4 December, 2023


The Bala Tampoe Story

By Malinda Seneviratne –

Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

Veteran trade union leader and General Secretary of Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union Bala Tampoe passed away in Colombo at the age of 92 today.  I interviewed ‘Comrade Bala’ for the Sunday Island 13 years ago.  That interview (published on April 8, 2001) is reproduced here by way of tribute to a colorful and evergreen red, so to speak, in labor politics in Sri Lanka.

Marx said somewhere that men make history but not in the circumstances of their choosing. This is fundamentally a thesis about the dialectic character of structure and agency. For the most part, it seems, human beings are overwhelmed by the conditions they find themselves in, and allow themselves to be carried by the tide of seemingly inexorable processes. Still, the world is not without heroes and heroism, for there are those who challenge and radically alter contours of engagement in the social. In the process, inevitably, they succeed in redefining who they are, often in opposition to the cultural code dictated by genealogy and blood line. Such a man is Phillips Balendra Tampoe, or “Comrade Bala” to thousands of trade union activists the world over.

Having held the post of General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU) for over 50 years (itself a record and testimony to the faith that workers of several generations have had in the man), Bala has clearly carved a niche for himself in the history of the trade union movement in this country. Of course, he would be the first to play down the distinction that his service deserves. The people, on the other hand, do hold the prerogative of paying tribute and if any one is deserving of praise for sacrifice and commitment in the long, hard struggles of the oppressed, Comrade Bala certainly qualifies without reservation.



Sure, there will be the die-hard Trotskyites who will quote Lenin selectively and chastise the man on account of “trade unionism inevitably leads to a negotiation of the terms of exploitation”.

But theirs is the business of splitting hairs over sore ideological points. The people do not have to (and in most cases cannot) wait for the “Permanent Revolution” in order to obtain a wage that is half way decent. In any case, Bala’s political life stretched the boundaries of trade unionism in this country, and moreover often spilled out of it as he passionately embraced issues that were hardly the concerns of workers.

Bala claims that fundamentally he’s a humanist and that all his life he first considered people as human beings, then as workers and finally as members of the union. “That’s the way we come and that’s the way we ought to approach life. This is the fundamental teaching of the union and I believe this is why we have been successful and achieved what we have”.

In terms of name recognition, Bala Tampoe and the CMU have enjoyed pre-eminence in the eyes of anyone interested in left politics and especially trade unionism in this country. We decided to take Comrade Bala along memory lane, to find out where he came from and discover the particular circumstances that propelled him on a life long journey with the working class.

He was born in 1922 and was named Balendra Tampoe-Phillips. His father, Francis Tampoe Phillips was a coconut planter in Jaffna who later served in the British imperial government in India as an excise officer. His mother, who was to have a large influence on his life, Beatrice, was born in Kurunegala and was the daughter of Mudaliyar Savarimuttu the former Chief Post Master.

Bala was born in Negombo and had his early education at Newstead. He was eight when his father took up a position in the Madras Presidency. At that time, the colonial government had a quota system to admit non Anglo-Indians to schools and young Bala had to be educated at home for several years before he was admitted to Bishop Cotton School.

“Actually I was admitted to a school before, but that was because my mother had put down my name as B. T. Phillips. I was very excited at finally being able to go to school, but when the headmaster saw me he said ‘there has been some mistake,’ and pointed out that the quota system had already been filled. This is why my mother asked me to change my name when I returned to Sri Lanka and joined Royal College, and I fully agreed with her.”

Reminiscing about his family, Bala said that they belonged to the Jaffna aristocracy and that there were even claims that they were connected to Sankili, the last Tamil king of Jaffna. Their ancestral home was located opposite the palace at Nallur and was called “Sangili Thoppe” or Sangili’s Garden. He admits therefore that he was an aristocrat by blood and laughingly said that he was often referred to as “The Czar of the City Clerks”.

“My great great grandfather was the first Hindu to convert to Christianity in Jaffna. ‘Phillips’ was the name of the man who sponsored the evangelical mission and that’s how I ended up with that name.”
He recalled that his father always carried the arrogance that came with his aristocratic lineage. “He used to ride horses and even when he went somewhere by car, he carried his whip with him. If the road was blocked by cattle or people, he would toot his horn several times and after passing the place, would stop, take out his whip and lash out at the herdsman or whoever was blocking his path, much like the aristocracy in Jaffna.”

