A Brief History of the JVP (Peoples Liberation Front) Sri Lanka
Left Movement in Sri Lanka
The left movement in Sri Lanka traces its origins back to 1935. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the country’s first leftist political party, was established that year. It became one of the largest national sections of the Fourth International during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1943, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) was formed following a split within the LSSP. The CPSL eventually divided into two factions aligned with Moscow and Peking after the falling out between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. This led to the existence of two Communist Parties in Sri Lanka: the CPSL (Moscow) and the CPSL (Peking).
Since 1964, all three parties have experienced a decline in their support bases. The CPSL (Peking) no longer exists, and the LSSP and CPSL (Moscow) are now vulnerable and weak. Independently, they hold little influence in Sri Lanka’s politics.
Birth of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP-People’s Liberation Front)
In 1964, the old left movement, consisting of the LSSP and CPSL, began to crumble. The bourgeois government in power found itself in a deep economic, political, and social crisis with no solution in sight. The people of Sri Lanka, led by workers organized by the left parties’ trade unions, were on the verge of bringing down the government and ushering in the United Left Front.
At this crucial juncture, the LSSP and CPSL betrayed the workers and the people by joining the bourgeois government against the will of their trade unions and the numerous supporters who stood behind them. This betrayal created an ideal situation for the launch of a new left movement.
Comrade Rohana Wijeweera, the son of a CPSL member, was exposed to his father’s politics at a young age. While studying medicine at the Friendship University, he received a scholarship that allowed him to delve into Marxism-Leninism at the party school of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
Critical of the CPSU’s revisionist line under Khrushchev, Wijeweera was denied re-entry into the Soviet Union after returning from Sri Lanka during his vacation in 1964. He subsequently joined the CPSL (Peking) and became a full-time activist in its youth wing. However, after realizing that the Peking Wing was also compromised by revisionism, he engaged in an ideological struggle against the leadership and its opportunist political trajectory.
On May 14, 1965, Wijeweera held a discussion at Akmeemana in Galle district with six other members of CPSL (Peking) to rectify the party ideologically. Upon discovering the conversation, the leaders of CPSL (Peking) expelled Wijeweera and the other six members.
A New Beginning
Wijeweera seized the opportunity to fill the void left by the old left’s betrayal in 1964. The outcome of the discussions among Wijeweera and his comrades was unanimous support for immediately building a new political party that could lead Sri Lanka towards a socialist government.
Wijeweera, hailing from a non-wealthy background, managed to establish a powerful political party that shook the very foundations of a system built on deceit and exploitation.
Initially, the organization of workers, farmers, students, and youth had to be conducted semi-clandestinely to evade suppression by the extreme right-wing United National Party (UNP) government, which had come to power in the 1965 general election.
During its first three years, the fledgling revolutionary political party faced numerous challenges. Wijeweera and others had to work odd jobs to generate funds for party activities and their own survival.
Wijeweera successfully organized university students, workers, and farmers. Due to the betrayal by the old left, it took some time for the workers and farmers to regain trust in the left. The students’ movement spread to universities and higher educational institutions across the country. The UNP regime identified the political movement among workers, farmers, youth, and students and launched intelligence operations to suppress the leaders of this new movement.
On May 12, 1970, Wijeweera was taken into custody without any charges. The government initiated a propaganda campaign against him and the new movement, labeling it the “Che Guevara movement.” It was the first time the people of Sri Lanka became aware of the existence of this new political party and its leader, Comrade Rohana Wijeweera.
In May 1970, the coalition government of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the old left came to power. In July 1970, after the courts found Wijeweera not guilty on all charges leveled against him by the government, the new political movement gained momentum. However, the SLFP and old left coalition were perturbed by the progress of the new left movement and launched a campaign to tarnish its image.
Wijeweera held a press conference announcing the formation of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – People’s Liberation Front) and its intention to hold the first-ever public rally to educate the people about its policies and future political activities.
On August 10, 1970, the JVP organized its maiden rally in Colombo. The three general secretaries of the SLFP, LSSP, and CPSL issued a joint statement branding the JVP as a CIA trap and Wijeweera as a CIA agent. Despite these accusations, the JVP’s inaugural rally was highly successful, with participants even donating money and jewelry.
The JVP subsequently held public rallies in other cities and launched three newspapers: The Janatha Vimukthi (People’s Liberation), the central organ of the JVP; Rathu Balaya (Red Power), the central organ of the workers’ wing; and Deshapremi (The Patriot), the central organ of the students’ wing.
As the coalition government intensified its repression, activists of the JVP engaged in legal political activities, such as poster campaigns, educational discussions, and camps. However, the government arrested these activists and subjected them to torture while in custody. When they were brought before the court of law, they were found not guilty under the Sri Lankan constitution. The government then implemented further provocative and repressive measures to suppress the JVP’s activities, eventually seeking to enforce emergency laws throughout the country.
On March 6, 1971, a group of government supporters organized an anti-American protest march against the Vietnam War. During the march, someone among the demonstrators threw a petrol bomb into the American Embassy. The government swiftly declared a state of emergency, granting sweeping powers to the armed forces and police. Comrade Wijeweera and many other JVP members and sympathizers were taken into custody. However, Wijeweera’s arrest on March 13, 1971, and subsequent detention in Jaffna Prison did not violate any laws.
