By Rajan Hoole –
The Indo-Lanka Accord and Sri Lanka’s Fault Lines: July 1987 – Part – 3
Several of the original leaders of the JVP, including its leader Rohana Wijeweera, were earlier in N. Shanmugathasan’s Communist Party (Peking Wing) and formed the JVP in the late 1960s. Their 1971 rebellion against the newly elected Left-leaning government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was brutally crushed and the leaders were imprisoned. They were released by the Jayewardene Government in 1977 and a section of them was for a time used to harass and discredit those in the SLFP close to Mrs. Bandaranaike. The JVP leadership quickly stopped this. In this their electoral phase, Wijeweera contested the presidential election in 1982 with hopes of emerging a major force but barely received two and half lakhs of votes. Wijeweera was thoroughly demoralised. The JVP faced a major crisis with many members leaving.
The character of the JVP is tied up with that of its erstwhile leader Rohana Wijeweera and the reputations of both remain, to a large extent, nebulous. Even some of those who knew Wijeweera very well in his early days are unable to make up their mind about him. In 1989 when his agents were hunting them, they saw him as a coward and a contemptible man whose fear of physical pain was matched by the ease with which he would inflict it on others. Several accounts of him suggest that with the slightest threat of pain under interrogation, as in 1971, he would divulge everything he knew.
Yet many years later, some of his early mates spoke of him as having been the greatest political strategist of their generation. This may be attributed to their removal to foreign lands and a humdrum existence. These circumstances do heighten nostalgia for the lost dreams of youth. The anger against Wijeweera they harboured,had mellowed with time to guilt – guilt over the revolution from which one was excluded, while the companions of one’s youth were consumed by it, along with their idealism, their cruelty, their courage and all. So Wijeweera himself remains something of a riddle. His supposed servility under interrogation itself may have been a clever stratagem. Perhaps it enabled him to give out something relatively trivial and hide what is crucial. We sketch what is known about him from testimonies of persons in Left politics.
Wijeweera came into the Communist Party as part of his family inheritance. His father had been a well-known CP member in Matara and had worked for the CP leader and long-time MP, Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe. The father had been incapacitated after a mauling he had received at the hands of the UNP. Wijeweera was sent to Moscow on a scholarship in token of Dr. Wickremasinghe’s indebtedness to the family. The early 1960s saw a split in the Communist Movement between Moscow and Peking – with Moscow being termed Revisionists over their move under Nikita Kruschev to distance themselves from the legacy of Josef Stalin who died in 1953.
Wijeweera, while a student in Moscow had identified with Peking. He was locked up in an asylum for a period. Some maintain that he suffered from mental instability, while others believe the move was political. He was sent back to Sri Lanka and he threw himself into the work of the Communist Party (Peking Wing) led by N. Shanmugathasan. This party had an adversarial relationship with the CP (i.e., the Moscow Wing) and a long-standing one with the Trotskyite LSSP.
While working actively for the CP (Peking), Wijeweera was also accused of plotting to overthrow Shanmugathasan, using in part the fact that the latter was Tamil. Shanmugathasan had Wijeweera sacked. By this time the Left movement was also splintering and about 1966 Wijeweera launched his own party, the JVP (People’s Liberation Front). This party was a prisoner of the political culture of the times. Its approach was populist and was not above using communalism. Wijeweera took the anti- Indianism that was a part of his political environment and represented the voiceless Plantation Tamils of recent Indian origin as an arm of Indian expansionism. The JVP avoided an explicit position on the Tamil issue by contending that once there is socialism, the issue would go away.
In the post-1977 democratic phase of the JVP, Wijeweera’s opportunism showed itself in his attitude to particular issues. When the Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed in 1979 and this was taken up for discussion, Wijeweera opined that they could ignore it because it would affect only the North-East. But some others in the Central Committee pressed the matter and succeeded in getting the JVP to oppose it and to campaign against it.
Again when the violence against Tamils in Trincomalee came up in June 1983, Wijeweera and most of the others wanted to keep off the issue. But Lionel Bopage and a few others wanted a statement issued condemning the violence, and a diluted form of the original draft was issued. The JVP thus remained a prisoner of its times, and despite its revolutionary rhetoric, in its political content and opportunism it was in the same family as the UNP and SLFP.
When Jayewardene banned the party in July 1983 as a scapegoat for the ethnic holocaust, he did the JVP a great favour. As an underground party it attracted sympathy as a victim and could make its bid for power as a closed revolutionary organisation in its old pre-1971 terrain.
Lionel Bopage, General Secretary of the JVP, who was also critical of the group’s ‘double- tongued’ position on the National (i.e. Tamil) Question, told the leadership in his letter of resignation of February 1984 (see book of Chandraprema, C.A.):
“The ultra-left tendency which existed among us before 1971 turned into an ultra-right tendency after 1977. Similarly, this rightist tendency can easily turn into an ultra-left tendency once again… Such an ultra-left course of action will bring incalculable harm and destruction to the Sri Lankan socialist revolution… We will be forgetting the lessons of 1971 if such an adventuristic course of action is taken.” It was as we shall see, a course of action that drove the Left, which was opposed to the JVP, into the arms of the Right.
