In Memory of Upali Cooray (1939—2009) – Sri Lanka, Britain: “working day and night with total dedication”

Upali Cooray, who passed away on 21 August 2009, was a revolutionary socialist; trade unionist; anti-racist; partisan of anti-colonial and national liberation movements; human rights lawyer; university teacher and much more.


 Upali Cooray: His militancy had no match

Upali Cooray (17 September 1939—21 August 2009) was a friend and a comrade of mine for over 40 years. Our joint political work, mainly in the Asian Socialist Forum (ASF) in Britain, was between 1975 and 1985. I came into contact with Upali in the ASF, which I learned of through an advertisement in Time Out magazine. Our offices were at 22 Boundary Road in St. John’s Wood. It was a squat to begin with, but later became short-lived community housing. I lived there for two years as a full time worker for ASF.

Although Upali and I had both been politically active in Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the 1960s, we did not know of each other then. I was a member of the Communist Party (CP) and after the Sino-Soviet split joined the pro-Peking wing (‘Shan’s group’). Upali was in the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and after it split in 1964, he joined the LSSP (Revolutionary), led by Bala Tampoe and Edmund Samarakkody – which was recognised by the Fourth International (FI) as its section.

Upali emigrated to the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s. Naturally he joined the British section of the FI – the International Marxist Group (IMG). He played an active role in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which was led by the IMG. Much later he became politically distanced from the FI: which he charged with not seriously relating to revolutionary struggles in the Third World. He over-stated this in my view.

Whatever criticisms he may have had of the Trotskyism of the FI, he nevertheless remained an ardent Leninist and a fervent believer in the role of the ‘Vanguard Party’. Here I disagreed with him as I believe this doctrine gave rise to the bureaucratisation of Communist Parties, and the downfall of the Russian and Chinese revolutions. In Sri Lanka too, the Left parties became undemocratic, top down and anti-working class in the end. Upali initially opposed an initiative of Balasubramaniam and others in the ‘70s to found a workers’ cooperative (‘Infotec’) on the Mondragon model in the UK, for transplant to a future socialist Sri Lanka. In the 1990s, Upali admitted his mistake and wanted to popularise this experiment in Sri Lanka. By then it was too late, and we were too old.

In the Asian Socialist Forum, we concentrated our work on social revolutions in South Asia – mainly India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The idea was to create healthy revolutionary nuclei in these countries, independent of Stalinist ideologies: by engaging and wooing revolutionaries engaged in ultra-left adventurist struggles such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the ‘Naxalites’ including the Charu Majumdar group in India, and other Maoists. In Sri Lanka we worked closely with Bala Tampoe’s Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU), and the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE).

To raise funds, the ASF catered at IMG conferences. We were invited by the FI section in France to do the same at its annual fête in Paris. We slaughtered 500 chickens each day to make curry. We made a handsome collection for our anti-racist work in Britain. Once on our way there we were confronted by the British Police at Dover. The Police Chief asked Upali, “What is your politics?”. Upali replied, “What is your politics? Are you a member of the National Front? Under what section of the law are you interrogating me?”, etc. The moment they knew he was a lawyer, they let us board the ferry. It was always enjoyable watching Upali’s class arrogance on display – sharp and powerful.

We literally worked day and night with total dedication. We held regular Marxist classes, including in my flat in Chiswick. Everybody took turns to lead this class. We became prolific readers in this period. This was the first time I read Trotsky’s writings, and works by Ernest Mandel, and was really gripped by them. We published a monthly bulletin in English with articles and pictures relating to struggles in the sub-continent and anti-racist struggles in the UK. The bulletin was fairly popular among the far left. We took up defence campaigns against the brutal treatment and killings of JVP militants and the indiscriminate mass killings of Sinhala youth by the government, even though we were very critical of the JVP’s politics. Bala Tampoe defended the JVP in the criminal courts, including its leader Rohana Wijeweera, without a fee. We published a booklet called Island behind Bars, sponsored by leading activists in Britain such as Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Tariq Ali and others.

We ran an active campaign for the release of political prisoners under Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency Rule’. Tens of thousands of railway workers were jailed for taking part in a strike. This was a period of intense work on India. Tariq Ali spoke in many of our meetings and the atmosphere was electric. After training several Indian comrades we sent some of them to Bombay to set up nuclei revolutionary groups. Upali’s thesis was that a revolutionary situation could be created in India through targeting three main industrial centres, namely Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The idea was to organise the industrial workers in these cities for an eventual general strike to paralyse the Indian state. This was the task assigned to the comrades who were sent to India.

