The true meaning of Independence | Sunday Observer

The true meaning of Independence

29 January, 2023

Freedom, Liberty and Independence. Three words that seemingly have the same meaning, but differ in their interpretation. Sri Lanka gained Independence from the British rulers on February 4, 1948, exactly 75 years ago. This was a turning point for freedom in the history of our nation.

Independence is not just a facility that we gain from someone. It is also a state of mind. We must really feel free and independent as a nation to reap the full benefits of the struggle for independence that succeeded in 1948. Sri Lanka has gone through a tumultuous 75 years, mainly as a result of the shortsighted and ethnic centred policies of our politicians, most of whom thought only about their own political survival.

Unfortunately, they did not think about maintaining ethnic harmony and unity, which ultimately resulted in one of the longest-running conflicts in Asia. Opportunistic politicians planted the seeds of discord and rancour in the hearts and minds of the people, which tended to marginalise certain communities and religious groups.

Their actions finally led to a massive conflagration that consumed the lives of nearly 100,000 youth and others, while destroying the country’s social and economic fabric. Although the conflict finally ended in 2009, the hearts of all Sri Lankans will take many more decades to heal.

Massive development

Yes, there is massive development under way in the previously war-torn areas, but what is more important is making those people inclusive in the nation’s journey to greatness. Physical progress alone cannot achieve this noble objective. Today, we have an enlightened leadership that has seen the dangers of ethnic division and vowed not to repeat the same mistakes.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was one of the most important initiatives undertaken in recent memory. Although it was appointed by a previous administration, the latter was reluctant to implement any of its forward-thinking recommendations. The idea behind the LLRC is a simple one – we must learn lessons from the tragic 30-year conflict and ensure that we never go down the same path again. Going beyond the scope of the LLRC, the present administration has proposed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a Social Justice Commission (SJC) to find out exactly how and where we went wrong and to prove whether any excesses were committed by both sides during the conflict years.

In the meantime, some proposals of the LLRC such as the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office of Reparations (OR) have been implemented. These recommendations and mechanisms will no doubt help shape a harmonious nation.

In fact, the Government has recognised ethnic reconciliation as the number one priority and has called an All Party Conference (APC) on this and other vital national issues. All other initiatives will come to naught if we cannot achieve reconciliation among different communities. There is bound to be some level of mistrust between members of various communities after a three-decade long conflict, but the time has come to move forward. Any attempt at inflaming ethnic passions must be nipped in the bud. Fortunately, even the Easter attacks of 2019 did not lead to a serious breach of trust among the different communities. Decisive action is indeed needed to keep the peace.

Keeping the peace, much harder

As the saying goes, it is sometimes easy to win the battle, but keeping the peace is much harder. Peace and reconciliation go hand in hand. We lost the peace that we gained in 1948 because some of our politicians lacked the foresight to maintain reconciliation. This mistake should not be allowed to happen again. There still are certain political, societal and other forces which see internecine conflict as their only salvation and path to political victory. Sri Lankans must eschew their thinking irrespective of any aspects such as community and religion.

Today, we have a golden opportunity to move forward as a nation sans division and conflict. All political parties must participate in this exercise of establishing peace and a truly Sri Lankan identity. If all political parties and other stakeholders agree to participate in this exercise irrespective of politics, it will also lead to a new political culture in the country.

While these efforts and even an all-new Constitution will essentially be a home grown exercise, it does no harm to look at other countries and models to see what can be done better. Singapore’s late Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who earlier looked up to Sri Lanka as a role model for Asia was horrified to see Sri Lanka sliding into an abyss spurred by ethnic divisions, so he ensured priority for ethnic harmony in Singapore. There everyone identifies herself or himself as Singaporean, not as Chinese, Malay, Tamil or Eurasian.

Likewise, South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution made certain that everyone, Black or White, could call South Africa their own. South Africa’s new National Anthem even has words in Afrikaans and the many black South Africans, Nelson Mandela included, who were oppressed by the Afrikaans-speaking White regime for decades had no qualms about singing these lines with hands on their hearts. In India, the National Anthem is actually sung in Bengali, a minority language in a country where most people speak Hindi.