His mother, apparently was very different. She was an admirer of Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian nationalist movement. He remembered how his father, on April Fool’s Day in 1930 or 1931 sent a message home saying that Gandhi and Nehru had been released from prison. His mother had been overjoyed and her husband had had a hearty laugh at her expense. She would frequently get into arguments with her husband, who was in every sense of the word a creature of the British Raj.

“Sometimes he would beat her. I admired my mother very much and identified with her. That was the beginning of me identifying myself with the oppressed.”

I put to him that Freudians would love this story. He said “Why not? I have read Freud and have done my own self-analysis. I believe that these things had a lot to do with who I am and what I did.”
At Royal College, Bala became friends with Danister Gunatilleke, the younger brother of Vivienne Goonewardene and it was with him that he cut his political teeth, joining the Suriya Mal Movement in 1935. In 1939, having passed the Senior School Certificate Examination, Bala entered the University of Ceylon and also won a Cambridge Studentship for having come third in the island at the exam. Although he had studied chemistry, physics and double maths, Prof. Sunderalingam, a personal friend of the family and the man who had sponsored his education at Royal, had persuaded him to study botany because “botany carried more weightage in marks for the civil service exam”.

Prof. Gulasekeram, the then registrar of the university had been angry at this decision and had come home to convince him of his folly. Bala had coolly told him that if he can guarantee his career, then he would gladly switch again.

“He looked at me and told my parents ‘that’s Phillips’ Rangi talking, meaning the hauteur of the Phillips, probably referring to my ancestry.”

The university years coincided with the second world war and Bala soon found himself in the thick of the anti-war movement. He had joined the LSSP in 1941 and had been put in a “special unit” along with Dicky Attygalle, the son of Dr. J. W. Attygalle. Dicky had recruited him to the party, in fact. The LSSP had decided to free its leaders who were being held in Bogambara just before the famous Japanese air raid in 1942, and it was Bala, with an assumed identity of Kuruppu, who carried the secret message to NM and co. He had also taken steps to provide a safe house for the escapees in Anuradhapura, prior to their departure to India via Velivettiturai.

Back in Colombo, Dicky and Bala had organised the distribution of anti-war propaganda among British troops stationed in Colombo.

“Dicky, who was an English Honours student, wrote a fantastic pamphlet, which talked about the ‘rising sun of Japan and the setting sun of Churchill’. We had won over three British soldiers, who undertook to distribute the pamphlet in the canteens of the army. I paid some street urchins 50 cents to distribute the document in the cinemas which were mainly patronised by British service personnel.
“It had a huge impact. The commanding officer had threatened action against anyone found with the pamphlet on his or her person. In fact, Tomlinson’s book titled ‘The Most Dangerous Moment’ (i.e. the threatened invasion of Ceylon by the Japanese fleet for which the British was not prepared), carried a copy of that pamphlet.”

The war years were not without humour and romance for Bala. He remembered becoming friendly with a British woman in the army, who was stationed in Kandy. Jeanne Gillott, the daughter of a captain in the British Navy, had been a head strong woman, who defied colonial custom and thought nothing of going with Bala to the cinema or dancing with him. Bala of course never stood up for the British Anthem, and Jeanne had followed suit. Bala had to ask her to stand up because there were too many British soldiers in the theatre.

“One day we were walking outside the Queen’s Hotel and we saw two naval officers coming in the opposite direction. She asked me not to say anything if any remarks were passed. True enough, as they passed us, one of them said ‘Where are you going with THAT?’ ‘That’ was me!”

On another occasion, he had been doing the ‘excuse-me dance’ with her where one’s partner can be taken by any man who only needed to say ‘excuse me’ to take her from you. Bala was duly ‘excused’ and the person who took over Jeanne had made some disparaging remark about Bala and the ‘natives’ to which she had replied ‘Some of them have been to Cambridge and Oxford and speak better English than you or I!” When the war ended she had been posted to Delhi.

