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A life-long struggle for labour rights

2014 Sep 04

Veteran trade unionist Bala Thampoe – who has been at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s labour movement for nearly seven decades – passed away here on Monday. He was 92.

As general secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) for the last 65 years Mr. Thampoe was the longest serving office-bearer of the union, considered one of the most powerful private sector unions in the island.

Mr. Thampoe spent his early childhood in India, where his father worked for the British administration. As he later returned to Sri Lanka, he trained in Botany to begin a career in academics when he got strongly drawn to the nascent labour movement in the country.

As a young Left activist Mr. Thampoe joined the Trotskyist faction of the Leftist, then underground Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1941. He became a full-time party worker after he lost his job at a Sri Lankan university following a thundering public speech he made. Soon after, he joined the CMU in 1948 as its general secretary and served in the capacity till his last day.

Having played an active role in Sri Lanka’s famous ‘Hartal’ of 1953 — an island-wide demonstration led by the LSSP — Mr. Thampoe over the last couple of years voiced deep concern about shrinking spaces for dissent in Sri Lanka. Drawing parallels between the Hartal and a protest in Weliweriya last year, where three persons died after the Sri Lankan army clamped down on residents who took to the streets demanding safe drinking water, he told The Hindu in August 2013: “In this country if you block a highway even for the most elementary reasons, the penalty is death!”

Linus Jayatilleke, president of the United Federation of Labour, said Mr. Thampoe was a leader of the working class who always stood by his principles. Mr. Thampoe was critical of the parliamentary Left, currently aligned to the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led ruling coalition. Voicing his views on parliamentary politics, he told The Hindu in an earlier interview: “The parliament has evolved as the political complement to the capitalist economic system and capitalist rule.”

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