Posted on August 14th, 2020


The April 1971 JVP insurrection took the country by surprise because it was against a popular, SLFP government which had just one year before, won 91 seats out of 151 in the 1970 general election. The JVP insurrection of 1971 was met with stunned disbelief, said Suriya Wickremasinghe. It was marked with confusion, bewilderment, rumor and speculation. How such a situation could have come about. Was there a foreign hand behind this extraordinary event?  

 Of course there was.   It was obvious that this was no home grown insurgency. But JVP was able to hide its international links. We were home-made revolutionaries, with no proper arms and ammunition and bombs made of tinkiri tins,” said JVPer Sunanda Deshapriya. 

We in the CID were asked to probe whether and how the JVP was funded, said Gamini Gunawardene.  But no definite avenues of financial assistance to the J. V. P. were established, said Samaranayake.The international links maintained by the J. V. P were vague, said Samaranayake.

But a scapegoat was needed. The public   were told that North Korea was responsible for the insurgency. Implicating evidence was found and the North Korea Embassy was immediately closed down and the diplomats banished from Sri Lanka.

 Experts knew that North Korea had nothing to do with it, so did seasoned politicians. Rohana Wijeweera, it was alleged, had been secretly recruited by USA when he was in Moscow. N.M Perera stated that the insurgency was a CIA operation. Several   politicians, including N.M. Perera   thought the JVP were CIA agents, added H.L.D. Mahindapala.

The JVP also said so, accusing each other of being CIA. Dharmasekera, who was dismissed from the JVP, accused Rohana Wijeweera of being a CIA agent. Rohana Wijeweera said that Dharmasekera’s organisation ‘Mathroo bhumi Arakshaka Sangamaya’ was CIA. When, ‘Vikalpa kandayama’, another splinter group of ex JVPers, emerged, Wijeweera said its leader was a CIA agent.

Analysts observed that when the government, appealed to foreign governments for assistance  the assistance from the US government was very little. However Prime Minister Sirimavo had been told to ask for help from the US Seventh Fleet which was exercising in the Indian Ocean at the time. The Sri Lankan Government received significant military assistance from the U. S. S. R., including five fighter air-craft and six helicopters.

Garvin Karunaratne, who was GA, Matara at the time said that in the days immediately after April 5, 1971, ‘when we were holding onto the coastal strip at Matara,’ a very large ship appeared on the coast and came very close to Dondra. Sri Lanka did not have a ship of that size.  Watching the drama through binoculars from the Army camp I saw a number of boats being lowered to the sea and things being put into them.

Dondra was under JVP control at that time except for the police station and the adjacent areas and there was no possibility of conducting checks in the area. We radioed Army Headquarters and one of our planes came, hovered around the ship and we heard machine gun fire for around fifteen minutes. The ship vanished just afterwards. This episode is known only to me and the Army on duty at that time, concluded Karunaratne.

The government responded strongly to the Insurgency and suppressed it successfully, using army and police. We have learned too many lessons from Vietnam and Malaysia. We must destroy the insurgents completely. We have no choice, said an army official.

But there were criticisms. Senator S Nadesan drew attention to the Emergency Regulations enacted at the time, particularly Regulations 19 and 20 which dealt with arrest, detention, cremation and burial.These Regulations say that any police officer may arrest without a warrant a person suspected of an offence under the Emergency Regulations.  The earlier safeguards that such a person must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours and also that police must report to magistrate if they arrest a person without a warrant were removed. When the Parliament met, many MPs, mainly government MPs, brought in many allegations of abuse against the police.

This was Sri Lanka‘s first insurgency, and the country, naturally, had no laws to deal with it. A Sedition act had been prepared in March 1971, said Samaranayake   and this was to be used for arrest and trial of insurgents on charges of sedition.

