Had anyone argued in early 2011 that Libyan “Brother Leader” Muammar Gaddafi would soon be forced out of power, they would have been labeled dreamers at best, insane at worst. But that is exactly what happened. In mid-February,…” said the host in Al Jazeera’s novel programme “The Cafe” aired on Friday, December 30, 2011, introducing the discussion on Libya and its current political “pause”.
Will any “dreamer” or an “insane” at worst, dare make a comment on the “Patriotic Leader” here ? Its worth a serious attempt, though. All the attraction, respect for and the glitter of “Sinhala” patriotism may not have wasted off yet. But, Sinhala patriotism is not what this regime is wholly dependent on now, as it was, during the war and after, till the end of the elections in 2010. That period came to an end, after Sinhala politics secured a two thirds majority in parliament. The glory of winning the war did allow the regime and its leaders to parade around as “sacred heroes” for a while and that ‘time’ was used by the regime to establish itself as a militarised regime, North to South. That was time which allowed the Rajapaksas to change the Constitution with its 18th Amendment almost unchallenged and gain seemingly unbridled power.
That effectively gave way to a rule, that is “no rule of law”. The worst under any defence authority since independence. Muttetuwegamas in Galle, Lanasas in Negombo showed they decide law within their domains. Mervyns and Duminda Silvas crowned it all to expose the under belly of a regime that had used the under world, drug dealers and a heavily politicised and corrupt police department to grease a regime that had no respect for law and order and very little justice where justice needs to be.
The year 2012 had the worst dawn, ever since independence. Four abductions reported, one after another, during the first four days of the year, with 03 found dead and dumped on waysides. A much flaunted Defence Secretary who prides in talking tough on the LTTE and devolution, remains icy cold on all these abductions, murders and the maniacal breakdown of law and order. The Sinhala urban middle class who expected their war hero will have his coronation as “Dharma Raja(paksa)” after the war, the like Dharmasoka, after his victory over the Kalingas, now remain jilted.
That would not make the regime vulnerable, immediately. Not right now. But that would add to the restlessness that’s emerging, over which the regime has little control. That adds very much, when their two thirds majority in parliament proves wholly inept in providing any answers for organised protests that hit the streets. “May 24”, last year proved the workers don’t go by parliamentary majorities. The Rajapaksas backed off with their Employees’ Pension Fund Bill, the “two thirds” in parliament unable to protect the Bill that had only to be read and passed the third time.
Workers are a social force, who don’t much depend on political leaderships, nor on how effective the opposition is. Its these workers who have been provoked again. Salary increases offered by the Budget 2012 is being called a bluff by the trade unions of the regime itself. They came on the streets a few times agitating for a proper salary increase as promised at the 2010 January presidential elections. A SLFP trade union leader addressing the protest in Colombo said, “We supported our President who said he can only give an increase of 2,500 rupees, when the Common Candidate offered 10,000 rupees. But now we are being fooled with just a paltry allowance. We demand we are given a proper salary increase”. This protest by workers in SLFP trade unions is now gaining ground, despite the TU boss still wriggling around in support of the regime.
Meanwhile those trade unions that led the successful “May 24” protest as the Joint Trade Union Alliance (JTUA) launched on a campaign for a minimum wage of 10,000 rupees with C.o.L added for the private sector, as given to public sector employees. They have a very strong and a justifiable argument that would cash in with all workers without a whimper. The public sector minimum salary adds to about 17,500 rupees with C.o.L also included, while the minimum in the private sector is nothing more than 7,800 which includes a 1,000 rupee budgetary adjustment allowance. The difference alone exceeds their minimum salary, they say, while they both live in the same market as consumers.
