Democracy & Human Rights | Speeches

Democratic Reforms and Accountability

51st Anniversary of Sri Lankan Independence

Colombo, Sri Lanka

February 4, 1999

There are epochs in history when it is evident to all that one social order has to give way to another. These are eras of fundamental change, rejuvenation and rededication, which are part of the history of any country.

Our own country, since independence, has witnessed many such periods of radical social transformation. One such period which springs to mind is the silent revolution of 1956. The late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike characterised it as a period when an entirely new social order, underpinned by value systems and convictions of its own, was struggling to be born. The essential spirit of the changes typifying that period was the quality of resonance to the needs and aspirations of our people. The role of political leadership was to give form and substance to an emerging popular culture and to pave the way for a smooth transition from a colonial regime to the full flowering of the genius of the Sri Lankan people in all walks of like in the afterglow of our independence.

Tryst with destiny

It was a tryst with destiny, similar both in depth and range, that our government was called upon to accept on our election to office 4 1/2 years ago. As I survey the changes that have been effected in the political, economic, social and cultural life of our country since August 1994, it is a source of justifiable pride to me and to my government that an entirely new vista, a uniquely new horizon has been heralded in the history of our nation, in fulfilment of the resounding mandate we received from our people.

This was truly a revolution befitting the spirit and priorities of our time. Its significance becomes apparent upon a moment's reflection.

In the political sphere, one of the cornerstones of my government's agenda was the guarantee of freedom and participatory democracy at every level. The spirit of a proud and creative people, devitalised and curtailed by a ruthless regime of repression, cried out for self expression. It is to this clarion call that we responded throughout the spectrum of government policy.

Rejection of subservience

My government began at a point where no form of dissent could be articulated, without fear of the gravest consequences, extending to denial of freedom and to loss of life itself. What our people unequivocally rejected five years ago was a culture of subservience and servile conformity.

My government was required to embark upon the historic task of banishing the gloom of two decades of terror and to usher in a vibrant and refreshing political culture which drew its inspiration from the entrenchment of freedom, both individually and collectively. We restructured our political institutions in such a manner as to enable the spirit of freedom and democracy to flourish everywhere without restraint or inhibition. Nowhere is this more plainly manifest than in the unbridled freedom of the media. Every point of view, however ill-considered, inadequately informed, overtly prejudiced or even malicious, is given the fullest expression. Dissent, we fervently believe, is the life blood of democracy, and we have unflinchingly adhered to this conviction not by mere precept but by practical example. Banished from the collective consciousness of the nation, is the grim anticipation of reprisals, attendant upon challenges directed against political authority. We have made it possible for our country to heave a collective sigh of relief, that this state of things, belongs definitely and irrevocably to the past.

It is the experience of history that it takes at least a whole generation to effect a substantial change in the political culture of a country. It is a lasting tribute to the courage and maturity of our people that a change of this magnitude was accomplished in the remarkably brief period of half a decade.

Some years ago we all dreamt of freedom, of democracy. It seemed near impossible to realise it, until August, 1994.

Yet we toiled hard, suffered immense pain and made much personal sacrifice to achieve our goals.

No-one will sully our victories

We shall never permit the phantoms from the past to destroy our hard-won gains, nor shall we allow anyone from our ranks to sully our great victories. If some persons from our camp, have indulged in any actions that are contrary to the pledges we have given our people - even if it has occurred only once in 4 1/2 years, I pledge here and now, that my government and our political party will take the strictest action against all such persons. We shall also, ensure that no such occasions arise in the future.

We re-established democracy in this country. It is our sacred duty to guarantee it as long as we remain in government. We do not need the preachings of sanctimonious humbugs, who connived in silence whilst tens of thousands of our children were massacred, to tell us what we should do.

The hallmark of our policy has been the conviction that political power is neither a right nor an entitlement, but a trust. It is this profound belief, pervading every action of my government, that has imparted to our political philosophy the basic element of emphasis on accountability. Indeed, our basic goals in this regard have been honesty, accountability, transparency and efficiency. We have at all times, been prepared to explain our actions as a government to the people and to submit to their judgement.

