Veteran Sri Lankan leftist Lionel Bopage on the national question, class and revolution

Lionel Bopage.
February 11, 2013

Lionel Bopage, 68, was jailed twice and tortured for his roll as a former leader of a mass liberation movement in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s, called the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front). He rose to the position of general secretary of the JVP but resigned from the group in 1984 over a number of differences, including his principled support for the right of national self-determination for the Tamil people. He was eventually forced into political exile together with his wife, Chitra. They now live in Melbourne, Australia, where they continue to be outspoken defenders of human rights and social justice.

Green Left Weekly asked Bopage to reflect on his political experiences in liberation struggle in Sri Lanka.

Bopage will be speaking in Sydney on Friday February 15, 4.15-5.30pm at the launch of his biography The Lionel Bopage Story by Michael Colin Cooke. The launch will be at Gleebooks (upstairs), 49 Gleb Point Rd, Glebe. Independent journalist Wendy Bacon will launch the book and the afternoon will be chaired by Aboriginal historian and anthropologist Les Bursill. Please RSVP 0432 340 979 if you would like to attend. . Copies of book are available Resistance Books.

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When you were arrested in 1971 as one of the young leaders of the JVP you experienced first-hand the naked violence that the Sri Lankan state meted out to political dissidents. Some 15,000 of your comrades were killed and thousands more arrested, tortured and jailed. Is the Sri Lankan state today any less brutal and disrespectful of perceived dissidents and enemies of the state?

No. The Sri Lanka state today has neither become less brutal, nor less disrespectful of perceived dissidents and enemies of the state.

I feel that state repression both quantitatively and qualitatively expanded with time. The numbers that have been made to disappear and killed have increased from 1971 to 1988-89 and during the separatist insurgency from late seventies to 2009. The numbers that have been subjected to various forms of torture have also increased.

In 1970, the police arrested cadres and supporters for selling newspapers, often assaulted and tortured them by burning their skin with cigarette butts. Those detainees were held behind bars without trial under the emergency regulations, and when courts released them – the police would immediately re-arrest them, even within court premises. During the JVP-led 1971 insurrection about 15,000 young suspects were allegedly killed, most of them were killed after being arrested or when they surrendered. There were instances where individuals were sawn into pieces. Individuals were burnt alive with tyres, killed and thrown into rivers, or killed and exhibited on street corners. The Emergency Regulations were used to dispose of dead bodies without any post mortem examination. This obviously helped cover up atrocities committed by the security forces. The JVP leaders and about 50,000 individuals including JVP supporters were kept imprisoned. Arbitrary arrest, torture and execution became routine.

Disappearances and extrajudicial executions in particular have been reported with increased frequency since the proscription of the JVP in July1983. For four years, these abuses were concentrated in the north-east of the island, where Tamil militants have been engaged in an armed struggle since the late 1970s to establish a separate state. Between mid-1987 and early 1990, following the escalation of armed opposition in the south of Sri Lanka, there was a dramatic increase in reports of disappearances and extrajudicial executions. During1988-89, 60,000 individuals were allegedly killed by the security forces and its paramilitary groups.

During the separatist armed opposition, extraordinary powers were provided to the security forces that led to grave human rights violations. Nearly 40,000 are alleged to have been killed during the last phase of the war. During the total period of the insurrection nearly 100,000 have been alleged to have been killed. The security forces appeared to increasingly commit abuse with impunity. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been in force almost the entire period since July 1979. Apart from nearly six months between January and June 1989, there had been a nationwide state of emergency.

Recently the government did not extend the declaration and allowed the Emergency Regulations to lapse. However, the government reintroduced and incorporated a range of new provisions to the country’s legislation through an Order made under section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance, calling out all the members of the Armed Forces for the maintenance of public order in all 25 Districts.

Death and torture squads operated during the war against the Tamil militancy and abductions and enforced disappearances continue, nearly four years after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These squads are being used to suppress any active political opposition to the state. Opposition and human rights organisations allege that armed men mainly in white’ vans have abducted many political activists and journalists. It is an open secret that these squads operate hand in glove with the government security forces. In addition, a huge military machine is being maintained and expanded. Sri Lanka has raised defence spending by over 25 percent in 2013, allocating $2.2 billion for the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, more than three years after the end of the armed conflict with the LTTE. The security forces, which encompass the army, the navy, and the air force, have about 400,000 active personnel. Increasingly, military has been utilised in carrying out civil administration roles.

