Solution to problems is removal of Capitalist economy
By Udeni Saman Kumara
Dr. Lionel Bopage joined the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna at 27 years of age, while being a student of the Engineering Faculty of the Peradeniya University.
He was among the nine who made the final decision about the 1971 April uprising and was accused in the main case as the second suspect. During the hearing, took the same stance as the JVP Leader Rohana Wijeweera, was convicted and later, subsequent to being released, served as the JVP General Secretary for some time. In 1983, he left JVP political work and served in the Australian State Sector as an Engineer and Business Administration Advisor.
Excerpts of the interview:
?: What was the socio-economic and political situation when the people's uprising took place in 1971?
A: By the end of 1970, the socio-economic problems in Sri Lanka had aggravated. The background was very different from the present; both in the national and international context. If I point out an example, those who graduated from not only the Arts Faculty but even the Medical Faculty from universities here did not get jobs. It was a complex situation due to land problems, farmers' problems including lack of water, workers' employment situations, and problems regarding wages. From another aspect problems that arose in the field of education due to then Education Minister I. M. R. A. Iriyagolla's education policies.
?: What was the international scenario in 1971?
A: There was a big line up centred on the United States of America. America forced its views on the world in keeping with their national needs. CIA commenced an operation that was instrumental in overthrowing governments that were not toeing the line with America. CIA was engaged in conspiracies and in installing military dictatorships and was even involved in assassinating Heads of State. Africa and Latin America were caught in their grip. They were acting against socialist governments such as China, Russia and Cuba.
?: This was not long after the counter-revolution in Indonesia?
A: Yes, in 1965, General Suharto's military government in Indonesia murdered 500,000 Communists. They assassinated Patrick Lumumba in Congo. In 1961, the Mau Mau Rebellion was suppressed. These incidents and information on them had left us with a negative impression.
?: Wasn't the developmental achievements of the main socialist States a good experience?
A: The economic development Soviet Russia had achieved; the overthrowing of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba and Castro coming to power was inspirational. Vietnam's struggle for independence and the revolutionary struggles in the Latin American countries also motivated us. We were conceived in the womb of the old left parties in Sri Lanka, however, we veered more towards Maoist influences and were more fond of slogans such as, 'political power grows out of a barrel of a gun.'
?: In relation to the global situation what was the environment in Sri Lanka?
A: In the face of a crisis in the capitalist system the United National Party was moving towards totalitarianism. Not only we, but the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the parties of the left, all suspected that the UNP was moving away from democracy. There was talk in the country that the government would not hold elections and even if they did they would not allow the power to change hands. What we thought of was that if there was a dictatorship, we had to prepare ahead of time to face that.
?: Anyhow, the General Election was held in May 1970, wasn't it?
A: Yes. We, the JVP decided to make use of this opportunity and defeated the regressive UNP. Our Party was born, because in 1963 the United Front of the Left made up of the LSSP, CP and Mahajana Eksath Peramuna broke up and the LSSP joined the government. Therefore, we created a revolutionary party. Philip Gunawardena of the MEP joined the UNP. While we were speedily engaged in our work, the parties of the left took up an attitude that we were the enemy and labelled us as the CIA.
?: Was there a progressive outlook in the political manifesto presented by the Samagi Peramuna in 1970?
A: Yes, there was. Our biggest issue was when the two left parties came to power they stated in public that they cannot implement the progressive steps they promised. N. M. as the Minister of Finance asked the people to tighten their belts. In February 1970 we held a public meeting at the Hyde Park and on that particular day, the three Secretaries of the three main parties of the Samagi Peramuna Government issued a statement, which said the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna was the people's enemy and therefore the people should destroy it. On 18 March 1971 several comrades including comrade Wijeweera were taken into custody in Ampara. On 3 April Defence Secretary Arthur Ratnavale issued an order that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna should be pursued and destroyed. With that, under the Emergency Law, there was authority granted for the Police and the tri-forces to dispose of bodies sans any post-mortems or inquiries. If the Defence Secretary says that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna should be annihilated, it is a very serious situation.
?: Wasn't your Party armed by then?
A: We decided to arm ourselves in the eventuality of a military dictatorship. We were collecting arms while the Police were engaged in searching for and seizing them. It had become a vicious circle.
?: On the part of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, did you not take steps to hold discussions democratically with the government and make an attempt to settle the situation?
A: We tried to tell Madam, through Sunethra Bandaranaike, what we wanted to convey to her. Without reaching a settlement midway, we wanted to reveal the conspiracies against us that existed in the coalition. However we did not receive a good response.
?: Who spoke to Sunethra Bandaranaike?
A: Comrade Rohana. That discussion did not take place.
?: Who spoke with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party?
A: Comrade Osmund's mother was the President of the Sama Samaja Women's Association. We spoke to the LSSP through her to tell them that what was being carried out was wrong. At that time N. M. Perera had said that they had in their possession a cheque that had been give to the JVP by the CIA organization. Then Osmund's mother had told him to publish it in the newspapers. However, it has not been done up to today.
?: Wasn't the American Embassy attacked in the first week of March 1971?
A: It was by a youth group of Maoists. A Police officer died in that attack. They had protested that the CIA had given money to the JVP. It was later revealed that, T. B. Ilangaratne who was a Minister in the then government had direct relations with this group. It had been carried out with the intention of suppressing us. We issued a statement that we had no connection to the protest.
Nevertheless, the government used this incident and banned the party. They activated a law which the British Government had used to suppress the rebellions of 1918 and 1948, by declaring Emergency under Clause 15. It was the law, which enabled bodies of the deceased to be destroyed without conducting any post-mortems or inquiries.
?: By then, what had the JVP done against the government?