Towards an educated, moral society

We have put in place radical changes with regard to the structure and orientation of education, in order to ensure that educational curricula will facilitate a multifaceted development of our children to mould them to become responsible and morally sound citizens and to equip them adequately for satisfactory employment and to address themselves to the challenges of modern society with self-assurance and in a democratic manner. We believe that this is the foremost challenge that we must perforce respond to, as we move onto the new millennium.

We have accorded the highest priority to the reform and expansion of the health sector, in order to ensure that the benefits of health care extend to the remotest regions of the country and permeate every sector of community. We have addressed, with perseverance, problems connected with addictive drugs, alcoholism, child abuse and suicide, regrettably prevalent in our society at the present time. My government's unrelenting commitment to the pursuit of social equity is seen in the importance that we have consistently attached to the Samurdhi Programme which we have refined and developed as the principal initiative for the alleviation of poverty in our country.

All this, because we care for our children and our young men and women.

Island of security in an ocean of turbulence

In he economic sphere, we have turned our backs on the past and linked our country to the nerve centres of the global economy, so that the exciting opportunities that increasingly arise globally, will no longer pass us by. Our prudent and well planned policies in respect of macro-economic management, have made it possible for us to salvage a weak, corrupt and inefficiently managed economy. We can justifiably claim the status of "an island of security in an ocean of turbulence". We have been able to insulate our economy to a substantial extent from the vicissitudes and upheavals which engulfed stronger economies in the region, whilst achieving high levels of development in a sustained manner.

It is appropriate to make reference to the far-reaching consequences of the initiatives we have taken with regard to modernisation of agriculture development of the plantations sector and the growth of facilities for marketing. The expansion of the industrial sector, with particular reference to manufacturing and services, has provided a powerful impetus for the creation of fresh employment opportunities. Employment has been made available to the rural youth due to our policy of relocation of industries in the remoter areas. The measures adopted to develop the scientific and technological bases, with special regard to information technology, will prepare Sri Lanka to enter the 21st century as a modern and vibrant Nation.

We have made unparalleled progress in the development of highways, irrigation, electricity, telecommunications, ports and harbours and vocational training programmes.

My government has been a pioneer in the field of urban development. For the first time since ancient times, the development of our cities and the suburbs - together with the provision of infrastructure facilities - has been undertaken in accordance with scientific and artistic and environmental criteria.

Political solution to the ethnic problem

My government has addressed the urgent and vexed task of designing a set of proposals, to arrive at a political solution to the ethnic problem in our country. it required immense courage and vision to make a frontal attack on this problem. There is at present before Parliament, a set of comprehensive proposals, introduced by my government to empower all ethnic groups, so that they will be full partners and shareholders in the decision making processes at all levels of government. The purpose of this constitutional initiative is the replacement of bigotry and intolerance by understanding; suspicion by confidence; and exclusion by empowerment and fruitful partnership. Once they are implemented, they will build a strong basis for people of all races, religions, cultural and social backgrounds, speaking all languages to build together, a strong and united country.

I must emphasise that these varied and formidable tasks have been pursued and accomplished in circumstances of exceptional difficulty. The quality of these achievements has to be assessed against the backdrop of a debilitating war which has existed for more than 15 years and continues to consume a large proportion of the nation's resources. We have succeeded in embarking on extensive development and welfare programmes to cater for the collective well-being of Sri Lankan society, while making adequate provision for the successful prosecution of the war.

Having regard to the scope and number of these changes, it is a legitimate claim that a whole new political, social and economic order has been put in place in the country since my government was elected to office. A great deal yet remains to be done. As we look back with both pride and humility on what has been achieved during the last 4 1/2 years, I ask my people to share our sense of satisfaction with the scale of these accomplishments and to associate themselves unreservedly with the initiatives that need to be taken to continue our march to peace, prosperity and justice for all as the new millennium dawns.