Review by Ben Courtice: Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka - The Lionel Bopage story
“The truth is the whole”
– Hegel, quoted in “The Ecological Rift” (Foster, York & Clark, Monthly Review Press 2011)
A lot of popular non-fiction literature seems very straightforward, to the point. The kind of writing you might expect from a journalist – easy to read, not too many tangents or complicating factors; usually nothing too far from the comfort zone of the average punter.
This book, while written well enough that it reads quite easily, does not generally match that description. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” Karl Marx wrote, and movements and ideas of rebellious movements of the oppressed are not written into the official histories and syllabus. Cooke brings to bear much analysis from a wide array of sources that are not necessarily fashionable, yet quite necessary to get a solid understanding of the subject. As in the quote, the truth is the whole – and the more of the whole the account can give us, the more truthful it will in general be, although it may prove quite a lot to digest.
Lionel Bopage was for over ten years a central leader of the Sri Lankan Janata Vimukthi Peramuna or People’s Liberation Front (JVP): a revolutionary, Marxist party that exploded onto the scene in 1971 with a failed attempt at armed insurrection. As Bopage gave so much of his time and energy to the party (including about six years in prison), a large part of the book functions as a history of the JVP and its ideas in those years.
For many English-speaking progressives, what we know of political conflict in Sri Lanka is the brutal war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, the Tamil Tigers) and the oppression of the Tamil minority. But in tandem with fostering virulent nationalist and ethnic-religious chauvinism among the Buddhist Sinhala majority, the Sri Lankan government imposed a rule of murderous terror against Sinhalese revolutionaries: the JVP rebellion in April 1971 saw up to 12,000 JVP members and supporters killed, while a more protracted JVP rebellion in the late 1980s had a death toll of perhaps as many as 60,000.
So this story is one of horrific state terror, torture and repression; it is a story of how the traditional socialist left movement failed to counter the twin evils of neoliberalism and ethnic chauvinism; it is the story of how a dynamic, young 1960s revolutionary organisation burst onto the scene and made a lasting impact trying to make up for the failures of the traditional left.
It is also the story of how that party came to be ensnared by the communalist, Sinhala-chauvinist ideology even as its members were being tortured, imprisoned and murdered by the same Sinhalese army that was waging war against the Tamil rebels. Even in exile, finding safety in Australia, Bopage still found himself coming up against right-wing Sinhala nationalist ideology.
(As an aside: the island was known as Ceylon until the 1970s; Sri Lanka, literally “holy Lanka” is the name given to it by the Sinhala Buddhist ideologues to promote their nationalist mythology; but I have used that name here, as it is the common name used in English speaking countries today)
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Cooke conveys convincingly a sense of a polite-talking yet murderous national ruling elite, in the thrall of neo-colonialism yet talking up third world independence and liberation. This class of educated, English-speaking “brown sahibs” were the ones who inherited the nation from the British colonialists without even organising so much as a petition for independence.
The traditional left, an important factor in the islands politics until the 1960s, were dominated by the Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP), a large party affiliated with the international Trotskyist movement until it was enticed into a coalition government with the bourgeois Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1963 to defuse a popular strike wave.
Even the traditional parties of the left were dominated by educated upper-class figures who intellectually embraced Marxist practice, but had difficulty acting it out. They remained in the same privileged class as the ruling families: the police would not beat them if they were arrested, whereas poor peasant youth would be tortured or murdered with impunity.
There is a cringe-inducing account of three LSSP members on the run from the authorities during the second world war. Colvin R de Silva, a central party leader, and one other were from an upper class background. The third, “comrade R.” – a working class member – did all the housework and cleaning, acting out his servant class role. “But R. was not a servant; he was a party comrade in a similarly perilous position to Colvin’s” Cooke points out.
So it was fitting that the predominantly lower-class Sinhalese speaking youth of the south that formed both the main membership, and leadership, of the JVP some years later.
