50 years of the JVP | Daily News

50 years of the JVP

The failure to address the concerns and frustrations of youth can have devastating consequences. This is a lesson that we have learned not once, but twice over the course of the last 50 years. The youth are naturally rebellious and can easily be misled into acts of violence that may seem liberating. It was therefore not surprising that a political movement that exploited the frustrations of youth would have “liberation” in its name.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the People’s Liberation Front commemorated the 50th anniversary of its first insurgency, in Tissmaharama yesterday. It was from the Deep South that the movement began, holding classes and weapons training in the jungles for its youth recruits. Led by a young Rohana Wijeweera who openly emulated the South American revolutionary Che Guevara, the JVP symbolized the hopes and aspirations of a generation of youth who had been sidelined by the State.

But waging a battle against a State is no easy task. While the JVP did succeed in virtually taking over some areas especially in the South, it was no match for the Army and the Police that were at the disposal of the Government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It was a sort of baptism of fire for a Government that was just one year old when April 1971 happened. The insurrection was brutally crushed and all those who surrendered were later ‘rehabilitated’ and released to society, though it took the election of another Government for the release of the JVP leaders. Incidentally, the JVP was banned just a few years later, which forced its leaders to go underground.

This proved to be a catalyst for a second JVP insurrection just 11 years later. This was much bigger in scale than the first one, with the JVP rising to the level of being able to impose “curfews” by chit. Its cadres killed thousands of political opponents, burned Government property, organised bus strikes and created a fear psychosis in all areas of the country, except in the North and the East, where another insurgency led by the LTTE was brewing. The Government’s response was even more brutal than in 1971, with pro-Government hit squads taking out thousands of JVP cadres. Many were burned on “tyre pyres” and it was not unusual to see hundreds of burning and gunshot-riddled bodies in some areas. These hit squads employed infamous “goni billos” – JVP cadres turned Government informants wearing balaclavas who just nodded when they saw a compatriot, who was then dragged away to certain death. The JVP’s end was hastened when it threatened the members of Security Forces and their families. Retaliation was swift. Worse, Wijeweera was discovered living a life of luxury in Kotmale under disguise while JVP cadres were sacrificing their lives for him. Even allowing for the terrorist war in the North, 1988-89 was one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.

But unlike the LTTE which never transformed itself till the day it was annihilated on the banks of the Nandikadal Lagoon in 2009, the JVP did change into a democratic entity post-1989, under the leadership of Somawansa Amarasinghe, whose connections to the then rulers helped him escape to England. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, he brought the party to the democratic mainstream, where it has been since. But the problem for the JVP was that it could not quite efface its dark past, even if the transformation itself was impressive. It even contested the elections for the Provincial Councils, which it bitterly opposed in the days of insurrection. Having once bombed Parliament, it contested Parliamentary Elections too.

After realizing that the JVP could not gain traction with younger voters, the leadership baton was handed over to Anura Kumara Dissanayake, one of the finest public speakers in the country today. While AKD, as he is affectionately known, has “clicked” with many on all sides of the political divide, the JVP has still not been able to translate that charisma to votes per se. It did win many Parliamentary Seats while in a partnership with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), but once it entered the fray on its own, it has generally fared very badly. In fact, it could only gain around 3 percent of the vote at the last two national elections.

Although known as the third force in Sri Lankan politics, the splintering of the two main parties into various factions has further eroded the JVP’s chances, pushing it further down the polls numbers. This is the challenge the JVP now faces – how to stay relevant and focused and of course, gain more votes at the polling booth. It has still not been able to present a coherent vision for governance that can cater to those who are “on the fence” at elections. Instead, it lurches from one issue to the next, with mixed messaging that further confuses the voters. The JVP will have a much better chance at the next hustings if it can put its house in order and evince more clarity on where it stands in the current socio-political milieu.