Let unity flourish… | Daily News

Let unity flourish…

Seventy-three years ago on a day like this, Sri Lanka gained independence from colonial powers who had ruled Sri Lanka continuously for nearly 400 years. Independence was a momentous occasion in the country’s chequered history that spans over 2,000 years. The centuries of foreign domination (under the Portuguese, Dutch and the English) had undermined the nation’s sovereignty and diminished the people’s will power. The Sri Lankan Nation was at its nadir under the yoke of colonialism.

February 4, 1948 saw the culmination of years of struggle by patriots from all ethnicities, religious groups and walks of life for independence in Sri Lanka.

Their sole goal was freedom for all Sri Lankans. The founder publisher of this newspaper D. R. Wijewardene was among those who played a leading role in the Independence Movement. While independence was indeed obtained without any bloodshed per se, the road to February 4, 1948 was littered with the blood of many martyrs who had sacrificed their precious lives for the cause of freedom.

We must remember these heroes with gratitude as we celebrate Independence Day today. In fact, the British had labelled them as “traitors” and it was only recently that they were formally recognised as the heroes that they really were.

In 1948, Sri Lanka was on the cusp of a socio-economic revolution spurred by freedom. In fact, even at the time of independence, Sri Lanka was trailing only Japan in Asia in terms of social and economic achievements. Many of the countries in Asia envied Sri Lanka and wanted to emulate its progress. Even Lew Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, spoke effusively about Sri Lanka and indicated his desire to emulate it. Unfortunately, we lost track in the intervening years as other countries including Singapore overtook us to become Asian Tigers.

Perhaps the single biggest failure was our collective inability to forge a truly Sri Lankan identity, rising above parochial considerations such as race, religion and caste. While many other countries in the region have banished these notions for all time, we steadfastly cling on to them. Politics was and is, the other divisive and derisive factor.

Traditional homeland for all

This country belongs to the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays, Burghers and other communities in equal measure. The whole of Sri Lanka is the traditional homeland of all these communities. The conflict that ended nearly 12 years ago lasted for 30 years or so, plunging Sri Lanka to depths of despair, devastating the economy, straining resources and above all, destroying a productive younger generation in the ravages of war. It pitted brother against brother, driving the communities apart in more ways than one. Opportunistic and myopic politicians on all sides thwarted every attempt at bringing the country together, leading to one crisis after another. These conflated into one major conflict that dragged the country almost to the point of no return. Thankfully, due to a political leadership that was determined to end the terror and bring peace, these days are now gone.

The fact the country has recorded impressive indices especially in health and education despite these obstacles can be attributed to the commitment of all Governments to these sectors and to the resourcefulness of the people. Sri Lanka was probably the only country that ensured a continuous supply of foods and services to an area controlled by a terrorist group – a fact that proved the Governments’ commitment for the welfare and well-being of all Sri Lankans. No other country that had experienced a war this devastating can claim to have indices this good.

Even as we build up the war-riven areas physically, there is however a long way to go before we heal the wounds of conflict and hatred and become a truly Sri Lankan nation. Now the time has come to ditch all forms of extremism and chauvinism and think of Sri Lanka as one nation, one people. We received a shocking reminder of what extremism can cause to the very fabric of our Nation on April 21, 2019. We should be determined to eliminate all openings for such extremism to take root again.

New challenges

Now we are in the midst of another challenge that recognises no man made divisions. It is an enemy that is unseen, unheard and utterly destructive. It has already taken away from our midst more than 300 precious lives of fellow Sri Lankans. The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged us as a Nation, and it is as one Nation that we must rise to that onerous challenge. The vaccination campaign that began last week will target all Sri Lankans, wherever they are in this island. In the meantime, we should adhere to all health regulations such as keeping the distance, wearing masks, washing hands and minimizing travel. That is the only way to keep the marauding virus at bay.

One also must be mindful of the fact that there are attempts by powerful nations to erode our sovereignty and hard-won peace. We will again witness such attempts at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva this month. Unfortunately, such foreign interference can foment division among our own communities at a time when the Government is exploring avenues for a domestic mechanism of reconciliation and accountability.

Sri Lanka has rightfully withdrawn from the resolutions co-sponsored by the previous government that would have violated our Constitution, moral principles and above all, attempts at unity among communities.

This does not mean that we should turn our back on the world community. We have to be friendly with all nations, even with those who do not wish to see our progress, whilst convincing all of our genuine desire to achieve reconciliation and lasting peace.

There indeed are critics who question why Sri Lanka is still looking for peace and reconciliation, more than a decade after the conflict ended. But solutions to decades-old conflicts cannot be found overnight. This is the norm worldwide – some conflicts in other parts of the world had ended 40-50 years ago, but they are still looking for lasting peace. Thus, it could be a long and arduous journey. We will feel freedom in our hearts the day we conquer the divisions within and among us that impede our progress as one nation.

Sri Lankan identity

In the meantime, we must forge ahead with plans to evolve a truly Sri Lankan identity, which has eluded us for the last 73 years. In Singapore, no one will identify himself or herself as a Chinese, Malay, Tamil or Eurasian. This is the case in India and many other countries too. It will simply be “I am a Singaporean or I am Indian”. Likewise, we should also identify ourselves as Sri Lankans, instead of attaching ethnic or religious labels. Yes, it is important to protect ethnic and religious identities and traditions, but as a nation we should be one people united for one cause – uplifting our Motherland until it joins the front ranking countries in Asia.

Today, there are many challenges that threaten the existence of the Sri Lankan social fabric and by extension, our very freedom. The narcotics menace threatens to endanger the future of the young generation. The Government has righty begun a drive to eradicate the illegal drugs from our midst. All should support this movement – otherwise our future would be bleak. The movement to eradicate drugs must start from places of worship and schools, where students must be taught about the danger of consuming these substances. The same goes for alcohol and tobacco. The nexus between the places of worship, schools and the community must be strengthened to face these social challenges.

We also face the challenge of developing our economy, which has suffered greatly as a result of global economic conditions caused by the pandemic. Freedom cannot be complete without economic emancipation. We must ramp up our exports and minimize the imports of goods and other goods which can be produced locally in line with the President’s vision. The drive to attract more foreign investments should be accelerated. Where possible, we should also do major projects on our own – the Government’s decision to vest the control of the Eastern Container Terminal of the Colombo Port in the Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) is commendable in this light. Likewise, the Government has committed to complete several road and expressway projects using only local funds and expertise. This too is a valuable component of freedom.

Now we should take the next steps forward to make Sri Lanka a developed country in the true sense of the word. All Sri Lankans must put their shoulders to the wheel in this regard. We have a lot of catching up to do to the rest of Asia and the world. The Government has already announced several programmes that take the country in this direction, but the authorities cannot do it alone – all Sri Lankans must participate with vigour and optimism in this exercise. In doing so, we should shed the various differences among us and emerge stronger as one nation, one people. E pluribus unum - Out of many, One.