Remembering Com. Upali Cooray on his 82nd Birth Day!

 1. Comrade Upali Cooray was born in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka on 17th September 1939

2. He received primary education at a PIRIVENA and the Prince of Wales collage in Moratuwa. Thereafter, whilst studying at Aquinas College he was also actively involved in left politics. As a consequence, he was dismissed from the college by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, the principal of the college at the time.

3. Whilst being a student, Upali joined the Youth League of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). “Upali cut his political teeth in the Sama Samaja movement, beginning as a member of the youth league, and later playing leading roles in political and trade union struggles.” said Comrade Rajanayagam.

4. During 1958/59, he taught at Karandeniya Central School in Galle, where, he fought against caste-based discriminatory practices by teachers in the school.

5. In 1956 /1960 period he fought hard against the anti-Tamil policies fostered by the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) coalition government in Sri Lanka.

6. In 1964, when the LSSP by majority vote joined a coalition government led by the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), Upali supported the revolutionary Trotskyist faction of the LSSP, led by Edmond Samarakkody, Bala Tampoe, V. Karalasingham and Meryl Fernando which broke away from the LSSP and formed the LSSP (Revolutionary) Party. Upali was elected to the Central Committee of the LSSP(R) and left for Britain to pursue higher studies.

7. In Britain, Upali joined the International Marxist Group (IMG), the British section of the Fourth International. He became the Secretary of Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and also worked with the Southall Solidarity Movement against white racism in London. On several occasions he was physically attacked by white racists. Comrade Soori has wrote as follows in his writing on “My recollections on Upali Cooray”

 “We gradually shifted our emphasis to antiracist work in Britain. This turned out to be an equally formidable task. We were exposing racism within the police, within the Tory party, Labour party and generally within all the British Establishments. Syd Bidwell, Labour MP for Southall was a racist and the Labour party office was burnt down by the Asian youth.

When Kuldeep Chagar was murdered in 1976, by white racists in South Hall, we were the first to go to the scene to find his body hanging over a railing bleeding all over. We covered his body in red cloth and called the ambulance. The police was complicit. They never rush to such crime scenes. They only come when the murder is accomplished in safety. This was the pattern in England then. We held a meeting very near the spot in a car park on the same day. A lot of Asian youth gathered there. Upali got on top of a parked car and used it as a platform and made a brilliant, emotive and rousing speech around which the Asian youth were mobilised. He made a very calculated political speech. He convinced the youth that enough is enough and it is time to fight back. It is this political courage that I admire most in Upali. He is of course a powerful speaker.

We were the first in Britain to coin the slogan “Self defence is no offence”, which sent shivers throughout the police and the government circles. It actually meant that we form our own community police and task force to defend ourselves, challenging the monopoly of the state police. Although it was only a slogan the establishment became very concerned of this precedence and increased surveillance against us. All our names were in the Police register

We did a lot of work in Southall during this period among the Indian community. The conservative Indian Workers Congress also did not like our revolutionary stand. But the Indian youth flocked around us then.

Later Brixton riots took place. Tottenham riots took place. These shook the establishment, leading to commissions of inquiries. Racism became the most talked about subject. We challenged the National Front through our Bulletin and at public meetings. IMG and SWP were behind us all the time. We held meetings all over the country especially at NUS conferences and at Labour Party fringe meetings. “

8. In 1971, in the aftermath of the failed youth rebellion led by the JVP in April that year in Sri Lanka, Upali worked together with comrades of the Ginipupura Group in London and campaigned for the release of 18,000 political prisoners held in detention centres. Also, he went on an international tour including Australia, Japan and Canada campaigning for their release.

Upali wrote about this campaign as follows: “We did not campaign for their release because we agreed with the political programme or the strategy of the JVP. We did so because we firmly believe that every person, regardless of their political opinions and actions are entitled to human and fundamental rights. Ironically, the JVP itself had repeatedly demonstrated that they themselves are not prepared to respect the human rights of others. In fact JVP is not the only culprit in this regard. Be that as it may, that is their problem and not ours. Our commitment to human and democratic rights is not based on their own actions and conduct but on our belief that if we do not stand up for human rights of every single individual, regardless of what they say or do, we will soon revert to a life of savagery and barbarity.”

