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Some Reminiscences of Bala Tampoe

| by Laksiri Fernando

( September 3, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian)
It was not a shock as he had lived a full life of 92 years. But to realize that Bala Tampoe is no more reminds me of an end of an Era. Perhaps the era ended long time back. At least for me, he was the last man whom I considered in my young days a leader, and a true one. All are gone, Edmund Samarakkody, Meryl Fernando, Watson Fernando and Wilfred Pereira. Even in the case of N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Vivien Goonewardene, V. Karalasinghham, Leslie Goonewardene and S. A. Wickremasingha, I kept my respects although critically, particularly for the last three, irrespective of whether they were ‘Trotskyists’ or ‘Stalinists.’

The first group at least kept their socialist values intact in their lives however untactful or impractical they were in politics. The second group deviated terribly in their political policies but some not deviating from their personal principles. The major debacle for all of them perhaps was their failure to keep the party organizations effective or the mass following intact. Leadership is not a personality, but an equation composing leader+followers.

Trade Union Scene

It was during 1963-64 period that I first came to know Bala Tampoe closely. That was a peak period for the trade union movement and the left parties in the country. Although Bala had entered left politics two decades before, and been a trade union leader since 1949, he came to national prominence with the ‘21 Demands’ and the strike wave that engulfed the country in 1963/64. There was a political background to the upsurge.

There was an economic downturn as the Korean boom had ended well before. There was economic mismanagement. The SLFP was in power under the premiership of Mrs. Bandaranaike. The working class (though small proportionally) was fairly a cohesive force, not yet strongly infested with ethnic sentiments. Even the SLFP was reluctant in again towing an ethnic or religious line openly after the lessons of the debacle that led to the assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1959. But their class instincts and interests were intact.

Bala’s influence was beyond the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) and within the TU Action Committee along with N. Shanmugathasan. Both were Tamils with a strong Sinhalese rank and file. If someone wants to look for an example when workers were transcending the ethnic divide, this was a period. There were other prominent leaders like L. W. Panditha, D. G. William and I. J. Wickrema. The militant trade union members perhaps numbered nearly 200,000. 

I first saw him in action at the Velona textile strike in July 1964 at Moratuwa. I was waiting for my HSC results and could skip school to watch what was happening often with two other friends. The issue was the ‘right to form a trade union’ which was denied by the owner Ruskin Fernando, unfortunately one of my uncles. Bala was to come in his Volkswagen, not the one given by the union later, but his old vehicle. He used to get on the car and addressed the young women workers. The strikers numbered around 500, but over a thousand people daily gathered to support the strike.

Every morning Bala had a new lesson to tell the workers. The themes ranged from trade union history, labor legislation, economic issues or political matters. He was key among many other speakers, across a left political spectrum. He was a labor educator. He came early morning, went back to his trade union office and then came back again in the late afternoon. After work, thousands of other workers gathered to support the strike and the situation was explosive.

Political Cause

I was already a political activist at the age of 18 since early 1963 inspired by the United Left Front (ULF), 21 Demands, May Day ‘63 and leaders like Bala Tampoe. I was initially a probationary/youth member of the LSSP Moratuwella Local along with two young uncles. My mother didn’t have much objection. Two prominent members of the Local were late Wimalasiri de Mel and Upali Cooray. However, by July 1964 I had already sided with the newly formed LSSP (R) in which Bala was a prominent leader along with Edmund, Meryl and Karlo (Karalasingham). Now I was with the Korelawella Local of the LSSP (R) with Meryl and Upali and several others. I often used to meet Bala at Meryl’s place.

The split/s within the LSSP came (1) on the issue of a coalition with the ‘bourgeoisie’ SLFP and (2) on the question of whether to form a new (revolutionary) party in opposition to the betrayal. The demarcation of the two issues was complicated. Bala and others were absolutely correct on the first question as the coalition came as a way of demobilizing the trade union militancy. The ‘21 Demands’ were in fact betrayed for two ministerial positions. NM had a particular urge to join the government and take up a portfolio. The trade union movement could not recover from this debacle for a long time or until today. Of course there were other factors and processes. July 1980 general strike was only a caricature compared to 1963/64. In 1964, the trade unions were not crushed, but demoralized. But in 1980, they were ruthlessly crushed.

Even on the second question, Bala and others were relatively correct as the LSSP leaders did not offer any other alternative to the ‘revolutionaries.’ They were forced to form a new party although hesitantly on the part of some leaders/members. The situation also exposed a deep seated ailment within the left movement: sectarianism, splintering and personal egos of the leaders. These were evident within the LSSP (R) itself which eventually and eventually led to my departure from active politics altogether.

In respect of the LSSP (R), there were other tactical mistakes or even blunders that led to its disintegration. A major tactical blunder came too soon in December 1964 when two of their parliamentarians, Edmund and Meryl, voted to bring down the coalition government. It was not merely a question of voting with the UNP as it was portrayed. One aspect of the working class consciousness, in my opinion, is that they don’t easily change their leaders unless going through a necessary experience. The majority of workers were led to believe or falsely believed that even the ‘21 demands’ could be achieved eventually through the coalition government. In that context, when that government was defeated, it was considered a betrayal on the part of the LSSP (R) and not the LSSP. The LSSP was unashamed of accusing their former comrades including Bala to this effect to the detriment of the left movement in general. On the part of the LSSP (R), they were reluctant even to come to a common front with the Communist Party (China Wing) of N. Shanmugathasan with whom they shared many common policies and positions those days.

