5 December, 2020

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Comrade Bala Tampoe, The Legend Is No More!

By Lionel Bopage

Lionel Bopage

Lionel Bopage

Meeting with comrade Bala Tampoe at the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) office in Colombo had been a tradition I looked forward to whenever I visited Sri Lanka. At the end of July, after attending my mother’s funeral in Sri Lanka, I paid a courtesy call to comrade Bala at his house in Ratmalana. When he opened the gate for me, I saw in his soul and eyes a fit and active comrade with a frail body. We had the occasion to have a long chat over many topics usually talked about when leftists get together: trade union movement; neo-liberalism and socialism; the left; the JVP; women’s rights; corruption; family rule; and human rights. As usual, his talk was never ending, though when he narrated his non-recollectable accident while walking from home towards Galle Road, he appeared to understand the fragility and morbidity with which all human lives end. That was something new in our conversation.

He was living alone in his run-down house, full of books both old and new covered with dust. With his wife, late comrade May Wickramasuriya’s photo still decorating one of its walls. He was personally concerned about the individualistic, selfish outlook of the younger generation in the world recounting his personal experiences. He was also in the process of compiling his life experiences into a biography. I am glad that I had the occasion to catch up to show my appreciation, gratitude and respect for a comrade, who had been fighting for fairness and justice in his own way.

Bala Tampoe

Bala Tampoe

For better or worse, he was the legendary General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (later changed to Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union) for almost 66 years, continuing with the struggle he commenced in 1940s as a trade unionist, then as a leader of revolutionary Sama-Samajism (equal society)[1] uncompromisingly fighting against the class betrayals of the traditional left and also as a human rights defender. He gave generously of his time pro bono to help activists like those in the JVP[2], who were being prosecuted by the state. His major activities remained among the urban workers, in defending their right for decent working conditions.

I always remembered comrade Bala’s words uttered in 1983, after the defeats in the presidential election and the referendum: “I see history as waves. So far we have been in a receding wave. But even in the gloomy oppressive atmosphere of Jayewardene‘s rule, I can see an advancing wave that will soon shatter all tyrannical forces ahead of it.” I believe these prescient words still stands very true in the current social, economic and political context. Comrade Bala also used to narrate his life story to us. He thought that it was his personal nature and commitment to fairness and justice that brought him along the path of the working class struggle. It was comrade Bala’s exclusion based on his nationality to a famous English school in India that had probably impacted his life making him to strongly support the anti-colonial struggle of the day.

Undoubtedly, not only all left wing and progressive sections of the society, but also all those who like to see peoples’ democracy in action, will positively appraise the tremendous and significant role played by comrade Bala in the Sri Lankan political arena. Here I will restrict myself to recounting my encounters with comrade Bala, formerly as a JVPer. When the JVP was in its formation stages, in its original clandestine form, known as the ‘movement’, the Revolutionary Marxist Party (the RMP) led by comrade Bala was one of the first groups that expressed critical solidarity towards it.

The JVP’s first encounter with more radical Sama-Samajists was when the comrades of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Ananada Premasinghe and Marshal Perera appeared on behalf of comrade Rohana Wijeweera when he was incarcerated by the state in 1970. Though we had Stalinist and Maoist political affiliations and they had Trotskyite political affiliations, those differences did not matter when it came to opposing state repression. We had something in common, the real danger to our democratic rights of freedom to political expression from the ruling elite.

Comrade Bala, the RMP and the CMU continued to protest against the illegal and continued detention of cadres and leaders of the JVP. By appearing in courts on behalf of some of the JVP activists, they defended the democratic rights of the JVP to publicize their political views. The CMU protested against the arrest and detention of nearly four thousand JVP activists, many who had been tortured by the security forces. They also opposed the declaration of a state of emergency in March 1971 which empowered the security forces to dispose of dead bodies without holding post mortem examinations.

