By Rajan Philips –
The week belonged to Bala Tampoe, to the honouring of one of Lanka’s most unique post-independence personas, who passed away on September 1, which ironically is Labour Day in some western countries that do not celebrate May Day because of its revolutionary connotations. On May Day this year, Mr. Tampoe was photographed taking a pillion ride on a motorbike to address the CMU May Day rally. That would be his last May Day. Thousands marched with him for the last time on Friday, and among the mourners who went to pay their respects to the late CMU Chief as he lay in state in his own defiant way, was the Head of State, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Tampoe was a man of many talents, who played many roles in Lankan public life, and became a colossus in the trade union field. He will be remembered by the Ceylon Mercantile Union that he nurtured and shaped, and the thousands whose lives he touched. His death takes away perhaps the last of the prominent Sama Samajists who were born before the founding of the LSSP in 1935, and will trigger another round of progressive political reflections. For now, let us dip the red banner and honour Bala Tampoe.
The week also saw the death of another prominent Sri Lankan, Sam Wijesinha, who became an institutional fixture as the Secretary General of Parliament for nearly two decades and Ombudsman for another ten years. Almost the same age, Wijesinha and Tampoe were on different trajectories of personal and professional lives, and their contributions were worlds apart in substance and in style, but what their lives and accomplishments had in common were their intellectual and cultural breadth – not just educational qualifications, professional competence and commitment to the public good – all of the highest order. They were great exemplars of their generation for personal accomplishments and public service, aspects that are difficult to come across among succeeding generations. There was no room for charlatanism in their presence, but charlatanism is what is in charge now in most places in Sri Lanka.
The lives and times of Bala Tampoe and Sam Wijesinha are also remarkable for the public and political spaces that enabled the two men to pursue fundamentally divergent goals and make vastly different contributions, while respecting all the time human and democratic rights, tolerating differences, and promoting justice and equality. In 1963, the port workers strike that Bala Tampoe spearheaded became an all island strike, and riding the tide of working class militancy Mr. Tampoe and the unions defied the emergency powers invoked by the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike. The very next year, when the government decided to secure labour peace by entering into a coalition with the LSSP, and the LSSP at its historic 1964 Conference voted in favour of the coalition resolution, Mr. Tampoe led the breakaway of the Party members who opposed the coalition move. That same year, Sam Wijesinha became the Clerk of the House, stepping into the position after years of preparation as Deputy Clerk. His name would become synonymous with the island’s parliament, just as Bala Tampoe’s name became synonymous with the island’s trade union movement.
The point, rather the connection, I am trying to make is that though seemingly ideologically irreconcilable and poles apart, the parliament and the trade union movement in Sri Lanka had drifted into an existential relationship at the time of independence, with the two needing each other for mutual survival. It was the fear of working class militancy, more than anything else, which hurried the British to transfer power to its compradors and leave the island in 1948. Bala Tampoe, at the age of 25, was in the thick of the 1947 strike which while setting the stage for independence also pulled Tampoe out of academic obscurity into the limelight of working class leadership. A.J. Wilson in his superb obituary on N.M. Perera, described the trade union movement as the strongest bulwark of democracy in Sri Lanka and credited NM and the LSSP for building up the trade union movement in Sri Lanka. I would argue that the reverse (parliamentary democracy being the protector of the trade union movement) was equally true in the specific context of Sri Lanka. What may not have been evident, and was even denied in revolutionary rhetoric, when our parliament was ‘alive’ and the trade union movement was vibrant, can be much appreciated at the present time with our parliament ‘dead’ and the trade union movement politically powerless. As we mourn the deaths of Bala Tampoe and Sam Wijesinha, let us also acknowledge and celebrate their extraordinary contributions to the two once mighty bulwarks of our political society.
Lanka left in the lurch
At the same time, let us deplore the hypocrisy and charlatanism of the current leaders of state and government who steal the political thunder by leading the official mourning for Bala Tampoe and Sam Wijesinha, while doing nothing to restore Sri Lanka’s parliament and its trade unions to their former heights, and doing everything to destroy them further. Perhaps it is being viewed rather self-servingly in some government circles and among their cheer leaders that what earlier generations of greater Sri Lankans could not achieve are being accomplished now. The convenient evidence trotted out in support of this view is the allegedly successful completion of the war, the apparent beautification of Colombo, and the overbuilding of physical infrastructure at serious costs and dubious benefits. The inconvenient truths are a different story, more experienced than told. Postwar Sri Lanka has magnified its prewar problems and is being overwhelmed by multiple narratives of the war without any systematic effort to resolve the problems that led to the war and the additional problems that were created by the war. The social welfare infrastructure, that was built over fifty years primarily by the dialectic between a responsive parliament and an assertive working class, is now totally broken. People are evicted out of their lands and habitats in the name of national security in Jaffna, or for the fulfillment of casino aspirations in Colombo. There are no parliamentarians to petition their plight and no working class leaders to protest on their behalf. They were seamless in the glory days of the Left.
Every week, if not every day, we hear something new about how things are falling apart in our political system. Two weeks ago we heard how truant our parliamentarians have become. They stay away from parliament, and even when they are in the premises they stray away from the proceedings. Parliamentary staffers have to go about corralling wandering MPs to get to the chamber to make up the quorum. Those in power are now officially mourning the death of Sam Wijesinha, while daily dismantling the institution that he was so much a part of. Last week, former Chief Justice Sarath Silva dropped a bomb of a legal opinion trashing the legality of the current President seeking a third term, based on his reasoning that the extended (2+) term-benefit of the 18th Amendment is applicable only to future presidents and not the current incumbent. If only Justice Silva could have been half as honest and consistent in his judicial performance as he is clever in his legal reasoning! Cleverness without credibility could all but ill-serve the cause that he is now wont on canvassing. Bala Tampoe was an exceptionally clever lawyer, but his credibility as a person and a trade union leader was even greater.
Sam Wijesinha provided institutional continuity as Sri Lanka lurched one from constitution to another in the lifetime of most of us. Bala Tampoe opposed these lurches from the outside and won significant victories against state oppression, the institutionalization of “criminal justice”, and the infringement of workers’ rights. He welcomed the change of the country’s name, in 1972, from Ceylon to Lanka, and Ilankai, but he opposed the pre-fix “Sri” as being supremacist. I believe he always used the term “Lanka” instead of Sri Lanka, and I know of two others who have followed his example: Rev. Paul Caspersz and Silan Kadirgamar. Bala Tampoe saw leaders come and go, or sent packing by the people. He saw the end of the Jayewardene-UNP rule, and passionately championed the creation of a Workers Charter under the new dispensation after 1994. But the hopes of 1994 ended in frustration and not their realization. He would have been happier to have a Workers Charter established than to have a presidential cake for his ninetieth birthday. That is the difference between their generation and ours.