The military strategy used by the revolutionaries in the April 1971 insurrection was unique in the history of armed rebellions. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or the People’s Liberation Front, attempted to seize power by attacking police stations throughout the island simultaneously. However, it was poorly executed, and there were no adequate backup plans. The insurrection was crushed within a matter of weeks.
The JVP was an organisation largely composed of Sinhala Buddhist youth. Victor Ivan, a key leader of the 1971 insurrection, argues in his book “Sinhala Karalikaruvange Samaja Pasubima” (The Social Background of Sinhalese Rebels) that pressure of caste was also an important cause for the outbreak—a majority of JVP members were from the so-called “low castes”.
The attempted seizure of power in 1971 is one of the best documented events in the history of insurrections. One major reason for this is that most of its leaders, and most of its surviving participants, were apprehended. Only a handful of its leadership died during the insurrection. Statements were recorded by police from apprehended leaders and other suspects on their alleged involvement with the insurrection.
Forty-one of the alleged participants were charged in the widely-publicised main trial before the Commission of Inquiry that was established under the Criminal Justice Commissions Act.
Early Intention Of Armed Struggle
Patabendi Don Nandasiri Wijeweera alias Rohana Wijeweera was born on July 14, 1943, in Kottegoda, Matara. In 1960, he was granted a scholarship to study medicine in the Soviet Union. During the Sino-Soviet split, Wijeweera took a pro-Chinese stance and, as a result, his Soviet visa was not renewed after he briefly returned to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. Subsequently, he joined the Ceylon Communist Party (Peking Wing).
However, Wijeweera developed differences with party General Secretary N. Shanmuganathan. In May 1965, he convened a meeting with some of his confidantes in Akmeemana to discuss the course of action they should take. This meeting is considered to be the foundation of what later became the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.
In late 1965, the Wijeweera group established two farms, one in Galkulama, Anuradhapura, and the other in Kirinda, Hambantota. The Kirinda farm was located on the coast, with one of its sides bordering the Indian Ocean, another side bordering a lagoon, and the rest of it facing the jungle. According to the first accused at the main trial, S. V. A. Piyathilake, Wijeweera had stated that this was a good location to smuggle in weapons from abroad if ever necessary.
This account shows that Wijeweera had envisaged an armed rebellion against the establishment as early as 1965, and had had a vague plan of smuggling weapons into the country. However, it is unclear if he had already formulated a proper strategy at the time.
Wijeweera remained a member of the Peking Wing and attempted to oust Shanmugathasan. He could have had plans of seizing control of the party and then launching a revolution, perhaps with the backing of the People’s Republic of China. During the days of Chairman Mao, whoever controlled the Peking Wing in Ceylon could have been able to convince the Chinese communists to support them in a revolutionary adventure.
But Wijeweera failed to capture power within the party, and in early 1966, was forced to leave it. He had no option but to develop his own organisation.
Development Of Military Strategy
Several influential individuals who had their own followings joined the Wijeweera group over the next few years. Wijeweera would eventually develop serious differences with them, owing to his suspicion that they were attempting to oust him as the leader. Whenever Wijeweera saw an upcoming leader, his sense of insecurity heightened. However, at the time of their recruitment, these individuals were important for the growth of the JVP, because they already had a sizable number of followers.
More importantly, these new recruits opened up a discourse on military strategy within the Wijeweera group. Victor Ivan, in his book 71 Karalla (1971 Insurrection) says that Wijeweera had not considered the military strategy to be adopted in the revolution before he met two of these new recruits, D. I. G. Dharmasekara and D. A. Gunasekara.
D. I. G. Dharmasekara was a former student leader at the Vidyalankara University (now the University of Kelaniya). Originally hailing from the Communist Party of Ceylon (Moscow Wing), he believed in the Cuban method of revolution, which was later developed as the Foco theory of revolution. The main argument of the Foco theory is that a small, fast-moving paramilitary group can provide a focus (in Spanish, foco) for popular discontent against a government and lead to a general insurrection.
