02/05/2024, 20.05
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Sri Lanka marks 76 years of independence amid speeches and (censored) protests

by Melani Manel Perera

Official events were held amid tight security without the public. President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin attended the main ceremony. The president praised the country for surviving bankruptcy ahead of a “new renaissance”. Rights and youth groups protested amid clashes with the security forces. Card Ranjith slammed the crackdown against freedom.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Sri Lankan authorities yesterday celebrated the country’s 76th Independence Day with festivities under tight security, closed to the public, while protests were held across the island nation, especially in the north where a Black Day was observed.

The government marked the anniversary with a call to Sri Lankans: “Let's build a new country” at a ceremony held at Galle Face Green, Colombo.

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin were present at the event.

A Holy mass was also held at the All Saints' Church in Colombo presided over by the Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith for the independence celebration. In his address, he did not shy away from criticising the country's rulers, calling for a renewal in leadership.

In his independence message, President Wickremesinghe stressed the need for Sri Lanka to learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid repeating them in the future.

Noting the international community's praise for the country’s change of course and move towards recovery, he urged his fellow Sri Lankans to “persist on this path and reinstate prosperity” for all.

In his statement, released by the Presidential Media Division (PMD), Wickremesinghe said that at last year's anniversary the country was "labelled" as "financially bankrupt”. But this year, 76th anniversary of independence, "we have effectively navigated through these challenges, steering the economy towards stability despite the numerous impediments and challenges" and thanks to all this "Mother Sri Lanka will undergo a renaissance.”

Not everyone agrees. Human rights and youth groups as well as civil society organisations held a sathaygraha, i.e. a silent protest, in Colombo, to coincide with the official celebrations at Galle Face Green, which was off-limits to the public.

The authorities deployed police, army, and riot units, backed by water cannons and tear gas, to keep protesters at bay, particularly near the Lipton roundabout, where the satyagraha took place. Clashes broke out, involving unidentified men.

“We don't say that we should not celebrate our independence after a time of enslavement,” said Tharindu Uduwaragedara, a youth activist with a social media presence, speaking to AsiaNews.

“We should be proud of that, but at the same time, we should really question whether we have freedom. We ask these people (i.e. security forces) who are waiting to attack us and label us as unpatriotic:  Don’t we both live in freedom?" he asked.

The Movement of Christian Women's Voice (MCWV) also issued a statement, highlighting the ways the government is celebrating the 76th anniversary of independence, an event “closed to the public” but paid for with “public funds, a huge amount of money”.

“As reported in the media, nearly 37 million rupees (US$ 120,000) in public funds were used during such an unbearable economic crisis,” the MCWV statement notes.

“Do you think that spending such a huge amount is food for a country like Sri Lanka which is sinking in the middle of a huge crisis?” it adds.

Sri Lanka declared bankruptcy in April 2022 when its debt topped US$ 80 billion, more than half of which owed to foreign creditors.

The upheaval led to a political crisis that forced then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, with parliament choosing Wickremesinghe as president despite opposition from the grassroots   Aragalaya (people's struggle) movement.

For his part, Archbishop Card Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo called for a change in the country's leadership ahead of this year’s elections.

During yesterday’s liturgical service at All Saints' Church, on the outskirts of the capital, the cardinal, 76, questioned the wisdom of celebrating freedom when the country has been hit by economic turmoil and is in a political stalemate.

“We ask the leaders: Whose freedom are you celebrating? The freedom of the rulers? Or the freedom of the people?” Cardinal Ranjith said.

“Isn't it a mockery of the people to celebrate the country's independence by showing military parades, police, and aircraft displays, bringing dignitaries and ambassadors when the people of the country are hungry?” he asked.

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