Achieving Peace and Democracy
Independence Day Celebrations
Colombo, Sri Lanka
February 4, 2001
"It was 53 years ago that our beloved motherland regained independence after 443 years of colonial subjugation. We have gathered here today to commemorate a day of pride for the entire Sri Lankan nation.
At the outset, let me on behalf of the nation, pay homage to all those who took part in the heroic struggle to liberate our nation.
Half a century has lapsed since we achieved national freedom. A very long historical legacy has fashioned the progress we have made up to now. Our progress has been aligned with a evolution of human society through various distinct periods.
An important watershed of human evolution has been the Renaissance in Medieval Europe. Knowledge was revived and re-born during that period in the 16th century. It was a period when phenomenal progress was made in literature, art and music. Also, modern science emerged at that time. We also observe the beginnings of the industrial revolution, whose progress has completely changed the way we live.
Whereas the creativity fostered by the revival greatly helped the progress of mankind, the 20th century was one where forces were unleashed which could destroy mankind. People had to suffer through two long drawn out World Wars. There were wars among nations and conflicts among regions. After the Second World War, the world was split into two competing camps with a "cold war" between them. Countries under colonial rule commenced their struggles for emancipation. Having achieved freedom, they sought their own paths to progress. Many countries were able to find lasting solutions to their problems. At the same time, a world divided into rival power blocs had to come to terms with emerging trends of globalisation and integration towards a single unified world.
Although many countries, made substantial progress by the end of the 20th century in solving their problems, the situation in our country was quite different. Somewhere, we made a mistake or took the wrong turn. We seem to have lost our way. We have now come to understand that mistake and have chosen the correct path.
Our democratic traditions which we developed during the early period after independence suffered a serious decline in later times. This loss of commitment to democracy emerged as a national problem concerning the minorities on the one hand and as a problem of erosion of democratic freedom and human rights, on the other hand. Many countries which emerged as free nations with us had diverse populations of different ethnicity, religious beliefs and spoken languages but most of them managed to build powerful and united nations who could settle their domestic affairs in peace without conflict. We have failed singularly in this regard. Our leaders in 1948 foresaw a truly free and united Sri Lanka. All our national leaders at that time repeatedly emphasised the need for a free democratic and united Sri Lankan nation. But we failed to realise their dream.
With the dawn of the new millennium the darkness of our disappointment is clearing and we see a small ray of hope emerging. I believe that this is the result of our far seeing and correct policies on the ethnic problem adopted during the last 6 years. The international community has praised our honest and proper approach toward Tamil and other minority groups. They know that we are not fighting the Tamil people. They know that we are fighting only a small group of extremists who resort to terror to intimidate a nation to grant unreasonable demands. It would now appear that the enemy has been somewhat tamed by the resoluteness of our armed forces. Hence, we are now receiving favourable signals from them to our open invitation for negotiations. I therefore propose that we make use of this opportunity which is the result of our own far-seeing policy for peace. Let us take this moment of opportunity to explore whatever prospects there are for achieving peace in our land.
We have never closed the door to discussions and negotiations with the LTTE with a view to finding a reasonable solution to the ethnic problem. We are not discussing the creation of a separate State of Eelam. We are not discussing the prospect of dividing our small country. We are willing to enter negotiations to find a solution which will enable all the people of our country to be united and to live in equality and honour.
We are not ready to accept meaningless ceasefires which take us nowhere. Our position is that we will commence negotiations for a peaceful settlement, and if these negotiations progressed satisfactorily, we can explore prospects of a genuine ceasefire. We are willing to commence negotiations on a clear political agenda of the main issues. It is the duty of all persons who desire peace, including the entire Tamil people to prevail upon the LTTE to enter the peace negotiation process with a view to settle the real problems of the Tamil people.
The bedrock of our proposals for peace is the new draft constitution which we have proposed. I do not want to narrate the long history of our effort to bring forward the reforms in the form of a new constitution. One and half years ago before my presidential term was to end, in December, 1999, I sought a mandate from the people in a presidential election to introduce a new constitution. Since then, we remember the long discussions we had on constitutional reform, and what happened when we introduced the new draft constitution in the Parliament on August 3rd last year. On that day, we were on the verge of achieving the dream of the Sri Lanka people for peace. But we also know how a small minority dashed those hopes, which is now a part of our history. On that day, political opportunism prevailed. However, our government is totally committed to ensure that our honest and correct policies will ultimately prevail in the not too distant future. The new constitution contains provisions to protect the people's democratic rights, strengthen human rights and sharing of political power. Devolution of political power is a fundamental principle of democratic government. We have not abandoned our desire to have a new constitution whose primary objective is to protect rights and devolve power. We have got a mandate from the people in 10 elections to adopt this new constitution.
It is important for the opposition to understand this situation clearly. I regret to mention that the opposition has yet to fulfil its responsibility in finding solutions to the problems of the minorities. Even at this late stage, I earnestly request the opposition to join us in this endeavour.
