A life­time of protest

In con­ver­sa­tion with Bala Tham­poe, the old­est ac­tive trade union mem­ber in Sri Lanka.

The Hindu - - MAGAZINE - MEERA SRINI­VASAN

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.”

PHOTO: MEERA SRINI­VASAN

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