Everything else.. What has May Day in Sri Lanka become?

What has May Day in Sri Lanka become?

2018 May 7

There was much hilarity and confusion associated with the change of May Day this year from the 1st to the 7th of May. Most were concerned about the public holiday, which is a bonus, but in addition many Sri Lankans have also become increasingly disappointed about the politicization of May Day in Sri Lanka over the last few years.

So let’s examine, what is May Day meant to be about?

Traditionally it is a spring holiday celebrated by many cultures through dance, singing and other festivities. However, it was chosen as the day for International Workers’ Day in the late 19th century to commemorate what is known as the Haymarket Affair, and thus evolved into the May Day we know now.

The Haymarket Affair was a tragic incident in Chicago when a strike for an eight-hour work day and against police brutality towards workers, followed by public assembly in support of it, translated into a violent event due to an explosion of a bomb, followed by what is largely considered to be an unfair trial resulting in the execution of many who weren’t guilty of throwing the bomb. The Affair resulted in the deaths and injury of many people and a popular example of miscarriage of justice.

This history is crucial to note because when countries across the world adopted this holiday, along with it they adopted its premise – that it would be a day dedicated to campaigning for the demands of the working class not only in memory of the victims of the Haymarket Affair but also in light of the present circumstances of their economy and the very people that drive it.

Most countries across the world do this history justice – in Kenya it is a public holiday and celebrated with an address by the leaders of the workers’ umbrella union body and each year, the government approves (and increases) the minimum wage on Labour Day. It is of similar prominence to countries in a post-conflict situation, such as Libya, where International Workers’ Day was declared a national public holiday by the National Transitional Council in 2012, the first year of the post-Qaddafi era, and marked the beginning of hope for workers through economic reforms. The day is used to reassure the working population that their best interests are important to the government. Many places in Europe celebrate May Day festively – in Chile, the major trade unions organize rallies during the morning hours, with festivities and cookouts in the later part of the day. During these rallies, representatives of the major left-wing political parties speak to the assemblies on the issues of the day concerning workers’ rights.

However, in a lot of places, the traditions of May Day have been known to escalate into violence. The May Day Riots of 1919 in Cleveland leave a scar in the history of the annual holiday as marchers refused to back down and mass fighting broke out immediately. We view history repeating itself just a few days ago with more than 100 people remaining in custody in Paris after annual May Day protests turned violent.

What has May Day in Sri Lanka become?

Sri Lanka celebrated its first May Day in 1927, under the leadership of labor leader A. E. Gunasinghe. The first May Day rally had been held in 1933 under his leadership and it’s interesting to observe what it has evolved to become.

In 2012, we observed Occupy Wall Street protest against economic inequality on May Day in the United States and although some argue that this was a form of politicization too, most agree that its premise was in line with that of Labour Day. Is it the same in Sri Lanka?

Unfortunately it is the opposite. 2011 was one such example. This was when President Mahinda Rajapakse called for mass protests against a UN report with urged probe into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war. He argued that the May Day rally should be turned into a “show of our strength” against international calls for war crime investigations and this was viewed as a vastly grotesque exploitation of the rallying of thousands of people across the country.

Irrespective of the cause that was being campaigned for, be it legitimate or not, many political parties use this traditional gathering of citizens across the country as a political tool to put forth their agendas and display a largely orchestrated show of support for their cause, exploiting those who support the original premise of the rallies, as well as doing grave injustice to the people the day was meant to be dedicated to.

The politicization of May Day is a devastating form of disrespect, not only to the victims of the Haymarket Affair and others across the world oppressed by employers, but mostly it is unjust towards the workers of our country who deserve a day where they are the focus of the political parties, the reigning government as well as in the eyes of the citizenry.

May Day is meant to spread awareness on the plight of workers, political parties ought to be inclined to propose policies in support of labour, and rallies should be in support of the cause of improving workers’ lives. Instead, it has been corrupted by agendas specific to certain political parties and the voice of the working class has been diluted even more.


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