The second recruit, Gunasekara, was a trade union leader and was originally a member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. He then joined the Communist Party, and was a founding member of the Peking Wing. Gunasekara later joined the Wijeweera group. According to Victor Ivan, Gunasekara believed in the Maoist strategy of protracted war. Mao Zedong’s theory advises revolutionaries to establish base areas in remote places where the central government has little influence. Furthermore, these areas would provide safe havens for the rebels to fall back to after an attack. The government forces could be lured into these areas and destroyed. Gradually, the government would be weakened as the base areas grew.
Mao also advised that the support of the masses was essential for this strategy. Unlike in the Foco theory, he recommended a Red Army as well as a People’s Militia, the latter being an irregular force ready to take on the enemy in the event of an attack to the base areas. Mao argued that this would dissuade the enemy from launching attacks on the base areas.
Mao developed this strategy of protracted war in the 1930s because he was dealing with an uneven struggle between the Chinese people and the militarily superior Japanese forces. He later employed this theory in the war against the nationalists.
In the 1960s, Wijeweera was to develop his own theory, partly inspired by another revolution that took place in 1964.
Wijeweera’s Theory Of Revolution
Victor Ivan claims that Wijeweera devised a different plan because he did not want to appear to be following the suggestion of a member of the group. He wanted to be the sole theoretician of the revolution. His theory was named the “theory of scattered and instantaneous struggle” and was incorporated to the fifth and final lecture of the renowned five classes of the JVP.
Wijeweera argued that the unique conditions in Ceylon forced a revolutionary movement to adopt a unique strategy. He argued against both the Cuban revolutionary strategy and the theory of protracted people’s war. According to Wijeweera, the Cuban revolution took place at a time of military rule and it was impossible to organise the masses against it. Wijeweera reasoned that this was why a small group had to attack the military in order to take the message of the revolution to the people.
He was against the people’s war theory on the basis that Ceylon was a small country when compared to China. At the time when Mao devised his theory, China was divided and its peripheries did not have well-developed transportation. Hence, a revolutionary movement could easily organise base areas in remote regions. However, in Ceylon, the situation was totally different. Virtually all areas were connected by roads and Wijeweera argued that it was not easy to create a base area following the Maoist doctrine.
This is why he proposed an attack on police stations and military establishments throughout the country and attempted to seize power by an instantaneous strike.
According to some leading figures of the then JVP, Wijeweera was influenced by the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 led by Abeid Karume. Though he was not the leader on the ground during the revolution, Karume became the first President of Zanzibar. During this revolution, a group of around 600-800 people stormed the main police stations, seized arms and toppled the government.
D. A. Gunasekara, in an interview with Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunge, pointed out that Karume was a contemporary of Wijeweera at Lumumba University. Wijeweera wanted to follow Karume’s example and seize power by attacking police stations around the country.
Attorney-at-Law Kalyananda Thiranagama, in an interview with Divaina newspaper in 2014, said that Sarath Wijesinghe, the JVP Kegalle District Leader in 1971, believed in Wijeweera’s Zanzibar-inspired strategy. Thiranagama, who was a leader of a breakaway group from the Peking Wing named Gini Pupura (The Spark), attempted to prevent Wijesinghe being recruited by the Wijeweera group. Thiranagama was a believer of the protracted people’s war strategy. Wijesinghe, however, steadfastly believed in Wijeweera’s strategy.
However, there were serious shortcomings within the movement that prevented it from becoming successful. In short, the JVP was ill-prepared on many fronts for what it was embarking on.
One major shortcoming was the military strength of the JVP. They did not have sufficient strength in weapons to take on the police around the country; they only possessed a small number of guns. They made a large number of crude bombs from ordinary gunpowder and a large number of them failed to explode during attacks.
The cadres were unprepared for battle. The JVP did conduct training camps for their members, but although they received extensive political training, their weapons training was utterly inadequate. A sufficient number of weapons was not available even for training purposes. In the camps, they were given weapons training with the help of nothing more than diagrams.
It was merely warfare on paper.
