Upali Cooray: The Unrepentant Marxist
by P Rajanayagam
(Text of the tribute by, P. Rajanayagam, Editor of ‘Tamil Times’, on behalf of Upali’s friends and comrades at his funeral on 3 September 2009)
We are gathered here today to remember, pay tribute and bid farewell to our friend, colleague and comrade, Upali Cooray, whose untimely death on 21st August 2009 has grieved us all.
Upali’s professional qualifications included a BSc (Hons) in Economics (London), LLB Hons (London) and MA in Business Law at London Guildhall University
Called to the Bar in 1974, Upali practised as a Barrister. Upali was also a Senior Lecturer in Law at London Metropolitan University and taught in many areas including Immigration Law and Comparative Labour Law.
As a committed human rights lawyer, Upali has worked tirelessly for the unrepresented in Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom. Upali’s practice has included a large amount of cases in Immigration, Employment, Criminal, Housing and Family Law.
My association with Upali spans a period of over fifty years. Upali, by his natural inclinations and ideological persuasion was the classical version of “the Leftist” fighting for causes and defending cases that others would not touch.
Like many of us belonging to his generation, Upali cut his political teeth in the Sama Samaja movement, beginning as a youth leaguer, then being a member, and later playing leading roles in political and trade union struggles.
The 1960’s were traumatic times for the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), and for that matter the entire left and working class movement in Sri Lanka. When the majority of the leadership of the Party began to embrace the strategy of coalition politics, it was resisted and opposed by the Left Tendency within the Party to which Upali and I belonged. When the LSSP, at its historic two-day conference in June 1964, decided by majority vote to enter into coalition politics, those of the Left Tendency, which was at that time led by Edmund Samarakkody, Bala Tampo, Merryl Fernando and V. Karalasingham, broke away from the LSSP and founded the LSSP(R). Among others, Upali and I were also elected to the Central Committee of the new party.
There is no doubt that the decision of the LSSP and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CP) in 1964 to enter into coalition politics determined the fate and future of not only these parties, but also the entire left and working class politics in the country. These parties from the 1940s had been powerful bastions on the Left having substantial support with branches and youth leagues functioning throughout the length and breadth of the country. They had under their political leadership and control almost the entire working class movement. These parties had well acclaimed leaders with intellect and stature who were acknowledged as political giants even by their opponents. Even at the worst of times, these parties between them were able to win 15 to 20 seats in parliament. However, today these parties have become a pale shadow of their long, powerful and glorious past having insignificant impact on the politics of the island nation. Would these parties have suffered this fate had they avoided the strategy of coalition politics and continued to remain as champions of the Left fighting the cause of the oppressed and marginalised is a question that is worth pondering.
Upali was one of the founding members of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) in July, 1979 of which Fr Paul Caspersz was the President. It was founded in the context of rising violence particularly in Jaffna where the military had been deployed, Emergency rule had been imposed and the draconian provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act had been invoked leading to widespread and gross human rights violations.
Upali “was one of the moving spirits in MIRJE and a key organizer of many of its activities. He was a co-author with Paul Caspersz and me of the first MIRJE publication, “Emergency’79”, the first publication to deal with the human rights violations in Jaffna that began in 1979.” (Rajan Philips)
Another report in the form of a booklet titled “What happened in Jaffna: Days of Terror” published by MIRJE graphically details of uncontrolled violence including arson that was unleashed in Jaffna May 1981 in the course of which the Jaffna public market and its shopping centre, the TULF office, the residence of the then Jaffna MP Mr V Yogeswaran and most tragically the Jaffna Public Library were set ablaze which was described by Sri Lanka’s most famous Bibliographer Ian Goonetillake as an exercise in “cultural incineration”
Though well versed in the theoretical concepts of Marxism, Upali was not dogmatic. He was the quintessential political activist and campaigner agitating for causes he believed in. Upali was always in the vanguard of struggles of the oppressed people all over the world and played prominent roles in anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, anti-war and anti-racist campaigns.
As the ethnic conflict escalated Sri Lanka, there was massive proliferation of human rights abuses including detention without trial, torture, extra-judicial executions and involuntary disappearances. It was during this period that Upali became one of the leading figures who set up many campaigning organisations in the UK such as the “Ceylon Solidarity Forum”, “Campaign for the Release of Political Prisoners”, “Friends of the Disappeared”, and the Committee for Democracy and Justice in Sri Lanka”.
In regard to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Upali firmly rejected the strategy of war and violence and forcefully argued for negotiated political settlement that 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.
Above all, Upali was a man of action. He believed in the capacity of the downtrodden people to make a better world by transforming the exploitative socio-economic and political conditions to which they were subjected. Believing that organising, educating and empowering of the oppressed people was the key to their emancipation, Upali helped to creating alternative institutions. He helped in setting up a Women’s Centre and a Legal Advice Centre in the Katunayaka Free Trade Zone. He set up a Resource Centre for Community Groups with modern printing machinery and internet technologies to help community groups in mass communication. He also set up another Centre in Balangoda providing for a meeting place for Tea plantation workers. He facilitated the setting up a charity “Lanka Care” to enable bright students from poor backgrounds to further their education by the provision of financial assistance.
One of his longstanding comrades, Rajan Philips, recalls an incident to illustrate Upali’s commitment to those who have been wronged or whose rights have been violated: “Once riding his motorcycle in Ratmalana, he saw a man beating up his wife on the road. He stopped the bike and scared the hell out of the bully until he promised that he would never abuse his wife again. 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.”
Upali would have celebrated his 70th birthday on the 17th of this month. Sadly it was not to be. No amount of tributes to Upali would compensate for the irretrievable loss his wife Sylvia, son Alex, and daughters Samantha and Jasmine have suffered. May they be consoled that many of Upali’s compatriots will cherish his memory and his services for ever.
Even in death, Upali stands tall as he has been throughout his life, a courageous stalwart of the Left and the valiant champion of the oppressed and marginalised. The casket containing his mortal remains, at his own request, is draped in the red flag with the hammer and sickle and the humanist service that is being performed today profoundly demonstrates ‘the unrepentant Marxist’ that Upali has been until his death.
Today, we bow our heads and salute Upali in celebration of his life and service to humanity which he performed with courage, conviction and dedication.
3rd September 2009