Your reflections on the national question are an important theme in The Lionel Bopage Story and it is a question that has bedevilled and divided the left in Sri Lanka for many decades. What do you think the left's position should be today and why has it been such a problem for the left to recognise the rights of the Tamil minority to national self-determination?

For the left in Sri Lanka, it would be quite difficult to build a mass united movement of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities in the very near future, given the suspicion and deep wounds caused as result of betrayals, discrimination and brutal war the island has endured since its Independence. I believe, the starting point should be the left, including the JVP and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), to recognise the need for wider power devolution and this may open up opportunities for forging broader alliances with Tamil groups in the North.

I am of the view that the right to self-determination is a bourgeois democratic right advocated by the rulers of the capitalist class as well as the working class. The principle is embodied in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations and has been embraced by US President Woodrow Wilson and the Founder of the Soviet Union Vladimir Illych Lenin. It is recognised as a right of all peoples in the first article common to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which both entered into force in 1976.

It is historically evident that the exercise of this right could generate a diversity of outcomes ranging from political independence through to full integration within a nation state. For some, the only acceptable outcome seems to be full political independence as demonstrated in the case of the Tamil militant struggle. This situation usually arises when nations or nationalities are subjected to occupation or colonisation. There have been other examples, where the demand has been a degree of political, cultural and economic autonomy, sometimes in the form of a federal relationship. For others it is a demand for the right to live on and manage their traditional lands free of external interference and incursion. So, it is not only those in the left, even those who value bourgeois democracy need to recognise the rights of the Tamil community as a people in Sri Lanka.

However, Marxists have held contradictory views on the issue of nationalism. Ultimately they want to foster the class consciousness of the oppressed, not their national consciousness. Marx reflected this ambivalence. On one hand, according to Marx, the bourgeoisie had played a revolutionary role in society by confronting and in some cases winning the fight against the nobility and the monarchy. The dialectics of this thorny question for Marxists is best encapsulated by the writings of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. Rosa Luxemburg felt that the issue of nationalism could undermine the proletariat’s true class interests. Lenin argued that in the appropriate historical circumstances the issue of national liberation and socialism are not incompatible.

The JVP tried to change its position on the national question after it regrouped after the insurrection in 1971. This is widely discussed in the biography. I believe the fear of state repression was a significant factor that caused the JVP leadership not to accept the right to self-determination in early 1980s. With the banning of the JVP in 1983, the party was forced to go underground. It was in 1983 itself, the JVP started moving away from even recognising the Tamil people’s right to self-determination. Thus, it moved from being a socialist party to a chauvinistic one. The political opportunism of its leadership was a critical factor in this shift. They revived the slogan ‘Indian Expansionism’ which had featured in the JVP programme before 1972. The JVP’s social base mainly comprised of rural, semi-proletarian and petit bourgeois Buddhist Sinhala youth. The neo-colonial political and economic developments in the country were not conducive to building political relationships between the Sinhala and Tamil youth; and the interaction of most of the JVP’s membership with Tamils was minimal, so that empathy towards the issues facing the Tamil people was limited.

We have to recognise the fact that the ruling elites use the national question largely to hide their economic failures. The left needs to look at the social and political injustices fuelling the separatist demand and devise a way of addressing these injustices and on that basis to try and unite all working people to achieve a fair and better society.

Australian government collusion with the Sri Lankan state seems to have intensified around an attempt to stop and delegitimise asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. What are your thoughts on this?

Increasingly, the policy positions of the Labour and Liberal parties on refugees seem to overlap. The refugee issue is masked with terms such as people smuggling and border security.

According to recent statistics, for Sri Lankans there have been 299 grants of asylum status and 45 refusals in 2011-2012. So the number of genuine refugees can be thought to comprise about 87 percent of the original claims, which is a high percentage on any account. On the one hand, this shows that the number of claimants, who arrive by boat and assessed as genuine refugees has not decreased. So, this collusion between the two governments is basically trying to prevent the refugee flow from Sri Lanka.