9. In 1972, he came to Sri Lanka to see his mother who was very ill. He was arrested at the Katunayake Air-port and taken to CID headquarters for questioning on his involvement in the campaign for the release of political prisoners. In the meantime, his mother had passed away.

10. Again in 1975 Upali went back to Sri Lanka and worked with the Ceylon Mercantile Union and Revolutionary Marxist Party (Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International). He was in Sri Lanka until mid 1985 and worked as a political, human rights and Trade Union activist.

11. At the 1977 General Election he was a candidate of the RMP for the Dehiwala electorate and he was a fiery speaker against the Open Economic Policies presented by J. R. Jayawardena and the UNP. And, perhaps, for the first time on a Sri Lankan election platform Upali articulated women’s rights.

12. After coming to power, the UNP government unleashed anti-Trade Union policies, violent attacks against the Trade Union movement and anti-Tamil pogroms. Upali worked hard against the policies and the violence of UNP government and the 1978 Constitution which brought in a Presidential system of governance. He organized CMU and RMP comrades to fight against the UNP thugs that attacked workers on strike.

13. As a leading member of the Revolutionary Marxist Party Upali immersed himself in the activities of building a revolutionary party and worked closely with leading activists of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU). He inspired younger comrades and dedicated his time to educating and encouraging them to play a leading role in the decision making bodies of the party.

14. Within five years, from 1975 to 1980, he managed to double the RMP membership by recruiting trade union activists and building them as working class activists. Hence, the RMP and the CMU were able to play a major role within the working class and the trade union movement against repressive policies and the thuggery of the UNP regimes led by J.R. Jayawardana and Ranasinghe Premadasa.

15. When the 1980 July General strike under the leadership of the Joint Trade Union Action Committee broke out, the CMU back-peddled and decided not to participate in the general strike. Bala Tampoe as General Secretary of the CMU with the support of his colleagues within the Executive Committee of the CMU took this decision in opposition to the majority view of the RMP. This provoked a political conflict within the party membership. Comrade Upali and the majority of RMP fought against the decision of the CMU leadership led by Bala Tampoe within the party. A special party conference was called to debate and take a political stand on this issue in early 1981. Comrade Tariq Ali of the IMG also participated in this conference as an observer. After long debate, Bala Tampoe and his minority group were defeated at the party conference and Bala Tampoe could not stand with the majority decision. Within a few weeks after the conference, Bala and his minority group left the party and they started expelling party members from their positions within CMU.

16. Upali had the courage to withstand this political witch hunt within the CMU and with the denial of access to the party office within the CMU building to the majority group of the RMP, he was able to keep the party members together. Eventually the party office was relocated within the premises of one of the comrades and political activities recommenced with renewed energy. Upali sold his car to print the party newspaper, Idirimaga . Some of party comrades had lost their jobs due to participating in the 1980 General Strike and some others had lost their jobs within the CMU due to Bala Tampoe’s witch hunt. Upali managed and helped these comrades to keep them politically active in a demoralized situation with the defeat of the General Strike.

17. Upali’s Activities after 1981

i. In 1981 Comrade Upali initiated a Resource Centre for Community Groups. Its objectives were:

(a) to help comrades who have been victimised by the 1980 General strike and

(b) to help community organisations with their printing and other services because they could not afford the rates charged by commercial printers;

(c) to provide skills training to youth and women from poor and disadvantaged families;

It is also important to remind ourselves that Upali and other comrades had a very strong commitment to the interests of the working class; their demands and concerns. So, the purpose of the RCCG was to find new recruits and contacts to build the left political movement. Therefore the work of the RCCG was an adjunct to RMP’s political work and a means to promote its politics.

 ii. At this time Upali had little money. He used to work as the legal representative of the CMU at the Labour Tribunal. But, after his split with Bala Tampoe he did not have an income.

iii. It is important to emphasise that from those early days, the fund raising for the RCCG was carried out exclusively by Comrade Upali. For instance he would appear at the Labour Tribunal on behalf of workers and when they paid him or gave a contribution, he would not take it for his personal use, instead, gave it to the party or the RCCG.

iv. Through his contacts in England and Europe, Upali was able to raise small but steady amounts of money for the RCCG. Its next step was to buy an old second hand Otley letterpress, which Comrade T.N. Perera kindly agreed to install in the ram shackled building at the back of his house. It was the beginning of the CRC (Community Resource Centre) Press.

v. The setting up of the letter press enabled RCCG to expand its activities:

* CRC press did a lot of printing work for Community groups at discounted rates.

