Somawansa and the ethnic problem

M S M Ayub

Former Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amarasinghe who passed away last week seemed to have been a leftist politician of a different kind. When a group breaks away from a leftist party that group and the party hate each other more ferociously than they hate their so-called class enemy, the capitalist parties. But that was not the case with Amarasinghe who seemed to have been loved by almost all break away groups of the JVP as well as by the JVP from which he had broken away during his last days. It was evident only when he died.

Despite his estrangement for a brief period with the JVP, the party he led for more than a quarter century came forward to pay its last respect, as if he had been with it till the end. Interestingly, the JVP had put up posters saluting its former leader, an unusual treatment meted out to a leading figure who had broken ranks. On the other hand, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the last group to break away from the JVP, had cast aside its vast theoretical differences, especially on the ethnic issue with Somawansa, and the FSP spokesman Pubudu Jayagoda publicly described him as their political mentor,at his funeral.

The members of the National Freedom Front led by Wimal Weerawansa were brutally assaulted by the JVP cadres when they split from the JVP in 2008, during Somawansa’s leadership. But NFF second in command Weerakumara Dissanayake was in the forefront at Somawansa’s funeral as Weerawansa was in Japan with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. JVP’s one time popular General Secretary Lionel Bopage who is now domiciled in Australia as an engineer had also paid his tribute to Somawansa in a media article, in spite of the theoretical differences between them having led Bopage to leave the party and eventually the country in 1984.

Much has been told about Somawansa’s contribution towards the re-building of the JVP after the two bloody insurrections led by the JVP in 1971 and 1988/89, especially after the second rebellion.In fact, all credit for the rejuvenation of the JVP after its second uprising goes to him mainly because he was the only surviving member of the polit-bureau led by party’s founder leader Rohana Wijeweera and exterminated by the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

However, he had to do this while in exile in Europe. The difficult and dangerous part, the practically regrouping of the members of the party who had been living in hiding after the unprecedented crackdown that claimed more than 60, 000 lives had been left to a few activists such as Tilvin Silva, WimalWeerawansa, Nihal Galappatti and Nandana Gunatilake. Their task was further complicated ideologically by the fact that the socialist camp led by the Soviet Union had then been fast eroding

Unlike the northern rebels however, their southern counterparts had several favourable factors in rebuilding the party. Most importantly, the JVP members had been indoctrinated with five lectures (called classes) and the Marxist theory which include the theoretical aspects of building of a Communist Party. Thus the JVP members in hiding had been in a position to be mobilized even with a slightest sign of hope.

On the other hand the ruling UNP which crushed the JVP was in disarray after the assassination of President Premadasain 1993 by the LTTE while the main Opposition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which sympathized with the JVP at least in public was fast gaining popularity. The SLFP led People’s Alliance (PA) had won two out of seven active provincial councils in 1993. On top of all these the JVP members were encouraged that a member of Wijeweera’s polity-bureau had taken the mantle of the party. Also unlike with the case of the northern rebels, the objective of the JVP, the socialism was not proscribed in the country. Bopage says that Somawansa had greatly influenced the JVP’s policy transformations, especially on the ethnic problem during these turbulent times. He says that Somawansa “was supportive of Sinhala nationalism and was biased against other faiths, particularly against the Christianity.”He recalls that the last Central Committee meeting of the JVP he (Bopage) attended in 1984 was meant for the repudiation of the party’s recognition of the right of the Tamil people for self-determination (secession). He also recollects a speech made by Somawansa at a meeting in Hyde Park after his return from exile where the latter pledged to send 50,000 JVP cadres to the Northern battlefront to fight the LTTE, along with the armed forces.

This apparently sheds light on the thus far unrevealed background for the exit by Somawansa from his party last year during which the JVP was attempting to pacify the Tamil people. Somawansa’s successor, Anura Kumara Dissanayake publicly acknowledged that his party was not concerned about the plight of the Tamil people during the war and regretted it.

In fact, this was the second time when the JVP politically sympathized with the Tamil people and it reminds us of the portrayal of JVP policy on the ethnic problem once by Bopage as a pendulum. Before the first insurrection in 1971 the JVP followed a veiled racism under the guise of fighting against the “Indian Expansionism.” Then, during the incarceration of its leaders the party went to the other extreme and recognized the right of the Tamil people for self-determination or secession as a separate State.

After the defeat of party leader Rohana Wijeweera at the Presidential election in 1982, JVP again rejected the right of the Tamil people for self-determination and Bopage says in his article “comrade Amarasinghe was one of the top proponents of that repudiation campaign.”Now, the JVP once again sympathizes with the Tamils and calls on the government to release the lands in the North and the East taken over by the security forces during the war and to release the LTTE suspects or expedite the cases against them.This last policy shift seems to be a result of the internal struggle and the subsequent breaking away by the group called Frontline Socialist Party which had gone back to the extension of recognizing the right of the nations for self-determination.

However, considering Somawansa’s political behaviour during the last days of his life it is unimaginable that he led or participated in such an in-depth ideological struggle within the JVP. Last year, he left the party for which his whole life had been dedicated;accusing the party leaders that they did not push the government to act against those who allegedly conspired to deny the people’s victory on the night of January 8, last year. He was then pictured in the media single-handedly launching a “sathyagraha” at Independence Square to press for an investigation into the said “coup.” Later he was surprisingly seen teamed up with the leaders of the same “coup.” However, the variety and the vast number of people who attended his funeral was surely an attestation for the role he played in the resurrection of the JVP from the ashes after the bloody crackdowns that decimated the entire leadership of the party except for him, while claiming more than 60,000 lives.

Daily Mirror

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