Opinion and Editorial

Sri Lanka is not a workers’ paradise anymore

Dateline Colombo By Ameen Izzadeen
Filed on May 2, 2006

AS I drove past Colombo’s Hyde Park Corner on the May Day morning, the place, which was once synonymous with the struggle of Sri Lanka’s labour movement, was desolate. Our Hyde Park is a far cry from its namesake in the capital of imperial Britain — the 615 acres (249 hectares) park which was originally a part of a manor and later the royal deer park before it was open to the public in the 17th century.

Colombo’s Hyde Park —a colonial legacy —was the size of a football ground and situated at one of the busiest intersections in the city. It is in this place, the pioneers of Sri Lanka labour movement tried to rally the working people behind the red banner. But on May Day this year, the red shirts were not there because last Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Colombo had prompted the government to ban all May Day rallies for security reasons. If the park had mental faculties, it would have lamented not only the total absence of the red shirts on May Day this year, but also the dwindling numbers over the years.

Years ago, bus commuters who wanted to get down at this intersection, would tell the conductor that they wanted a ticket to Hyde Park Corner. But today, the conductor, if he happens to be a youth in his twenties or thirties, is perplexed when an aging revolutionary asks for a ticket to Hyde Park Corner. The times have changed. People today buy the ticket identifying the place —where trade union activists had once roared, thundered and braved the baton charge of the police —with a popular commercial establishment that had come up in the vicinity.

It reflects a social phenomenon affecting our society today. The undercurrent of this phenomenon is the domination of capitalistic market values —not only competition and individualism, but also greed and selfishness —over religious or socialists ideals that promote community solidarity and encourage sacrifice. This year’s May Day was a non-event in Sri Lanka. Last Tuesday’s Tiger terror in the city had forestalled all the marches and rallies. It was on a May Day in 1993, President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed in an LTTE suicide bomb while he was leading the party’s worker’s day rally.

That there were no May Day celebrations this year might have come as good news for many workers. At least this year, they were free on May Day —free from the clutches of the self-serving politician who has arrogated to himself the right to represent the workers. Chauffeur-driven, he comes in a gas-guzzling SUV or a BMW to the rally and addresses the working class in a sham show. The unscrupulous among the politicians know that they are only building up their political career while taking the workers for a ride. Most of the people who attend politicised May Day rallies —especially those of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance and the main opposition United National Party —are paid by politicians and the party. In other words, the participation at these political May Day rallies is not voluntary.

Thus it was no surprise if the workers had felt a sense of freedom on May Day this year. But it appears that freedom gained is also freedom lost for not only workers but also all Sri Lankans in general because the authorities have taken tight security measures after last Tuesday’s attack on Sri Lanka’s Army Commander Sarath Fonseka in his own den to avert further terrorist attacks. In the past few days, I have been stopped by security forces personnel more than four times.

We cannot afford to grumble because such measures are necessary to avert another suicide attack. But how secure are we? The attack on the Army commander on Tuesday inside the Army headquarters, the killing of foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August last year and the raid on the Colombo airport and the nearby airbase in July 2002, show that the next terrorist attack is not a question of "if" but a question of the LTTE deciding "when and where".

In response to last Tuesday’s suicide attack, the government ordered an air strike of limited nature on LTTE positions in Sampur overlooking the strategic naval base in Trincomalee. "Has Eelam war IV resumed," asked the panic-stricken people, although the government retaliation had public support, especially among the Sinhalese, who were questioning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s policy of tolerating attack after attack on security forces in the north and the east.

But the government appears to be in a Catch 22 situation. On the one hand, if it does not retaliate, the LTTE will become more daring and more provocative. On the other, if it retaliates, it only plays into the hands of the LTTE, which will try to justify its next strike as retaliation to the government’s strike. Now that the government has attacked Tiger bases, causing some ‘collateral’ damage, as the Americans would call it in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Tigers’ response is awaited anytime. With the recent attack testifying that the Tigers thrive in high security, the new tight security measures taken hardly offer any assurance.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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