Premadasa Confronts Rebel Threat


SIPPING tea in a hotel restaurant, the 22-year-old student predicted Sri Lanka's government will fall. ``You can't trust them. This government allows the Indian Army in the north and is killing people in the south. People have to respond,'' he says, refusing to give his name. ``This is an undemocratic government. We need economic equality for the masses.''

In just two years, a growing cadre of radicalized Sri Lankan youth have emerged under the banner of the People's Liberation Front (JVP).

The shadowy group of Sinhalese extremists has its roots in Marxist revolution and its resurgence in the anti-Indian sentiment that grips this tiny South Asian island nation.

The JVP poses a major threat to the government of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The government blames the extremists for 4,000 deaths in the last two years. This has triggered a widespread security crackdown on JVP strongholds in the south.

Elected just eight months ago, Mr. Premadasa is scrambling to get a final timetable for the withdrawal of 45,000 Indian troops in negotiations under way in New Delhi.

Analysts here agree Premadasa is in a tough spot. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi says Indian troops will leave only when Sri Lanka grants partial autonomy to its Tamil ethnic minority under the accord. Striking a chord with Sinhalese chauvinists, the JVP opposes special concessions to the Tamil-dominated north and east.

``The President has the IPKF [Indian Peacekeeping Force] holding his legs and the JVP holding onto his throat,'' says Rukman Senanayake, a prominent politician and intermediary between the government and the JVP.

Despite growing clout, the JVP is little known. Founded in the 1960s by a communist youth, Rohana Wijeweera, the JVP lured many educated, unemployed Sinhalese youth with its message of revolution.

By 1971, the group was strong enough to launch a massive uprising in the south. An estimated 20,000 people were killed as the government put down the rebellion with international help and banned the JVP.

In the late 1970s, the JVP was legalized but then banned again for allegedly sparking anti-Tamil riots in 1983. The country's aging former President, Junius Jayewardene, again legitimized the group last year in a move to end the killings and strikes, which, some government officials estimate, are being masterminded by several hundred hard-core extremists and fueled by successful raids on military-weapons depots.

``This is not a big organization, but it doesn't have to be, for survival,'' says a political leader who has regular contact with the JVP but has never seen its leaders. ``They have a lot of `safe houses' in the south and a good network.''

Earlier this summer, the JVP signaled that its campaign to grab power is entering a new phase. Under the auspices of a new workers-action front, the extremists took over a bus and transport strike which crippled Sri Lanka's struggling economy and led to almost 100 deaths.

Although winning only part of their wage demands, the extremists showed their mainly rural base has broadened to command support among Sri Lanka's urban trade unions.

In what would be a return to its Marxist roots, the JVP shows new support among the working classes which could supersede the anti-India issue, political analysts say.

``Now it appears the JVP insurgency is not just nationalist, but also focuses on class and economic discontent, particularly among the large numbers of unemployed youth,'' a Sri Lankan analyst familiar with the JVP says.

However, others disagree, saying that Premadasa, whom the JVP once hailed as a ``patriot,'' could steal the group's thunder by wresting a pullout commitment from India.

``The unemployment problem cannot not be a base for violent upheaval,'' says Mr. Senanayake, who negotiated the end of the transport strike. ``It was not the Marxist ideology that brought them support. It was the presence of the IPKF. If they leave, then the JVP will be without a cause.''

Both the supporters of Premadasa and opposition politicians hope the JVP can be lured back to legitimate politics. There is a move afoot to push for fresh elections and forge a compromise coalition.

On the other hand, Premadasa is under pressure from parts of his government and military to quash the group once and for all. In recent months, hundreds of people have been arrested and killed and have disappeared in a security sweep in the coastal south.

``It's clear that they merely want to create such chaos that the government collapses,'' says a Western diplomat in Colombo.

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