The Sunday TimesPlus

28th April 1996



May Day Memories

By Roshan Peiris

His impeccable Cambridge accent is still there and the humorous smile. Cambridge and all that he maybe, but Pieter Keuneman, one of the best loved leaders of the working class always shouted himself hoarse on May Day rallies in the years gone by with cries like. 'Down with 'Imperialism' and the 'British must give up their sway over our estates.' Those days are past but the fighting spirit still lives.

His memories, he said, are of May Day and being bathed in sweat and rain. The man who studied in one of the best universities in Britain went on to lead the workers march together with other Communist Party leaders dressed in blood red shirts and caps. "Women workers too were a large part of our rally", recalled Pieter.

The son of a Supreme Court judge and belonging to the elitist class Pieter yet chose to join the working class and shout slogans asking that May Day be dedicated internationally as a workers' day, and be made a public holiday. He also asked for better pay, housing, better wages etc for the workers. It was certainly a long way from the historic Cambridge University.

Pieter recalls "We were once attacked by A.E. Goonesinghe's rally. His was the first trade union movement. His May Day rallies consisted of baila singing and women dancing along the demonstration routes."

Prior to 1947, there were the anti Imperialist alogans which the British looked upon dourly especially when they found among the slogan shouters was one whom they considered almost as their own.

Reminiscing Pieter said, "It is ironic that the first celebration of May Day took place in Chicago because they had the largest number of workers.

"We kept our meetings short and we had no music, song and dance on May Day. It was a day dedicated to the workers", he said. "When May Day was not declared a holiday our workers cut work or went on short leave to attend the rallies. Perhaps in retrospect, it was a compliment to us who first began May Day rallies that the U.N.P. dedicated to the nurturing and support of capitalism decided to celebrate May Day in 1978. Premadasa distorted the whole thing with his film stars and dancers and singers from India, but any way they finally did acknowledge May Day", Mr. Keuneman said.

My first impressions of the LSSP on May Day was seeing the much respected lawyer-politician Colvin R. de Silva known as 'Colvin sahodaraya' wearing a pair of white shorts doing a sort of bali dance near the Wijewardene Mawatha round-about. He was one of the more colourful characters at May Day rallies.

Another was Vivienne Goonewardene who is still happy to narrate her experiences with an astounding vitality of mind though grown slightly feeble with age.

She remembers singing the LSSP Party song with the demonstrators on May Day. From Kirulapone to Price Park they marched with women leading the chant dressed in red sarees and red blouses. "Get up and awake you suffering people, you who are suffering from deprivation and poverty." Even now her voice is crisp and clear. She sang this May Day Party song with feeling.

"On those May Days we did not abuse people even though during some rallies inspired by the U.N.P. governments we were baton charged and tear gassed. We shouted our slogans with even greater vigour then. At Price Park, during Premadasa's time, our May Day rally was once broken up with thuggery," she said.

This woman who was considered the most beautiful girl at the University showed her dedication to the cause of the workers and antipathy to imperialism even as a school girl. When I stealthily went with uncle Robert Goonewardene and sold Suriyamal at Law College and Medical College.

There were many who wanted to marry her from the capitalist class. Sydney Soysa and Jingle Dissananayake among them but ultimately she married Leslie Goonewardene, another L.S.S.P. stalwart. It was his ideology and not money that the young Vivienne was enamoured of.

"We worked for the workers and to us May Day meant a rededication of our ideals to serve the working class," she added.

Veteran trade union leader Bala Tampoe recalling May Days of yore is a proud man. In 1971 just after the JVP insurrection the United Left Front Government consisting of the SLFP, CP and LSSP banned May Day meetings and demonstrations. "But" said an unrepentant Bala, "We of the Ceylon Mercantile Union decided to ignore the ban and hold a meeting on our own grounds here in Kollupitiya. The Daily News headlines screamed, "Only CMU celebrates May Day."

Then again in 1978 J.R. Jayewardene announced that the UNP would walk from Ward Place to Galle Face green. We decided to march also from De Mel Park along Turret Road, Galle Road to our headquarters over here. J.R. specified the UNP's was not a march at all. At first J.R. had said there would be no march and then decided that he and some of his Ministers would walk to Galle Face.

"We had our permit and our paths were to cross. Then before May Day S.P. Lawrence and a couple of A.S.P.s asked me if the CMU could change their route or else change the time of their march. Why? Because from Scots Kirk the JSS wanted to greet J.R. and march with him to Galle Face green and there might be trouble." Tampoe was adamant. "I realised the JSS boys might start a fight or provoke us and I have a theory that thugs like them never embroil themselves with those ready to fight. They molest the innocent. So I refused to change time and even routes but got my members to carry six foot poles, two inches wide on which were huge banners. In case of thuggery these could be used as lethal batons. It was an act of intimidation on the part of the UNP but we carried our May Day rally as we had planned."

"Red, you see, has been the traditional colour of the workers. May be it is symbolic of their sweat and blood at work. We the LSSP, the CP and later the CMU wore red shirts while the women wore red sarees or jackets.

"For the first time at the 1956 May Day rally when Phillip's VLSSP joined the SLFP to form the MEP government there was a mixture of red and blue altogether. We met near the roundabout near De Mel Park. At that time there was the racist cry of Sinhala only while the LSSP of which I was a member had parity as our slogan. Swabasha as the English called Sinhala and Tamil were both going to be official languages in our lexicon. 'Baasa dekak apata epa, ape basawa Sinhala basawa.' (We don't want two languages, our language is Sinhala only.), they shouted. Spontaneously our people with no prompting from the leaders shouted, "Apita epa paata dekak, apata ona satana." (We do not want two colours, we want only our struggle.)

"There was no baila. We wanted to go ahead with our class struggle. We asked for better wages, housing, security of employment and freedom from police harassment.

"I once spent May Day on the invitation of the Trade Unions in the Phillippines, it was 1966. Marcos and Imelda, his wife were there on the dais with us invitees. All colours ranging from blue, yellow, orange and green could be seen as the workers marched but not a single red shirt or frock. The Radio Phillippines man came and asked me what I thought of their May Day demonstration". 'Very impressive', I replied, 'but why don't you have red, the workers' colour? The man looked baffeled and said but that is the colour of the Communists and Communism is banned here.' I told him red was the colour of the working people whereas the workers there were wearing assorted coloured shirts given by their respective employers.

"Premadasa belittled May Day by making it what he called a workers' festival. He brought in singers and film stars from India and bus loads of people from the outstation as did the SLFP earlier. He was too small a man to consider that May Day worldwide was a day dedicated to the workers of the world where workers of the world unite", Tampoe concluded.

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