United National Party ruled for 17 years from 1977 to 1994. Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayewardene, became prime minister in 1977. He reversed Bandaranaike’s socialist economic policies and made an effort to lure back foreign inventors. He devalued the rupee to encourage export, encouraged tourism and established a free trade zone and promoted the Mahaweli dam project to provide electricity and water for irrigation agriculture. The economy improved. One the biggest factors behind it improvement was money sent by a growing number of Sri Lankans working in the Middle East.

Under Jayewardene a new constitution was implemented in 1978, Jayewardene became president and Sirimavo Bandaranaike was found guilty of “abuse of power” and banned from parliament. He tried to placate the Tamils by making Tamil a national language — in Tamil areas.

The UNP government came into power and decided to run an open economy with few restrictions. The private sector became the main engine of growth. The rupee was devalued by 46 percent from its former artificial value. This immediately stimulated growth and received the backing and financial support of the World Bank. This UNP government lasted for 17 years. When the SLFP-led coalition known as the Peoples Alliance was elected to government in 1994, it accepted the importance of this open market economy as a positive growth strategy for the country. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Jayewardene retired in 1988. He was replaced by Ranadinghe Premadasa, who presided over a period of human rights violations and terror that ranked higher than anywhere else in the world. In the late 1980s the Sri Lankan military was involved in kidnapping and executing high school boys in a crackdown on extremist parties.

The government was also was notorious for its use of torture. A Tamil doctor, who headed a human rights organization, told the International Herald Tribune he was arrested in 1984 and tortured during his 22 months in detention. “I was hung upside down and beaten with a metal rod. I was forced to inhale chili smoke. My knees were damaged so I couldn’t walk. I saw people die. The guards were always encouraging me to run away, so they could shoot me in the back.”

UNP as the Opposition 1970-1977

After Dudley Senanayake died in 1973, a struggle for the leadership of the UNP ensued between his nephew, Rukman Senanayake, and Jayewardene, a more distant relative. Jayewardene had been involved in politics for years, having been elected to the State Council, the parliament's colonial predecessor, as early as 1943. A leader of the UNP since independence, Jayewardene had deferred to the Senanayake family. But in 1970, when the UNP suffered a resounding defeat to the United Front, Jayewardene became more assertive. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Jayewardene’s party manifesto — The UNP in Opposition, 1970 — contended that the majority of Sri Lankans perceived the party as the party of the "haves, the affluent, and the employers." He also contended that the people had come to perceive the SLFP as the party of the "have nots, the needy, and the unemployed." Jayewardene moved forcefully to refurbish UNP's image and announced that the party would inaugurate an era of a just and righteous (dharmishta) society. After becoming president of the party, Jayewardene began to restructure the UNP and make the party more attractive, especially to young people. By the time of the general election of 1977, Jayewardene had developed an extensive grass roots party organization. *

Election of 1977 and Tamil Political Parties

After molding the UNP around his personality and having successfully built up the party's infrastructure, Jayewardene easily became prime minister. The UNP won an unprecedented landslide victory in the 1977 elections, winning 140 of 168 seats. The SLFP was reduced to eight seats. The Sri Lankan Tamils, however, gave little support to Jayewardene or any other non-Tamil politician. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Sri Lankan Tamils entered the parliamentary election fray under the banner of TULF, which had elevated its earlier demand for regional self-rule to a demand for an independent state, or Eelam. TULF became the largest opposition party in Parliament and captured all fourteen seats in the heavily Tamil Northern Province and four east coast seats. TULF won in every constituency with a Tamil majority on the island, except one. In Jaffna District, TULF candidates won all eleven seats, although forty-seven other candidates contested the seats.

TULF originally included the largest Indian (plantation) Tamil political organization, the Ceylon Workers' Congress, but after the 1977 election, the leader of the Ceylon Workers' Congress accepted a cabinet post in the UNP government. The Sri Lankan Tamil demand for Tamil Eelam had never been of central concern to the Indian Tamils, who lived mostly outside the territory being claimed for the Tamil state.

Rise of Tamil Separatism in the 1970s

The opportunities for peace that the 1977 UNP electoral victory provided were soon lost. Just before the 1977 elections, Chelvanayakam, the charismatic leader of TULF, died, leaving the party without strong leadership. A Tamil separatist underground (which had split into six or more rival and sometimes violently hostile groups that were divided by ideology, caste, and personal antagonisms) was filling the vacuum left by the weakened TULF and was gaining the allegiance of an increasing number of disenchanted Tamil youths. These groups were known collectively as the Tamil Tigers.