When the comrades predictably failed, they were severely and wrongly criticised by Upali. He was fixated by the LSSP’s amazing and highly successful tactics during British colonial rule and in the 1953 Hartal. But Ceylon was not India, and India was not Ceylon. Bypassing the mass Communist Parties, the massive trade unions in India, and underestimating the power of the Indian bourgeoisie – the idea that a few young intelligent and committed comrades with little or no experience in mass struggles could organise a general strike in India with hundreds of millions of workers, was adventurism of the highest order.

Upali and I returned to Sri Lanka to work with the RMP and the CMU in the late ‘70s. We did some very good work there with the RMP, the CMU and comrade Pararajasingam in Jaffna. Bala Tampoe came up to address the Paranthan Chemicals workers, Pandatherupu weaving mill workers and so on. Upali contested the Dehiwela seat in the 1977 general election and lost his deposit. We did not contest to win but to highlight the dangers of JR Jayewardene’s rise to power and the introduction of the executive presidency. ‘JR’ won the election in a landslide – with all Tamils in Colombo voting for him. CMU and RMP comrades organised defence committees for each street in Wellawatte to protect Tamil families from United National Party thugs during the 1977 riots, following the elections.

Upali appeared in Labour Tribunals for CMU members. Once he was the defence lawyer for Union Carbide workers while Nadesan Satyendra represented management. Satyendra was on the side of the capitalist class, defending the same company which later poisoned and killed tens of thousands of people in Bhopal. Upali pulverised Satyendra and won a stunning victory for the workers. He had learnt the art of cross examination from Bala Tampoe.

In 1979, I returned to London to continue my work with the ASF. We did a lot of support work from London for Upali’s political work with the RMP and the CMU. Upali remained in Sri Lanka but soon after he fell out with Tampoe and formed the Revolutionary Marxist Group, which later fizzled out. He was impatient and always wanted to fast-track “the revolution”, ending with nothing. The ‘general strike’ and ‘revolution’ are notions of socialists not experienced in leading mass struggles. Tampoe was a seasoned and brilliant politician and trade union leader, who had lead and won many big struggles. He was the only remaining principled politician and trade union leader, respected by workers and intellectuals and minorities. He was the leader of the only remaining independent trade union. Certainly, Tampoe was a very difficult person to work with, as Upali often complained.

The ASF in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s shifted its emphasis to anti-racist work in Britain. This turned out to be an equally formidable task to making the revolution in South Asia. We were exposing racism within the police, within the Tory party, Labour party and generally within the British establishment. Syd Bidwell, Labour MP for Southall was a racist and his Labour Party office was burnt down by Asian youth. When the 18-year old Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered in 1976, by white racists in Southall, it was the ASF that was first on the scene to find his body bleeding over a railing where he had been hung. We covered his body in a red cloth and called the ambulance. The police were complicit. They never rushed to such crime scenes. We held a protest meeting in a car park very near the spot, on the same day. A lot of Asian youth gathered there. Upali climbed on top of a parked car and used it as a platform to make a brilliant, emotive and rousing speech around which the Asian youth were mobilised. He convinced them that enough is enough and it was time to fight back. It is his political courage that I admired most in Upali.

We were the first in Britain to coin the slogan “Self Defence is No Offence!”, which sent shivers throughout the police and government circles. It actually meant that we form our own community police to defend ourselves, challenging the monopoly of the state police. Although it was only a slogan, the establishment became very concerned and increased its surveillance of us. All our names were in the police register. We did a lot of work in Southall during this period among the South Asian community. The conservative Indian Workers Association (IWA) also did not like our revolutionary stand. Later the Brixton and Tottenham uprisings took place. These shook the establishment, leading to commissions of inquiries. We challenged the National Front through our Bulletin and at public meetings, especially at National Union of Students (NUS) conferences and at Labour Party fringe meetings.

There was no end to the personal sacrifices we made, neglecting our professional development and families on the basis of “politics first”. This was unsustainable and one of the reasons we were burnt out in the late eighties. Rather late in our lives, we returned to our respective professions. Upali began practising as a barrister only in the late ‘80s, having been called to the Bar in 1974. We had both understood a great deal about politics and life in the intervening decades.

Engr. M. Sooriasegaram
Jaffna – 03.07.2019


 Upali Cooray and Sri Lanka Solidarity Activism

Upali Cooray, who passed away on 21 August 2009, was a revolutionary socialist; trade unionist; anti-racist; partisan of anti-colonial and national liberation movements; human rights lawyer; university teacher and much more.

Having moved to London in the late 1960s, he became a leading Sri Lanka solidarity activist, beginning with the campaign to free those jailed before and after the Sinhala youth uprising of 1971, and extending his support to the struggles of Tamil youth for self-determination before and after the 1983 ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil riots.

