Rise of the Red Brigade in Sri Lanka
By Ravi Prasad
Global Beat Syndicate
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—The tens of thousands of people wearing red shirt here on May Day sent shivers through so many of us who have lived through the two bloody insurgencies in the south of Sri Lanka. In the aftermath, the political reverberations are continuing.
May Day was a show of strength by the Janata Vimukti Perumuna, a Maoist political movement and the junior partner in the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The red-shirted JVP workers and supporters thronged to the rally in a clear demonstration that the movement responsible for two bloody insurgencies in the south is again expanding its power base exponentially.
The JVP show of strength has caused political analysts, centrist and even left-leaning politicians to sit up and take notice. The sheer numbers involved shocked President Kumaratunga and his People’s Alliance, which has it own leftist elements, and is causing grave concern in the main opposition United National Party.
Clearly, the JVP is steadily nibbling away at the traditional strongholds of the two major parties in this island nation.
Addressing the rally, JVP leaders made it clear that they would withdraw their support if the government enters into a “Joint Mechanism” to address tsunami relief and reconstruction work with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers has waged a long and bloody insurgency war in the north and east for decades.
JVP support is crucial for the current UPFA government. Without it, the senior coalition partner, People’s Alliance, does not have enough seats in parliament to stay in power. The 39 JVP parliamentarians are critical in the coalition.
Desperate to stay in power, Kumaratunga’s government has turned a blind eye as the JVP has steadily expanded its power and influence across the central and southern parts of Sri Lanka. The Red Brigade has no presence in the north and east, where the Tamil Tigers have controlled matters for decades.
It is the current stalemate with the LTTE—a derailed peace process and “no war, no peace” situation, that the JVP has turned to its advantage yet again. In 1971 and again in 1989 the JVP tried to grab power through the barrel of the gun. Its terrorist units, and those who supported the JVP movement were brutally crushed by government forces both times, but now its political machinery and strong popular support are proving far harder to counteract.
From a mere 10 seats in parliament in 2000, the JVP has almost quadrupled its strength in just four years, destroying the power bases of the governing party and the opposition UNP in the central and southern regions.
Disillusioned by the performance and failure of the two major parties to either kick start the economy or control the inflation, people are turning to the JVP, which has managed to keep the government in check on such key issue as the raising power tariffs, and increases in diesel and kerosene oil prices.
The urban classes continue to support the two major parties, but the rural support is now for the JVP. In this post-tsunami period, while national leaders have been crisscrossing the globe or spending holiday time in Europe, JVP leaders have organized a Voluntary Service Force. Right now, the southern coastline is dotted with tents and shelters carrying the JVP symbol. As long as the tattered peace process continues to remain in limbo and the government fails to deliver on its promises, the JVP’s strength is likely to grow exponentially.
Even though President Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance formed a pact with the “Red Shirts” before the 2004 elections, the two coalition partners hold diametrically opposed views on how to resolve decades of ethnic conflict and insurgency war in the north and east. The JVP strongly opposes any negotiations with the Liberation Tigers or their political wing, the LTTE.
A large part of the majority Sinhala community thinks the government has been bending backwards to placate the Tamil Tigers, allowing them to run a parallel administration in the north and collect their own taxes. A series of politically motivated murders since the start of the cease-fire have exacerbated the situation. In the north, the stalemate works to the advantage of the LTTE, which takes the position that there is no consensus between the political parties representing the majority Sinhala community, hence the need for a separate Tamil state.
National economic revival depends on the peace process because of the $4.5 billion pledged as aid is linked the peace talks that derailed in 2003. With the aid frozen in the absence of negotiations, the government is cannot initiate development projects or repair the tsunami-battered economy.