Independence 2011 and beyond

Last year, around this time in this space, we had hoped that National Day celebrations would have been marked in the northern citadel of Jaffna "in recognition of the fact that we were, after so many years of strife, able to celebrate as one country". Kilinochchi or even Batticaloa would have done.

Perhaps, the Government felt it was not correct to play on the sensitivities of the people in those areas, but then if they are the ones who have been liberated from the clutches of fascist elements, they would have welcomed the move. The celebrations last year were taken instead to the hill capital of Kandy in the immediate afterglow of the Presidential election, and we thought maybe this year, we would see an armed forces parade in the north or the east. It was not to be. Kataragama, in the deep south was the venue.

In the context of national unity, Kataragama does have significance in that it is a town largely populated by the country's majority, but is a holy site to the minority Hindus. Both Hindus and Buddhists visit its much venerated kovils to seek the blessings and favours of the pantheon of Hindu Gods; so in a sense, it qualifies as a suitable venue though the Government is reluctant to give any official reasons for the choice.

The country's main opposition party once again acted predictably by boycotting the celebrations. This time the general secretary of the party said it was because the Government was keeping a war hero in prison. Last year's excuse was the 'harassment' of supporters of the common Opposition Presidential candidate. Then again, they also boycotted this national function when that same war hero and candidate was on the dais taking the salute in previous years.

Independence back in 1948 was won on behalf of the people of this country largely by the leaders who were in the UNP. The party is proud of that. As we said last year, while the conduct of the Government is beyond comprehension, often the conduct of the Opposition is beyond redemption.

The country's first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake said, "the meaning of freedom is to curtail sorrows and enhance happiness" and a later Prime Minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who was to found the party that is now ruling the country, referred to the need for economic independence having won political independence in 1948.

Sixty three years later, it would be useful to reflect on the hopes and aspirations of these leaders who steered the country's path in the final stages towards Independence after years of struggle and oppression. The journey since that day on February 4, 1948 when the Union Jack was brought down after 400 years of colonial rule, and the Lion flag was proudly raised has been a tumultuous one, to say the least.

In 1959, the country witnessed the first political assassination - of a Prime Minister; in 1971 an armed insurgency; and around 1981 the beginning of what was to be a separatist movement that turned into a virtual 'civil war'; with a nasty second insurgency in-between in the south from 1987-89. The fact that the country overcame these problems - caused largely by the negligence of post-Independence political leaders, was an achievement by itself.

The saviours of the nation have been the country's Armed Forces and to them must go our eternal tribute and gratitude. It was they who restored law and order; peace and stability whether the challenge came from the frustrated youth of the south or the north. They did their duty by the nation.

This was seen too when the country was on the brink of coup d'etats in 1962, 1966 and arguably in 2009. That they protected the State, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation, and went back to their barracks having done their duty is even more admirable.

The only hiccup came in 2009 following the defeat of the separatist forces. The euphoria enveloped the victorious Armed Forces as well. The Government was partly to blame for trying to make political capital of that victory, and needless to say it went to the heads of some to seek political office themselves.

There are constitutional avenues available for this, and constitutional traditions nurtured over the years that insulate institutions from excessive militarization. Given the vacuum in the political opposition, however, the entry of a General and his subordinates into the political arena threw open a dangerous division in the politico-military relationship. Yet, Sri Lanka with all its faults has been able to maintain its democratic institutions however flawed, in the face of possible military dictatorships that consumed many other newly independent nations that we see oppressing their people with impunity around the world.

There have been ongoing debates about the future of the Armed Forces in a seemingly democratic country with a civilian administration - an Armed Force that had to expand (the Sri Lanka Army has more men than the British Army) due to the ferocity of the separatist threat. The Government is no doubt grappling with this problem and some of its recent novel moves -- to have soldiers sell vegetables and sailors to escort tourists, are questionable. Now comes the decision to allow as many as 60,000 men or nearly half the standing Army discharge themselves and enter civvy street. It is a clear acceptance of the reality and the need to de-militarize the State apparatus.

Equally, there are important external factors to take into consideration as the country makes the transition from a State at war to a State on the path to economic progress. A front page news item in this newspaper today refers to the recent visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary and the statement issued, especially regarding the use of the economic resources of the waters separating the two countries.

There is a clear nuance that Sri Lanka may have lost the plot here. Sri Lanka's friendship with certain countries seems to be coming at the expense, unnecessarily, of others with whom we have commercial, educational and tourism links. This newspaper has reported continuing foreign policy faux pas, the latest being its defeat to Bangladesh in a vote which clearly shows the country's standing even in the closest neighbourhood.

We have kept harping on the need for a studied approach to Sri Lanka as a geo-political entity. The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies was established with this in mind, but the Government seems to be having a problem in activating it.

Interestingly the name Kadirgamar means Kataragama and having had this year's National Day celebrations there, it may be a cue to reviving the institute and making it a lynchpin of foreign policy. It would extend the mere rhetoric expounded about freedom at such events into something more substantial for the future. For if Sri Lanka's freedom is to be retained in a changing world, it is imperative that it acts like a modern State, wide awake to the vibes, undercurrents and the static in its environment.

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