The Bala Tampoe story

The Bala Tampoe story

Malinda Words-BY MALINDA SENEVIRATNE-September 1, 2014
Veteran trade union leader and General Secretary of Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union Bala Tampoe passed away in Colombo at the age of 92 today.  I interviewed ‘Comrade Bala’ for the Sunday Island 13 years ago.  That interview (published on April 8, 2001) is reproduced here by way of tribute to a colorful and evergreen red, so to speak, in labor politics in Sri Lanka.

Marx said somewhere that men make history but not in the circumstances of their choosing. This is fundamentally a thesis about the dialectic character of structure and agency. For the most part, it seems, human beings are overwhelmed by the conditions they find themselves in, and allow themselves to be carried by the tide of seemingly inexorable processes. Still, the world is not without heroes and heroism, for there are those who challenge and radically alter contours of engagement in the social. In the process, inevitably, they succeed in redefining who they are, often in opposition to the cultural code dictated by genealogy and blood line. Such a man is Phillips Balendra Tampoe, or
“Comrade Bala” to thousands of trade union activists the world over.

Having held the post of General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU) for over 50 years (itself a record and testimony to the faith that workers of several generations have had in the man), Bala has clearly carved a niche for himself in the history of the trade union movement in this country. Of course, he would be the first to play down the distinction that his service deserves. The people, on the other hand, do hold the prerogative of paying tribute and if any one is deserving of praise for sacrifice and commitment in the long, hard struggles of the oppressed, Comrade Bala certainly qualifies without reservation.Sure, there will be the die-hard Trotskyites who will quote Lenin selectively and chastise the man on account of “trade unionism inevitably leads to a negotiation of the terms of exploitation”.But theirs is the business of splitting hairs over sore ideological points. The people do not have to (and in most cases cannot) wait for the “Permanent Revolution” in order to obtain a wage that is half way decent. In any case, Bala’s political life stretched the boundaries of trade unionism in this country, and moreover often spilled out of it as he passionately embraced issues that were hardly the concerns of workers.

Bala claims that fundamentally he’s a humanist and that all his life he first considered people as human beings, then as workers and finally as members of the union. “That’s the way we come and that’s the way we ought to approach life. This is the fundamental teaching of the union and I believe this is why we have been successful and achieved what we have”.

In terms of name recognition, Bala Tampoe and the CMU have enjoyed pre-eminence in the eyes of anyone interested in left politics and especially trade unionism in this country. We decided to take Comrade Bala along memory lane, to find out where he came from and discover the particular circumstances that propelled him on a life long journey with the working class.

He was born in 1922 and was named Balendra Tampoe-Phillips. His father, Francis Tampoe Phillips was a coconut planter in Jaffna who later served in the British imperial government in India as an excise officer. His mother, who was to have a large influence on his life, Beatrice, was born in Kurunegala and was the daughter of Mudaliyar Savarimuttu the former Chief Post Master.

Bala was born in Negombo and had his early education at Newstead. He was eight when his father took up a position in the Madras Presidency. At that time, the colonial government had a quota system to admit non Anglo-Indians to schools and young Bala had to be educated at home for several years before he was admitted to Bishop Cotton School.

“Actually I was admitted to a school before, but that was because my mother had put down my name as B. T. Phillips. I was very excited at finally being able to go to school, but when the headmaster saw me he said ‘there has been some mistake,’ and pointed out that the quota system had already been filled. This is why my mother asked me to change my name when I returned to Sri Lanka and joined Royal College, and I fully agreed with her.”

Reminiscing about his family, Bala said that they belonged to the Jaffna aristocracy and that there were even claims that they were connected to Sankili, the last Tamil king of Jaffna. Their ancestral home was located opposite the palace at Nallur and was called “Sangili Thoppe” or Sangili’s Garden. He admits therefore that he was an aristocrat by blood and laughingly said that he was often referred to as “The Czar of the City Clerks”.

“My great great grandfather was the first Hindu to convert to Christianity in Jaffna. ‘Phillips’ was the name of the man who sponsored the evangelical mission and that’s how I ended up with that name.”
He recalled that his father always carried the arrogance that came with his aristocratic lineage. “He used to ride horses and even when he went somewhere by car, he carried his whip with him. If the road was blocked by cattle or people, he would toot his horn several times and after passing the place, would stop, take out his whip and lash out at the herdsman or whoever was blocking his path, much like the aristocracy in Jaffna.”

His mother, apparently was very different. She was an admirer of Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian nationalist movement. He remembered how his father, on April Fool’s Day in 1930 or 1931 sent a message home saying that Gandhi and Nehru had been released from prison. His mother had been overjoyed and her husband had had a hearty laugh at her expense. She would frequently get into arguments with her husband, who was in every sense of the word a creature of the British Raj.

“Sometimes he would beat her. I admired my mother very much and identified with her. That was the beginning of me identifying myself with the oppressed.”

I put to him that Freudians would love this story. He said “Why not? I have read Freud and have done my own self-analysis. I believe that these things had a lot to do with who I am and what I did.”
At Royal College, Bala became friends with Danister Gunatilleke, the younger brother of Vivienne Goonewardene and it was with him that he cut his political teeth, joining the Suriya Mal Movement in 1935. In 1939, having passed the Senior School Certificate Examination, Bala entered the University of Ceylon and also won a Cambridge Studentship for having come third in the island at the exam. Although he had studied chemistry, physics and double maths, Prof. Sunderalingam, a personal friend of the family and the man who had sponsored his education at Royal, had persuaded him to study botany because “botany carried more weightage in marks for the civil service exam”.

