The Great U-Turn | Daily News

The Great U-Turn

‘Future generations are not going to ask us what political party were you in. They are going to ask what did you do about it, when you knew the glaciers were melting’ - Martin Sheen

The centre-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a party that pushed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to a path of war in 2006, made a bold political move by supporting to the bill to establish an Office of Missing Persons in Sri Lanka, last week.

The JVP’s position on the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) should be analysed in the context of its approach to the Tamil issue in the North and East, which crippled the country’s politics, since 1956.

The JVP, in 1983, explaining the party’s solution to what they termed the ‘national question’, firmly said it did not accept the Tamil people’s right to self-determination.

A booklet published by the party at the time, was considered the ‘bible’ of the JVP rank and file when it came to matters relating to the issues in the North and East and other related problems.

When Rohana Wijeweera, founder of the JVP took a seemingly hard line on the Tamil struggle and their right to self-determination, a group led by its former General Secretary Lionel Bopage, defected from the political movement. As a result, many traditional leftists dubbed the JVP a ‘pro-nationalist’ political force.

It was quite clear that the JVP, since its inception, did not have a real working class base. Its membership consisted of university students, the unemployed youth, a section of rural youth and lower middle class workers. These groups, despite their ‘circumstantial’ leftist leanings, constantly looked for opportunities for upward social mobility and nationalism seemed to be a palatable idea to them. In this context, many Leftist activists were of the view that the JVP was a petit bourgeois movement with a Marx-Leninist mask.

The JVP’s pro-nationalistic sentiments were clearly visible when the party launched its second insurrection in 1987, against the Indo-Lanka agreement signed by the J.R. Jayewardene administration. The party dubbed it an ‘Indian invasion’ and urged all ‘patriotic forces’ to rally around the party to fight the ‘treacherous agreement’ signed by J.R. Jayewardene. The party was not hesitant to describe the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) an Army of monkeys.

The rhetoric adopted by the JVP, during its second insurrection, was very much resonant with ultra-nationalism with ‘patriotism’ and ‘motherland’ being keywords in its political campaign. The terms ‘patriotism’ and ‘motherland’, quite obviously, contradicted the notion of ‘internationalism’, embraced by Marxists across the world. Interestingly, in spite of its constant flirtation with ‘patriotism’, the party continued to call itself a ‘Marx-Leninist’ movement.

Even after its revival following the second insurrection, the JVP did not want to let go of the nationalist cloak. The party was pushing for a military solution against the LTTE and this became clear after the UNP government signed a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, in December, 2001. The JVP, led by the late Somawansa Amarasinghe demanded the government burn the ceasefire document and embark on an all-out war against the LTTE.

It was the main reason behind the formation of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in 2004, with the SLFP and the JVP as its two main stakeholders. The JVP’s former Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa and former SLFP stalwart Mangala Samaraweera played a pivotal role in bringing the two parties together to form an alliance. When everyone else was wary about the potential repercussions of a war, the JVP pushed the government to militarily crush the LTTE.

When former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga attempted to establish a Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (PTOM), the JVP vehemently opposed it and even sought a court order to prevent the government from proceeding with the proposal. After a brief legal battle, the JVP won the PTOM war and the party also walked out of the coalition government.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa became the presidential candidate of the SLFP, the JVP threw its weight behind him, assuming Rajapaksa would be the ideal person to implement a military solution. The Rajapaksa campaign, in 2005, sugarcoated the idea of a military solution with the term ‘dignified peace’. In his first Mahinda Chinthana manifesto, Rajapaksa, fully backed by the JVP, sought a mandate to achieve a ‘dignified peace’ without giving into the demands of the LTTE. At that point, the JVP’s key allies were the ideologues of the Sinhala-Buddhist ultra-nationalism, namely Prof. Nalin de Silva and Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera. The JVP leaders at the time had no qualms about currying favour of the likes of de Silva and Amarasekera.

Dr. Amarasekera was a co-founder of a broad movement, formed by the JVP, under the name ‘Patriotic National Movement’ (PNM) in 2004, against Wickremesinghe’s ceasefire agreement. Wimal Weearawansa represented the movement on behalf of the party and the JVP machinery was fully utilised to strengthen the PNM. Although Weerawansa was the ‘face’ of the PNM, it was no secret to the political fold that he had the backing of the JVP’s politburo – the party’s supreme decision-making body.

