Crisis lifts Sri Lankan Marxists

Leftists give tsunami relief in Sri Lanka, filling a vacuum left by the government.

In the early morning hours at a rural Buddhist temple, a medical team from the revolutionary JVP party is treating villagers injured in the tsunami.

The chief doctor, Pasanna Cooray, has been working 19-hour days up and down the Sri Lankan coast. Here he has just given a very public blood pressure check to the temple's chief monk. The act is part of a new convergence between leftist JVP radicals and Buddhist monks, who are emissaries of mystical Sri Lankan nationalism.

For the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a disciplined and once powerful and brutal Marxist movement, the tsunami is proving to be a vehicle for its vision of people's liberation and its own popular comeback.

"When people are suffering they need a friend, and we are taking steps to 'serve the people,' " Dr. Cooray says, quoting a phrase made popular in Maoist China.

The tsunami brought a natural and immediate focus on Sri Lanka's dispute between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government. How much healing or animosity will emerge from that dispute in the tsunami aftermath remains unclear (see page 7).

Yet it's the JVP, whose full name means People's Liberation Front, that may gain the most political capital from the tsunami. Once crushed by the Army after an armed uprising designed to institute a utopian society, the JVP is now reemerging.

Today it is the key player in President Chandrika Kumeratunga's ruling coalition. A decade ago the JVP had only one member of parliament; now it has 40 out of 225, making it the party with the third-largest representation in parliament. After last April's national election, four JVP party members became cabinet ministers. Before, the party had none.

Fifteen years ago the JVP was associated with graduate students in bandannas, toting AK 47s, and known for a horrific reign of terror in the south: death squads, checkpoints, harassment, daytime assassinations. Nearly as much blood has been spilled in three years during the 1980s than in two decades of the Tamil Tiger vs. Army war. Only when the JVP started to target police officers did Sri Lanka muster the will to put them down. Today, the JVP says it has abandoned the gun.

Some foreign diplomats say the JVP deserves the benefit of many doubts. Sources close to the executives office say the JVP today is more moderate, and manageable - one reason Mrs. Kumeratunga allowed its leader, Somawansa Amarasinghe, to return to Sri Lanka from England where he spent years in exile after the JVP's near-extermination in 1989.

However, Sri Lankans in many quarters are suspicious of the JVP. Business leaders, Western-leaning urban classes, Muslim and Tamil minorities, and, of late, some Christians feel the party is merely biding its time before another effort to seize power.

Whatever the case, the tsunami handed JVP a perfect populist issue. In the south and east the movement put on an extraordinary show of organizational readiness, in the midst of sudden tragedy. As Sri Lankans walked around stunned after the Dec. 26 tsunami and as federal officials were absent in the midst of the worst national disaster in memory, the JVP was on the street in force, with an aid plan, and with an advertising campaign that would have make Washington lobbyists envious.

Huge red JVP banners fluttered above relief camps that bustled with purpose. Flatbed trucks packed with cadres raced the coastal roads, stopping to organize crowds to pull fishing boats into the sea. Pinned to everyone's shirt was a square white tag reading JVP. They cleared debris, buried the dead, cooked food, took notes, and delivered water.

Most significantly, the JVP has used the tsunami to be seen working in the Buddhist temples, which moves them into the very heart of Sri Lankan self-identification.

In all but one of the Buddhist temples visited by the Monitor, the JVP was present. In Sri Lanka, experts say, and to degree greater than in most South Asian states, Buddhist monks are a key to national identity. Despite a teaching of nonviolence, for example, monks have been known to bless Sri Lankan soldiers prior to battle with Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

In the JVP's case, support of a concept of "pure national character" and a program of help for the poor, has earned them an ear with young monks. The JVP and the Buddhist monks are also two of the most powerful opponents to the peace talks and the devolution of authority to the Tamils. One Colombo-based diplomat estimates that while only about 20 percent of Sri Lankan monks supported the JVP in the early 1990s, nearly 75 percent do today.

"There is a competition between the older, orthodox Buddhists on the right, and the left-leaning monks - for the national soul," says a former government cabinet minister in Colombo.

At the retail level, rank and file JVP members are polite, earnest, hard-working. They refer to each other as "comrades", and, speak in very simple but serious terms about helping ordinary people.

In the countryside, their doctrine of equality and anticorruption appeals strongly to young people. The senior cadres claim to renounce wealth, and to wear hand-me-down clothes, and one joked that "you won't see us driving Pajeros [an expensive Mitsubishi SUV]." Their ideological brain trusts speak of the uniqueness of Sri Lanka's role in world history, the need for the island to remain unsullied.

Many JVP also seem suspicious of city folk and foreigners. Their headquarters in Colombo is a modest building in a pleasant neighborhood where many national cricket stars are known to reside. Yet despite being given the address by a comrade, the Monitor was not allowed in, despite repeated efforts.

"If they are good and they are correct, why don't they keep their doors open," asked a local politician who expressed fear of the use of his name. "In this part of the world, when you close your doors you are hiding something. What are they hiding?"

The JVP's political rise owes much to Kumeratunga's desire to stay in power, and the JVP's willingness to act as a player in that purpose. Antipathy between Kumeratunga and opposition leaderRanil Wickramasingheruns deeper than the Mariannes Trench. Kumeratunga is disallowed by the current Sri Lankan constitution to run for office next term. But she is known to be actively campaigning to change the constitution to allow another term. The JVP is a key to her plans.

The group keeps a tight inner circle, and emphasizes discipline. "When some Sri Lankan parties have a rally, they end up paying for people to come with enticements like food or drink," says a Western diplomat. "When the JVP holds a rally, they don't pay anyone. They arrive in lock step, they are efficient, and they get things done. When they work a rural area, they don't pay a quick visit and leave. They sit with the farmers and have tea, and listen."

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