Wijeweera himself had no understanding of weapons. However, he was aware of the serious shortages his movement suffered and wanted to smuggle in weapons from abroad. He asked Viraj Fernando, a sympathiser who had lived in England for a few years, to obtain weapons and support from foreign revolutionary organisations. Fernando later insisted that he had no intention of smuggling weapons. He also stated that the JVP failed to receive any substantial support from foreign organisations.
The JVP, in its bid to launch a revolution within a short period, resorted to gun theft. Former intelligence officer Godahewa Indradasa, in his book Failed Revolts in Sri Lanka (1971 and 1987-1989), states that gun thefts of a similar pattern were reported in the latter part of 1970. There were reports of robberies where only guns and cartridges were taken from the houses that were robbed. This pattern alerted the intelligence officials as to what the plans of the JVP were.
As Victor Ivan points out in his 71 Karalla, it would have been impossible for a revolutionary movement to train a sufficient number of cadres and collect enough weapons to attack police stations throughout the country, without raising alarm. There was a high likelihood of the plans being leaked, even if there were no informants within the movement. Accidents also helped the government to predict the approaching threat. In December 1970, Ivan, who was known as Podi Athula within the movement, was injured during a bomb training session. However, the JVP concealed the true reason for the accident in order to avoid unnecessary trouble from authorities.
Things were to change in March 1971. On March 6, a group of followers of Dharmasekara (who had earlier left the JVP) attacked the US Embassy in Colombo. A police officer who was stabbed later succumbed to his injuries. By this time, the country was abuzz with rumours of a revolt, and the government was becoming even more alert.
The authorities were further alarmed by several accidental explosions, including the explosion at Mars Hall in Peradeniya University on March 20.
Wijeweera had been arrested on March 13 and was remanded in the Jaffna prison. Later, the government imposed a state of emergency. Soon, JVP cadres were being arrested throughout the country.
In the meantime, Wijeweera sent a message indicating that the revolution should be launched if the government repression increased. On April 2, the leading figures of the JVP met at the Sangaramaya hostel in Vidyodaya University (University of Sri Jayewardenepura) and decided to launch the attacks on April 5, at 11:30 p.m.
No Mass Movement
The JVP did not enjoy sufficient support among the masses. It was still a growing movement and had little presence even in certain areas with Sinhalese majorities. It was launching a revolution against a government that was democratically elected by a resounding majority less than a year ago.
Wijeweera had an explanation for the need for an urgent revolution. Before the election in May 1970, Wijeweera predicted that the then United National Party (UNP) government will lose a democratically held election. He argued that the UNP would attempt to remain in power by establishing a military government and that the United Front (UF), composed of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, and the Communist Party (Moscow Wing), did not have a strategy to counter the threat of a military government. Therefore he insisted on arming his movement and preparing to fight such a government.
Had such a coup transpired, the JVP would have gained mass support. However, the UNP did not cling onto power, proving Wijeweera wrong. The enthusiasm for the JVP dwindled among the youth and the people in general. Now they hoped that the new UF government would solve their problems.
The JVP, which had openly supported the UF during the election, could not take up arms against it immediately after its victory. Therefore, Wijeweera developed a new narrative: he insisted that the armed forces were controlled by reactionary forces, and that the threat of a military government had not been reduced.
However, this theory did not gain much popularity except within the ranks of the JVP.
Victor Ivan argues that Wijeweera wanted to launch the revolution as soon as possible because his position within the party was under serious attack from his rivals. Wijeweera had always been paranoid about upcoming leaders, as indicated by his actions against people like Dharmasekara and Sarath Wijesuriya. By early 1971, Wijeweera had a new challenger: Athula Nimalasiri Jayasinghe alias Loku Athula. He was the leader of the armed wing and therefore did have a strong following within the movement. Ivan claims that Wijeweera wanted to settle the score with his rivals after the government was toppled.
No Contingency Plans
The JVP, especially the Wijeweera supporters, believed in the success of their leader’s strategy. They never imagined it would fail. There were dissenting voices, but they were suppressed in the general sense of confidence.