However, the JVP’s position on the Tamil issue softened after the group led by Weerawansa broke away from the party. Weerawansa, as a political strategy, openly leaned towards ‘nationalism’, deviating from the Left. Its former leader Somawansa Amarasinghe’s decision to step down from the top post of the party also allowed the party to adjust its position on matters related to war, including accountability and reconciliation.

Ascertaining truth

Speaking in Parliament on the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, JVP Parliamentarian Bimal Ratnayake said such a mechanism was necessary to “ascertain truth”:

“There was unrest in the country in 1971, 1983, 1988-89 and 2009. A large number of civilians, artistes, journalists and politicians were killed or disappeared. No investigations were carried out into their cases and justice was not meted out to their families. The Commission appointed to look into the incidents during 1988-89 period received information about 33,000 people who were killed or disappeared. It was no different from the situation in the North. Therefore, justice has to be meted out to all,” Ratnayake said.

“Even the family of former JVP Leader Rohana Wijeweera have not seen his body. The only known fact about Wijeweera was that he made a public statement after his arrest. Nobody knew what happened after that,” the Parliamentarian added, explaining why his party decided to support the OMP bill.

The JVP said it would complain to the OMP over the disappearances of the former JVP Leader Rohana Wijeweera, former General Secretary of the party Upatissa Gamanayaka, former members of its Political Bureau Shantha Bandara, H.B. Herath and many others who held prominent positions in the JVP during 1988-89 period.

Former JVP Leader Wijeweera was arrested by the military in Ulapane on November 12, 1989. He was brought to Colombo and questioned under the instructions of top-brass members of the defence apparatus at the time. It was later revealed that both President Premadasa and Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne were aware of Wijeweera’s arrest and subsequent questioning. According to Indranda de Silva, a Lance Corporal of the Military Police and a ‘JVP mole’ in the Army, he was shot at the Golf Course and cremated at the Borella cemetery in the wee hours of November 13.

Addressing a press conference in Colombo, Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne said Wijeweera was killed in a shootout between the latter and H.B. Herath, another Politburo member of the party, when the former JVP leader went to show a safe house to the Army. But, many found it hard to believe the Sri Lankan government’s version of the story. Although many had doubts about Wijeweera’s death, no one had sufficient information to challenge the government’s version of the story.

The Army also nabbed H.B. Herath, hours after Wijeweera’s arrest. The Convener of the Inter-university Students Federation (IUSF) in 1981-1982, Herath played an important role in the JVP during the 88-89 insurrections.

He was arrested at the Araliya estate, in Galaha, and taken to Colombo. Some accounts said he was tortured before being killed.

The JVP’s second-in-command at the time, Upatissa Gamanayaka was arrested by the Army, a day after Wijeweera’s arrest. He was brought to the Joint Operations Centre’s camp at Mattegoda and interrogated. It was believed that a former Army Commander, who retired from the service recently, was among the group who interrogated Gamanayaka. The JVP stalwart was later killed under mysterious circumstances but nobody ‘officially’ knew how it happened!

Shantha Bandara, another Politburo member of the JVP, was arrested on December 31, 1989 and was killed two weeks later. Other Politburo members and stalwarts of the party have also faced the same plight. It was in this context that the party has decided to take the initiative to ascertain truth about ‘disappearances’. The only JVP Politburo member who survived the crackdown was Somawansa Amarasinghe who went on lead the party for over 20 years.

Therefore, the JVP’s position on the OMP can be interpreted as a significant milestone in the party’s political journey. It positions the JVP as a minority-friendly party that is not hostile to measures towards reconciliation and accountability. It is, needless to say, a 180 degree turn from where the JVP was, in 2005.

Vasudewa’s somersault

While the JVP positioned itself as a minority-friendly party that pushes for accountability and reconciliation, Vasudewa Nanayakkara, a prominent Leftist leader, performed an ‘ideological somersault’ by protesting the OMP bill.

Nanayakkara was the one who went to Geneva in 1989, to urge the international community to take action against the Sri Lankan government for human rights abuses and disappearances. Nanayakkara and his then Parliamentary colleague Mahinda Rajapaksa were described as ‘traitors’ by the then UNP government for seeking the international community’s intervention to resolve the matter.

Rajapaksa, during the 10 years he functioned as the Executive President of Sri Lanka, proved that his previous concern for human rights was just a façade. However, Nanayakkara still had some reputation as a politician who was not hostile to the needs of the ethnic and religious minorities. Under the Rajapaksa administration, Nanayakkara functioned as the Minister of National Languages and Social Integration.

