May Day celebrations muted

[TamilNet, Friday, 01 May 1998, 23:59 GMT]
News Feature"There were so many cops about the place watching your every movement, that you were scared to bend down and pick upsomething you dropped," said a man who had ventured out on to the streets of Colombo on May Day.

That is an apt summing up of the passing of another international workers day - May 1, 1998. In Colombo, the presence of policemen and soldiers providing security was more evident than the red shirted working man, bearded, breathing fire and full of oaths against the capitalist class.

But nonetheless there was the usual display of pious concern for the beleaguered workers in the speeches, and promises couched in pretty little phrases that their lot would improve in the future.

Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga, speaking at the Peoples' Alliance (PA) rally at the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) grounds, promised that her Government would ensure the economic progress of the country and provide employment to the people. She reiterated that trade unions should function for the benefit of the people and act with responsibility, rather than for narrow political gain.

The Government was endeavouring to attract more investment so as to provide more jobs she said. But trade union action only discouraged investors, which in turn did not help in the creation of new jobs she added.

The opposition United National Party (UNP) held its public meeting in Kandy, in the Central Province. The leader of the UNP and of the Opposition in Parliament, Ranil Wickramasinghe, told the gathering that his party was prepared to fight for the fundamental rights of the workers.

Mr. Wickramasinghe also criticised the Government for undervaluing the assets it sold to the private sector.

The stances taken by the President and Leader of the Opposition reflect the tensions that have recently beset Sri Lanka because of the yet unresolved postal strike which is poised to enter its second month.

Sections of business community are critical that constant evidence of industrial unrest is a negative signal for foreign investment coming to Sri Lanka.

But the more left-wing elements in PA coalition have voiced their disapproval of the government's privatisation deals - especially the phosphate mines which are to be purchased by an American multinational and the Air Lanka deal where Emirates Airlines bought 40% of its shares and will control the management of the airline.

The left-wing parties also want to introduce a workers' charter, which is being resisted by the more right wing elements in the PA and the business community.

The UNP, (which was accused by a veteran trade union leader Alavi Moulana, as shedding crocodile tears for the workers after suppressing their rights for 17 years) is as yet to exploit fully the postal union strike said observers.

Nevertheless, the UNP has been accused by the Government of being the unseen hand behind the intransigence of the striking postal workers. The UNP leader earlier promised to back the postal strike by helping the strikers if they were hauled before the law.

The Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), the plantation based trade union and political party which draws support from the Tamils of Indian origin working in the plantations, held its May Day meeting in its stronghold of Kotagala in the Nuwara Eliya District.

Minister Thondaman, the head of the CWC, struck a conciliatory note with the PA, stating that the Government had consented to meet the recent demand by the estate workers for a wage hike.

He said that if the compromise was not reached between the CWC and the Government, the estate strike would have gone on interminably like the postal strike. He promised to fight for a pension scheme for the estate workers and for the vesting of estate houses in their names.

There was a joint rally at Devanayagam Hall in Batticaloa by the Eelam Peoples' Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Peoples' Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and a number of trade unions and civic organisations.

The speakers emphasised that the ethnic problem should be resolved soon, employment should be found for graduates and refugees resettled expeditiously.

A significant incident of violence occurred in Pahalma Oya, in the Nuwara Eliya District where a convoy, which included the car of former Nuwara Elya Mayor Renuka Herath (UNP), and 11 buses, were stoned. Ms. Herath escaped unhurt.

Two buses were damaged and eight persons injured. The stones had been hurled at the passing convoy by a group of hostile people at the roadside, said sources in Pahalma Oya.

One emerging feature of the May Day of today in Sri Lanka is that not only has it lost its actual significance as a rallying point for the working class, but the present day politicians (at least those from the national parties) hardly attempt to disguise the fact that celebrations on workers' day is a ritual that is being practiced today, merely to maintain with traditions.


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