The JVP was a youthful split from the pro-Beijing splinter from the pro-Moscow Communist Party. Trotskyists are not monopolists in the field of political fragmentation and sectarianism! Yet the formation of the JVP was not just another schism, it was an important recomposition of revolutionary politics on the island.
The JVP’s central leader was Rohana Wijeweera, a charismatic beret-wearing theoretician and practical leader who organised the new movement with a more open approach to learning from diverse international revolutionary experiences, not to follow a strict template made in Moscow, Beijing or Havana.
The book relates the methods by which the JVP recruited and educated, and how the young Bopage completed an engineering degree while also being selected into the central leadership of the party. As with many young revolutionary movements of the 1960s, it is inspiring to read how they recruited and educated thousands with underground organisation, then mass meetings, and basic education in a series of five classes for new members.
But the tale of the 1971 uprising is less inspiring: by Bopage’s account, it was a terrible mess. It does not do justice to the bold words of earlier historian Fred Halliday, who wrote not long after the events, that the uprising “did not take the form of fragmented and spontaneous resistance, nor of organised strikes, nor even of initial low-level guerrilla actions: it assumed the form of a widespread armed insurrection, the most advanced and most complex form of all revolutionary combat.”
With the benefit of Bopage’s insider’s view, and the passage of many more years, we gain a view of the insurrection that is more tragic than heroic.
It came just after the ostensibly left United Front coalition had been elected on a relatively radical platform – that the JVP had supported. Once in office they abandoned their promises and implemented an IMF austerity package.
The JVP provided the main opposition, organising mass meetings across the island. Worried about a potentially lethal state crackdown, they were preparing for going underground. The “left” government unleashed the expected wave of repression, arresting thousands of their supporters, including Wijeweera.
The decision for insurrection was agreed to by the leadership including Bopage, but primarily pushed by what is described as a clique within the JVP leadership including Sanath (who was killed in the uprising) and Loku Athula. Bopage counts the decision to go ahead with the insurrection as one of his two greatest mistakes as a JVP leader.
Even considered as a defensive move against repression, it was a disaster. The JVP had not enough arms. Promises by Loku Athula to bring captured police weapons to Colombo were not met. In the aftermath, with up to twelve thousand party members and sympathisers (compared to an estimated 23,000 members) dead, some (including Loku Athula) became key witnesses for the government prosecution of the captured leadership. The party was broken apart, as the leaders who were not killed were largely captured and imprisoned.
The JVP had built up strong support in many rural Sinhala speaking areas. But they had not had time to win over large numbers of Tamils or of the urban working class. The biography touches on a tentative alliance that was initiated with two Trotskyist-influenced organisations that could have brought support from these two other demographic sectors. The alliance was never deepened. It is not clear whether the JVP was to blame for failing to pursue this, or if they merely ran out of time, but it underscores the fact that the 1971 uprising was premature. The party needed time to win broader support, especially within the armed forces, if it was going to seriously stage an uprising.
When Bopage, Wijeweera and other leaders were released from prison in 1977, they relaunched the JVP with a series of mass public meetings and mass recruitment. They once again became a large and radical force in politics. Bopage was elected General Secretary of the organisation. Within a few years, they were again a large force and Wijeweera was run for president in the 1982 elections. Yet Bopage had misgivings, leading to his resignation from the party in 1984 – on the heels of the wave of pogroms against Tamils killed thousands and sounded the beginning of the long war for a separate state waged by the Tamil Tigers.
Two elements are key to Bopage’s resignation. The first is not a problem that is particularly unique to the JVP among popular left parties. He felt that the membership had been built up too fast (by mass recruitment at public rallies) after the party was refounded in 1977. The new members were not sufficiently educated in the party’s program or integrated into its organisation. Hence he felt his second great mistake in the party (after agreeing to the 1971 uprising) was agreeing to run Wijeweera in the presidential elections on this shaky base. They needed more time to consolidate the new generation of members to their revolutionary program, lest they might drift into opportunism.
