The last fleeting glimpse of Bala Tampoe, the doughty trade unionist who one might say died with his boots on, was sitting on the pillion of a motor cycle on his way to address a May Day rally this year. Here was a man who had negotiated with all the country’s prime ministers and heads [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Bala, Sri Lanka’s quintessential unionist


The last fleeting glimpse of Bala Tampoe, the doughty trade unionist who one might say died with his boots on, was sitting on the pillion of a motor cycle on his way to address a May Day rally this year.

Here was a man who had negotiated with all the country’s prime ministers and heads of state since independence in 1948, met world leaders – probably more than any other living Sri Lankan – and strode the international stage in many places – Geneva, New York, Paris -. Yet he chose to lead a simple life, as has been the case of many trade union leaders he nurtured.

Bala Tampoe

Defying his age (92 years), he was not averse to riding a motorbike when the situation demanded and when most people his age won’t be able to get off a bed. In July, he led a walkout from the National Labour Advisory Council in protest against the non-formulation of the Workers Charter introduced by current President Mahinda Rajapaksa, when the latter was Labour Minister in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s 1995 administration.
Accolades have flowed in after his death for a man who commanded respect from all and sundry. Sri Lanka has lost one of her most upright citizens who fought for what is right, stood by his principles and was unshaken in his beliefs. Truly a Sri Lankan, and a patriotic one, unlike the humbug and pseudo types who go round strutting their wares as “true and patriotic Sri Lankans” but doing all the dirty and nasty things away from the public domain. Greed and envy has taken over today, even among sections of once-decent society.

While the media has been filled with Tampoe’s accomplishments as a trade union leader, today’s editorial reflects more on the man and the values he represented in today’s desperate and valiant search for the ‘true’ Sri Lankan who thinks country first, country second, and country third! There is no one, absolutely, who can fill this and the shoes left behind by the grand old man of trade unions in Sri Lanka.
This column had earlier planned to discuss the November budget and the BT-RCB poll (see comprehensive coverage in this section) conducted last week which reveals many insights into how Sri Lankans perceive the national budget process. However budgets come and go every year but never in our lifetime (not for a 100 years at least) we’ll find a trade unionist of his calibre; mind you coming from the minority Tamil community who excelled in the Sinhala language and commanded the respect of all. A brave heart indeed!

A few weeks back we wrote about the ‘last of the mohicans’ when reflecting on the passing away of Uniwalkers founder Badra Wimalasekera and the passage of time during the pre 1970s and post 1970s era of entrepreneurship. Tampoe’s departure from Planet Earth is another ‘last of the mohicans’ who stood for justice, fairplay, honesty, understanding and decent behaviour.

Though from the old school of unionism, Tampoe was among the first to acknowledge the reality of free markets, saying in a 1998 interview that trade unions must go global to counter globalisation.

“Like transnationals, we must have cross border interaction and contacts with the international trade union movement. As a joint force, we are better equipped to face the challenges of the future,” he was quoted as saying.

Today’s budget poll series in the Business Times in a way reflects all what Tampoe stood for and argued relentlessly against – lack of governance, a coterie of people who benefit from budget handouts, high inflation and COL. This is what one respondent said which is typical of what Tampoe would himself have said, over and over again: “Budgets suppress small people like us. The rich don’t feel the rising cost of living. Development is only good to them. We become marginalized having no proper food and clothing for our families. Taxes bring income to the pockets of the Rajapaksas’ and their henchmen. Everyone is asking for a salary increase but if prices are low there won’t be agitation like demonstrations. They say and we listen. There is no use in consulting us. They do what they want.”

Another comment from Batticaloa, again a repeat of the fight by Tampoe for justice: “We pay taxes to run the government. However there is no country in the world as much as here where tax money is pilfered for corrupt practices. We can be rated number one for corrupt practices. They are pilfering public assets in the guise of development.”

Remember … the cries and pleas for justice, fairplay, governance and ending corruption through these pre-budget polls are coming from the countryside, not only from Colombo. Governance seems to be an issue that is now confronting the rural population as much as it is to Colombo residents. However, how these views play in the Uva provincial polls remains to be seen.

For Tampoe nothing was left undone. To the bitter end he fought for the rights of workers and ordinary citizens like the walkout from a meeting in July. He was one of the few trade union leaders who also, even though grudgingly, commanded the respect of corporate bigwigs.

Come November and budget-time, he would have been among the first to demand justice for workers in the budget. For the first time however since post-independence budget-making, Bala won’t be around. The Business Times doffs its hat to a true Sri Lankan patriot.

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