Universiteit Leiden

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Intimate commitments: friends, comrades and family in the life of one Sri Lankan activist

Friday 28 September 2018
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

Political activists, particularly those who choose radical politics, do so under conditions generally requiring distancing from family and friends.  Often, they work underground; suffer lengthy imprisonment and torture at the hands of the state armed forces and police.   In 1971 young people in the south of the island of Sri Lanka took part in a brief, quixotic attempt to take state power under the leadership of the “Guevarist” Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). In the late 1980s, the JVP, by now a much more explicitly Sinhala nationalist grouping, led a second violent insurrection. As well as challenging the government and security forces, the JVP also targeted what they saw as their rivals on the ‘secular’ left. The research on which this paper is based (carried out with Harini Amarasuriya and Sidharthan Maunaguru) has concentrated on the survivors of that episode, namely leftist activists from the 1970s and 1980s, who at different times faced both state repression and the threat of ultra-nationalist violence from the JVPin the South (and the LTTE in the North). Our interviews with these radical left political activists revealed stories of friendship and intimacy that survived violence, betrayal and changing fortunes.  This presentation focuses on the example of one particular activist, who started in the Peking Wing of the Communist Party, and eventually became a Minister in the ill-fated Cabinet of the first (and only) North-East Provincial Council in the late 1980s.  The story highlights the importance of friendship and loyalty to ‘comrades’ especially when underground or in prison, and the tension between commitment to the cause and loyalty to close family.


Jonathan Spencer is Regius Professor of South Asian Language, Culture and Society, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh



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