INDEPENDENCE here, there…
By Vindya Amaranayake
Independence has various connotations. For many, it is the
personal independence of being able to stand on one’s own,
liberated from trappings of society and economy that matters
most. However, it is political independence that empowers and
propels a populous towards achieving personal independence.
For Sri Lankans, there is no greater day of celebration than
Independence Day, for it was the day that sovereignty was
restored upon the people of this land, after several centuries
of colonial rule.
After Independence, the country experienced many changes, in
terms of its economy, politics, culture and of course, ethnic
relations. Arguably, the two most significant watersheds in the
history of post Independent Sri Lanka, that changed the course
of its future were, the 1956 Sinhala Only Act and the Open
Economy introduced in 1977. Many argue the pros and cons of
both, but, the fact that they brought in phenomenal changes, is
Legislation introduced in 1956 was a reaction against the
colonial past and an effort to return to traditional Sinhala
Buddhist values, while 1977 marked an opening to the outside
world and embracing western models.
The changes introduced during these two junctures in history,
triggered a flow of events that shaped the social landscape of
modern Sri Lanka. Many argue that, the law bode ill not only for
language minorities, who felt discriminated against, by the
legislation, but also, for the Sinhala majority as well. This is
because, it systematically eliminated the bilingual
intellectuals within the country. It also saw, for the fist time
since Independence, a mass exodus of intellectuals, particularly
Burghers and Tamils western countries.
Changes in1977 too, had a deeper and wider impact on the nation,
both economically as well as culturally. The Open Economy and
the consumerist culture it created, changed post Independent
One of the biggest changes occurred in the realm of the family.
While the size of the average family has declined, the average
age of marriage has increased. After decades of hard work by
successive governments and other agencies, majority of Sri
Lankans have embraced the nuclear family.
The other woman
With regard to personal independence, it is women in this
country, who enjoyed empowerment most, in terms of both
education and employment. Education has enabled women to find
employment and become financially independent. The economic
changes have shifted our economy towards a service economy, from
a manufacturing economy. It has empowered women to be involved
in the decision making process, a phenomenon not entertained in
pre Independence society.
Sri Lanka has always been a country exposed to the latest
technological trends. As a strategically important port, the
British were keen to introduce the latest technology into the
country. Sri Lanka is one of the first countries in Asia, to
have a proper telecommunications system.
However, the first three decades after Independence, marked
stagnation, with the mixed and closed policies practised by
prevailing governments. Nevertheless, the Open Economy marked
the beginning of a new era. From the 1980s, there has been a
steady growth in telecommunication, especially, in fixed line
phones. But the true revolution in telecommunications occurred
in the late 1990s, with the arrival of new fixed line operators
and mobile service providers. Today, almost 85% of the country
is covered by mobile phone companies.
But, on the other hand, there are many even in the Western
Province, who do not have access even to traditional fixed lined
phones. There is a disparity in the distribution of wealth. But
there are no proper mechanisms to ensure the wellbeing of the
lower classes exposed to the fruits of capitalism, but are
unable to taste them, because of financial constraints.
Amaranayake and Kushali Atukorale
Sixty one years later, not many are around to recount the
happenings of that day, when Ceylon gained independence. Those
born several generations later, can only imagine the glory and
pride with which D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister,
hoisted the national flag at Independence Square.
There may have been thousands cheering, ushering in an era of
liberation, prosperity and democracy. There may have been high
hopes for the country, what it could achieve and what victories
it could gain.
In the case of Sri Lanka, the transition from colonial to
post-colonial had not been bloody. It is often reiterated that
Lanka achieved independence without even shedding a drop of
blood, unlike its immediate neighbour India, whose memories of
Independence is forever marred by scars of Partition. Sri Lanka
was to experience the pain of cessation much later.
The Nation spoke to a couple of eminent members of our society,
in order to learn their views of the 61 years of Independence,
what we have achieved and where we have failed.
Long way to go…
Senior bureaucrat Bradman Weerakoon (Ceylon Civil Service), who
has the unique distinction of serving nine Sri Lankan
Heads-of-State, said, initially, it was the four freedoms that
people expected from Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake: Freedom
from want, freedom from ignorance, freedom from disease and
freedom from fear.
What is important to find out is whether we have achieved these
freedoms over the past 61 years.
He explained that, although the country has achieved many things
since independence, especially, with regard to Health and
Education, there is still more to achieve and greater
improvement is needed.
“We have been able to improve the quality of life and achieve a
high standard of living. Yet, the rate of poverty is very high.
After 61 years of Independence, we have not been able to reduce
the poverty level of our people,” he said.
Being a people who were subjected to imperial suppression for
nearly five centuries, there is always the fear of loss of
sovereignty among the people. Even after six decades since
sovereignty being restored upon the people, the country is still
gripped with the fear of losing that precious inalienable right,
but this time, because of terrorism. “People have a right to
live without any fear. Although the government is effectively
trying to eradicate terrorism in the north, it is not
sufficient. People are still living with fear due to the things
happening in and around the Capital city and also around the
country,” Weerakoon opined.
He added that, despite the fact that, there is evident progress
in society, in various fields, there is a great need to improve
what we have achieved. We have to work together as one nation,
without any gender, religious, party and caste discrimination,
“We, Sri Lankans, have a long way to go and I am confident that,
we are going to make a better change, where the entire world
will be talking more about Sri Lanka and its achievements in all
fields,” he asserted.
Meanwhile, Constitutional Affairs Minister and Communist Party
stalwart D.E.W Gunasekera mirrored Weerakoon’s view, when saying
that, since 1948, the country has climbed several steps in the
areas of Education, Health and Social Security, but, we have
lagged behind in nation building. He also said that, we have not
been able to find a plausible solution to the ethnic problem.
“It was the 1978 Constitution and Open Economy that created a
number of crises in the country. The Executive Presidency and
the electoral system introduced under the 1978 Constitution
should be changed. It was the Open Economy that widened the gap
between the rich and poor,” he said.
It is no secret that the political culture in the country has
gone from bad to worse. Being a gentleman politician of rare
calibre, Minister Gunasekera is of the view that, the political
culture is now beyond redemption: “I don’t know how it happened,
but it has happened. Therefore, we have to take appropriate
steps to uplift the political culture of this country, before
it’s too late.”
He also pointed out that today, only those with substantial
earnings have the means to contest an election. This is mainly
because of the high cost involved in the promotional activities
that inevitably comes with an electoral system that demands the
candidates to vie for preferential votes. However, according to
Minister Gunasekera, this was not so during the early day after
Independence. “Currently, only the rich can contest in any kind
of election. But we saw the participation of average income
earners in 1948 and 1956 Parliaments,” he added.