Janaka Perera, in The Daily News, 5 April 2023, entitled “Oh What A Lovely War for the Colonels of Ceylon – Remembering the April 1971 insurgency – a reporter’s experience,” …. With this qualifying Note: “This however is not meant to be a reflection on JVP’s present-day politics but only a brief recording of history.”
April 5th marks the 52nd anniversary of JVP’s April insurgency of 1971. It saw the first armed insurrection in post-independence Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). All legally recognized political parties at the time cooperated with the then Government in suppressing the insurgency since they did not consider it a people’s uprising.
Patabendige Don Nandasiri Wijeweera aka Rohana Wijeweera first came into the limelight somewhere in 1970 when he was produced at the Nuwara Eliya Magistrate Courts with a comrade of his named Jayakody, a schoolteacher, on a charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm. I was able to get B/W photos of the two of them from Police Headquarters which were published on the front page of the evening Ceylon Observer. Young Wijeweera had no beard then. That was the first time a newspaper carried a picture of the JVP Leader.
At the time the JVP (then better-known as the Che Guevara movement) was supporting the Opposition United Front’s election campaign against the UNP Government. Simultaneously, they were preparing for an armed insurrection if things did not turn out in their favour after the polls.
On August 10 the JVP held its maiden public rally at Hyde Park, Colombo. Senior Journalist H.L.D. Mahindapala (News Editor, Observer) and I covered a JVP meeting held at Hyde Park, Colombo. On the JVP stage was a huge red coloured map of Sri Lanka made of either plywood or hardboard. Some young women who attended the meeting removed their gold earrings and donated them to the JVP as their contribution to the party fund.
About a week later on August 18, 1970 a press conference was held at police Headquarters in Fort, Colombo. It was one of the monthly media briefings held at the time, though the main topic at this conference was the JVP’s clandestine activity.
The journalists representing Lake House at the conference were Sarath de Alwis and I (Ceylon Observer), Stanley Premaratne (Dinamina), Brian Gomes (Janatha), and Kandiah Thiru (Thinakaran). The other journalists were from the Times of Ceylon Ltd. the Independent Newspapers Ltd. (Dawasa/Sun Group) and the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation (now SLBC), the country’s only radio broadcasting station at the time.
Inspector General of Police, Stanley Senanayake presided over the press conference attended by DIGs J. Van Sanden and Rudra Rajasingham (later IGP), Police Superintendents S.S. Joseph, D.S.S. Jayatilleke, B.R. Dole and Edward Gunawardena and ASP M. Selvaratnam.
At the media briefing responding to reporters’ questions the Police officers said that the Che Guevara group was an insurgent movement. The officers further said that all provincial Police stations had been informed about their activities. According to them there were no reports of the insurgents receiving foreign assistance, but they had no shortage of funds since they were printing large number of propaganda posters to be put up throughout the country (later when the JVP’s connection with North Korea was proved the Government suspended diplomatic relations with that country)
If an insurgency broke out the Police would have to get the assistance of the three Armed Forces, the officers said. The Armed Forces formed after the end of colonial rule had hardly any combat experience. The military was mainly a ceremonial outfit used mainly to deal with hartals and communal riots. The ordinary cop on the beat was armed with only a baton. In controlling riots the Police used batons and riot shields. Firearms were used only in emergency situations.
The few military and Police officers who had any combat experience at the time were those who had served overseas in World War II. Among them were Major-General Richard Udugama (British-Indian Army), Air-Vice Marshal Rohan Amarasekera (Royal Air Force) and SP Senarath Kadigawa formerly of the British Red Berets (paratroopers).
From late 1969 to 1970 the CID Special Branch (later Police Intelligence Services Division) had begun arresting suspected insurgents. The CID got wind of plans to create disturbances by a group of youths who were collecting arms and committing robberies to collect funds for their cause.
The Police move to arrest them was however opposed by the then Opposition, the SLFP-led United Front coalition. They called the ‘Che Guevara movement’ a figment of the imagination of Dudley Senanayake’s UNP Government. The reason was the JVP as part of their strategy at the time campaigned for the coalition in order to defeat the UNP. The United Front was unaware that they and the rest of the country were in for a rude awakening the year after the former’s electoral victory.
The armed attack on the United States Embassy, Colombo, on March 6, 1971, not by the JVP but a rival Maoist group called the Dharmasekara Gang made Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike declare a country-wide State of Emergency on March 16, 1971. The decision to detain Wijeweera in Jaffna followed a high-level security conference in Colombo so that he would have no contact with his party members since there was no JVP activity in the North.
