By Jean-Pierre Page –
The working class and the labor movement in your country has just lost with Bala Tampoe one of its most prominent leaders. I bow my head with respect and salute the memory of the man who for decades has embodied the image and actions of Sri Lankan trade unionism. I would like to express my solidarity, and also the solidarity of the workers and their trade unions in France and around the world, who had the privilege of knowing Bala Tampoe!
Bala Tampoe was an internationalist in the sense understood by revolutionaries! That is, very different from those who like to make speeches about it, but who never translate it into concrete action! For Bala Tampoe, internationalism was not just an add-on, but rather the indispensable extension to be given to the historic struggle of the international working class to create the conditions for its emancipation.
I have known Bala well ! It is 20 years ago that Tamara Kunanayakam asked me to arrange meetings for Bala with our trade union confederation, the CGT! Ours is the largest and most important workers organization in France, in Europe and in the world. It is one of the oldest and the most respected organisations, as heir to the Paris Commune, deeply engaged in the armed resistance against the occupation of our country during the Second World War, and as leader of the anti imperialist and anti colonial struggles. Bala, who, despite his being very knowledgeable about our history, showed tremendous curiosity for further knowledge about our discussions and our actions!
Together with Bala, we established a cooperation, which took concrete shape in solidarity actions to support the struggle of the Colombo dock workers. Bala also showed great interest in actions and strikes that were ours, but which were also yours – our permanent struggle for the defense of our existing rights, the battle to gain new ones, and the fight to open a perspective other than capitalism for the world of labour: a socialist perspective!
In France, in Sri Lanka and in the world, we all belong to the same working class, we share common interests, and the class struggle is our common struggle. It is the struggle of all those who through their labour produce wealth and whose interests are fundamentally opposed to those of the rich, of the employers, of the profiteers, and of corrupt governments! We support each other, we need your battles to win ours, just as you need our battles to win yours!
Internationally, Bala not only helped in the organisation of actions, but he also made known trade unionism in your country, its history, its victories and failures. Bala was a man of great culture, of boundless curiosity, with an encyclopedic vision of the world! We often had passionate debates and I must admit sometimes we had our differences. But I must also admit with humility that I gained great knowledge from this exceptional human being, this real man.
I remember that during the international conference commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in Paris, which was attended by researchers, scholars, and men of culture and action of great renown, Bala was one of the speakers at the closing session at the prestigious University of Paris La Sorbonne. He knew how to be very impressive!
Another thing that brought us together was Bala Tampoe’s passionate defense of the concept of trade union independence, independence from political parties, religions, but above all independence from employers and exploiters! He believed rightly that workers are capable of organizing and directing their own struggles without the need for teachers or givers of orders. There cant be those who do, and others who decide! This was an important issue in Bala’s concept of trade unionism!
Bala used to say, “I am of Tamil origin, but I’m not known as a Tamil, but as a leader of the working class.” He perfectly understood how communalism and communal politics was the poison of division and how it is used against the workers and working class unity, which is indispensable. That is also how Bala Tampoe saw this so-called “reconciliation”!
Finally, for many trade unionists in my country and around the world, Bala Tampoe was a man of great rigour, totally selfless, far from material interests and never in search of personal advantage! But, above all, he was a man of principles. One never negotiates away one’s owns principles, especially not those related to the sovereignty of the country, to the independence of the working class movement, or to one’s way of being!
I would like to conclude by quoting a great French writer, a militant Communist ,Elsa Triolet. She once wrote, “there are only two sides to a barricade” and we must choose which side we are on! Bala Tampoe chose his, without hesitation. He chose the side of the workers and their trade union movement!
For this reason and for his loyalty to principles, Bala Tampoe will always remain for all of us, not an icon, but an example, which must inspire new generations of militants who, like Bala and others before them, devoted their lives to this noble humane cause, that of trade unionism!