Fascinating insights from the eye of the storm:
An insider’s story of turbulent political events in Sri Lanka
Rebellion, Repression and
The Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka:
The Lionel Bopage Story
Michael Colin Cooke
Agahas Publishers, Colombo, 2011
Reviewed by Martin Mulligan
Director of the Globalism Research Centre, RMIT University
From the time he arrived at Peredeniya University in Kandy in 1968 to study engineering until he and his family took refuge in Australia in 1989, Lionel Bopage found himself at the centre of a series of major political storms in Sri Lanka. Most significantly, he was a central leader of a leftist youth movement which launched an ill-fated and costly ‘insurrection’ in 1971 and Michael Cooke’s rather forensic exploration of that experience is enough to give this book significance. Yet the book achieves much more than that because Lionel Bopage has certainly lived a life that has been more eventful than he could have imagined or even desired.
The book is rather light on information about Bobage’s life before 1968. As the son of a communist shopkeeper from Weligama in the southern Galle District, he grew up in a home environment where political debate was a commonplace. Glimpses of his early life also show why he was prepared to go against the stream and hold fast to his conviction that a better world is possible. However, when he graduated from the university’s Socialist Society into the ranks of the Movement he would not have imaged that he was already on the road to becoming a central leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), spending long periods in prison and eventual exile in Australia. Along the way he became a close friend and associate of the JVP’s charismatic leader Rohana Wijeweera and he came face-to-face with many people who played significant roles in the shaping of Sri Lanka’s post-independence state, polity and society.
This detailed account of Bopage’s life in politics has been a labour of love on the part of its relatively inexperienced author who had crucial support from a range of Melbourne-based friends and associates, listed in the Acknowledgements. It has clearly been published on a limited budget and it may not get the circulation it deserves because it is a very valuable contribution to the literature on Sri Lanka’s post-independence travails. No-one can doubt that the man who rose to become the General-Secretary of the JVP was once at the centre of political developments in Sri Lanka. Forced into exile for fear of his life, however, Bopage has long been outside the gaze of public attention in his home country and this book can be seen as a kind of gift from the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia to the post-civil war discourse in Sri Lanka on the failed politics of division and conflict.
Most readers will be interested to learn about Bopage’s role in the failed insurrection of 1971 and his subsequent imprisonment. However, the real turning point in Bopage’s story came when he decided to step away from the spotlight. In a move that surprised many people, including his wife Chitra, Bopage resigned from the JVP in 1984 on the grounds that the party had failed to learn the full lessons of its ill-fated insurrection in 1971; was moving down the path of political opportunism in relation to the ‘national question’ (i.e. relations between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority); and continued to hold illusions about its size and influence during the 1982 election campaign in which Wijeweera only managed to win 250,000 votes as candidate for president. While Bopage continued to admire Wijeweera’s skill and integrity—noting after he was captured and executed in 1989 that he would not have embraced the opportunistic politics of latter-day JVP leaders—he felt that Wijeweera’s rather narrow Marxist analysis of the ‘national question’ made the party much less relevant in the wake of the anti-Tamil pogrom that swept the island in 1983. It was much more important, Bopage argued, to support the rights and interests of the Tamil minority in order to build an inclusive civil society than to support ill-founded conceptions of Sri Lanka’s national identity.
The sentiments expressed in Bopage’s 1984 letter of resignation from the JVP have surely been vindicated by subsequent events and the party’s slide into more overt forms of Sinhalese nationalism. However, the courage of his convictions did not serve him well personally because his public prominence made him an easy target for politicians wanting to suppress the emergence of any new left-wing political formations. After cutting his ties with the JVP in 1984 Bopage returned to study in order to gain secure employment as an engineer so that he could better support his wife and children. However, after he was imprisoned for a third time in 1989, and warned of plots to kill him, he went into exile in Japan and South Korea before being able to reunite with his family in Australia.
It is too easy to dismiss the JVP as an ultra-left political party that subsequently degenerated into crude forms of nationalism in order to build a base of support in the south of Sri Lanka. This book makes it clear that the party, in its early days, made a serious attempt to learn from experiences elsewhere in the world in order to build a post-colonial future for Sri Lanka that could deliver real benefits to the rural and urban poor and not just to the political and economic elite who held sway in Colombo.
While the JVP began in 1966 as a Maoist youth movement, initially connected with the China-aligned wing of the Community Party, Wijeweera and his colleagues were disillusioned by international squabbling between China and the Soviet Union and their bands of barrackers in Sri Lanka. They took inspiration from Cuba’s independent road to socialist revolution and Wijeweera began to wear his Che Guevara beret. However, it is important to note that they did not simply switch from being Maoists to becoming ‘Fidelistas’ because they wanted to find an approach that might work within the conditions prevailing within Sri Lanka. Indeed, this was why the Wijeweera-led JVP was able to break the mould of small and rather isolated Marxist political parties.
