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It is an accepted fact that Trade Unions play a vital role in social development as a social force and pressure group. This fact is recognised and further consolidated in the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as various covenants of the Internal Labour Organisation to all of which Sri Lanka has acceded. The emergence and development of Trade Unions in Sri Lanka dates back to the 1930s and the right to form Trade Unions and take Trade Union action is guaranteed in the constitution.

In the relevant period however the state seems not to have seen Trade Unions in this light. The attitude of the state towards Trade Unions and Trade Union activists needs to be taken into consideration in analysing the disappearances of a number of Trade Union activists. The general strike called out by a number of Trade Unions belonging to the Joint Council of Trade Union Organisations in 1980 July was suppressed utilizing the Emergency Regulations and the Essential Services Act which enabled the President to make any Trade Union actions illegal by the expedient of declaring that service to be an essential service. Attacks by legal as well as extra-legal forces were used to suppress the various protest activities of the J. CTU. O. in these years. The Greater Colombo Economic Commission Bill which proposed to establish Free Trade Zones, originally contained a provision banning the formation of Trade Unions in the FTZs. This provision barring the formation of trade unions was dropped from the Act after the Constitutional Court ruled it to be an infringement of rights under the Constitution. The reality in the FTZ, however, continued to be that no labour action was tolerated, and even representation at labour courts was looked upon as a threat to the establishment.

Trade Unions were perceived by the government to be a disinducement to foreign industrial capital investing in Sri Lanka. Trade Unions action in the FTZ as well as in other places like the Ceylon Tobacco Company, ABM etc. were seen not only as adversely affecting the economy, but also as sabotage by JVP activists. Hence the abductions by forces or para military groups of trade union activists. Another aim was to frighten the rest of the work force. There are instances where a whole group of workers residing in one place bring arrested and the majority being later released, but a few 'hard-core' individuals disappearing.

The equation of "anti-government" to "pro JVP" was a feature of the period and meant the trade union activists were a fair target for arrest, interrogation and disappearances.

The actions of the JVP and its armed wing, the DJV also indicate clearly that these organisations did not acknowledge the true role of Trade Unions. They too, intimidated and threatened dire consequences to those who resisted their calls to frequent work stoppages and 'Wild-cat' strikes. The slogans of the JVP were

The mother-land first: the work place thereafter

Those not with us are against us

Trade union activists were frequently forced by threats to act as front-men for the JVP in the work stoppages, thus setting them up as targets for arrests by the State forces. This strategy was most apparent in the transport sector, in the hospitals, in the Banking sector as well as in some government corporations.

Nationally known trade unionists like L. W. Panditha, General Secretary, Ceylon Federation of Trade Unions, Wimalasena, General Secretary Government Workers Trade Union Federation, and Mahinda Bahu of Palawatta Sugar Company have been assassinated. Trade union activists of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya were specially targeted.

Some Illustrations Follow

Ranjith and Lionel were actively involved in promoting welfare and rights of the employees in the investment promotion Zone in Katunayake. Lionel was a full time activist who worked in a broad parameter and was a legal adviser attached to the workers 'Advisory Centre', a voluntary Organisation at Katunayake. Ranjith was involved in activities at his work place 'Floral Greens' situated in the Free Trade Zone.

Ranjith spoke up on behalf of workers at the work-place and organised a protest by workers at the inaction of the management when a fellow-worker injured his hand in the use of machinery. On 8th August the management forbade him to enter the premises on the allegation of a quarrel with a fellow employee ID. In September 89 Ranjith obtained a letter from the then Minister of Finance, D. B. Wijetunga that he was a supporter of the government, and a disciplinary inquiry was scheduled to be held on 27th October, 89. Ranjith and Lionel left the work-place on a cycle at the end of the inquiry around 8.00 p.m. Their charred bodies were identified the next morning at a public junction in the vicinity of the FTZ. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Attorney-at-law presently a Cabinet Minister who had conducted a Disciplinary Inquiry on the previous evening identified the items of attire. When Ranjith's and Lionel's friends went to that spot a while later they didn't find the bodies but found the marks of burial by the side of the road. The Police wouldn't record the complaint of Ranjith's fiancee. Mr. Jeyaraj moved in the matter and a distorted police investigation ensued into Lionel and Ranjith's political activities with the objective of showing they were JVPers. The CID is conducting an investigation from 1989. There has been no application to the Magistrate to a disinternment of the grave, let alone an inquest. The case accordingly remains one of "Disappearance" SASA, a Diamond cutter at Blue Diamonds Factory FTZ who was abducted on 14.9.89 at his house by armed persons who came in a Delica van 3 days after the police had searched for him at his work-place is one of six employees of Blue Diamonds whose abduction and disappearance over a period of labour unrest there has been proved to the Commission. The police wouldn't entertain the complaint of SASA's father.

