The new leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Anura Kumara Dissanayake, said the JVP was never a third force in the country, but an alternative force. “It was the media which branded us as a third force but we never said that we were the third force,” he said.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Somawansa Amarasinghe has handed over the leadership to you. You are the third leader of the Party. What are your plans to take party to a victory?
A: At the last JVP convention held on the 2 February, we approved many changes in the Party. We also have a new central working committee.
We have realised that there are many small scale protests in the country which start but soon fade away. Though these are good starting point, it will not bring victory to the people. Thus, we have decided to establish centres around the country to mobilise people into cohesive units, which can fight for the rights of the people.
The Rajapaksa government has in the guise of democracy cheated and won small scale elections, which have stabilized their power, but no longer is the peoples’ wishes expressed through elections. Thus, a committee called the ‘Election Front’ was established to help increase our voter base.
We have also worked on a manifesto which will help rebuild this country and we are working on a programme to take it to the people. The Central Working Committee will also be working on strengthening the Party’s organization capacity.
Q: Since1965, the JVP slogans have been ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘nationalism’ ,but now the Rajapaksa government has taken away these slogans from you. As a result you have failed electorally and you no longer enjoy the same level of support you were once used to?
A: That is true. We do have a decrease in our voter base. In 1965, the Party was built on national unity, fairness and equality, but it could not work because of the capitalistic system which had ruled this country for so long. But what have we gained from it?
The world had a major revolution in technology, arts and culture but our country has not experienced any of that. The present government has brought us heroin, ethanol, and various other vices instead of technology and knowledge. Our country is also heavily in debt due to the government.The present situation is; a child hangs himself because he has no shoes to go to school, a mother and her children fall sick after eating bitter gourd continuously because they did not have food to eat and another mother commits suicide along with her children. This is what our current government has left us with.
Hence, we need a major societal change to move the country forward. As a party we have faced many challenges personally but when the the country broke down due to communal divisions, we made certain decisions which were unfortunate for the Party, but in the greater interest of the country.
Our voter base might have decreased but we still have the strongest Teachers’ Unions, Students’ Unions, Farmers’ Unions and we are working on strengthening our Youth Unions. We hope to nurture dedicated, courageous people who can look beyond the short term politics of this government and support us. This is what we are building.
Q: Following up on what you said, this country has an ageing population and if you only rely on the support of the youth alone, you will not be able to come to power. You need to come up with a strategy which would attract others too. From 1965-1988 the Party mainly depended on the youth, especially those who were attracted to the charisma of Rohana Wijeweera. WimalWeerawansa succeeded in attracting the youth to certain extent and now you too are trying to do that. But. if you continue alomg this path without a change in ideology even with a change in leadership, you might never be able to get any power?
A: I admit that we cannot bring about social change with just the youth. But we think that the youth in our society are an important component of change. When societal change is needed, the working class and the farmers are very important. We are turning our attention towards them to be able to win and our Party programmes are aimed at winning the support of all these people. I admit that our appeal has been stronger in certain classes while other classes have not accepted us as much. But now we are working on a unifying programme to bring all these classes together.
When it comes to modernizing the party, what do we possess currently? Our members are selfless. We don’t need to change that.
The manifesto we have come up with will touch five key areas:
1. How can a democracy function when so much power is vested in one man? Powers should be shared in a democracy so we planned to get rid of the executive presidency. Media, Public institutions, Elections Commission, Police and Courts should be governed independently. We will bring in a set of proposals to ensure that.
2. The human resource – How do we rebuild our country? We do not have a lot of natural resources like oil and metal so what is our best resource? It is our human resource. Our economic foundation thus should be programmes to develop the human resource of our people. Hence more resources have to be divested in improving education, health, sport and technology which will lead to more qualified and fit people.
3. A modern and industrialized nation – Our country has not benefitted from any of the technological advances in the world. So how do we include new technology into our industries? Fisheries, agriculture, small and medium scale industries, they have no new technology.
We import everything at present: the tractor used to plough the field, the pesticide, the fertilizer, the seed, the machines needed to harvest the grain and even the sack used to carry the grain. So what do we produce? We have to build more industrialized sectors.
4. A just society – The law has to apply to all and it should be applied equally.
5. A man with dignity – Today a man has to beg and degrade himself in front of politicians to get anything done. To admit his child to school, to lodge a complaint at the police station and it even extends to the cowardly manner in which he talks. We need to become those who are proud of themselves, those who can stand on their own two feet and are an example to their family and society.
These are the main areas we would be concentrating on. Thus, we do not represent the past but the future. Unfortunately, we have been portrayed as a people who are very traditional; as ones who want to wear a loin cloth and live in a cave. This is not what we have projected. It is our enemies who have portrayed us as such. We do not believe in that, we believe that we need to adapt with the times and move towards a modern and scientific future.
