- Jonathan Wijayaratne
Is there really anything to celebrate?
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka celebrated 75 years of independence from British rule yesterday, 4 February 2023. For this occasion, the government thought big. President Ranil Wickremesinghe commissioned a military parade that is estimated to have cost the state 200 Million rupees, roughly 500.000 euro. In comparison, last year’s parade cost ₨ 95 Million, and that of 2020, ₨ 63 Million. The bill for this year’s celebration includes ₨ 17 Million for the training and transporting of school children singing the national anthem; ₨ 97.000 for a flower garland; ₨ 22 Million for a memorial coin; an unaccounted amount regarding the fuel used for the vehicle parade and the air show. For Ranil — it is customary practice in Lanka to refer to politicians by their first name —, this is quintessential: “We must celebrate the 75th Independence Anniversary, otherwise, the world will say that we are not capable of celebrating even our independence”, he says as quoted by Lankan outlet NewsWire. Paradoxically, back in April 2022, the government declared the country bankrupt, so no one really would have been surprised if they had not put in such an effort.
The extravagance of the government’s celebration contrasts with how the Lankan people commemorate their so-called independence. The Sinhala-language branch of BBC News met two young men trying to sell national flags ahead of 4 February: nobody wants the yellow, maroon, green and orange flag, symbol of a state that seems to disregard the good of the people — instead, many ask for black flags, symbol i.a. of the Aragalaya, the Sri Lankan revolution. The question now lies, is there anything to celebrate in a bankrupt country?
Sri Lanka is still going through its worst crisis in history, that started in 2021 and has steadily become worse in 2022. Millions of Lankans cannot afford to feed their children everyday. Fertiliser, fuel and medicine are scarce. High school students are studying for their A-Level exams in the dark, through power cuts, both planned and not. This crisis was long in the making and multifactorial, but for Lankans it is the culmination of their politicians’ incompetence and selfishness. Economic despair snowballed to nationwide protests in the Spring and Summer of 2022. The Aragalaya, which means ‘struggle’ in Sinhala, managed to oust the government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It also brought hopes of system change, and a future in a truly democratic Sri Lanka. These hopes soon dissipated as Ranil Wickremesinghe rose to power.
In a Sunday Summary last year, I was explaining how Ranil, the sole representative of his party in Parliament, became Prime Minister under Gotabaya’s presidency, after Mahinda stepped down from premiership amidst the Aragalaya. When Gotabaya finally left the top job after his palace was invaded by protesters on 9 July 2022, Ranil became acting president as per the constitution. On 20 July 2022, Parliament voted him in as President. The vacant seat of Prime Minister was given to Dinesh Gunawardena, from the same party as the Rajapaksas. Ranil has since then been very unpopular, due to the absence of a democratic mandate that brought him to power and his political stance. He is seen as a defender of the Rajapaksas, to whom he owes his current fortunes. After his personal residence was set ablaze, he turned his back on Aragalaya protesters, calling them fascists and cracking down on protests sites, arresting key figures. The last instance of this dates back to last Friday, 3 February: a group of non-violent protesters denouncing the cost of the Independence Day celebration were met with tear-gas, water cannons and other forms of police violence.
These protesters too were asking, if there is anything to celebrate in a bankrupt country. But is there anything to celebrate at all? After Sri Lanka almost reached a tipping point in 2022, this milestone is also a good time to reflect on the history of the country. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, my colleague Simon Wirtz and I launched a new podcast series where we investigate the crisis from different perspectives. In our first episode, we discuss the roots of the crisis with Dr. Thamil Ananthavinayagan, and how solidarity is being organised with Saritha Irugalbandara, who leads a mutual aid initiative.
As I was editing the podcast, I noticed that both Thamil and Saritha referred to the contrast between the incredible beauty of Lanka, with her breathtaking landscapes and endless beaches, and the suffering that the Lankan people have been through. One third of Lanka’s life as an independent modern state has been under a fratricidal civil war, from 1983 to 2009. It opposed the two main ethnicities of the country: the Sinhalese (the majority, 70% of the population), and the Tamils (the largest minority, around 15%). After the British successfully carried out divide-and-rule politics, Sinhalese nationalists took over and proceeded to an erasure of Tamil language and culture, making Sinhala the only official language and refusing to establish a federal state. Escalating violence led to a 26-year long war opposing the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatist groups, predominantly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — Eelam being a name used in Tamil for Sri Lanka. The war ended in 2009, under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the command of his brother and defence secretary Gotabaya (yes, politics in Lanka is a family business).
13 years after so-called peace returned to the island, Tamil mothers are still crying for their sons, who died in the conflict or were disappeared by the State. The government refuses to admit to war crimes, let alone genocide. Power is even more centralised, and keeps falling, election after election, into the hands of nationalist and racist leaders. For many Tamil people, Independence Day is a “Black Day”, which marks 75 years of systemic oppression. While the army was parading in the Sinhalese South, in the North,Tamils repeated their demands for self-determination and the respect for human rights, through several forms of protests, such as marches and a lockdown of all businesses.
In Sinhala, we use the same word, “නිදහස” (‘nidahasa’) for both ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’. But those words, as well as ‘sovereign’ and ‘democratic’ - both adjectives have been used in official names for Sri Lanka - seem meaningless nowadays. Where is independence, when our minorities cannot enjoy self-rule? Where is sovereignty, when we have walked into Chinese debt-traps and are now begging the IMF for a bail-out? Where is democracy, if we cannot openly disagree with the government in public spaces?
And where is freedom? In the podcast, Thamil says “the hands of people who are free are never tight”. Lankans did show this well in 2022. The storming of the presidential palace on July 9th made headlines around the world, proving to everyone the determination of the people to take back power. Despite the crackdowns that have occurred ever since, the struggle is not over, as the events of last Friday show. So, as we commemorate the ‘nidahasa’ of our country, I would like to celebrate the ‘nidahasa’ Lankans will keep fighting for.
If you wish to help Lankans through this crisis, Saritha’s mutual aid structure is still on a hiatus, but donations are still welcome, especially for local initiatives listed in this document.