Sri Lankan police arrest more Alton estate workers

On Monday evening, between 5 and 8 p.m., armed police conducted a three-hour search operation at the Alton estate in Maskeliya, central Sri Lanka, to arrest more workers allegedly involved in an attack on an estate superintendent.

Company management and the police claim workers physically assaulted estate superintendent Subash Narayanan on February 17. Workers deny the allegation.

Provocative protest by estate managers outside Hatton court (Photo credit K. Kishanthan)

On February 18, police, with the assistance of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress officials, Sri Lanka’s main plantation union, arrested eight workers, claiming they were involved in the alleged incident. Brought before a Hatton magistrate, the workers were sent to Kandy remand prison for two weeks.

The arrest and witch hunt of the Alton workers is a police-company conspiracy aimed at breaking indefinite strike action by workers at the estate which began on February 2. The strikers are demanding higher pay and an end to management threats.

The 10-person police operation on Monday, involved members of the notorious Special Task Force. Another group of police officers waited on the road outside the estate.

The police had the names of 18 people accused of being involved in the alleged attack on the superintendent. Police officers moved through the estate, roaming from one line room to another and denouncing workers in foul and abusive language.

While workers told police they did not know who they were looking for, the officers arrested two people—Palani Amirthalingam (35) and Sivaperumal Wickneswaran, a 16-year-old student.

The eight previously arrested workers still in remand are, S. Puwanesary, Kanapathy Devi, G. Shatheeswary, Francis Thiresammal, Marimuthu Thamilselvi, Yohasakthi, M.K.Shanthini and Aandimuthu Visvakethu.

Yesterday, all ten workers were brought before a Hatton magistrate. Police opposed them being bailed, declaring that its “investigation” was ongoing. This means that the police are stepping up the intimidation campaign and want more arrests.

Police erected a barrier near the court entrance and blocked workers from entering. One worker, whose wife is among those arrested, told the WSWS that he was not allowed in.

In court, a lawyer for the companies provocatively claimed that “terrorism” could emerge in the plantations. Nehru Karunakaran, a lawyer for the arrested Alton workers, rejected this, declaring that there was no terrorism in the estates. He said that the police were arresting people and then attempting to justify their actions.

So far no charges have been filed against any of those arrested, but those being held in remand have been accused of “unlawful assembly” and “grievous hurt” of the estate manager. All the workers have denied these accusations. If convicted they face a seven-year jail term for “grievous hurt” and six months for “unlawful assembly.” It appears that the list of 18 names was provided to the police by the CWC, which has a union branch at the Alton estate.

When strikers protested against the initial police attempts to detain eight workers on February 18, CWC area leaders, Kanagarai, Rajaram and Senpahavally, falsely claimed that the workers would not be arrested and persuaded them to go to the Hatton police station to give statements.

The CWC leadership has previously collaborated with the police in the arrest of plantation workers and youth. During Colombo’s 30-year war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, CWC leaders went to state authorities with the names of plantation youth, accusing them of involvement in terrorism. The youth were arrested by the police under the country’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Coinciding with yesterday’s court hearing, the Planters’ Association organised a confrontational protest by estate superintendents and assistant superintendents in Hatton. Around 200 of them demonstrated in the town, holding placards calling for an end to “violence.”

Planters’ Association General Secretary Lalith Obeyesekere previously wrote to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, calling for his intervention to stop the alleged violence of workers against management. The media also reported that the association has contacted President Gotabhaya Rajapakse about “estate violence.”

Referring to the Alton strike, Obeysekere claimed “that an organised campaign of violence and intimidation is being unleashed by thugs who are inciting workers and non-workers in order to sabotage RPC [Regional Plantation Companies] tea production.”

The ongoing witch hunt and arrests of Alton estate workers indicates that the Rajapakse government has given the police a green light to terrorise the plantation workers.

Contrary to police and RPCs claims, the real violence is the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social and democratic rights of all estate workers. While workers are fighting for a decent wage and social conditions, the companies are demanding even greater exploitation of estate workers.

Since 2015, the plantation companies have bitterly opposed a demand by workers for a 1,000-rupee ($US5.12) daily wage and, with the assistance of the plantation unions and the government of the day, only agreed to a meagre increase. Plantation workers’ daily wage, in fact, is now just 700 rupees ($US3.59).

On Monday, the Rajapakse government, in an attempt to deflect plantation workers’ anger, decided on a 900-rupee daily basic wage with a 100-rupee allowance. The plantation companies have rejected even this grossly inadequate amount.

While the CWC is directly involved in the witch hunt against the Alton Estate workers, the other plantation unions have been completely silent about the company-police assault. These include: the National Union of Workers, Up Country People’s Front, Democratic Workers Congress, Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union and the All Ceylon Estate Workers Union, which is controlled by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. These unions have also united with the CWC to sabotage workers’ struggles for higher wages and increasing workload by companies.

The CWC is part of the Rajapakse government and its leader, Jeevan Thondaman, is the minister for estate infrastructure. Leaders of the other plantation unions have been ministers in previous administrations.

On Monday the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) issued a statement demanding the immediate release of the arrested Alton workers and appealing for workers and youth to come to their defence.

It stated: “Workers must take this company-police conspiracy, aided and abetted by the CWC, as a serious attack on the entire working class. Not a single plantation union has condemned the arrests or demanded the workers’ immediate release. This brutal anti-democratic assault is an attempt by the plantation companies to break the growing movement of estate workers for decent wages, jobs and other social rights.”

The latest attack on Alton Estate workers confirms the SEP’s warnings. We urge Sri Lankan workers and youth to join our campaign to defend the Alton Estate strikers and all other plantation workers. This must be taken forward as part of a broader struggle to defend the democratic and social rights of the entire working class.