How the JVP ruined rural Sri Lanka


JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera addresses a rally

By Garvin Karunaratne,
former G.A. Matara District

Touring Northern California and Oregan now and  touring from Baltimore to Key West in Florida,  through Louisiana via Texas and Arizona to San Diego last Summer, I am passing through villages one after the other—each vibrant with life. There are Malls that have closed down due to the recession, but through it all, village life, centering on the village parish priest and the church appears dominant. The homes of the rich- the traders, farmers and public officials are well painted, the gardens spic and span, a delight to behold and well attended.

It all reminds me of the pre 1971 Sri Lanka, when I did travel daily in the Sabaragamuwa Province and later in the Southern Province based in Hambantota and Ambalantota.  I am also at home in the rural areas of Kegalle, where I worked for three years and in Matara for another three years. Then I saw a vibrant village life centered on the temple in the village, where the rich—the land owners, estate owners, superintendents, rice millers, traders, all moved well with the masses. The rich ran the ‘chekkus’ for extracting coconut oil, engaged in dairy farming and agricultural pursuits.  It was the rich that invested and brought about employment. In Nuwarakalaviya a tank was added to this picture and this was my home for long, from where I drew inspiration for my novel: The Vidane’s Daughter (Sarasavi). It has so happened that during my 18-year-long stint I traveled far and wide in Sri Lanka and I am familiar with all aspects of rustic life.

1971 was a watershed in the development as well as the life of the villages in Sri Lanka. It was on the 4th and 5th of April 1971 that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) tried to grab State power in Sri Lanka. Many have forgotten what happened. I happened to be the Government Agent of the Matara District. If not for a breakdown in the JVP communication which led to the cadres at Moneragala and Wellawaya being ordered to attack the police stations on April 4 night, most of us would not have been alive today. The attacks on those two police stations, killing several policemen were announced by Radio Ceylon at 7 am on April 5. I was having breakfast. I rushed to stop all the jeeps and key officers leaving Matara for work. They were all deployed on surveillance tasks. Radio Ceylon gave us a warning to be prepared. On the night of April 5 most police stations were attacked. It was a Fidel Castro type of attempt to attack all police stations on a particular day and take over power.  In the Matara District all police stations other than Dondra and Matara were attacked and several policemen were killed. The Superintendent of Police closed down the police stations at Akuressa, Hakmana, Kamburupitiya and Mawarala and the personnel were brought down to Matara. At Matara a lorry-load of bombs entered the fort and was challenged by an army jeep. It was a Kachcheri jeep and my driver was injured. The JVP cadres flung bombs, shot their way through and bombs were bursting the whole night through. The moment we found the lorry of bombs we clamped a curfew and everyone chased away from all roads by the army and no JVP cadres could group. Later we found evidence of two other lorries coming with bombs. The cadres could not group and the lorries could not reach the cadres and Matara was saved from a bloodbath.

At Deniyaya the police station that was opened on April 1 with great pomp and pageantry, was repeatedly attacked and the police retreated all the way to Rakwana and Embilipitiya via Hayes as the roads to Matara had been taken over by the JVP. We were holding on to the stretch of the coast from Weligama to Dondra. Akuressa was under the control of the insurgents and the first expedition of the army cum police with some 14 jeeps led by Major Wettasinghe was ambushed  about ten miles from Matara and the JVP fire power was so strong that the army had to retreat leaving behind two jeeps in flames. Major Wettasinghe and Sumanapala Dahanayake the Member of Parliament who too had joined that force were severely injured and hospitalized.

It all meant that the Government had lost control of most of the District for around three weeks during which period the JVP ran their kangaroo courts arresting, charging people and punishing them even with death. Deniyaya was ruled by the JVP for around three to four weeks. In Deniyaya many well to do people were guillotined. This included Dr. Rex de Costa, a medical practitioner, who was a leading philanthropist of the area.  It was a cruel death for a doctor that charged no money from the poor for medicines he provided. In fact, it was his murder that made the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike dispatch a platoon of soldiers to the Matara District. Till then the Army was managing to hold the coast with shotguns issued by me.  Out of around two hundred officers in the Kachcheri only a dozen reported for work and of them all that could handle a weapon were issued with guns and cartridges by me. That was my guard as the police had fortified themselves in their station.  Except for one Headquarters Inspector no one from the police dared to get out of the Police station. That was the time when my official car was shot at.

