Sri Lanka Brief
NewsLionel Bopage, former JVP general secretary, on new left party, Tamil rights and state repression

Lionel Bopage, former JVP general secretary, on new left party, Tamil rights and state repression

 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) was launched in Colombo, Sri Lanka, amidst international media outcry about the illegal abduction of four of its activists in the lead up to the launch by security forces. Two of these abductees, Premakumar Gunaratnam (an Australian citizen) and Dimuth Atygalle (a prominent woman leader of the group) have since been released.
Gunaratnam, who has been deported to Australia, says he was tortured before being released. Two other FSP activists are still being illegally detained.

The FSP comes from a major split from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples’ Liberation Front, JVP), a group which led two bloodily repressed insurrections in 1971 and 1987. Socialist Alliance’s Peter Boyle interviewed Lionel Bopage, a former general secretary of the JVP (1979-1984) who left the party because of the JVP’s opposition to the Tamil minority’s right to national self-determination.

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As a former general secretary of the JVP you are familiar with the type of repression being used by the Sri Lankan state against leftists, Tamil nationalists and other dissidents, but are you surprised at the continuing operation of secret death and torture squads after the total suppression of all armed oppositions?

No. I am not surprised at the continuing operation of death and torture squads by the state. Several major factors have contributed to this situation.

It is less well known that death and torture squads were originally formed during the 1988-89 period, when about 60,000 people were said to have been killed. Death and torture squads continued to operate during the war against the Tamil militancy. These squads are currently being used to suppress any active political opposition to the state. Opposition and human rights organisations allege that during the past six months at least 56 political activists and journalists have been abducted by armed men mainly in white vans; 29 of them occurred during February and March 2012. It is an open secret that these squads operate hand in glove with the government security forces. In addition, a huge military machine is being maintained and expanded. One cannot challenge the selective and discriminatory application of law according to the regime’s whims and fancies.

The main challenge facing sovereignty of developing countries such as Sri Lanka is neoliberalism. Neoliberal forces are waging a ruthless war on resource-rich countries the world under the pretext of combating terrorism and promoting democracy and human rights. In this environment, the Sri Lankan government received the full political, economic and military backing of almost the entire world. Apparently, the United States (which recently sponsored the UNHRC resolution) and India (which voted for the US resolution) provided their political and military backing on the understanding that at the end of the war, structural reforms will be made for addressing the political roots of the conflict.

The economic growth rate has declined. The Gini coefficient indicates that income disparities have grown significantly in the urban and estate sector and income has remained relatively static in the rural sector. The increase in consumption and service provision distribution is skewed in favour of the affluent in the land, in particular, geographically towards the western province. The burden of the current economic crisis is being placed on the shoulders of working people with public services being gradually cut down through privatisation policies following demands of the International Monetary Fund to reduce the budget deficit.

Recently, to avert the balance of payments crisis in Sri Lanka, the IMF released a loan instalment of about US$0.5 billion (as part of its $2.6 billion standby loan). As a result of the loan, there has been an 18% cap on credit growth, electricity and petroleum price hikes, devaluation of the rupee and a pledge to cut this year’s budget deficit to 6.2% of GDP. In addition to the recent tax increases made on alcohol, cigarettes and all imported vehicles, social services and jobs are expected to be axed, and fuel prices are to be raised once again.

The war [against the Tamils] has created additional disadvantages in the region of the North and East in terms of economic infrastructure, livelihood, health and education. The state’s cultural policies towards non-Sinhala people are designed and implemented to build the majoritarian support for discrimination and exclusion of non-Sinhala people so that the attention of the working people can be diverted from the significant socio-economic issues that prevail at the time.

It is in the best interests of the ruling elites for Lankan society to remain fragmented so that no united effort on the people’s part will threaten their power, control, interests and privileges of the regime. When a crisis looms, as our own historical experiences indicate, such layers and individuals will do everything at whatever cost to safeguard their regime.