Bala got his Botany Honours degree from Colombo in 1943 as well as a degree from London (as an external student) in 1944 and was appointed as a lecturer in Botany and Horticulture at the school of agriculture in Peradeniya. He secretly lectured clerks belonging to the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU) and lost his job over his role in the strike of 1947. On February 1st, 1948, he broke away from A. E. Goonasingha and was elected as the General Secretary of the CMU a post he has held for 53 years now. He took his oaths as a lawyer in 1953 and has represented countless workers and activists since.

Bala, a member of the politburo of the LSSP, resigned, along with others like Edmund Samarakkody who formed the LSSP-R (that’s ‘revolutionary’) claiming that the LSSP was taking the revisionist road, in 1964. Bala had his own faction, the Revolutionary LSSP. Bala, it can be argued, was cut out more for trade unionism than party politics.

He has dedicated his life to the union and helped it grow to over 20,000 members in 125 commercial, engineering and industrial establishments. The CMU has played and continues to play an important role in the trade union movement, not only in regard to matters affecting its own members, but in regard to socio-economic and political issues affecting working people and the country in general. It has also been in the forefront of mass actions in defence of human and democratic rights, especially during prolonged periods of “Emergency Rule”.

A member of a team from the World Bank had once asked Bala what the CMU was doing at Eppawala since there were no workers issues there, and Bala had responded “We are human beings first, and that is reason enough!”

His first marriage in 1950 to Nancy Kotalawala, a Montessori teacher from Passara who had studied under Madame Montessori, had ended in 1957. He married May Wickramasuriya, a comrade in the CMU in 1966. Just before she died, someone had suggested that Bala’s autobiography should be written, and Bala had suggested that it was May’s that is more important, considering all she had done for the trade union movement. May, of course, has disagreed “No, your story should be told, especially what you did for the JVP.”

When Rohana Wijeweera was released, he had come straight to the CMU headquarters saying “We want to thank Comrade Bala and the CMU for all they have done; they were the only people who were consistent in their support while in prison.”

“They were not terrorists back in 1971, and the court agreed with my arguments in this regard. The late eighties was a different story altogether. By that time they were engaging in unadulterated terrorist activity.”

Almost 80, Bala Tampoe has not lost any of his fire. He is both feared and respected by the employers and loved by the employees. He is recognised as a giant in the trade union movement both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Perhaps the photographs says it all.

The photograph, published in the Dawasa, shows the man in full flight at Galle Face Green, clutching the Hansard in his left hand, pointing his finger at the Parliament, screaming that the real parliament of the people lay outside that building. Felix Dias Bandaranaike had to resign and the newspaper had carried this picture next to one of Felix on his way to hand his letter of resignation.

More power to you Comrade Bala, and may your tribe increase. This country can do more with people like you!

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Latest comments

  • 10

    Thanks Malinda for the nice piece. He was a great unionist, will never be forgotten. As a young man I remember how he led trade union activities in such a way, even Heads of State were scared of his moves and organizational abilities. A great loss at a time when trade union leaders of his caliber are fast disappearing.

  • 6

    R.I.P. Bala.

    A good man, but never was able to get more than 200 votes!


    • 12


      Bala fought for the right of working class people. He also defended members of JVP in the early 1970s.

      He has done more to this island than all politicians put together.

      May he attain Nibbana.

      • 8

        He did more than his bit for this country.

        He gave all he had to us & to this country. Did not expect anything in return.

        • 9

          Ben Hurling

          “He gave all he had to us & to this country. Did not expect anything in return.”

          He was a humanist and we have a lot to learn from his life time service to humanity which went beyond race, class, religion and region.

    • 2

      Good men never get elected …. that’s the unwritten rule in SL.

  • 12

    Malinda talking about Bala, one one side a man of integrity who never wavers, the other, a man who sways this way and that to his own benefit.

    I don’t need to tell which is Bala and which is Malinda.

  • 7

    Dear Malinda Seneviratne , White washers and Shill of MaRa.

    RE: The Bala Tampoe Story

    Can you please write about Mara, his Shills and goons and the health of Mara, who is waiting Mara?

