A lifetime of protest
In conversation with Bala Thampoe, the oldest active trade union member in Sri Lanka.
came a full- time party worker. He also joined the CMU in 1948 as its general secretary.
By then World War II had ended and the British, Dutch and French imperial regimes disintegrated. Whitehall granted dominion status to Sri Lanka, and the country became free in 1948, months after India. In the early 1950s Bala trained in law and used his expertise to organise workers. However, the post- independence period in Sri Lanka gave him more reasons for disillusionment than hope. Parliamentary politics had its own agenda. He observed that political parties saw workers first as voters. “My experience and knowledge of parliamentary politics is that the capitalist system has been able to maintain control politically. There have been dictatorships, which arose in exceptional contexts, and ultimately could not survive.”
The LSSP’s aspirations about parliamentary politics led Bala to contest elections in Central Colombo. “But I did not have any illusions,” he says. He enjoyed a lot of support among workers, and gave a tough fight to his opponent who eventually won.
As someone who has spent virtually a lifetime organising labourers for protests, Bala is concerned about the shrinking space for democratic protest or dissent in Sri Lanka. He is particularly disturbed by a recent incident in Weliweriya — about an hour’s drive from Colombo, towards Kandy — where a clash between the army and residents who were protesting led to army personnel reportedly opening fire, claiming at least three lives.
“What brought the people in Weliweriya onto the road? Water!” The residents were protesting against the absence of any action to their complaint about ground water being polluted by effluents from a nearby factory. “The issue is water. And no amount of cover up can hide the fact that those people were willing to face the army, because they believed their wells were being polluted by effluents from the factory. This raises another issue. That in this country if you block a highway even for the most elemental reasons, the penalty is death.”