Where were the LTTE & JVP strongest in 1988?

I’m in the process of trying to recreate the two JVP rebellions in Sri Lanka. One admittedly rough measure I’m using of armed group strength is a group’s ability to drive down turnout when they call for elections to be boycotted (caveats abound – many things drive turnout, but less then 30% turnout is not normal for a Sri Lankan election).

The 1988 Presidential election provides one way to get a sense of the geographic patterns of armed group strength (the all-Sri Lanka turnout average was 55.32% in 1988). Neither the LTTE nor the JVP wanted voters involved in these elections; the JVP in particular was unleashing a total war against UNP politicians and supporters during this period (only mid-way through the war did they go after the security forces). Here’s a map of Sri Lankan electoral districts, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Districts of Sri Lanka

In Tamil/partly-Tamil areas, we see Vanni electoral district down at 13.79% and Jaffna at 21.72%, with Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts coming in at 58.48% and 53.81%. The IPKF and EPRLF would be able to drive up those numbers for the 1989 parliamentary elections, but Jaffna and Vanni were clearly “abnormal” in 1988 and comparatively in 1989 as well. The more ethnically mixed composition of Trinco and Batti, the greater presence of Indian-linked Tamil paramilitaries in those areas, and initial northern social core of the LTTE are all reflected in these differences.

The Sinhalese areas are quite interesting. Hambantota, Matale, Matara, Moneragala, and Polonnaruwa are all below 30% turnout, while Colombo, Kandy/Mahanuwara, Kegalle, Ratnapura, Puttalam, Ampara/Digamadulla, Nuwara-Eliya, and Gampaha are all over 68%. The JVP’s impact on the Sinhalese heartland was spatially very heterogeneous: Kandy neighbors Matale and Ratnapura neighbors both Matara and Hambantota. We need to understand how seemingly-similar rural Sinhalese districts ended up taking such radically different political/military trajectories.

There is much more I will do with these (and other) elections to try to understand this divergence. But for now, this gives a crude but useful overview of where these two conflicts were likely the most intense in 1988 Sri Lanka’s cauldron of violence.

Lenin’s Sealed Train: Sri Lanka edition

It’s always fascinating to think about when and why governments support armed actors or political movements that later turn against them in violent fashion (and of course when these groups instead remain controlled or play ball).

We see this kind of “blowback” in the Indian Punjab in the 1980s, the radicalization of Pakistani militant groups that had been fostered by the state, and in the clashes between the MQM and its various former/future political sponsors in Karachi over time. More indirectly but very dramatically, the German Imperial High Command’s decision to send Lenin back to Russia worked nicely in the very short term, but in the long run didn’t do a whole lot for Germany’s strategic position in Europe.

I hadn’t realized that the United National Party did this in 1977 Sri Lanka with those who had been involved in the 1971 JVP revolt. According to Wickremasinghe 2014 (p. 250), “in 1977 the UNP returned to power and the prisoners of 1971 [many of whom had previously been given life sentences] were given an unconditional pardon and released. This was not a purely altruistic gesture on the part of J.R. Jayewardene but a decision based on the analysis that a reconstituted [ultra-Left] JVP would undermine the [leftist-ish] SLFP.”

JR and the UNP would be in the gun sights of the JVP within a decade.


Myanmar’s Militias

John Buchanan has forgotten more about Shan State than I will ever know about anything. In this new Asia Foundation monograph, Militias in Myanmar, he gives a great overview of the country’s historical and, especially, contemporary militia scene. This is a particularly welcome addition because so much attention to Myanmar (including my own) focuses on current and former insurgent groups, but these are only  a small slice of a far wider range of armed actors. It provides a level of granularity missing from most of the current press coverage of Myanmar’s conflict zones. Militias in Myanmar is a nice complement to the Foundation’s earlier The Contested Corners of Asia and to growing political science interest in militias.