We are all Sri Lankans

The Common thread in all of these countries is that the people identify themselves as Singaporean, South African and Indian. They do not think of themselves as Black, White, Chinese, Malay, Hindu, Tamil, Gujarati or Bengali. This ‘One Nation-One People’ identity should precisely be our goal. Whenever we meet another Sri Lankan here or abroad, our first instinct is to ask him or her, “Are you Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim?” The fact that we are all Sri Lankans, wherever we live, does rarely cross our minds.

Evolving a truly Sri Lankan identity should be one of the main priorities and tasks of the new administration. It is perhaps time for us to do away with questions such as, “What is your race and religion” in official documentation. If I go to a Police station to lodge a complaint on a break-in, I see no reason why they need to know my community and religion. If we call ourselves Sri Lankan instead of giving racial monikers, half our problems would be solved. This does not mean giving up traditions and beliefs unique to each community – it means that we think of ourselves as one Sri Lankan people.

This should perhaps start in the classroom. Children usually have no preconceived notions or prejudices and it is far easier to inculcate in them a sense of belonging to one Sri Lanka. We are told that Reconciliation will soon be a subject in schools. There is even a proposal to start a Reconciliation Channel on national Radio and TV. Our Governments have already taken preliminary steps to end the language barrier by teaching Tamil to Sinhala students in all grades and vice versa.

Indeed, 10 or 15 years down the road, all young people will be able to speak Sinhala, Tamil and English fluently, which will end all divisions based on language. After all, there will be no room for miscommunication or misunderstanding if everyone knows all three languages. Our institutions should be further bolstered with staffers who can speak and correspond in all three languages, so that there is no room for miscommunication. In Canada, for instance, one will find French-speaking officials even in Alberta, which is thousands of Kilometres from Quebec, where the majority language is French. The idea is that a traveller from Quebec will have someone speaking his or her language in Alberta or any other province in Canada.

Devolution is often a controversial subject, though a necessary one. The Government has reiterated its commitment to implement the 13th Amendment, which calls for the extensive devolution of power to the nine Provinces through the already-existing Provincial Councils. Any contentious issues such as the transfer of Police and land powers to the Provinces must be debated and appropriate action taken. Devolution can take many forms and come through a variety of institutions including Local Government bodies, but it recognises the stark reality that every Province, every District and every village has different needs or priorities in terms of development, social welfare, health and education.

The proposed devolution measures will no doubt address this issue as well - devolution will empower the people, not weaken them. There is some confusion over the terms ‘unitary’ and ‘united’ but if you forget the purely political nuances, these words imply that devolution will not separate us at the end of the day. Rather, it will unite us all in the march towards progress. The term ‘Unity in Diversity’ describes this very well.

Contradiction of terms

Seemingly a contradiction of terms, it can work rather well in practice. There are many other countries where this works splendidly. During the Independence struggle, leaders from Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay and Burgher communities joined hands to achieve one goal – Independence. The founder of this newspaper group, D.R. Wijewardene, was also in the forefront of this struggle.

Now, as we look towards the next 25 years in our post-Independence journey towards 2048, this unity should come to the fore. Again, the concept of unity in diversity has a chance of succeeding only if we come together under one flag, one nation, proud of our identity as Sri Lankans. Division along ethnic and religious lines will serve no purpose other than to drag the country down a slippery slope to oblivion.

As a nation emerging from the embers of a cataclysmic conflict and also the Easter attacks, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We have overcome many odds to reach this milestone, but there are many challenges ahead which have to be faced as one nation, one people. We have to collectively rise out of the mire of poverty and ignorance to become an Asian powerhouse. Remember, all Asian countries other than Japan were poorer than Sri Lanka in 1948. Somewhere along the way, we fell behind.

There is a lot of catching up to do, but if we think collectively as Sri Lankans and aspire to do our best for the Motherland, no goal will be impossible including achieving the much-coveted “developed country” status by the Centenary of Independence.