Nevertheless, the party failed to build a significant base of support among the urban poor and among Tamil communities living in the north and east or in the hill country tea plantations. In a sense it never came to terms with its Maoist heritage; continuing to believe in the power of a peasant uprising emanating from outside urban centres. As a result, the JVP leaders got ahead of themselves, believing in their own rhetoric rather than a more sober assessment of their levels of support. Bopage insists that the decision to launch an island-wide insurrection in April 1971 was in part a defensive stance aimed at heading off increasing and aggressive government attacks on their right to exist. However, it backfired badly, resulting in the deaths of around 10,000 people and the jailing of all the party’s leaders, including Bopage, for a period of six years.
When Bopage, Wijeweera and others were released from prison in 1977 they made some impressive efforts to rebuild the rather discredited party to become a credible political alternative once again. By 1983, however, Bopage had reluctantly reached the conclusion that the political movement he had worked so hard to build—and at considerable personal cost—was on track to repeat some of its mistakes. This assessment proved to be prophetic because the JVP did indeed launch another failed uprising, in the period 1987-89, in which JVP militants killed thousands of people who refused to support them and lost thousand of their own, including Wijeweera, in the process. Perhaps a key message of this book is to confirm Karl Marx’s warning that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.
In his forward to the book, Cooke makes it clear that he used a Marxist approach to construct his ‘biography’. In part, this is because Bopage himself wanted to make it clear that he has not abandoned Marxism as a lens of analysis. The overt Marxist influence enables the book to make the important point that class divisions have been have been at least as important as ethnicity in fuelling the conflict that led to nearly 30 years of civil war in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, in adopting a broad historical approach, the book makes another useful contribution to the growing body of literature which can undermine narrow, mythologised, accounts of Sri Lanka’s history and identity.
However, in adhering to a Marxist approach it fails, in the view of this reviewer, to delve deeply enough into the subjectivities of Bopage’s seminal experiences at turbulent times in Sri Lanka’s history. As one who was swept up for more than a decade in the Marxist movement in Australia, this reviewer would have been interested to learn more about the kinds of personal dilemmas Bopage faced in coming to terms with the failings of some of the political ideologies he adhered to at different times in his political career. A rather dispassionate account of the mistakes made in 1971 probably limits the capacity of this book to get inside the psychology of a political formation that embraced violence even more cynically in its second ‘insurrection’.
There is a tendency within Marxism to downplay personal subjectivities in favour of an ‘objective’ analysis of social formations and historic opportunities. There is also a tendency to believe that there is such a thing as the ‘right line’ and for this reason old debates are frequently revisited to see who was right and who was wrong. While this biography certainly does not present Bopage as being infallible, it tends to suggest that he was on the right side of all the big political debates inside the JVP and such a preoccupation with who was right and who was wrong mitigates against a deeper, more nuanced, exploration of the personal moral dilemmas that Bopage faced in coming to terms with the events that he helped to precipitate.
No doubt Bopage himself wanted the book to focus on his political legacy at the expense of his life story. A biographer, of course, has to work with constraints imposed by the subject. At the same time, the best biographies find a way to critically examine the subject’s self-analysis and this one falls a little short in that regard. The emphasis on the political over the personal makes this more like an account of Bopage’s life in politics rather than a biography. It seems that Cooke wanted to turn this into a strength by claiming, in his preface, that his intent was to write a ‘Marxist biography’. While there clearly are some Marxist predilections in the way the book has been constructed--and that is entirely appropriate to the subject matter--the concept of a Marxist biography is an oxymoron to this reviewer.
The attempt to make this a Marxist biography might have been responsible for the book having a somewhat less than catchy title. Indeed it reads more like the title of a political pamphlet than the title of a biography and it is probably fortunate that the sub-title—‘The Lionel Bopage Story’—is equally prominent on the cover. Something more in keeping with the story of an intriguing life in politics may have helped this book reach a wider reading audience; some may be put off by a rather cumbersome title.
However, the book’s limitations should not detract from its very considerable achievements. It is an important contribution to the literature on Sri Lanka’s recent history and it is to be hoped that it can reach a wide reading audience both inside and outside Sri Lanka. Indeed, the Lionel Bopage story is an important one for all people interested in worldwide efforts to come to terms with the stubborn legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The author and his Melbourne-based friends and colleagues have done a splendid job in making sure that the story of this pivotal political actor, now living in exile in Melbourne, has been well documented and made available for interested readers. The book will have enduring relevance.