In August '89 there was industrial unrest and a strike at Ceylon Tobacco Company, a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco Company. SC is one of the 10 employees who was abducted during the course of this strike. On 1.9.89 the army who came in search of SC on finding him absent took away his bother who was released after questioning at the Sugathadasa Stadium army camp. Thereafter the local police searched their house. On 24th September SC himself was abducted in the same van that police had used when they came to search the House. The Commission's inquiries have revealed that the Number plate of the vehicle used on the occasion to be a false number plate. SC's father says "I need to know what happened to my Son".

HMP, President of the Branch Union at Ceylon Tobacco who had been released for full time work in the employee's welfare society at the work place, was abducted at the main gate of the work place in the lunch hour on 1.12.89 and taken away by armed persons in a van. HMP had stayed away from office during the strike, allegedly on grounds of ill health, and gone in the day on special summon from middle level management. Ceylon Tobacco Company had paid Rs. 100,000/- to the bereaved families of SC and HMP.

AMGA, a Committee Member of the Ceylon Bank Employees' Union and an activist of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna who had been injured in demonstrations against the Indo-Lanka Accord was abducted on 24.11.89. The army had searched his house a few days earlier and taken away his photos. His wife, a graduate lecturer states that his son, now 14 years is very depressed and still sheds tears at meal-times remembering his father.

GV, a mechanic in the Ceylon Transport Board a SLFP trade unionist, was an active participant in the strike at CTB in August 1989. The arrears due to workers was granted by the management, but GV was abducted on 8.9.89 and has disappeared. His fellow activist in the strike presented himself to the co-ordinating officer, Gampaha through the intercession of the Christian Service Organisation, was released after questioning, and is alive today. GV however, taken-in "procedures not in accordance with the law", has disappeared. His wife has reported to the Commission that the repayment of his Employees' provident fund contribution is held up despite her presentation of his Death Certificate to the fund, "as they are unable to decide how to deduct the Rs.4/- due in respect of the loss of his Employee's card".

WU, a machine operator at Elephant House and President of the Ceylon Workers' Congress Branch there, was abducted on 2.1.90 from home in a vehicle registered by the Government Agent, Kilinochchi (i.e. a government vehicle). The government in power at the time was a CWS/UNP coalition. However there was a CWS/UNP trade union dispute at the work plaace.

JHAJ, a trade unionist at the National Textile Corporation was abducted at the work place on 2.11.89 along with four other employees. There was industrial unrest at the work place at the time. The employees struck work as protest to the abduction, but no inquiry had taken place however. The women of JHAJ's family reported to the Commission the comfort they found through protest actions of the Mother's Front, including the "long Walk" in pilgrimage to Kataragama bearing the disappeared persons' portraits.

WAS and SIDP, orderlies in Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital, Branch President and Secretary of the NSSP led Minor Employees' Union they, were abducted on 11.12.89 by army commandos days after they had engaged in a fast in protest at a dismissal of minor employee by the management. The police recorded the relations' complaints only on 1992.

The estate sector in the Southern Province was particularly adversely affected in late 1988 by the JVP's attempt to bring out the work-force. SPW, a field officer on a Southern Province State Plantation was killed by the subversives on the day he returned to work, after a JVP led work-stoppage. His widow's words to the Commission summing it up was "We were under pressure from both sides. From the JVP to strike, from the police not to; either way we were the losers".

Repression, Killings, and disappearances of trade union activists and the resultant weakening of the trade union movement as a whole has had and will continue to have an adverse effect on society at large and the working peoples specifically, significantly affecting the capacity of civil society to resist intimidation and politically motivated violence

Posted on 1999-01-01


Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
Asian Human Rights Commission

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