In the meantime ,the Police had arrested Wijeweera on March 13, in Ampara. The next day he was kept at the Batticaloa remand jail and later brought back to Colombo on March 16. Later he and two others, Premaratne and Lal Somasiri were removed to Jaffna.
I was reporting from my home in Dehiwala for early duty at the Ceylon Observer News Desk around 5.30 a.m. on April 5 when I saw a group of highly agitated policemen wearing old fashioned steel helmets and armed with vintage Lee Enfield bolt action rifles standing in front of the station. It did not take long for me to find out that the reason was the pre-dawn JVP attack on the Wellawaya Police Station killing two policemen.
According to one of my good contacts the late S. Vamadevan, DIG, Police HQ was abuzz with the Wellawaya incident. IGP Stanley Senanayake was shuttling between his office and Prime Minister’s official residence for conferences to assess the situation. While Vamadevan was on duty with Cyril Herath (later IGP) at HQ with the IGP they were informed that all Police stations were going to be attacked.
The JVP High Command on April 2 had decided to attack all police stations on the night of April 5 but the cadres at Wellawaya had mistaken it for a pre-dawn strike on the same day. The premature attack alerted the Government.
Altogether 92 Police stations were attacked between April 5 and 8.
In Colombo, the Borella Police reported hand bomb explosions. The insurgents at the time did not have sophisticated weapons like T-56 or factory-made hand grenades but only stolen shot guns, improvised firearms (gal katas), Molotov cocktails and crude home-made bombs. Vamadevan and Cyril Herath decided to enforce an unofficial Police curfew, which proved decisive in preventing a major disaster. Following the decision all Police radio cars fanned out and told people by loud hailer to return to their homes and remain indoors.
The Manager at Eros Cinema, Borella too stopped the film show scheduled for that evening. Unknown to him this unforeseen development caused panic among a group of insurgents detailed to kill time at the cinema until the hour came for them to proceed to Rosmead Place and capture the Prime Minister dead or alive. Now they had to quickly abandon their mission and vanish leaving behind the hand bombs they had brought for the operation. Police later found the bombs at the cinema.
In Jaffna on the night of April 5 there was a passion play, with a large crowd in attendance at the Duraiappah stadium, adjoining the Jaffna Police Station and the fort. Around midnight there was a noise similar to that of fire crackers. At first it sounded like part of the event at the stadium‚ says then SP Jaffna, Ramachandra Sundaralingam: “I got a call from the Police reserve sergeant shouting in Sinhala that terrorists were attacking the Police stations with bombs, and urging me to be careful. I called all senior Police officers to report for immediate duty since it was a plot to attack the Jaffna prison and free Wijeweera. Police jeeps entering the main gate were pelted with hand-bombs”.
The operation to free the JVP leader was undertaken by 150 Sinhala youths who had come all the way to Jaffna by train from Colombo. The SP rang the Palaly Army Camp and got a military unit to rush to the spot along with a police riot squad to do a search operation. They arrested nearly 90 youths running around the ramparts.
According to Sunderalingam, the Defence Ministry’s orders via radio link were: “….No inquests, no post-mortem. Take tough measures. My telephone link was completely cut off. I made it very clear to Headquarters Inspector Jaffna Police that all arrested insurgents be kept in safe custody….”
Although the Sri Lankan Police and military at the time can hardly be compared to our security forces today, it was not that difficult for the State to defeat a weakly armed rebel group naively attempting to seize power without understanding the country’s ground reality.
The biggest mistake the JVP made was to launch an insurrection less than a year after the SLFP-led United Front won a resounding victory in the 1970 Parliamentary Election. This was the main reason they did not have the support of not only the general public, but even the other Left parties.
The Government of the day was fortunate that the JVP had no international support worthy of its name. On the contrary the Soviet Union, China and the United States were among the countries that rushed to assist the government in its hour of crisis.
The Sri Lanka Air Force (then known as the Royal Ceylon Air Force) was even equipped with several Russian-built MIG 17 jet fighter aircraft, though it was like using a sledge hammer to kill an ant.
India sent a unit of Gurkha troops to guard the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake.
Indian warships patrolled the sea off the Sri Lankan coast.
The insurgency collapsed within two weeks though mopping up operations continued.
By June the so-called revolution was over.
Many lives on both sides as well as those of civilians were lost. Public and private property worth millions of rupees were damaged or destroyed.
Some foreign media added a touch of humour to their reports on the Army suppressing the insurgency. For instance, Colin Smith of the London Observer of May 2, 1971 reported (excerpt):
“OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR FOR THE COLONELS OF CEYLON” …. Depicting how an army equipped with machine guns, heavy artillery. Light artillery, armoured cars, planes, helicopters waged ‘war’ with rebel groups armed only with shotguns, hand bombs and a few machine guns….”