13 November 2014

Rohana Wijeweera’s fading political signature

He still makes it to the 'May Day Stage'.  Barely.
Twenty five years ago a man was killed.  He was one of some 60,000 who had been killed in those gruesome days of the late eighties.  It is reported that he had been tortured and shot.  It is reported that he was still alive when he was tossed into the incinerator at the General Cemetery, Borella.  This was at the tail end of the second insurrection launched by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). 

By this time, most of the key leaders had been eliminated.  The rank and file was decimated along with hundred of suspected supporters.  It was a time of abduction and torture, proxy arrests and trigger-happy vigilante groups, assassination of political figures, academics and journalists, and summary execution.  It was a time of courage and foolhardiness; a time when acts of terrorism by self-styled ‘revolutionaries’ was met by acts of terrorism by the State.  It was a time of anarchy which effectively ended with that particular murder.    

Rohana Wijeweera, hero for some and villain for many, left a signature on the political landscape of post-independence Sri Lanka.  There is the fact of masterminding two (failed) insurrectionary assaults on the state.  The JVP, as Dr Gamini Samaranayake has argued, also demonstrated that armed insurrection was an option and that the state was not ready.  It’s a lesson that no one learned better than the LTTE. A lesson that was never learned was this: the state, over time, corrects for deficiency and prevails unless there’s a mass uprising that complements or there is pernicious outside intervention by forces far superior.  The last ‘combine’ does not deliver revolution but further subjugation (e.g. Arab Spring). 

‘Rohana Wijeweera’ is a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written, a novel that could be an adventure story, a horror story or even a comedy.  Such was his historical presence from the late sixties to the late eighties.  And yet, he has not inspired ‘rebels’ who came later in the way their preferred heroes such as Che Guevara or José Martí have.  This could be because of the kind of rebel he was.

He could deliver a stirring speech which could excite sections of the youth made more of heart than mind.  He was not endowed with a great intellect but was nevertheless a good strategist – knew to pick the slogan of the moment.  He was never in battle fatigues, so to speak.  He had nothing of the courage and sense of sacrifice the men he led possessed.  In 1971 he was essentially an adventurist.  In 88-89 he showed signs of megalomania.  Such men don’t inspire. 

The post-Wijeweera JVP does little more than acknowledge a political presence.  In rhetoric, ideological assertion and practice, the present set of leaders have effectively distanced themselves from the man, his methods and even his vision.  They have all but abandoned the class project which Wijeweera the Populist at least paid lip service to and even convinced many young people it was everything to the JVP. 

Twenty five years later, the party still has the Wijeweera signature.  Red.  The Bell symbol.  Great May Day shows.  Poster-boys.  A university presence large enough to play spoiler on occasion.   An ability to show a strong commitment to discipline.  The thrust however, in circumstances that gradually declined after the 2004 ‘peak’ of some 40 MPs, has been about saving face.  They still have a fixation with the streets but it’s something that seems more of a throwback to a romantic time than anything else.  They have union strength.  Just can’t seem to put it all together.  It could be put down to ideological confusion, intellectual poverty or dismissal by the population in general or a combination of these.  

There were ‘highs’ no doubt.  The JVP pushed through the 17th Amendment.  The JVP helped Mahinda Rajapaksa become President, in hindsight a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for eliminating the LTTE.  But then again, they suffered the same fate that befell the ‘Old Left’.  The stronger coalition partner remained unmoved by demands and the weaker had to split.   

There was always a cloak-n-dagger faction, apparently.  There was also the nationalist faction that was not impressed with the JVP’s Marxist pretensions.  Both factions went their separate ways.  What was left is committed to mainstream democratic politics, good for a few parliamentary seats and for putting up posters in regime-change adventures but not much else.

Rohana Wijeweera is no more.  He left a trail of blood.  His JVP could destabilize. For a while.  The JVP that came after has had its ups and downs, threatened to score a couple of times but was either tackled or dropped the ball.  They are mild when it comes to political engagement.  No strong arm tactics except where they have some degree of power (the universities).  They’ve put to shame their colleagues from other parties when it comes to parliamentary conduct.   Overall a plus score that eluded the founder. 

If the JVP is still politically relevant it is not because of Rohana Wijeweera but in spite of him.  That says a lot about the political legacy and of course the historical significance of the man.  Dead and rarely lamented.  Irrelevant, someone might add.