Colombo Despatches International

Saving a lone tree, in memory of Che Guevara

When a lawmaker from Sri Lanka’s leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People’s Liberation Front, recently urged the government to protect a mahogany tree in Kalutara district south of Colombo, he, perhaps inadvertently, evoked memories of his party’s roots. Famous for its wooden furniture, the mahogany is one of the most popular trees in the southern part of the island. Except that this one, which the MP is trying to save, has rare history. It was planted by Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara on a visit to then Ceylon in 1959, months after he and his comrades captured power in the Caribbean island nation.

Guevara was on a study tour of Asia to learn about rubber cultivation and sugar trade. He visited Sri Lanka en route to India. W.A. Dingiri Mahattaya, the caretaker and cook at the estate bungalow in Horana, 50 km south of Colombo, recalled in a 2006 media interview the visit of a “handsome, bearded, long-haired man” in military fatigues and smoking a cigar. He knew it was someone important, but learnt about him only after his visit. Guevara had a Sri Lankan breakfast of egg hoppers, lunu sambol (spicy side dish) and bananas before he proceeded to plant the tree, Mr. Mahattaya recounted. Guevara walked around the estate and spoke to workers, through an interpreter, about their production method. Gifting the caretaker a box of cigars, he promised to come back but did not.

The image of Guevara infatuated young Sri Lankan leftists in the decades that followed, not only because the nascent JVP was branded “Che Guevarists” by the state. “Che was very vocal, his slogans like ‘Create two, three, many Vietnams’ instantly resonated with us. [Fidel] Castro was not as prominent,” recalls Lionel Bopage, former general secretary of the JVP, who resigned from the party in the 1980s after it took a Sinhala-chauvinist turn.

Many like him, who as students were disillusioned by the old Left that had comfortably aligned itself with the “bourgeois” parties, drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution. This, despite a section of them being keen to come up with an indigenous model of revolution that was different from the Soviet, Chinese or Cuban variants.

“But I must say the romance of Che Guevara hit us all,” Mr. Bopage says. Far from Guevara’s ideology in its actual political practice, the early JVP adopted him as its icon in the 1970s. They reproduced his image on posters and energised their rallies with his slogans. In fact, the charismatic founder-leader of the JVP, Rohana Wijeweera, styled himself on the Cuban hero – sporting a similar beard and beret as him.

Armed insurrections

The revolutionary élan of the JVP was viewed with great suspicion by an increasingly authoritarian state. The youth of the party led two armed insurrections in 1971 and 1987-89, both crushed by the state. Over the years, the JVP’s politics shifted, as Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict intensified in the 1980s. Sensing a “strategic alliance” between “Indian expansionism”, following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, and “[Tamil] Eelamist separatism”, the JVP unleashed another round of violence, only to be suppressed again by state violence.

“A guerrilla insurrection was needed in the past, but today we are in the democratic stream — we are in Parliament and in local government. We believe in challenging the bourgeois government through democratic resistance,” says prominent JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath. But the memory of Guevara is very much alive within the party. “Though we have changed our political tactics, we believe in Che Guevara’s doctrine and teach our young cadre about it,” he says.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 6:19:24 AM |

Next Story