Communists Seek Comeback in Upcoming Vote

Sri Lankan Communists, crushed with great loss of life in two failed rebellions in the past 30 years, now seek political power through the ballot box.

The Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People's Liberation Front, has put the ghosts of its tormented past to rest and hopes parliamentary elections Oct. 10 will leave it as the biggest player after the country's two main political parties.

"We have a plan to rebuild this country, which has been destroyed by the wealthy class," said Chandrasena Wijesinghe, party leader in Galle district in southern Sri Lanka where the group has its base. A portrait of Lenin looked down from behind him in a dimly lighted room, while outside red flags fluttered over the seaside resort town.

Groups of party workers, including young girls and a Buddhist monk, knocked on village doors to spread the party message. "Your vote is a chance to save this country," a young female canvasser told the women in one house.

Although the JVP has little support elsewhere in the country, analysts say it should win around eight seats and hold the balance in a parliament widely expected to be hung.

More blood was shed in Sri Lanka's Communist revolts of 1971 and 1987 than in the ongoing Tamil separatist war that has been waged since 1983. Yet in its colorful campaign the JVP makes scarcely a mention of its bloodstained history.

The party, mostly unemployed youth from the majority Sinhalese community, first took up arms in 1971 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the mother of current President Chandrika Kumaratunga, was prime minister.

That rebellion was crushed with the loss of an estimated 20,000 lives, but peace in the south was short-lived. The JVP rose in revolt again in 1987, aiming to establish a Marxist state in a campaign partly triggered by public anger over the arrival of troops from neighboring India to enforce a peace pact with Tamil separatists in the island's north.

5,000 Killed

Leftist rebels are thought to have killed 5,000 politicians and officials and destroyed millions of dollars worth of government property. The government cracked down and troops in shadowy death squads went on the prowl, killing thousands of JVP supporters, whose bodies were left on burning tires by the roadsides or near rivers. Human rights groups estimate that 60,000 people, many of them innocent, died on both sides.

"I am not angry, only sad. It was such a waste," said Y.H. Saman, who lost two brothers, both left-wing activists.

J.W. Peiris, a farmer, lost his son who worked for the government and had little to do with politics. People in a neighboring village later told the family the army had picked up the young man. Peiris wrote to a presidential commission looking into disappearances and got $315 as compensation.

The left has let sleeping dogs lie, but political analysts said voters were still haunted by the party's troubled past.

"They are now very much part of the democratic mainstream, but they have to constantly struggle with the people's perception of a violent, ruthless group," said Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives.

The JVP has instead sought to focus on the ethnic conflict raging in the island's north and says devolving powers to the regions, including one administered by minority Tamils, could ultimately divide the country.

JVP leaders say the underlying cause of the separatist conflict is the unequal treatment of Tamils and this was the issue that must be addressed, rather than devolving power.

"They are getting ready to give the country to Prabhakaran, you must stop that," a JVP speaker told a public meeting, referring to the chief of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

Sri Lanka's ruling People's Alliance last month presented to parliament constitutional reforms that spell more political powers for Tamils in the north and east in order to wean them away from the LTTE, but opposition groups and Buddhist monks united against the package and it fell through.

President Kumaratunga has since said she will convert the new chamber into a constituent assembly and get the radical reforms passed by a simple majority.