Dr. Lionel Bopage

Dr. Lional Bopage was in town, recently, to attend the launch of the Sinhala translation of his biography, Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka – The Lionel Bopage Story written by Michael Colin Cooke.

Bopage is currently based in Australia and campaigns for social justice mainly through his writing. He turns 74 this year. Counterpoint met him in Colombo.

Bopage got involved politics in his student days while attending Rahula College, Matara. He was among the students who experienced the change of medium of instruction to Sinhala in 1956. He was a leading member of the student council of the Communist Party at that time. He,subsequently, joined the Engineering Faculty Students’ Union of the Peradeniya University when Rohana Wijeweera formed the JVP.

Bopage pursued his studies while being engaged in politics and recalls how he sat the university final examination in 1974 while he was serving a jail term. He completed his French language course at Alliance Francaise in Colombo and Masters at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. Later, he obtained his doctorate jn Business Administration from the Charles Sturt University, New South Wales. His doctoral thesis was titled Trade Liberalisation and Structural Change in the Australian Motor Vehicle Industry.

Bopage is known for the vital role he played in the first JVP uprising in 1971 and his position in the party as its General Secretory till 1983. He resigned from the JVP, in 1984, over a number of ideological and policy differences, including his support for the Tamils’ right to self-determination.

Bopage was eventually forced into political exile together with his wife. They live in Australia, where they continue to be outspoken defenders of human rights and social justice. The Sinhala translation of Dr Bopage’s biography titled  ‘Ithihasaya Hamuwe Lionel Bopage’ was launched at the Mahaweli Centre in Colombo, on Sept 3.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What made you leave the JVP?

A: I officially left the JVP in February 1984. But my decision to leave the party had been taken in July, 1983, when various ideological differences surfaced among the rank and file, and there were some questions with regard to the party’s internal democracy. My views on the national problem became problematic to some in the top ranks.

It was around 1973 that we prepared the policy manifesto of the party while we were still in prison. It was printed in 1978 after we had been released. That manifesto had a line against autocratic centralisation as well as separation. The people should have the democratic right of self-determination. That was the party’s standpoint from 1973 to 1983. We stated that in our publications and on stage, in both the South and the North. But a problem arose following our poor performance at the 1982 presidential election. Some leaders in the party expected that we would poll over one million votes, but we managed only some 250,000 votes. It was no surprise.

People vote for the persons who, they think, can win. That is the reality not only then but also even now, because any presidential election becomes a two-horse race in the end.

A group led by Comrade Somawansa Amarasinghe held the opinion that we had been rejected by the voters of the South because we accepted the Northerners’ right to self-determination. That group said that even the Northern voters had not supported us even though we accepted their right to self-determination. According to them we had to change our position on the right for self-determination. That opinion spread among rank and file, but some of us spoke against it.

If my memory serves me right, in December 1982 we held a party convention at the Sugathadasa Stadium. Comrade Rohana spoke of the then political situation while Comrade Gamanayake addressed problems faced by the trade unions. I spoke of the national problem and gave opportunity to the listeners to raise questions. There were not many questions; the one I still remember was raised by Dayan Jayatilleka. He opined that the policy of the JVP should not be accepting the right for self-determination but the people’s right to separation. Even after the meeting, we debated that question while walking to our party officeat Armour Street.

We thought it was the end of that problem, but later it was found that the idea had caused undercurrents in the party. It cropped up again in June 1983. Forces led by the likes of Ven. Elle Gunawansa, Minister Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Matthew and Prime Minister R Premadasa were appealing to the Sinhala Buddhists at the grassroots level. We were also speaking to them in our efforts to build our cadre strength. There were several incidents, too. Groups of fishermen from Tangalle went to Batticaloa and attacked fishermen there and there were several deaths.