The strongest of these separatists were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), founded in 1972 by Velupillai Prabhakaran. The LTTE was responsible for some of the earliest and most gruesome acts of Tamil terrorism. The LTTE first gained notoriety by its 1975 assassination of the mayor of Jaffna, a supporter of the SLFP.

During the 1977 elections, many Tamil youths began to engage in extraparliamentary and sometimes violent measures in their bid for a mandate for a separate state. These measures precipitated a Sinhalese backlash. An apparently false rumor that Sinhalese policemen had died at the hands of Tamil terrorists, combined with other rumors of alleged anti-Sinhalese statements made by Tamil politicians, sparked brutal communal rioting that engulfed the island within two weeks of the new government's inauguration. The rioting marked the first major outbreak of communal violence in the nineteen years since the riots of 1958. Casualties were many, especially among Tamils, both the Sri Lankan Tamils of Jaffna and the Indian Tamil plantation workers. The Tamil Refugee Rehabilitation Organization estimated the death toll at 300.*

Constitution of 1978

After coming to power, Jayewardene directed the rewriting of the constitution. The document that was produced, the new Constitution of 1978, drastically altered the nature of governance in Sri Lanka. It replaced the previous Westminsterstyle , parliamentary government with a new presidential system modeled after France, with a powerful chief executive. The president was to be elected by direct suffrage for a six-year term and was empowered to appoint, with parliamentary approval, the prime minister and to preside over cabinet meetings. Jayewardene became the first president under the new Constitution and assumed direct control of the government machinery and party. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The new regime ushered in an era that did not auger well for the SLFP. Jayewardene's UNP government accused former prime minister Bandaranaike of abusing her power while in office from 1970 to 1977. In October 1980, Bandaranaike's privilege to engage in politics was removed for a period of seven years, and the SLFP was forced to seek a new leader. After a long and divisive battle, the party chose her son, Anura. Anura Bandaranaike was soon thrust into the role of the keeper of his father's legacy, but he inherited a political party torn apart by factionalism and reduced to a minimal role in the Parliament.*

The 1978 Constitution included substantial concessions to Tamil sensitivities. Although TULF did not participate in framing the Constitution, it continued to sit in Parliament in the hope of negotiating a settlement to the Tamil problem. TULF also agreed to Jayewardene's proposal of an all-party conference to resolve the island's ethnic problems. Jayewardene's UNP offered other concessions in a bid to secure peace. Sinhala remained the official language and the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka, but Tamil was given a new "national language" status. Tamil was to be used in a number of administrative and educational circumstances. Jayewardene also eliminated a major Tamil grievance by abrogating the "standardization" policy of the United Front government, which had made university admission criteria for Tamils more difficult. In addition, he offered many top-level positions, including that of minister of justice, to Tamil civil servants.*

While TULF, in conjunction with the UNP, pressed for the allparty conference, the Tamil Tigers escalated their terrorist attacks, which provoked Sinhalese backlash against Tamils and generally precluded any successful accommodation. In reaction to the assassination of a Jaffna police inspector, the Jayewardene government declared an emergency and dispatched troops, who were given an unrealistic six months to eradicate the terrorist threat.*

The government passed the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act in 1979. The act was enacted as a temporary measure, but it later became permanent legislation. The International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations condemned the act as being incompatible with democratic traditions. Despite the act, the number of terrorist acts increased. Guerrillas began to hit targets of high symbolic value such as post offices and police outposts, provoking government counterattacks. As an increasing number of civilians were caught in the fighting, Tamil support widened for the "boys," as the guerrillas began to be called. Other large, well-armed groups began to compete with LTTE. The better-known included the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, Tamil Eelam Liberation Army, and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization. Each of these groups had forces measured in the hundreds if not thousands. The government claimed that many of the terrorists were operating from training camps in India's Tamil Nadu State. The Indian government repeatedly denied this claim. With the level of violence mounting, the possibility of negotiation became increasingly distant.*

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna: Leftist Group

The government and police waged war against the Janatha Vimukthis Peramuna (JVP, the People’s Liberation Army), an extreme Sinhalese nationalist- Marxist group, which launched unsuccessful armed revolts in 1971 and 1987. It is estimated at between 20,000 and 60,000 people died or disappeared as a result of torture, assassinations and fighting connected with this conflict. Tens of thousands of people suspected as being insurgents were rounded up and tortured. Many were never seen again.

The JVP armed insurrection in 1971 lasted for two years, followed by three years of sporadic outbursts. The JVP resurrected itself in the late 1980s with a subtle form of urban terrorism, but it was brought under control by a ruthless program of suppression by the government. Both the LTTE and the JVP have been serious impediments to steady economic growth in Sri Lanka.

