Sri Lanka has been an ‘independent’ country for 73 years!
Thankfully, this past February 4th, the day Sri Lanka marks its independence from the British, the celebrations were less grand, perhaps owing to the Covid-19 pandemic; a smaller guest list and less display of military might and pageantry.
Simultaneously, in the East of Sri Lanka, the Tamil community joined by Muslims launched a march to the North of the country. Dubbed the “P to P”, Pottuvil where it began and Polikhandy where it ended, Hindus’, Muslims and Christians walked together from February 3 to the 7th, defying a Court ban and inclement weather.
Led by the North and East Civil Society organisations, protesters listed 10 points as violations against their rights, in a letter addressed to the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner.
There is land grabbing going on, they said, where Hindu temples are being destroyed and replaced by Buddhist temples. Government sponsored settlement schemes for Sinhalese has been taking place as has been militarisation, Muslims are denied the right to burial, if the death is Covid-19 related, and just like the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain without charge, Tamil youth, the same is now happening to Muslims. The wait for information of missing family members has been long drawn out, with no apparent closure any time soon. The letter also said the demand by plantation workers for an increment of their daily wage to Rs. 1000 has (equivalent to around $5 USD) not yet been met.
For Muslims, who have for some time been subjected to many forms of harassment, the refusal by government to permit burials has been the most painful of all. Muslims have tried every avenue possible, from appeals to the President and the filing of fundamental rights petitions to have the decision changed, to no avail. The government is digging in its heels, though the world over, both burial and cremation is allowed, and despite an expert committee stating that as long as all health safeguards are followed, no contamination of soil or water could occur, there has been no change in the decision.
Then on February 5th, workers on tea plantations went on a strike claiming their demand for the Rs. 1000 has not been granted, despite more than three years of agitation. But plantation companies state they cannot afford the increase, while politicians keep making varied promises of giving more than the Rs.1000 as they vie for votes during elections. On February 8th, the Wages Board announced the increment would be granted. Let’s hope that happens, this is not the first time such promises have been made!
Since the end of the ethnic conflict, reconciliation efforts between communities have been painfully slow. There was a tiny gesture between 2016 and 2019 where the National Anthem was sung in both Tamil and Sinhala at independence celebrations. But, that was banned in 2020, and a few civil society activists gathered near the General Cemetery in Colombo to sing the anthem in Tamil. While such defiance was missing this year, a group of Sinhalese and Tamil speaking girls in Vavuniya showed great courage and sang the anthem in each other’s language on February 4.
But, it is not just inter-community issues that plague this country. Unequal access to education is one such; despite a free education policy neither quality education nor facilities reach every child. The pandemic and lockdown showed all too clearly
the gap between the haves and the have nots, urban and rural. It is a good indication of how severely lacking Sri Lanka is, in ensuring all our children have equal access to education. According to a recent study, only 30 per cent of students have access to online education. Sadly, such matters are only left to fester and foster more exclusion.
While such pressing issues have received patchy solutions, if ever, there is a group of people who are pushing for changes; Independence Day they say should not be marked on February 4 but on May 22. That was the day in 1972, when the then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Dias Bandaranaike, cut all ties to monarchic rule, promulgated = a new constitution, changed the country’s name back to (Sri) Lanka from Ceylon and instituted a Republic.
As if that were not enough, there is now talk of changing the National Flag. At least, that is what Defence Secretary, retired Major Kamal Gunaratne is reported to have stated. The government, he says has received several proposals in this regard. Indeed, in recent years, there’s been a flag that does not represent minority communities popping up at various events, including this year’s independence celebrations. While the green and orange stripes are missing in that one, the flag is a plain deep maroon one with the lion and four Bo leaves on each corner to denote Buddhism, the religion of a majority of Sri Lankans.
Are cosmetic changes the need of the day? It’s been seventy three years, and the concerns of communities that are numerically smaller or economically challenged constantly go unaddressed or inadequately so.
Samagi Janabalawegaya MP Imtiaz Bakeer Markar decided to take the bull by the horns, when, in an open letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa he said‘We live in a world where there is a greater emphasis on the protection of Human Rights. We should build a democratic society that is an example to the world rather than being held accountable for violations of democratic principles by international opinion. It is my firm belief that it is our collective responsibility to ensure an open discussion within ourselves to create a consensus to protect democracy and citizen’s rights rather than force our people to ask the world for help or take other extreme measures.”
So what will it be? Pandering to nationalistic forces, promoting a majoritarian mindset amongst the Sinhalese or commencing a genuine effort to understand and iron out the issues that would bring lasting peace between communities and real security? Implementing meaningful educational reforms that support equal access to facilities to all our children and providing a reasonable daily wage to plantation workers, on whose backs a bulk of the country’s economy depends?
Will there be a genuine effort to build within each of us that pride of being a Sri Lankan? Or, will we continue with our petty mindedness of divide and rule?
Just like our past colonial masters, at whose feet we continue to lay all our ills. And shout ourselves hoarse with misplaced patriotism!