Attorney-General stated that there were no provisions to prosecute JVP members who had been taken into custody without arms. The government therefore passed the Criminal Justice Commission Bill. The Criminal Justice Commission conducted investigation into the 1971 uprising. Critics said that the Act violated natural law.  It was intended to prosecute persons for an offence committed in the past. It was retrospective.

Senator Nadesan made a long speech in Parliament about the JVP insurgency. He took pains to project the insurgency as a home grown operation.   Senator Nadesan’s speech      was used as an appendix in the report made by Lord Avebury, who came   on behalf of Amnesty International, to report on the 15,000 people kept in detention without trial.

In his speech, Nadesan attributed the rise of the JVP to population growth, higher education and unemployment. The insurgents were mainly poor undergraduates who saw no future for themselves, said Nadesan. There were no jobs awaiting them.  They were studying because there was nothing else to do. Politics was the principal diet of the students.

Nadesan agreed that the   armed uprising had attacked a duly established, democratically elected, popular government. But he listed several weaknesses in the government, such as nepotism, favoritism when it came to jobs and compulsory retirement of those over 55. Very violent speeches were made by the sons of these dependants, observed Nadesan. Also said Nadesan, there was unemployment. People were thrown out of jobs.

MPs gave themselves pensions, enhanced allowances and wanted to import Peugeot cars for official travel. The Senators listening to Nadesan helpfully added at this point, ‘there were also objections to MPs foreign travel and safaris’. Nadesan said he   did not know of those and was speaking only of what he did know.

Nadesan listed a series of allegations regarding criminal behavior on the part of the armed forces dealing with the insurgency. Allegations have reached my ears from  reputable sources  whose names I will not disclose here, that insurgents who surrendered or were captured were shot in a large number on the ground that there was no way of keeping them in prison and there were no faculties for transporting them or for accommodating them. Whether this allegation is true or not is a different matter.

 Allegations have been made that in areas far away from the place of actual confrontation between security forces and insurgents, a number of youth were arrested on suspicion. Some were shot summarily, others assaulted, tortured, taken away and shot. Suspects were asked to run away from the police station and then shot when running.

Allegations have been made that in some police stations torture and sadisms have been indulged in by some police officers, they were deprived of their wrist watches and then sent off. Nadesan had been able to verify one such case.

Allegations have been made that the houses of parents of a large number of young persons who were suspected of being insurgents have had their houses burnt down. Allegations have been made that some members of the police force and army have in broad daylight gone to shops, markets and other places and helped themselves to goods and in some cases they have indulged in looting of shops and boutiques, taking away jewellery.

Allegations have been made that after curfew house in places close to Colombo like Nugegoda and in faraway places like Badulla members of security forces have gone into boutiques and shops and carried away jewellery and cash to the extent of Rs 5,000, 6000 and 7000. Allegations have been made that people’s residences, shops and boutiques with all valuables have been burnt down, concluded Nadesan.

Neville Jayaweera, then GA Vavuniya, said the JVP were not mean criminal types. They were decent and most respectful,  very young and idealistic. They were fighting for a new society. They were a couple of thousand starry eyed youth armed with shot guns and homemade bombs, with a charismatic leader. They had no idea what they were to do after capturing Vavuniya police station and Kachcheri, added Jayaweera.

My encounters with them in 1971 in Vavuniya had been wholesome ones, he said. Jayaweera had sent some money to his wife through a trusted bus driver.  JVP had stopped the driver, detained him, used the bus, and then sent him on to Colombo with the money intact.    Jayaweera was full of praise for their honesty.

Neville Jayaweera felt sorry for the dead JVP. They were misguided but they had caught a vision. The loss of their lives was no less tragic, their deeds no less heroic. For their dead no bugles, no volley in salute, only the indignity of tyres.  JVP leader attacking Vavuniya police station took over three hours to die, it was heartrending said Jayaweera.  I was left with a pang of conscience at the wanton killings of their cadres carried out by the security forces, said Jayaweera. (Continued)

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