COLOMBO: Can a landlocked mountain kingdom learn anything from a democratic socialist island republic? I hope so, for there are a few glimmers of silver in the clouds over Sri Lanka that could reflect hope as far north as Nepal. Of course, this place has been through orgies of unimaginable violence that have scarred the national psyche and left hardly a family untouched. A high literacy rate, the ever-improving status of women, and enthusiastic if frequently subverted democracy, all pale in the face of fear of the next car bomb in the capital, of the sound of the army on the march towards a northern village.
But back to hope. Perhaps we could gather Nepal's pessimists and doomsayers together and fly them south for a while. A week on the beaches and in the cosmopolitan precincts of Colombo would do them a world of good. Especially once they meet the men and women of the Peoples' Liberation Front, known by their Sinhalese initials, the JVP. This was an acronym that once stood for terror, unspeakable atrocities, piles of bodies smouldering by the roadside at dawn. It also stood for the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin with a leadership drawn from the middle class, university-educated Sinhala majority, and a support base from the vast pool of unemployed and downtrodden members of the same ethnic community.
The JVP first tried to fight its way to power in 1971. The government turned on the leftists with fury and more than a touch of cynical awareness that a bogeyman was just what the nation needed to unite, and forget the follies of politics. Tens of thousands died, mostly JVP supporters. But the movement remained and it slowly grew in strength and determination. When Tamils and Sinhalese turned on each other with brutal ferocity in the 1983 ethnic riots, the JVP discovered crude communal nationalism and became one of the most chauvinist voices on the island. It was eventually banned in a paroxysm of paranoia by the government of the day, another catalyst to its growing militancy.
Four years later began the dreadful secret war that pitted Sinhala against Sinhala, divided families, and turned the southern countryside into a morass of blood and fear. Sixty thousand died, many horribly tortured or maimed by JVP and government death squads. A ham-handed attempt by the National Security Minister to negotiate a truce collapsed when it emerged that his interlocutor was not from the JVP but a perverse hoaxer. The killing continued. Eventually the government took a page from Nepali history and staged a local version of the Kot massacre, wiping out almost all the JVP leadership at a stroke.
So where are the JVP now? A bloodstained blot on the history books? Plotting a comeback in the jungles? In exile, licking their many wounds? No, the Peoples' Liberation Front is an enthusiastic player in Sri Lankan democracy and the change of course has paid off. The party holds the balance of power in three of five powerful provincial councils, and is a member of a united opposition alliance in the national parliament. It has renounced violence and committed itself to the helping the poor and unemployed through job creation schemes, encouraging private investment and setting up government cricket clinics to develop Sri Lankan talent. The 30th anniversary of the 1971 uprising was recently marked with a cultural show and, wait for it: a trade fair.
Of course, there's another side to this. The JVP has tasted power and its perks. Accusations of corruption are starting to emerge. Former Maoist MPs now import duty free vehicles (even Pajeros!). Disgruntled purists who escaped the death squads still long to return to the jungle. And it's doubtful that the JVP can even be more than a king maker in Sri Lanka's two party system. But, I submit, this is a success story with obvious parallels for Nepal. Now, all aboard the flight for Colombo leaving from gate number two. Perhaps we'll stop off in western Nepal and take on a few more passengers...