When the first killing took place, I issued a press release condemning it and outlining the party’s standpoint that there should be communal harmony. Newspapers published it. Then the party’s politburo passed a new resolution that if I were to issue a press release I should get the prior approval of the politburo. I agreed. Incidents continued and,I was asked to expunge from a press release some sections on self-determination rights of the Northerners. When I pointed out to them that it was the party’s position, I was told that it would be no longer the policy. I reminded them that the party’s policy had been decided by its Central Committee and it had to be changed at the same forum. The politburo was positioned below the CC and was expected to implement the CC’s decisions. I told them if that happened then I would resign immediately. Comrade Gamanayake intervened and settled the matter and promised that a CC meeting would be convened to discuss the issue.

That CC meeting was held at Comrade Vijitha Ranaweera’s house in Vitharandeniya, in Tangalle. It was early July 1983. Comrade Rohana said that we would no longer accept the Northerners’ right to self-determination because it had no value. I spoke against it and tried to point out that position was still valid. Finally, we had to take a vote. That was the first ever vote at the CC of the JVP.  The usual practice was to reach a consensus on any matter at times after lengthy debates.

There were only two votes for accepting the self-determination rights of the Northerners. One was mine while the other vote was form Comrade A D P Rathnayaka, a member of the Politburo at that time. Within a few days of that meeting, the July 83 pogrom broke out. I was taken into custody, Comrade Rohana decided to go underground. I was against that decision. I was released around January 1984 and attended a politburo meeting where I announced my decision to resign. Later, I submitted my letter of resignation.

Q: What’s your mission here at this particular juncture besides attending your book launch?

A: I see a serious economic and social crisis in the country owing to the path we have taken since the 1940s and the choices we made in policy implementation. The situation took a turn for the worse and we are where we are!

Some of my standpoints have changed since I left the JVP. But it does not mean that we should not change this society. It should be changed. It could be done and it should be done. But that change cannot be effected by coming out of society as a savior promising change. It could be achieved only from within society. First, we must change ourselves, go among the people and bring about the change with their consent and support. You cannot bring about social change by acting aloof from society as a group of aliens. This is true of many leftist movements in the world.

As the left movement we may talk of grabbing power. We tend to think that we know what to do once we capture the power. But history has proved us wrong. The main problem after grabbing power is how to manage the economy. That happened in Soviet Russia. That was the main problem faced by Lenin after establishing a communist administration. That was why he had to introduce a new economic policy. They somewhat managed to move forward with that but that was not a complete solution.

Commissars were appointed to make decisions for workers. That led to the rise of bureaucracy and that corroded the system from within, causing the collapse of the soviet system in the end. The same happened in China, where after Mao Zedong captured power and continued with his programme. At the time Deng Xiaoping came to power there was a severe crisis owing to the policies followed since Mao.

Xiaoping introduced changes and liberalised some areas of the economy. As a result of those changes China has become one of the leading economies in the world, today.

Cuba, Venezuela and other communist countries have experienced the same problem. It is important to capture state power, but in the same way, it is important to know how to manage the national economy once the power is in your hands.

In Sri Lanka this matter of crucial importance has not been taken cognizance of. We have an organization in Melbourne by the name, New Era for Sri Lanka. Representing that organisation we came here in April, and launched a policy forum. We saw that there have been no national policies whatsoever as regards the programmes that have been carried out during the past 70 years. Our forum is focused on discussing various national policies and selecting the best ones for our country. One of the main objectives of neo-liberalism is to maximize profits regardless of the human cost. We create policies beneficial to the people while agreeing with profit making. There were around 20 alternative groups with us. We held a meeting at the Mahaweli Centre. There were many organisations including the National Intellectuals’ Organisation (NIO). We came to an understanding that what was of importance was a national plan and not individuals. They later came together to form a few organizations. They should take forward their discussion and form a single entity. That is the ideal outcome. I do not know whether it could be done, but we should try to do so. That would help restore public trust in left politics. Today, people in this country abhor left politics because of the mistakes we, the leftists and progressives made in the past. We should change that impression and enlist their support.

