By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Prof. Susirith Mendis’ opinion piece titled ‘Some thoughts on Independence Day’ in The Island on February 05 has much merit. It makes a lot of sense at least to the likeminded.
Ceylon gained ‘Dominion status’ and not full independence on February 04, 1948. (India received Dominion status in 1947 and full independence in 1950 when it promulgated its own Constitution and became a Republic). Theoretically, dominion status was formally defined in The Balfour Declaration of 1926 as “autonomous Communities within the British Empire,” thus acknowledging them as political equals of the United Kingdom. In practice, most countries receiving dominion status continued to toe the line for a decade or more as many of the ruling class in these dominions were a hybrid version of the British Raj.
On February 04, 1948, the British Governor in Ceylon became the Governor General (Art.2) and continued to exercise executive power on behalf of the King (Art.45). However, the hitherto right of the crown to legislate for the country was removed and vested with the Parliament. Thereafter, ceremonial opening of parliament was presided by the Governor General who read the ‘Crown Speech,’ prepared by the Prime Minister, on behalf of the King and later the Queen. Land belonging to the state was crown land. The national emblem contained a crown at the top. The Privy Council in London and not the Supreme Court of Ceylon was the court of last resort. During Independence Day Receptions hosted by our envoys, chief guests raised their glasses and toasted the Queen, the Head of State of ‘independent Ceylon.’
All these came to an end on May 22, 1972. Therefore, as opined by Mendis, the day of celebration should necessarily be when the Dominion of Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
The sad state of celebrating February 04 instead of May 22 has come to pass chiefly due to the mindset of some of our leaders and people. Perhaps the cause lies in the fact, some of the nation’s leaders and intelligentsia who took over from the departing colonials were not prepared to sever their ties with the ‘crown,’ a culture at least some of them passed on to their progeny.
This writer seeks the indulgence of readers to explain the mindset theory with a factual episode from the past.
Sometime around 1963/4 during the Prize Giving or Sports Meet of a leading girl’s school in Colombo, several girls had pulled down a national flag, laid it on the ground and danced on it during the recital of the national. Summoned to the Defense Ministry and requested for an explanation, all the expatriate head of the school could offer was; “it was a school girl prank.” She did not respond when asked if she would adopt the same tolerant attitude had the girls laid down the Union Jack and danced on it to the rendition of ‘God Save the Queen.’ Ceylon’s inability to no longer have persons with such a mindset responsible for the education of the country’s future generations was explained to the school head and subsequently to the representative of her country of origin. She was requested to leave the country within a few days. As unbelievable as it may sound, many parents, as well as old girls, convinced the new government voted into office in March 1965, to bring back the deported school head. JR Jayewardene, who was chiefly responsible for the reintroduction of Independence Day celebrations on February 04 commencing 1978, was a senior member of that government.
At this point, this writer wishes to diverge from the core issue and delve on the subject; does Sri Lanka have any independence worth celebrating and is it a sovereign (authority to govern itself) Republic?
In October 2015, faced with the threat of economic sanctions, Sri Lanka co-sponsored UNHRC Resolution 30/1, an instrument intrusive in the extreme. Its main elements were Transitional Justice, War Crimes, Truth & Reconciliation, Missing Persons and War Reparations. Some of these factors such as missing persons and war reparations are ideals found in any civilized society or nation and need be in practice without compulsion from other countries and originations. The same would apply to crimes committed by citizens both in and out of uniform. However, a clear distinction of battlefield causalities, collateral damage, and other crimes is required. Such issues need be addressed to resolve the ‘national question’ with homegrown solutions and not those decided in Geneva by nations considered some of the worst offenders of human rights and perpetrators of war crimes but not held accountable for their actions due to their financial and muscle power. The unreserved acceptance and co-sponsorship of the resolution followed by agreement to the Constitution change project is worse than the compulsion to accept diktats from the colonial office in London before our so-called ‘independence’ on February 04, 1948.
The silence following the revelations made by British peer Lord Naseby in the House of Lords containing irrefutable proof challenging the unsubstantiated figure of 40,000 civilian deaths during the closing stages of the Vanni campaign, one of the critical factors of the UNHRC Resolution is a case in point. To date, GoSL has made no effort to capitalize on Naseby’s revelations.
No sooner the former Justice Minister proposed the reintroduction of the currently suspended death penalty, the European Union (EU), through its Chief Delegate in Colombo informed its opposition to such a move in no uncertain terms. Sri Lanka and the Justice Minister immediately fell silent even though India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all currently practice the death penalty without any UN, EU or other interferences and trade sanctions. Independent Sri Lanka, however, may not do so, and its people have no say in the matter.
In as much as the shedding of blood becomes necessary in an independence struggle, difficult choices must be made at times to maintain and safeguard that independence.
There are many telltale signs. Despite President Sirisena’s status of Head of State, he considered it a singular honor, when Queen Elizabeth II, at the end of a visit to Buckingham Palace gave him a gloveless handshake. He made it a talking point. Our First Lady, Madam Sirisena, rather than offering an upright handshake, curtsied the Queen, an inappropriate act for the spouse of a Head of State. Such a requirement is not spelled out in the Buckingham Palace protocol handbook. During our Prime Minister’s meetings with the Indian Foreign Minister, seating arrangements invariably elevate her in status to that of the Prime Minister. A recent former Foreign Minister turned up at the Colombo airport to receive a visiting lowly Asst. Secretary of State from the US. Somebodies, nobodies and any bodies passing through Colombo get to meet our Head of State and Prime Minister with attendant press publicity. The most recent were four British parliamentarians from the governing Conservative party, all believed to be first time MPs, given time with our President and Prime Minister besides other VIPs.
However, neither the President nor Prime Minister has given five minutes of their precious time to meet members of disabled war veterans’ association with a genuine problem related to their pensions. They are baton charged by the Police after an initial reception with water cannon.
No disrespect is intended to the Earl and Countess of Wessex. Nevertheless, they represent a nation that consistently failed to assist Sri Lanka in its war on terrorism. Britain pressurized, albeit unsuccessfully, GoSL to declare a cease-fire as Sri Lankan forces were closing in on the LTTE leadership. It was also one of the two primary movers of the Geneva Resolution, for domestic political considerations. Inviting royals from such a country as honored guests to the 70th Independence anniversary celebrations has no justification.
The British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka lost no time handing over a strongly worded protest note. It was over the unwarranted and unsavory throat-cutting gesture made by Sri Lanka’s Defense Attaché aimed at LTTE sympathizers protesting in front of the High Commission in London. Sri Lanka has, for nearly a decade, failed to hand over a single protest note to British authorities over the regular raising of LTTE flags in London during protest marches. LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organization in UK.
In isolation, most instances could appear as petty semantics. Nevertheless, viewed in totality, a pattern is unmistakable and portrays a particular mindset. It highlights the lack of a sense of national pride (not to be mistaken with nationalism), self-respect and dignity. Servile acceptance of foreign diktats, at times in return for a few crumbs, has become the rule of the day.
In such a backdrop, what is the independence we celebrate on February 04 or as for that matter, can we celebrate on 22 May?
The nation’s independence and sovereignty, at best, is limited to its national flag and national anthem. Even those may be on borrowed time!