From 1986, the JVP began targetting opponents, collecting money through robberies and obtaining weapons – first pistols and shotguns and weapons that were more advanced were acquired from early 1987 by raiding the armouries of the security services with inside help. A notable killing was that of student Daya Pathirana, leader of the Colombo University based Independent Students’ Union.
The ISU, which was committed to the Tamils’ right to self-determination, were the most potent opponents of the JVP among students.
The Daya Pathirana murder was as unsettling as it was unprecedented. In student politics, the traditional targets of their protests were the Police and the authorities. But here students from an organised political group, the JVP, had methodically conspired and carried out the murder of a fellow student. The smaller Left parties were alarmed. But the others failed to take note of the deranged phenomenon that had mushroomed into the open. In the case of the SLFP and MEP, their wits had been so dulled by a desire for quick power that they even tried to form, in the coming months, an alliance with the JVP. The UNP Government too did not appreciate the seriousness of the threat and was indeed divided and opportunistic in its approach to the JVP.
Although the Daya Pathirana case petered out in the Press as 1987 wore on with media attention shifting to military operations in the North, an unexpected breakthrough made by the Police in the Daya Pathirana case has remained largely unknown. The revelations were an eye- opener.
In the spring of 1987, a police unit was detailed to investigate the robbery of about 13 vehicles in the south-eastern suburb of Colombo. About May, the Police took in a Burgher named Jones who could speak only Sinhalese and along with him one Hewa Hettige Jayatissa from Kottawa. Jones said immediately that he was in it only for the money and implicated Jayatissa as a JVPer. It turned out that the JVP was using professional thieves on contract. For every five vehicles stolen, the JVP kept about 3 and the thieves kept about 2. Subsequently the Police took in Karunaratne, the driver of the stolen vehicles, who readily told everything he knew.
When a gazetted officer went to see Jayatissa at Athurugiriya police station on the third day, he found that he had been beaten and was in a dishevelled state. When he asked Jayatissa if he had eaten, he blurted out that not even water had been given to him for two days. The officer immediately gave him the young king coconut that had been given to him to drink. The officer had taken to heart the piece of advice given to him by his mentor Tyrell Gunetilleke, who was regarded one of the greatest detectives of his time in the Police Service. Gunetilleke, who had first been a law student, worked from a deep understanding of the Law. His advice to his juniors was: “If you beat a man to extract information, you are no policeman. Once you use physical force, you are placed on the defensive in court and the case for the prosecution suffers”. This explains why PTA cases degrade the Law and, in the process, the Judiciary.
The officer ordered that Jayatissa be allowed to bathe, given clean clothing and good food. Two days later the officer chatted up Jayatissa in an easy atmosphere. The man who had given absolutely no information under torture, gradually began opening out everything in his heart.
Jayatissa admitted to being one of the party who abducted and killed Daya Pathirana. The other abductors named were Addiris Costa, Mahipala and Sudumalli. Jayatissa was then moved to Welikade Prison for easy access.
At 9.00 PM on the night of 6th June (1987), Jayatissa told the Prison authorities that he would like to meet the police officer urgently. Upon the police officer arriving at the prison, Jayatissa told him that there was just about one thing that he had not told him. He said that they (the JVP) were to assemble that day or the next as initially decided, to attack a military camp close to Colombo. A senior officer in the CID was summoned to hear this first hand, and A.S. Seneviratne, who was then Director, CID, was apprised. Nothing happened that night. But the next night, the JVP attacked both the Kotelawela Defence Academy, as well as the Katunayake Air Force Base. A few dozens of weapons were stolen for the loss of 4 attackers. The CID was called in and later 13 hard-core JVPers were arrested.
The timely information about the attacks was not taken seriously and there was no alert. It would have seemed too far-fetched at that time. The ambitions of the JVP and its organisation continued to be underestimated. Following the violence at the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in July (see below), a high-level police conference was held at a private house in Havelock Town to discuss post-Accord violence. Again, a revelation made by Jayatissa was placed before the conference. Jayatissa had said that like the ‘Kotti’ (Tigers), the JVP has decided to eliminate all obstacles to their taking over the state. DIG Merril Gunaratne who chaired the conference had opined that the JVP were not adequately organised.
A key officer fighting the JVP resurgence was also present at the conference – namely, SSP Terrence Perera of the Counter Subversive Unit. No serious precautions were advanced. About 3 months later, the JVP shot him dead. The gunman only had to wait on a road, which he had to drive along to reach the main road in the Battaramulla area, on his way to work.
To be continued..