Thiranagama, in his interview with Divaina in 2014, relates a particularly interesting story. During his last discussion with Wijesuriya, Thiranagama had asked the “what if” question: “What if the plan goes wrong?” Wijesuriya had responded saying that it would not. This was the faith of the cadres of the JVP.
There were vague ideas about retreating to Wilpattu or the Sinharaja Forest and carrying on fighting if the original plan went wrong. However, no substantial preparations were made for such a withdrawal. The JVP had rejected the base areas principle of Mao Zedong, which could have been useful in such a contingency.
Wijeweera seemed to have believed that the people would support him. Viraj Fernando would later relate a particularly revealing discussion with Wijeweera. He had asked about the possible reaction by the armed forces when police stations were attacked. “The army would arrive. What happens then?” he had asked. Wijeweera had responded that the people will come forward in defence of the revolution in such an event. (From Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunge’s book 71 Keralla).
However, as events unfolded, people showed no such support for the JVP. In some cases, they helped the security forces locate JVP cadres who were fleeing the approaching troops.
Scattering Of Forces
Since the JVP lacked islandwide support, the logical step during a sudden attack would have been to concentrate on the capital city of the country and the suburbs. The JVP did plan to apprehend the Prime Minister and other officials. However, these plans were to be carried out by a relatively small group and their success depended on the quality of the troops employed. However, except for the few recruits from the armed forces, the JVP lacked a properly trained force to embark on such a dangerous mission.
Meanwhile, the JVP had scant presence in the Western Province in general and in Colombo and Kalutara in particular. According to Nayanananda Wijekulathilake’s account given in Dr. Jayatunge’s 71 Keralla, In Kalutara, there were only 40 cadres who could be mobilised on the night of April 5. It was promised that 175 cadres would be sent from Galle District to Kalutara. None came.
It was the same in Colombo. At the crucial meeting on April 2, Lionel Bopage insisted the attack should be postponed because Colombo was inadequately prepared. Loku Athula had brushed him aside, saying that 1,000 cadres would be sent from Kegalle to bolster the scant troops in Colombo. Not a single one arrived.
The JVP cadres in Wellawaya attacked the police station in that town at 5:00 a.m. on April 5, owing to a miscommunication of orders. Meanwhile, according to intelligence officer Godahewa Indradasa, the government received credible information on planned attacks on police stations. By the evening of April 5, the IGP warned the police stations across the island of the impending danger. Curfew was imposed in Colombo that night.
The element of surprise was the only advantage the JVP possessed. Once it was lost, the insurgents lost the battle.
One can only speculate the possible course of the insurgency if the Wellawaya debacle had not happened, and the Prime Minister and the top military brass had been captured by the rebels. However, one fact is crystal clear: since the JVP enjoyed no international support, even if it had seized power, it would have been condemned by almost all major nations around the world. One can only speculate subsequent events. Perhaps even a military intervention against the JVP by outside powers was not entirely impossible.
Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunge, 71 Karalla – aarambhaye sita avasaanaya dakva poorna samalochanayak (1971 Insurrection ‒ a complete review from the beginning to the end), Agahas Publishers, 2011.
Victor Ivan, 71 Karalla (1971 Insurgency)
Victor Ivan, Sinhala Karalikaruvange Samaja Pasubima (The Social Background of Sinhalese Rebels)
Eric Gamini Jinapriya, Api Anugamanaya Kale Mao ge Moola Kandavuru Nyaayaya (We followed Mao’s base camp theory) ‒ Interview with Kalyananda Thiranagama, Divaina, August 11, 2014.
Mao Zedong, On Protracted War, marxists.org
Godahewa Indradasa, Failed Revolts in Sri Lanka (1971 and 1987 ‒ 1989)
Udeni Sarath Kumara, Wijeweerage Hardaya Saakshiya (Wijeweera’s Conscience), Niyamuwa Publishers.
Featued image: Wijeweera (left) and Lionel Bopage being brought into court. Image courtesy CMU