‘Ginnen Upan Seethala’: Rohana Wijeweera’s belated funeral


by C.A.Chandraprema

‘Ginnen Upan Seethala’ which has been translated into English as‘The frozen fire’ is a film based on the life of RohanaWijeweera, the founder of the JanathaVimukthi Peramuna, which is now being screened in cinemas across the island. The release of this film was accompanied by a lot of hype. It was said that this film had been one of the two Sri Lankan films selected to vie for awards at the 91st Oscars. The other film so selected was "According to Mathew" directed by Chandran Ratnam. Then the main actor in Ginnen upan seethala, Kamal Addaraarachchi who played the role of Wijeweera, stated that when he was on a set dressed up as Wijeweera someone had hugged him and wept because he had been reminded of Wijeweera.

Then Rohana Wijeweera’s son Uvindu Wijeweera, now a man in his early 30s, told the press after watching the film that it has accurately captured the actual events that took place and especially the details relating to Wijeweer’s family life. Uvindu himself had been a toddler when the second JVP insurrection was crushed and he has no direct experience of the events that took place during those years. Before we say anything about the film itself, it must be acknowledged that producing a film about a recent historical figure is far more difficult than creating a fictitious character or depicting a figure of centuries past because there would be no one who has any personal recollection of the actual figure so depicted.

Therefore, no one would be able to make comparisons between the actual historic figure and the character as depicted by the actor. In the case of RohanaWijweera however, there are still many people who remember the actual person. In that respect, the only thing Kamal Addaraarachchi got right was the physical resemblance. One can hardly blame the actor for that. Addaraarachchi was not known to be involved in any kind of politics let alone revolutionary politics. Long after Wijweera was dead and gone, Addararachchi was playing the role of a lover in teledramas and dancing around flower beds. To expect that kind of actor to play the role of a revolutionary leader is to expect too much. If Joe Abeywickrema had been alibve he may have been able to put on a more convincing act. Joe was known for his versatility.

In depicting a political leader, one of the most difficult things would be to accurately portray his manner of addressing public meetings. Wijeweera was a fiery speaker whose words rolled out effortnessly. It would have been quite easy to depict the manner in which the Tamil leader S.J.V.Chelvanayagam, stricken with Parkinson’s disease, spoke at the latter stages because he used to whisper what needed to be said to A.Amirthalingam and the latter would say it out aloud to the crowd. However the manner of speaking of a character like Wijeweera would be as difficult as trying to depict the manner of speaking of Adolf Hitler. Is there any actor however skilled who can imitate Hitler’s manner of public speaking?

Unconvincing presentation

In such circumstances, one would think that in depicting the character of Wijeweera, the instances he appeared addressing public meetings would be minimized and if such a scene was inevitable then some cinematic tricks could be used to get a dubbing artist to voice over the speech in as authentic a manner as possible. However, in this film, instead of trying to minimize scenes where public meetings are addressed by Wijeweera, there are several such scenes and Addararchchi’s unsuccessful attemps to imitate Wijeweera’s manner of speaking added to the general amateurish feel of the film. The director of this film is Anuruddha Jayasinghe. This writer knows next to nothing about cinema but has at least heard of directors like Chandran Ratnam whereas we had never heard of Anuruddha Jayasinghe.

We have not heard of the screen writer Ariyawansa Dammage either. It is clear that the main actor, the director and screen writer are all completely new to revolutionary politics and none of them really had it in them to be be able to accurately portray a character like Wijeweera. The film starts at the point where the insurgents of 1971 are released from prison after the UNP government came into power in 1977 and it ends at the point where Wijeweera is captured on November 13, 1989. Thus it covered the period of the JVP’s democratic phase from 1977 to 1983 and its underground reorganization from 1983 to 1986 and the period of its second insurrection from 1987 to 1989. As Wijeweera’s son Uvindu said, the film has tried to portray accurately certain things such as Wijeweera’s family life.

As the film depicts, it was Chandra Fernando, the elder brother of Wijweera’s wife who made her marry Wijeweera. There is a reference to the decision of the JVP to arm themselves, the terror attacks carried out, the decision to force armed forces personnel to leave the services en masse. But these have ben revealed only in a way that would be understood by those who lived through that era. We must bear in mind that it is now 30 years since Wijeweera was killed and the JVP’s second insurrection ended. Anyone who remembers anything from that era would be 50 and above by now. People of that generation will understand the quick references made, but their true import will be lost on anyone below the age of 45.