The second element, perhaps also related to this influx of young Sinhalese members, was the wavering in the party’s support for self-determination for the Tamil people. While the party had a firm position in theory, its members were from the heartlands of the national-chauvinist SLFP and some ingrained prejudices remained. The party still did not win significant support, or make alliances with, radical Tamil youth. In time, the party would sink opportunistically into Sinhala chauvinism, such that its modern incarnation appears primarily as a vociferously nationalist, anti-Tamil party with little remaining of its historical leftism.
Lionel’s father Jeramies, a Communist Party member, had helped Tamil friends to escape from the 1958 anti-Tamil pogroms. There is a strong current running through the book explaining Lionel’s interactions with Tamil colleagues and friends throughout his life. So the JVP’s retreat from a principled position of self-determination for the Tamil minority must have been particularly bitter.
This failure also leads to an interesting analysis of the LTTE’s war for a separate state of Eelam, from 1983 on. In Cooke’s estimation, the LTTE were not a progressive force, but a mirror image in the Tamil community of the dominant Sinhala chauvinism. They violently suppressed other Tamil political currents, and their nationalist rebellion entrenched and deepened the national divide on the island.
There is a discussion of the traditional communist view on “the national question” as it relates to national minorities, explaining how it played out in the JVP. Cooke takes to task a 1986 book by Wijeweera purporting to explain Lenin’s views on the national question – the JVP leader turned Lenin on his head by selectively misquoting the original texts, finally and completely abandoning the party’s earlier support for Tamil self-determination.
In contrast, Bopage continued to support a federal state on the island as a measure of self-determination the Tamils. This is unfortunately not explored sufficiently in the book. Self-determination would by definition include the right to complete separation, yet Bopage apparently does not support that option. This seems inconsistent and no explanation is offered. This unanswered question, unfortunately, is probably the major shortcoming of the book.
In the same vein, the author’s critique (and apparently Bopage’s) of the LTTE as a mirror of the dominant Sinhala nationalism seems at times to imply an equals sign between the two national groups, despite the massive disparity in political and military power. Who can blame the LTTE for despairing and seeking an independent state after decades of failed peaceful resistance, met only by increased oppression? But the book is not about the Tamil struggle; the complicated web of conflict there is too much for it to address.
I feel that by the time that the war between the LTTE and the state was underway, it would have been very difficult to wind back the clock and pursue a different course. Later peace accords may have had potential – as the book suggests – but we get the sense that things only deteriorated with each move by either side. As an “if only…” scenario, had the JVP and the radical Tamil youth found a way to ally against their common oppressors before 1983 things could have been very different.
Despite these limitations, as an account of the JVP’s trajectory and Bopage’s rejection of it, the story here adds a perspective that is important to consider if we wish to learn from the terrible bloodbath that has been Sri Lankan politics since 1983. There are questions remaining on several accounts, but Bopage’s unique story is a valuable contribution.
The final part of the book deals with Bopage’s harrowing escape from the island in 1989, at the end of the second JVP uprising. His life was in mortal peril in the chaos and killing that was going on. Later, after difficult time spent as a refugee in Japan and Korea, Bopage and his wife were reunited in Australia. The narrative returns to coverage of Bopage’s personal circumstances and travails after he left the JVP leadership.
This closing episode is still of political interest, providing a critique of Australia’s multicultural policy. Bopage became active in bringing together expatriate Sri Lankans culturally and to discuss politics, yet the official multicultural line supported the official Sri Lankan culture – an exclusively Sinhalese mythology about their holy Buddhist island state. Bopage has suffered frequent hostility to his efforts from supporters of the Sri Lankan government in Australia.
In the wake of the defeat of the LTTE, the questions and lessons contained within this book are of no small importance. Tamil nationalists and leftists are searching for a way forward to protect their rights once again. The Sinhala poor are unlikely to be much better off for the Sri Lankan Army’s victory over the LTTE, and the demobilisation of many troops can only add to social tensions. The history of this unhappy island has not finished and it is hoped this re-examination of the past can help to chart the way to a better future.