    Blood in urine of Medamulana Percy Mahendra Rajapaksha: Warded at Houston hospital – condition carefully monitored


    (Lanka-e-News- 28.Aug.2014, 11.55PM) During the last two days since the Uva elections campaign began , the elections violence had risen meteorically as confirmed by the elections monitoring report released today- it has increased by 76 more cases of violence! All of these incidents of violence involve shooting, threatening using firearms, attacks, arson and destruction of property which are all first degree crimes.

    Behind all these criminal violence are the Presidential security division (PSD) and the special task force (STF).Lanka e news makes this revelation taking full responsibility . Based on reports substantiated by evidence reaching Lanka e news inside information division , they are as follows :

    185 soldiers in civil attire of the PSD armed with weapons including para, gas bombs , mini ooshi, , T 56 and AK 47 , as well as 65 STF soldiers of the Gonahena STF camp, in 19 jeeps have been dispatched to Moneragala and Badulla.

    To provide unlimited fuel to these vehicles ,the fuel supply books of the police department had also been sent along. Moreover , 6 garage mechanics have gone with them to attend to vehicle repairs , if any.

    These contingents are being deployed at Moneragala, Badulla, Siyambalanduwa, Athimale, Buttala ,Ella and Wellawaya .

    9 high rung STF officers have been included in this contingent , and a further 3 ASPs of the STF are to be dispatched.

    Sarathchandra the present coordinator of the defense Ministry intelligence espionage service and ex DIG of the STF is put in charge of the Moneragala district , and he is entrusted with the tasks of facilitating the operations of violence of these groups and giving illegal directives to police stations.

    Chandra Fernando an ex IGP and currently a Presidential advisor has been appointed to be in full charge of enthroning lawlessness and dethroning the rule of law in the entire Uva region. Ex DIG K.P.P. Pathirane is to serve as his assistant. With these arrangements in place , President Medamulana MaRa had made a beeline home disregarding his blood in urine ill health condition to see to it that even through bloodshed and illegal operations he wins at the Uva elections.

    Based on the aforementioned facts and evidence , it is abundantly clear what the opposition parties have to face in Uva are not peaceful elections but a bloody war. Believe it or not , the violence is so horrendous and widespread with Medamulana Percy Rajapakse ‘s parties taking advantage of the climate of impunity they enjoy ,that even a deputy elections commissioner was attacked at the very beginning of the elections campaigns while the elections officers too were threatened and intimidated.

    • 4

      No secret that Rajapakshes keep exotic Cacadoos in cages.

      MS is one of them – to whitewash all what they have been doing to thie paralized nation.

      Can anybody of you guys name an article which you consider is neutral in terms of the totday s- alarming levels of societal erosion in srilanka under the guidance of Rajapa. Those who pick MS as a good writer shoudl also need to see the harm being practised by MS to today s srilanka. This kind of laptop greedy journlists can ruin it further.. that is what I always feel when I start reading the first two lines of his articles.

  • 5

    Sri Lanka has lost another self-less leader, for whom the principles of collective prosperity and freedom was a cornerstone of his living philosophy.

    We WILL NOT see more of them anymore because we DO NOT breed them ANYMORE. Today we have Sajith’s, Dayasiri’s, Namal’s and Malaka’s who think they are God’s gift on earth! Do any of you think any of the afore-mentioned can sit down with a reputed journalist and finish a one-hour interview without talking about themselves? NOT!

    We reap what we sow. If we do not care about the destruction of education, and educational standards in Sri Lanka, we will be left with more International schools run by crooks and idiots and taught by stupids. The results are already obvious. Just look around your own back-yards. None will turn out to be a Bala Tampoe. They do not even know who was Bala Tampoe!

  • 5

    A great man indeed. He was an alien among the present lot of politicians
    and Trade union leaders.

  • 3

    A great man indeed.An alien among the present day trade union leaders and politicians. So devoted and a brilliant criminal lawyer.A Jose Mujica

  • 10

    Thanks Malinda. Only this morning (2nd Tuesday) that I came to know his demise through your homage. He was a great and a pleasing personality. He was one of our mentors in mid 1960s. Later as ‘more radical Peradeniya students’ in the LSSP(R) we had disagreements with him and when one of our friends were loudly speaking at an internal meeting, he asked “Why are you shouting?” My friend’s reply was “We are following you Comrade,” to which he had an unescapable smile. We all liked him. Last time I met him was in 1997 at SLFI and he was more like a friend. I regret I couldn’t meet him thereafter.