* RCCG could also provide training for youth from poor families.

* RCCG made a revolutionary break with other organisations when RCCG decided to adopt a policy of positive discrimination in favour of women and to train women in printing.

vi. One of the most essential aspects of RCCG was its commitment, at the very outset, to adopt a process of collective decision making.

* RCCG discussed with every one who worked in the RCCG, including trainees and

* RCCG did not create a hierarchical barrier between the managers and the managed And there were no secrets amongst RCCG members.

* Whatever personal views RCCG members may have had decisions were made collectively.

* Every one was respected and everyone was addressed as a comrade. This tradition continued for well over 20 years. There were no bosses who were addressed as ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’.

vii. Comrade Upali continued to provide real financial help to all the initiatives of the RCCG. For instance when Multicultural Education and Recreation Centre (MERC -Pussellawa) did not have money to buy a property to continue its work, Upali agreed to buy a piece of land which he had not even seen, because that was the only way the MERC could buy the land it required. At that time he did not have much money and all the comrades were living on a very low income. But Upali agreed to use almost all the money he had saved to help the MERC.


* RCCG provided help to community organisations to print their material and sometimes RCCG took real risks to do so. Comrades TN, Wije, Balangoda Somapala, and Upali were even arrested because of their commitment to their aims and objectives. Comrade Lionel who was an advice worker at Legal Advice Centre in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone was abducted and killed because of his commitment to these ideals.

* RCCG unequivocally supported the struggles of workers, women and ethnic minorities. For instance in 1981 RCCG distributed assistance to plantation workers who were attacked by UNP thugs and RCCG made a film depicting such attacks.

* In 1983 RCCG campaigned against the anti-Tamil pogrom and organised clandestine leaflet campaign against the JR government

* In Katunayeke under the leadership of comrades Lionel and others, RCCG helped workers who went on strike and those who were dismissed.

x. The other important point that we should remember is that although RCCG began with a small composing unit, soon RCCG was able to expand its work. Upali also initiated:

* A Legal Advice Centre in Katunayake,

* Ja-ela Workers’ Centre in Ekala, Ja-Ela,

* MERC initially in Balangoda and then in Pussellava ,

* Nirmani Womens’ Unit and news paper,

* Development Education Publications Unit

* Lankanet as First E-mail Service in Sri Lanka and ICT support for Community Organisations.

21. Comrade Upali played an instrumental role in initiating joint discussions and activities with other leftist groups and individuals with a view to regrouping and rebuilding the revolutionary left in Sri Lanka. About 10 years ago, Upali wrote and distributed a discussion paper called “ REBUILDING THE LEFT MOVEMENT IN SRI LANKA”. In that paper, he wrote:

“In this paper I would argue that, today, more than ever, there is an urgent need to rebuild the left movement in Sri Lanka. Although 60 years have elapsed since the British colonial rulers transferred political power to the Sri Lankan elite, certain developmental goals that the left movement addressed itself to in early 40’s still remain unfulfilled. …….

…..It is therefore important for the comrades of the LSSP, CP and other political groups which at various times had split from the LSSP and the CP to initiate the task of rebuilding the left movement. In doing so we must attract comrades of progressive organisations in the Tamil national movement, and from the progressives in the Muslim community and the Up-country Tamil community.”

18. He actively defended the rights of the Tamil people and workers’ rights when President Jayawardena’s regime unleashed repressive laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Rule to crush the Tamil liberation movement and the trade unions.

19. He made an immense contribution to building MIRJE as a broad-based movement that campaigned for the rights and defended the political aspirations of the Tamil people. Upali was a co-author with Paul Caspersz and Rajan Philips of the first MIRJE publication, “Emergency 79”. It was also the first publication to deal with the human rights violations in Jaffna that began in 1979 and have not let up since.

20. It was a similar brave and principled campaign by him and his colleagues in 1988-89 that helped Mahinda Rajapakse to present in foreign human rights forums the data on killings and disappearances during the Premadasa regime. Upali was the person who organized the delegation of 4 persons including European Union MPs and lawyers to visit in Sri Lanka from 27 October to 4 November 1990.

