The following article was written in August 1971 and was published in December 1971 In WORLDMISSION Volume 22, No 4 (Winter 1971-72) New York. Youth in Rebellion by Charles Fernando (1) University students took up brushes and red paint to rename their residence halls "Leon Trotsky Hall", "Maxim Gorky Hall”, “Lenin Hall" etc. Defeated candidates and their supporters were molested, while others ransacked the offices of a major newspaper they thought was capitalist. The new Prime Minister had to appeal for calm. They were not rebelling - not yet! The enthusiasm of some may have exceeded bounds, but in May 1970 they were only celebrating the land-slide victory of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. They had cause for joy. As is quite usual for this country that has enjoyed universal franchise since 1931, 85 percent of the voters had turned out, and their voice was clear. The UNP (National Party), which had ousted Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1965 suffered a shocking defeat, falling from 72 seats to a mere 17. Mrs Bandaranaike’s SLFP (Freedom Party) scored 90 seats. Her coalition partners, the LSSP .(Trotskyite Party) won 19, and the CP (Moscow Wing Communist Party), 6. The new United Front promised "a grand social revolution." From a government with an overriding majority of 115 amidst 151 elected representatives, and a cabinet grouping many more convicted Marxists than any other in the "free" world, one hoped for just that. The victory and the enthusiasm created could not but remind one of the occasion when the Prime Minister's husband, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, rode into power in 1956. At the time of a Buddhist-nationalist revival, he had mobilized the frustrations and aspirations of the rural masses; three years later he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. And now in 1970, the problems were more economic, but the forces were similar. And the difference - they were younger ... not really the peasants, but their sons and daughters, a few of them teachers or Buddhist monks. At the very start they bad warned Mrs. Bandaranaike: "We shall support you, but if you fail us ... then ... that shall be the end." But little did she expect that these same forces that brought her to the reins of power were really and truly going to rebel in less than a year, plunging this calm and beautiful land into bloody civil war. India and Pakistan rushed helicopters and pilots. While Indian frigates lay at anchor off shore, Indian soldiers took over Colombo International Airport to free the Ceylonese for combat. Spare parts for Bell Ranger helicopters used by the Ceylon Air Force were rushed from the United States. The British acted as middle men in the purchase of six more helicopters from the United States at "nominal rates." Armoured cars and ammunition were airlifted from a British base in Singapore. Russia stepped in with material, and especially six MIG-17 fighters, service personnel and instructors. More artillery and ammunition came from Yugoslavia and Egypt. In a strange way a "progressive, leftist" government had to call upon the armed forces to repress a rebellion of leftist youth. It was coming The 100-day post-election grace period was ending, but the new government showed itself more cautious than ever about reforms advocated during the campaign. They asked for peace and quiet to think out solutions. But the youth, especially had hoped for action. Slogans began to appear on the walls: "Revolution!" "Damn the whole lot, and we will begin anew." In a country with a fairly well-developed political conscience, where even the 18-year olds vote, where the first organized strike dates back to 1890, and where militant revolutionary trends have built up a tradition of working in a parliamentary democracy, everyone enjoyed a sense of freedom, whether of organization or of discussion. Toward the end of 1970, a strengthened police force did break up some "clandestine" meetings of youth, detaining some for questioning - but in fact the political leaders did not take these rumblings too seriously. But by February 1971, the government sensed that things had gone too far and new laws were being prepared to meet the threat of insurgent movements and of violent insurrection. Those guilty faced the death penalty. On March 6, some leftist groups attacked the American Embassy in Colombo, causing material damage and stabbing to death a Police Inspector. About the same time handbombs exploded in a building of the main university and in a village killing five young people who were making them. Police searches led to the discovery of arms caches in university buildings, while intelligence reports indicated approaching violence. A state of emergency was declared and the armed forces called out to maintain law and order. "The government shall not be intimidated," announced the Prime Minister. Appealing to values of religion and democracy, Mrs. Bandaranaike said the country was "the depository of the doctrine of the Buddha," having a culture and a way of life moulded by "the doctrines of kindness, compassion and humanity," and was a place where adherents of various religions "lived together in peace