Colombo was saved because the police found weapons of insurgents the previous day and two young Assistant Superintendents dared take the initiative to clamp a curfew. The JVP cadres could not reach their weapons in the process. This was also the scene in many other districts in Sri Lanka. In Vavunia the Government Agent took charge of the police station. Areas that were totally out of control were Elpitiya, where an Inspector of Police was killed and most areas were under the JVP rule till the army restored order. A friend of mine who was compelled to travel from Mawanella to Tulhiriya passing Kegalle after the army had gone in had counted over a hundred dead bodies scattered on the main roads.

The JVP insurrection of 1971 killed the economy of the rural areas. I was inundated with requests for an allocation of a tankful of petrol from many well to do people from the rural areas to get their moveable possessions away to the towns. I had commandeered the stocks of petrol and rationed it.

The JVP insurrection of 1986 to 1987 too took a toll of the rural areas. We had a small family estate at Mawaramandiya, near Kadawatha and the community leader of the area was one Wijesinghe. He was the President of the cooperative society and was helpful to anyone that wanted anything done. He happened to be close to the leaders of the United National Party but he helped everyone irrespective of political party affiliations. I too visited his home when anyone known to me in the area had to face a problem with the government. He was hacked to pieces one night. The JVP had held him guilty of attending the funeral of a victim of its violence. Wijesinghe had arranged for a proper funeral to take place. The JVP order was that no funeral be held and the body be carried below the knee level and buried incognito. That was the time when the JVP delivered messages, which tied to stones and thrown into gardens of the intended recipients. These had to be obeyed otherwise the JVP punishment was very severe and all this happened within ten miles of the capital Colombo. Wijesinghe’s murder sent creeps through everyone in the area. His brothers too left the village and his death left a power vacuum never to be filled ever again.

This was typical of entire Sri Lanka and the well to do people- the rich, the estate owners, the rice millers and lorry owners and traders all left the rural areas for the cities.  In my subsequent visits to Matara I met many a rice miller and many a merchant who were the live wire in their rural habitat in Kamburupitiya, Hakmana etc. They had got rid of their rural possessions and migrated to the Matara town. Many people who had been living happily on their estates left for good. Some have never stepped into their estates since the JVP uprising of 1987-1989. They have allowed their workers to manage the estates are satisfied with whatever returns they got.

Generally the rich that lived in the rural areas sent their children to schools in the cities nearby. Then later life they would commence some enterprises in the village itself. After the rich left the rural areas the children were bred in cities and none of them went back to the villages to which their parents did belong. Many of them ended abroad in foreign universities, a massive loss of young blood. As I had pointed out in my book: How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka (Godage), after the 1971 JVP attack all the rich people whose homes had two-foot parapet walls for everyone to admire the well kept gardens hurriedly made them six feet  high with huge gates and security personnel to boot.

The development of the rural areas requires the services of every entrepreneur and entrepreneurs come from the rich families with enough money to invest and they are not in the rural areas now.

That was the legacy left by JVP with their two insurrections.  It is of interest to note that the first insurrection was entirely orchestrated by North Korea. Implicating evidence was found and the North Korea Embassy was immediately closed down and the diplomats banished from Sri Lanka It may be of interest to note 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 then. 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. Major Wettasinghe had his Light machine gun loaded but said that the boats were beyond its range.

Dondra was more or less under the 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 and this is an episode known only to me and the Army on duty at that time. What I could do was to ban fishing. This order was effective for about two weeks.

The 1971 insurrection was essentially an attempt by the communist bloc, especially North Korea to take control of Sri Lanka. The JVP insurrections ate into the fabric of rural life. The development of enterprises and investment is at a standstill.

Today, the JVP has changed its tune but it is all a wolf in sheep’s clothing!  In 1971 the JVP danced to North Korea’s tune. Today, it is trying to woo the masses again. But, it stands discredited and disgraced by its own action in 1971 and the late 1980s.

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