Apart from the problems of ethnicity and war, we face two major problems. One is the need to further strengthen democratic freedoms in our country to help build a united Sri Lanka. The second is the building of a prosperous Sri Lanka in the context of a changing international economic circumstances and globalisation.
We have almost achieved our objective of strengthening democratic systems and values. I am sure that the people see the difference between what they enjoy today and what they did in the past. Those days, people lived in fear of government. We changed that situation. We have now left behind that dark and fearsome stage. we have won and established right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of thinking and freedom from government harassment. What we have to do in the future is to ensure people's fundamental rights which are accepted by all civilised societies, where all people from the highest to the lowest levels in society enjoy economic and social equality.
This objective can be achieved only through economic prosperity. We have several achievements in this regard during the last 6 years. We were engaged in an economic war while we were waging a military conflict. We have been able to undertake a huge programme of work to strengthen the base of our economy. As a result we were able to achieve an economic growth higher than 5 per cent per year. The country's production expanded. We were able to contain increases in the cost of living for 6 years. Inflation was tamed. Export incomes rose. Foreign reserves increased. Foreign investment in the country rose as a result of political stability and international confidence. Unemployment declined. We were able to improve the wages of the public sector, the pensions and Samurdhi income support to the poor. The people's consumer basket expanded. Average income of people rose from US$ 640 to 860 per year. We are proud of our achievements, which were attained at a time when we had to incur a heavy expenditure on the military conflict.
We intend to generate 100,000 new employment in the public sector through 50 new development projects during the next 2 years. We also have a medium-term economic development plan up to 2005. I appeal to the working classes to join me in making our plans a success.
We cannot forget our heroic soldiers who are fighting for the integrity of our country on this day when we are commemorating our freedom. You will remember that our defence forces faced various difficulties and reverses about a year ago. On that critical occasion, we were able to maintain our hold on Jaffna entirely because of the bravery of our soldiers and the tremendous support they received from the people of our country. I recall with gratitude the generous gifts and the patient support I received from you during those difficult times when we had to place the country virtually on a war-footing. So far our brave soldiers have liberated many areas from the LTTE. Even now they are engaged in a courageous effort to liberate further areas from the enemy.
The endeavour of our brave soldiers is to liberate the Tamil people of the North and East from a Fascist dictatorship. Their success also strengthens the freedom of our entire nation. Truly it is a victory for national independence. Hence, let us honour those fighters who sacrificed their lives and those who are now fighting in the trenches to protect our motherland. Let us encourage them by supporting those special support programs we have organised during this month.
However our government is acutely aware that the huge resources we have spent on a seemingly endless war is affecting the daily lives of ordinary people. The cost of living today has gone up because of the large monies we have to spend on the war and the sharp rise in energy prices which is beyond our control. The government is making every effort to mitigate this impact on the people but it is very difficult to eliminate some burdens as long as the war and the ethnic problem remains unresolved. People understood this problem in April and May last year when the military conflict was intensified. Not only did they bear the higher cost of goods bravely but they also came forward to donate one or two days wages for the cause of the nation. I am confident that our people will understand the reality on the ground at this time, when we are successfully proceeding with counter-terrorist operations.
My fellow countrymen, I must say that the difficulties we now face because of price increases are bound to be temporary. I am confident that we will be able to overcome our difficulties and provide some relief in the next few months. We have already appointed two commissions to report on the current levels of wages and pensions.
But we should never ever forget that the only lasting solution to the problems we are facing today is to bring an end to the war by settling the national question. Only that will help us achieve faster economic prosperity. We have published and implemented a set of policies to achieve this longer term objective in our "Vision 21" statement. The government will proceed on its chosen path irrespective of any obstructions or conspiracies against it.
Hence, I appeal to all of you once again on this Independence Day to shed political differences and unite to solve our problems which are inextricably connected with our National Independence. Let us dedicate ourselves to achieve peace on this 53rd anniversary. Let us resolve to create a society where all races and people who believe in different religions and speak different languages are treated with equality and mutual respect. That is the essence of freedom and we should keep that in our mind always.
We realise the value of freedom only when we lose it. We have struggled hard to restore our freedoms since 1994 and we must pledge to improve them further on this independence memorial day.
We have reached a moment when we are close to finding a resolution of the civil war and to re-building the economy since the destruction wrought in both these spheres by the unwise policies of past governments.
This is not a moment to ask for more and more. It is time for each one of us to give. Time for every Sri Lankan to give for our country for our futures for the future of our children.
It is only in a society at peace, with no war or conflict, with equality to all and freedom and democracy enthroned can we enjoy the full benefits of national independence. I like to remind you again about that little ray of hope I can see now which will provide us with an opportunity to achieve the full benefits of independence. Let us take this ray of hope as a good omen for achieving our objectives. Let us convert that little ray to a floodlight, which will someday strengthen and illuminate the independence of our beloved motherland.
May the blessings of the Triple Gem be with you!