There’s never a dearth of quibbling over nomenclatures – whether Sri Lanka should be an ‘Ekeeya Raajya” — a ‘Unitary State’, or ‘Orumithta Nadu”, or whether tomorrow (February 4) should be Independence Day, Freedom Day or National Day. Call it what one may, it is the day the nation celebrates the 71st year of regaining [...]


Independence Day: Work for one nation, not one party


There’s never a dearth of quibbling over nomenclatures – whether Sri Lanka should be an ‘Ekeeya Raajya” — a ‘Unitary State’, or ‘Orumithta Nadu”, or whether tomorrow (February 4) should be Independence Day, Freedom Day or National Day. Call it what one may, it is the day the nation celebrates the 71st year of regaining its freedom from 450 years of foreign rule.

It is clearly a day to rejoice while remembering and reflecting on the great sacrifices made by the countless forebears of those alive today, and paying homage to those who gave their all, throughout those four and half centuries for the freedom of their people.

The nagging question, however, persists. How free is the country, and the people, both politically and economically? A sovereign republic Sri Lanka may be, with its own Parliament elected by the people and making its own laws; a member of the United Nations Organisation etc., but how much of the umbilical cord is still linked to Western domination and neo-colonialism is frequently debated. Unpalatable as it is, there is the Gordian knot of a foreign debt trap with more than 80 percent of Government revenue going to service loans, both local and foreign taken previously.

We have quoted before, the speech made by the country’s first Finance Minister (and later President) J.R. Jayewardene to the then House of Representatives (Parliament) presenting a surplus budget in 1947. He asked at the time, “Are we making the best use of the money that flows into our Exchequer and that too for the benefit of the humblest and the lowest?” In an editorial coinciding with Independence Day in 2017, we referred to this speech and asked how “the debt jam will persist in the coming decade. But it is the year 2019 that will be critical to the country when US Dollars Seven Billion has to be found to cover loan repayment and a balance of payment deficit.” 2019 has arrived. And it is crunch time right now. It is in this backdrop that the Armed Forces will parade with all their spit and polish tomorrow at the Galle Face Green to mark the occasion of Independence.

However, it need not be gloom and doom all around. The world at large is in crisis mode. Look around and even larger, more advanced democracies – the United States, Britain and France; they are in turmoil. No one really knows what is happening internally in Russia and China. West Asia is in a bloody mess. Refugees are fleeing from the region and from Africa. In India, these are exciting times with elections in a few months, but the people are split into separate camps.

In Sri Lanka, which was a success story with an educated population, one of the earliest to have Universal Adult Franchise; a relatively good health care system and a fairly robust economy at the time of Independence in 1948, events may not have unfolded in the subsequent years the way the people would have envisaged. The country frittered away those early advantages and could not afford the well-meaning welfare state the politicians of yesteryear had mapped out for the people.

South East Asian countries in particular, many having regained freedom from colonial rule after Sri Lanka, stole a march by learning from the mistakes made here. Singapore’s legendary father figure Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was fond of citing Sri Lanka’s wrong turns, and profited from the trade union strikes in the Colombo port, and turned his city-state into a thriving pro-business commercial haven. His was a farcical democracy that treated political opposition and dissent with contempt and a heavy hand. He was not without the Asian trait of dynastic politics, for his son was his natural successor. Yet, they were hardworking and pragmatic and the national interest superseded everything else. He referred to elections in Sri Lanka with the acidic but accurate comment that it was “an auction of non-existent resources”. In short, of false promises.

Today, the Singapore’s harbour is the maritime gateway to international shipping in the region as Sri Lanka struggles to develop its ports by mortgaging them to India and China. Singapore’s Changi International Airport saw 65 million passengers going through it last year and plans for another terminal that will have an additional 70 million in the next decade. The airport is managed by professional and competent experts, while in Sri Lanka, the Civil Aviation Minister appoints his brother to head the Airport and Aviation Authority, and the Ports Minister appoints his brother to manage the Ports Authority. Singapore’s airline is spreading its wings making huge profits, while Sri Lanka’s national airline became the toy of politicians and is running at a huge loss. Take some of the other appointments. The President himself has violated his own guidelines in making appointments based on political expediency to Government institutions. That is the difference between the two countries; the difference between a successful economy and a doddering one.

If in the immediate post-Independence years, this country was able to finance the Gal Oya Development programme entirely with its own funds, and even the Mahaweli Multi-purpose Development programme was part financed with foreign aid and only part with loans, the crippling debt crisis came only in recent times with Governments going on a spending spree for their commercially ill-conceived vanity projects.

The country has now regressed to a situation of having to borrow from one foreign bank to repay another foreign bank just to be creditworthy. And when a nation is financially weak come the big power predators hovering like vultures to grab a piece of the pie as global power politics and strategic interests play out around the seemingly calm, but otherwise turbulent Indian Ocean waters.

These external incursions add to the vulnerability of existing domestic pressures such as the demands for a Federal-like political structure at home. All these make for a serious wake-up call as the country marks its 71st year as a free, independent and sovereign nation.

The quality of life is not all about the GDP of a nation. But try convincing those living below the poverty line that it’s not all about money. Even the country’s Samurdhi poverty alleviation programme is riddled with corruption and political interference.

Much of the blame is placed at the doorstep of the politicians past and present. Sometimes unfairly so. And yet, it is a fact that there is an element of disillusionment that the political leadership, across the board, has let the people down. That they put their personal inclinations ahead of the national interest. Only a few of our leaders were the exception and have led by example over the years.

There’s no doubt that the country has not lived up to the bright expectations with which it woke to the dawn of Independence on February 4, 1948. But there is always hope, and despite the naysayers, the country’s positives are many. That hope will be fulfilled only when the political leadership of this country stops thinking of one party, and instead, looks to — one nation.


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