For the under 30s seeing this film, the message will be: never become a revolutionary. All that you achive by becoming a revolutionary is to get the daylights beaten out of you and then bumped off for your efforts. The actual Rohana Wijeweera never had a funeral even though we know that he was killed. The government of the day issued an official statement saying that Wijeweera had been shot while tryiung to escape when he and S.B. Herath had been taken out to search for hidden weapons. This film is Wijeweera’s funeral where he and his memeory will be buried for good. The entire film is a sequence of events from the history of the JVP between 1977 and 1989. Some characters are portrayed by their real names, Lionel Bopage, Nandana Marasinghe, Piyadasa Ranasinghe, Upatissa Gamanayake all appear under their real names.

For some reason, Saman Piyasiri Fernando, the head of the JVP’s dreaded hit squad, the Deshapremi JanathaVyaparaya is not referred to by his real name but as ‘Cabraal’. One would think that this could be due to objections from the families of the persons concerned. Sumith Atukorale one of the JVP’s most senior members who was the first important leader to be killed during the second insurrection also appears under his real name. The film tries to capture real incidents such as the reorganization of the party after coming out of jail, the stone throwing incident where Wijeweera was injured while addressing a meeting in the north in 1979, the banning of the JVP by the UNP government in the wake of the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots are accurate.

In fact, the entire film is a series of dramatized depictions of parts of the JVP’s history. But some parts have been glossed over. After the JVP was banned on trumped up charges in July 1983, they never came out into the open. Why? According to the film this was because Wijeweera thought the objective of the government was to destroy the JVP. How did they end up as an armed terrorist outfit by the end of 1986? That too is not explained. At what point was the decision made to give up democratic politics which they had begun in 1977 after coming out of jail and go back to the pre-1971 philosophy of a clandestine organization and armed insurrection? None of that is explained. Even the research for the script has been done in a very amateurish way. For instance, even at the first meeting that is held after RohanaWijeweera and the others are relased from jail in 1977, you see a lot of white haired old people in the crowd that is shown. The director of the film has clearly confused the JVP’s present with its past.

Poor research and attention to detail

Today, the crowd that attends a JVP meeting would not look very different to a UNP meeting or a SLPP meeting – there would be people of all ages with a generous sprinkling of white haired old folk. However in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the JVP was still a movement of youth. At meetings of the JVP there were veritually no old people to be seen at all. The oldest leaders of the JVP were then in their 40s. This writer remembers one newspaper in the early 1980s reporting that the oldest card carrying member of the JVP at that time was an individual they called ‘bullet seeya’ who was 60 years old. That was an individual who had supported the JVP in 1971 as well. If this film wanted to depict a crowd that had come to hear Wijeweera speak in 1977 immediately after he was released, they should have ensured that crowd that was shown was made up of young people.

After they recommenced political work in 1977, the JVP high command is shown meeting in a saw mill. Then they are shown to be having an office in an old colonial style building. Between 1977 and 1983, the JVP never had an office in such a colonial style building. That would be in the league of the LSSP. Till it was banned in 1983, the JVP’s main office was a small room they had on the second floor of a timber store in Kotahena. That building still stands and it’s still a timber store. Furthermore, there is a scene where Prins Gunasekera and Felix Dias Bandaranaike visit the JVP’s office. Could such a thing have happened? Prins Gunasekera was a friend of the JVP and he may have brokered the contact between Felix Dias Bandaranaike and the JVP when they collaborated in filing an election petition against J.R. Jayewardene following the 1982 presidential election.

But would they have ever met in the JVP’s actual office? Highly unlikely. What is more likely is that Wijeweera would have met Felix Dias Bandaranaike in Prins Gunasekera’s house. One thing this film does is to perpetuate the JVP’s speil of being a party that fell victim to state repression. The line that was always taken by that party after the 1971 insurgency and even the second insurrection in the late 1980s, was that they were peacefully going about their political work when the capitalist government got worried about the progress they were making and suppressed their movement with blood and iron. Even after the bloody terror of the late 1980s, the line that the JVP took was that they had ‘no alternative’ but to take up arms because the government had banned their party and forced it to go underground once again.

It is true that the UNP government banned the JVP on trumped up charges in July 1983 saying that they were responsible for the anti-Tamil riots. But if they wanted to, they could have come out of hiding later but they chose not to. What is missing in this film is the revolutionary aspect of the JVP. They took up arms in 1971 in a bid to wrest power from the elected government. Likewise in the late 1980s they made another much more bloody attempt to achieve the same objective. The JVP was a Marxist organization which believed in revolution and the setting up of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In all countries in the world where the socialist revolution has succeeded it had been achieved through armed uprisings and bloodshed.

In all countries where socialism was achived, whether it was Russia, China, Cuba or Vietnam, there was no way in which a change of government could be brought about except through violence. But here in Sri Lanka governments could be changed through the ballot. When pressure builds up in society there is an election and this pressure is taken out with the people voting a new government in. Since there is a means of registering the people’s protest against the government, in a country like Sri Lanka, it is very difficult if not impossible to convince the people that the government needs to be overthrown by violent means. That was the disadvantage that the JVP suffered from the very beginning. While the older Marxist parties had reconciled themselves to forget about the revolution and to seek reforms instead of revolution as partners of a nationalistic-capitalist political party, the JVP tried to remain true to the revolutionary tradition of Marxism.

That is why they formed a clandestine organization and tried to take over the government by force of arms in 1971. When they were banned in 1983 on trumped up charges, they saw that once again as an opportunity to follow the dream of a revolution and instead of coming out of hiding and taking to democratic politics. Once again they formed a clandestine organization and even started arming from 1984 onwards. With the 1982 presidential election the JVP found out that there is a limit to what they can achieve through democratic politics. At that stage of its history and under the leadership of Wijeweera, the JVP was not willing to permanently be a minor political party in the country. So for them the banning in 1983 provided the window of opportunity they may have been waiting for.

Revolution: the prohibited word

Even though the JVP engaged in open democratic politics and even contested elections after they were released from jail in 1977, they at the same time always maintained a clandestine organization as well. Even though figures like RohanaWijeweera, Upatissa Gamanayake and Lionel Bopage were known to be members of the JVP politburo, there were other members of the politburo whom the public had never heard of such as Sumith Atukorale. It was only after the latter was killed that the JVP publicized the fact that he had been one of their most senior members. So even in their democratic phase from 1977 to 1983, the JVP always had their feet planted on both sides. When they were banned all that happened was that the foot that was out in the open was withdrawn into the shadows.

It is this aspect of a revolutionary organization that sought to capture power through the force of arms that is missing from this film. The reason why the JVP as a political organization downplays this aspect is because it is not respectable to say that you tried to capture power through the force of arms. So the modern JVP when asked about what happened in 1971 and the late 1980s, always couch their reply in terms of reacting to government repression. That is the same idea that this film tries to convey. To a modern day internet using, smart phone wielding youth, the JVP would look like a bunch of losers whose sole purpose in life seems to have been to get clobbered and to die for no reason. There is of course the consideration that even if the JVP were portrayed as revolutionaries who tried to capture state power through the force of arms, they would still look like losers because they failed in both attempts and then gave up the idea of ever capturing state power and have reconciled themselves to a placid existence as a minor political party that wins a few seats in parliament.

Even if a Marxist revolutionary loses in attempting to capture state power through the force of arms, that at least is what he is supposed to do as a Marxist revolutionaery. In 1971, when the JVP’s insurgency took place the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the LSSP were major partners in that government. One of the insurgents who was a schoolboy at the time told this writer that when he was arrested in the immediate aftermath of the failed insurgency, his school principal who was a member of the Communist Party came to see him in police custody and told him "You at least tried to do what we were never able to do." The task of a revolutionary is to capture power and no revolution has ever captured power through the ballot. That is the unvarnished truth about the social revolution.

The reason why the present day JVP is not claiming credit for trying to do what every revolutionary was supposed to do was because of the way they did things especially during the second insurrection. Back in 1971, they could have tried to claim some credit for having launched an armed revolution against the state because they attacked only the organs of the state such as police stations. But in the late 1980s, they killed people indiscriminately. They started by killing off their rivals in the left movement. In other words their guns were first aimed at people who held much the same ideology as they did but belonged to different organisations. They started their campaign of terror by killing Daya Pathirana the leader of the Independent Students Union of the University of Colomboand then followed up by killing many left leaders such as Nanadana Marasinghe and Vijaya Kumaratunga.

It was only after terrorizing the left that they started terrorizing the ruling UNP. Then they started terrorizing the ordinary public as well. The JVP killed thousands in their bid to capture state power with many of those killings being irrelevant to the main aim of capturing power and were meant to simply spread fear among the people. Ordinary folk were killed merely for voting at an election. None of this brutality which proved to be the JVP’s undoing has been highlighted in the film. If it was, the official JVP would have condemned the film and instructed their followers to boycott it. So what we have is not an honest depiction of the JVP and its doings, but a series of vignettes of the JVP’s history ad the familiar speil that they did nothing to deserve the repression that was aimed at them and that they were merely doing political work when the state launched an unjustified repression against them. Instead there are revolutionaries who are unwilling to even say that they the tried to overthrow the capitalist state.

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