    • 4

      Yes agree with you – and I find this kind of personalities are rare.

      But my question is whether the kind of valuable personalities would ever remain in the society Rajapakshe created to this day ? We are luckly and even more proud to see lankens of good personalities, but the culture introduced by Rajapakshes would almost eliminate any good personalities from the lanken society rather than producing more of them.

  • 4

    His contribution to the trade union organisations around the world is beyond any one’s imagination. True believer of the Marxist doctrine and practiced in real life. Sri Lanka lost her greatest son.

  • 4

    Thank you Malinda for reproducing your article on Comrade Bala.

    As a former member of CMU, I still remember his fiery speeches. Whenever CMU branch members went on strike he would be there at least for a couple of hours to lead them in picketing. When ever I think of Comrade Bala Thampoe, his condemnation of the United States as “Adhirajavadhi” during his fiery speeches still reveberates in my ears.

    Having relocated to Australia for many years now I believed he would have been dead until a few weeks ago I read an article by DBS Jeyaraj describing how the 92 year old veteran trade unionist was still continuing as the General Secretary of CMU and even driving to CMU Headquarters from Ratmalana in his Volkswagon car. His article had a picture of Comrade Bala leading this year’s CMU May Day rally on 1 May 2014 at the age of 92. What a sight to see a 92 year old trade union leader leading a workers day rally. Here is the link to that article by DBS who has now reproduced it in his blog to announce Comrade Bala Thampoe’s passing away:

    A leftist like Comrade Bala will be a rarity in Sri Lanka. He like Comrade Shanmugathasan was a Tamil politician and trade union leader who earned the respect and love of the majority Sinhalese community. Had the Tamils supported leftist leaders like Comrade Bala Thampoe,Comrade Shanmugathasan, Comrade Karalasingham, Comrade Ponnambalam etc and made them as their MPs instead of the likes of Chelvanayagams and GG Ponnambalams the history of the Tamils and that of Sri Lanka would have been different.

    • 6


      We are remembering a great man of our time. this is not a appropriate time to take a dig at Tamil leaders.

      “Had the Tamils supported leftist leaders like Comrade Bala Thampoe,Comrade Shanmugathasan, Comrade Karalasingham, Comrade Ponnambalam etc and made them as their MPs instead of the likes of Chelvanayagams and GG Ponnambalams the history of the Tamils and that of Sri Lanka would have been different.”

      Why couldn’t Sinhala lefty leaders such “great politicians” as NM, Pieter Keuneman, Vasudeva, Bernard, Colvin make a difference to the country, their people, and world at large. All sold their souls and their principles when they got good price for their service to racism.

      History of all people would have been different if the opportunists so called lefties hadn’t pretended they were for the workers and down trodden.

      • 4

        Native Vedda,

        Tamils depended heavily on DR. NM Perera notably during the 6os & 70s but he dropped them like a ton of bricks when he got the minister ship and perks. His colleague
        Colvin once asked the majority in Parliament whether they want
        one country with two languages or two separate countries, when language debate took place in Parliament.That’s history now.

        Srimavo govt had leftists like Dr. NM, Colvin, Peter Kueneuman and these talented veterans could have brought a settlement to the Tamil issue When SJV. Chelva, a moderate and campaigner of non violence was at the helm of Tamil politics. All these deaths
        on both sides could have been avoided if these veterans worked sincerely towards development of the country.

    • 2


      So your publicly expressed hatred of Jaffna Tamils doesn’t extend to all those ‘Comrades’?

      I remember Bala Tampoe for his courageous defense in the courts of Father Singarayer under JRJ. While Tampoe was admired by many Sinhalese as well, his sense of justice extended to those who advocated Tamil nationalism as well, and I am sure he would have been horrified by what happened in the Vanni during the 2009 war.

