Book Review, “Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in
Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story” by Willie Senanayake, Canberra, Australia
Since its independence from Great Britain in February 1948, Sri Lanka has endured massive socio-political upheavals in the form of ethnic violence against the Tamil minority in 1958, 1977, 1979 and 1983; two armed insurrections by the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) in 1971 and 1987-89; and the secessionist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 1983 - 2009. Michael Colin Cooke’s recent book Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka – The
Lionel Bopage Story is a new addition to the long list of publications on post independence socio-political development in Sri Lanka.
In his book, Cooke presents a critical analysis of the activities of the JVP in Sri Lanka from the mid 1960s to late 1980s, on the basis of his conversations and email correspondence with
Lionel Bopage and his own research into the subject matter. Lionel was a leading member of the JVP from 1968 to 1984, held the position of its General Secretary from 1979 to his resignation in 1984, and also took part in the 1971 JVP insurrection.
The rise of the JVP movement in the 1960s gained momentum for two core reasons. First, in 1964 the traditional left parties, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), abandoned the socialist political agenda by entering into a bourgeois government, paving the way for the JVP that ‘professed to be Marxist revolutionary’. Second, national and international geopolitical factors such as the Sino-Soviet split, the echo of the Cuban revolution, and the growing unrest within the rural youth due to high unemployment also contributed to the rapid growth of the JVP in late 1960s, with its ability to adapt Marxism to the local material conditions of Sri Lanka.
Although the JVP had not embraced Sinhala nationalism or advocated anti-Tamil policies prior to 1971, it avoided promoting any discussion among the Sinhala people of the South about the problems and grievances encountered by the Tamils of the North-East. As Lionel states: “the JVP as a child of the traditional left and coming from the rural Sinhala Buddhist background was totally ignorant about the discrimination carried out against the Tamil-speaking people, and naturally did not discuss any of the issues related to language, religion, discrimination, nationality, nation, devolution and right to self-determination. Being semi-Maoist in political outlook the JVP concentrated more on external factors such as ‘Indian expansionism’ advocated by Mao-Tse Tung or imperialist conspiracies rather than concentrating on internal factors that led to the national question.”
The national question, as Cooke rightly points out “has to do with how a nation state deal with the rights of all citizens in terms of equity, culture, language, and in particular with how those rights are confirmed or diminished for minority groups within its national boundaries.” Sadly Sri Lanka has not, so far, been able to resolve its national question. After being convicted at the trial of the 1971 insurrection, Lionel (while in prison) had time and opportunity to contemplate the national question, through his exposure to Marxist literature on the subject and his conversations with several Tamil political prisoners. He recalls, “after studying the national question, in particular with regard to language, religion and the right to self-determination of the Tamil speaking people of the island, a draft policy framework that would address the issues affecting Tamil speaking people was developed”. Had the JVP leadership adopted this policy framework after their release from prison in November 1977, the political journey of the JVP in subsequent years would have been significantly different.
The book details Lionel’s struggle within the JVP from 1978 to 1983 to change its approach to the national question. Political differences between him and the JVP leadership on this matter led to his resignation from the party in early 1984. These differences were highlighted in Lionel’s letter of resignation, “…the main task of a revolutionary party is to enquire into ways to incorporate the national question into Sri Lankan socialist revolution and to act accordingly……I feel that we can only expect to rally the Tamil people around the banner of Sri Lanka’s revolution if and only if we equate their problems with ours and agitate forcefully to solve them, and not by separating ourselves from their problems.”
The JVP’s proscription, following the anti-Tamil program of July 1983, saw the JVP shifting its position on the national question to an extremist Sinhala nationalist stance. And the report the late Rohan Wijeweera (leader of the JVP at that time) presented to the JVP’s central committee in April 1986 provided a ‘theoretical justification’ for the JVP to embrace a Sinhala nationalist agenda. The JVP’s political program took a more violent turn following the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in July 1987 resulting in a second armed insurrection.
Lionel admits that during his political life, he made two very serious and faulty judgement calls: first, his decision to support the 1971 armed insurrection; and second, his strong endorsement of Wijeweera as a presidential candidate during the1982 Presidential election. In regard to the JVP’s decision to take up arms in 1971, Lionel notes “instead of the working people, armed with class consciousness generated by the deep social contradictions they experience, moving forward to capture state power, the JVP was acting as a substitute on behalf of the working class. The JVP was more or less acquiring the status of a ‘saviour’ of the working people. Therefore the struggle of the JVP took the form of a secret conspiracy without the participation of the majority of the working people.”
Lionel and many other JVP members who took part in the 1971 insurrection were subject to severe torture in the hands of the police and state security forces and around 10,000 members, supporters and sympathisers of the JVP were killed in captivity. The situation was much worse during the second (1987-89) JVP uprising, where around 50,000 members and sympathisers of the JVP, including the overwhelming majority of its central committee members, were brutally killed by the armed forces of the state. This history of tight-fisted, ruthless repression by the state begs the question: did the Government of Sri Lanka and its security forces act in a similar manner during the last phase of the civil war, which ended in May 2009? Widespread allegations of atrocities and war crimes hint an unfavourable answer.
On another note, the book makes a very brief reference to the July 1980 general strike, however is silent about the opportunistic position the JVP adopted in respect of this significant event which led to the sacking of over 60,000 workers. The right-wing ruling party at that time used excessive force and employed ruthless tactics of intimidation to break up the strike and victimise workers for having exercised their legitimate right to improve their living conditions. The JVP not only opposed the strike on the grounds that the strike action was ‘premature and adventurist’, but also declined to criticise the government’s brutal actions against the striking workers.
The book goes on to outline the difficulties and harassments Lionel endured in Sri Lanka, after he left the JVP, which ultimately forced him to flee Sri Lanka in 1989. Since his arrival in Australia in 1990, Lionel has been actively involved in a wide range of community activities with his continuing commitment to promoting peace, justice and human rights. Unfortunately, his efforts to promote a constructive dialogue between the Sinhala and Tamil expatriate communities in Australia have been weakened due to vicious campaigns of misinformation and aggression perpetrated by some expatriate groups. This is not surprising, given the mutual hostilities in the expatriate community in Australia.
There have been many missed opportunities for building reconciliation between the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities in the post-independent Sri Lanka. Sadly, the new window of opportunity created following the end of the military conflict in May 2009 is rapidly dwindling, with the Sri Lankan government’s inability to take positive steps to address the needs and grievances of the people affected by the war and its failure to find a just solution to the national question. To date there is little to suggest that this opportunity will be seized.
So, can Sri Lanka get out of the current mess? As an optimist I would say yes, but this will require new political directions in Sri Lanka to implement genuine political reforms that transcend ethnicity and narrow Sinhala – Buddhist nationalism. This is summed up by Cooke in his concluding remarks, “...the JVP like the traditional left and the LTTE does not seem to have the political vision, patience or the stamina to do the hard political yard that is essential to confront the chauvinists and make common cause with members of all communities.”