Crimson tide

Red alert Red alert: Trade unionists and members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna during a rally in Colombo | EPA

With elections round the corner in Sri Lanka, the rise of a Marxist party poses a threat to its two mainstream parties

  • The JVP's popularity soared after it named intellectuals, academics and retired public officials as nominees for the upcoming elections.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna is emerging as the third force in Sri Lankan politics by vehemently opposing both former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who heads the campaign of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), and Ranil Wickremesinghe, who heads the United National Party and the United National Front for Good Governance.

Also called the People's Liberation Front, the JVP was founded in 1965 by comrade Rohana Wijeweera, who was disillusioned with the Left parties of that time and wanted to create an alternative. The JVP spearheaded two bloody insurgencies in 1971, and from 1987 to 1989, which were suppressed by the government with brutal force. It entered democratic politics by participating in the parliamentary elections in 1994.

The party was identified with radical Marxism, but its inability to address the demands of the ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims, and the rising entrepreneurial class made it unacceptable to Sri Lankans. However, the JVP is currently undergoing a radical makeover following the appointment of its new leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, in 2014.

The party has promised to build a new Sri Lanka that is based on democracy and freedom of expression, ethnic reconciliation and assurance of minority rights. It recognises the need to shape the country as a player in a globally competitive economy, be connected to the world politically through a broadminded foreign policy, and have a non-corrupt government.

On July 22, a multiethnic audience as well as Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu clergy attended the JVP’s manifesto declaration and special convention in Colombo. The party's five-year plan for the country titled 'Accord of Consciousness' was presented during the convention. The leaders apologised for their past association with acts of terror and pledged to rebel only in idea. “Today, the people who did not listen to us earlier are listening to us. They know that we are honest and not here to make money out of politics. They know that we represent what is true and just,” said Dissanayake, 46, at the event.

The JVP plans to contest the parliamentary elections on August 17 from all electoral districts, including the predominantly Tamil areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. It has also fielded Muslim candidates.

Last year, the JVP took a stand against communalism during the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama and emerged as a key political voice that stood for ethnic harmony, nonviolence and coexistence. During the presidential elections in January this year, it campaigned against the Rajapaksa regime’s Sinhala nationalist majoritarian politics.

The party’s popularity soared after it highlighted corruption and named intellectuals, academics and retired public officials as nominees for the upcoming elections. It boasts being the only party that has a majority of candidates who are graduates.

“We will be the opposition voice that would get the government to do the work the way it should be done,” said Dissanayake, who plans to have a ‘shadow cabinet’ comprising experts from fields like education, environment and religious affairs.

“We have a strong force of professionals and we will choose from them to appoint ethical, honest and knowledgeable experts who are proficient in a particular subject,” he said.

The JVP won 39 seats in the 2004 elections when it was part of an alliance led by Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). In 2010, it won four seats as part of former army chief Sarath Fonseka's Democratic National Front. However, it is going solo this time.

The JVP opposed the peace negotiations that took place between 2002 and 2004 and the market reform drive, and thereby assisted in bringing Rajapaksa to power in 2005. It endorsed the military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2006. In recent years, however, the party admitted that it should have been more sensitive to the predicament of the war-affected Tamil civilians in the northern and eastern provinces.

Although it does not agree with the Tamil National Alliance's stand on power devolution to the north-east of Sri Lanka, the JVP claims to have succeeded in beginning its trust-building process in the north through interactions with the people.

The JVP’s decision to make Ramalingam Chandrasekaran, a trade unionist from the Indian Tamil community, in charge of its campaign in Jaffna gives an insight into its strategy to go against the high-caste Vellalar community.

“We should defeat politics that is based on petty religious and ethnic racism,” said Dissanayake, who is a physics graduate. “We need a strong army that would provide security to all the citizens. We should have a strong economic policy for all citizens equally. We need to secure a competitive edge in the global economy and start technology-driven agriculture that focuses on local food security as well as the export market. It should then benefit the local investment and attract foreign investment.” No country could live in isolation, he said.

However, would the JVP be a worthy alternative? “We need a governance pattern that addresses the grassroots as well as the country as a whole,” said Dr A.S. Chandrabose, senior lecturer, humanities and social sciences at The Open University in Colombo, and a JVP nominee, who belongs to the community of Indian-origin plantation Tamils. “We need a party that could assure the country of ethnic harmony to ensure economic stability. We need a party with a vision.”

Whether the JVP manages to live up to the expectations remains to be seen. However, its major concern for now is preventing internal rifts, considering that a senior leader, Somawansa Amarasinghe, resigned from the party earlier this year and became a strong critic of Dissanayake.

In 2008, Wimal Weerawansa, the once vociferous propaganda secretary of the JVP, was expelled from the party after he aligned himself with Rajapaksa. Today, Weerawansa is a bitter critic of the JVP, and one of the strongest supporters of the ‘Bring Mahinda back' campaign.

Back in business
* The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or the People's Liberation Front was founded in 1965 by comrade Rohana Wijeweera.
* It spearheaded two bloody insurgencies in 1971 and from 1987 to 1989, which were suppressed with brutal force.
* The JVP is currently undergoing a makeover following the appointment of its new leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, in 2014.
* The party has promised to build a new Sri Lanka that is based on democracy and freedom of expression, ethnic reconciliation and assurance of minority rights.
* It is fielding intellectuals, academics and retired public officials for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
* The JVP aims to increase its numbers in parliament and become a key voice in the main opposition.

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