10 December, 2022


The Insurgency Of April 1971

By Suriya Wickremasinghe

On the fifth of April this year falls the 50th anniversary of the first JVP insurrection, an event that shook our country as never before or since. During the course of 2021 we hope to retrieve from our archives, and place in the public domain, some of our hitherto unpublished documents of that time. For now, to revive older memories and inform younger ones, we list some relevant dates of that extraordinary decade.

13 May 1970 – General election results in United Front (UF) coming to power under premiership of Sirima R.D. Bandaranaike. The coalition is heavily dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) but also comprises two left parties, the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP), J.R. Jayewardene is Leader of the Opposition. 

July, 1970 – Members of Parliament form a Constituent Assembly, process of drafting new Constitution begins.

26 October 1970 – Constitutional Amendment to abolish the Senate introduced. 

13 March 1971 – Rohana Wijeweera, leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP/Peoples’ Liberation Front), arrested.

16 March 1971 – Emergency declared. Wijeweera continues to be detained, now under emergency regulations.

5 April 1971 – An insurrection, mainly of rural youth, led by the JVP, breaks out in the form of simultaneous attacks on some 74 police stations in various parts of the country. (Another 18 are attacked in the next few days.) 35 police areas temporarily fall almost totally under insurgent control. The insurrection is speedily suppressed with considerable ruthlessness, and in its immediate aftermath some 16,000 persons are arrested and held under emergency powers.

14, 15 May 1971 – In last session of the Senate before its abolition, independent member   S. Nadesan QC makes the first notable public speech on the April insurrection. 

21 May 1971 – Bill to abolish Senate passed.

September 1971 – First Amnesty International Mission to Sri Lanka. (Report published  March 1972).

4 & 5 April 1972 – Act creating Criminal Justice Commissions to try insurgent suspects debated and passed.

22 May 1972 – New Constitution adopted. “Ceylon” becomes “Sri Lanka”, a Republic.

12 June 1972 – Trial, under Criminal Justice Commissions Act, of alleged leaders of the April 1971 insurrection, begins. Commission consists of Chief Justice H.N.G. Fernando (Chair) and four others.

20 December 1974 – After two and a half years  above inquiry ends with Criminal Justice Commission delivering its decision. Some including Wijeweera sentenced to imprisonment, some given suspended sentences, some acquitted. Trials of numerous other groups on a regional basis continue.

15/16? February 1977 – By this time the ruling coalition has broken up. Emergency, which had commenced in 1971, lapses. Result is persons held under emergency regulations are released. The proscription of the JVP automatically lapses, though members serving prison sentences remain in jail. Lapse of proscription enables JVP to take part in general election. 

21 July 1977 – General election results in UNP coming to power under premiership of J.R. Jayewardene. Leader of the Opposition is A.Amirthalingam of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), it having 17 seats as against the SLFP’s eight.

4 October 1977 – Amendment to the 1972 Constitution, creating an executive presidency, passed. 

2 November 1977 – Pardon announced for all persons serving sentence under the Criminal Justice Commissions Act, and they are released. This includes Rohana Wijeweera and other JVP leaders.

Around this time; Criminal Justice Commissions Act repealed. 

*The above is drawn from the publication 21 YEARS OF CRM: An annotated list of documents of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka 1971-1992, compiled by Manel Fonseka and Suriya Wickremasinghe, Colombo: CRM, 1993

**Suriya Wickremasinghe – Secretary, Civil Rights Movement – 3 April 2021

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Latest comments

  • 3

    I’ve been up all night, and I have no time to read this carefully. However, it is great that Dr S.A. Wickremasinhe’s daughter has written about that traumatic experience that occurred just about the time I began working.
    Let me express my sincere hope that those tragic events can be put firmly behind us. The JVP cannot really afford to apologise, and also let’s realise that many of those who perished were naive young people fired by idealism.
    How is this going to be putbehind us? By focussing on the new identity: National People’s Power – NPP, not JVP any more. That’s more than just semantics.

