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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2523

The JVP’s (Internal) War

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“A little more than kin and less than kind...”
Shakespeare (Hamlet)

In a week marred by the barbaric Tiger attack in Weliweriya and enlivened by the melodramatic split in the JVP, the revelation that 50.7% of the Lankan people are undernourished barely made a stir. The Rajapakse administration exulted over the rising per capita income levels but failed to comprehend that a juxtaposition of the two indicators hints at a country caught in a process of rapid socio-economic polarisation. The JVP was too immersed in its implosion to pay attention to mere statistics while the UNP seemed uninterested in this profoundly disturbing omen of a calamity in the making, the consequences of which can far surpass the Eelam War in their intensity and longevity.

The Black Tiger attack which killed Minister Jeyraj Fernandopulle and a dozen others is yet another reminder that the LTTE will not baulk at committing any crime, however savage, in the pursuit of its aims. It is a sign of the perverse politicisation of Lankan society that no public event however trivial can be held without the participation of some politician. The fault lies with politicians who tend to attend public functions with scant regard for security and members of the public who seek publicity and prominence by involving politicians in totally non-political events such as sports meets and New Year festivals. This inane Sri Lankan practice must be changed and changed immediately if the LTTE is not to be provided with more sitting ducks. Sri Lanka has already lost too many democratic politicians, of all hues, to the Tiger.

Sri Lankan politicians usually find it hard to grasp the fanatical nature of the LTTE; this inability is at the root of most of the mistakes made vis-à-vis the Tiger – from peace processes to the unacceptable risks taken by politicians. Currently this error seems compounded by the propensity of government leaders to believe their own propaganda of a Tiger in the death throes. The LTTE has taken a beating but it is hardly on its last legs; and it still possesses cadres willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their self-deified leader his dream-state. In the absence of a schism akin to the Karuna rebellion, the LTTE will be able to resist the Northern offensive with sufficient success, thereby turning the war into one of attrition. Therefore instead of believing in its own propaganda fantasies about fast victories, the regime should see the reality for what it is and prevent its members from taking unnecessary risks through irresponsible behaviour. The regime must also cease the reprehensible practice of using security as a stick to beat its politico-electoral enemies with. It is the responsibility of the state and the government to provide adequate security to all democratic politicians, even ones who are pro-LTTE, especially in the context of the upcoming provincial council elections in the East.

The Reds and their Blues

The JVP’s newest split (it is no stranger to schisms) and subsequent developments are welcome eye-openers. They enable the public to see beyond the smooth façade and the fine rhetoric into the innermost nature and workings of the party. The JVP has always taken pains to appear as a party of superheroes who have transcended the human condition. The exposes and counter-exposes (already made and in the offing) should demonstrate to the latest generation of starry-eyed believers that the JVP does have feet of clay and its most heroic leaders are charlatans in disguise. The violent treatment meted out to the dissidents proves that despite its democratic rhetoric the JVP is as autocratic and intolerant as ever. If the JVP manages to form a government it will be as corrupt as any UNP or SLFP administration and far more repressive.

The split does not show either party in a favourable light. This is no rebellion of the sort that Col. Karuna made against Vellupillai Pirapaharan. If a comparison must be made, it is more apt to do so with the 2007 break up in the UNP when 18 parliamentarians (led by the unofficial deputy leader of the party) joined the government because they understood, through bitter experience, that as long as Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the leader, the UNP is more likely to loose rather than win elections. The JVP is faced with a similar dilemma; if it contests the next general election alone, its parliamentary strength is likely to be reduced by more than half while the anti-people economic policies of the regime makes another coalition with the SLFP an unpalatable prospect. The main party obviously wants to position itself to the left of the Rajapakse administration socio-economically, base its campaign on economic issues and go it alone, thereby benefiting from the rapidly escalating cost-of-living crisis. The dissidents seem to want to contest as part of the UPFA (as in 2004) on the basis of ‘patriotism’. This ‘two-line struggle’ was present within the JVP for sometime but the split could have been avoided without Wimal Weerawansa, the individual.

Wimal Weerawansa is too big for his party. He had helped the JVP to emerge from the politico-organisational wilderness it was consigned to after the definitive defeat of the Second Insurgency. In the process he rose from obscurity to national prominence. As the main ‘public face’ of the new JVP Mr. Weerawansa’s rise was spectacular. However any further advancement was not possible given the nature of the JVP and the role it is fated to play in Lankan politics in the foreseeable future. Mr. Weerawansa has reached his glass ceiling. In order to move from being a mere power broker to become a power wielder in his own right (like his one time comrade, current bête noir and – perhaps! – future ally, Champika Ranawaka) he had to persuade the JVP to join the ruling coalition once again and accept ministerial posts. Failing that, he had to ally with the regime accompanied by as many like-minded members as possible. As a lone dissident he will become a nonentity like Nandana Gunatilake. But at the head of his own group of dissidents he can name his own terms to the regime. Given the JVP’s unwillingness to join the government formally, Mr. Weerawansa had no other way of breaking the glass ceiling than breaking the JVP.

