M S M Ayub (Daily Mirror)
How the International Workers’ Day fizzled into squabbles over petty issues ignoring the real issues
The May Day rallies in Sri Lanka had been shrouded with such trivial rivalries
Political parties distanced from real issues of the working masses
Parties have a history of suppression of workers’ rights, whenever they are in power.
May Day or the International Workers’ Day has long lost its purpose and spirit. However, in Sri Lanka the first of May is still a general holiday and political parties using it to boost their images by showcasing their strength by gathering as much supporters as possible to a place to hold processions and rallies.
This year the May Day has been a talking point, especially after the loyalists of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who call themselves the ‘Joint’ Opposition have been given the massive Galle Face Green for their May Day rally by the authorities.
This is the first time authorities have given the Galle Face Green to an Opposition group to hold its May Day rally. In early nineties the ruling United National Party had held its May Day rallies in the esplanade.
The Joint Opposition had requested the Galle Face esplanade for the purpose in last February and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) is said to have refused to grant it. However, towards the end of the March, the SLPA had changed its earlier decision and granted permission to the Joint Opposition to hold its May Day rally there.
Coinciding with this permission Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had instructed the authorities to provide all necessary facilities including security for the Joint Opposition’s May Day rally at the Galle Face Green. This might have given rise to suppositions among many people that it was at the instance of the Prime Minister that the SLPA had given the ground to the Joint Opposition. Whatever it was, it is clear that the United National Party (UNP) is happy that the Joint Opposition had gained the beachfront Green as it would further worsen the relationship between the two factions of the SLFP, the traditional rival of the party.
Since the day the SLFP was split after Maithripala Sirisena left the party to become the common opposition candidate at the 2015 Presidential election, the two factions of the SLFP led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena have been vying to gain the upper hand within the party, especially by claiming the majority support within the party.
They have been using various public meetings and gatherings to prove their point. Especially the Mahinda loyalists had held public meetings with massive publicity campaigns in Nugegoda, the Hyde Park and in various other towns in the country under the slogan “Rise with Mahinda” and last year they conducted a “Pada Yathra” from Kandy to Colombo.
They claimed that more than two million people, one tenth of the entire population of the country had participated in that walk.
Last year the two factions used their May Day rallies again to showcase their strength with President Sirisena’s faction selecting Galle as their venue, while the former President has preferred to stay put in Colombo. The Joint Opposition held their May Day rally at the Lalith Athulathmudali Ground in Kirulapone, a small ground.
This time the Joint Opposition might have requested the Galle Face Green assuming that the authorities would reject their request, a situation that could be projected as their strength as well as the weakness of the two main parties in the Government, the UNP and the Maithri faction.
Their request would have been an indication of their strength to hold a rally at the massive five hectare (12 acre) ground, while the Government’s refusal to grant permission could also be portrayed as the Government’s fear of their strength being displayed.
But, probably to their surprise and disgust they now have got the largest ground in Colombo for their rally. Unless they could mobilise the masses to come in hundreds of thousands to fill at least a fraction of the ground it would be taken as a ridiculous flop.
This was indicated by a speech made by the former President at a felicitation ceremony of a Provincial Councilor last Sunday in the Gampaha District.
Having applied for the Galle Face Green the Kurunegala District MP said that Government had given them the ground presuming that the meeting would be an utter failure, but the Joint Opposition must show the Government its strength.
UNP leadership, especially the Prime Minister might have expected a twofold advantage by providing the Galle Face Green to the Mahinda faction of the SLFP.
The Premier’s friendly gesture towards the Joint Opposition would lead to a situation where the Maithri faction would accuse that their rivals have struck a deal with the UNP leadership.
Already there are allegations written on walls in Colombo and the suburbs that Basil Rajapaksa, the brother of former President was having a deal with the Prime Minister.
On the other hand having obtained the Galle Face Green for the May Day rally, the Joint Opposition is under pressure to bring large crowds to Colombo for the May Day and this would compel them to trespass into the Maithri camp in the SLFP, which might ultimately create a tense situation between the two factions.
Further divisions among the grassroots level SLFP members would be advantageous to the UNP at the Local Government elections that have to be held in the near future.
The UNP leadership has acted in a similar manner in the late eighties soon after the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leaders including Rohana Wijeweera, who had been incarcerated following their first rebellion in 1971, were released from the jails in mid-1977.
The first May Day rally after his release held at the Colombo Town Hall Grounds was a massive show of strength and they had held their 1978 May Day rally also at the same venue with the similar show.
The SLFP led by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike also had requested the same ground but the Colombo Municipal Council had given it to the JVP on the grounds that the former rebels were the first to apply.
In the following year also the JVP managed to secure the Town Hall Grounds leading to a situation where all Opposition parties accused that the UNP Government was helping the JVP.
The SLFP went down in history as the first political party that had held the May Day rally on May 7.
This fight for the ground was helpful to the UNP as it somewhat prevented the Opposition parties from teaming up against the Government.
The May Day rallies in Sri Lanka in the recent past had been shrouded with such trivial rivalries that had further distanced the political parties from real issues of the working masses, whose problems are supposed to be highlighted during the May Day rallies.
The term “working class” is not even mentioned at many rallies, especially those held by the two main parties.
Besides, the two main parties and the so-called Leftist parties that have had coalitions with the main parties have a history of suppression of workers’ rights, whenever they are in power.
Hence most of the May Day rallies in the country have been pointless, aimless and against the very original spirit of the May Day concept.