Q: Since the inception of the Party, Rohana Wijeweera led two revolutions but they failed. Thereafter the Party was resurrected by Somawansa Amarasinghe and you now have to rebuild the Party. Your manifesto however, which sounds great in theory, is not very practical. It has never been accepted by the majority of the people and neither has it gone through to them. The people have always stuck with the two main parties, the UNP and the SLFP. Your voter base is just 5%. Based on this, will the people accept your new manifesto?
A: A Party, ideologically, should never be at a place where the majority people are, it should be ahead of them. But traditionally the political parties in the country play to the gallery. That is why you get all sorts of candidates contesting the elections these days and you get thugs to drive the point. Such popular politics cannot take people forward. We are trying to bring in a political ideology which is ahead and is something to aspire to and that is why we have survived so long. In 1965 Rohana Wijeweera and seven others, who were little known at the time, met in a small room to discuss the creation of a political party. Wijeweera was 22 years then and was working at a time when the ruling party was all powerful and the greats of the leftist parties were more experienced than him, and yet he proposed starting a party. He suffered immensely to achieve this goal. They did not eat much, walked everywhere to campaign so that they could save the little money the Party had collected. That is how our Party was formed.
In 1971, the government feared this Party and they started persecuting its members. We were faced with the choice of fighting or the possibility of being destroyed. We chose to fight. We did not surrender. We lost and over 10,000 were killed and our leaders arrested. In 1983, J.R.Jayawardene’s government persecuted us and yet again we chose to fight. A whole generation was lost and the party was almost wiped out. But then we came back again in 1994 and contested the parliamentary elections. There have been small incidents since then but our Party has proved itself resilient despite all the challenges faced.
The challenge we face today is not a simple one. It is not about replacing one government with another. It is easy to replace something bad with another bad thing, or to give something bad instead of a good. But it is hard to replace a bad thing with something good. Thus, we have to change the whole fabric of society, not just the government.
Even today we are the voice of the people. When there is a problem in a government office, who do you think they approach? If there is a problem in the school, who do they go to? Who do you think the people accept as a Party of action? It is the JVP. We are in the hearts of the people though it has not turned into votes. The people do think we are relevant but we have to find a way to turn this into votes at an election. This is a challenge. We are working on this.
Q: You admitted that many preferences have not turned into votes and it is true that the JVP is approached when there is an issue but what is your strategy to turn them into votes? Is not your manifesto too theoretical?
A: No we practice politics in a practical manner. When a people are used to a certain way, they think everything else is impossible. A lot of people were surprised that a person who was once a leader of the Party had agreed to work in a committee under a person who he had trained himself. But our leader did that. That is the JVP. We are not a party which is confined to the traditional model of society, we think beyond that. Thus certain things certainly would be unbelievable and impractical until it is done.
Our problem at present is, how are we to build our own image in public beyond the various misconceptions which have been woven around us. They think we are unapproachable, and violent people, but these are all manufactured propaganda by our enemies.
Q: When Nanda Gunathilaka and Wimal Weerawansabroke away, they said that Somawansa is adaptable and young at heart but the weakness in the Party lies in its members’ inability to move beyond its conventional and outdated ideology. As a new leader, you have to be ahead of Somawansa and you need a plan of your own to take the Party forward. What are your plans?
A: In leftist parties there are different views within the party which are discussed unlike other parties. In other parties, it is the leader who decides all and he leads the people like cattle. That is not the case with leftist parties around the world.
In 2005, Nandana and Weerawansa suggested that the party could be revolutionised by joining hands with the Rajapaksa government and working in their ministries. But no leftist party has brought about societal change by joining hands with a capitalistic government. So, who is conventional and outmoded? They have settled for petty things like ministries which paint houses.
The main feature of a revolutionary party is renewing oneself and the party from time to time. Like a clay which can be moulded to fit the situation. We have changed as a party over time, from revolutionary politics to mainstream democracy as the political situation changed. Though people call us puritanical, we have changed and we are prepared to change.
Q: in 1994, you had one parliamentary seat, in 2001 you had 16, thereafter 38 and now you are limited to 7. But these victories were won through coalitions. Whatever you do, if you do not win power in government you will fade away just like the other leftist parties. It is your responsibility to change things around, what is your strategy to win the votes of the people?
A: We do not believe that the people’s wishes are portrayed through Rajapaksa’s election victories. At present there is a lot of resentment towards the government but at the polling station, votes are won through fear and corruption. But, you are right a political party’s strength is judged by how many seats they have in government thus we cannot leave the election field. The establishment of our Election Front will greatly help us boost our voter base. If you are asking me if it involves the UNP, the answer is definitely not.
Q: In the last Provincial Council elections, the JVP which was a third force was pushed to fourth place and Sarath Fonseka, who was with you at the start, managed to garner more votes? It is predicted that the same would happen at the next election to be held in March.
A: We never said we were the third force, it was the media who said that and now it is the media which is saying that we are no longer the third force. We are not the third force, we are the alternative force.
We accept that Fonseka fared better than us but the Fonseka phenomenon is short lived. There have been many like him before who have come and gone. They have no political ideology to survive for long.
