The workers of this era have to wage a very serious and relentless struggle – Says Saranapala Palihena

Interview with Com. Saranapala Palihena (PD), a leader of the Government United Federation of Labour by Samantha Rajapaksha, a Trade Union activist of CGT- France on behalf of Wame Handa.

Can you say how did you start your journey as a worker?

I started my work as a labourer on March 5, 1971. I came to work with a left political heritage. After Robert Gunawardena, who represented us in our constituency (then Kottawa), became the Chinese Ambassador to the UNP government in 1965 and I worked with Samasamajists (LSSP). I came to work during the tenure of the Sama Samaja MP Chandra Gunasekara of the 1970 Unity Government. That’s why I told that when I came to work I came as a Samasamaja worker. In 1972 I contested to an election to elect representatives to the Debt Relief Board as a representative of the LSSP. I was suspended due to a dispute in that election and came back to work in 1975. This is how my life began as a leftist and a trade unionist. On November 4, 1978, I contested for the post of Secretary of the Sri Lanka Republic Health Services Union (Sri lanka Janaraja Saukya Sevaka Sangamaya) and was appointed to the post amidst a major dispute. In fact, before I was appointed to that post, I participated in the 1977 LSSP May Day demonstration as a representative of the left tendency of the LSSP. I became a member of the LSSP (New Leadership) at the end of the year 1977. In 1979, Government United Federation of labour formed with Comrades JD Silva, S Sathyapala and KJ Silva. Since then I stand firm in revolutionary politics and the trade union movement, and I will continue to stand for the power of the working class that I believe in.

Question: Is your personal and political life same?

Actually I did not have a personal agenda. I still do not work on personal agendas. I dedicated my whole life for a power of working class.

Question: How do you look back at general strike of 1980?

The youth uprising of the JVP in 1971 is an isolated struggle from the oppressed and the working class. That’s the main reason for the defeat of that struggle. It is a debatable whether the strike of 1980 is right or wrong. Because JR, who came to power in 1977, passed the dictatorial constitution in 1978 and started the neo-liberal economic policies. As I have heard, Sri Lanka is the second country in the world to choose to try this system. I believe that only the Nava Sama Samaja leaders who understood this situation politically. I would like to name them although some of them left the movement today. (Wickramarabahu, Sumanasiri Liyanage, Kumar David, Shantha de Alwis, Nalin de Silva, Vasudeva). I worked with these leaders with a great confidence in that party. If JR’s neo-liberal program could have been defeated at the outset, the situation would be different today. Therefore, we had to launch a struggle against the UNP government within a short period of 3 years (There are serious criticisms of this decision.) But there was no alternative for the Sri Lankan left movement and the working class to rally against the neo-liberal economy.

It is true that the decisive factor was the Nava Sama Samaja Party in 1980 strike, since at that time the Nava Sama Samaja Paerty had a majority power in the government and the private sector working class. Therefore, the Left had to oppose JR’s new economic program and we launched the strike. When we look at the demands of the strike, salary increase by Rs. 300.00, stop privatization and to stop curtailing of subsidies were paramount. Out of these demands, apart from Rs. 300.00 salary increase, other demands were made to safeguard the future economy of the country and for relief of the oppressed. Therefore, there was a mass support to this struggle. This was the last struggle of the working class launched for the rights of the people. No mass struggle has been launched since then. It is only after this the so-called independent trade unions idea came to the working class movement. I know a lot of information about the 1980 strike because I was the representative of the GUFL in the JTUAC that led the strike. Repeating these at this time is hurtful and It does not serve any purpose to anyone. Everything added to the history. Let’s move on now.

Q: Why did you leave the Nava Sama Samaja Party?

I did not leave the NSSP. Vikramabahu suggested me to leave, since at that time the party was under the ideology of petty bourgeoisie. Ajantha, Philip and the rest of the youth suggested to Bahu that there was a dispute over my working class ideology. These are the people who tried to make Wickramarabahu as the JVP leader. They wanted to put up posters, make shows like the JVP. When we look at where they are today, we can understand what petty bourgeois ideology is. Today the NSSP does not feel the pulse of the working class. So I think they are doing roaming politics. What they are doing today is to trumpet the name ‘Nava Sama Samaja’ with the strength of the workers who sacrificed their lives in the past.

Question: Is the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka following a mirage?

I work in the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka based on the education I received when I was in the NSSP. I learned that socialism cannot be built in a single country, theory of permanent revolution must be studied, and that the fundamentals of the communist manifesto must be based. I work in the Socialist Party according to those principles that the workers of the world should be united, all workers of the world should form one party and be committed to it. Today there are very few dedicated people in the world and in the other countries. That’s why this is awful. Otherwise we are not going after a mirage.

Question: Has the leadership of the working people in Sri Lanka become a cat’s paw of the bourgeoisie?

There is an answer for that in your question itself. It is the working people of Sri Lanka who can lead every struggle. I admit that, today the working class is weak, disorganized. But working class led the mass uprising in 1953. The class came to the forefront during the strikes in 1967 and 1980. Under any circumstances the working class should lead the struggle. We had great union leaders. The leaders of LSSP, CP, NSSP are only brave and militant. They are lacking of revolutionary ideas. They thought it was correct for the workers to support their ideology. But it is too late for the workers to realize that there is no way out for them if the leaders derailed. That is what happened to the workers’ movement in Sri Lanka. Therefore, organizing the working class means to teach class consciousness as well as courage and militancy. Finally, I think workers should read the Communist Manifesto, even it is monotonous. Communist manifesto is monotonous for those who have run away from that ideology. Communist Manifesto is new to the new generation. Therefore, every union leader should read and understand it. This is not something you can do with just a chat. This is a long story. Leadership means staying steadfast until the end of that long story.

Question: Do you agree with the trade union idea of ​​saving only the Eastern Jetty?

Today it has been decided to hand over the western jetty of the port to Adani Company. Finally struggle to safeguard Eastern Jetty becomes a joke. When Adani developed the western jetty and took the business to that side, they may ask Sri Lankan government to give the eastern jetty as well. As I said, there is no technological know-how that came to our country on the market economy started by JR. There is no capital. That is what still happening. Therefore, an inversion of this system is required. The people of this country will get relief only if the working class is organized in that direction. No short answers.

Question: What should left revolutionary small parties and groups should do?

At present all the so-called leftist parties in Sri Lanka have been submerged in bourgeois coalition politics. The remaining small groups can only survive by turning to the Marxism and Leninism. We have to say for those who reject this idea, that the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the social revolution of other countries were inspired by this theory. All who looked for short cuts were destroyed. Everyone who made theories outside the Marx-Leninist theory in the last five decades doomed today. Not only did they eventually perish, but they also destroyed the Marx-Leninism. Therefore, the workers of this era have to wage a very serious and relentless struggle.

Samantha Rajapaksa