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April 1971

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An armed insurrection breaks out in the south led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The government later quells the rebellion with international assistance, killing thousands of insurgents.

For a comprehensive list of publications on the April 1971 insurrection and the emergence of the JVP, we recommend H. A. I. Goonetileke (1978): The Sri Lankan Insurrection of 1971: A Select Bibliographical Commentary, published in Religion and the Legitimation of Power in South Asia, Bardwell L. Smith (1978).

Much of the material published on PACT on the insurrection and related events has been extracted from this useful annotated bibliography.


“The aim of this first attack seems to have been to capture a stock of modern arms, and to consolidate in a liberated region of the interior, blocking communications across the island and providing a base for a second offensive. On this first night several police stations fell, and the government soon evacuated many more: at the height of the government soon evacuated many more: at the height of the insurrection between 90 and 100 police stations, but this may have understated the number of attacks on that night and they certainly remained silence about subsequent attacks. Later in April a truer picture emerged: the government which had earlier said only about 25 posts were attacked, now says more than 30 were captured and held for several days by the insurgents. In at least nine areas of the countryside covering hundreds of square miles, the rebels maintained control uncontested by government forces.” New York Times, 25 April 1971.

“The 1971 insurrection lasted for five weeks. The rebels did not succeed in assassinating a single prominent member of the ruling coalition or for that matter physically hurting (either a Parliamentarian or a Cabinet Minister) or a senior police officer. It cannot be credibly argued that they posed anywhere as serious a threat to state power as they were to do in 1987-90. The UF government which had come into office less than one year earlier was still popular; the anti-people and at times bizarre economic policies which made the regime unpopular were still to be implemented…Most importantly its charismatic ‘maximum leader’ Rohana Wijeweera was already in custody. And the regime had the complete backing of the UNP, the main opposition party, against the JVP. Despite all these favourable factors the UF government unleashed a firestorm of repression which is yet to be matched proportionately: 15,000-20,000 killed in just 5 weeks. This is an average of 3,500 deaths per week – far higher than the 625 per week figure for the second insurrection which was suppressed by the UNP.” Insurrectionary Violence in Sri Lanka: The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Insurgencies of 1971 and 1987-1989, Tisaranee Gunasekara, Ethnic Studies Report, ICES, Vol. XVII, No. 1, January 1990.

“The JVP cadre[s] did not have guns or sufficient explosives to counter the fire power of the state. Instead they carried wooden replicas of guns, to frighten the police or the security forces whom they had to subdue.” Sri Lanka in Crisis: A Lost Generation: The Untold Story, Prins Gunasekara (1998).

“[I received instructions] to collect empty tins, fused bulbs, empty bottles, explosives, oil cloths, medicines to manufacture hand bombs and molotov cocktails…Wasantha informed Gunaratna, Podiappuhamy, Sunil and me that the revolution will commence on the night of April 5, 1971…We had also brought blue drill and stitched uniforms at Kegalle at the tailor shop of one Vincent. On April 5, 1971 at about 4.30 pm Sunil informed me that he will manufacture hand bombs, Molotov cocktails and come with his gang to the back of the police station by about 11.00pm and wait till my arrival with the others. He also took 25 dynamite sticks and 25 caps. He promised to bring about 30 – 40 members to attack the station.” Extracts from the confession of an area leader who led a significant group during the rebellion, reproduced in Rohan Gunaratna (1990) Sri Lanka A Lost Revolution? The Inside Story of the JVP.

“My view is that, conditions were not ripe for organizing an armed revolutionary uprising to seize state power. The objective conditions were maturing fast, but they were still unripe. It had not reached a stage where the masses saw no other solution but revolution. It is true, however, that then, as now, society was moving in that direction. The subjective conditions were also lacking: that is, the existence of a revolutionary party that has steered itself, won the support of the masses and is fit to lead them in an armed struggle for power. The Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna was developing and moving towards that goal, but had not reached full maturity. We had failed at that time to establish the JVP in the Northern and Eastern provinces and in the Estate sector as a political force. And then there was the question of mass support. It is true that out of the millions who voted for the Coalition government, tens of thousands had by this time washed their hands of it,” Rohana Wijeweera, Leader of the JVP, Statement before the Ceylon Criminal Justice Commission, 2 November 1973.

“The insurrection failed because it had no support from the people. The insurgents presented no serious alternative political program to the people. They were not the spearhead of a popular outburst against an unpopular regime. Instead they were opposed by a popularly elected left-of-center government which had taken office only 10 months before the insurrections broke out. There were few areas in the country the insurgents controlled for brief period in April. And during their rule of these areas they demonstrated an amazing immaturity and naivete. They showed no imagination, no fresh thinking in the administrative structure they devised. Instead their administrative machinery was a grotesque parody of the very system they were pledged to destroy. Their outlook was archaic and not modern. Finally, while these youthful revolutionaries managed to control if not occupy some areas of the island and compelled government forces to confine their activities to the large towns and main trunk roads, they never showed any solid grasp of strategy. They diffused their energies in sporadic attacks spread over many parts of the country, when concentration on a few strategic points might have suited their purposes better.” K M de Silva & Howard Wriggins (1989): J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka – A Political Biography – Volume Two: from 1956 to His Retirement.

