The JVP in Sri Lanka – Where to now?

“Now people eagerly await for the 2004 government to fall. It is easily done. This is the weakest government in post independence. It survives on charitable crumbs and has not a leg to stand on. If this is toppled, and it should be done and done fast, the next government should have the courage to create a new economic order.”

Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, JVP MP, speaking at a party conference in Gampaha, reported in The Sunday Leader, 17th October 2007

I associate the JVP with darkness.

I remember how my mother stitched thick, black blinds to cover all our windows at night during the height of the Bheeshana Ugaya in the late-80’s. I didn’t then understand what the acronym JVP stood for, but was acutely aware of its significance through the increased tension at home whenever we heard the ominous purr of trail bikes snaking their way down our lane.

The lights have remained turned off within the JVP for a long time. As Asanga Welikala and Dave Rampton propose in The Politics of the South, part of the Sri Lanka Strategic Conflict Assessment published in 2005, there are several interpretations for the JVP’s raison d’etre and support base. The authors point to the perceived and real inequity among Sinhala youth, educated in Sinhala, that gave rise to exhaustion with “the post-colonial State in Sri Lanka and its inability to make room for the distribution of employment and goods to this social stratum.” The JVP was forged by and in turn fuelled this discontent. Over time, this support base that was traditionally in the rural South has expanded into the lower middle class urban social strata through the JVP’s increasing presence in trade unions and, as noted by the authors, a new middle class without clientelist associations with the essentially nepotistic SLFP and UNP and who associate themselves with a party whose rhetoric is venomously against elite dynasties. In re-imagining and positioning itself as the conscience of the (fundamentally Southern, Sinhala) public in parliament, the JVP has from 1994 onwards emerged as the “third force” in Sri Lankan politics. It regularly speaks out against high-level corruption. It is at pains to define itself as an endogenous protector of human rights whilst at the same time dismissing non-governmental organisations involved governance and democratic reform with vituperative disdain. Its influence is particularly telling in sections of the Sangha and the Army today. However, it tragically remains a victim of its own blinkered political, cultural and economic vision.

There were short-lived periods of enlightenment. Lionel Bopage, a member of the JVP since 1968 and a former General Secretary, who resigned in 1984, in an interview published in the Lines magazine in May 2003 avers that:

“The JVP agitates claiming that Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, unitary state, national independence and sovereignty are in grave danger. They want to defeat separatism and stop division of the country militarily and ideologically. They oppose negotiations with the LTTE unless they drop the demand for separation and disarmed, which is politically equivalent to a complete surrender. Worst is their statement that there was and is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka! With regard to the national question they have joined hands with Sinhala chauvinist groups. Condemnation of terror by the JVP is one-sided. While condemning the terror campaigns conducted by the LTTE, they praise the terror campaigns conducted by the security forces as patriotic.”

Now a resident in Melbourne, Australia, Bopage goes to note in a podcast featured on Voices of Reconciliation Radio that the Government and the LTTE will not be able to achieve anything militarily and the need to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamil community in order for a just peace. Bopage’s statement suggests a one-time JVP leadership with an imagination wider and deeper than that at present. Rampton and Welikala for example note that “both Rohana Wijeweera and Lionel Bopage articulated the need to recognise the potential legitimacy of the Tamil’ rights for self-determination”. Clearly, this accommodation of Tamil nationalism is non-existent in the JVP today. With rising economic hardship in the South, the JVP will be sure to leverage the existential woes of the South to its own populist ends – Sinhala nationalism after all finds its most forceful expression in times of economic, social and political crises that are its own making. The love hate relationship with the government will result of much said, but little done – there is after all little that the JVP today can do save for strikes and rallies that don’t significantly impact the government.

The JVP’s essential intolerance of dissent and plural opinion, both within its party and in polity and society writ large, is one that the Rajapakse administration has adopted and promoted in the SLFP, and how! Today, the JVP itself can only define itself in opposition to a mirror image of itself – the government’s ethnic majoritarianism by the self-proclaimed children of ’56 significantly challenges and vitiates the JVP’s own fire brand Sinhala nationalist propaganda. The government’s disdain of the Norwegian mediation and the International Community is even greater than the JVP. The government’s mobilisation of all State machinery to promote, support and strengthen its war effort and the methodical manipulation of every sinew of government and society to further its parochial ends reflects the JVP’s own understanding of and approach to State power and governance. All this leaves the party with little else to do other than to constantly belabor the actions of Rajapakse administration with no real teeth to bring about any change. The present administration is in fact the JVP’s Achilles heal – using its own tactics and rhetoric against it and reclaiming in the process voters in the South the SLFP had lost to the JVP in previous elections.

A government in Sri Lanka that usurps one’s central ideology leaves one with few meaningful options to progress as a political party. The JVP will continue to berate the government for its indecent record of accountability and transparency, its economic mismanagement and corruption. At the same time, it will continue to support the war, attack NGOs, voice opposition to any degree or any manner of power sharing with the LTTE, viciously attack any hint of the federal idea finding expression in the APRC and continue their campaign against NGOs particularly active in governance reform and human rights. It’s petulance in the face of a dismissive President finds expressions in statements such as “the President would eagerly welcome the JVP if they would also clamour for vehicles, portfolios and perks” uttered by Anura Kumara Dissanayaka recently at a JVP party conference.

I do not believe that the JVP today is no longer a third force in politics. Though the JVP’s trenchant and well-researched critiques of the government in parliament are much needed, a dwindling support base in the South vitiates their significance. The exclusive, Sinhala Buddhist, subaltern, ethnic majoritarianism of the Rajapakse Presidency severely vitiates the reach and impact of the JVP’s propaganda on very similar lines. It appears now that the electoral agreement between the Mahinda Rajapaksa and the JVP at the time of the Presidential elections in 2005 has paid rich dividends for the governing party and was a Faustian pact for the JVP. And though the politically motivated and vindictive Parliamentary Select Committee to police humanitarian aid work and NGOs in Sri Lanka continues under the aegis of the JVP, in many respects, it is not anymore a party or political force capable of any significant influence in politics and governance. In assimilating the ideology of the JVP as well as the JHU into the ruling party, Sri Lanka has a larger monstrosity in the form of the Rajapaksa administration that is now its greatest challenge to conflict transformation and a just peace, making the JVP‘s intransigence seem almost quaint in comparison.

This article written for Montage, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with or to subscribe to Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at] gmail.com or visit their blog

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