and brotherhood." She spoke of Ceylon's distinction in recent history of the region in "changing governments regularly by democratic processes". On April 2, the Prime Minister was ready to leave an opening by shifting the blame to "reactionary forces behind the campaign who feared that the coming changes would affect them adversely, and curb the undue privileges they had so far enjoyed." The government could not effect the reforms as quickly as they had planned, she said, because they had inherited only empty coffers from the previous regime. Soon Mrs. Bandaranaike pinpointed the major group behind the crisis as being the JVP (People's Liberation Front) "though there were other splinter groups with similar ideas and anarchist objectives". She said they were "misguided youth, instigated by reactionary forces, backed by big money and diabolical minds." It was a terrorist movement, she said, "hatched and nurtured in the secrecy of the jungles - the work of power-hungry, blood-thirsty and treacherous schemers" preparing for guerilla type of warfare and violent attack on public institutions. As things were, no tactic was capable of winning them over. They struck on the night of April 5, destroying police stations and taking over some, thus beginning the bloodiest war of Ceylon's recent history. It was only two months later in June that relative calm had been restored. Schools reopened, but the universities remained closed a month longer. The curfew was relaxed, permitting people to move about, but it still continued from 10 P.M. to 4 A.M. And the Air Force was dropping 200,000 leaflets over the forests asking the rebels who went into hiding to surrender immediately or face destruction. What is this JVP? Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front) is the name by which the rebels call themselves. They have also often been called the Guevarists, a nickname used by journalists, when the movement first began to show signs of its existence. The real leaders are unknown to the public. The apparent leader is a 27-year old young man named Rohana Wijeweera. He and some others were actually in prison when fighting broke out. Wijeweera comes from a middle class family, and his father was a founding member of the Ceylon Communist Party. Rohana Wijeweera was at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow for four years studying medicine. There he developed contact with Chinese elements and became pro-Peking and anti-revisionist. In Ceylon for a brief vacation in 1964, he found his return visa to Moscow cancelled. He then worked with the Peking-wing of the Ceylon Communist Party, but unsatisfied, left that in 1966, taking with him a small splinter group. In contact with other such youth groups in urban areas and at the University, they began work in the rural milieu. Beginning more as anti-UNP (the party then in power), they quietly gathered sympathizers. In five years an extremely well-developed cell system was established. Secrecy was guarded. One member and only one member of one cell was in contact with a member in another cell. Masked lecturers, sometimes even hiding themselves behind a curtain, conducted training sessions on Ceylon's history, on the analysis of social, economic and political problems, and on the theory and practice of armed warfare. In August 1970, a meeting was held in Colombo, at which the rebels introduced themselves and all they stood for. Toward the end of the year they announced themselves internationally. They had for some time been showing signs of a well-organized communications system - the same handwritten poster could appear in public places across the island in the course of one single night. The movement did certainly exist for a few years. But the electoral campaign of May 1970 and the period following gave it a certain specificity. Were foreign powers involved? Accusations about "imperialist" involvement were soon forgotten. Others began to point a finger at the Chinese. The only concrete step was the expulsion of the whole embassy staff of North Korea. No details were available. They had however been apparently extravagant - running full-page advertisements for months on end in the major newspapers on the revolutionary thoughts of Kim Il Sung, and his actions too, not forgetting how he made hand-bombs. Paradoxically, symbolizing its desire to go left, it was the present government which, soon after coming to power last year, granted Embassy status to North Korea, together with North Vietnam, the Provisional Government of South Vietnam and East Germany. It was at the same moment that diplomatic relations with Israel were broken off, and the US-sponsored Peace Corps and Asia Foundation were asked to terminate quietly their activities in Ceylon. As the North Koreans were about to leave aboard a Russian Aeroflot jet, the Chinese Ambassador appeared at the airport to say a final good-bye. The Chinese were rather indifferent to the whole crisis, but made good a little while back by offering a major interest-free loan. The arms used by the rebels were either handmade ones, or those stolen from police stations. No foreign arms were discovered. Characteristics of the JVP They are rural and traditional