But Buchanan also offers the sobering note that “In the case of militias, much basic data is also beyond reach. The exact number of militias and militia personnel is unknown and perhaps unknowable.” Like with the JVP’s wars, Manipur, or Balochistan, among many others, there is a huge amount we just don’t know about even very simple descriptive issues. Which should remind us all to be extremely humble in the kinds of claims we can confidently make.


Sources on the JVP rebellions

The two JVP rebellions are among the least-studied conflicts in South Asia. The first, in 1971, killed 5,000-10,000 people; the second, from 1987-1990 killed roughly 40,000.  Though distinct conflicts, they both fused ultra-left ideology with Sinhalese nationalism. The 1987-1990 conflict, against the backdrop of the Tamil war and the Indian Peacekeeping Force operation in the north, pushed the state to its coercive limits and devolved into a total war of death squads, civilian victimization, and brute force (Michael Ondaatje’s unsparingly grim Anil’s Ghost is set during this period). The JVP represents an unusual organization that launched a rebellion, returned to political party activity, launched another rebellion, and returned once again to being a “normal” political party.

Unfortunately, there’s not much written on the JVP wars compared to the Tamil separatist conflicts: they were shorter, did not involve a diaspora, international politics, or articulate English-speaking spokesmen overseas, and were not marked by the dramatic military innovations and wildly-swinging battle tides of the Tamil wars. Instead, these were intense, no-holds-barred intra-Sinhalese wars largely out of the international community’s gaze. This makes the conflict quite difficult to study. With a big assist from Nira Wickramasinghe’s Sri Lanka in the Modern Age (chapter 6, especially footnote 78), below are some useful sources. One thing that jumps out at me is how essential area studies journals are in situations like this; relying on press accounts or web-scraping won’t get you very far in these kinds of cases.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. “Some Comments on the Social Backgrounds of the April 1971 Insurgency in Sri Lanka (Ceylon).” The Journal of Asian Studies 33.3 (1974): 367-84.

Matthews, Bruce. “Sinhala Cultural and Buddhist Patriotic Organizations in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” Pacific Affairs 61.4 (1988): 620-32.

Kearney, Robert N. “A Note on the Fate of the 1971 Insurgents in Sri Lanka.” The Journal of Asian Studies 36.3 (1977): 515-19.

Kearney, Robert N. “Youth Protest in the Politics of Sri Lanka.” Sociological Focus 13.3 (1980): 293-313.

Arasaratnam, S. “The Ceylon Insurrection of April 1971: Some Causes and Consequences.” Pacific Affairs 45.3 (1972): 356-71.

Moore, Mick. “Thoroughly Modern Revolutionaries: The JVP in Sri Lanka.” Modern Asian Studies 27.3 (1993): 593-642.

Asian Survey runs annual “Country X in Year Y” pieces – the articles on Sri Lanka in 1987-1990 (Pfaffenberger on 1987Matthews on 1988, Kodikara in 1989, Singer in 1990) are extremely useful overviews.

G.B. Keerawalla has a useful piece – “The Janata Vimukthi Peramuna and the 1971 Uprising” in the Sri Lankan journal Social Science Review, Vol. 2. This (at least for my library) needs to be ILL’ed in hard copy.

Alles, A. C. (1990). The J.V.P., 1969-1989. Colombo.

Senaratne, J. P. (1997). Political violence in Sri Lanka, 1977-1990: Riots, insurrections, counter-insurgencies, foreign intervention. Amsterdam: VU University Press.

Goonetileke, H. A. I. (1975). The April 1971 insurrection in Ceylon: A bibliographical commentary. Leuven.

The chapter by G.H. Peiris in this edited volume and by Jayadeva Uyangoda in this volume are also helpful.

I’m in pursuit of a couple of books that appear to offer campaign histories of Sri Lankan Army operations; hopefully they will provide some helpful information on SLA operations against the JVP (though the police were also very involved) and LTTE. More on that to come.