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May 22: Sri Lanka's Republic Day

Tomorrow, May 22, is a very special day in our island's history. Do you know why this day is so special? May 22 is Republic Day. We seem to have forgotten the significance of this day. May 22 comes and goes, like any other day.

It was on May 22, 1972 that the Republic of Sri Lanka was born. That was 34 years ago.

If you were asked "when did Sri Lanka become a republic?" would you have been able to give the date? Now you know the year and day when our country became a republic; until then, we were a part of the British Empire, a crown colony of Great Britain. We got independence from British rule and became our own rulers on February 4, 1948.

This day February 4, is named Independence Day and is celebrated every year.


William Gopallawa, Sri Lanka’s first President (C)

But, we were still a part of the British Empire. Although Ceylon (as our country was then known) became an independent Dominion with our own parliament and our own prime minister, the Head of State was still the monarch of Britain, and the monarch's representative here was the Governor-General.

In 1948, when we got independence, the monarch was King George VI and after his death in 1952, his daughter Elizabeth II became our Head of State.

On the historic day, May 22, 1972, the members of parliament met at the Navarangahala, the assembly hall of Royal Junior School in Colombo, and passed the new Constitution, by which Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka. On that day, the old name for our country came into use once again. The inauguration of the republic completed our independence. Sri Lanka was now a free, sovereign and independent country, with our own Head of State.

Let us go back in time. On March 2, 1815, the long line of Sinhala Kings came to an end when the kingdom of Kandy, the Kanda Udarata Rajjaya was ceded (the right to rule was given), to the British. From that day on, for 157 years, until May 22, 1972, the King/Queen of England was our King/Queen too.

On May 22, 1972, Queen Elizabath II ceased to be our Head of State.

Now, the Head of State was one of our own people, selected and appointed to that office, by the people or their representatives. The Head of State of a republic is called President.The first President of the Republic of Sri Lanka was Mr. William Gopallawa appointed by the members of the State Assembly. The legislature (the body of elected representatives of the people) was now called National Assembly, not Parliament.

Republic Day, May 22 was a public holiday and the day was celebrated every year until 1977. In the general election held in July 1977, the UNP won the most number of seats and formed the Government. They declared February 4, Independence Day a national holiday and celebrations were held on that day. May 22 was pushed to the background. It was not even a public holiday from 1978. Instead, May 22 was declared National Heroes Day.

Every year, for a number of years, stamps were issued in honour of citizens who had a distinguished record in various fields, such as education, social service, religion, literature, drama and other fine arts, etc. Each year, about five persons from the different ethnic groups, e.g. Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Malay, were honoured with special stamps. If you are a stamp collector, see whether you have any of these stamps.

In 1994, when the SLFP formed the Government, Republic Day was celebrated, but only for one or two years.

Unlike us, India celebrates both Independence Day (August 15) and Republic Day (January 25). India too was ruled by the British.

When Britain granted independence, India became a Dominion within the British Empire.The rulers of the new Dominion of India did not want to continue to be a part of the British Empire, with the king of England as Head of State. So they passed a new constitution and declared India a free, sovereign and independent Republic on January 26, 1950. From then on, India celebrates Republic Day - January 26 and Independence Day - August 15, every year.

 

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