It’s May Day again, but it’s not like May Days past. The conditions are unprecedented, the people are calling for a system change. Since 28 April, trade unions have been protesting islandwide and converging on the Galle Face occupation site to demand the resignation of Sri Lanka’s leadership, as the country falls into an economic and social abyss due to the misrule and decades of politics that paved the path to this situation.
It’s a people’s coup and the public consciousness has risen to such heights in solidarity and action that there is no room for petty politicians and their politics to hijack this May Day with their party banners and tone-deaf sloganeering. Ever since the Mirihana uprising in March, the citizens struggle has only marched forward, occupying and protesting for the ouster of a corrupt system – a vestige of our colonial past and the reactionary (not progressive) ad-hoc solutions that had brought Sri Lanka to this impasse.
Labour Day or May Day was first held in Ceylon, in 1927 under the leadership of A.E. Gunasinha, who incidentally was born on 1 May 1891. A pioneering trade union leader, popularly known as ‘Father of the Labour Movement,’ he was the founder of the Ceylon Labour Party, Sri Lanka’s first labour organisation.
The May Day Rally held in 1933 under his leadership had new features introduced. According to lore, men wore a white sarong and a red striped banian. Women workers were dressed in red coloured cloth and jacket. There were drummers and dancers. Gunasinha had walked under a red banner, where, significantly, there were no political slogans displayed or shouted out. Working class songs being sung was a conspicuous part of the rally. The demonstrations started from Price Park and the rally was held ultimately at the Galle Face Green.
The events that led to the first May Day have much in parallel. On 1 May 1,886, 350,000 workers staged a nationwide work stoppage to demand the adoption of a standard eight-hour workday. Forty thousand workers struck in Chicago, Illinois, ten thousand struck in New York, eleven thousand struck in Detroit, Michigan. As many as thirty-two thousand workers struck in Cincinnati, Ohio, although some of these workers had been out on strike for several months before 1 May. And on 4 May, a violent confrontation between Police and labour protesters erupted in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, which became a symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at the Police as they acted to disperse the meeting, and the bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven Police Officers and at least four civilians, dozens of others were wounded.
What happened in Chicago is not much different to what happened in Mirihana and Rambukkana a month later. Albeit the circumstances, the Sri Lankans protesting out in the street demand justice and fair play, just like their American brothers 125 years ago. Just like in Chicago, Police brutality took centre stage in both the Mirihana and Rambukkana showdowns. And just like in Haymarket, where an unknown individual threw a bomb, eyewitnesses in Rambukkana saw strange men setting fire to a fuel bowser and a tuk tuk (the same in Mirihana where a lone arsonist was caught on camera) which enticed the heavy-handed reaction from the Police.
But despite multiple attempts to derail the movement, the people maintain their resolve. Today would be the 23rd day of the Galle Face occupation, marking Sri Lanka’s unrelenting pursuit of justice for the shame of the ruling family and their sycophants. GotaGoGamas have popped up islandwide and will prove how effective people-centred governance truly is in a country dominated by 70+ years of partisan malarkey.
So today, raise your fists for the downtrodden, the hard-working masses who are looking for respite that is decades in the waiting. Raise your fists for countless people who died trying to raise their voice against tyranny. Get out on the streets and make a stand, we have nothing to lose, but our chains!