In 24.02.2007
Urgent Appeal

Lives and trade union activities at risk in Sri Lanka:
Intimidation and threats of abduction

The background
On 06.02.2007 three men including a railway trade union activist and two media personnel were abducted by unknown groups in Colombo. These abductions indicate the spread of disappearances. As clearly evidenced in recent times, such acts are used as a means of dealing with opponents. Whereabouts of hundreds of abducted men and women in the recent past still remains a mystery. This sparked a spontaneous protest by an independent and progressive segment of trade unionists immediately the next day in front of the country’s prominent Fort Railway Station. The protestors with the backing of about 500 trade union activist agitated for the release of their union colleague.

In the wake of the sudden protest and preparations for a mass campaign by the unions, compelled the government on 08.02.2007 to announce that the abducted men including the union activist are in government custody and they are being interrogated on suspicion for alleged collaboration with LTTE insurgents. Unions have no objections to the government’s plans of safeguarding law and order. Trade unions are willing to extend their fullest cooperation to such just efforts.

Intimidation of free exercise of trade union rights
It is extremely regrettable and startling to note, some factions of the government and certain extremist political forces with a record of abductions and murders are waging a vicious campaign to tie-up trade union activists who participated in the protest against the abductions, as terrorist collaborators. Key activists of these trade unions are now publicly hounded and made the subject of mass publicity campaigns. They are projected as covert terror operatives working for the LTTE. This is an attempt to foster suspicion and anger among the general public against the organizers of the Fort Railway Station Protest campaign.

These malicious campaigns are carefully aimed at placing the lives of these trade union activists at risk and choke public support for their trade unions. It is also aimed at creating an atmosphere of public animosity so that trade union activities will systematically subside.

Why intimidate?
The trade unions that are being hunted represent a group of independent private and public sector unions that were in the fore front of the fight for fundamental trade union liberties. Among the recent endeavours of these unions, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association Complaint against the government over the suppression of right to strike, campaigns against the declaration of Essential Services and arbitrary labour reforms are prominent.

These unions continue to show signs of growing strength and gaining support from battered workers. They are fast becoming able to mobilise their strength in rapid actions capable of changing course of the employers and the government. This has become a cause of concern to many.

Trade union rights and lives of unionists at risk
Since 08.02.2007, posters depicting trade union leaders as traitors and terrorist operatives have sprung up in many places of the country and they call for the arrest of these union activists. Among the targeted trade unionists Anton Marcus, of the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees’ Union (FTZGSEU), Sman Ratnapriya and Ravi Kumudesh of the Health Sector Trade Union Alliance (HSTUA), Sampath Rajitha and Raja Kannangara of the Joint Railway Trade Union Alliance and Joseph Stalin of the Ceylon Teachers Union are prominent.

Some of these posters are displayed in the vicinity of export processing zones, public transport stations, hospitals, etc.. An organized campaign with the support of a section of the national print and electronic media too is underway to demonise and cause discredit to the image of trade unions. These are well orchestrated moves aimed at isolating unions and distancing them from the general public, to ensure public or workers support will not be forthcoming when union activists are under attack.

These aggressive campaigns are capable of creating doubts and scepticisms in the minds of ordinary citizens and workers. Unions in some instances are experiencing public resistance due to this false propaganda. Several threats have been made on the lives of these activists.

The possibility of arrest or abduction of trade union activists under false charges of terrorist complicity seems very likely. In view of these alarming developments on 21.02.2007 the FTZGSEU and the HSTUA lodged complaints with the police seeking protection and urging investigations against the malicious misinformation campaign of putting union activity and lives of unionist at risk. The law enforcement authorities have hitherto failed to take constructive measures to guarantee the safety of union activists and create an atmosphere conducive to exercise fundamental trade union freedoms.

The challenge
The situation shows clear signs of drifting towards a systematic suppression of trade union freedoms. The logical sequence of these events clearly demonstrates the erosion of fundamental pre-requisites of the right to freedom of association. This has opened a new dimension of a serious threat to the right to freedom of association.

Measures designed to deprive trade union leaders and members of their freedom entail a serious risk of interference in trade union activities. It is very clear, such an atmosphere amounts to intimidation and fear prejudicial to the normal development of trade union activities. The fate of many other rights is inevitably linked to the free exercise of the right to freedom of association.

This is an alarming situation. If not engaged with timely and constructive intervention it can perpetuate a climate of permanent union repression. The lives of union activists and the future of trade union freedom will certainly depend on how effective we are in engaging this situation.

Appeal for solidarity

In view of the above unfortunate turn of events we urge you to join hands with us at this time of challenge. Extend your support to exert pressure on responsible authorities to:

  • Guarantee the safety of all trade union activists under threat and ensure an environment free of intimidation and fear which is conducive for the normal development of trade union activities.
  • Investigate the complaints made by the aforesaid trade union activists to the police and take all appropriate measures necessary to ensure their safety and the free exercise of trade union activities.
  • Ensure the due process of law on all acts of alleged threats, intimidations and union repressive manoeuvres and take appropriate and timely measure against all offenders disregarding their political and other influences.
  • In achieving the above we fraternally urge you to write to the President of Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka seeking to ensure the above demands.

The President, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
His Excellency Mahinda Rajapakshe
President’s House
“Temple Tree”
Colombo 3
Sri Lanka
Postal and e-mail address:
Fax No: 94 11 2542919

If you need any more information or clarification please do not hesitate to contact us.

Please inform us any action you will take on this matter and send us the copy of the letter that you will send as requested by us.
In solidarity

Anton Marcus
Joint Secretary
Free Trade Zones & General-
-Services Union
141, Ananda Rajakaruna Mawatha,
Colombo 10, Sri Lanka
Phone/Fax: 94 11 4617711
Saman Ratnapriya
President, Health Services Trade Union-
889-1/2, Maradana Road Colombo 10,
Sri Lanka

T.Phone: 94 11 2684031