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Nation Special


 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.
 
Political expediency

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 not disputed.

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 Exodus

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 society unrecognizably.

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.
 
Technological advances

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.

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 Independent postmortems

By Vindya 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, he emphasised.

“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.

Politically bankrupt

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.

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