Democracy & Human Rights | Speeches

Freedom and Nation-Building

50th Anniversary of Sri Lankan Independence

Colombo, Sri Lanka

February 4, 1998

I am humbled by the great honour that destiny has bestowed upon me, to stand here, before my people, as the head of independent Sri Lanka, on this momentous day when the Nation commemorates 50 years of freedom from colonial rule. It is with a deep sense of duty and commitment to the Nation and in full awareness of the gigantic responsibilities we have undertaken, that I step forward into the next 50 years, together with the members of my Cabinet and the government, spurred on by the confidence placed in us by our people.

I would like to first invite you to join me to pay homage to the great leaders of our independence struggle. We are beholden to them all, from Keppitipola Dissawe to Puran Appu, the heroic Buddhist clergy led by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Wariyapola Sri Sumangala, Migettuwatte Gunananda, the Tibetan poet monk S. Mahinda, from F.R. Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake, D.B. Jayatilleke, John Kotalawala Snr., Anagarika Dharmapala, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, P. Ramanathan. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, T.B. Jayah, the left leaders such as S.A. Wickremasinghe, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Gunewardena and Bernard Soysa, working class leaders like A.E. Gunesinghe, N. Sanmugathasan, Kandasamy, leaders of plantation workers like Natesar Aiyar, women leaders like Mary Rutnam, Daisy Dias Bandaranaike, Doreen Wickremasinghe, Selina Perera, Parameswary Kandiah, Noble Rajasingham, Viviene Gunewardena, Kusuma Gunewardena, Florence Senanayake, working class women leaders such as Agnes de Silva, Ponsinahamy, and foreign leaders like Marie Musaeus Higgins, Clara Motwani, Col. Olcott - and all the other unsung heroes of our freedom struggles against foreign domination.

Fifty years ago today

Fifty years ago today we stepped forth into the dawn of freedom with the hope and vigour of a new Nation. The diverse communities inhabiting this land, expressly desired to forge a new and United Nation, where the richness of diversity would be respected and preserved within one united Lanka. The freedom fighters, also nurtured a dream of a Government rich with democratic norms and institutions, where the people's will would reign supreme and of economic prosperity and social advancement with equal opportunities for all citizens.
When we commenced (in the words of Shir Nehru) our "tryst with destiny", half a century ago, the task ahead of us was daunting. I dare say, 50 years is but a brief moment in our history of over 2500 years. Yet it is well enough time, for a nation, to attain political maturity and to formulate and implement systems to strengthen its nationhood, uniting all the peoples living within it, whilst ensuring its territorial integrity and to have attained economic and social advancement, in order that the newly won political freedom transforms itself into a full freedom for its peoples - freedom from fear, from poverty, from ignorance, from disease and most of all freedom to be equal and live with dignity and self-respect.

Renewal of hope and aspiration

The golden jubilee of independence is an occasion for retrospection, as well as a renewal of hope and aspiration. This occasion calls for thanksgiving for our achievements, as well as humility in accepting our failures. We can be justly proud of our successes in building strong and democratic forms of government, honest and transparent systems of governance, as well as our achievements in education and health, where Sri Lanka is placed high among the developing nations, in the Quality of Life indicators and also in the Arts. Our economy is growing well, savings and investments in infrastructure, industry and to some extent agriculture are expanding, incomes are increasing, innovative programmes of poverty alleviation and self-employment are progressing with success. We have undertaken extensive reforms in the spheres of education, health, agriculture, industry and the public service. A radical constitutional reform is proposed.

We must, also, with humility examine our failures. We have failed in the essential task of nation-building. We have meandered and faltered along the path, whilst our neighbours in Asia and many other countries have forged strong and united nations in which peoples of various communities of race, religion and language live in harmony. The search for the causes and the apportioning of blame for this situation may be assigned to the historians. Let us, those of us, who have taken on the responsibility to guide and govern the Nation, whatever our political party or affiliations may be, march towards the future in unison, putting behind us mean desires for petty, personal or political gain. The nation's need today is so great and urgent that it permits space only for largesse of heart and mind, which will in the national interest supersede all that is irrelevant and small.

In 1948, when our forefathers first set out along the path of freedom, they envisioned a truly free and united Lanka. The first Prime Minister of Independent Sri Lanka, D.S. Senanayake said after unfurling the national flag in February 1948; "our nation comprises many races, each with a culture and a history of its own. It is for us to blend all that is best in us ----- in establishing peace, security and justice for all peoples". He also stated (in the State Council on 8/11/1945) "For centuries the Sinhalese and Tamils have lived together in peace and amity. We have been governed by their Kings and they by ours". "There is no greater ambition in my life than to get all these communities together" (State Council on 9/11/1945).

"We must all give and take"

One of Sri Lanka's greatest sons Sir P. Arunachalam spoke in similar vein (in a speech made at the 1st conference on constitutional reform in 15.12.1917) "No scheme can be perfect: or satisfy everybody ........... we must all give and take, we must sink our differences and present a united front to achieve our object ........ We all feel that racial representation is pernicious and has operated to widen cleavages .... and to obstruct that unity and harmony" .... I further quote the words of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who stated in presenting the Tamil Language Bill in Parliament (in 17th July 1958) " so that we can march forward together and achieve that progress ......... under this freedom which we have, freedom for the Sinhalese - yes, remember too, that it is freedom for the Tamils, for the Muslims, for the Malays, for the Burghers .......... and if it is not freedom in that way, for all, I too repeat the words of Shir Jawaharlal Nehru,who after being many years in jail and suffered many years to obtain freedom, pronounced that if freedom meant internal communal strife or injustice or suppression of minorities, to hell with Swaraj".

We have failed to realise the dreams of our freedom fighters to build a strong and united Nation. The silent majority watched in horror, whilst a great Nation with an ancient civilisation, steeped in one of the finest cultural and architectural heritages of the world, nurtured in the traditions of the noble Buddhist philosophy of peace, tolerance and love veered off into a terrifying era of ethnic, political and social violence. The people have now awakened to the call for peace and amity.

The call for unity

The shrill screams of hatred and violence of the extremist few are being drowned by the sweet sounds of the multitude, calling for unity, harmony and brotherhood. We shall no more permit our people to be drawn down into the quagmire of jealousy, greed and bigotry.

History offers but a few opportunities to an individual or a nation, to reach up to the stars. We have missed many chances. We cannot, we must not, miss this one last moment, rich with opportunity.

May I predict with certainty, that this 51st year of independence will be the most decisive one for free Lanka.