In 1987 Chandrika too made a separate faction with many powerful characters in the SLFP, but two years later they disappeared and rejoined the party. Then the UNP had the Lalith-Gamini Peramuna, which too did not last very long, they rejoined the UNP. Then we had the JHU with all the monks, in two years they joined the government. Thus the Fonseka phenomenon too is a political bubble which will soon join either of the two main political parties. Fonseka is not a challenge to us.
Q: A lot of people who supported the UNP are disillusioned but do you think that if the UNP gets a new leader, this would be a major threat to the voter base you are trying to attract?
A: The crisis in the UNP is not a leadership crisis. It is what they as a Party that has been projected. The crisis really is that their policies are being implemented by the current government, so then why do we need the UNP? The UNP has no problem with the policies of the government, it is with their execution that they find fault. Even the UNP politicians in parliament say that the government is implementing their policies. Thus, just because the UNP changes its leader, it will not be able to revive the Party, the only thing left to do for them is to join the government, most UNPers are in the government anyway.
Q: Will you plan to take over the government during your time as leader?
A: Yes definitely, we will revive our voter base and gain control of the government. We are a Party and people who have a very positive outlook and we seek to win.
Q: The youth of today are not the same as that of 1988. The urban youth today are obsessed with other things apart from politics, even at the rural level, they are moving to the city for a brighter future. At the famers’ unions, you have ageing farmers, not young farmers. How will you deal with the youth of today?
A: You are right. The young man today may have changed his appearance, lifestyle and expectations but even today he is faced with the same problems as the young man of 1988. He has limited avenues to make an income, he cannot find a job which he is qualified for, his expectations and hopes have fallen short of reality, what he hopes for may have changed with time, but the result is the same. Young people today however have very little interest in politics, this is a consequence of the open economy started in 1977. So we need to take politics to them, our Youth Front with the leadership of Bimal Ratnayake is doing that now and he is working on programmes which will appeal to them.
Q: You launched the ‘Che Ride’ with the leadership of Bimal Ratnayake to attract the youth, but those who turned up for it were existing JVPers, and were supported by JVPers, you were not able to attract youth who have no political inclinations. The existing JVPer is very committed but what is your plan to attract the young middle class? Do you think that you can market iconic figure like Che to attract these people?
A: We were not marketing the symbol of Che. We wanted to promote his qualities: his dedication to the cause, his courage and heroism. Che is a symbol who can appeal to the youth in any country, we wanted to tell the people, come let us think like Che, let us act like Che and let us become him.
You are right though, we have not been able to attract this large youth fraction to us, but do not you think that we can only achieve that through our own youth? This is just a beginning but we hope to reach the youth of all classes. We need to work on attracting more youth to the Party.
Q: In countries like Greece and Scandinavia, old leftist parties have renewed themselves and managed to increase their voter base. Will you be learning from them?
A: Yes. We are in contact with them. Our youth front is also taking part in the World Youth Festival and we discuss and exchange ideas with leftist parties around the world.
Q: Human rights, media freedom, racial and religious discrimination, what are your plans to deal with all that?
A: This country is made up of all races, Sinhala, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and Tamil, who are all part of the country. It is irrelevant where anyone came from. All are born here, they live here, participate in the country’s economy and then die here. Where they came from only belongs to history not our present. We do not need a divided country so we need a Party which will unite all. The Sinhala nationalists think we promote Tamil nationalism and vice versa but we stand for the rights of all.
To have racial discrimination, one race must declare itself superior tor the other. Sinhala nationalism fuels Tamil nationalism and when a Tamil nationalist fights back, he provoke Sinhala nationalism. One cannot survive without the other. When Rajapaksa promotes Sinhala nationalism, the TNA replies with Tamil nationalism, neither are beneficial. We are working to move beyond these petty nuances.
Q: Will you join any coalition in future?
A: No. Our coalition is only with the people.
Q: People fear that the JVP will go back to its revolutionary ways as it is not doing so well democratically?
A: We never chose the revolutionary path. It was a reaction against the government’s policy to eradicate us. We have always tried to come to power democratically but we kept getting pushed into a revolution. We had to fight then.
Until the very last, we will be true to the democratic path and experience tells all that revolutions do not turn out well. The world too has changed, people have moved on, and I do not think at this juncture in Sri Lankan politics that we will ever go for a revolution.
Q: They say that though Ranil Wickramasinghe is the opposition leader, you are the one who carries out his job. But according to JVP policy, the leader or general secretary does not go to parliament. Will you be attending parliament now?
A: Our constitution says that only the general secretary will not attend parliament, but the Party has decided that I will be attending.
Q: When there was an announcement that a change is to be expected in the JVP, people thought that there will be sweeping changes everywhere, but only the leadership changed, why is that?
A: We discussed these changes three months ago but our members were disciplined enough not to reveal any decision. We have made quite a few changes, for example we brought Lalkantha to Colombo and we made many changes in the administration of the Party. Though it was the change in leadership which was publicized the most, there were other important changes. Many said that there were power struggles within the Party but we have no such problems, we are very united and we make decisions together.