Added to the woes of these workers is another attempt by the Rajapaksa regime to tinker with the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), with Amendments brought to it, now in the parliamentary agenda for a reading on 18 January. This again allows the regime, slimy access to the biggest superannuation fund in the country that had its last annual report, 02 years ago in 2009. The Central Bank of SL, the legal manager and administrator of this Trillion rupee fund would now have the Commissioner General of Labour (CGoL) interfering to establish Pension/Insurance funds, with the Amendment to the EPF Act No. 15 of 1958. It would have the CGoL accessing monies from the EPF to purchase land and construct a 30 storey high rise Secretariat for Pensions and Insurance Funds and perhaps for the EPF and ETF too.
Minister of Labour and Labour Relations, had agreed at the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) to delete all such powers from the Amendment when trade union representations had insisted they would once again oppose the Amendment as on ‘May 24’, but remains to be actually done, when the Amendment is brought up for debate on 18 January. The Amendment with all those powers is a necessity for the regime and the promise at the NLAC is a credibility issue for Minister Lokuge. They no doubt run counter to each other. End of the day, this being an amendment to an Act that manages a fund coming under the purview of the Finance Ministry, how far the Labour Minister’s promise at the NLAC would go, can only be checked on January 18, in parliament.
What this whole conflict with workers and their trade unions mean is that, the Rajapaksa regime is finally pitted against a force, that can flex muscles on its own. If not an organised social force at its best, they remain a social force that would gel and rally quite fast and with ease on demands that effect them and their daily lives, despite past and present political affiliations and sympathies. ‘May 24’ is no lesson forgotten. It wasn’t those unpatriotic, “Eelamist” elements who rallied against the previous Employees’ Pension Fund Bill last May. It was those same workers who came on the street to light fire crackers and dance over the death of Prabakharan, who climbed the 40 ft hoarding at Katunayake to rip off the presidential image, the image of their beloved Sinhala hero, two years ago.
This is a social class, that gets plagued by demands, by the dozens. There was once a huge mobilisation of trade unions in 1964 on “21 demands” that brought together a political alliance as well, the “United Left Front”. It would not be the same again here in Sri Lanka. The “Left” there was then, is no more now. The Left political leaders who were giants in their own making then, are also no more. Nor are there any trade union leader, who could stand up straight in front of the Head of State and say, “Now, you are talking filth” as did Pelis Serasinghe, Secretary of the Government Trade Union Federation, in 1957, when negotiating the Special Living Allowance of 17.50 rupees.
Yes, that will not be the same any more. But all those are also not compulsory factors for any worker mobilisation. “May 24” event was not led by an iconic leader. It was led by careful organising and education of the workers on the proposed “Bill”. That brings forth a new phase in trade union activities. It brings forth a new era where workers can be mobilised on clear presentation of facts instead on personality cults, if trade unionists wish to align with different sectors. The JTUA is one that shows a potential for such a movement.
This would also compel them to take on other issues that may not directly impact on their workplace, but impact on their family and its future. Its this regime that’s providing such glue for galvanising of forces. The chaos the A/L exam results makes in society, is not one alien to workers. It may not effect the urban elite, whose children sit for London O/L and A/L exams. It does not effect those parents whose children are students in so called “international schools”. But for all others, including these workers, who sweat and toil to educate their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters as those apparel sector workers would say, this A/L exam result mess, is their own issue. And the trade unions may not be allowed to ignore such, in the future, even if they do, now. They would have to lead other social segments, in alliances that would come on their own.
Will this regime learn lessons from any of these issues ? Not this Rajapaksa regime. No other regime would have tried another fast one on the EPF and a private sector pension fund so soon, while the death of young Roshen Chanaka still roams around, asking for justice. Yet to be fair by the Rajapaksas, lets accept, they don’t have any options left either, having around them a wagon load of advisers who wouldn’t know Adam from Eve. Who only want to make the “Lord” happy, for them the vassals to earn a pittance, to gain a tiny fief.
A “dreamer” at best, or an “insane” at worst, may not be required here, to talk of the future turn of events. Events that may not turn out as fast as happened in Tripoli, but would happen differently. Its worth to keep the noses up, to feel the whiff of workers’ demands, the rumblings around, that would come drifting, not from far away.