  • 8

    This story is not complete without including the thousands of Sinhalese youth suspected of being JVP sympathizers summarily executed and their bodies thrown in rivers.

    This was the first time the security forces including police resorted to mass killing with abandon.

    This is where Gota learned about mass killing with impunity that he inflicted on Sinhalese youth again, and later the genocide of Tamils during the final stages of the war.

    Will mass killing by the state and its agents continue? Likely, while Gota is the Supremo.

  • 2

    Yes, it was 50 years ago. We were about to forget about it! Thanks to Suriya Wickremasinghe (and also Manel Fonseka) for tracing the main dates and events backgrounding the insurrection.

    • 10

      Laksiri Fernando

      “Yes, it was 50 years ago. We were about to forget about it! “

      No, not those who lost their kith and kin, especially the mothers, wives, sisters, aunts and grandmas, cannot and will not forget them until their dying day.

      The saddest part of the country’s history is that Political crooks don’t seem to learn from the past, worse the so called “liberal intellectuals” don’t seem to remember black days, although numerous, …

  • 2

    Sirima government didn’t finish the job. JVP leader was kept for another uprising. Strategic blunder. The job was finally completed in 1989 as the LTTE job was completed in 2009. Ruthlessness always prevails in SL. The army always wins. Those who disbelieved paid the price.

    • 3

      Does this suggest that Mrs B should have finished off all JVP members and supporters?
      Bitter-sweet thought ane!

    • 6


      What is your hidden agenda, if there is one?

      “The army always wins.”

      Is it true?

  • 0

    The insurrection would have speedily suppressed diverting , Emotional engagement were principal reasons for insurgent If these people were Job trained empowers people to realize their dreams and improve their lives. All the destruction that happened and put the country backwards will be turned instruction put the country forward by there talent

  • 3

    Ms. Suriya Wickremasinghe is the daughter of the Doyen of Ceylon/ Srilanka Politics Dr. S.A.Wickremasinghe Leader of the Communist Party.

    She has appeared in many a case with S.Nadesan Q.C. AND WERE THE PIONEERS OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.

    Manel Fonseka is the wife of the illustrious Archaeologist Dr.Senaka Bandaranayake .

    I am penning these lines since my only foray into Politics [ In my salad days though! ] was when I was given membership of the Ceylon Communist Party personally by Dr.SAW MP. Belliatta.

    That era may never return.

    • 3

      Oh dear, Plato, was it really necessary to expand on my name? Unlike you I dont conceal myself behind a pseudonym, but I respect yr wish to do so. Similarly, as it should be apparent that I stand by my name & mine alone, using “my own” surname, you should respect that. Please tell me why u needed to identify me further. Senake wd have been the last person to think this was necessary.

      • 5

        Manel Fonseka

        There are only a few people (with humane heart) left in this country in whom we trust. Our future generation is safe only when they know the right persons who uphold moral authority irrespective of changing circumstances. In that respect I see the need for Plato to give some background information to the name “Manel Fonseka”. If Plato is guilty I too plead guilty.

        For personal reasons we cannot expose our true identity, you could call it our alter ego. Not many like the things that I write here.

      • 2

        Dear Manel Fonseka,

        Mea Culpa Mea Maxima Culpa.

        After all, Emeritus Prof: Senaka Bandaranayake, a distinguished scholar, was also a product of STC. Mt.Lavinia.
        Frankly, Iwas not quite sure about your pater. There was a Fonseka a member of the old elite CCS.
        I did pay a tribute to Prof: SB,, ,in these pages,upon his death a few years ago. In fact, I was the first.!

        I assure you,there was no malice when I went public about your identity.

  • 2

    OOPS! A typo.

    It should read as MP. Akuressa.

    Interestingly, many years ago I noticed that the phonetics of the Sinhala spoken in the Akuressa area is a bit different from the rest of the country.

  • 0

    As in independence our republic too was attained in self created tragic circumstance. What ever followed after are consequence of such tragedy.

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