Defeat of the Velona Strike

Velona strike dragged on under difficult circumstances of the de-escalation of workers’ militancy in general after the formation of the coalition government. By now I had entered the University of Ceylon, Colombo Campus, in my first year before transferring to my alma mater, Peradeniya, to read a special degree in economics in the following year. However, I remember the penultimate event. It was somewhere in November if I remember correct.

The management had recruited some new workers or some were blacklegs. They were attempting to enter the factory premises. This was not the first time it happened but that day was different. The police were there in full force and well-armed. The striking workers were blocking the pathway lying on the ground. Even Meryl Fernando’s wife was with the striking workers almost at the forefront of the blockade. A police chief approached Bala Tampoe and Meryl Fernando and there were heated arguments. The situation was deadlocked. I believe even Wimalasiri de Mel was consulted on what to do. There were over 4,000 people surrounding the place. There were rumors that plans were ahead to burn down the factory by some miscreants.

I think it was a correct decision. Bala took the megaphone and addressed the crowd for about ten minutes and appealed the workers to step aside. And they did. His idea was to proceed with legal action. The blacklegs entered the factory and people started hooting. There was a police baton charge thereafter and even Meryl’s wife was injured. That was the decline and defeat of the strike.

Further Interaction

In my first year at the Colombo Campus (1964/65) I often went to Bala’s CMU office, those days at the Upper Chatham Street, Colombo Fort. This doesn’t mean that I was very active or committed. There were other university students who were more active and committed but they belonged to the University of Peradeniya proper. The LSSP (R) office was on one floor. There was a mix up between the party and the union from the beginning. Edmund and other leaders were little uncomfortable about the arrangement. Among them, Bala was undoubtedly an imposing personality. Many of the larger party or public meetings were at the Red Cross Hall at Dharmapala Mawatha, closer to the Campus.

Bala had a unique speaking ability which I admired very much perhaps because ‘good oratory’ was one of my ambitions when I was young. He was sometimes funny when he spoke in Sinhala. He used to address young monks as ‘Hamuduru Pattaw’ (priestly cubs). His pronunciation of ‘Viplavaya’ (revolution) or ‘Panthi Aragalaya’ (class struggle) was unique. His May Day speeches were the best. He used colloquial Sinhala, long sentences mixed with short ones, always intonating certain words or terms. I had shared the stage with him at Workers’ Resort Hall, Slave Island. The following was an episode I have already related commenting on Malinda Seneviratne’s tribute to him (The Bala Tampoe Story) in Colombo Telegraph.

“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.

Bala was well versed in the history of the Russian Revolution, international trade unionism and Marxism in general. Those days he was an internationally prominent anti-Vietnam war campaigner. He used to travel to many capitals for anti-war rallies. He defended the JVP leader, Rohana Wijeweera, before the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC), after the failed April 1971 insurrection, with much eloquence and commitment. He quoted the French and the Universal declarations on human rights defending the ‘right to rebel’ against a ruthless oppression of the people by the State. He however didn’t subscribe to JVP politics, and became more critical of their activities during late 1980s.

Bala and May

Even after we parted away politically, when we were in trouble, we used to go and see him for advice or help. In December 1966, when I was still a second year university student and coming home for vacation, I authored with another ‘comrade’ rather an explosive leaflet against the impending rice ration cut while travelling in the train. Titled Hartalaya Mathaka Nadde? (Don’t You Remember Hartal?), it was ready when the decision was announced the following day. When it was distributed through a network of friends or ‘comrades’ at railway stations from Maradana to Panadura we were in trouble.

We went to see Bala at his usual abode at Peter’s Lane, Wellawatta. He was not there. We were asked to go to May Wickremasuriya’s place at Sirimal Uyana, Ratmalana. May’s house was burgled the day before and she had called him for assistance instead of the police. He lived there happily ever after. We were fortunate to partake at a frugal wedding party apart from necessary advice to resolve our problem. He called Ana Seneviratne (an ASP at that time) who was coming after us perhaps who already knew that it was not a serious leaflet although signed as the ‘Lanka Students’ Fighting Front.’ We were nevertheless questioned at the famous fourth floor but released after taking a short statement.

I also should pay homage to May Wickremasuriya. She was a kind lady. After the failed July 1980 general strike, I conducted an extensive study on the event, its background, causes and the sad outcome. I obtained valuable ideas from Bala but lot of information from May. I managed to produce a Zed book chapter and an article in an international journal (Labor, Capital and Society) on the basis of that research.

Bala was a source of knowledge on Sri Lankan politics. Turn to any internationally reputed author on Sri Lankan politics, Howard Wriggins, Calvin Woodward, Robert Kearney, Janice Jiggins, James Jupp or our own AJ Wilson. His name is there prominently with often references to interviews given by him. I met James Petras, a prominent Marxist academic, at a conference in Ottawa on trade unionism in late 1984 and he asked me about two persons in Sri Lanka, Colvin and Bala.

When I was working in Geneva (1984-91), at least twice I met Bala who came to the ILO for tripartite meetings. He was relaxed and friendly. He didn’t have any animosity that I had left politics. It was the same with Edmund Samarakkody. When I was briefly the Director of the SLFI in Colombo in 1995, one fine day, Bala came to see me along with some other work and gave me a ‘big lecture’ on how to manage and conduct the Institute. I listened to him obediently. After all he was my leader.

Bala Tampoe believed in something very strongly. It is difficult to pin it down to a single concept or cause. Socialism? Yes of course, some form of socialism. But it was also about justice, humanity and human rights. In his long career since 1949, he was committed to trade unionism and the members of his union. There cannot be any doubt about that. A great leader, no more.

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