Sinhalese. The major trouble spots were in the area stretching from the north central down south slightly westwards. There was less trouble on the west coastal belt north and south of Colombo which is less traditional. They are young. Calling up volunteer reserves for the armed forces, the government asked for those over 35 years of age, and that with reason. The rebels were 80 percent or more from the age group under 25, which forms 60 percent of the population. In addition to the unemployed youth, there were among the rebels many college-age students as well as young teachers. Young girls were active members. They are alive to certain problems, You could meet a young boy or girl at a bus stop or in the waiting room of a government office, and the person would begin speaking about these problems to you, a complete stranger. They see a bleak future ahead and are frustrated. They are unemployed, or at least they know that will be their lot when studies are complete. They see the situation worsen. They are self-confident, ready to discuss, or at least to speak out. They can quote Marxist thinkers with ease. Some of them might even reject all religion as superstitious, while others may still be "religious." They are nationalist. Independence was achieved in 1948, but they show the country as being still unable to guide her own destiny. They want to break away from the past - and according to them today is still the past. They no longer want to be "colonial" in spirit or in their way of life. They condemn aid from the World Bank, capitalism, miniskirts, looseness of morals and the Westernized Ceylonese all en bloc. But they would still use a French scooter to rush to a meeting, or a Japanese tape-recorder when need arises. They do however show a certain ascesis and discipline, neither drinking nor smoking, and saving money for the movement. They may be confused, and quite ambivalent, yet probably they are searching for a real Ceylonese identity. Their ideology is vague. They were at one stage accused of being CIA agents. Though also called Che Guevarists, they may have more of Mao than of Guevara, with elements also from Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, Castro or Debre. They seem to have some contact with similar movements in the Middle East, Latin America, North America and Europe. They condemn the "Western imperialists", Russia, Yugoslavia and the "bourgeois non-aligned nations of the Third World". They claim however to be non-aligned and fully local. And it is clear that they are revolutionaries who broke away from the established Left - from the Trotskyite LSSP founded in 1935, and from the Communist Party founded a few years later and now existing in two sections: pro-Moscow and pro-Peking. The new revolutionaries blame the old Left for being too sectarian, foreign-oriented and linked to bourgeois ranks, only to be accused in return of "middle class adventurism" or of "not being part of scientific socialism but potentially fascist and terrorist." But that ideology is dynamic. They seem to derive their power not so much from their plans, still so vague, be it for popular power or for restructuring the economy. The movement rather thrives on the frustrations and idealism of the youth. They see that neither the Right nor the Left has offered a solution. In fact they think these only aggravate the situation. For them, the only way is to put down everything and begin anew. They are not quite sure how, but all that provides enough motivational power. Members have confidence in their leaders, and some leaders are middle class youth with their romanticism and utopias - which might well be the realities of tomorrow. They are a new agent of change. This is not a peasant revolt. The peasants may aid the rebels materially - after all, these are their sons and daughters. They might even sympathize, but generally things end there. The JVP has been attempting links with the stateless Indian workers on the tea plantations, but that is only a start. The rebels have little in common with urban workers, who are well organized into the trade unions of the old Left. But they do have sympathizers among these, and in the administration too. As a group, the rebels are thus clearly youth ... students, landless young rural workers, or workless rurals ... in rebellion; people who benefited from a system of free education now rejecting the system that could not absorb them; a more nationalistic element demanding a still greater role than in the past; breakaways from an established Left, they are a new Left; young boys and girls ready to shed their blood after years of drag, when problems worsened and elders remained slow. Landless, workless, future-less, we see them emerging as new agents of change. Why this insurrection? Unemployment is the major problem, with a population that has doubled to 13 million since Independence, and continuing to grow at 2.5 percent a year. Usually a moderate figure around 600,000 is given as unemployed, but it can easily be estimated at 800,000 including those who are really so for all practical purposes. This is out of an active population of a little over 4 million. What makes the situation really tragic is that the unemployed