THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 1956 Part 12
Posted on April 29th, 2021

KAMALIKA PIERIS

SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959. This was followed by two attempts to remove his successor, Sirimavo.  First, the failed coup of 1962 and second, the JVP insurgency of 1971. The 1971 rebellion was the first armed uprising against the state.

Mano Ratwatte, son of Mackie Ratwatte, Private Secretary to Prime Minister Sirimavo, recalls that in January 1966, at a political rally the   Air Force guard had threatened to open fire on Prime Minister Sirimavo and Dr. Baduiddin Mohammed.

The 1971 JVP insurgency has been described as a romantic, innocent revolution,  an unplanned spontaneous attack. It was nothing of the sort. It was pre-planned and well organized.  Its purpose was to bring down the SLFP government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. JVP was planning a putsch, to remove the government by force. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike would be taken into custody from her Rosmead Place residence, and very likely, killed.

The timing of this April 1971 insurgency is significant. A highly popular government had been elected   a year before in May 1970 and like in May 1956, the SLFP won splendidly. The SLFP coalition won 118 seats as against 17 by the UNP, 13 by the Federal Party and two by the Tamil Congress. The SLFP (UF) manifesto featured extensive nationalization, a pro-Soviet foreign policy, expanded social programmes, and replacement of the Soulbury Constitution with a Republican Constitution that ‘would restore Buddhism to its rightful place.’

This election was not to the liking of the west. Therefore, for the third time, the west tried to    bring the Government down. It had to be done soon, before the government got going. That was why the insurgency took place   so quickly. The public, thinking that this was a home grown insurgency, could not understand why it had taken place at all. The public were surprised.

The JVP had made detailed preparations.  JVP recruits had been taught various ways to survive in the jungle. They had been told what to eat apart from fruits and berries and tender leaves creatures such as lizards and snakes and insects, particularly termites and earthworms. They were advised to chew betel to offset thirst. They were given tetanus injections.    I had my blue uniform made and waited for my tetanus shot, ready to revolt, said former JVPer, Indrawansa de Silva.

JVP had  bases and retreat plans. At Anuradhapura the JVP had established a base camp as well as six sub camps in the surrounding jungle where weapons, explosives and food had been stored. JVP operations in the Rajangana and Tambuttegama areas were controlled from this base camp.  Those who evaded capture in Kegalle area withdrew into jungle sanctuaries in the Kegalle, Elpitiya, Deniyaya and Kataragama areas added Jayantha.  

It was not easy to dislodge the JVP from these retreats. The army had set up a  forward base in Horowupotana in November 1972  and carried  combing out operations from there until April 1973. The Kegalle operation closed only in December 1974.

The JVP was not interested in  improving the country. That is clear. In 1956, Lakshman Rajapaksa, MP for Hambantota and Deputy Minister for Commerce and Trade set up a cotton processing factory at Mirijjawila near Hambantota to encourage cotton cultivators in Hambantota and Monaragala. During this period cotton was a popular crop in Hambantota and Monaragala. Cotton was cultivated under rain-fed conditions. This factory functioned satisfactorily. It was set on fire by the JVP in 1971 and never revived.

The 1971 insurrection was a violent destructive movement. The JVPers were trained to kill. I  arrested many insurgents including Hewabatage Premapala, Narammala Leader Bola Samare’, and Bullet Mahinda” alias Mahinda Jayawardana .They were all armed with pistols and other weapons, recalled Nihal de Alwis .

 We believed in violence from the outset said former JVPer, Indrawansa de Silva. Our writings, classes, publications, posters and public speeches were very open about our belief in violence. We didn’t shy away from saying how brutal we could be. Jayantha Somasunderam, another former JVPer said that JVP it was recruiting combatants into a clandestine military organization. Its communism was only a front. Around 9,000, had military training. JVP had also recruited very young lads of 14 and 12 as helpers.

One immediate task of the JVP was to take Sirimavo prisoner. One Piyatilake was responsible for operations in Colombo, said Jayantha Somasunderam.  Piyatilake had     detailed Raja Nimal an Advanced Level student to storm the Rosmead Place residence of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike on the night of the 5th along with 50 student cadres, to capture the Prime Minister and transport her to a place where she would be held. However the expected vehicle and Piyatilake failed to arrive at the prearranged rendezvous in Borella and the attack did not take place. Sirimavo, in the meanwhile had been moved to Temple Trees.

My parents home had been marked for attack, recalled Mano Ratwatte, son of Mackie Ratwatte. The markings were faint, a crude X” made with red brick. This was repeated at the homes of some other relatives of the Prime Minister, as well. We were oblivious, never noticing the ominous markings. I have no doubt if the JVP had succeeded they would have executed Mrs. Bandaranaike  and several of her family as well, said Mano.

The JVP endeavored to recruit sympathizers in the armed forces, with Wijeweera establishing contact, as early as 1965, with Tilekaratne, a rating in the Royal Ceylon Navy. Later Uyangoda held classes for naval personnel, made contact with Air Force personnel in Wanathamulla and Katunayake, and delivered lectures to them. They also provided classes for soldiers stationed at Diyatalawa.

