Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Wijeweera factor

Rebels aren't just made. They are born. They rise from the heat and dust of revolt. They are vilified later, often unduly, but also rightly, for the firebrands they lit to fight other firebrands. This is the case no matter who the rebel is, and no matter what part of the world he leads his uprising in. The legacy they leave behind, however, stays. No matter what, they are remembered. Deaths are commemorated. Lives are celebrated. Assessments of "what might have been" are made. That's how rebels operate, after all. Some of them become icons. Others, very few and dare I say the minority, are cast away, forgotten.

Rohana Wijeweera was killed 25 years ago. To this day. He was among 60,000 people who were butchered by goons from both sides of the political divide in the darkest two years of our post-independence history. He was a hero to some, a villain to others, and controversial to all. Wijeweera wasn't a gentleman politician. He couldn't and didn't want to compromise. He wanted revolt, and in the end he incited one. The trail he left behind, the fuse he lit, burned and scorched. Badly.

And then, just like that, he was shot. Executed. Killed. Maimed. Mutilated.

Notwithstanding his faults, however, he was a strategist, and an excellent one. He identified where we had gone wrong, where the powers that be had "failed" those who had elected them. His is a story that hasn't yet been documented well. It was a rags-to-riches story alright: a rural boy rising up the ranks with his intellect, eventually migrating to the Soviet Union, and coming back nearly bursting with ideas of social change. Yes, he wanted change. But he wasn't ready. Some spark, some vital fuse, was needed.

It happened in the 1970s. Sirimavo Bandaranaike's government, elected on a mandate of going back on the previous government's social and economic policies, tried to hold on. By this time, the traditional Left, represented mainly but not only by the LSSP, had firmly allied themselves with her. In the eyes of the educated and the unemployed, this was unforgivable. They had been betrayed. It was an act of treachery. The gap that resulted from this needed to be filled, quickly. It needed an insurrection, which was what 1971 gave. And from that, the man was "made".

Rohana Wijeweera was not a born politician. He knew however the key requirement of all budding politicians: emotion. Spicing his speeches and calls to arms with raw, unrefined rhetoric, Wijeweera appealed to those who felt they had been betrayed by the very people they had brought to power. Left with no other option, they embraced him. The state, for the first time in our post-independence history, was challenged by a pack of rebels. Overnight and for the next 20 years, Wijeweera became Sri Lanka's most wanted man, hunted wherever he went.

Speculation can be and is useless. 25 years is a long time. We don't know what might have been. Perhaps Wijeweera was not your kind of rebel. Perhaps this is why those who vilify him still remember and cherish other rebels. Che Guevara, for instance. The truth was that he led a movement that moved everyone who came near it. "Revolution and nothing but" was its slogan. That's what he got, and what everyone he led got. To put it simply, they were mesmerised by him. The truth is that while 59,999 other people died out of the uprising he provoked, it took some time for his end to come. When it did, the movement he had formed began to die out.

The years 1988 and 1989 are not forgotten. That was a time of river canals turning into mortuaries, of rivers turning into pools of blood, and of streets and lanes turning into piles of bodies. A time best forgotten, but always remembered. Wijeweera incited it, true. But revolution was met by counterrevolution, each as bloody as the other. The screams and whimpers of those dying were the same no matter what their political affiliation would have been. Neither party could be innocent of what they succumbed to, then. Not Wijeweera, not those who killed him.

This doesn't erase away what he caused, of course, and for many of us he will remain as controversial as he always was. 25 years later, the party he led still stands. It is a matter for speculation whether those who succeeded the man followed him, and I will not concern myself with that here. But then, there's always a question that comes into my mind: what if?

What if Rohana Wijeweera wasn't jailed at the time of the first insurrection? What if, instead of locking him up and inciting the revolutionary in him, the powers that be had asked him into a political contest? What if J. R. Jayawardena never released him from prison and kept him there for the rest of his 20-year old sentence? What if 1988 and 1989 never happened? What if Wijeweera wasn't killed? Would we have been all the better for these things? Or would we have been under a cloud of smoke waiting to be released from a mountain, waiting to puff up and ruin everything?

25 years ago, the only really "radical" political movement Sri Lanka ever saw had its leader eliminated. Those who killed him in turn succumbed to the forces they had unleashed. It is a time I would not wish to return to. A time I know we shall never experience again. But from among the ashes and dust of that bloody chapter in our history, we see one man, perhaps not a shrewd politician but a very good strategist, rise up. Rebels aren't killed that easily. Silencing them through bullets will never work. The truth is that the movements they provoke and forces they unleash remain tagged on to them. Maybe that's the best way we can all take stock of Rohana Wijeweera, on this day and every day we remember him.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, November 13 2014