In the 1970s while we were behind bars, comrade Bala with others formed a human and democratic rights organisation and campaigned for our release. In 1971 and 1972, comrade Bala’s brilliant knowledge and understanding of Marxism and Law brought another dimension to the whole CJC trial in that a holistic class perspective of the April 1971 insurrection could be presented to the world. While the state represented in the unholy alliance of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP, was scurrilously trying to portray the JVP as a bunch of murderous terrorists, with the assistance of comrade Bala and his team we could rebut those allegations vigorously. It would be remiss of me not to mention the late comrade May Wickremasooriya who was personally committed to defending the JVP youth. She was firmly supporting her husband comrade Bala in his more than full time work in doing this.

Rohana Wijeweera and Lionel Bopage taken from Welikada Prison for sentencing Courtesy - CMU

Rohana Wijeweera and Lionel Bopage
taken from Welikada Prison for sentencing
Courtesy – CMU

When the JVP leadership was released from prison in November 1977, we had only one shelter to go to and that was the CMU office in Colpetty. On that happy day we met many CMU comrades, held our first press conference at the CMU headquarters and embarked on a political campaign that gave rise to post-1977 JVP. During the long political discussions we had in the seventies, comrade Bala often talked about the need of the deadwood in the left giving way to new shoots that needed to be nourished. The political collaboration between the JVP and the CMU became visible when a United Red May Day rally was held in 1977.

Whenever human and/or democratic rights of the people were under threat or violated, comrade Bala was at the forefront making the masses aware of the situation and demanding with passion an end to such violations. Comrade Bala and the CMU have been consistent champions of all working people and the oppressed irrespective of their racial, linguistic or religious background. Comrade Bala, The RMP and the CMU opposed the government policy of inequitable treatment of people on the grounds of race, language and religion and advocated regional autonomy for Tamil speaking people as a just solution to the national question. Comrade Bala and the CMU continued to condemn the killings by all sides to the conflict. They also pointed out how the anti-terror laws have contributed to the steady growth of rebellions, anti-government activities and national disunity.

Comrade Bala maintained his left credentials despite many of his erstwhile colleagues joining the ranks or supporting the ruling elite. He was the driving force influencing the CMU to take just and fair stands with regard to many national political issues. As a revolutionary at heart he never wavered from his uncompromising class positions. The best way for us to respect comrade Bala’s revolutionary ideals would be to rebuild the CMU and to discuss the many questions openly, publicly, and with complete honesty. The CMU has to produce leaders who could succeed in their day to day struggles while adhering to the democratic and legitimate traditions it has upheld since its inception. The CMU fought for the autonomy of unions and organised workers to fight against any attempt to submit them to the whims of the bourgeoisie. They also fought for the workers’ control of the working-class movement. The CMU was and is independent and able to fearlessly express its views and take action on human and democratic rights violations. The strength of the CMU will continue to depend on its membership and the quality of their leadership.

I have no doubt that those who were in the JVP in the seventies and early eighties and those who continue to-date to work for fairness and justice will join me in extending our revolutionary salute, deep respect and fraternal gratitude to comrade Bala. Whatever happened in terms of political and trade union history, comrade Bala showed by example, the significance of a working class that remains cohesive and united despite divisive norms and rules imposed from without.

I express my revolutionary salute and fraternal political and personal gratitude for the positive role comrade Bala and the members of the CMU under his able leadership jointly played in the post war history of the Sri Lanka, and for the genuine and determined class assistance extended to the JVP in the seventies, when we most needed it while being behind bars.

At a more personal level let me salute and farewell comrade Bala:

Your fraternal services to the working people in Sri Lanka will never be forgotten. Your dedication, loyalty and devotion to the cause of the working people will remain forever in our hearts and continue to provide us with inspiration to endure along the path you have set through your exemplary life.

In solidarity and sorrow

*Lionel Bopage – Formerly second accused at the Main CJC Trial and Former General Secretary of the JVP

[1] After leaving Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1964, comrade Bala formed Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP)

[2] I have been ever grateful for his legal expertise and advocacy on our behalf (free of charge) during the trial of leaders of the 1971 JVP insurrection at the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC).

