19 June 2016

Somawansa Amarasinghe left a mark

Somawansa Amarasinghe returned to Sri Lanka late in the year 2001.  He was returning after more than a dozen years in exile and did so in the thick of an election campaign.  The JVP, which had returned 10 members to Parliament in 2000, upped it to 17 on that occasion.  Whether or not Somawansa’s arrival played a part it this surge is debatable.  I welcomed him by way of a political comment in the Sunday Island.  It was not very complimentary.  I reproduce below the first few paragraphs.  As for the rest, this is not the moment.  

Returning to one’s homeland is always sweet. Returning after more than a decade, sweeter. Returning from exile, self-imposed or otherwise, has to be exquisite. It would not be right to begrudge Somawansa Amarasinghe the obvious joys of retuning home, especially since his party embraced the notion of the "motherland" with such fervour in the late eighties, so much so that Karl Marx and the issue of class was placed in the backseat of the high-speed vehicle that the JVP chose to drive, and so recklessly too.

Meeting old friends, relatives and political associates, would have been nice. In these days of high-tech communication, Somanawansa does not have to come to Sri Lanka to get updates of the political situation, the progress of the party, the configuration of political forces, the key issues etc. Still, getting a real pulse for things requires that you walk among live people. This will take time, but I am sure he will soon obtain a more nuanced reading of our society and its major concerns. For now, he can enjoy his "return" and the party can celebrate the arrival of the new "great leader". I wish him and the party a good time and good luck.

The arrival aura, however, does not last forever. Even the most polished and most publicised exhibit loses its lustre after a while. With time the appearance becomes less important than efficacy. The problem of Somawansa’s arrival, hero though he is for some, is that he is not just returning home, he is simultaneously revisiting a crime-scene.

In his maiden and lengthy campaign speech in Kalutara, Somawansa had dwelled long on the last JVP "insurrection". For the first time, a JVP leader had admitted that the party had actually killed people. He admitted that the JVP and the DJV (Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya) were one and the same, although for the last ten years the party had maintained that they were innocent of all killings attributed to the latter organisation. I am willing to ignore the fact that the JVP has lied to the people for the last ten years about the nature of its contribution to the bheeshanaya. What is important is that their leadership has had the courage to admit its mistakes. Better late than never, I suppose.

A few years later, i.e. in 2006, when I was working at ‘The Nation’ I was asked to interview Somawansa.  I called the JVP party office and a meeting was arranged at the same address in Battaramulla.  It was of course about political issues relevant to that time.  I remember starting the conversation by referring him to the above article.  He smiled and said ‘I know, I read it’. 
We didn’t get back to that article, but here’s what happened after it was published.

I was told by my editor Manik de Silva that Wimal Weerawansa had called the Managing Director, Nimal Welgama and lodged a protest about the Sunday Island publishing my article. He referred to my political loyalties.  Welgama had asked him, apparently, to write a response.  Manik knew that I was not a member of any political party.  He told me that he would reserve space for a response and offered me the opportunity to respond myself thereafter.  I remember checking with Manik several times that Saturday regarding this response.  It never came. 

Manik said, “Maybe they have a language issue…but you know, they should have sent a response in Sinhala…you would have done a good translation”. 

Anyway, Somawansa spoke, I recorded and churned out the copy for the newspaper.  A few months later, at a time when I was in the thick of what seems now to be a silly altercation with the then Editor of ‘The Nation’ I came across what I felt (and still feel) was an unfair and uncivilized attack on the JVP. Mind you, I have never supported the JVP and in fact have been a victim of the kind of ‘democracy’ that party’s loyalists practiced in the university. 

I called Somawansa and alerted him to this article.  I told him that I feel the party should respond to such things because otherwise they are taken as legitimate.  He agreed but said ‘we can’t get it done in a hurry’.  I remembered what Manik had told me a few years before and suggested that I write a response from what I understand to be the JVP’s thinking, send it to him so that the party can use it as a draft and formulate an official response.  He agreed and thanked me.

What happened next is an indictment on a snooty culture that has addresses in newspapers as well.  ‘The Nation’ honored the right of reply but did so with a note along the following lines: ‘We are happy that the JVP can now write decent English!’

The then CEO of Rivira Media Corporation called me. 

‘You don’t have to answer, but I have to ask: did you write it?’  I told him ‘yes, I don’t have to answer but I have no reason not to either – yes, I did.’  I explained the circumstances.  I had crossed some lines and was willing to face the consequences, but I told him what I thought of the editorial comment on the JVP’s response. 

I didn’t even agree with many of the JVP’s positions but I was very upset.  I called Somawansa and told him what happened.  He was calm. Gentle.  Even a tad amused.  He spoke to me like a senior citizen who has seen much worse and was mature enough to expect this kind of uncivilized comment and yet remain unperturbed. 

There will be discussion about his role in the post-Wijeweera era.  He was in a way the ‘last man standing’ from the Politburo that Wijeweera led.   Most JVPers of the Class of 1971 had left the party.  The Class of 88/89 suffered a lot but also inflicted a lot of suffering.  Most of those who came after were attracted by the romanticism of these insurrections , the egalitarian ethic and notions of wrongs that needed to be put right.  They were not tempered by the fires of history simply because they never saw the inferno.  He did his best.  But in the end Somawansa was a throw-back, therefore, a useful icon but a handicap as well.  Indeed, it is surprising that they let him hang on until 2014. That said, there probably was something endearing about the man and his work, for the entire 'JVP Family' (including those estranged from the 'Mother Party') attended the funeral.  He

He had simple, endearing ways.  Some would say he was politically naïve or even simplistic.  He loved the party, that much is certain.  The party came first.  He loved this country.  Yes, the country also came first.  He was no ideologue but then again the JVP was never big on ideological integrity.  He dedicated his life to the things he loved.  Not an icon, perhaps, but Somawansa Amarasinghe did leave a mark.  He won’t be forgotten easily.