are mostly youth between 16 and 25 years of age, and over 14,000 are university graduates (while the universities produce only 4,000 graduates per year). This is a young generation that expected a better life, and till recently Ceylon was relatively prosperous by Asian standards. Now they must accept economic backwardness as a fact. World trade has had terrible repercussions on Ceylon's export economy. Three agricultural products provide 90 percent of her foreign exchange (tea 63 percent; rubber 17 percent; coconut 10 percent). But there has been a steady decline in export earnings. Tea, which brought in 1,210 million rupees in 1965 got only 876 million in 1969, and the downward trend continues. Thus exporting agricultural products at drooping prices, Ceylon must pay more for her imports with rising world inflation every year. Strangely, even in 1970, 46 percent of her imports was food, much of which can be produced in fertile Ceylon. Such anomalies must end, and the neo-classical theory that free international trade is invariably an agent of economic growth will have to be reconsidered. There are other problems which may be termed more internal. Ceylon is actually a providential State. Yet citizens deprecate their own institutions, not conscious of their privileges. Education is free from the cradle until after the university. So are health facilities to all citizens. Food is subsidized, and part of the weekly ration of rice is given free. The State bears part of the costs, and makes an excellent network of public transportation available extremely cheap. Education and health facilities are no doubt tremendously meaningful as social investments, for over 85 percent of the people are able to read, and write, and life expectancy has jumped from 30 years around the 1920's to about 65 now. But in other sectors, the growing role of the State in social welfare can and does conflict with objectives of increasing productivity, turning the citizens into a mass of dependents. That is not socialism, but in a land where no one dies of hunger as nature has been so bountiful, that would mean turning the State into a new God from whom one expects everything. With free education since 1942, Ceylon enjoys one of the highest rates of literacy in Asia. The use of the vernacular as medium of instruction made the universities accessible even to those from the remotest villages. But often the rural youth went to the arts faculties (history, geography, philosophy, literature, etc). Education was free, but for many, their parents made tremendous sacrifices and often borrowed money to pay the living expenses. Yet at the end of it all they found their sons and daughters dreaming only of white-collar jobs. Employable skills were few. And they did not like to go back to the fields. In not building up an appreciation of manual work, the system was, as someone said, "producing unemployables." Misadventure in the political field is a fact. Each new government is determined to show the predecessors wrong, and at times malicious. Agreement on national priorities is hard to achieve. The growing public sector was hardly productive, except often as a place for political appointees. Private investment was scarce with fears of nationalization. Corruption cannot be forgotten either. Employment was scarce, thus a struggle for survival. In both public and private sectors, money, social status, political leaning, family connections and bribes could throw open a career. Even for those already employed, manipulation and exploitation were not rare phenomena. There were other forms of corruption too, especially in the field of foreign exchange the country sorely needed. Some attempted to transfer their assets abroad through the black market, while society ladies flew to nearby capitals abroad to buy expensive dress materials or luxury goods to be smuggled into Ceylon. A greater part of Ceylon's precious gems were actually being sold abroad illegally - the country losing more foreign exchange than it could ever hope to gain. The more immediate cause was disillusionment. The youth had hoped for a quick conversion to socialism and radical measures. A new Constitution had been promised for Ceylon, or Sri Lanka (the Holy Resplendent) as it shall now be called, to become "a free, sovereign, independent socialist republic." The Constituent Assembly did make progress toward this, but the needs of the people were more immediate and down-to-earth. The citizens were to participate in a reformed public administration through People's Committees. But as plans were drawn up, it seemed that out of 12 members in. each committee, 11 were to be nominated by the Minister for Local Government; only three had to be from the 18-25 age group. During the campaign, major reforms that were to touch the plantations (especially tea), industry and connected management agencies had been mentioned. Nationalization of the banking system was advocated too. But once in power, the government had to compromise with harsh realities - we were dependent on foreign markets, and 96 percent of our tea production was for export. Too radical a measure could be disastrous. Foreign debt was at a critically high level, making the