by Maneshka Borham
JAFFNA: On May 1, the residents of Jaffna carried on as usual, the town brimming with day to day activity. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary since the Government had ‘postponed’ May Day, as the globally recognized workers’ day had clashed with the Buddhist festival of Vesak.
Only the red cloth flags lining the streets of Jaffna town from the Chundikuli ground to the Municipal Council ground, where a decorated stage had been set up the night before by a group of industrious workers provided a reminder that it was May Day.
These preparations were for the town’s only International Workers’ Day rally organized by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The JVP was among several political parties and trade unions that decided to defy the government’s request to refrain from holding May Day rallies as it coincided with Vesak week.
The party not only decided to celebrate on the day, but it also decided to hold its rally in the country’s formerly embattled North. The JVP’s decision was criticized by other Left parties and trade unions, who felt that the party should have held its rally in Colombo to voice its dissent more strongly against the government decision to postpone the holiday.
But the decision to take the rally to Jaffna was warmly welcomed by the small but significant JVP membership in the Northern Province.
Among those enthusiastically attending the Jaffna rally that day was Tamilnesan, a teacher by profession. Deciding to join the JVP around three years ago he said what attracted him to the party was that it did not discriminate against people based on caste and creed.
“When we try to approach politicians in the North for any help, the first thing they do is check our caste,” he accused adding that many times people from lower castes ended up helpless with no support when faced with problems.
“The JVP is not like that,” he said adding that he believes the people of the North will understand the party better going forward.
Another recent member, Sujinthan, who was introduced to the party by a friend, said, he decided to join the JVP because its leaders are known to be uncorrupt while conducting themselves like regular people.
“They are just like us” he said, “other politicians put on airs and act proud.”
Sujinthan still cannot get over the fact that JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake visited his home once and had a meal with his family. “I can’t believe he didn’t ask what my caste was before he did that,” he relates, still in disbelief. “This is not something I have experienced with other politicians in this area before,” Sujinthan told the Sunday Observer.
“We know the ins and outs of the Northern parties and that is why I chose to join the JVP” he said before joining Tuesday’s rally.
By 2.30pm on Tuesday, JVP members started arriving for its rally. The first striking factor was that hoards of people were not brought to Jaffna by bus to attend the rally. Some cycled, others walked to take their place among the crowds.
The 1,500 or so participants were mostly residents representing five districts of the North. JVP leaders mingled freely among the crowd, shaking hands, thanking them for supporting the rally and listening to their grievances.
As the crowd began their demonstration, placards were raised and slogans shouted out on a host of social and economic issues in the Northern Province including land, the release of political prisoners, indebtedness, dowry and the still problematic caste system.
JVP leader Dissanayake and other party frontliners like Lalkantha and General Secretary Tilvin Silva led the way. During the march to the grounds, the JVP was joined by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Jaffna District MP, M.A. Sumanthiran in a show of solidarity and north-south camaraderie in the struggle for workers’ rights.
Joining the group was also around 100 JVP members of the South. Leslie Peiris from Gampaha had arrived with 20 others to attend the rally in Tamil-dominated Jaffna.
“They join us in Colombo every year and this time it is our turn to support them” he said adding that the party had not requested that they attend. Nevertheless, deciding to attend the rally, Peiris said all of them had used their own funds for the trip. “The party did not provide transport or funds and we all pitched in” he said.
According to Peiris, a bond is created through such a show of support which was their intention. “The party only cares for humankind and not caste or creed” he said adding that they wanted to show this to the people of the North.
While claiming that the language barrier was what continued to keep the two races apart, Peiris feels in the future this gap would be narrowed.
“Unfortunately, the government did not allow for the May Day to take place in Colombo this year, but I am happy the JVP took advantage of that and used the opportunity to bring the message of brotherhood to the North,” he added.
According to the JVP organizer for the Northern Province, Ramalingam Chandrasekar through holding its May 1 celebrations in Jaffna, the party intends to make the North aware of the party and its policies. “We must be making inroads as many northern based parties are becoming highly critical of the JVP” he said adding that it shows that the party’s presence in the North has ruffled the feathers of many in the political arena.
Chandrasekar said the party membership and its voter base in the North had also increased in recent times. “Therefore, despite criticism, we will continue our journey” he said.
Among the many speeches, Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s was perhaps the most popular. Standing on a platform in the middle of Jaffna town, Dissanayake, always a firebrand orator, called on all people of the country to fight against injustice.
Recalling the times of suspicion between the North and the South, Dissanayake said that was the country’s past. “Despite caste, creed and language the people of this country have been wronged by its leaders during the last 70 years” he said pointing out the hardship faced by workers who are ridden with debt.
“People are born, they live without purpose to only pass away” he said asking them if they believed there will ever be a change. “Development should be connected to the lives of ordinary people” he charged, referring to the major infrastructure projects that have been undertaken in the North since the war, that have had little impact on the immediate needs of war-weary residents, like shelter and livelihood.
Under Dissanayake’s leadership, the JVP has become one of the strongest political parties to denounce racism and bigotry, and the JVP Leader came out hard on the issue during his May Day Speech that was simultaneously interpreted by Chandrasekar.
“We must lift the flag of National Unity to defeat divisive racism” the JVP Leader stressed.
According to Jaffna-based political economist Dr Ahilan Kadirgamar, the JVP would also need to speak about devolution of power in order to really win the support of the people of Jaffna. “So far they have not broached the topic,” Dr Kadirgamar told the Sunday Observer following last week’s JVP rally in the Northern Town. Speaking about social issues faced by people in the North and the formation of new unions was a positive move by the JVP, he added, but the party would only achieve broad support in the Northern peninsula if it focuses on the issue of devolution.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution which decentralized some power through the Provincial Council system was enacted in 1987 in a bid to politically settle Sri Lanka’s civil war. But 30 years later, it remains never fully implemented. The question of meaningful power devolution was still an important political issue for the people in the North, according to Dr Kadirgamar.
But in Jaffna last Tuesday, even those in town who did not attend the rally, listened in to the speeches and watched the JVP May Day procession. Sarveswaran, a shop owner in the town told the Sunday Observer that he felt the party had touched on many issues faced by the people of the North. The placards on display at the procession and rally about caste, dowry, unemployment and indebtedness, addressed serious concerns of the people in the North, he said. “All those issues they spoke about and carried banners are our real problems,” said Sarveswaran. Issues like caste and dowry were not problems the Tamil parties would touch, he said, even though these were things that really affected the common people.
Calling it ‘great’ that a major political party like the JVP was talking about these issues, the Jaffna Town shopkeeper says, for him it was also a matter of shame.
“A party from the South has to speak up for us when there are many Northern
political parties. Tamil parties should be ashamed for not giving voice to the people’s problems on International Workers’ Day,” he said.