Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sri Lanka on the 64th Independence Anniversary

Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, was granted Dominion status on the 4th of February 1948 by her British rulers. Therefore, Ceylon became one of the first Asian countries to receive independence from colonial powers. At the time, the island nation was a oasis of calmness among a plethora of armed conflicts surrounding her. To the North of the island, the newly emerged India and Pakistan had gone to war over Kashmir. Burma was at the beginning of an internal armed conflict and Indonesia was fighting with the Dutch for her independence. Malaya was at the beginning of a communist rebellion.

Beneath this calmness however, there was seething resentment over the perceived inequalities inherited from the ‘divide and rule’ system of the British. Indeed, the Tamil people, concentrated in the North and part of the East of the island, had enjoyed better access to education than the majority Sinhalese people. The state language was English. Although free education was introduced in the 1940s, a majority of the Sinhala people were still a long way from equal opportunities. These aspirations for more opportunities led made them elect a new government in 1956, in the place of the pro-Western United National Party (UNP) governments which had ruled the island from independence.

The Bandaranaike government made Sinhalese the official state language. Their disregard for Tamil made the Tamil people resent the move and their disregard of English also hampered development as even today, the vast majority of the people are illiterate in English. Meanwhile, attempts at reconciliation between the communities were botched by the extremists from both sides. In 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Sinhalese monk. In a short while, demands for a separate Tamil state were being heard from here and there. With the passage of time, these voices became more numerous and louder.

However, the first major armed uprising was to be launched by disgruntled Sinhalese youth and the major grievances of these were related to the socio-economic situation where many rural people were still marginalized from the more affluent society. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which rose against the then popular Unity Front government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike was crushed within weeks. Its leader Rohana Wijeweera and many other leaders were imprisoned. Many detained JVP members and sympathizers, including Wijeweera himself, had not reached the age of 30 years old at that time.

The Sinhalese-Tamil tensions exploded in 1983 with the ‘Black July’ episode when Tamil people were systematically attacked after the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna. This drove many Tamil youth towards militancy and they were supported by India, which was worried about the pro-Western policies of President J. R. Jayawardena. However, one militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) proved to be a threat to both India and Sri Lanka in a few years. They assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the President of Sri Lanka, R. Premadasa, in 1993.

The LTTE, once generally believed to be an unbeatable rebel group, was ultimately crushed by May 2009, under the presidency of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. The relief felt by the people who were tired of war cannot be described in words. The challenge of the government of Sri Lanka will be to introduce a lasting solution to the problems arising from years of lack of communication and understanding between the two communities, Sinhalese and Tamil.

Economy of Sri Lanka

At independence, Ceylon’s economy was based on cash crops, mainly tea, rubber and coconut. Agriculture was being developed with the establishment of settlements in the North Eastern and South Eastern regions of the country. Meanwhile, diversification of the economy and increase of industrial output were also goals of the new nation.

The involvement of the state increased from 1956 onwards, reaching its climax during the 1970-77 Sirimavo Bandaranaike government. The Jayawardena regime made a 180 degree turn by introducing free market economy. This ruined some local industries such as the handloom industry. Also, extensive privatization of state assets was carried out. The greatest achievement of the Jayawardena government of 1977-1988 is the Accelerated Mahaweli Project, which increased the production of hydroelectricity and supplied water to agricultural lands.

The UNP regime of 1977-94 was defeated by an alliance of opposition parties led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the People’s Alliance leader and daughter of former Prime Ministers SWRD and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the President. She also followed a roughly similar economic policy as her UNP predecessors. However, under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency from 2005 onwards, an increase in the government participation is seen in the economy.

Sri Lanka: A Bright Future

The greatest achievement of President Rajapaksa’s government is, undoubtedly, the ending of the LTTE terrorism. It has created a more favorable environment for economic development. However, infrastructure development was being carried out even while the government was waging an all out war against terrorism. Road network was improved and so were the harbours. The first highay in Sri Lanka, the Southern Highway, was opened. A new international habour, a new international airport, the first coal power plant in the country and many more large development works were started with foreign assistance. Also, the country hopes to find an answer to her energy shortage by exploring for oil in the Mannar basin. This was possible only after the end of the war as the Northern coast was largely off-limits for economic development during the war. Also, the end of the war has opened up much better prospects for tourism with more tourist arrivals than ever before.

Many foreign powers have realized the important geographical location of the island in the trade routes from Arabian Sea to South East Asia. Therefore, Western powers, India, China and others have always tried to increase their influence in the island, either by supporting a friendly regime or undermining a hostile regime. Increasing participation of China and India and generally hostile attitudes of the Western countries has been the norm during the last few years.

Meanwhile, the present government of Sri Lanka aims to use the man power and the unique position of the island for its advantage and transform the island into a technical hub. The island nation will require all the support from its own people and others to reach this goal.

Image: Chamara Sumanapala, Independence Memorial Hall, Colombo, Sri Lanka (August 2010)

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