A: We had not done anything illegal apart from gathering weapons. We had not carried out any attacks. However, activating these suppression laws was equal to the government declaring war. Party members were taken into custody across the country. There was some in the party who thought that an armed attack should be carried out. Certain district leaders said that if the Party did not make the decision they would carry out an attack.
?: By then, weren't there conflict within the party leadership as well?
A: Yes. There was a clear division. Comrade Rohana, I, Uyangoda, and Piyatilleke were on one side while there was Loku Athula and Sanath and a group, there was conflict on certain issues which we could not settle. Amidst all of this, the decision to carry out an attack on 5 April was taken at the Sangharamaya of the Vidyodaya University.
?: You were among the leaders who decided to carry out the 1971 attack so you are also responsible for it.
A: In the month of February I was in the village of Akarahediya, in Matale. I had gone there with a group of students to prepare the setting in villages for the protection of Party Leaders if there was suppression. I got to know that Comrade Rohana had been taken into custody only a few days after the incident. It is only after I came back to Colombo that I got involved, in these discussions.
?: How many were present when the decision was taken and why did you agree to the decision to attack?
A: Altogether there were nine of us including, Loku Athula, me and Piyatilleke. I said that there was no possibility of carrying out such an attack in Colombo, as a large group had already been taken into custody. We did not have weapons. Loku Athula vehemently insisted that we should attack. He said 2,000 individuals and weapons were coming from Kegalle. Anyhow, it was decided that committees in each district should decide based on the situation prevalent in each location. I could not voice my opposition beyond that. It was decided to carry out attacks across the country on 5 April.
?: Then, how was the Wellawaya Police Station attacked on the night of 4 April?
A: At that time, we could not think clearly of a reason. Later, we decided that, the group who had forced us to carry out the attack had without informing us sent an earlier message and as that order could not be changed the attack took place. Later we realized that, everyone who met on the 2nd at the Sangharamaya did so only to obtain the approval for a previously made decision to attack.
?: Then what is this story about Wijeweera being in a prison in Jaffna and that he initiated a message that a group of 500 was to be sent to Jaffna to rescue him and to start attacks across the country?
A: It was the same Loku Athula who said that we should definitely carry out the attack across the country who told us that a message had been sent through Lal Somasiri who was released from the Jaffna Prison, where he had been with Wijeweera.
However, after 46 years I have now heard that Lal Somasiri is saying that Comrade Wijeweera never sent such a message and that he was instructed to inform the Party to retreat.
?: There was no attack carried out in Colombo?
A: On 5 April at about 8.00 in the night, Uyangoda, Piyasiri Kularatne and I went on a round in Colombo. The situation was very bad, the Army was on alert as if Marshall Law had been imposed. Meanwhile, the Colombo Central organization had decided to call off the attack in Colombo. By that time, there was no possibility to stay in Colombo. able to remain in Colombo. I went to the temple at Sarikkamulla in Panadura. It was a terrible suppression.
?: Did the government receive foreign assistance to face this situation?
A: India came to protection of the Katunayake Airport. War advisors came. Britain had sent Bell Helicopters. The Navy was on alert around Sri Lanka due to baseless news that North Korea was coming to assist us. The class angle that existed was very clear. Certain heads of the Army had given orders that the JVP should be massacred.
?: There is an opinion that during the 1971 incidents, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike acted very peacefully and that she did not act in the manner that J. R. Jayewardene did in 1989 in a vindictive manner?
A: At first she acted in a vindictive manner. Those taken into custody were killed. Madihe Pannasiha Thera and Father Tissa Balasuriya had directly told the Prime Minister to halt the killing of youth. However, even those who surrendered were killed. Later a request was made to surrender and rehabilitation work was launched. Then the Criminal Justice Commission was formed with retrospective effect.
?: Did the government later conduct an inquiry into the murders carried out by security forces?
A: The JVP was accused of the 100-200 deaths that took place during the struggle. However, security forces went to homes and took into custody about 10,000 and killed them. There was no hearing about that. Not only in 1971, during the 1953 Hartal and the massive strike, the security forces killed a group of people, including Comrade Kandasamy. Even then no investigation was carried out into those deaths. There was a situation where those who took judicial decisions allowed political decisions to prevail and let the incidents pass as normal incidents. During the period 1988-89 about 60,000 were killed in this manner.
The same thing happened during the war that was fought in the North. Murders committed and hands cleaned.
?: What would you propose to prevent this situation?
A: This is a tragedy in human civilization. No government has the right to kill people above and beyond the law that exists. I believe that foreign intervention is required to prevent this situation. Even after the country was freed from British rule, sixty years on; all governments had a policy they maintained of killing people and wiping their hands clean. If we do not act for the protection of the lives on the people in Sri Lanka and the existing government has failed in that task, some kind of foreign intervention is required.
?: What are the favourable signs that you see within the 1971 uprising?
A: This uprising of the people had an effect in removing the remnants of the colonial ruins that existed even after 1948 –the limit to 50 acres of land ownership. There were certain reforms to solve unemployment. However, they did not have a long-term impact. Tens of thousands of comrades sacrificed their lives with the intention of creating a just society and a nation. It was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna which presented an economic programme to the people, for the first time, apart from Parliament.
?: Today the Socialism Campaign on a world scale is subject to decline. What have you to say about the future?
A: What I see throughout the world is that political parties are substituting the working people. It is not parties who should stand up, it is the people. It is the responsibility of political parties to provide leadership. In 1971, even we had not properly realized the dialectical relationship between the Party and the people. It is not the people but the Party that makes decisions against suppression. This situation is apparent across the world even today. The only method to avoid the problems we are facing today, as I believe, is the removal of the capitalistic economy.
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