The government celebrated the 75th Anniversary of its independence from colonial rule under tight security. President Ranil Wickremesinghe did not even deliver a speech on the occasion. He had an excellent written speech, but chose not to deliver it for reasons not known. The speech was circulated later. The exclusion of the general public from the parade grounds was another notable feature of the Independence Day event. Under normal circumstances, Galle Face green where the celebration took place, is packed with people who come to enjoy the sea, the fresh air and the vast expanse of greenery. The spectacle of a military parade and an air show provided an occasion that people would not have wished to miss if they had been given the chance to attend it. But the government was clearly insecure and wanted to make sure it controlled the situation, which accounted for large security deployments.
The general public were kept away from the celebrations as the government feared that if they were permitted into the area some of them might protest. Indeed, the previous night a sit down public protest (satyagraha) organized by a mostly youthful group of protestors was water cannoned and forcibly broken up. The youth were protesting against the misallocation of resources for celebration at a time when the country’s people have little cause to celebrate. Although there was a large presence of security forces, they stood by when a group of political thugs attacked the peaceful protestors. When the satyagrahis resisted the attack they were chased, beaten and arrested by the security forces. The government was less concerned to win the hearts and minds of its people than to conduct its Independence Day event without disturbance.
Ironically, the manner of the celebration, with the general public not present at the site of celebration, and security forces out in strength on the roads, was reminiscent of the days of war that the country experienced decades past. In those days too, the Independence Day celebrations took place under tight security, with the people preferring to stay in their homes than to brave possible LTTE bombs. This throwback to the past is relevant as those years of war have contributed in no small measure to the economic collapse that has befallen the country and blighted the life of its people. More than 70 percent of the population have reduced their food intake and 40 percent of the population have descended below the poverty line. In recognition of the connection between ethnic conflict and economic underdevelopment, President Wickremesinghe has prioritized a political solution to the ethnic conflict without delay.
The public protests against the celebration of Independence Day was not only in Colombo but also in other parts of the country, most notably in the north of the country. The main Tamil political party as well as smaller ones also called for a boycott of the Independence Day events and did not participate in them. University students in Jaffna declared a hartal and flew black flags. Most of the people, however, showed no interest either way. There was no display of national flags in a spontaneous manner nor did the government make such an appeal. It seemed as if the government was celebrating Independence Day for itself. Gleaming new vehicles with police escorts drove in assorted governors, ministers and other dignitaries into the stalls where they would seat themselves with all the national television stations focusing on them. However, to the general public watching the celebrations on their television sets, the sight of the luxury vehicles bearing the dignitaries would have been infuriating.
Not even a year ago, these same political leaders were hiding in the face of the protest movement that took to the streets in the aftermath of the collapse of the national economy and declaration of national bankruptcy. The general public, many of whom had never taken part in public protests, came to the streets to protest. They came from near and far, children with their parents, the elderly and the differently abled, to demand the exit of the government leaders who had stolen the wealth of the country and brought the masses of people, including them all, to near penury. These same people who watched the Independence Day events on television would have been greatly angered to see those same political leaders now disembarking from luxury vehicles while they scraped the bottom of the barrel in their homes. What they demand from the government, both in street protests and in their homes, is an end to impunity for corruption, abuse of power and extravagance in public life, which the government appears to be shying away from.
The question arises for whose benefit was Independence Day celebrated in this manner? Independence Day in a situation of economic collapse was celebrated in a most unimaginative manner. The government tried to heed the public opprobrium regarding the cost of the event, and reduced the size of the military parade. It also axed the cultural parades that represent the aesthetic side of life. Independence Day should have been celebrated differently, not for the political leaders and not for the international community, but for the people. This event did not receive much international publicity. It would not have changed the way the world sees us. It did not touch the hearts of the Sri Lankan people either. They were watching on their television sets and conscious of the expenditures that were being incurred for no good reason, and certainly not for their benefit.
The celebration of Independence Day could have been done differently. The government could have recognized the poverty that has ravaged the lives of the people. It could have organized an Independence Day event that demonstrated an ethos of care for the people. It could have brought a thousand schoolchildren from the poorest families around the country, and from all ethnicities, religions and castes, and made them a symbolic presentation of schoolbooks and school clothes that would have reflected the government’s commitment to invest in the country’s children. This was an opportunity lost and would work to the detriment of the government which will be reflected in its electoral performance at the forthcoming local government elections. President Wickremesinghe’s pitch that the country needed a plan to become a developed country in 2048 is to miss people’s concerns to get by the day. In his televised speech to the nation he said “Let us devote ourselves, unite as children of one mother. Let us make our country one of the most developed in the world by 2048, when we will celebrate 100 years of independence.”
Despite all the criticism of the priorities of President WIckremesinghe and the government there are still many who continue to place their hope that the president will succeed in problem solving that is in the national interest. One of President Wickremesinghe’s bold pledges has been to resolve the ethnic conflict that gave rise to three decades of war and to reach a situation of national reconciliation in this 75th year of Independence and “unite as children of one mother”. When he first committed himself to this task three-months ago, there was some anticipation that this ambitious task may even occur prior to Independence Day itself, or “mission accomplished” would be announced on the auspicious day. This has not been the case and it appears that even the first steps are yet to be made. Now the focus of attention will be the president’s policy statement on February 8 when he reconvenes parliament following its prorogation by him a fortnight ago.
National reconciliation in an ethnically divided society is never an easy proposition. It requires the support of multiple actors in multiple sectors. An indication of the president’s determination in this regard was the singing of the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil languages at the Independence Day event. This was after a lapse of four years and reflects the president’s resolve to overcome the divisions of the past. It must be noted that it was under his leadership as prime minister in the period 2015-19 that the national anthem was sung again in Tamil on Independence Day after the passage of many decades. There are elements in the president and his government that require support from civil society. We need to overcome the legacy of past mistakes and forge ahead to a future in which lessons have been learnt and mistakes not repeated.
Disclaimer: Celebration Of Independence Day Could Have Been Done Differently By Jehan Perera - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view