Therefore, the Sri Lanka regime needs to have a public enemy both locally and internationally to divert the attention of the working people. The syndrome of a “new public enemy” that needs suppressing through a new insurgency seems to have been created soon after the termination of armed conflict in May 2009. In 2010, the state, its intelligence services and the government declared that they were aware of another insurgency to be launched soon using university students. This declaration was made in an environment of a crackdown targeting the university students across the country, aimed at suppressing opposition to its planned measures for privatisation of education.
It will be interesting to compare the repression the state launched in the 1988-89 period, which developed into a massive spiral of violence leading to the insurgency, killing about 60,000 people. Incidentally, several political and military personalities, who had been involved in serious human rights abuses such as disappearances, death and destruction on their political opponents at the time, continue to hold responsible positions under the current status quo.

It is in this light that one can understand the process of autocratic militarisation of all sectors of the island, heavy-handed measures used against the working people and the rural poor, and the dogmatically chauvinist ideological campaign carried out against the non-Sinhala people. So any protest against the government would become unpatriotic and traitorous based on the claim that there is a so-called western conspiracy against Sri Lanka.
So, the continuing operation of secret death and torture squads after the total suppression of the progressive forces in the country will continue.

What do you think brought about the release of Sri Lankan-born Australian citizen Premakumar Gunaratnam and his comrade from the newly formed Frontline Socialist Party? What is the fate of the two still in detention?

As far as I know, two out of the four persons of the newly formed FSP abducted are still in detention. FSP full-time political activists, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan, were abducted on December 9, 2011. Despite the Sri Lankan state denying having anything to do with their abductions, certain news reports allege that they are being held and tortured on the 6th floor of the Police Welfare Building, located opposite the Manning Market in Colombo. This abduction, torture and disappearance phenomenon is allegedly implemented under the supervision of a certain deputy inspector general (DIG) of police in-charge of Colombo. It is also alleged that this torture chamber is being managed by a police inspector loyal to this DIG, who enjoys special privileges under the current defence establishment.

As usual, the state and the government immediately denied any role in the abductions of Premakumar Gunaratnam and Dimithu Attygalle. The inspector general of police claimed that the police had deployed several teams to investigate. The foreign minister issued a statement after Gunaratnam’s release, saying the disappearances had occurred with the deliberate intention of causing embarrassment to the government and it was grossly unfair to point the finger at the state.

The debut of the new party, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) was to be held on April 9, two days after the abduction of Gunaratnam and Attygalle.

This new party emerged out of the old JVP and it seems to have wanted to make Gunaratnam, its leader. The state was aware of his involvement with the group and wanted to stop this new group from coming out. Last December, when his wife was visiting Sri Lanka, she had been followed by the state agents, and when she was leaving Sri Lanka, she was arrested, detained and questioned at the airport about her husband. Therefore, there is nothing surprising that he had to work clandestinely and under different names. Rohana Wijeweera, Podi Athula and Wimal Weerawansa are such well-known acquired names, while, internationally, Ho Chi Min, Lenin, Mao are also well-known acquired names.

Apparently, Gunaratnam fled to Australia in the 1990s and became an Australian citizen. It seems that he changed his name and returned to Sri Lanka in late 2011 to participate in FSP activities. Having heard of the abduction of their son, his parents requested the Australian High Commission to intervene. According to Gunaratnam, following the intervention by the Australian government, his abductors dumped him near a Colombo police station and told him to go there and surrender. The police then informed the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka, which supervised Gunaratnam’s deportation.

Gunaratnam and Attygale seem to have been detained at separate covert locations in Kiribathgoda (close to Colombo), they have been brought together for questioning and collaborating each of their responses by the abductors. Hence Gunaratnam knew that Attygale was held by the same agents that abducted him.
The questioning was about if the FSP had any links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) remnants, and if the FSP was readying itself for an armed struggle. As such, to deport Gunaratnam and to make Attygalle disappear would have been a political and diplomatic risk that the Sri Lankan state wanted to avoid at any cost, in particular, after the recent UN Human Rights Council Resolution. This may explain the release of Attygale, after deporting Gunaratnam.

In my opinion, the first factor that led to their release was the urgent international publicity that the abduction of Premakumar Gunaratnam and Dimuthu Attygalle received. Particularly, in the current international environment Sri Lankan state has encountered, the Australian High Commission’s intervention would have placed the Sri Lanka state in an awkward position. Thus, the course of action taken by the Sri Lankan state would have been to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment.