Q: How would you describe the evolution of the JVP from the late 1960s to date?

A: It was a time when the CIA and other leading forces were suppressing the anti-Western powers. They overthrew anti-American governments. The Finance Minister was JR Jayewardene, who later tried to roll back the electoral map for decades. We worked against those forces. We were Maoists then. In the face of suppression, we realised that there was a need to arm ourselves for our survival. If there is dictatorship, then we should find means to counter it. By 1970, another intractable crisis had emerged. We had left the Community Party, the LSSP and other progressive parties to form the JVP. The old left thought that we were going to overtake it. That was a problem for them. They acted against us and fabricated various stories to prevent the people from joining us. They branded us as a CIA trap and asked people to reject us. On the other hand, the state suppression was increasing.

So, we had two main enemies. Our view on them was wrong. They saw us as enemies and vice versa. We should not have harboured those attitudes of animosity. Governments created situations which had a bearing on the evolutionary process of our party. In 1971, we were banned following an attack on the US Embassy in Colombo. That attack had been attributed to a group called Young Maoists, and we were banned.

In 1983, it was the then government which staged the anti-Tamil pogrom and we were accused of doing that.

At the time of the 1971 insurrection there were two groups within the JVP. One group carried out attacks earlier than planned. That happened in Wellawaya. One is responsible for giving information to security establishments because the police had prior information about the attack. So, the insurrection failed and we were jailed. The JR Jayewardene government did away with the Criminal Justice Commission report and we were released in 1977. From January 1977, we worked for the revival of the party. Following disagreements, I resigned from the party in 1984, as I said previously, but in my letter of resignation I clearly warned that the party was heading for disaster. They did not listen and that was exactly what happened in the late 1980s.

After some time, they resurrected the party and it has come a long way, where its organising power is concerned. Today, I see that the party should change its role of savior showing the path to people, and its leaders should go among the people. They should empower the people. The JVP should not make election promises like other parties which would soon forget them after being elected. In many other countries the situation is different. People actively participate in governance and hold politicians accountable and pressure them to make good on their promises.

Q: There were posts in social media that you had come here to support the JVP presidential candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake. You left the JVP because you took exception to Rohana Wijeweera’s policies. Can you support the JVP, which says it is committed to the very same policies of Wijeweera and is proud of them?

A: No, I do not have any intention of supporting the JVP or its presidential candidate. If the JVP does something positive and good, I will appreciate it and they have our blessings,and if it does anything negative and bad, I will not hesitate to condemn it. I am an independent activist. I have no intention of returning to active politics. I write articles, analysing what the party does. It can make use of them.

Q: The JVP is seen to be an appendage of the UNP government. Allegations abound that it has received financial benefits from the UNP-led government. UNF MP Chatura Senaratne once alleged in Parliament that money had been given to the JVP in a Parliament washroom. Would you like to comment on this?

A: I do not know whether these allegations are true or false. But looking at the history, it can be seen that there were similar allegations against it. Allegations against the JVP are not something new. Even during our time, we were branded as a CIA trap. I can remember one incident. There was one comrade called Osman,who joined us from the LSSP. He was from Wanathamulla. His mother was Seelawathie, who was the LSSP Women’s Wing Chairperson. She, too, later joined the JVP. We once sent her with three others to NM Perera and other old left leaders to question him why they kept on saying that we had CIA links. NM told her that he had evidence to prove and there was a cheque written by the CIA in favour of the JVP. Seelwathie challenged NM to publish it in the newspapers so that everyone could see it. But there was no such response from NM. Similarly, the JVP has come under various other allegations. When you do politics in this country, you should expect them.