 

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Latest comments

  • 2
    1

    Unlike other Industrialized countries where Labour movements won rights for the workers, Ceylon was an Agricultural country. Tea, Rubber and Coconut were the main produce that earned the wealth for the Nation. It was Tea and Rubber plantations that had a large workforce, a legacy that we acquired from the British after Independence. There was no slave labour as was seen in plantations in other countries in the early 18th and 19th Centuries. However the indent Labour brought from India for the Estates, their living standards and wages were the creations of the British that was passed on to the Govt of Ceylon after Independence. All these Labour movements that were Left oriented, commenced their agitations mostly after Independence and made that much more difficult for any Govt to survive without strike action that cost the country dearly and eventually had a drastic effect on the whole economy that affected the very workers. The Country was economically drawn back and all these Labour Union Leaders became Populists among the Workers on whose sweat and blood they rose to stardom. Not only they rose to stardom, but some of them built their own Empires like the Thondamans. If one were to compute the loss sustained by the country due to strike action and how much the Country had been drawn back, the number of years, I am sure these individuals will have to hang their heads in shame. Unfortunately their egos were too strong and their vanity was more important and we are in this abyss today thanks to them. Their action not only have hindered the progress of the Country but have enabled the scum in Society to rise upto Governance today, destroying the Peace, Law and Order we once had.

    • 2
      1

      I am glad we have a few among us fearless to speak the truth – like
      Gamini. The “great” Left leaders NM, Colvin, Pietr and the like harmed the economy and the country more than the good they brought it. They
      built their political careers on the blood and sweat of the workers and sacrificed their “long cherished Principles” eventually succumbing for Cabinet Posts. From their cushy positions in Government, they denied the very “Demands” they made of the State while they were on the side of the worker. If there is one common factor we saw in Left and anti-establishment leaders from the 1960s to date, it is hypocrisy. There is plenty more to go around for years.

      In so far as Thondaman (Snr) is concerned, I am afraid Gamini is remiss. Old Thondaman came to the Trade Union movement as a rich Estate Owner but when he died he was in debt. As to those who succeeded him, it is a sad but different story. There is every chance there may be no CWC in the next few years. When Thondaman (Snr), at one time, had 9-10 elected MPs in Parliament today it is 2.

      Backlash

  • 1
    1

    See

    People who gave to the socialist rebellion or terrorism have left the country for greener pastures and but the socialist vocabulary is still there.

    Only those who gave life to that and those were killed by these are the losers.

    Did Karl Marx write about these things too ?

    • 1
      1

      Hear! Hear!!

      Reading Bopage’s revolutionary rhetoric (calling Tampoe comrade) brings tears to the readers’ eyes. Doesn’t it?

      The man of course is speaking from the “working class comfort” of his Melbourne palace where he migrated by selling JVP secrets to [Edited out].

      Hypocrisy, dishonesty,and shamelessness are named Lionel Bopage.

      • 2
        0

        True Facts

        “Hypocrisy, dishonesty,and shamelessness are named Lionel Bopage.”

        If true, probably he was infected with those diseases by JVP while he was still with Rohana, the terrorists, hypocrite, racist, shameless con, ………………. traitor to the people, mass murderer, ………………..

        “The man of course is speaking from the “working class comfort” of his Melbourne palace where he migrated by selling JVP secrets to [Edited out].”

        What secrets may that be?

  • 2
    0

    Thanks Lionel Bopage for this great tribute. Bala Tampoe is the last of the gigantic figures of the 20th century living almost a decade and half into the 21st. Not only an outstanding trade unionist he was also a human rights lawyer and appeared in several notable cases in our deeply troubled times. Staunchly independent, a courageous and eloquent fighter for justice, he kept alive the tradition of dissent characteristic of the mid-decades of the 20th century. One recalls how he made a substantial financial contribution on behalf of the CMU, to the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations when they went on a lengthy strike two years ago.

    “In the context of what you have said on the national question and how “He was the driving force influencing the CMU to take a just and fair stands with regard to many national political issues”, one recalls the resolution adopted with near unanimity by the CMU with its predominantly Sinhalese membership in 1979 on the right to self-determination of the Tamil-speakings peoples – the first major organization in the South to do so.

    Your narration of the role he played in the CJC trial and in defending youth placed under detention following the JVP uprising of 1971 including its top cadres speaks volumes about his commitments in the best of left-wing traditions.