The second factor is that there was information leaked regarding where Gunaratnam had been detained taken after kidnapping. Such information would have come from certain individuals in the ranks, who either would have really been concerned of what the regime is doing in terms of kidnapping people violating their rights to freely engage in conducting their political activities democratically, or would have been disgruntled by the undemocratic behaviours of politicians and the top brass of the security forces.

The exact nature of what happened leading to their release is not clear. I believe it will take some time and those reasons will become known in due course.

For a certain time, after you left the JVP, that party supported the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Tamil independence movement but now it is seen as an opposition party. Why is this? And what are the politics of the FSP split from the JVP?

Though I can express my opinion regarding this situation, the best person to respond to this question would be Premkumar Gunaratnam himself.

In fairness to the newly emerging FSP, I need to say that at its first congress, it issued a new policy declaration and a self-criticism of the JVP past, which is not yet available here in Australia, so it is too early to make a critical assessment of its current political positions.

Gunaratnam’s visit to Sri Lanka has been to work with his former colleagues in the JVP who thought that the party’s strategic political approach needed a complete overhaul: mainly, regarding the use of violence as a means of social change, to actively engage in changing the authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka through democratic means, and changing its previous chauvinistic approach towards the national question.

I would characterise the JVP as a semi-proletarian movement of the rural youth, landless peasants, the unemployed and other oppressed sections of the Sri Lankan society. The main aim of the JVP was achieving social justice for the oppressed and equitable resource and income distributions. However, petty-bourgeois thinking, vacillation and opportunism have prevailed in its ideological positions.

In its history, the JVP has gone through several different policy positions regarding the national question. Between 1971 and 1983, the JVP recognised, in principle, the Leninist position on right of nations to self-determination. However, it continuously rejected agitating for the rights of non-Sinhala people. In the face of discrimination and repression against the Tamil people, the JVP central committee remained deadly silent. At the beginning of 1983 there was no difference between what the JVP was advocating and what an orthodox parliamentary party would have been advocating on the national question.

In July 1983 by concocting a conspiracy, the UNP government proscribed the JVP and drove it underground. In 1985, the JVP decided to build an underground organisation and to use the national question in an opportunistic manner to gain political power. Instead of relying on people power, in late 1985, the JVP had based their hopes on arms. 1986 saw a major shift in the JVP’s approach towards the national question. The JVP terror campaign in earnest appeared to have begun in 1987, with the Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya’s (DJV, Patriotic Peoples’ Movement) decision to declare curfew and kill civilians who do not abide by its orders. The government sponsored July 1983 pogrom against the Tamils had exacerbated the Tamil militancy in the north-east which by then has become a full scale civil war. In mid-1987 India airdropped supplies over the north east to prevent a full-scale invasion of the Jaffna Peninsula by the Sri Lankan state.

Since the 1990s, the JVP was traversing the right-wing route. It made a major shift towards class collaboration with the bourgeois leadership of the PA, thus taking a comparable route traversed by the old left in the 1960s. The JVP agitation was based on the claim that Sri Lanka’s, national independence and sovereignty were in grave danger. They opposed negotiations with the LTTE unless they drop the demand for separation and disarmed, which was politically equivalent to a complete surrender.

Worst was their statement that there has been no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. With regard to the national question they joined hands with Sinhala chauvinist groups. Condemnation of terror by the JVP was one-sided. While condemning the terror campaigns conducted by the LTTE, they praised the terror campaigns conducted by the security forces as patriotic.

The JVP became pawns in the hands of reactionary political forces of the worst kind in the history of Sri Lanka. Sadly, many in the left have helped and are still helping bourgeois ruling elites in diverse ways to implement their neoliberal agenda. No wonder the left is in crisis in Sri Lanka.

It is in this light that we need to critically look at what the emerging FSP is attempting to do. There are lot of antagonisms regarding what [its members] have done in the past. However, we of the left need to welcome and encourage any positive change in their political direction, even if we do not agree with their political agenda and line of action in their entirety. It is only through the united action of those in the left in collaboration with those who value democratic and human rights and rule of law, that Sri Lanka will be able to come out from its current precarious situation.

[The Lionel Bopage Story: Rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka by Michael Cooke
(Agahas Publishers 2011), 566 pp, A$25.00 is available from Resistance Books. A review of this book by Ben Courtice can be read here. A review by Dr V. Suryanarayan can be read here.

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