The JVP drew worldwide attention when it launched an insurrection against the Bandaranaike government in April 1971. Although the insurgents were young, poorly armed, and inadequately trained, they succeeded in seizing and holding major areas in Southern and Central provinces before they were defeated by the security forces. Their attempt to seize power created a major crisis for the government and forced a fundamental reassessment of the nation's security needs. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The first rebellion occurred when the Sinhalese Marxist leader Rohana Wijeweera, a drop out of Moscow’s Lumumba University, tried insight peasant in southern Sri Lanka to rebel. The rebels movements was poorly organized. Even so the JVP came very close to toppling the government, which said more about the poor state of the government than the strength of the JVP. The JVP was able to draw recruits from disenfranchised youth who had grown restless as the economy stagnated and unemployment rose in the 1960s and 70s. There were accusations that they were aided by North Korea.

The Nixon administration, fearing the domino effect and a Vietnam in South Asia, supplied arms and military equipment to the government. Thrs helped the government ruthlessly put down the rebellion and round up is leaders. When the leaders were released from prison in the 1980s they fomented another rebellion

History of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna

The movement that became the JVP was started in the late 1960s by Rohana Wijeweera, the son of a businessman from the seaport of Tangalla, Hambantota District. An excellent student, Wijeweera had been forced to give up his studies for financial reasons. Through friends of his father, a member of the Ceylon Communist Party, Wijeweera successfully applied for a scholarship in the Soviet Union, and in 1960 at the age of seventeen, he went to Moscow to study medicine at Patrice Lumumba University. While in Moscow, he studied Marxist ideology but, because of his openly expressed sympathies for Maoist revolutionary theory, he was denied a visa to return to the Soviet Union after a brief trip home in 1964. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Over the next several years, he participated in the pro-Beijing branch of the Ceylon Communist Party, but he was increasingly at odds with party leaders and impatient with its lack of revolutionary purpose. His success in working with youth groups and his popularity as a public speaker led him to organize his own movement in 1967. Initially identified simply as the New Left, this group drew on students and unemployed youths from rural areas, most of them in the sixteen-to-twenty-five-age- group. Many of these new recruits were members of lower castes (Karava and Durava) who felt that their economic interests had been neglected by the nation's leftist coalitions. The standard program of indoctrination, the so-called Five Lectures, included discussions of Indian imperialism, the growing economic crisis, the failure of the island's communist and socialist parties, and the need for a sudden, violent seizure of power.*

Between 1967 and 1970, the group expanded rapidly, gaining control of the student socialist movement at a number of major university campuses and winning recruits and sympathizers within the armed forces. Some of these latter supporters actually provided sketches of police stations, airports, and military facilities that were important to the initial success of the revolt. In order to draw the newer members more tightly into the organization and to prepare them for a coming confrontation, Wijeweera opened "education camps" in several remote areas along the south and southwestern coasts. These camps provided training in Marxism-Leninism and in basic military skills.*

While developing secret cells and regional commands, Wijeweera's group also began to take a more public role during the elections of 1970. His cadres campaigned openly for the United Front of Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike, but at the same time they distributed posters and pamphlets promising violent rebellion if Bandaranaike did not address the interests of the proletariat. In a manifesto issued during this period, the group used the name Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna for the first time. Because of the subversive tone of these publications, the United National Party government had Wijeweera detained during the elections, but the victorious Bandaranaike ordered his release in July 1970. In the politically tolerant atmosphere of the next few months, as the new government attempted to win over a wide variety of unorthodox leftist groups, the JVP intensified both the public campaign and the private preparations for a revolt. Although their group was relatively small, the members hoped to immobilize the government by selective kidnapping and sudden, simultaneous strikes against the security forces throughout the island. Some of the necessary weapons had been bought with funds supplied by the members. For the most part, however, they relied on raids against police stations and army camps to secure weapons, and they manufactured their own bombs.*

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Returns in the 1980s

In 1987 the JVP reemerged organized a series of strikes and was blamed for a number of political murders. By the end of 1988, Sri Lanka was in a severe crisis. The Marxists were terrorizing the south and the economy was in ruins. The tourism industry was wiped out after a group of tourists had to be airlifted to safety.