Prof. Gulasekeram, the then registrar of the university had been angry at this decision and had come home to convince him of his folly. Bala had coolly told him that if he can guarantee his career, then he would gladly switch again.

“He looked at me and told my parents ‘that’s Phillips’ Rangi talking, meaning the hauteur of the Phillips, probably referring to my ancestry.”

The university years coincided with the second world war and Bala soon found himself in the thick of the anti-war movement. He had joined the LSSP in 1941 and had been put in a “special unit” along with Dicky Attygalle, the son of Dr. J. W. Attygalle. Dicky had recruited him to the party, in fact. The LSSP had decided to free its leaders who were being held in Bogambara just before the famous Japanese air raid in 1942, and it was Bala, with an assumed identity of Kuruppu, who carried the secret message to NM and co. He had also taken steps to provide a safe house for the escapees in Anuradhapura, prior to their departure to India via Velivettiturai.

Back in Colombo, Dicky and Bala had organised the distribution of anti-war propaganda among British troops stationed in Colombo.

“Dicky, who was an English Honours student, wrote a fantastic pamphlet, which talked about the ‘rising sun of Japan and the setting sun of Churchill’. We had won over three British soldiers, who undertook to distribute the pamphlet in the canteens of the army. I paid some street urchins 50 cents to distribute the document in the cinemas which were mainly patronised by British service personnel.
“It had a huge impact. The commanding officer had threatened action against anyone found with the pamphlet on his or her person. In fact, Tomlinson’s book titled ‘The Most Dangerous Moment’ (i.e. the threatened invasion of Ceylon by the Japanese fleet for which the British was not prepared), carried a copy of that pamphlet.”

The war years were not without humour and romance for Bala. He remembered becoming friendly with a British woman in the army, who was stationed in Kandy. Jeanne Gillott, the daughter of a captain in the British Navy, had been a head strong woman, who defied colonial custom and thought nothing of going with Bala to the cinema or dancing with him. Bala of course never stood up for the British Anthem, and Jeanne had followed suit. Bala had to ask her to stand up because there were too many British soldiers in the theatre.

“One day we were walking outside the Queen’s Hotel and we saw two naval officers coming in the opposite direction. She asked me not to say anything if any remarks were passed. True enough, as they passed us, one of them said ‘Where are you going with THAT?’ ‘That’ was me!”

On another occasion, he had been doing the ‘excuse-me dance’ with her where one’s partner can be taken by any man who only needed to say ‘excuse me’ to take her from you. Bala was duly ‘excused’ and the person who took over Jeanne had made some disparaging remark about Bala and the ‘natives’ to which she had replied ‘Some of them have been to Cambridge and Oxford and speak better English than you or I!” When the war ended she had been posted to Delhi.

Bala got his Botany Honours degree from Colombo in 1943 as well as a degree from London (as an external student) in 1944 and was appointed as a lecturer in Botany and Horticulture at the school of agriculture in Peradeniya. He secretly lectured clerks belonging to the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU) and lost his job over his role in the strike of 1947. On February 1st, 1948, he broke away from A. E. Goonasingha and was elected as the General Secretary of the CMU a post he has held for 53 years now. He took his oaths as a lawyer in 1953 and has represented countless workers and activists since.

Bala, a member of the politburo of the LSSP, resigned, along with others like Edmund Samarakkody who formed the LSSP-R (that’s ‘revolutionary’) claiming that the LSSP was taking the revisionist road, in 1964. Bala had his own faction, the Revolutionary LSSP. Bala, it can be argued, was cut out more for trade unionism than party politics.

He has dedicated his life to the union and helped it grow to over 20,000 members in 125 commercial, engineering and industrial establishments. The CMU has played and continues to play an important role in the trade union movement, not only in regard to matters affecting its own members, but in regard to socio-economic and political issues affecting working people and the country in general. It has also been in the forefront of mass actions in defence of human and democratic rights, especially during prolonged periods of “Emergency Rule”.

A member of a team from the World Bank had once asked Bala what the CMU was doing at Eppawala since there were no workers issues there, and Bala had responded “We are human beings first, and that is reason enough!”

His first marriage in 1950 to Nancy Kotalawala, a Montessori teacher from Passara who had studied under Madame Montessori, had ended in 1957. He married May Wickramasuriya, a comrade in the CMU in 1966. Just before she died, someone had suggested that Bala’s autobiography should be written, and Bala had suggested that it was May’s that is more important, considering all she had done for the trade union movement. May, of course, has disagreed “No, your story should be told, especially what you did for the JVP.”

When Rohana Wijeweera was released, he had come straight to the CMU headquarters saying “We want to thank Comrade Bala and the CMU for all they have done; they were the only people who were consistent in their support while in prison.”

“They were not terrorists back in 1971, and the court agreed with my arguments in this regard. The late eighties was a different story altogether. By that time they were engaging in unadulterated terrorist activity.”

Almost 80, Bala Tampoe has not lost any of his fire. He is both feared and respected by the employers and loved by the employees. He is recognised as a giant in the trade union movement both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Perhaps the photographs says it all.

The photograph, published in the Dawasa, shows the man in full flight at Galle Face Green, clutching the Hansard in his left hand, pointing his finger at the Parliament, screaming that the real parliament of the people lay outside that building. Felix Dias Bandaranaike had to resign and the newspaper had carried this picture next to one of Felix on his way to hand his letter of resignation.
More power to you Comrade Bala, and may your tribe increase. This country can do more with people like you!

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