Ceylon became a dominion in 1948 with a conservative government formed under the premiership of D. S. Senanayake who had been instrumental in the negotiations with the British government that lead to self-rule. He founded the United National Party (UNP) by amalgamating three right-leaning pro-dominion parties which won a majority in parliament at the general election. The UNP was defeated in 1956 when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike became prime minister on a wave of nationalist sentiment. His wife Sirimavo Bandaranaike entered politics following his assassination and became the world's first female prime minister in 1960. Due to successive governments, varying economic polices, regular strikes the economic out look of Ceylon in the 1960s had fallen below what it was when it gained independence in 1948. This had even lead to an attempted coup in 1962.
During the late 1960s a movement named as the JVP was initiated by Rohana Wijeweera a former medical student and former functionary of the Ceylon Communist Party. He had been at odds with party leaders and impatient with its lack of revolutionary purpose and formed his own movement in 1967 with like minded youth. Initially identified simply as the New Left, this group drew on students and unemployed youths from rural areas, most of them in the 16- to 25-year-old range 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 whom 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 basic military skills. By now a special CID unit was investigating the "Che Guevara clique", whom then opposition leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike had made a reference to in her May Day speech in 1970.
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 Bandaranaike, but at the same time 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 in May, 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.
By 1970, the JVP had started recruiting and training cadre at camps in Kurunegala, Akmeemana, Tissamaharama, Elpitiya and Anuradhapura. Classes teaching the "Five Lectures" where being held in various parts of the island mostly in secluded locations such as cemeteries. They had raised a force of around 10,000 full-time members, however had stopped recruiting in 1971. The movement was based on cells of five members with a leader and there were several such cells in a police station area with an area leader. The area leaders selected a district leader to head the district. The district leaders made up the Central Committee. Above the Central Committee was the Politbureau made up of 12 people including Wijeweera. All communication was by code by couriers, with the district secretaries communicating the messages from the Politburo met every two months in Colombo.
The cells began arming themselves with shotguns, with each member expected to have one with 10 cartridges as well as blue uniforms, military boots and haversacks. Home made bombs were prepared, with some exploding in the process. Such as on December 17, 1970, when Victor Ivan alias 'Podi Athula' lost his left hand and was critically wounded when grenade exploded while being tested. The JVP published its own paper, the "Janatha Vimukthi" (people's liberation) and carried out several robberies to rasie funds such as the Okkampitiya bank robbery, the Badulla mail bag robbery, the Ambalangoda bank robbery and the York Street robbery. Its members were asked to raise funds using personal means.
On 27 February 1971 JVP held its last public rally before the insurrection at Colombo's Hyde Park, here Wijeweera stated that "Let the revolution of the workers, farmers and soldiers be triumphant". On 5 March 1971, after an accidental explosion in one of the JVP bomb factories killing five members, the police found 58 bombs in a hut in Nelundeniya, Kegalla District. Wijeweera went on to travel around the country, but was arrested on 13 March in Ampara by a special Police team and was later transferred to the Jaffna Prison. On 16 March the government declared a state of emergency. On 2 April a meeting was held at the Sangaramaya at Vidyodaya University. The meeting was held by the top leaders of the JVP in response to a request by Wijeweera that posters and leaflets calling for his release be published, and that in the event of the insurgency starting, 500 cadre be sent to Jaffna to break him out of prison. That day the leaders decided that all police stations in the country would be attacked on the night of 5 April at 11:00 pm. Since the JVP had considered that local police stations were the governments principle element of power locally. They hoped to remove this presence of power and see the local populaces raise up in their support bring about a revolution.
The planning for the countrywide insurrection was hasty and poorly coordinated; some of the district leaders were not informed until the morning of the uprising. At dawn (5.20 am) on 5 April 1971 the Wellawaya police station came under attack with five police constables killed. This along with the arrest of several cardres by the police at Viharamahadevi Park the day before as they prepared to assassinate the Prime Minister at her private residence in Rosemead place had alerted the government. The Prime Minister was moved to Temple Trees Prime Minister's official residence and security strengthened. It soon became the nerve center for government operations and a refuge for ministers most of whom were from leftist parties.
With the police and armed forces placed on alert and a curfew put in place, some of the JVP leaders went into hiding. However the attack commenced as planned 92 police stations across the country were attacked simultaneously by JVP groups armed with shotguns, bombs and Molotov and five, Deniyaya, Uragaha, Rajangane, Kataragama and Warakapola overrun by the insurgents and 43 abandoned by the police for "strategic reasons". Fifty-seven police stations were damaged. The insurgents cut telephone and power lines, blocked roads with trees. By 10 April the rebels had taken control of Matara District and the city of Ambalangoda in Galle District, and came close to capturing the remaining areas of Southern Province with exception of Galle and Matara which had two old Dutch colonial forts and small army garrisons.
Even though the CID had uncovered bomb making factories and had been investigating the JVP for months the government had been caught off guard and totally by surprise as to the magnitude of the insurrection. Only after the arrest of the assassins at Viharamahadevi did the government realize the scale of the large insurrection that was starting.