“As far as we know, the insurgency was entirely an indigenous affair, prepared and carried out by a movement of young revolutionaries, that has been building up for four or five years…There was no question of any outside support of influence,” Mrs Srimavo Banadaranaike, interview published in Sunday Times, 31 October 1971.

“We have learnt too many lessons from Vietnam and Malaysia. We must destroy them completely,” Cyril Ranatunga, quoted in the International Herald Tribune, 20 April 1971.

“From the Victoria Bridge on 13 April I saw corpses floating down the river which flows through the north of the capital, watched by hundreds of motionless people. The police, who had killed them, let them float downstream in order to terrorize the populatio.” Dumont, Rene (1971): Ceylon during the insurrection, who estimated that 8,000 people had been killed in connection with the insurrection.

“Wijeweera, in a statement from prison in 1972, said that 15,000 revolutionaries had been killed, but twice that number of innocent people had also died. Other estimates rage from the official figure of 12,000 as high as 50,000 (Nouvel Observateur, 23 May 1971). What is clear is that the police and armed forces lunched as indiscriminate attack on the peasant population as a whole. The Washington Post (9 May 1971) reported in early May that an army major had even welcomed the insurrection: ‘We have never had the opportunity to fight a real war in this country,’ he was quoted as saying. “All these years we have been firing at dummies, now we are being put to use” (Washington Post, 9 May 1971). In fact, the army have resorted to mass arrests, torture, executions and other terror tactics in attempting to put down young well-organized armed insurgents.’ New York Times, 25 April 1971).” Fred Halliday (1971): The Ceylonese Insurrection, New Left Review; No 79, Sep.-Oct. 1971.

“At Galle, in [the] south, we saw three ‘terrorists’ who had just been arrested and whom the police were taking away. A local inhabitant remarked: “They will be killed tonight, and their bodies will be thrown into the river”. The police, traditionally hated and today used without reserve by the ‘progressive’ government, are openly compared to Duvalier’s tontons macoutes and their crimes have shocked the population. Here are some examples, which would be wrong to see as isolated indents. At Kataragama, a village in the South, a girl was stripped and killed on the spot. At Akuressa, two young people were shot in front of the inhabitants and left to die, but only did so later, when their bodies were burnt. At Kosgoda, corpses were left hanging in public for several days. At Kandy, a lecture in geography was so savagely beaten that he died in hospital; a history student was tortured for two days. At Bandaragama a youngman was beaten up and the sole of his foot was cut open and covered with pepper. Another young man, while on a road outside Colombo, was arrested, tortured and left to the red ants. What is the point of going on?”. Le Monde, 16 June 1971: Decornoy’s series of four articles on the insurrection, beginning in Le Monde of 16 June give a forceful account of both the uprising itself and the subsequent repression.” Fred Halliday (1971): The Ceylonese Insurrection, New Left Review; No 79, Sep.-Oct. 1971.

“Explores the implications of the insurrections as an attack on the indigenous elite as a class, and not only against the government in power. The insurgents were nto peasants. The JVP not a rural movement and the insurrection was not a peasant revolt. Popular notions that the insurgency was activated by low caste based frustrations of rural students and unemployed youth mainly from the universities are dispelled. Review of Obeyesekere, Gananath, “The Barbarians at the gates”, Part 2, Some comments on the social backgrounds of the April 1991 insurgency in Sri Lanka, Journal of Asian Studies, May 1974, 367-384, reviewed by H. A. I. Goonetileke (1978): The Sri Lankan Insurrection of 1971: A Select Bibliographical Commentary.

“During the insurrection, the CP and the LSSP set up home guards to protect police stations and to search and destroy JVPers. The UF government introduced repressive labour laws banning the distribution of handbills and posters within the workplaces without employer permission and arresting all those who did not report to work. While carrying out a systematic purge of the workplaces, the government decreed that in recruitment to the armed forces, anyone under the age of 35 should be totally excluded in forming the National Service Regiment. Hundreds of JVP cadres sacrificed their lives in combat and non-combat situations, and thousands were arrested and destroyed by security personnel trained and motivated in cold-war political ideology. After capture, some were burnt alive, buried alive and some were cut to pieces using chain saws. Even some of those who surrendered following the call of the then Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranaike were killed,” Lionel Bopage, former General Secretary of the JVP and former member of the District Development Council, Galle, in an interview published in Lines magazine.

“There is no doubt that the villages are sympathetic to the young rebels. They were all received in a friendly manner by the local population.” Le Monde, 30 April 1971.

‘This is the first time since Independence that Indian personnel have been sent out to help a friendly neighbouring country in distress, barring India’s participation in the international peace-keeping operations under the auspices of the United Nation in Korea, West Asia, the Congo, Cyprus and the Indo-China states. But India has given arms aid to countries like Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia in the past for their internal defence against insurgency and subversion.’ The Hindu, 16 April 1971.

Related events
JVP is formed
JVP holds its largest public meeting
Sri Lankan government proscribes the JVP
Charges brought against 41 JVP members
Rohana Wijeweera delivers speech before the Criminal Justice Commission

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