Wijeweera’s ghost: Why not scary anymore?

THIRTY YEARS AFTER HIS CONTROVERSIAL DEATH, ROHANA WIJEWEERA IS IN THE LIMELIGHT AGAIN. SHOULD THE ONCE WOUNDED BUSINESS COMMUNITY TAKE NOTE?

A former classmate, now a leading business personality and management lecturer, is fond of narrating to students his unique experiences during the difficult 1980s, when he was a trainee clerk at a commercial bank in Colombo. How about working at the bank counter in business attire – a long-sleeve shirt and a tie and a sarong to bottom? (Fortunately customers won’t see!) Th at was normal during the ‘punchi anduva’ when Wijeweera’s rebels had declared “curfew”. Nobody was supposed to work. Th e only way to get to work was to wear casual clothing, hoping the rebels wouldn’t notice. Not everybody could do that. Many businesses just closed shop.

Factories, despite heavy losses, were forced to cancel shifts. Streets went empty. Top executives, like the manager of the bank my friend worked at, stayed for weeks at Colombo hotels. Some who dared to defy these curfews, by going to work, were shot to death.

Don Nandasiri Wijeweera (alias ‘Rohana’) was, with the obvious exception of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the individual who exerted the strongest blows to the Sri Lankan economy. He brought the country to a standstill – not once but twice. In 1971, Wijeweera led a handful of rebels who launched the fi rst bloody rebellion in post-independence Ceylon, against the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Th e revolt that began on 5 April lasted till June. The rebels captured and held several towns and rural areas for weeks until they were overrun by the armed forces. Despite the incidents being restricted to a few rural areas, the impact was national. Officially, it’s estimated that 1,200 died during the rebellion, but that number could actually be in the range of 5,000. GDP growth for the year was 0.2%, the lowest since independence.

The second blow was harder, and lasted longer too – about three years, from 1987 to 1989. It was not an open revolt but more a low-intensity conflict. Instead of a one-day, island-wide planned attack, rebels disrupted the daily lives of everybody. Their activities intensified after 1987 in the wake of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Politicians, academics, religious leaders, government officials, service personnel and civilians who stood against them were killed.

The government reacted in a similar, brutal manner. No official counts are available, but the death toll could be several times more than it was in ‘71. The economic impact was apparent in growth rates. While other years in the 80s maintained a rate in the range of 5-6%, figures over 1987-89 were 1.5%, 2.7% and 2.3%, respectively. The drop can be attributed to the rebel action in the south rather than the north. Thus, the controversial deaths of Wijeweera and his top brass in November 1989 came as a relief to businesses. Not that it was celebrated in Colombo the same way some rural sections of population did, but the respite was conspicuous. The recovery was fast. The very next year, under ambitious President Ranasinghe Premadasa, GDP growth shot to a marvelous 6.2% – nearly a threefold increase. Had President Premadasa managed matters inside his own party and had not been assassinated, he could have been easily elected for a second term.

WIJEWEERA IS DEAD, WITH NO CHANCE FOR THE BIRTH OF ANOTHER

Since then, we had many other issues in the country, but a repetition of 88-89 events were not among them. There were no ‘unofficial curfews’. No threats to investors. Nobody has been killed for engaging in business or going to work.

So, what can a movie on Wijeweera, thirty years later, bring to an audience – half of whom had no recollection of the 88-89 era? I am not sure. But ‘Ginnen Upan Seethala’ (the English title ‘Frozen Fire’ looks more meaningful) appears to be going great. It isn’t a political biography of Rohana Wijeweera. It is somewhat a distorted narration of his selected life episodes from 1978, when he was released from Welikada prison to his death in 1989. Understandably, the character, portrayed by actor Kamal Addararachchi, is more whiter than black. Old strawals may like a bit of nostalgia. They also might like seeing the old leader portrayed as a hero. So I don’t blame the director.

The question: Will it trigger a new political trend? Should this newfound interest in Wijeweera’s leadership be a matter of concern for the business world?

I hope not. Wijeweera is dead, and the present environment gives no chances for the birth of another.

It’s easy to see why. The environment that produced a Wijeweera was different to the present. The 1960s Ceylon was a poor third-world country. Consecutive governments tried in one way or another to maintain the same standards set by the occupying British, while trying to keep the population happy with ‘freebies’. They were unsuccessful on both accounts. Without the skilled and resourceful British administration to balance gaps between revenue and expenditure, the country moved too slowly in the growth ladder. Poverty was widespread. Unemployment was rising dangerously. The government was under pressure to create more ‘state sector’ jobs – the dream of then youth. Income from traditional exports of tea, rubber and coconut were no longer enough to import fuel and other stuff from overseas. New investments were few.

A large section of the population, feeling mistreated since independence, was demanding their fair share. This situation was not unique to Sri Lanka. It was the typical third-world country story of the ‘60s. The threat of communism was omnipresent. (ROMA, a 2018 drama film by Alfonso Cuarón that recently won three academy awards – set in 1970 and 1971 – sentimentally depicts the Mexican version of it.) Some countries like Singapore and Korea successfully averted the threat of communism, but some like Vietnam and Mongolia fell victim. The rest, including India and Sri Lanka, were at neither extreme but had politically impactful left wings.

n that backdrop, since the late 1970s, Wijeweera led left politics of Sri Lanka, strangely without any strong international links. He could get only 273,000 votes (about 4%) in the 1982 Presidential Election, but posed a political threat that could damage the economy and businesses. It was more destructive than disruptive; and unlike the disruptive power of old left of Samasamaja and Communist parties, Wijeweera could bring nothing positive to the table.

So what’s changed that we are so sure of history not repeating? We have not won over poverty completely, but we have transformed the economy. Per capita GDP of $186 of ‘71 and $420 of ‘88 have crossed $4,000 last year. We live in a middle-income society served by a strong private sector.

Everyone has some opportunity to realise their dreams. The rural population isn’t ignored. Everyone benefits from free education and healthcare. Such a society isn’t a breeding ground for communism. Who best understands this but the leaders who carry the banner of the left wing political party Wijeweera founded. His own Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) today could be the most business-friendly left wing party ever in history. Its focus is now more with social justice and good governance. So I don’t think Sri Lanka will see another Wijeweera. Be thankful for that.