    By some chance I happened to be in Jaffna in March this year when Bala came on a fact-finding mission to the north. I attended a meeting addressed by him at the Managers’ Forum where he was in a reminiscent mood and held forth at his eloquent best for three hours. I was listening to him after many years having first heard him in Jaffna in 1956 on the eve of the Sinhala Only Act, and remember his appeal to the Tamil people, the youth in particular, “The Left alone can do justice.”

    Silan

    • 2
      0

      I do not object to the large number of appreciations from readers to
      the late Bala Tampoe. Clearly he has done much to many to earn such
      accolades.

      “Your narration of the role he played in the CJC trial and in defending youth placed under detention following the JVP uprising of 1971 including its top cadres speaks volumes about his commitments in the best of left-wing traditions…” In moments such as this one is tempted to ask how much did Bala come to the assistance of Tamil youth and the Tamil people when they were rounded up and brought to Courts by the hundreds in the North-East – and, even in Colombo during the 1980s 1990s and indeed thereafter. How much of voice did he raise on behalf of the Tamil people when they were under heavy military heel? Comparatively, the late Kumar Ponnambalam – lawful successor to billions in property and income in Sri Lanka and Malaysia – raised his voice loud and clear for his suffering Tamil people knowing fully well his life is in danger from the State and the Buddhist Sinhala extreme.

      Backlash

      • 3
        0

        Temptation to ask must be followed by due diligence to learn. Lack of diligence is evident in the ignorance that it was Bala Tampoe who successfully defended and won the acquittal of Fr. Singarayar, the first and only Tamil priest to be arrested and tried under the notorious PTA. If I am not mistaken, this was the only instance of acquittal in a PTA trial. BT was always accessible to and provided assistance to other Tamil lawyers working on cases involving incarcerated Tamil youth. He and the CMU were the material sponsors of the Movement for Inter-racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE). He addressed several MIRJE meetings in Jaffna against the 1979 Emergency. He edited during a court recess in Jaffna the first MIRJE statement on Emergency ’79, that Rev. Paul Caspersz, Kumar David and myself had drafted after visiting the homes of the six youths who had been taken away by security forces and killed during the first of the Emergency. Our intervention prevented further killings at that time. While asking “how much of voice did he raise”, it would also be useful to internally reflect on how much room did the accredited Tamil leaders give others like Bala Tampoe to play a part?
        – RP

        • 2
          0

          No one denies Bala Tampoe may have defended a few Tamils here and there during their difficult times. But comparing the hundreds of thousand of Tamils harmed and the few Tamils BT came to defend tells the story.

          As to “how much room did the accredited Tamil leaders give others like Bala Tampoe to play a part?..” This is a strange argument. He was a political leader on his own and did not need room from accredited Tamil leaders to play a part.

          But lest I be misunderstood, let me say I have nothing against his coming to the assistance to a large number of Sinhala youth accused of activities inimical to the interests of the State during 1971/1988-89. My point is he could have done more to Tamil alleged offenders – and they came in the multiple thousands. He felt short there.

          Backlash

  • 1
    1

    Gamini: your comment may be germane in the context of the article. However, in the interests of fairness and balance, the losses due to strike action pale on comparison with the losses from bribery and corruption in the public services AND by the very politicians elected by the people of this blessed land.

  • 1
    2

    err….Not really………if not for the socialist qualities of Tampoe and his crew, there would not have been the awareness and curb on all things ultra-capitalistic, in the absence of invention, creativity and entrepreneurship, oil and gas (we now have the port but that is shaky considering the China-syndrome of copy-catting post-dated Western conceptuals).

    For example, small-holdings of rural dweller, together with governmental holdings would have gotten sold to the highest bidder – small-farmer would have had to work on his previously owned land of pride, industry and self-sufficiency, but for a corporate overlord. And with inadequate system in place to regulate money making devices (as is seen with the dancings of Lankan nationals around the globe mostly in Western lands…..coconut and padi heritage lands still got sold to foreign interests and the house building industry for the poor ME worker to to upgrade his dwelling after corporate world made his surroundings a dump), Sri Lanka could have been an outpost for the more staid India a long time ago.