In my opinion, people flee Sri Lanka due to many factors including political persecution, fear, economic hardships and family reunion, etc. Many professionals who have migrated here arrived here to make use of the perceived economic prosperity in Australia and are economic migrants. If there were fair opportunities in Sri Lanka they would not have moved. Today the gap between the haves and have nots are worse. Unemployment is high. The GDP growth is 5 percent, but the results of this growth are not fairly distributed.

The Australian government has colluded with the Sri Lankan state with intelligence gathering equipment to stop people leaving Sri Lankan shores in boats. As Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop stated, with the assistance of the Australian aid, the Sri Lankan Government intercepts one out of three refugees leaving Sri Lanka by boat, and their endeavour is to make it three out of three.

This collusion prevents people who suffer political persecution and who fear for their lives also from leaving the island by the means they can afford to and available to them. This is a violation of the right of such people to seek protection under the international conventions and laws on refugees.

The Australian government, although it is well aware of the undemocratic polices and gross human rights violations of the regime, wants to maintain a very friendly relationship with the regime. Their main aim is to stop boats from Sri Lanka coming to Australia, stating that human rights in Sri Lanka is an internal issue that should be dealt locally!

Last year, the JVP had a major split and a new party, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), was formed. Do you see this as a positive political development and has the new party broken from the Sinhala chauvinism that took it to the right for many years?

A group of dissidents within the JVP attempted to take over the party leadership and its organs around the year 2010. The dissidents decided to form within the JVP, a separate faction Jana Aragala Vyaparaya (Movement for Peoples Struggle – MPS). In 2011, reports began appearing about a major split within the JVP. Last year, a group broke away from the JVP and formed a new organisation called the Peratugami Samajawadi Pakshaya (Frontline Socialist Party). The emergence and consolidation of the FSP brought a ray of hope to the left and other peoples’ movements in the island, particularly, after the end of the military conflict, which had put the class agenda of the left on the back burner. The statements and other manifestations of the FSP seem to underline non-sectarian attitudes and internationalist tendencies based on an understanding between the neo-liberalist global forces and balance of class forces locally.

The class antagonism between the new group and the state is evident from the fact that its members have been abducted. Two leading Tamil members of FSP, comrades Lalith and Kuhan, were abducted last year. In addition, two leading politbureau members of the FSP were abducted and the State had to release them because of the involvement of the Australian Government. Lalith and Kuhan have so far not been found or released. These abductions aimed at intimidating and weakening the FSP is not surprising, because the state considers the expansion of the FSP into a stronger political force a serious threat to its existence.

The FSP’s self-critical look seems to be limited to the post-2004 period, during which the JVP formed a bourgeois coalition led by the SLFP. It seems to be restricted by the ideological boundaries that the JVP and its leadership barricaded them into, particularly in relation to the national question. The JVP fully supported the war until the military defeat of the LTTE. The members of the FSP state they had a different position on this matter and there had been an ideological dispute within the JVP. Since then, the JVP and the FSP have claimed that allying the JVP with the Democratic National Alliance was a political mistake. Both parties have been critical of the regime’s process of militarisation enforced in the North and East of the country. They also highlight human rights violations that take place in the island.

The FSP’s position regarding the national question remains vague, with responses to questions being left purposefully ambiguous. Despite its recognition of the multi-ethnic nature of the island’s society, it refuses to recognise the right to self-determination of oppressed nationalities, even as a bourgeois democratic right. Like the JVP, the FSP continues to oppose the devolution of power. The FSP does not encourage the drawing of vertical national lines but works towards uniting proletarians of different national communities for the sake of advancing the class struggle. The leader of the FSP alleges that devolution of power is a slogan imposed by India:
Imperialist powers, including India, preach and encourage so-called devolution of power and self-determination according to their political agenda in the region. But at the same time we oppose the unitary state concept, as it further widens the differences between different national communities. Both unitary and federal state structures represent the same neoliberal capitalism at present.