government more cautious about a takeover of foreign assets. The weekly ration of subsidized rice had been halved by the former government. While not being a direct cause, that action did favour a period of rapid growth in rice production so that imports were reduced. Then came the electoral campaign and the present coalition promised the restoration of the full ration of subsidized rice. This was implemented, but two months later the Minister for Food was making an appeal: "If you think of the future of your children and of the country, do not take advantage of this offer." The previous government had been criticized for corruption and lack of austerity. They were falling into the hands of Western powers, and of the World Bank, it was told. Soon the present group was found to be compromising on the same issue. But above all, in a period of uncertainty, the cost of living was spiralling and the vast spectacle of unemployment seemed only to worsen. The Finance Minister introduced an austerity budget which was a step forward, but as someone said, "It was an aspirin for cancer." Promises were one thing and realities another. The youth lost all hope. It became worse still - they did not blame the persons in power, but they began to question the very system, calling it a "half-digested form of imported parliamentary democracy." Radicalism was no longer only urban. Their ideology was also perhaps undigested, but it was drawing the youth together. When, toward the end of last year I was interviewing rural youth around 18 years of age, they were not afraid to speak out: "Ceylon's political system must be destroyed ...". "We must move toward socialism through a revolution ...". "Down with imperialists and capitalists ... down with pomp and fashions …forward the oppressed masses ..." "We need a revolution ... people will do it one day." "The capitalist parliamentary framework must be shattered ..." "Let us get into the battlefield for liberating the masses …” And now? The cost of the rebellion has been high. This year's budget deficit would have been around 200 million dollars. It shall now be much more with repair of damage to communications and public property, with increased spending on the armed forces and on defense; with new spending on prisons and rehabilitation camps; with overall losses in industry and in tourism. But more central still is the human cost. The number killed stands around 3,000. Over 12,000 arrested youth are in prisons or rehabilitation camps, where attempts are being made to "win them over to a democratic way of life." But will they turn more bitter still? And what of others who have suffered in a hundred other ways, sometimes being subjected to excesses of the armed forces? But things seem to be moving now. Reforms of the education system to make it more job-oriented are being introduced. Work is said to go ahead on a crash program for employment. The “poya” (lunar) weekend has been abandoned, coming back to the international Sunday weekend, tradition giving way to common sense. (The loss of four days in international trade was a luxury Ceylon could ill afford.) A major committee has begun an inquiry into the structure, organization and operation of the plantations and management agencies which play an all too important role in the country's economy. It is a time for action, for problems had been left unsolved too long. A period of austerity and simplicity for all is a must, cutting down drastically on consumption. A higher rate of local saving and investment must be favoured. Food production must increase for the quickest foreign exchange saving is here. In the matter of exports, the priorities for the three major export crops are not sufficiently clear. Diversification and the introduction of new foreign exchange earners in the form of tourism, new products, and traditional handicrafts is imperative. So is an attempt to draw all benefits from the sale of Ceylon gems. Other forms of corruption must be wiped out. With 55 percent of the government outlays on social services, we cannot forget a serious review of social welfare and public services to make them more realistic. Let us admit it-the rebels were partly misguided. They do not offer concrete solutions to everything. Instant solutions are non-existent. And the government has tried to be loyal to the ideal of democracy, for in a police state such opposition and rebellion would have been unthinkable. But that does not absolve us. Youthful blood was shed in a sincere search for solutions. Till now people had spoken of problems, but now we felt them in a violent fashion with the shock of a rebellion. We may be in debt and in a foreign exchange crisis, but that is no excuse for inactivity. There are millions ready to sweat that this land may flourish again. What we need desperately is an ideology that can drive us, that makes us take risks at the expense of privilege, that mobilizes all. And who shall provide that? (1) Charles Fernando is currently working on his dissertation for his Licentiate in Sociology at l’Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Earlier he was Assistant Secretary to the Ceylon National Synod.
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