The mission was organized to compile a report on the violation of human rights in Sri Lanka and the disappearance of Sri Lankans. This was one of the activities of the organization called “The Disappeared in Sri Lanka” which was initiated by Upali and other comrades in London. Since returning from Sri Lanka in November 1991, Alex Smith and Christine Oddy had lobbied the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council of Ministers to condemn the human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and to refuse aid until there was an identifiable improvement on human rights. The European Parliament had unanimously approved the resolution. This contributed to stop killings and human rights violations by the Premadasa Regime in Sri Lanka.

21. He initiated alternative institutions to organise and educate women workers in the Katunayaka Free Trade Zone by setting up a Women’s Centre, a Legal Advice Centre and assisted women activists in publishing Da Bindu and Nirmani to raise awareness of women’s issues.

22. Upali was a male feminist. Rajan Philips in his statement said, “Upali was the first male feminist I came across and I can say that he was a role model to other men in shedding the convenient shackles of patriarchy and male chauvinism.”

23. He set up a Centre as a meeting place for Tea plantation workers in Balangoda. In 1984 while comrade Upali was having a meeting with plantation workers at this Centre he was arrested by the Balangoda Police and was held in custody for 20 days under the PTA.

24. He initiated Janahanda and Venasa, Sinhala language newspapers to counter war mongering and anti-Tamil propaganda in the Sinhala capitalist media.

25. He also launched several projects under the Development Education Publications, Aid: Rhetoric and Reality by Teresa Hayter, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Where There Is No Doctor by David Werner were translated into Sinhala.

Upali himself translated Lenin for Beginners, Food for Beginners by Writers and Readers and The Origin of the Family by Kathleen Gough to Sinhala. Under the Workers’ Rights Publications, he also wrote a series of booklets titled Workers’ Rights explaining legal jargon in simple language for the benefit of worker activists.

26. In the late 1985 comrade Upali returned to Britain and tirelessly campaigned against disappearances and assassinations during the reign of terror in Sri Lanka under Premadasa regime. He together with democratic and leftist Tamil/ Sinhala individuals and colleagues founded Friends of the Disappeared and the Committee for Democracy and Justice in Sri Lanka to highlight human rights violations and disappearances in Sri Lanka in the international arena.

27. He strongly opposed both state-sponsored violence and that of the LTTE. In this spirit he was involved in a continuous dialogue with non-LTTE Tamil leftists and others in forums such as the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum to forge links and to find alternative strategies to fight for democracy, justice, equality and dignity for all the people within a united Sri Lanka.

28. With the escalation of the ethnic conflict, there was massive proliferation of human rights abuses including detention without trial, torture, extra-judicial executions and involuntary disappearances in Sri Lanka. It was during this period that Upali became one of the leading figures who set up many campaigning organisations in the UK .

29. In regards to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Upali firmly rejected the strategy of war and violence and forcefully argued for a negotiated political settlement which recognised the legitimate rights of all nationalities. He denounced and campaigned against violations of human and democratic rights, political assassinations and other excesses for which successive Sri Lankan governments and the LTTE were responsible.

30. Later in England, he had taken not only to practicing law but also to teaching it and making an academic contribution. Upali was known for taking on racist police officers who were hard on immigrants.

31. In his final articles, Upali was demanding to rebuild a New Mass movement against the chauvinist fever following the military defeat of the LTTE. He wrote as follows: “We must break decisively with those failed policies of the LTTE as well as those of the Sri Lankan ruling elite. Instead we must build a new and a bold movement that could unite all those who have been exploited, disadvantaged and marginalized. Like the Suriya Mal Movement and the LSSP, which spearheaded the fight against caste oppression and British imperialism in the 1930’s, today we need a new movement to spearhead the struggle for modernity and to drag our country from the economic and political quagmire that the failed prophets of the yester years have led us into.”

32. Ten years ago, in September 2009, Comrade Rajan Philips wrote in a message remembering Comrade Upali, “And we have lost the one man whose rallying cry in the face of oppression and human rights violation was to organize and resist, gather more support and fight, and not to give up until the job is done. Even as we mourn his death, we cannot give up hope that we shall overcome, sooner than later. That would be the biggest political tribute we could ever pay to Upali Cooray.”

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