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Wijeweera - Did he find the enemy ?

It is now nearly 20 years since Patabendige Don Nandasiri Wijeweera better known by his nom-de-guerre Rohana Wijeweera, met with a violent death while in captivity.

The official version of the killing had it that soon after he was captured Wijeweera led a security team to a JVP hideout where a shoot-out occurred catching him in the crossfire. In the context of that dark era the credibility of a story explaining the death of a captive was hardly relevant.

Rohana Wijeweera

The no holds barred ‘dirty’ war in the late 1980s between the JVP cadres and State forces was easily the most horrifying convulsion that this nation underwent since independence.

It will be educational for those born after and have no memory of that horror, to read the newspapers of the era, particularly the editorials of intelligent sensitive writers, of which we still had quite a few then, to get an idea of the agony that this country underwent.

The older generations of course will remember the carnage of mindless death and destruction that accompanied the power grab of the proscribed party led by Wijeweera. With his death in November 1989 the battle was decided and what followed was just the mopping up.

By any historical yardstick, to have led two large scale insurrections, both doomed to fail with bloody results, should earn the protagonist more than the passing attention of historians. Hailing from the South of the country, of a lower-middle class background not generally associated with traditional political leadership, Wijeweera did not struggled and fought his way to the national stage.


From his late teens Wijeweera lived for the revolution. According to the followers of the theory of Marxist revolution, the existing order is doomed to fail and its inevitable overthrow will result in a better society for all.

Of course the leading proponents of the dogma such as Marx, Engels and Lenin were Europeans with a very different historical heritage, intellectual vistas and cultural make up from Wijeweera.

But by the 1960s developments in far flung places like China, Cuba and North Korea had given Marxism a universality which came in good stead to aspiring revolutionaries in former European colonies.

Before him, old political parties such as the LSSP and the Communist party had preached the doctrine of revolution with remarkable electoral success, particularly in the regions West and South of the island.

Undoubtedly the Marxist philosophy was alien and its methods strange. The so-called revolutionary parties claimed on the basis of a certain historical analysis that the triumph of its doctrine was inevitable and that history is on their side.

With the confidence gained from this self serving prophesy, Marxist parties were organised more or less as councils of war waiting to strike at the system at the most opportune time. Part of the preparation entailed constant analysis by the Marxist theoreticians of social and economic factors which would provide the clue as to the all important timing of the revolution.

This somewhat scientific approach to politics of course was new and invariably had to adjust to indigenous realities. A heated meeting of a street corner revolutionary cell arguing dialectical materialism would most times end with the putative revolutionaries retiring to an all night Pirith ceremony or a discussion of successful prophecies of astrologers or even the wisdom of auspicious hours. The old Left mindful of this huge gap between the Marxist presumptions and the actualities facing them temporised. Wijeweera was impatient of the endless wait the old Left was seemingly resigned to.

In 1971 while the old Left parties were partners of the Government in power, his JVP struck. All over the country save the North and the East, youthful bands of rebels launched surprise attacks on police stations and other symbols of the State with a nonchalant bravery.


Either they were sure of victory or did not comprehend the scope of their undertaking. After the initial shock passed, the Government Forces recovered their poise, brutally crushing the hapless rebels, most of them yet in their teens. Undoubtedly the main inspirer of the 1971 insurrection was Rohana Wijeweera who then was just 28 years old. It was he who had provided the intellectual basis for the revolt and tirelessly organised the vehicle of its expression.

But while Wijeweera was its leading figure, that juvenile explosion also speaks volumes for the social, mental and emotional make up of its willing executioners. Their indoctrination had consisted of five lectures delivered by party members, themselves barely adults.

As to be expected, the tenor of the lectures was extremely anti-establishment. The local capitalists, whose riches were pitiable by international standards, were damned. There was no good word for the old Left at all.

India struggling desperately with its enormous poverty was accused of expansionary ambitions. While they feverishly organised underground, the day’s State apparatus, which by today’s standards was extremely easy going, were painted as secretive and sinister.

The resulting carnage did not end Wijeweera’s political career. Released from prison in 1977 he soon rebuilt the JVP and even stood for Presidency in 1982, obtaining just around 5 per cent of the vote. This poor electoral showing may well have resulted in the gradual decline of the JVP if not for the abrupt proscription of the party in 1983.


Forced underground Wijeweera once again proved a formidable organiser. The JVP hit back with such violence that they soon got into a position of no return. Now it had to either seize power or perish in the process. Again the odds were impossibly high against them.

When the JVP launched its first insurrection in 1971 the Communist bloc appeared solid and there were reasons to believe that the Marxist interpretation of history may yet be proved correct.

But by the time of the second insurrection of the JVP in the late 1980s, worldwide, Socialism was in its death throes. While direct victims of the Soviet system were bitterly pulling it down, it is remarkable that in this corner of the world Wijeweera was yet able to gather under the red banner several thousand fanatical supporters ready to make even the final sacrifice in its name.

Of course this time the battle was not presented as a simple class struggle. They were now told that all the killings, destructions and sacrifices asked of them were for their Motherland.

In normal circumstances it is hard to imagine a party only commanding around 5 per cent of the vote presuming a major voice in matters of Government. But a Marxist party with the belief that the future will justify its present actions will not be hindered by such democratic considerations.

There is no denying that a vast majority of its followers were motivated by idealism as they conceived it. This is generally true of all such movements. But in essence, JVP’s message is not one of universal or inclusive appeal.

We cannot discern in the endless posturing any new ideas but can easily notice their many obsessions. There is no brave search for truths, but only selective memory and collective responses. It seems that the party’s sole purpose is to justify and fortify what they are.

During a tumultuous career Wijeweera fulminated against many persons and institutions he thought were responsible for our poverty, defeats and despair. He then followed up with two country wide insurrections which wrought much death and destruction. But did he find the real enemy?


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