Government and Citizen Response to the Tsunami
57th Anniversary of Sri Lankan Independence
Colombo, Sri Lanka
February 4, 2005
Venerable Maha Sangha,
Reverend Members of the Clergy,
Hon. Prime Minister,
Hon. Members of Parliament,
Today we commence the 57th year of Sri Lanka’s Independence at an unusual moment of our history. Through several millennia Sri Lanka has lived through a many checkered story. Yet none could disagree that the occurrence of the morning of 26th December, last year, a little over a month ago, is the most terrible and clearly the most devastating experience that Sri Lankans have lived. In one hour the fury of nature destroyed hundreds of thousand of lives. Thousands upon thousands of houses, buildings that we built through the centuries were swept away. Not only were many centuries of our sweat and effort ravaged but also a significant portion of our history.
Together with the entire Nation I bow my head in condolence for all those who have lost their lives and in sympathy with their loved ones.
There is no Sri Lankan who was not affected in one way or another by this gigantic tragedy. Yet all of us, within a very short time, galvanized ourselves from our state of stupefaction into action to help those hundreds of thousands who were affected by the tragedy. From the poorest to the richest, we collected food, clothes, medicines and many other relief items and carried it ourselves to the disaster struck people. We helped to clean up the mess that was left behind by the raging waters of the ocean. The government moved into action within less than one hour. We commenced to send food and other relief items to the North, South, East and West from the evening of the first day, without discrimination to any religion or any community. Medical supplies and health care was effectively distributed and given to every nook and corner of the affected areas. About 700,000 persons were displaced by the disaster, yet we had no one suffering from hunger nor any epidemics or disease. Everyone was lodged under tolerable conditions, in schools and religious institutions. The heads of these institutions spontaneously rose to the occasion and took over the tremendous responsibilities of caring for a few thousand people without any prior preparation. The armed forces, the police and the entire public service toiled unstintingly through day and night.
The Government was able to manage and control the situation due to this magnificent support from every section of the nation. We moved fast into action, to set up systems and net works from the center to the affected districts. Also from the center to the airports and ports to coordinate the massive inflow of aid from our friends in foreign countries – their Governments and their peoples. It was a massive responsibility. It was one for which we were not prepared nor had we the training for it. Permit me to say to you, my dear fellow citizens that I can say without the slightest hesitation that I marvel at the ability and the dynamism that we Sri Lankans possess. I am simply and truly proud to be a Sri Lankan, to have had the privilege to call myself a citizen of this small but great Nation.
My Government decided, as we emerged from the terrifying shock of the Tsunami tidal wave, that we shall and we must transform this disaster into victory, that we must convert our tragedy into an opportunity for progress. Then only could we make amends for all those thousands of lost lives of our brothers and sisters and the destruction of centuries of our creativity and our toil.
Three days after the disaster the government set up a Special Task Force to assess the damage to infrastructure, including housing and to make plans for rebuilding the Nation. Within three weeks we were able to present the plan to the country. Within a month we have begun to implement the reconstruction programme. In several districts we have commenced the reconstruction of houses. In all the others work is in the process of commencement in rebuilding schools, hospitals, roads, power and telecommunications supply.
The task before us is massive. We have to build 75,000 new houses and repair about 150,000, in a country that annually builds less than 5000 houses and about 200 business places. We have to rebuild in one year the infrastructure that took us decades to construct.
We do not fear this challenge however daunting it may be. I am confident that we have the spiritual and human resources to take on this massive task.
I wish to assure you that my Government has taken on the challenge of rebuilding the Nation. We have set the processes required for this in motion. I am confident that we will succeed. For this we need the participation of all political parties and their leadership.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, I invited all political parties in Parliament to join with us in rebuilding the Nation. We have created structures for joint action at the national and district levels. It is perhaps the first time since independence that all political parties have worked together effectively. I truly hope that this is the dawn of a new era of unity amongst all our peoples, where we could work together in the national interest placing Nation before self. As I once said, it requires largesse of heart and mind and great statesmen and women to lead us along the tortuous but rewarding path we are required to traverse, to reach a state of understanding, harmony and unity. I believe that we Sri Lankans possess these qualities. Let us search them out and unite at this direst moment of our Nation’s need.
The world has come to our assistance in an unprecedented manner. Many Governments from the East and West have already given and offered us considerable assistance in rebuilding our Nation. We are deeply touched by the magnificent expression of solidarity and generosity of the ordinary people in every country across the globe. This has given us much courage to face the arduous challenges posed by the tragedy of 26th December. It also gives us hope in humanity, in the knowledge that humans could rise up through the haze of dehumanization of the mechanized and modern world, to reassume the true spirit of humanity, across tens of thousands of miles, through the numerous boundaries of ethnic and religious differences. On this occasion I express on my behalf and that of my Government and all the peoples of Sri Lanka, our deep and abiding gratitude for every word of sympathy and encouragement and all the assistance we have received from across the globe.
The mighty forces of nature have taught us a lesson that we refused to learn through several decades of independence. A nation that was home to various communities of peoples who decided to adopt Sri Lanka as their home, divided itself into petty little enclaves, separating one nation into little groups, divided along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines. We refused to accept that the only dividing line that separates us should be the natural barrier formed by the sea that surrounds us. For some unfathomable reason the ocean rose up to wreak a terrible destruction, while sweeping away all the differences and the boundaries we built between ourselves for the past several decades. The ocean was indiscriminate in its destruction. It made no difference between Sinhala or Muslim or Tamil nor between Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Islam neither did it make any difference between rich and poor, old and young. In one indiscriminate sweep the mighty forces of nature taught us that man is equal everywhere and that we have to stand together if we are to successfully meet the challenges posed by mother nature herself, leave alone disasters that we have generated for ourselves such as conflicts and wars.
I appeal to all Sri Lankans, in all sincerity, that we should draw the lessons from this massive geo-physical upheaval, to massively change our thinking and our attitudes in order that we unite with those who we consider our enemies, as well as with our friends, in order that we rebuild our Nation into a modern progressive and truly Sri Lankan State.
National Day celebrations at Independence Square in Colombo, 2005
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga officiated at the National Day celebrations at Independence Square in Colombo February 4, 2005