May Day: History repeating itself?

The JVP has decided to go ahead with its May Day rally, in defiance of a government decree that the International Workers’ Day be celebrated on May 07 instead of on May 01, in view of Vesak celebrations. The JVP rally is scheduled to be held in Jaffna on May 01, followed by another one in Colombo on May 07, for the benefit of its members who cannot attend the rally in the North.

Whether the current government leaders or their counterparts in other political parties have any concern for religion is in doubt. The only thing they do religiously, in our book, is to increase taxes so that they and their kith and kin can live in clover at the expense of the public. However, this is not the first time Vesak celebrations and International Day have overlapped, we learn from a book, Aththai Saththai, which is a collection of hagiographical sketches of President Maithripala Sirisena; it was put out in 2010, when he was a minister in the Rajapaksa government and had prime ministerial ambitions.

President Sirisena, whose religiosity knows no bounds, like that of all other political leaders who are sighted more in places of worship than in Parliament, is said be behind the government move to postpone the May Day celebrations. The aforesaid hagiography has an interesting anecdote, which sheds light on how politicians change their standpoints to suit their agendas. In 1967, according to Aththai Saththai (page 21) Vesak coincided with May Day and the then Dudley Senanayake government decreed that the May Day celebrations be held on May 2. All political parties fell in line except the Communist Party (Peking Wing), whose supporters including Sirisena, a schoolboy at that time, gathered in Colombo to hold their May Day rally. Suddenly, riot police appeared from nowhere and descended on the rebels, who ran helter-skelter. Fifty one years on, Sirisena has postponed May Day celebrations on account of Vesak! How does he propose to deal with those who are determined to act in violation of the government decree? The fact that the JVP is holding its rally on May 01 in Jaffna does not mean it is not violating the government order. The writ of the government runs in Jaffna, doesn’t it?

‘Religion is the opium of the people,’ old leftists may say, quoting hackneyed Marxist dictum, on seeing the unfolding May Day drama. The government is cleverly using religion to dampen the spirit of the International Workers’ Day by postponing rallies, they may argue.

Meanwhile, it needs to be stressed that May Day has lost its meaning in this country. It has become a day of political dog and pony shows with politicians hogging the limelight. The International Workers’ Day is a misnomer. It should be dubbed the International Politicians’ Day. In the South, workers carry Rajapaksa, Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and Dissanayake on their shoulders, singing hosannas and in the North Sampanthan leads workers by the nose. In the hill, estate workers give Thonda a piggyback ride.

It is up to trade unions and Buddhist prelates to powwow on the overlapping of two great events, one holy to Buddhists and the other sacred to workers, and find a solution.

If the government leaders are really guided by the core tenets of Buddhism, as they claim, then they should be compassionate towards the working class; they must stop extorting money from workers by way of taxes. They tax workers’ earnings including EPF contributions; they don’t spare even the EPF and taxes thereon reduce contributors’ benefits; they tax EPF withdrawals and, worse, levy an extortionate withholding tax on interest income from EPF withdrawals and other savings, deposited with banks etc.

If trade unions are genuinely interested in championing the workers’ cause instead of furthering the interests of their leaders, they must sever their links with political parties.


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