owing to the confrontational approach of a single cabinet Minister, the UNP’s Minister of Education, IMRA Iriyagolla, and the resultant student clashes with the Police and the Army in 1966 and 1968/9.
In 1980 the student movement uncoiled against two initiatives of the UNP government of the day, with which the then Minister of education and the current Prime Minister was involved. These were the White Paper on Education and the Private Medical College. There was a hunger fast on the rooftop of Moratuwa University, and a mounted Police baton charge on Galle Face Green. The powerful President Jayewardene’s administration ‘nationalized’ the Private Medical College, but not before the student movement had been radicalized. Today, a far weaker, inefficient UNP is trying to do otherwise.
The next wave was in 1984 when two students were shot dead by the police; one before my eyes, down Havelock Road. Wounded, he was taken to hospital by CA Chandraprema, then a student activist, now a well-established political columnist, but the vehicle was halted by the police and the kid bled to death. Round three was in 1987, when the student Kithsirimevan Ranawaka was shot dead on May 1st outside the Abhayarama temple, while demonstrating with the MEP under Dinesh Gunawardena’s leadership.
The alienation of the students, their sense of marginalization by a violently repressive government, yielded an armed student militancy which was so fanatical it even attempted to devour more moderate left student leaders and activists, who then mirrored their attackers by turning lethal themselves.
What do we have today? While a strong Jayewardena administration finally took under state control, the Private Medical College, a far weaker, inefficient UNP is trying to do otherwise; defending the private ownership of a delegitimized enterprise. SAITM cannot hold. The Govt is taking a tough line against the GMOA, which no administration, including the strong coalition of Mrs. Bandaranaike could not intimidate (at the time the GMOA was led by Dr. Rienzie Pieris).
Bright young medical students were brutally baton charged by the STF when they occupied the Ministry of Health. Certainly the buildings had to be cleared but tear gas would have done the trick. Instead a Police paramilitary militia trained for counterinsurgency, stormed the building and baton-charged the students, even those running away. One of the most dramatically courageous and affecting scenes I have seen (on TV) in recent years was of a skinny girl with shoulder length hair held by a clip, wearing denims and a black T shirt with sleeves pulled up, darting forward, hugging a male student and wheeling him away, shouting at the STF while shielding the young man from truncheon blows with her body. She darted in to save more than one comrade.
In the aftermath, the Minister of Health—playing the IMRA Iriyagolla of today– then grotesquely falsifies misquotes Lenin to accuse the students of “terrorism”. Lenin did criticize terrorism but that over a decade before, and was not in the text “Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”, which the Minister cited and was entirely about something else! If the students were engaging in acts of terrorism, they must have been the world’s very first unarmed terrorists!
The Health Minister has since gone on the record accusing the Frontline Socialist Party of conspiring to launch an armed struggle. Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka too accuses the “Frontliners” of violence. Meanwhile, like the long dead Egyptian princess in ‘The Mummy’ (with Tom Cruise) Chandrika has returned in the guise of the Empress of Reconciliation, to annoy the powerful Buddhist clergy and turn it against the government. Now the Champika Ranawaka connection with Ven. Gnanasara and the BBS fits. This is precisely how the UNP framed the far left JVP after Black July ’83, which the JVP had nothing to do with but sections of the UNP did at least in the months and years running up to it.
That is how the UNP twice created or catalyzed the monstrous violence of the JVP– in the 1960s and 1980s. That is how we journeyed to the heart of darkness. With the government assailed, if not besieged on several fronts and no firm dates for the reopening of the long shut electoral safety valves, we are headed that way again.