    At least, with the awareness of socialist concept, country heritage of Buddhism still has a firm grounding.

    But we hope current Gosl is balancing things ok. Gosl must look at the teachings of Buddha and the efforts of Tampoe, and keep themselves in check.

    • 1
      1

      ~correction:pre-dated Western conceptuals

  • 1
    0

    I had read many comments by Gamini and well impressed about his approaches to many issues. I wonder how he became out of the point in his comment to LB’s article. I agree with him if this criticism is regarding the government servants in particular sectors. It’s a quite different story when it comes to the private sector. What existed in estates is a type of slavery. After old ages they were thrown to road as dirt with no income or any support. Almost all the achievement working class enjoying is due to struggles waged by the then working class throughout the world. I am now in a industrialist country and we are planning to have an industrial action soon.

    • 1
      0

      Nimal the point I wanted to stress was that although many try to hail Bala Tampoe, NM, Colvin et al who led many a Strike in this country adversely affected the Economy and the benefits that would have accrued to the working classes as a result was denied. It is something similar to what Rohana Wijeweera and Lionel Bopage did by driving thousands of Youth to death and burnt Billions worth of Public property by destroying Bridges and burning Transformers, Buses and Tea Factories. If not for the mayhem created by these parties, this country would have been spared of the riff raff from snatching political power as seen today, denying the Rights of all decent citizens in the country. These Humbugs, one lot is no better than the other, having destroyed this country. As True Facts have commented above this Lionel Bopage living in the comforts of his Melbourne home must be thinking that one day when he dies, he too will be eulogized as done for Bala Tampoe. The truth is the working Class would have been better off without their services, having the right people at the helm to Govern. Tell me frankly who is the Entrepreneur who would not retain a good workforce providing the best in return, in a competitive world? It is these Trade Union Leaders that corrupted the workforce in this country by pampering them at the expense of their own betterment.

      • 0
        3

        “Tell me frankly who is the Entrepreneur who would not retain a good workforce providing the best in return, in a competitive world?”

        Gamini is talking about the West. In Sri Lanka, at the time of Tampoe (or even now), there is hardly much competition. Our country is too small and is of rural proportions(a very good thing), for what the lack of farmland of the West has created , i.e. huge conglomerates of money making machines created by first colonizing the East, and then moving onwards to make up for what their countries destroyed of their rural sectors. Unless that is want is wanted in Sri Lanka, with fortunately Tampoe blocking that destructive path.

        Any competition in Sri Lanka is at the expense of the estate workers and private sector (e.g. for education of entrepreneur’s children in the West and settling comfortably in the West). Nowdays with SL in liaison with China to create a system of Western structure, competition between the machines might increase, but at the detriment of rural and ecological land (and yet there is no telling where it might fall flat).

        Entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka these days means painfully trying to cripple the West by copying the Western structure, thus getting the same high returns, but rarely paying workers their fair share, although the returns for the entrepreneur are probably the same. Living that same stylish way as the Western entrepreneur will require different set of rules for the workers. For Sri Lanka did not have that pool of original money and innovation to begin with, like the West, and if they are trying to so do now, most global innovation has already been done, and systems established.

  • 0
    0

    In response to Backlash replied to by Rajan Philips I add a couple of points. The midnight murders of six Tamil youth took place on July 13-14, 1979 striking unprecedented terror among the people of Jaffna by the JR government, under extraordinary powers given to the security forces under emergency regulations. There was shock, pervasive fear and tension all over Jaffna, as the realization took root that state terrorism in its most ruthless form had reached home.

    Bala was one of the high profile and articulate members of the MIRJE delegation that came to Jaffna later that month. Speaking at the meeting called in the auditorium of the then public library Bala appealed, “if the people of Jaffna will not speak-out now who else will?”
    The Jaffna Branch of MIRJE, primarily a citizens movement came into existence with NSSP, CMU and GCSU members among others playing a notable role and did extensive documentation of the violations of human rights which the national movement based in Colombo and Kandy compiled into reports, published and disseminated.