 Q: The JVP backed the SLFP-led coalition in 1970 and took up arms against it; then it got close to the JRJ government, which released Wijeweera and others and turned against it,later. It backed Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in 1994, and then rose against it a few years later. It promoted Lakshman Kadirgamar for premiership against Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2004 and then supported Mahinda at the 2005 presidential election. Thereafter, it tried to bring down his government while the war was on. It joined forces with the UNP, in 2010, to engineer Mahinda’s downfall, but in vain. It succeeded, in 2015. Then it backed the UNP-led government. It is taking on that regime, at present. Don’t you think that the JVP is driven by political expediency rather than principle or the Marxist ideals it claims to espouse?

A: I do not know the party’s current inner political situation and readiness. But I could tell you about its past and why such decisions were made then. In the early 1970s we were facing a different political scenario. The CIA was engineering regime changes to install administrations supportive of the US. JR Jayewardene was talking of rolling back the electoral map. We wanted to change that situation. On the one hand, we took up arms to face the suppression, and on the other, we strove to inform the people of the dangers a capitalist government posed to the country. Though we did not take up positions, we supported the coalition government led by the SLFP. We supported that government to defeat a far more dangerous enemy and neutralize a much bigger threat.

Look at the election manifesto of the coalition government of 1970, though we did not subscribe to every section in it, there were some positive plans envisaged. For example, there were promises to nationalise many private enterprises such as banking services. There were many promises that could lead the country on the progressive path.

NM Perera became the Finance Minister and the very first thing he did after assuming the office was to announce that they could not do any of them and would not do so. We lost trust in them and there was break-up.In August 1970, we held our first rally at Hyde Park. In the morning of the very same day of the rally, the General Secretaries of the parties in the coalition government, the SLFP, the communist party and the LSSP issued a statement saying that the JVP was enemy No. 1 of the people of Sri Lanka, and they sought the support of the public to destroy us politically. Either on the same day or the following day, the Secretary of the State Defence Ministry, Arthur Ratnavale made a statement that the JVP should be eliminated. That was the situation.

I can remember Comrade Wijeweera, seeking an appointment with Sunetra Bandaranaike to discuss the issues to sort out the differences, but in vain. We decided to support their progressive work and attack what was no acceptable to us.

In my view the JVP should not have campaigned to elect Mahinda Rajapaksa the President, in 2005. That harmed the party. They should have taken into consideration the history of Rajapaksa and his family. The JVP contributed a lot towards promoting nationalistic communalism. Even today the JVP has not been able to recover from the blame for that wrong decision it made to promote racism then. I think it has realised its mistakes. I thinks its decision to accept positions in the Kumaratunga government, too, was counterproductive. They should not have done that, because after taking up ministerial posts, they would not be able to carry out their agenda, and they would be burdened with agendas of those who were above them in the government. That happened to NM, Philip Gunawardene and other leftists. The JVP should have learnt from their experience. As a party, yes, the JVP has erred and been able to rectify many of its mistakes. They should never become allies of coalition governments.

Q: How do you view the pivotal role the JVP played in Parliament to protect the UNP-led govt. during the 52-day government last year? Don’t you think the JVP got its credential badly dented as a result in spite of its lame excuse that it did so to protect democracy?

A: We were in Australia when that happened. There was a legally elected government and a move to usurp power by the Opposition. That was a conspiracy. So, the JVP acted right. What they did was not to protect a UNP-led government but to ensure that democracy would prevail. I do not see anything wrong with their move to protect democracy.

 Q: The JVP has undergone radical changes where its core ideology is concerned. This is manifest in its publicity stunts like young men and women in denim, carrying smart phones protesting and parading during its propaganda events. Its leader made it a point not to wear red at the recent Galle Face rally, where he was named the party’s presidential candidate. How do you view these changes?