Nanayakkara was among those who attempted to disrupt the proceedings of Parliament, when the bill was taken for debate, and many political observers said it was appalling to see Nanayakkara in the aisle of the House, staging a protest against the bill, with the likes of Rohitha Abegunawardena and Mahindananda Aluthgamage.

Long journey ahead

The passage of the Office of missing Persons Bill was the beginning of a long journey for the government on the path of accountability and reconciliation.

It has already earned praised from the US officials, including Assistant Secretary of State For South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski.

Biswal, a day after the passing of the bill, said it was a ‘huge stride forward’ for Sri Lanka.

‘Passage of the OMP law is a huge stride forward for Sri Lanka in advancing truth and reconciliation,’ she said, in a Twitter message, last week.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski also expressed the same sentiments saying the passage of the OMP Bill was a ‘historic step’ for Sri Lanka. ‘Congratulations to Sri Lanka for passing OMP - an historic step in pursuit of justice, reconciliation,’ in a tweet.

Commenting on the development, the British Government said the implementation of the OMP will help the families of people who are missing across all Sri Lanka’s communities to establish the fate of their loved ones and to foster reconciliation.

“We recognise that the Office will face a significant challenge resolving many thousands of cases. Investigating these with rigour, in ways sympathetic to the needs of victims’ families, will take time and perseverance,” the British Government said, in a statement, on Saturday.

In an interview with our sister newspaper, the Sunday Observer, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who was on a private visit to Sri Lanka last week, also shared her views on the OMP bill.

“The understanding of most post-war countries is that if you don’t look into those, if you don’t find answers it would be very difficult to get into reconciliation and a new start. It’s more important for Sri Lankans themselves to do this. I am very happy that the government passed the Bill yesterday on the Office of Missing Persons, because that’s among the issues raised earlier in the international community, for people to know ‘what happened to my family?’ in the last period of conflict, “ the Norwegian Prime Minister said.

However, the praise from the international community does not make the implementation of the bill a cakewalk. While implementing the Bill, the government will have to educate the people on the ground about the importance and the inner workings of the OMP. The Joint Opposition has already started its propaganda campaign, claiming the OMP will betray the “war heroes”. The government is yet to come up with a comprehensive strategy to counter their claims and educate the people at the grassroots level.

According to Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe, shortly after the Speaker signs the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) Bill, making it law, the Constitutional Council is expected to recommend seven members to the OMP to begin its fact-finding mission.

The Minister said the Government was doing the groundwork to set up the OMP within the coming weeks. President Maithripala Sirisena is expected appoint the members to the OMP including the Chairman within a fortnight after the Constitutional Council makes its recommendations.

The Justice Minister also disclosed that the office would come into operation before the end of this year. The term of office for each member will be three years and the Bill provides for the appointment of seven members, representing all ethnicities.

The office will be headquartered in Colombo and the Bill provides for the setting up of regional offices, if necessary, to achieve the mandate of the OMP. Members must have experience in fact-finding, investigation, human rights law, international humanitarian law and humanitarian response among other things. Its mandate is to search and trace missing persons, protect the rights and interests of missing persons and their relatives and to ensure non-recurrence of such incidents.

The setting up of the OMP is one of the commitments undertaken by the Government under the UN Human Rights Council resolutions adopted in September last year. The government also promised to set up a special judicial mechanism to hear cases with regard to alleged human rights abuses and war crimes. While the Office of Missing Persons and the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission will look into the ‘truth-seeking’ aspect of reconciliation, the judicial mechanism will be tasked with meting out justice to victims.


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Bimal Ratnayake wanted to know the truth, when the whole country was burning without transport and when all the business came to standstill while the tigers were having sex with elephant we were lucky to escape bombers. sooner or later somawansa was also planning similar acts with some sadistics within the SLFP, fortunately he died. Neither fonseka nor mahinda won the war, it was Rajiv Ghandi's son who was hell bent on finishing the LTTE for killing his father Rajiv and he used lots of method, including Mahinda in the forefront. Otherwise SL Army and the politicians elected to the post of defence did a lot kill the tigers but due to Indian intervention it was not possible. finally it was the fate of tigers, their legend came to end when anton broke into tears and admitted the crime to Mun Mohan Singhe, while Rahul was general secreary of the congress. and the match started.

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