    Another point worth noting is that Bala had sometime in the 1980s appeared for a Tamil youth under detention and got him out. Whether he was a LTTE cadre or not I do not know. A few days later Bala received a call from Prabakaran requesting that they meet. Bala’s curt reply was why should we meet? What you stand for and I stand for are poles apart. This was narrated to me some years ago by a Tamil lawyer (now abroad) who worked with Bala as his junior.

    The role that Kumar Ponnambalam played in many cases is well known. He was a courageous fighter. In his later years in a sense he did at the ground level much more than what several TULF members did and probably paid for it with his life. But his politics and that of the man we celebrate today were worlds apart.

    Silan

  • 0
    0

    Backlash, Mr. Philips and Mr. Kadirgamar,

    I don’t think it is fair to compare Kumar Ponnambalam with Bala Tampoe.

    The latter’s connections were formed via trade union and leftist politics.

    The former’s inherited wealth, family name and connections in Colombo were at an entirely different level, and it gave him ample resources–a certain cockiness even– that he could use to help Tamil youth victims and represent them pro bono.

    Kumar’s friends included Lakshman Kadirgamar, Justice Ramanathan, and other establishment types, in contrast to Bala’s left-wing ‘comrades.’ Early on, Kumar was more into things like showing off his Benz car collection, and he wasn’t supportive of Tamil militancy as far as I knew; he was somehow transformed into an activist in his later years. Perhaps he had seen too many injustices that stirred him; he might also have been driven by noblesse oblige, though I have also heard that he could be very stingy with his wealth.

    Tampoe would have been in his sixties/seventies during those times of peril for Tamil youths, but Kumar was much younger and still energetic.

    While everyone should appreciate the services Kumar rendered to Tamil youths suffering under SL’s draconian laws, others like Bala Tampoe should not be judged by the same yardstick.

  • 1
    0

    A very good piece by Lionel. Bala was a Marxist revolutionary who fought relentlessly for justice and fairness. In our discussions he had often referred to Kumar Ponnamblam’s political acumen though he did not hold him in contempt but it is best that they are not brought out here. It is sad to farewell Bala and to be reminded that he is no longer with us.Bensen

  • 1
    0

    Some of the comments made here are historically inaccurate, economically illiterate, and politically untenable and the personal invective against me is erroneous. For those who are not pretending to be asleep, I will state some political and economic facts first, about Sri Lanka in the 1940s.

    Sri Lanka was a plantation economy dominated by the cultivation of tea, followed by coconut and rubber, with a very small manufacturing sector. In the early years, the country was on the margins of the capitalist system exporting raw material and importing consumer and luxury goods. Even before 1948, the left has been campaigning for a just and humane society in Sri Lanka. The LSSP formed in 1935, campaigned against the exploitative nature of British Imperialism and the complicity of the bourgeoisie in this exploitation. During the Second World War, the LSSP denounced the British military build-up and heightened its agitation in the plantation sector and in urban areas. They led an emboldened working class and Malaiyaha workers in a number of strikes and confrontations with the employers and the police on the plantations. Eventually the government proscribed the LSSP and forced its leaders to go underground.

    Economic stewardship of the first post-1948 government was self-serving. Instead of making land ownership more democratic they decided to open up the dry areas of the country to peasant colonisation. The government did not have an industrial policy to speak of and left this to domestic private capital. The indigenous capitalists were not prepared to develop new industries. They used their surpluses to buy up foreign-owned tea plantations. At the same time 40 per cent of the government revenue was set aside for its social service obligations. For example in 1949, the import of liquor and other spirits increased by 37 per cent, clothing by 23 per cent and petrol by 10.5 per cent. Obviously, such things were for the elite, not for the ordinary citizen. Given the limited economic growth, the economy could not simultaneously meet the country’s welfare obligations and provide enough of a surplus to fund the lifestyles of the elite.

    The plantation sector had reached its limits in terms of acreage. The price for the produce of these plantations was declining. Compounding this structural problem was an urban sector that lived off the surplus produced by the plantation economy and some of whose members were shielded in the newly elected parliament. When export prices were high, times were good, but when declined it created not only economic instability, but social upheaval in the form of hartals (strikes) and communal conflicts. This type of economy could not provide jobs for the burgeoning population, pay for the welfare introduced during the Second World War and fund the lifestyles of the elite. Export earnings at most remained the same, so that increased imports were paid for by running down the island’s reserves of foreign currency. This resulted in the government’s budgets being in deficit, and over time they had to borrow money from the World Bank and the IMF.