By April 1, 1971, over 500 JVP members and sympathizers had been taken into custody and held in prison camps. The JVP leadership met and discussed the ongoing government repression. They took into account the annihilation of peaceful revolutionary movements in other countries, particularly recalling the fate of the Communist Party in Indonesia in 1965. Determined not to repeat history, the JVP decided to arm itself for self-defense.
1971 April Uprising
On April 5, 1971, the JVP was compelled to take up arms in response to the unlawful and unjust repression by the government. The situation escalated when nearly one hundred police stations were attacked and abandoned by police officers. The government launched a brutal crackdown, and within a month, the April uprising was completely quelled after the killing of approximately 10,000 JVP members and sympathizers. The government then took an additional 20,000 JVP members and sympathizers into custody.
During the suppression of the uprising, 14 countries supported the Sri Lankan government, with India even providing its Air Force pilots and MIGs to combat the JVP. After suppressing the uprising, the government used tactics learned from other countries to brainwash and “rehabilitate” the JVP members and sympathizers held in custody and prison camps.
The JVP, however, managed to reorganize quickly both inside and outside prison camps. The party engaged in serious discussions, analyzing its past mistakes and taking corrective measures to reorganize itself.
The Criminal Justice Commission (CJC)
The government faced a dilemma as there were no provisions according to the common law to prosecute JVP members who had been taken into custody without arms. To overcome this, the government, with the support of the opposition, passed the Criminal Justice Commission Bill, enabling the prosecution of those allegedly responsible for past offenses. The Criminal Justice Commission conducted an investigation into the 1971 uprising, but its class bias was evident to all.
In 1975, Comrade Wijeweera was sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment, which violated the Criminal Justice Commission Bill itself. The bill was subsequently amended to impose 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. The CJC’s bias was apparent to everyone.
Within a year of the sentencing, demands emerged from the people to unconditionally release all political prisoners. Workers and students launched demonstrations and agitations against the emergency laws, demanding the immediate release of political prisoners. In 1976, the emergency laws were lifted, and the proscription of the JVP came to an end, allowing the party to once again engage in legal politics.
In early 1977, general elections were held, and the conservative and right-wing United National Party (UNP) came to power. The UNP had pledged to release all political prisoners, but there was a delay in their release after assuming power. Demonstrations demanding the release of political prisoners intensified.
Eventually, the UNP government had to release all political prisoners, including Comrade Rohana Wijeweera. Their release infused new energy into the JVP and allowed the party to establish itself among workers, students, youths, and gain international recognition. The JVP sent a delegation to the 11th Festival of Youth and Students held in Havana in 1978, successfully establishing friendly relations with socialist parties worldwide.
The JVP held its first national congress in 1978 and subsequent congresses for junior organizations between 1979 and 1980. In 1979, the JVP contested the Colombo Municipal Council elections for the first time, emerging as the third-largest political party in Colombo. In 1981, the JVP participated in the island-wide District Development Council elections, winning 13 seats. In 1982, Comrade Rohana Wijeweera himself ran for the presidential election, representing the JVP and becoming the party’s first-ever recognized presidential candidate.
The UNP, fearing the JVP’s progress, labeled the JVP as its true and main enemy, vowing to take action against the party. The UNP government decided to hold a referendum to postpone the parliamentary elections due in 1983 for another six years, preventing the JVP from entering the Sri Lankan parliament. However, the UNP made a series of mistakes in attempting to suppress the Tamil Separatist Organizations’ armed struggle in the Northern Province, leading to the escalation of violence and the outbreak of civil war in July 1983.
Public anger against the Tamil separatists grew, and some government leaders, along with their private militias, took the opportunity to attack innocent Tamil people in Colombo and other cities. President J.R Jayewardene launched a conspiracy against left parties, including the JVP, accusing them and the Soviet Union of instigating anti-Tamil riots. The JVP and two other left parties were undemocratically and unjustly proscribed.
India, dissatisfied with President Jayewardene’s pro-US foreign policy, provided material and moral support to Tamil separatist organizations, which escalated the situation and led to direct Indian interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. The JVP made attempts to convince India not to get involved in Sri Lanka’s political mess, but without success. Consequently, the JVP opposed India, the pro-US Sri Lankan government, and the separatists fighting to dismember Sri Lanka and create an ethnically cleansed Tamil Eelam.
In July 1987, President J.R. Jayewardene was compelled by India to sign the Jayewardene-Rajiv Gandhi accord, allowing the Indian Army to enter Sri Lankan waters and land. Faced with the abdication of sovereignty and the division of Sri Lanka, the JVP had no choice but to take up arms to safeguard the country’s unity and integrity.
New Traditions in Sri Lankan Politics
The JVP has established new traditions and a unique political culture in Sri Lanka. Over the past 40 years, it has produced dedicated volunteers who serve the people without receiving salaries or allowances from the party. All elected JVP representatives donate their salaries and allowances to a Common Fund, which is then utilized for projects proposed by the people themselves. This practice makes the JVP the first political party in Sri Lanka to return taxpayers’ money to them in the form of various services.
The JVP has also produced ministers who are free from corrupt practices. These ministers prioritize public funds, reject luxuries, and save money by selling their luxury vehicles and using the proceeds to provide affordable transportation for ministry officials. The JVP has gained a reputation for working diligently and delivering better services to the people. For example, when the JVP managed the agriculture ministry from April 2004, it achieved the highest paddy harvest in Sri Lanka since independence in 1948.
Above all, the JVP has produced humble servants dedicated to the people of Sri Lanka.
Long live the JVP!