02/04/2011, 00.00
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Rajapaksa celebrates Independence Day, but some speak out against dictatorship

by Melani Manel Perera
Many criticise the effective lack of freedom of the press and freedom of thought. For them, the country is under a dictatorship that denies elementary rights to Tamils and other groups and is incapable of fighting widespread poverty. Anglican bishop speaks out on the matter.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – President Mahinda Rajapaksa today celebrated the 63rd anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence in Katagarama, in the south of the country. This year’s theme was “Protect the Rebuilt Nation”. More than 3,000 members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police and the Civil Defence Forces took part in the traditional parade. However, some Sri Lankans have criticised the celebrations, pleading instead for genuine freedom.

In his speech, Rajapaksa said that “difficult decisions are also necessary for nation’s progress”, but used an upbeat tone to urge everyone to work for the country’s advancement, reminding his audience of some of the achievements to date, like the power stations at Norochcholai, Upper Kothmale and Kerawalapitiya, and the big ports in Hambantota and Colombo.

“We are one of Asia’s oldest democracies,” he said. “Similar to this democracy, the unity and unitary nature of our motherland should be protected. We have traversed a mature democratic path where we are able to solve our own problems. We have shown the world the humanitarian and democratic values of our society in rebuilding after the destruction of the tsunami and resettling the internally displaced."

However, not everyone is so optimistic. Mgr Kumara Illangasinghe, Anglican bishop emeritus of Kurunagala, issued a message to the nation on the importance of freedom. In it, he cited the Mahatma Gandhi for whom “Freedom is never dear at any price and it is the breath of life”.

“We accept generally that independence is the freedom to live, access to education, opportunity and complete ability to hold social and political views and to be active accordingly. Further, we have experienced that people will not be alive, without freedom. It is incumbent on us to participate in preparing the background, to ensure and enjoy authentic freedom as a nation on this sixty-third commemoration”.

The bishop added, “It is important for the people to receive the benefits of the post-war situation rather than to continue to listen to the hope building efforts of those in authority that the people will benefit economically and socially. We hear about major scale financial scandals and corruption, while the people are suffering with heavy economic pressures.”

“We emphasise with much concern that the sixty third commemoration of our Independence can be meaningful only by creating an environment where all people alike will be able to live without fear or suspicion. Without any hesitation, they will have to feel and believe that they are a valuable and a useful part of this country. They need to have the freedom of expression and movement, together with all necessary background to live peacefully and independently in our country. It is to that end that we offer our prayers and solidarity. May God bless and sustain our beloved Sri Lanka.”

Human rights activist Fr Sarath Iddamalgoda is also critical of the celebrations. For him, there is nothing to celebrate and the anniversary is just a “big farce”.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he said, “What we will see on the 4 February is a ritual. What is there today to celebrate? [. . .] Today one cannot think independently and express one's thought freely without being intimidated, media centres are set on fire, journalists disappear.” At the same time, “there is no economic freedom. What one earns for a month is not enough for two weeks. Children cannot have access to education. People are struggling with enough problems.” Instead, “time has come for people to get ready for a freedom struggle.”

Herman Kumara, national convener of National Fisheries Solidarity movement (NAFSO) and general secretary of World Forum for Fisher People (WFFP), went further. “We need to go very far to build up our country and all its nations, because, we feel we have many nation-building national, of building country, there should be harmony among ethnic groups, among religious groups, among people in the country. I do not see it today.”

For Dr Wickaramabahu Karunarathne, a New Left Front leader, Sri Lankans did not obtain “real freedom on 4 February 1948. [. . .] I was in Bogambora prison on 4 February in 1978 when this dictatorial constitution was introduced. Now things are worse with Mahinda and his 18th conspiracy.” Indepdnence Day “should be a day of protest waving black flags against hunger, chauvinist repression, state terror and dictatorship”.

Fr Marimuttu Sathivel, a Tamil Anglican priest and human rights activist, spoke about the situation of Tamils, many of whom “lead a nomadic life, still displaced after two years since the end of the war. The only thing we can see is that this country has been built on Sinhala Buddhist chauvinistic attitudes. That is the theme they ask us to protect. [. . .] Through that, they indirectly tell us that they will abolish the place of nations and religions recognised in the constitution.”

He reserves his main criticism for politicians, who “seem to have no any intension of solving this conflict, who are not yet ready to meet the needs of Tamil people after 63 years. They only want to protect their regime and yes-men.”

In addition, he lamented the fact that people in opposition are subject to repression, and that independent journalists and media are constantly under attack. “Where is democracy in this land?” he wonders.

“We cannot be happy with a mentality of dictatorship, nor can we cannot accept militarisation as it has developed. Therefore, there is no meaning to such independence.” Instead, “We need to say, ‘Let us gather to start our struggle for freedom.”

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