    When the UNP was re-elected to government in 1952, it soon began to break its election pledges. This was inevitable when the boom caused by the Korean War collapsed in the early fifties, with a drastic drop in the external assets of the country. The UNP government decided to cut welfare for those who could least afford it and leave untouched the bulging pockets of their backers, the elite. In the budget of August 1953, therefore, the following measures were proposed:
    • A doubling of postal fees and the price of rail tickets
    • the abolition of the rice subsidy, resulting in the price soaring from 25 cents a measure to 70 cents
    • the abolition of free midday meals for school children
    • an increase in the price of sugar
    • a cutting of the public assistance rate and
    • the closing of milk feeding centres.

    These measures were proposed by the then Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene, who became the first executive president in the seventies. The lower middle class and the workers became extremely angry. The left and the trade union movement called a one day general strike, and the LSSP took a leading role in organising it. The other left parties and trade unions either supported or sympathised with the strike action. The government declared strikes illegal and facilitated the arrest of striking workers. Rural workers also took part in the struggle hand in hand with their urban comrades. For the first time, the workers united with peasants brought the country to a standstill demanding their rights.

    Faced with this mass protest, the UNP government seemed to capitulate. Sir John Kotelawala was appointed prime minister. Then the state’s repressive apparatus was set in motion, and a number of strikers were killed. Yet the workers stayed firm, forcing the government to back down on some issues. The ration of rice raised to two measures with the price of a measure reduced to 55 cents. However, there was no change in the economic policies and privileges of the elite. The issues of industrial development, employment and the inequitable distribution of income were left to fester. These are the issues that later manifest in the form of ethnic conflict. The combination of feudalism, the inability of Sri Lanka to develop a national (rather than ethnically based) bourgeoisie, and its precarious capitalist development allowed the elite of the country to successfully play the ethnic card and outmanoeuvre the traditional left.

    In light of the above, it is clear that:
    1. The JVP and the CMU were formed because of the opportunist political stances taken by the traditional left parties in their relationship with the SLFP and the fruits of government;
    2. Whether under the state directed economy of Mrs Bandaranayake, the ‘free-market’ approach taken by Mr Jayawardena’s regime, or under the current economic direction of the country, Sri Lanka has never been able to fund its security apparatus, the life style of the country’s elite and raise the living standards of the majority of its population. The country has been in debt and still is in debt to financial centres of the world including China. The money has to be paid back plus interest. Communal disharmony is one of the blowbacks of this failure of our political and business elite. Nothing in the economic programs of the major political parties has any long term plan to develop the industrial base of the country – our major exports are remittances from abroad, the garment industry and tourism;
    3. On the rather sterile debate whether comrade Bala did enough to help Tamils, all I can say is that his politics was not based on a person’s ethnicity but on whether their economic and political rights were being curtailed. In doing so he admirably did not look at a person’s religion or ethnicity, but whether they were being exploited and oppressed. How well he succeeded will be history’s judgment but what we can at least say is that he tried to make the country a fairer place to live;
    4. A strong trade union movement and union leaders like comrade Bala and parties representing their interests are essential not only for the country’s democratic health but the well-being of the majority of its citizens, this has been a recurring economic and political fact around the world; and
    5. On the scurrilous and un-factual attacks on me I will remain silent, except to state that I did not leave the country like many an expatriate for greener pastures but because my family and I were under the threats of death during the JVP insurrection in 1989. If I was so well off from my so called ill-gotten gains why am I approaching 70, still working?

    Let’s deal with the issues and leave out the personal invectives.

    In conclusion let’s celebrate a life of an activist who never got corrupted like many in the left did with the false chimera of state power and personal enrichment. That in itself is worth celebrating and cherishing!

    Thank you for all comments.

    • 0
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      Reading LB’s comments one is reminded of Clint Eastwood’s famous movie the Good, Bad and the Ugly.