The government had disbanded the police special branch set up by the previous UNP government tasked with internal intelligence gathering and analysis. Therefore, the government lacked a dedicated intelligence agency to forewarn them of the threat. Ceylon's armed forces were ill equipped and not prepared for a large scale insurrection. Since the attempted coup in 1962, the armed forces had faced major cuts in funding and recruitment as well as joint operations. The armed forces functioned as an internal security force assisting the police during strikes and riots. The Ceylon Army had several infantry regiments armed with world war II era weapons, armored cars, mortars and anti aircraft guns. It lacked tanks, field artillery, sub machine guns and other modern weapon; ammunition was limited to sustain only one week of offensive operations. The Royal Ceylon Navy, which had suffered the most from the fall out of the attempted coup with recruitment frozen till 1969, had only a single frigate in its fleet and had to deploy its crew on shore duty and were thereby incapable of preventing the JVP from gaining aid by sea. The Royal Ceylon Air Force had mothballed its jet trainers after plans for introducing jet fighters where scrapped and was limited to a small fleet of light transport aircraft and helicopters.
Following the initial attack the police and the armed forces were put on alert by Major General D. S. Attygalle, Commander of the Ceylon Army who had to personally escorted the prime minister and secured Temple Trees, helicopter patrols around the capital began as rumors started that the JVP was marching on Colombo. After dawn on 5 April, General Attygalle ordered army units of the Gemunu Watch from Diyatalawa to Wellawaya where the initial attack had taken place. The capital Colombo and other cities and large towns with sizable police and military garrisons were secured. A curfew imposed, road blocks setup, bridges, ports and airports secured overstretching the small armed forces. The No. 4 Squadron of the Royal Ceylon Air Force deployed its three Bell 206A Jet Ranger helicopters began flying supply missions to remote police stations flying in weapons and ammunition, in the following days returning wounded to hospitals. The police withdrew its personnel from smaller police stations. RCyAF Ekala also came under attack. The armed forces began mobilization, call up of reservist, and deployed army, navy and air force personal on ground duty at a defensive posture at first. In most areas the police was able to hold out interdependently. During this time the JVP took the advantage of capturing large areas of the country uncontested. Many army convoys were ambushed and several initial offensives were pushed back in areas like Matara where the local member of parliament, Sumanapala Dahanayake was wounded accompanying the first joint army and police expedition into rebel held areas in Matara. Former Inspector General of Police (IGP) S.A. Dissanayake was appointed Additional Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs and Defence and coordinated the governments defence activities from the situation room at Temple Trees. Local coordinating officers from the three armed forces were appointed for districts to carryout local counter insurgency operations.
Bandaranaike issued a distress call to friendly countries for support via telegram. The response from many governments were swift. Pakistan responded with airlifting troops and helicopters to Ratmalana Airport and took over its defence releasing Ceylonese troops for other duties. India did not properly receive the cable and the Indian High Commissioner in Ceylon was sent back to his country carrying the message for aid from the Government of Ceylon. Units from the Indian Army Southern Command were airlifted from Bangalore and Madras (Chennai), to RCyAF Katunayake and five Chetak helicopters 104 Helicopter Squadron followed. They logged 573 flying hours spread across as many as 1122 sorties in Ceylon. Indian troops took over the guarding RCyAF Katunayake and the Indian Navy deployed a naval cordon around Ceylon since the Royal Ceylon Navy had deployed its sailors on ground operations and harbor defence, latter was later taken over by Indian and Pakistani troops.
The RAF heavy transports flew in six Bell 47-G2 helicopters on 17 April, and also ammunition purchased from Singapore. The government also received aid from the Soviet Union, with it flying in five Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F fighter bombers, a MiG-15 UTI trainer, as well as two Kamov Ka-26 helicopters.
Within days of the start of the insurrection, the armed forces began offensive operations after the initial wave of attacks had withered away. Personal from all three armed services deployed for ground operations with mobilization of reservists most of whom were world war 2 veterans and with regular troops freed from guard duty as Pakistani and Indian troops took up defense of many key installations. The RCyAF, took out of storage five Hunting Jet Provosts which had been mothballed in 1970, serviced and armed them in three days and flew them from RCyAF Chinabay to RCyAF Katunayake attacking rebel locations en rout. Several weeks later the Jet Provosts where joined by the Bell 47-G2 in ground attack missions.
After three weeks of fighting the government regained control of all but a few remote areas. The government offered amnesties in May and June 1971, captured and surrounded rebels were detained in rehabilitation camps for months until they were released numbering 20,000.
The official death toll was 1,200 but unofficial figures reliably estimated it to be around 4-5,000. 53 service personnel were killed and 323 were wounded from 1971 to 1972.
The Criminal Justice Commission was established by the government to prosecute the detained rebels. It was composed of Chief Justice H N G Fernando (Chairman), Justice A. C. Alles, Justice V T Thamotheram, Justice H Dheragoda and Justice T. W. Rajaratnam. In 1975 Wijeweera was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment later amended to 20 years rigorous imprisonment. Many of the surviving leaders of the JVP received prison sentences. Most of the youth in rehabilitation camps were released.
Ceylon severed diplomatic ties with North Korea in 1971 based on allegations that it supported the JVP, diplomatic relations have not been reestablished since then.
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 on the party 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). By the late the 1980s the JVP had started a second insurrection lasting from 1987 to 1989. This was more of a low intensity conflict than an open revolution as the first insurrection in 1971.Lt. Col. Dr. Rex De Costa, MBE, CAVF - former Commanding officer, Ruhunu Regiment and Vice President, World Veterans Federation
Maj. Noel Weerakoon, CA - RMA Sandhurst and Ceylon Army cricketer
Upatissa Gamanayake - Deputy leader of the JVP during the 1987-89 insurrection
Victor Ivan - later became a journalist
Athula Nimalasiri Jayasinghe - later became a minister
S. D. Bandaranayake - Member of Parliament
Susil Siriwardene - Director of Agrarian Research