Sixty nine years ago, Sri Lanka regained its independence after nearly 450 years of colonial rule. It was a tumultuous four centuries that would alter the course of history and the country’s destiny. Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, breathed a collective sigh of relief as colonial domination came to an end on February 4, 1948.
Today, we are on the threshold of the 70th anniversary of Independence. The last seven decades have seen many social, political and economic upheavals in this country, some of which have left deep scars in our memory. But what matters ultimately is that we are free.
Freedom means many things to different people. In a broader sense and in the context of a nation, it means that the people are free to chart their own destiny. Looking back, there are many things that we could have done better, many matters that could have been handled differently and more prudently. The twin banes of politics and division stymied or progress and clouded our vision, as a result of which we have suffered immensely.
When we gained freedom in 1948, we were second only to then war-battered Japan in terms of economic and social development. Many respected Asian leaders proclaimed that they wished to emulate Sri Lanka. Yet we managed to fall off that perch rather quickly, as our politicians entered the dangerous territory of ethnic discord for their own gain. They pitted the various communities and religious groups against each other for petty electoral gains, a tactic that would boomerang on them years later, with disastrous consequences for the entire nation. The ethnic strife that began in the early eighties raged on for the next three decades, pushing back the country’s economic and social progress and eliminating a sizeable number of young men and women on both sides of the ethnic divide. In between, we witnessed two youth insurrections in the South, caused by the leaders’ failure to address the grievances of youth. The insurrections apart, political squabbling by various political parties cost the country heavily in terms of political stability. In more recent times, Sri Lanka faced international isolation due to the shortsighted foreign policy of the previous Government.
Now that the conflict is over, Sri Lanka is once again free to realise its full potential. Although the conflict ended nearly eight years ago, the previous administration did little to address the root causes that led to it. Instead of bringing Sri Lankans together, it sought to divide them further on ethnic and religious lines for its own political survival.
However, the National Unity Government that came to power in 2015 changed this divisive narrative, giving priority to ethnic integration and reconciliation. The idea was to establish lasting peace and extinguish any communal embers. There are many other ways in which the Government is expanding on the premise of freedom, from the Right to Information (RTI) law to the restoration of law and order. By ensuring the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, media freedom and the right to live without fear and suspicion, the Government is striving to make freedom a more meaningful concept to all Sri Lankans.
Sri Lanka has also once again become a respected member of the International Community, adhering to universally accepted human rights. Contrary to the opinion expressed by certain Opposition politicians that adhering to human rights norms is tantamount to a loss of our sovereignty and freedom, exactly the opposite is true – the more we disregard the human rights of our own citizens, the more we are susceptible to outside interference in our domestic affairs. Human rights are universal values after all.
Sri Lanka now has a golden opportunity ahead of it to accelerate societal and economic progress in order to catch up with the decades it lost to war. The Government has laid a firm foundation for an economic overhaul with a three-year sustainable development plan. Education and health have been identified as two key pillars that will add impetus to our freedom and progress. The empowerment of women too is a key pillar of freedom. While Sri Lankan girls have full access to education unlike in many developing countries, we have not fared well in some sectors – the number of women especially in the corridors of power is pitifully small and the gender pay gap is still a problem. These are pertinent questions that policy makers must ponder on.
At the end of the day, physical and social development will come to naught if we do not evolve a truly Sri Lankan identity that reinforces our freedom, which is not just a concept, but also a state of mind. We must feel free in every sense of the word. We hope that the proposed new Constitution will address this vital issue. For far too long, we have failed to identify ourselves as Sri Lankans, putting ethnicity first and paid a heavy price. Now we have an opportunity to rectify that mistake. It is an opportunity that we as a proud and truly independent nation must not miss.