  • 4

    I am no unionist nor have I ever met Bala. But I heard about his genius and the service he rendered to uplift the life of workers from one of my uncles in my school days. I believe, Bala Thampo is the only trade unionist who earned respect from across the board for dedicating his entire life to trade union activities in Sri Lanka without using it for personal and political gain. Another point, he kept himself above racist and separatist politics. I wish there are more like him.

  • 3


    You are a neo con supporting capitalist. Bala fought for all people. How do you treat your employees?

    • 2

      There is nothing like being in the driving seat of all goodness- money.

      little does he know what transpired when holland went to war with poland as we knew in our school days. The orange gold and the dye from it used to colour the textile than eat the expensive fragrant stuff. Yes its oranges from hindu, Buddhist to WASP of the orange order. may be a tea bagger manufacturer mamadi brand.
      His grandson may not learn mandarin but enough of the polish massage parlours for the cream of society.
      Which schoolboy had not heard about Bala when we had bond style movies then?

      Banda its high time you bared it all.

  • 0

    A very interesting piece about a man from the parish of St. James Nallur which stands on the foundations of the main temple at the palace where the kings of Jaffna worshipped first as Hindus and then as Christians.

    There were Christian converts well before the Phillipses. Perhaps Bala Tampoe is referring to the first conversion of a Hindu to Anglicanism and not to Christianity. That would match Tampoe’s great-great grandfather who was 4 generations earlier, taking us to the late seventeenth century when the British arrived.

    Another correction and a query arising from this nice article. The Phillips house is not Sangili Thoppe. That area to the west and east of the palace entrance on Point Pedro Road is Sangili Thoppu. Thoppe might be an Anglicised version of Thoppu. The last of the Phillipses, Pillippammah, left for Colombo as the war moved in, in the 1970s. They went as the Phillipses and Tampoe-Philips must have been a change by a recent generation that did not like that name. Notice how Prof. Gulasekeram, also with roots at St. James’, speaks of the Phillips Raangi” and not “Tampoe-Phillips Raangi.”

    Regarding the statements that Tampoe studied chemistry, physics and double maths and that he graduated with botany honours, I am curious to know when 4-subject programmes and single-subject special degree programmes came to the University of Ceylon. I am aware of one person in the late 1920s (1928 I believe) who did a 3-subject general degree from University College and then took another year to do his maths special. These were both London degrees then.

    In 1944 (Bala Tampoe’s time)there was no university at Peradeniya. So was the “Botany and Horticulture at the school of agriculture in Peradeniya” a part of the university or was it part of the ministry?

  • 2

    This is perhaps not the time and place to speak negatively of people who have passed away. But the truth cannot be hidden. No doubt there are many good things about Bala Tampoe to the Trade Union movement.

    Some of the features to which he is given credit were slowly but surely coming anyway e.g. dismissal on the spot etc. But he did much harm to the reputation of the country’s Port and the many successful firms in the export sector and industry that gained for the country a fine reputation decades ago before Singapore. When men like Tampoe organised Strike after Strike crippling the port responsible men in Govt, Trade and Industry were to comment the harm done by these Trade Union leaders to the country will be felt years later. They were. Many Shipping Lines went to Singapore and other countries. Like all Trade Union leaders Strikes in flourishing businesses were started not only for the good of the worker but also for the ego and other benefits of
    Trade Union leaders.

    Tampoe’s first marriage failed because he was tyrannical at home.
    He remained General Secretary of the CMU also by dictatorial means. Not that there weren’t others in the movement just as good. It is said he used intimidation and thuggery to remain GS with several other possible competitors stabbed in buses or assaulted on the way home – by unknown Contract thugs. It is said even the super-expensive building opposite the Oberoi/Cinnamon Grand Hotel is not in the name of the CMU but in his name and that of May Wickramasuriya.

    CMU Man

  • 3

    I am glad I had this great man as a friend for a while. I saw him defend the defenceless when Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her nephew Felix were going after the Sinhela speaking students graduates who were unemployed. Charles Gunasekera brother of Prins was one he defended in court on the coridoor and even in the Law Library when after a court order releasing Charles he was rearrested on the orders of Felix.
    His memory will never evr die. There will be one Bala Tampoe Daniels a man who graduated as a Agriculture Specialist and then got a law degree to fight for T.B.Illangaratne against the British Government’s anti Independence campaign.

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