Under the six years of emergency rule that followed the uprising, the JVP remained dormant. After the victory of the United National Party in the 1977 elections, however, the new government attempted to broaden its mandate with a period of political tolerance. Wijeweera was freed, the ban was lifted, and the JVP entered the arena of legal political competition. As a candidate in the 1982 presidential elections, Wijeweera finished fourth, with more than 250,000 votes (as compared with Jayewardene's 3.2 million). [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

During this period, and especially as the Tamil conflict to the north became more intense, there was a marked shift in the ideology and goals of the JVP. Initially Marxist in orientation, and claiming to represent the oppressed of both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, the group emerged increasingly as a Sinhalese nationalist organization opposing any compromise with the Tamil insurgency. This new orientation became explicit in the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983. Because of its role in inciting violence, the JVP was once again banned and its leadership went underground.*

Leftist JVP Revolt in 1987-89

The group's activities intensified in the second half of 1987 in the wake of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord. The prospect of Tamil autonomy in the north together with the presence of Indian troops stirred up a wave of Sinhalese nationalism and a sudden growth of antigovernment violence. During 1987 a new group emerged that was an offshoot of the JVP — the Patriotic Liberation Organization (Deshapreni Janatha Viyaparaya — DJV). The DJV claimed responsibility for the August 1987 assassination attempts against the president and prime minister. In addition, the group launched a campaign of intimidation against the ruling party, killing more than seventy members of Parliament between July and November. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Capitalizing on opposition in the Sinhala community to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, the JVP launched an intimidation campaign. Using terrorist tactics, including assassinations, strikes, and other weapons of intimidation, it brought the country to a virtual standstill several times in 1988 and 1989. Several thousand people died in JVP-instigated violence and much property, particularly government-owned property, was destroyed. The deaths included government officials, members of political parties who supported the Accord, and innocent civilians. The government fought back, killing another several thousand people suspected to be JVP party members, supporters, or their families. In late 1989, the JVP party leaders had virtually all been killed or arrested, and the JVP threat appeared to have failed. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

According to the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: ““Sinhalese populations both directly and indirectly have also suffered” as a result of te conflict with the Tamil Tiger. “A serious spin-off from the intensification of ethnic hostilities and the changing fortunes and uncertainties of the war has been growing civilian unrest among the Sinhala population. A major insurrection organized in the late 1980s by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), also known as the Peoples Liberation Movement, and largely supported by unemployed rural and urban Sinhala youth, activated repressive military and paramilitary organizations of the Sri Lanka state. These, which had assumed much of their character because of the larger ethnic conflict, focused their acutely destructive capacities on the Sinhala civilian population (and not merely JVP supporters). Various clandestine operations by military and paramilitary forces resulted in an extremely high loss of life, which has received little in the way of open or serious investigation. [Source: Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005]

Along with the group's renewed violence came a renewed fear of infiltration of the armed forces. Following the successful raid of the Pallekelle army camp in May 1987, the government conducted an investigation that resulted in the discharge of thirty-seven soldiers suspected of having links with the JVP. In order to prevent a repetition of the 1971 uprising, the government considered lifting the ban on the JVP in early 1988 and permitting the group to participate again in the political arena. With Wijeweera still underground, however, the JVP had no clear leadership at the time, and it was uncertain whether it had the cohesion to mount any coordinated offensive, either military or political, against the government.*

Government Crackdown on the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna

The JVP rebellion was brutally put down by the government of Ranadinghe Premadasa. Paramilitary groups and death squads supported by the government killed and disappeared thousands of JVP supporters and sympathizers. Roadside bonfires with burning corpses, heads mounted on poles, and bodies floating down the rivers were a daily occurrence. The entire adult male population of some villages were disappeared.

One tour guide told National Geographic about a tour he led during the JVP insurgency in 1989. "I had a tour group of elderly Belgians," he said, "and one morning we saw 27 severed heads stuck on fence posts — young men who had been executed. I didn't know what to do. I told my clients that the villagers had a pageant the night before and had made these rubber masks."

The tactic seemed to have worked. By 1990 all the JVP leaders, including Wijeweera, were with dead or captured. The JVP revolt died out. Th Sri Lankan government was criticized by Western human rights for the methods it used. It is estimated that 17,00 people were killed or disappeared during the three-year crack down on the JVP. In the late 1990s, the JVP renounced armed conflict and ran as a political paet and an "alternative force."

Tamil Political Activity and Violence in the 1980s

In June 1981, local elections were held in the north to elect members of the newly established district development councils. TULF had decided to participate and work in the councils. In doing so, TULF continued to work toward autonomy for the Tamil areas. Extremists within the separatist movement, however, adamantly opposed working within the existing political framework. They viewed participation in the elections as compromising the objective of a separate state. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Shortly before the elections, the leading candidate of the UNP was assassinated as he left a political rally. The sporadic communal violence that persisted over the following three months foreshadowed the devastating communal riots of 1983. When elections were held a few days later, concomitant charges of voting irregularities and mishandling of ballots created the nation's first election scandal since the introduction of universal suffrage fifty years earlier.

