In conversation with Bala Thampoe, the oldest active trade union member in Sri Lanka.

When Bala Thampoe, a young Botany lecturer, was asked to address a group of workers on trade union and political rights for public servants, he had no clue.

Like for many young Marxists, the working class was just a category in his mind. “Students become Leftists without any grasp of the working class movement, I was no different,” he says blushing mildly.

Even now “comrade Bala”, the senior most, active trade union leader in Sri Lanka, does not claim to have all the answers. But he continues to have enormous faith in the need to register protest. A couple of months ago, he was at the forefront in organising workers for a strike in connection with the electricity tariff hike in the country.

At 10 every morning he is at his sea-facing office off Galle Road, driving about 15 km in his light-green Volkswagen Beetle. “We bought it in 1979, and my wife was using it. I use the vehicle after she passed away,” says Bala. Except for his ivory-coloured hair that is occasionally responsive to the sea breeze by the window, there is nothing about the man that you normally associate with a person his age.

Bala turned 91 this May.

His brisk gait could give people half his age a complex. He recalls dates, years and incidents as if things happened yesterday, and speaks in a clear tone slowly, reminding you of his professorial past.

“My father worked in British India and I spend some time there during my childhood. In fact, I was there during my first year when I had a severe case of dysentery.” His mother nursed him back to health after a forty-day battle and the child survived. “None of us knew that I would survive that attack in my first year and live on for 90 more!”

Bala says a lot about his life is ironic, but he seems to have hardly any time to look back or think about it, for his life is not one of leisure. Days are packed -- either with a series of meetings with colleagues, or with officials of the Labour Department. “A couple of days ago, I met with the head of a finance company that is planning to downsize. With some modern technology, apparently 40 workers can do what 300 did. So they have to downsize, alright, but the terms had to be negotiated.”

Bala, general secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU), once among the largest trade unions in the country, has held the post for 65 years now. “Today, our union is only one-fifth our original size. We have some 7,000-8000 members today, but at one point we had 35,000 workers. We could paralyse the Colombo Port," like they did in 1956.

Asked if the trade union movement lost steam along the way, he says Sri Lanka had no trade union “movement” to start with. The unions were scattered and public and private sector unions could not come together.

However, the Left played an important role in shaping Sri Lanka’s domestic politics right from the pre-independence era, he explains. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), one of the oldest Left parties of the country, took up the cause of Independence in a big way. It was banned after its attempt to challenge the British administration.

In 1940, the party split, with one wing pursuing a nationalist agenda, and the other remaining Trotskyist. “Some of them, when in India, struck alliances with people like M.N. Roy and Ram Manohar Lohia.”

Bala joined the Trotskyist faction of the underground LSSP in 1941. Since he held a government job as lecturer at the University of Peradeniya (near Kandy) at that time, he did not make his membership known to many. At that time, World War II was at its peak and the Left was slowly pushing public servants to participate in political meetings held by organisations that were “purportedly Marxist, socialist.”

Some members of the banned LSSP were imprisoned and some went to India. "They were part of the Quit India movement, and came back with some degree of public acclaim.”

The general strike and working class upsurge in India in the early 1940s was inspiring people in Colombo. Bala was beginning to get engrossed in his politics. After what he calls a scathing public speech, Bala lost his job at the university and became a full time party worker. He also joined the CMU in 1948 as its general secretary.

By then World War II had ended and the British, Dutch and French imperialist rules disintegrated, undergoing fundamental changes. Whitehall granted dominion status to Sri Lanka, and the country became free in 1948, months after India did.

In the early 1950s Bala trained in law and used his expertise in organising workers. However, the post-independence phase in Sri Lanka gave him more reasons for disillusionment than for hope. Parliamentary politics had its own agenda. He observed that political parties saw workers as voters, first and foremost.

“My whole experience and knowledge of parliamentary politics is that the capitalist system has been able to maintain control of the system politically. There have been dictatorships, which arose in exceptional contexts and ultimately could not survive.”

They were replaced by electoral parliamentary systems which trapped the majority of the people as voters. Invariably, says Bala, the government-opposition bipolar context serves the capitalist system like a switch. “It goes on and off. When the pressure rises too much on one, it goes over to the other. It is a safety valve. The parliament has evolved as the political complement to the capitalist economic system and capitalist rule,” he says.

The LSSP’s illusions about parliamentary politics made Bala also contest elections in Central Colombo. “But I did not have any illusions,” says Bala, who by then had a lot of support among workers, and gave a tough fight to this opponent eventually won. The LSSP’s growing illusions about parliamentary politics subsequently prompted Bala to leave the party in 1964. Even today, the LSSP is with the United People’s Freedom Alliance, Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition.

As someone who has spent virtually a lifetime organising labourers for protests, Bala is evidently concerned about the shrinking space in Sri Lanka for democratic protest or dissent. He is particularly disturbed by a recent incident in Weliweriya – about an hour’s drive from Colombo, towards Kandy – where a clash between the army and residents who were protesting led to army personnel reportedly opening fire, claiming atleast three lives.

“What brought the people in Weliweriya onto the road? Water!” The residents were protesting against the absence of any action to their complaint about ground water being polluted by effluents from a nearby factory.

“The issue is water. And no amount of cover up can cover the fact that those people were willing to go and face the army, because they verily believed their wells were being polluted by effluents from the factory. This raises another issue, that in this country if you block a highway even for the most elementary reasons, the penalty is death. That is the situation in this country. The penalty is death!”