 There is similarity between the JVP insurgency and the 1962 coup. The 1962 coup saw the Panagoda cantonment  as  the enemy. So did the JVP. At the Urubokka Conference,  it was observed that rockets would be effective against the Army’s Panagoda Cantonment, at Homagama, said Jayantha. The army cantonment at Panagoda would be attacked.  Navy personnel at Ragama and air force personnel at Katunayake were to be immobilized by introducing a purgative to their food. 

Prior to April 5, there was information down south that police stations were to be attacked at night. This was openly conveyed via threatening postcards. The Army camp at Embilipitiya and the Ridiyagama Army agricultural camp being dismantled, too, had received such postcards and the latter requested protection the very first day I arrived at Weerawila.

The Special Branch of the police had filed reports, before the 1970 general election,  showing in minute detail plans by  the JVP for a Blitzkrieg operation to take over the government. The government of Mrs. Bandaranaike did not take the intelligence reports seriously, said  former police officer, Tassie Seneviratne.

When it became clear that the attack would be at night a wireless message was sent to Temple Trees requesting for flares to assist in night fighting operations, recalled Captain Musafer,  who had been assigned to Wellawaya and Weerawila. There was no response.  An officer later conveyed to me that I was the subject of ridicule by some, who said that I had got the jitters. He said it was no laughing matter when news of the Wellawaya attack at night was received.

If not for the premature attack in Wellawaya which alerted the police and military, the situation would have been very grave. The JVP would have been able to arm itself with modern weapons taken from the police stations  they captured.” said  Jayantha Somasunderam. The security forces would have been far less prepared and the rebellion may well have succeeded.

JVP came perilously close to overthrowing the lackadaisical government, but by the end of April were completely suppressed by military means.  It seemed ‘touch and go’ for a while, but my father said that the Prime Minister never panicked, recalled Mano.

The Sri Lanka armed forces were not equipped to fight such an insurgency.  The tiny Armored Corps, equipped with a few Daimler armored cars, (the largest of which had a 2-pounder gun) was used to secure Kegalle and Mawanella, A few vintage Ferret Scout cars armed with WW2 era Bren guns, were deployed at Temple Trees. Later one of the Saladin six-wheeled armored cars, with a bigger 76mm gun was also deployed facing Galle Road, recalled Mano Ratwatte then  11 years old. In 1966 the navy was mostly armed with obsolete WW1 vintage Lee Enfield Rifles, or the small Sterling ‘Sten’ submachine guns, he added.

The government was able to  crush the insurgency because of the  military aid provided by  foreign countries. China, Australia, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, Britain,  India gave helicopters, arms, ammunition, grenades. Russia gave jet fighters, helicopters and a MIG fighter. The Soviet aircraft were accompanied by 200 trainers and ground crew. USA sent spare parts for the helicopters.  These donations all differed from each other and this caused problems  when the military tried to use them.

The western press rushed to Sri Lanka when the insurgency started. They  presented the JVP as heroes and the state as the offender. The international media reported that summary executions had taken place.  The Police who had killed them let them float downstream to terrorize the population.” The New York Times in its 15th April edition said that many were found to have been shot in the back.”

Officer was quoted alongside him in the International Herald Tribune of 20th April as saying Once we are convinced prisoners are insurgents we take them to a cemetery and dispose of them.” And the Washington Post on 9th May quoted a major who said that we have never had the opportunity to fight a real war in this country. All these years we have been firing at dummies, now we are being put to use.”

Edward Gunawardena who was in charge in Kurunegala  had nine captured insurgent brought t him. All those under arrest were boys in their teens dressed in blue shorts and shirts. They had all been badly beaten up. On questioning they confessed that they were retreating from the Warakapola area and their destination was the Ritigala jungles in Anuradhapura. They had  received these instructions from their high command. At this time, as if from nowhere appeared two young foreign journalists, a man and a woman. One was from the Washington Post and the other, the young woman from the Christian Science Monitor. Apart from taking photographs they had asked various questions .Christian Science Monitory is not a religious paper,  it is a highly respected American  weekly.

It is now held that Wijeweera had been recruited by the USA when he was studying in Russia. The link with China was a cover. When the authorities searched Wijeweera’s home they found copies of a magazine titled Red China” Red China is the term used by USA for communist China. There is a doubt whether such a magazine ever existed, if so it was an obscure one. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_Deletion/Red_China_Magazine

No one today believes that the JVP was  a home grown movement. Early in the 1971 JVP insurgency,   it was rumored that  JVP was receiving covert aid from a foreign source. Godahewa  stated firmly that JVP had received funds in 1971.  

What would Sri Lanka have been if the JVP had captured power in 1971? I am not sure about the JVP establishing a proletariat dictatorship, but I am quite sure about Wijeweera establishing a dictatorship. And because of that, like many of my fellow revolutionaries, I am glad that we did not succeed in 1971, said Indrawansa de Silva.

Had we succeeded it is more than likely that Sri Lanka would have ended up worse than Cambodia under Pol Pot. I am not being just speculative here. The JVP has shown time after time its violent and authoritarian tendencies whenever and wherever it got even a small taste of power. Just take some early signs. If someone with an opposing view tried to sell a newspaper or distribute a pamphlet at our rallies they were promptly beaten up and kicked out. We did not hesitate to use power of the fist when met with opposition even within the organisation. Honest and sincere questioning of ideas and theories we espoused in our classes and camps was seen as a threat to the movement and branded as reactionary, counter-revolutionary, or petit bourgeois tendencies concluded Indrawansa.  ( Continued)

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