ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 36
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Whither Independence

It was a telling message that came from the southern capital of Galle this week, on the eve of this country's 59th anniversary of Independence from 400 years of foreign rule, domination and subjugation.

While the Government "expected" US dollars 4.5 Billion in "development assistance" from The Sri Lanka Aid Forum, the aid donors themselves were cautious to say that these were "not new aid" pledges.

If Sri Lanka won her political and constitutional independence on a day like today 59 years ago, what of her economic independence, we could ask.

Well-known journalist of yesteryear D.B. Dhanapala wrote thus: "Celebrations (after the General Elections of 1947) added to the gaiety of the nation. Ceylon had accumulated Sterling Reserves during the war. Commodities fetched good prices. There was money in the country. And all was right with the world". (From his book 'Early Prime Ministers of Ceylon')

But the 'message' from Galle was rather different, and it was surely anything but a "celebration". All those reserves gone down the drain. And there is no money in the country now. The Economist (page 10) tempers this by saying the country has advanced in the field of health and infant mortality, the agriculture sector and the schools sector to cope with the three-fold increase in the population since 1948, but hastens to add that overall performance is below par.

Coinciding with the Galle pledge came the announcement from New York that Credit Suisse will invest US dollars 1.5 million in projects run by the United Nations World Food Programme that will assist 19,000 schoolchildren in Sri Lanka suffering from malnutrition.

These are the stark realities of what has become of this country 59 years after Independence.

While independence today is taken for granted by most born after 1948, it was certainly not so for the older generation. As another media-person wrote recently of our regaining Independence in 1948; "Today a fashionable 'riposte' (because it is usually asked as a question) is "What Independence?" British Rule may well have been benign from time to time and the democratic traditions of Westminster did filter through to Britain's colonies. But to 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. The leaders of Sri Lanka in 1948 had been in the prime of their lives during the martial law period in 1915 and the wounds inflicted during that period ran deep and were not to be forgotten or forgiven easily".

Which brings us to another point – whether we have not only to strive for our lost economic independence, but whether we have also been responsible for, at least, some section of the population feeling that they are 2nd class citizens.

In one of the articles appearing this week in this newspaper, the writer traces back to a time almost exactly sixty years ago, when the country was on the threshold of regaining her Independence from nearly 400 years of foreign rule and domination, and her political leaders were negotiating the terms of settlement for a Free, Independent and Sovereign Lanka (Ceylon as it was then).

Independent Sri Lanka's first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake had submitted a white paper for self-rule on behalf of the indigenous Board of Ministers, which was to be, largely, the framework for what is even now called the Soulbury Constitution.

The seeds of communalism were sown then, by a section of the minorities clamouring for "equal representation". It is argued in some quarters, that had this demand been given at the time of Independence, there would not be a demand for a separate State today.

If this is all conjecture, the fact of the matter is that political leaders like the late D.S. Senanayake were able to give the minorities the confidence that they would be looked after and protected by the majority, and the politicians who made those very demands eventually joined the first Cabinet of Independent Lanka under 'D.S'.
Somewhere along the rocky road since Independence, the politics of this country has veered again toward ethnic and divisive lines. We have before us Committees of learned people drawing up yet another Constitution for Sri Lanka very much along 'ethnic enclaves' – trying to satisfy the insatiable thirst of segregation; strenuously avoiding integration and the concept of the Sri Lankan identity.

Those who were the midwives of Sri Lanka's Independence 59 years ago may very well have been part of the westernised elite, but they cared, and cared passionately about their country, impatient to nurture its re-awakening.

As the old order gave way to the new, and the post-Independence era was ushered in, it seems that it was left to the generations that followed to be unfortunately profligate with the gift bestowed on them.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.