A: It is unfair for me to comment on certain things without knowing their actual objective. But I heard about the Galle Face instance and I do not see anything wrong. Comrade Anura Kumara Dissanayake represents the JVP. But the alliance they formed consist of other organisations. They have the support of 28 organisations. Right from the beginning of that process the JVP was concerned about other members in the alliance. Even in selecting their candidate, they had adopted some criteria, one being that the candidate should not promote the programme of a single party. He should promote the common programme. He is not the JVP candidate but the candidate of all. So, I understand why he did not wear a red shirt. It is a difficult decision because we can understand how people would see it. It is not an easy decision but that was something he had to do.

 Q: Don’t you think the JVP is on its way to becoming another name-board party like those representing the traditional left?

A: That would be determined by the present conduct of the JVP. There are contradictions. The JVP is proposing solutions and there are problems faced by people. It is yet to see how these two would match and whether the JVP could find solutions to the actual problems of people. If we go to the grassroots level, we see people have economic problems. Then there are many people suffering from chronic kidney disease. The JVP should come out with programmes to solve the problems of people at the grassroots level. If it does not become a party of the people, then yes it will end up being another name-board party.

Q: Regarding the JVP’s pathetic performance at the last local government election in 2018. Don’t you think it was due to the outfit’s honeymoon with the UNP-led government?

A: That may have been, but I cannot be exact because I was not here to see it. I know that they polled less. If there is a public perception that it is another part of the UNP supporting that party covertly, then people would lose trust init.

 Q: Why do you think Kumar Gunaratnam and his supporters left the JVP to form the Frontline Socialist Party?

A: When you look at the history of the JVP, there have been many instances of groups breaking away. Many socialist and Marxist parties in the world experience the same. There are several main reasons. One is political future; they do not see that they can become leaders in the future. The others are personal. Imagine one becoming a JVP full-timer when he is student and devoting the best part of his life to the party. Then what would happen to him if the party expelled him. He would not be able to find a job without qualifications or skills other than what was learnt during his time in the party. People, too, would look at him with suspicion. Then there is another reason—ideological differences. I, too, left the party on the same grounds. Some others leave the party because there are problems that could not be solved owing to a deficit of internal democracy. With regard to the Frontliners leaving the party I think reasons are that they did not have enough opportunities to discuss their issues and ideological differences. But even after leaving the party and forming their own new one, they are back to square one. It seems they, too, are doing the same as their erstwhile colleagues.

Q: What do you think the future holds for a party like the JVP, which is fast becoming neither Marxist nor capitalist?

A: The JVP, to survive as a party, should unite itself with society at large. It should do away with the differences it has with society. It should champion the common man’s cause. The JVP still is a party aloof from people and society. That is a serious question.

In a capitalist system people do not get justifiable solutions to their problems. It is also same with a socialist system though there are some positive features. Since that is the reason, there is a trend of experimenting with new methods. Take Mondragon in Spain, it is a huge cooperative and it is second only to the Spanish government. It is the only one which could successfully face the recent global economic crisis. There are similar cooperatives in Italy and Texas. People experiment with them to find whether such methods could be better solutions than socialist or capitalist structures.

Q: How do you view the overall political situation and what do you think is the way forward for the country?

A: As a country, Sri Lanka is facing two main problems – one is the economic problem and the other is the national problem. The main issue that is preventing us from finding solutions is the political class interests. The political classes apply various solutions which would favour their survival and the protection of their interests. The people should participate more in governance and they should be ready to apply more pressure on governments to evolve more national policies which would be beneficial to one and all. There should be attitudinal change as regards the national problem. Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims as well as other communities should understand that they are not the single community inhabiting this land and they should learn to respect one another. It is only through that mutual understanding that we could move forward and achieve national progress. In that exercise, people should give priority to the protection of their human rights and democratic rights. People should strive to set up new mechanisms or make use of the existing ones to prevent conflicts of interest among those in politics. Imagine a shop owner becoming an MP and thereafter getting promoted to the ranks of Trade Minister. There are many such instances in Sri Lankan politics. So, the people should find mechanisms which protect their interests. That is the best possible way to get out of the present crisis.


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