      While LBs narrative of the pre-WW2 and post-WW2 scenario is reasonably accurate, an outside serious student of our political history will be denied knowledge of an important feature in the formation of our Left Politics – trade unionism being an important element there. LB, by omission or commission, avoids mentioning our influential caste cleavage. Curiously, while the ruling pukka sahib class came mostly from the Goigama caste the Left was formed of the lower castes – a feature that was to also to infect our other more important political player – the Buddhist Clergy. LB could not have missed this important feature because the JVP, of which he was a much recognised leader from the beginning, more or less, gained its entire membership from this disadvantaged section of the population who were reminded time and again by their leaders of the conspiracy to keep them outside the loop.

      For the purpose of space, I will touch upon a few other comments LB has made here that requires engagement.

      “The indigenous capitalists were not prepared to develop new industries. They used their surpluses to buy up foreign-owned tea plantations” The indigenous entreprenauer was unable to develop new industries only for the want of adequate capital. The latter was in the hands of the British bankers who, by the very nature of their own economic interests, would not have encouraged Ceylonese to industrialise the country. Everything the local population used then, from pencils to items of steel hardware, came from Britain. There was no way the British bankers helping build local competition for goods that came mainly from Britain.

      “ When export prices were high, times were good, but when declined it created not only economic instability, but social upheaval in the form of hartals (strikes) and COMMUNAL CONFLICTS.” I wish to deal with the communal conflict aspect of LBs comment here. Communal conflicts began appearing gradually in the mid-1950s but really reached proportions of threatening the very life of the State much later. The JVP is to be held responsible for this devastating development in our recent history. It was LB and his colleague Rohana Wijeweera who fed the poison of the anti-Tamil factor and anti-Indianism in their notorious Five Lessons (1971) to an army of semi-literate youth who were later sacrificed by multiple thousands as cannon fodder. The JVP chose these two deadly factors to gain space for them in the Lankan political landscape. It is this venom that grew to an orgy of destruction at national levels (except the North-East) resulting in one of LBs wards bringing eternal disgrace to this country when he swung a rifle at the head of the visiting Indian PM at, of all places, during a Guard of Honour. This incident was telecast by the global networks bringing shame to all Sri Lankans – whose reputation sullied already by the events of 7/83. The naval rating is still very much around – now reportedly in politics. The Indians have not forgotten this deep wound. As I recall when this naval man was freed in Court the Indian High Commission issued a very brief Statement regretting the release. Even in the pogrom against Tamils in 7/83 JVP was involved in a large number of attacks and destruction of Tamil homes, business interests and industries. The poison that Rohana Wijeweera, LB and colleagues fed to their young followers has found roots and will react to the detriment to all of us periodically. The unfortunate feature is many of these youth are in the army, the police and the forces where their inherent prejudice will be put to good use – when the country burns next.

      “The combination of feudalism, the inability of Sri Lanka to develop a national (rather than ethnically based) BOURGEOISIE..” LB is outside his tree here. Surely the State does not develop the elitist
      Sections of the population. But as a matter of interest men like Weerawansa, Wijesekera, Sirisena, SBD et al who began “with broken bicycles and Bata slippers (Anura B)” now occupy the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie – if that brings any comfort to LB said to be living now Down Under in circumstances of want and geriatric.

      “The JVP and the CMU were formed because of the opportunist political stances taken by the traditional left parties in their relationship with the SLFP and the fruits of government” Certainly not. Besides, CMU is a Trade Union movement and did not aspire to capture the State apparatus. The JVP’s avowed goal was solely this. Both factors had nothing to do with their relationship with the SLFP. The JVP then – as now – is an unprincipled, communal-racial, fragile political entity. It was even ready to go to bed with JRJ and Premadasa. It had a blue-print to assassinate Mrs.B at Horagolla Walauwa itself. The JVP too rode on the back of the worker and the marginalised Sinhalese. Men like Weerawansa, Mahinda Wijesekera, Maitripala Sirisena are now reported to be multi-millionaires while the rank and file are roaming hungry and jobless still in the street.

      Backlash

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