THE LIONEL BOPAGE STORY
(WRITEN BY MICHAEL COLIN COOKE)
Agahas Publishers, Colombo, 2011
Dr James Jupp AM,
Australian National University
2 November 2011
I did not meet Lionel Bopage until he was settled in Australia. But I was very familiar with his name and fame. In 1972 I was researching Sri Lankan politics in Colombo, shortly after the eruption and failure of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) rebellion of the preceding year. In 1978, in my book Sri Lanka Third World Democracy, I included a full chapter, assessing that rising as Sri Lanka’s first revolution in more than a century. Since then the whole country has been embroiled in a civil war with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and has lost the reputation it once had as a peaceful democratic society.
Part of my research included obtaining and studying the transcript of the trial of JVP leaders, including Lionel Bopage who later became the JVP secretary between 1979 and 1984. This was provided to me by an official of the United States embassy, who I took to be from the CIA. It is a vital document which I have, unfortunately, lost in the passage of time. Hopefully these records remain, as they are essential to understanding what Lionel and his comrades thought they were doing. But now we have another major source in this account of his life and beliefs, detached from the continuing conflicts and problems of his homeland.
Lionel was born in 1944 in Weligama in the southern province of what was then colonial Ceylon, only four years before its independence from Britain. This area was a centre of Sinhalese Buddhism and nationalism with already established Marxist parties and a long tradition of moderate radicalism. His father was a member of the Communist Party, which was originally the case of the JVP leader Rohan Wijewera, also from the same region. This was a different road into Left-wing politics from the majority, whose loyalties were to the Trotskyist Lanka Samasamaja Pakshaya (LSSP). Both were outnumbered by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike which became the elected government in 1956. The JVP was founded in 1967 as a faction within the Maoist Communists.
By the time Lionel was a teenager there was already a varied and politically significant Left in Sri Lanka. As is often the case, the various parties looked upon each other with hostility, which Lionel and other JVP leaders later admitted to have been a mistake. This meant that when the JVP rose against the moderate Left government of Mrs Bandaranaike in 1971 they got little support from its other critics. As Marxists they looked to the urban working class as an ally, but failed to get support in the trade unions. As mainly rural youth they failed to dislodge adult loyalties to the SLFP, who held the majority of country electorates. As Sinhalese they could not appeal to the Tamil minority, although Lionel was active in seeking such support.
The author concludes (presumably with Lionel’s approval): “There was nothing romantic about the insurrection itself. It was a botched putsch by a faction-ridden-party of young, inexperienced revolutionaries responding to state repression”. (p.157).
After a lengthy trial the JVP leaders spent five years in jail. They were released in 1977 with a change of government. Here and elsewhere Lionel recounts the brutality of prison treatment, which became more and more vicious as the war with the Tamils escalated into mass retaliation. How many died during the JVP risings of 1971 and 1989 cannot be known and has never been officially recorded. It certainly ran into thousands. Far more died in the war with the Tamils, but that was not the responsibility of Lionel or the JVP. The rebellions begun in 1971 started a process whereby Sri Lanka became a heavily armed and repressive society, while retaining the structure of a parliamentary democracy. Part of the youthful naivety of the JVP, to which Lionel refers, was to believe that a state can be overthrown by a single blow because the masses would be behind the rising. They were not.
This study of “rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka” is an exceptionally well documented and insightful account of an often neglected revolutionary story. In the end the JVP leader, Rohan Wijewera, lost his life in battle in 1989. Lionel had resigned from the party in 1984 and sought refuge overseas, finally settling in Australia in 1989. The JVP remains in existence, but as a communal Sinhalese party in coalition with the anti-Tamil reactionaries. Both the Communist Party and the LSSP have shrivelled away and the Marxist Left is virtually non-existent. Lionel’s contribution is to detail these processes. He casts much light on how Sri Lanka moved from a liberal democracy to its present reputation as oppressive and illiberal.
Apart from the historical narrative, this fascinating book includes a valuable listing of all the principal players, a chronology and Lionel’s detailed resignation document in which he lists his objections to the direction of the JVP. Taken with the English-language literature on the two risings and the Tamil Tiger civil war, it is an invaluable if depressing source in understanding the fate of the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”.