As the nation prepares to celebrate its 64th anniversary of Independence next weekend, it is time to reflect on the historic past, contemporary times and the future.
The Commissary of the Anglican Bishop of Colombo has put some of these reflections in perspective and done it well. In a statement he has issued he says that National days of a country are not only a time for thanksgiving but also for introspection. He points out that we in Sri Lanka have much to be thankful for and refers to the advancements in electing our leaders, education, health and agricultural sectors over the years, but says "all is not well" and refers to the increasing lawlessness, lack of respect for the Rule of Law and "an increasing lack of will among our political leaders to find solutions to our problems of national unity and reconciliation and increasing poverty both, in the urban and rural areas are matters of serious concern".
The statement then refers to the recent LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) report saying it thankfully presents a window of opportunity to rectify the wrongs and says we should not squander it. Such sentiments encapsulate the true thinking of a majority of Sri Lankans. While much has been achieved in these 64 years, we have miles to go.
There's optimism all around that the country is on the move. Many overseas Sri Lankans who visited over the recent holiday season have been struck by the change. After years of stagnation, not entirely due to the debilitating northern separatist insurgency, there is a feeling of fresh urgency, of revitalization, something akin to the immediate post-1977 period when after years of economic regression and inactivity coupled with domestic political upheaval, there was sudden economic growth with the liberalized economy and political stability. But it came at a price. The political stability bred authoritarian rule bordering on autocracy. It was only internal divisions within the then powerful Government causing an implosion and rupture in an otherwise monolithic party that gave a fractured opposition an opening to make inroads and eventually ride to power and place in 1994.
After 17 long years the ruling party went into opposition and other than for a brief return to office in the period 2001-2004, it has remained in oblivion. The present administration has now been in office for 17 years (apart from the brief interim period when there was a cohabitation arrangement) and looks comfortable for some years to come.
Whether this is political stability or the makings of an autocracy is the question. It would be stability if the Government of the day is strong, but it would be autocracy if that Government is oppressive. It is a fine line between the two and how well that is balanced is what this Government will be judged by.
With domestic opposition largely limited to street demonstrations, they are of little more than nuisance value to the Government whose pressing worries would continue to be external factors. The biggest and most immediate concern would be the upcoming UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) sessions in Geneva and the question of allegations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) violations during the last stages of the military campaign against the LTTE. The Government appears to be dragging its feet, unsure what to do with the LLRC report. On the one hand, it seems to want to cover up the sins exposed by the LLRC report on good governance issues. On the other, it is taking a curious position in saying it will not submit the report to the UNHRC when the report has basically exonerated the Government and the Security Forces of deliberately targeting civilians during those last days of the 'war'. This is the core charge being made against Sri Lanka.
This is the one residue factor of an otherwise very significant achievement in the annals of Independent Sri Lanka. The defeat of a vicious armed insurgency backed by India in the initial stages, successfully thwarted by the Security Forces of this country at great cost, has allowed the citizenry to celebrate a United Sri Lanka today as a result.
The task ahead is clearly reconciliation. Yet, it is not the only task ahead. There are several other fronts on which there is a widening deficiency in making Sri Lanka a modern commercial state within a liberal democracy. It is a movement towards achieving this goal that most Sri Lankans would surely wish for at a time like this as they reflect on the country in which they ought to be proud to live in.
These range from the rebuilding of broken down and breaking down institutions, like the judiciary, police and public service - something the recent LLRC report aptly described as the need for the "Rule of Law and not the Rule of Men" to the increase in management and fiscal discipline and efficiency in the public sector to the reduction of waste and of corruption, to the clean-up of the Stock Market and the introduction of transparency and good governance measures such as access to public information and the like.
Each nation has its share of woes and Sri Lanka is not without its. Right now, on the eve of the 64th anniversary of our Independence, we must accept the fact that an IMF (International Monetary Fund) delegation is in town negotiating a further loan to this country which future generations will need to settle, and bear in mind that a massive share of our foreign exchange to purchase our basic imports comes from our fellow citizens sweating it out as part of a labour force in West Asia and elsewhere. A massive burden has no doubt been lifted with the elimination of the curse of a separatist insurgency, but the Government does not have the luxury of resting on its laurels. At the end of the Second World War which weakened the British Empire and made it easier for countries like India and Sri Lanka to obtain independence, the British people were quick to realize that winning a war did not mean an automatic licence to governing a country in peace time.
Only a few years ago, Sri Lanka was being touted as a failed state, and it was not far from the truth. With the 'war' behind us, and at least an appearance of economic development taking place such an allegation would probably not gain currency today.
Yet what is missing is a true commitment to ensure the freedoms and civil liberties that every one of this country's citizens surely deserves; to consolidate on all the gains of the past 64 years since Independence, learn from its mistakes and not take the short-sighted route where economic progress is nothing but a patina of wellbeing, the gloss on an apple, of a nation whose core is being consumed by greed, corruption and injustice. The examples of such nations around the world are easy to see. Let us not drift towards their ranks.