The JVP has been in a bind for sometime. It is reluctant to go all out against a government which is battling the LTTE; it cannot ally formally with a government that is heaping economic misery on the masses with thoughtless abandon. The JVP’s base is particularly vulnerable to the disastrous economics of the Rajapakse administration and the party would know that in the final analysis people vote with their stomachs. Last November the JVP enabled the government to survive the Budget vote, obviously at the urging of Mr. Weerawansa. However the economic conduct of the regime since then would have weakened Mr. Weerawansa’s position vis-à-vis those in the party advocating the precedence of the cost of living issues.

It is not that the regime did not pay for the JVP’s support in that crucial vote. The CFA was abrogated, a long standing demand of the JVP. If the cost of living did not sky rocket in the aftermath of the budget vote and/or there were significant military victories in the Northern theatre Mr. Weerawansa would have been able to retain his influence within the party’s ruling circle. However prices reached astronomical levels, not least because of the financial mismanagement and malpractices of the regime. And the Northern war, given its nature, was incapable of producing the fast victories that the country has become accustomed to in the Eastern theatre, since in the North there is no Col. Karuna.

Other events too would have contributed the JVP’s growing disenchantment with the Rajapakse administration, such as Minister Mervyn Silva’s attack on a JVP trade union leader at the Rupavahini Corporation. The Eastern election was the final straw since it is a contest the regime feels it must win under any circumstances. Since the JVP refused to contest as part of the UPFA, the regime would want to weaken the outfit before the election, so that the inroads the JVP can make into the Sinhala vote in the East are reduced. This probably explains the particular timing of the public split.

Prices or Patriotism

The Lankan economy and the living standards of the people are likely to take a nose dive in the coming year. Both the US recession and the global food crisis will have a crippling effect on us and this will be compounded by the errors and incapacities of the Rajapakse administration. Increasing levels of undernourishment is not the only worrying sign; UNICEF says that 29% of Lankan children below five years are underweight while 14% suffer from wasting (acute underweight) and stunting (chronic underweight).

According to the deputy head of the World Food Programme in Sri Lanka Jean-Yves Lequime “Sri Lanka has a significantly higher child underweight rate than would be expected on the basis of its [annual] per capita GDP [of US$1,599]… Indeed, Sri Lanka has a child underweight rate that may be three times as high as what would be expected from a country with Sri Lanka's level of infant mortality” (IRIN – 9.4.2008). These are classic signs of a country subject to the malady of ruthless growth. In this context it is natural that the JVP would want to give precedence to economic issues, since the public has already begun to do so.

Some would see in the JVP split a hardliners vs. moderates divide. The pronouncements of the main protagonists and their supporters indicate that both sides are trying to outdo each other in ‘patriotism’, which in the JVP’s worldview also includes virulent opposition to any form of devolution. If anyone has an edge in this area it is Mr. Weerawansa who is being depicted by his supporters as a victim of an anti-national international conspiracy. In any case the split is likely to make both sides cling even more stubbornly to Sinhala maximalism since neither side will want to be accused of betraying the ‘nation’. The JVP split is thus unlikely to help the search for a political solution any more than the UNP split did. So long as the President remains unwilling to accept the existence of an ethnic problem and the potency of the historic memory of 1956 and 1983, the search for a solution will remain a time buying exercise.

Wimal Weerawansa will support the government within and outside the parliament while the JVP will up the tempo of its anti-government struggle. The East will be an obvious battleground and the JVP will adopt more confrontationist stances on economic issues as well.

Irrespective of how virulent the JVP’s anti-government campaign is, so long as the JVP remains within the democratic system it must be dealt with democratically. A persecution mania is inherent to the JVP. If the regime tries to involve itself in the JVP split on the side of the dissidents, the JVP will once again begin to feel beleaguered and will lash out. This can be the beginning of a vicious cycle which will take us back to the 1980’s. Whatever happens, the JVP must not be driven out of the democratic system. The schism will weaken the JVP and the government should be content with that instead of overreaching itself, as is its norm. Any overt attempt to meddle in the JVP’s implosion or to benefit from it can let loose an avalanche which will be disastrous for all parties, especially in the context of a costly war in the North and socio-economic discontent in the South.

- Asian Tribune -

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