Sri Lanka has gone through four difficult phases, beginning with the Easter attacks in 2019, the Covid pandemic in 2020 and the subsequent economic/political crisis in 2022 that resulted in the departure of the sitting President.
Since taking office in 2022, President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his team have managed to bring a measure of stability to the once-moribund economy. Political stability too has been ensured and elections are due to be held this year, in the true tradition of democracy.
It is in this backdrop that Sri Lanka is celebrating its 76th anniversary of Independence today. The main ceremony in this connection is being held at the Galle Face Green, presided over by President Wickremesinghe.
In keeping with the times, the ceremony will be a Tri-Forces only event without cultural or other performances. Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who is here to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries, will grace the occasion as a special guest of honour. The fact that he is coming here for these two events speaks volumes about the high esteem in which Sri Lanka is held by the international community following the country’s return to normality.
In fact, the international community played a major role in this process. Friendly countries and multilateral lending agencies came to our aid at a crucial time, when Sri Lankans were staring into an abyss. The President’s vast knowledge of global relations and diplomatic finesse no doubt helped this cause.
This was the biggest crisis faced by Sri Lanka since its Independence, the long internecine war notwithstanding. Now Sri Lanka is on the cusp of recovery from that economic morass, due to the implementation of several tough, though decidedly unpopular, measures.
Recovery from those depths of despair necessarily calls for sacrifice, a fact that has been experienced by many countries that were similarly devastated either by war or economic bankruptcy. As a country that has gone through both these phases, the journey ahead will not be easy, to say the least. This will pose a two-pronged challenge as we seek to become a fully developed nation by 2048, the 100th anniversary of Independence.
We will have to adhere to the stipulations of debt holders and multilateral lending agencies to maintain an economic trajectory that will enable us to recover from the current impasse without significant damage. As we have already discovered, this could be a painful process, but at least the next generation will be free in economic terms.
The onus is on the authorities to convince Sri Lankans that the current difficulties are worth it and the future would be brighter if we face them. But they should also be sensitive to public demands on factors such as the elimination of corruption, recovery of stolen assets, decency in politics, law and order and more professionalism in the public sector.
But economic recovery and growth is not our only challenge. As a nation that has experienced two insurrections and an ethnic war, divisions still remain among our peoples, even though it is the politicians who have amplified and used them for electoral gain.
But now we have to come to terms with our past and rectify any mistakes that we have made over the years to embrace a future devoid of ethnic bloodshed. The past may be another country as the popular saying goes, but we cannot move ahead without such introspection. Countries such as South Africa and Northern Ireland, which had similar problems, undertook a candid assessment of what went wrong and forged agreements that helped them to enter a new era.
Similarly, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), inspired in part by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of post-Apartheid South Africa, should unravel how and why we went down the wrong path in terms of ethnic and religious unity and devise ways and means of ensuring that those events would never be repeated. Its recommendations should be enshrined in the Constitution should they prove to be useful in this regard.
In fact, Singaporean Premier Lee Kuan Yew, a passionate admirer of Sri Lanka, was horrified to see Sri Lanka’s slide into ethnic clashes and made sure that his island nation would not suffer the same fate. Today, no Singaporean would identify himself or herself as Chinese, European, Malay or Tamil. Instead, they proudly call themselves Singaporean. We have, however, not yet reached that stage and still hang on to various ethnic monikers. This is highly detrimental to our forward march as a nation.
If one counts our post-Independence years, we are still a young nation, in spite of the rich pre-colonial history spanning over 2,000 years. That is indeed a legacy we can be proud of, but it is time that we stop repeating that mantra and focus instead on the country’s future direction, taking a leaf from countries with little or no history that have achieved developed status.
We emerged from the war, the tsunami and the pandemic due to our resilience and the economic crisis will be no different if all Sri Lankans here and abroad make a collective effort to rise and shine.