Here, I wish to recall his contribution to Sri Lanka solidarity activism in London, during and after the second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP—Peoples Liberation Front) insurrection of 1987-1991, which is when and where we first met.

In Sri Lanka, the United National Party regime presided by Ranasinghe Premadasa was in power and appeared unassailable. The parliamentary opposition was weak and divided, the mass media muzzled, dissent silenced by illegal arrests, abductions and extra-judicial killings, and emergency laws strangled civil society.

The self-acclaimed ‘patriots’ of the JVP were terrorising and assassinating public officials, politicians, trade unionists, and leftists supportive of the 1987 ‘Indo-Lanka Accord’. Within a few short years, anywhere between 40 and 60 000 Sinhala youth were exterminated as ‘subversives’ by state security agencies, peaking at 1,000 a week in 1989.

Outside of Sri Lanka little was known, and even less understood, of this tragedy. At the time, international attention centred on the war that had raged since 1983 in the Tamil-majority North and East, and the military operations there of the misnamed Indian Peace Keeping Force.

Within the island, those who protested the bloodbath in the South were isolated and besieged: denounced as “terrorists” for inconveniently talking of democratic and human rights, and “traitors” for allegedly causing disrepute to the security forces through sharing information on human rights violations with Amnesty International among others.

A seasoned initiator of single-issue campaigns and broader coalitions, Upali Cooray spearheaded the establishment in London of the ‘Committee for Democracy and Justice in Sri Lanka’ (CDJ) in 1989, joined by among others, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga who was then in self-exile following the JVP’s assassination of her husband Vijaya.

CDJ’s demands were three-fold: justice for the families of the disappeared; protection of democratic rights whether violated by State or non-State actors; and resolution of the ethnic conflict through political and not military means.

It was a rare space where progressives, ethnic and ideological tensions notwithstanding, would meet, share information, debate and organise in solidarity with Sri Lanka. CDJ also hosted discussions with visiting Sri Lankan oppositionists, often at the Red Rose Labour Club in North London or Conway Hall in Central London.

In October 1990, Upali was instrumental in organising a fact-finding delegation of European parliamentarians and lawyers led by Christine Oddy MEP to Sri Lanka.

The delegation met and were briefed by, among many others, the opposition politicians Mahinda Rajapakse MP and Mangala Samaraweera MP who were de-facto leaders of the Mothers Front, an association of family members of the ‘disappeared’.

The mission report, along with the names and details of almost 1,500 victims and an analysis of their cases, was published in London in September 1991 by Friends of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka, another organisation inspired by Upali.

Shortly before its publication, Mahinda Rajapakse – bound for Geneva to attend the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights – had been detained at the international airport, and affidavits on ‘disappearances’ collected by the Mothers Front confiscated from him.

That incident underscored the value of this documentation and the importance of its dissemination. Upali was clear-headed on the nature and limits of the European Parliament and the United Nations. However, he was looking beyond them, hoping that the report’s publication would “encourage more people to support the efforts of the courageous few men and women in Sri Lanka who continue to fight for human rights …”.

Another important initiative of his was the London conference on ‘Human and Democratic Rights in Sri Lanka’ organised by CDJ in November 1993. This large meeting at the University of London Students Union brought together activists from Sri Lanka, with exiles and expatriates from across Western Europe.

Among the speakers from Sri Lanka were Kamala Peiris, Lucien Rajakarunanayake, Ainsley Samarajeeva, Joe William and Javid Yusuf. Presentations were invited on child rights, labour rights, media freedom, constitutional reform, peace initiatives, and security sector reform, and later edited by Upali and published as In Place of the Spiral of Violence (London, 1994).

As Upali observed in the introduction to that collection: discussions on democratic and human rights inside and outside Sri Lanka were polarised on ethnic lines, and had evacuated the concerns of marginalised groups and classes. Only an all-island mass democratic movement would, he argued, “end the spiral of violence that has plagued our country”.

Two dissenting Tamil participants at the conference were subsequently murdered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), exercising its self-elected role as “sole, legitimate representatives of the Tamil people”: Sabaratnam Sabalingam in his Paris apartment in May 1994, and Loganathan Ketheeswaran (as he then preferred) at his Dehiwela home in August 2006.

When we last met in Colombo in April [2009], it was evident that after 26 years of brutality and suffering visited on Sri Lanka and its peoples, the war was in endgame. Upali was already thinking ahead of the democratic tasks unfinished, the fight for justice and social transformation shelved for a generation, and the patient renewal of the Left beginning from basic political education of the youth. His restless spirit and sharp intellect will be missed in these endeavours.

B. Skanthakumar
Colombo – 23 October 2009



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