Celebrating freedom: A matter of perception?
By Ameen Izzadeen
© 2005 Khaleej Times / 8 February 2006
SRI Lanka’s Freedom Day was celebrated this year on February 4 and as usual there was no lack of pomp and pageantry with President Mahinda Rajapakse presiding over a colourful ceremony at Colombo’s Galle Face Green. But the charade behind the parades becomes clear when we ask the question how independent we are and why some people did not hoist the national flag.
Fifty-eight years after gaining independence from the British, we are yet to be freed. We remain shackled and unable to break free. In1948, we received freedom from the British but we soon became captives of a socio-political system that promoted bigotry and ethnic hatred. A country that remained united under the British for 138 years showed a tendency to disintegrate with the minority Tamils alleging that they had been discriminated by the majority Sinhalese and the ruling elite taking little or no steps to address the grievances of the North-East Tamils who constitute 12 per cent of the population.
But it is not only the Tamils who chose not to hoist the national flag on Saturday. A quick scan of the mixed neighbourhood I live showed that some Sinhalese and Muslims had also not bothered to hoist the flag. I also didn’t do it though my little daughter had a small hand-painted paper flag stuck on an electric switch on the varandah wall. Whether my neighbours who did not have a national flag in front of their houses were sharing my views of independence, I did not know.
Though we have gained freedom from the British colonialists, we have become colonised again under a neocolonial global set up with our governments having little or no choice but to endorse the policies of the West for a few more dollars. We also seek freedom from corruption and fear of being becoming a victim of violence and the rising crime. We also seek independence for the institutions that serve us — the judiciary, the public service and the police — from the grip of the unscrupulous politicians and corrupt public servants.
A country that had nearly 2000 sterling pounds in its foreign reserves at the time of independence is a virtual bowl-carrying beggar in the international community today. Lee Kwan Yew when he assumed the leadership of Singapore in 1965, said his goal was to make the newly-independent state a Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s colonial name). But decades later, he shed tears for Sri Lanka when we were being bled dry by an ethnic conflict, which we could have averted, if only we had liberated ourselves from bigotry. As Singapore and many other Asian nations overtook and are overtaking us in the race for economic prosperity, Sri Lanka, which at the time of its independence stood second only to Japan in Asia in terms of economic strength, has been living on its past laurels and glory.
True, we have made significant strides in social development with the country reaching a 90 per cent literacy rate and the average life span equaling a figure that only developed nations have achieved. But look at our economic progress. We had been experimenting with socialist, mixed and open economic systems since independence and are now following a national economy — nobody except the protagonists know what the heck it is. We set a goal in the 1990s to become a Newly Industrialised Country by 2000 and miserably failed. We are still a dependent nation — depending on billions of dollars in foreign aid to develop the country with a large chunk of our national budget allocation — at times, nearly 20 per cent — going for defence.
Politically, too, especially in the field of international relations, we are a nation far from independent. Our independence was given back to us at a price that we allow our colonial masters to maintain military bases here under a dubious defence agreement. It was only after the 1956 political revolution that we asked the British to withdraw and adopt a foreign policy with a slogan “neither east, nor west, the middle path (non-alignment) is the best”. And we did live the slogan with the then prime minister S W R D Bandaranaike fearlessly criticising the Western Bloc and the Soviet Bloc during the 1956 Suez and the Hungarian crises. But with the non-alignment losing its relevance after the collapse of the bipolar system in 1991, we lost our political independence. We now try to please one power or another to win back some concessions and help which we badly need not only for development purposes but also to quash a separatist war and find a solution to the 20-year ethnic conflict.
We were forced to vote with the US-led Western bloc when the International Atomic Energy Agency took up a resolution against Iran on Saturday — the very day we celebrated our independence — for a few dollars more. Actually, the price we sold our independence was $500 million — a quid pro quo deal dangled before us during the recent visit of US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, though the money would come as part of the US Millennium Account development aid. In terms of political realism, Sri Lanka’s position is understandable, for a small and militarily and economically weak country has not much choice but to please the sole superpower in a unipolar world. But, if Sri Lanka cannot be like a Cuba, Syria or a Venezuela in opposing the resolution, surely, it could have abstained from voting as Algeria, Belarus, Indonesia, Libya and South Africa did and showed solidarity with an Asian country and non-aligned nation. Well, unlike the United States, Iran could only offer a US$ 150 million credit line to Sri Lanka. So much for our political independence.
Ameen Izzadeen is a senior Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo