At noon on the 4th of February 1948, Sri Lanka regained its sovereignty as an island society after nearly four centuries of European colonial domination. Yesterday, 69 years on, we celebrated that anniversary and national achievements so far, while keenly aware that much more needs to be done.
President Maithripala Sirisena himself, in his Freedom Day address to the nation yesterday, pointed out the several aspects of this ‘freedom’ that we already cherish, but noted that more aspects of freedom remain to be achieved. In effect, the President argued in his address that, as the country has developed, citizens are becoming aware of the complexity of our society and the complex of social rights accruing to diverse groups of people in accordance with their interests and needs.
Significantly, President Sirisena, while pointing to the priority goals of economic and social development, gave special importance to the problem of corruption and pointed a finger at the political class. Given Mr. Sirisena’s personal experience of massive political corruption during the previous regime in which he served as a senior minister, and his subsequent bold initiative in overthrowing that regime, no other politician is, perhaps, better qualified to challenge his own peers on their responsibilities as elected representatives of the people.
On this third celebration of Independence Day by the National Unity government, citizens will remind each other of the huge mess the country was in during the previous regime even as they assess the degree to which the current regime has been able to clean up that mess. The sheer enormity of the financial debt burden of the previous regime is no better evidenced than by the dire steps the current regime has been compelled to take for the country to be relieved by, at least, some of that unbearable burden.
On the one hand, some of the least desirable or useful projects begun with immense and expensive loans under the previous regime have had to be pursued despite many negative impacts and risks, because discontinuing these projects will cost the country even more in compensating the foreign implementing agencies for their contractual loss. On the other, the government has been compelled to give further concessions in kind, in terms of long term land leases and other business incentives, in order to offset the unmanageable debt burden.
The Government needs to explain more clearly to citizens these complicated measures being undertaken in the best interests of the country. More elaborate public communications at grassroots level is needed if the enemies of the regime are not to mislead the public about these new compensatory steps being taken to meet the debt crisis.
At the same time, much more needs to be done to convince the citizenry that all those election promises made for reformed governance, improved democracy and power-sharing among communities, are in the process of being fulfilled. The very problem of political corruption mentioned by Mr. Sirisena is one that citizens are becoming impatient about due to the slow pace of investigations and prosecutions.
Likewise, those marginalised and underprivileged communities of Sri Lankans, be they ethnic, gender or economically oppressed groups, need to be reassured that their concerns are being attended to without any further delay or prevarication. Some public protests in the formerly war-ravaged North yesterday are indications of the growing impatience in society.
Perhaps an ‘Independence Day’ gift to the nation by the Yahapaalanaya government last week was the implementation of the Right to Information Act which greatly empowers citizens to more closely monitor governance at all levels on the one hand, while, on the other, enabling individual Sri Lankans obtain all manner of official information for their day-to-day activities and personal projects.
President Sirisena also pointed out the need to achieve greater national unity after decades of divisive war and social violence. ‘National Reconciliation’ and inter-ethnic harmony were key words stressed by the President as he appealed to his fellow Sri Lankans to take on the challenge to transcend ethnic suspicions and ethno-centric perceptions.
In addition to social and cultural aspects of inter-ethnic harmony, there is the need to empower all ethnic communities with equal opportunities and rights in terms of language use and respect for cultural identity and heritage.
After half a century of controversy over official language use and bloody war as a result of the failure to ensure language rights, the public sector is yet to honour the national commitment to linguistic equality. Even after the war ended, the public sector has yet to even marginally provide equal language facilities to the Tamil-speaking communities. To its credit, the private sector has shown the way even in this, once politically sensitive, rights facilitation.
While even the national railway and bus services are yet to achieve equal language usage, many are the private sector services and institutions that already do offer such equal language usage - from private hospitals to banks to telecommunications and numerous other services. In this, the private sector must be congratulated for its creativity in making what is yet presumed to be a politically sensitive subject into a simple practice of convenience to customers for better business.
The citizens will live in hope that, along with a growing economy, Independence Day one year from now will also celebrate greater communal harmony and better democracy.