The people had their say, President Ranil Wickremesinghe had his way. The stubborn personality that Wickremesinghe is, he ‘celebrated’ Sri Lanka’s 75th anniversary of independence, but it came at a price.

When it was first announced that this year’s Independence Day would be ‘celebrated’ in style, there was a palpable sense of disapproval, disappointment and even disgust.

The reason was obvious: the country was going through hard times, almost each and every citizen- with the exception of politicians and a handful of officials- was making some sacrifice or other and yet, the people were being asked to foot the bill for a tamasha that no one except Wickremesinghe and his lackeys wanted.

This was conveyed in no uncertain terms to the government and Wickremesinghe. His response was both ludicrous and, in a sense, hilarious. Sri Lanka should celebrate independence on a grand scale, Wickremesinghe said, or else the world would think that we weren’t capable of doing even that!

Excuse me, Mr. President, but who are you trying to fool? The nation is on its knees and its representatives are globe-trotting from China to India to the International Monetary Fund, trying to secure funds for our day-to-day expenses. The entire world is aware what a bankrupt country Sri Lanka now is. Having a few thousand people parade a few hundred foreign-made tanks and weapons in the hot sun opposite Galle Face will not change that perception.

A video clip was also released by the President’s media minders to bolster Wickremesinghe’s arguments. In it, Wickremesinghe is seen admonishing officials about the high costs of garlanding D.S. Senanayake’s statue at Independence Square and singing of the national anthem. That only made Wickremesinghe the butt end of many a meme on social media because the costs mentioned were astronomical.

The celebrations itself were a flop. That the country was snubbed by the rest of the world became obvious. Many will recall that it was Prince Charles, now King Charles III, who was the Chief Guest at our 50th anniversary of independence when Chandrika Kumaratunga was President. Charles was seated for hours, wiping the perspiration from his brow, at the celebrations opposite the Parliament in Kotte, where he was made to sit next to then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike who for some reason didn’t want to engage the Prince in conversation!

No such foreign dignitary was at hand to honour Sri Lanka with their presence twenty-five years later. Instead, a handful of state ministers from neighbouring countries and Japan were present. That is the depths to which Sri Lanka’s image has sunk in recent months.

Even at the height of the Eelam war, the public, or a section of them who were carefully screened by the armed forces, were allowed to watch the proceedings. No such luxuries were allowed this time. Only the participants, invitees and the media were allowed at Galle Face and strict instructions were issued that media personnel should wear only white, perhaps because there were fears that some would wear black as a mark of protest. That people were kept away is not surprising though, coming during the tenure of a President who himself was not elected by the people but by 134 parliamentarians seeking their own survival.

Traditionally, the highlight of the Independence Day celebrations is the President’s address to the nation. The Head of State usually uses the opportunity he has to reach out to the people and outline his vision for the country which he leads. What we got from Wickremesinghe though was a deafening silence, perhaps symbolic of the lack of vision he has for the remaining months of his borrowed term of office.

To give credit where it is due, the solitary, stand-out redeeming feature of the ‘celebrations’ was the recital of the national anthem in Tamil to conclude the event. This has long been a bone of contention. When, after Maithripala Sirisena was elected President and the national anthem was sung in Tamil at the celebrations on Independence Day in 2015 after many decades, many members of the Tamil community cried and even battle-hardened political veterans such as R. Sampanthan had tears in their eyes. That practice was promptly discontinued when Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed the Presidency but it was restored last week. For that, and that alone, Wickremesinghe deserves to be commended for not being bigoted on this issue.

Then, at the end of the day, we were informed that the President will address the nation through a televised broadcast. Had he scrapped the entire ‘celebrations’ at Galle Face and done only that, he would have won more plaudits. Nevertheless, his speech was yet another disaster.


In it, he warmed to his now familiar theme: how we as a nation are in crisis and how we should all get together and stop playing politics, change the ‘system’, bring about a new political culture, so we can achieve ‘real’ freedom by 2048! This ‘address to the nation’ too generated a lot of sarcastic commentary- and despair that Wickremesinghe, if he is still among those present, may try to linger on for another twenty-five years!

Wickremesinghe should have read that speech in front of a mirror. He asked questions such as, ‘However, what has happened to us today? Today, we are facing an unprecedented economic crisis, hitherto never experienced. Why have we to face such a situation? Who is responsible for such?’ and then provided the answers himself: ‘Let’s be truthful. All of us are more or less responsible for this situation. None of us can point fingers and blame each other. We made mistakes from the beginning. Efforts were made to rectify those mistakes, though it was not possible to correct them completely.”

It was a ‘mea culpa’ statement. Many who listened to Wickremesinghe found it offensive that a man who has been at the forefront of all political activity for forty-five of the seventy-five years of independence and been Prime Minister a record six times was now asking for more time- another twenty-five years- to clean up the mess that he and his ilk have made.

That then, was Sri Lanka’s seventy-fifth anniversary in a nutshell. At the end of that day, perhaps the commonest hope was that the country would at least obtain freedom from the present regime by this time, of next year.


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