She's my country still
It is, no doubt, with a tinge of melancholy that Sri Lankans will mark their 60th year since regaining political Independence after nearly 450 years of foreign domination.
The euphoria that greeted Independence is now passe; only a minority of the country's burgeoning population would recall the proud moment when the Lion flag was unfurled on February 4, 1948.
What we are now confronted with is a nation in peril -- at the mercy of foreign aid donors dictating good governance to what is, a sovereign state; borrowing relentlessly from commercial banks for unborn generations to pay in the future; public funds being pilfered and squandered; one in every 20 of her citizens working overseas to keep the home fires burning, often in pitiful conditions; unemployment; under-nourishment; skyrocketing prices; corrupt politicians; plunging human rights records; and an insurgency draining whatever is left and taking a terrible toll on life, limb, property and the economy.
And yet, a scientific survey conducted for this newspaper reveals some interesting statistics on the opposite page. Despite the startling percentages for some of the questions asked, a vast majority of Sri Lankans have said that they are happy to have been born Sri Lankan and that given the opportunity to migrate, they would opt not to.
With apologies to English poet Charles Churchill, we may thus say,
"Be Sri Lanka what she will;
With all her faults,
She's my country still."
Perhaps the fault for many of the ills that bedevil us now, may lie in the fact that we have a regrettable tendency to talk of past glories and do little in the present. That deep-rooted patriotism that drove previous generations to strive for freedom and a sovereign state is lacking. Today we talk of the need for a Sri Lankan identity, but take few steps to achieve it. Pre-Independence, the quest was not about each community's rights, but freedom as a nation and the pages of history, if we only care to turn them, would remind us that all communities -- Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers stood together, united.
So much was achieved by a relatively few people without any great experience in international lobbying, at a time when snotty 'whites' must have been mostly dismissive of the exertions of the 'wogs'. And yet, they achieved so much, unifying the elite as well as getting the material support of the masses.
Writing on the occasion of this country’s 50th independence celebrations in 1998 to our newspaper, a columnist reflected, "Today a fashionable 'riposte' (because it is usually asked as a question) is "What Independence?" British rule may well have been comparatively benign from time to time and the democratic traditions of Westminster did filter through to its colony. But for those who lived their lives under an all-powerful Governor and were in no doubt about being 2nd class citizens in their own land, there was only one answer to the question; "Independence".
The leaders of Sri Lanka in 1948 had been in the prime of their lives during the Martial Law crackdown in 1915 and the wounds inflicted during that period ran deep and were not to be forgotten or forgiven easily. They may have been a part of a westernised elite but they cared passionately about their country and were impatient to nurture its re-awakening.
"Time, however, moves inexorably. These freedom-fighters were already advanced in years as a new era was ushered in. It was left to the generations that followed to be profligate with the gift bestowed them."
There is no doubt that the world is now facing turbulent times, with many countries in strife and turmoil. What is happening in some African nations today, tribal wars, corrupt politicians and AIDS, would surely tell us that, despite all our troubles, we must still count our blessings.
But we cannot ignore the bitter reality that we are celebrating this Independence -- as we must -- against the backdrop of a capital city under virtual siege.
The scourge of terrorism must end; so too the scourge of corruption in high places; the scourge of incompetence and total disregard for waste. And yet, unless there is a genuine and concerted effort, beginning at the very top, to fight these evils, we, as citizens of this otherwise beautiful land will not be able to proudly assert our nationality, as was done when Independence dawned six decades ago.
Perhaps it is apt to use the words of another Churchill, Winston, to remind ourselves that it is not too late to get the country back on track: "We are still masters of our fate. We are still captain of our souls".
And, that passion for our motherland exemplified by our forefathers must somehow be rekindled by this generation of leaders and ordinary folk.