TULF decided to boycott the 1982 presidential elections, partly in reaction to the harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act and partly in response to pressures exerted by Tamil extremists. Only 46 percent of the voters in Jaffna District turned out. In Sinhalese districts, 85 percent of voters turned out. Increasing violence by Tamil youths in the north and east of the island accompanied the call for a Tamil Eelam. The rising level of violence in 1983 led the government to pass a sixth amendment to the Constitution, which specifically banned talk of separatism. All sixteen TULF members of parliament were expelled for refusing to recite a loyalty oath, thus removing a critical channel for mediation.

1983 Riots

In July 1983, a Tamil Tiger attack in north killed 13 soldiers, triggering anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and tens of thousands fled to south India. Members of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front, the main Tamil political party) were thrown out of parliament and the security forces moved into the north and east of the country to try to drive out militant groups. This marked the start of what Tigers call “First Eelam War.” [Source: BBC, 16 May, 2000]

After the 1981 attack on the Jaffna Library, many Tamils came to the conclusion that only the militant Tamil youth gangs could protect them. Hostilities escalated to the most savage communal riots in Sri Lanka's history in July 1983, when the Tamil separatists ambushed a Sri Lankan patrol, killing 13 soldiers in the Jaffna area. Government-supported Sinhalese gangs went on a rampage for three days, looting, burning and attacking Tamils throughout the country. At least 400 people were killed, most of them Tamils, including 53 Tamils held at Welikade Prison outside Colombo that were attacked by a mob. Some estimate 3,000 people were killed.

Many of the attacks were against Tamils in Sinhalese areas, particularly in Colombo and the hill country towns. "Tamils were not so easy to distinguish from Sinhalese," one Tamil intellectual told National Geographic. "The rioters would literally have to stop a man and ask his ethnicity. If they doubted he was Sinhalese they would make him recite a Buddhist text.” Government security forces and police did little to stop the violence and in some places were accused of participating in it.

Conservative government estimates put the death toll at 400 — mostly Tamils. At least 150,000 Tamil fled the island. The army was reputed to have killed sixty Tamil civilians in Jaffna, but most of the violence occurred in Colombo, where Sinhalese mobs looked for Tamil shops to destroy. More than any previous ethnic riot on the island, the 1983 riots were marked by their highly organized mob violence. Sinhalese rioters in Colombo used voter lists containing home addresses to make precise attacks on the Tamil community. From Colombo, the anti-Tamil violence fanned out to the entire island. The psychological effects of this violence on Sri Lanka's complex and divided society were still being assessed in the late 1980s. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]


1984 All Party Conference

In January 1984, the Jayewardene government convened an All Party Conference to seek a resolution of the communal issue. Participants included the UNP, the SLFP, the TULF, and five smaller groups. The major issue under discussion was devolution. The government proposed the granting of autonomy to the country's districts through the creation of district councils and other changes in local government. Also, the government proposed establishment of a second house of Parliament, a council of state, whose members would include the chairmen and vice chairmen of the district councils and which would have both legislative and advisory roles. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Tamil spokesmen rejected these proposals. One reason was that they did not allow for special links between Northern and Eastern provinces. No compromise was reached and the conference broke up on December 21, 1984 and was not resumed, as had been planned, in 1985. Even if the All Party Conference had reached an agreement on devolution, it was unlikely that it could have been implemented because the SLFP and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna had withdrawn from the negotiations. The proposals also were denounced by militant Sinhalese groups, such as politically active Buddhist monks, who viewed them as a sellout to the Tamils. *

Ranasinghe Premadasa

“The UNP's Ranasinghe Premadasa, Prime Minister in the Jayewardene government, narrowly defeated Mrs. Bandaranaike (SLFP) in the December 1988 presidential elections. The UNP also won an absolute majority in the 1989 parliamentary elections. Premadasa won with just over 50 percent of the votes cast in an election marked by considerable violence instigated mostly by the radical revolutionary Janatha Viimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Despite JVP violence, a parliamentary general election was held in February 1989. President Premadasa's United National Party won 125 of the 225 seats in Parliament in the first national election held under the system of proportional representation, which had been established by the 1978 constitution.

“On May 1, 1993, President Premadasa was killed in a May Day Parade bombing. Prime Minister Wijetunga succeeded him, and called for early elections in August 1994. Voters, however, chose a leftist coalition led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became president

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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