We all agree that under capitalism, struggles to realise socio-economic and cultural aspirations of diverse oppressed people yield only temporary outcomes and those outcomes cannot be sustained in the long term due to the continuation of accumulation of resources within a few hands in the capitalist society. However, that does not mean that these struggles are useless, unnecessary, or counter-productive. These struggles help by exposing the futility of capitalism itself in the sustenance of aspirations of working people. By exposing the class nature of capitalist society, the progressive and socialist forces should be able to expose the unsustainability of such outcomes under capitalism. If one holds onto the above argument, there is no necessity for the workers to fight for increased wages and/or better working conditions, because that could be seen as providing support to sustain capitalism further in its neo-liberal form. Secondly, Lenin’s argument for federalism, autonomy, devolution or decentralisation was that such measures are necessary under capitalism, as transitionary measures to build mutual trust between working peoples and uniting them towards building a socialist future.

Nevertheless, I recognise the fact that the FSP is actively engaged with other progressive organisations, in campaigning for the human and democratic rights of the oppressed people. Unlike the JVP, which advocates that it is the sole socialist party in the island, the FSP has recognised the diversity of the left’s political traditions and tendencies, and the necessity to gain from their varied experiences and the important need for the left to work together in advancing the cause of socialism. The position of the FSP also seems to differ from the JVP in that the FSP is willing to look at its past in a self-critical manner and learn from the experiences of others.

What lessons are there to be learned from the experiences of armed struggle by the JVP on one hand and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) on the other?

Both the JVP (throughout) and the LTTE (in late 1970s and early 1980s) verbally acknowledged their commitment to socialism. Since the eighties, the LTTE has not made any commitment to socialism. They were politically driven by their allegiances to ethnicity, not class. They can be classified as movements based on rural youth that are driven by bourgeois nationalist ideology, the JVP representing the Sinhalese side of the coin and the LTTE the Tamil side.

The JVP was supportive of forming a partnership with the capitalist state and disregarded the just and fair demands of the Tamil people. It supported the military, the capitalist state and its bureaucracy, and the religious hierarchy. The JVP’s original aim in the seventies was to overthrow the Sri Lankan state through an armed insurrection. However, this stance appeared to have changed since the 1990s.

The LTTE disregarding the necessity to unite and work with the Sinhala and Muslim people, intended to form a partnership with the capitalist state in governing the north east. The LTTE’s alleged aim in the past was to force out the occupational forces of the ‘Sinhala’ state from their traditional homeland through a protracted armed struggle, not the overthrowing of the Sri Lankan state.

In the 1990s, the LTTE had become a conventional armed force with the capability to challenge the forces of the state, and its fighting cadres formed into the many apparatus of a state.

As political violence became manifested in the north and east, the responses of the state and the Tamil militants caused an extension of this radicalisation and alienation within and among the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala communities in Sri Lanka. Since July 1983 riots, the Tamil militants, in particular the LTTE, came to represent most Tamils, with the exception of the Malaiyaha Tamils and the Muslims.

There are similarities between the JVP and the LTTE armed struggles. Both were sectarian and targeted political opponents. They were reluctant to forge broad political alliances with progressive political groups. The LTTE was very well armed and had the access to advanced weapons and military technology, yet when the State began to take the upper hand, the LTTE ran out of options, there was no alternative plan. The JVP armed struggle went through the same experience.

The main lesson to be learnt is that an armed struggle itself would not be sufficient to achieve final victory. Recent experience in the Middle East (such as Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt) shows the effectiveness of the mass uprising. In other words, in the post 9/11 world, there is very little chance of an organisation solely based on its armed struggle to succeed.

Both the JVP and the LTTE have been the products of the failures of economic and political development in Sri Lanka. The state repressed both the JVP and the LTTE using brutal force. Both fought back separately and uncompromisingly. Later, the JVP and the LTTE again separately, but simultaneously fought against the establishment and the presence of Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in the island. The ideologies of both the JVP and the LTTE are not based on current realities but rather on the commitment to their own brands of nationalism.

The important lessons that could be drawn from the experiences of the JVP and the LTTE are the need of:

  • a united struggle of the working people belonging to all communities in Sri Lanka for a better Sri Lanka
    relying on the strength of working people rather than the armed strength;
  • avoiding violence against civilian population at any cost;
  • defeating adventurist tendencies within the organisation;
  • support of the working people on an international scale for the struggles in Sri Lanka.
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