COLOMBO – Sri Lanka marked its 75th independence anniversary on Saturday as a bankrupt nation, with many citizens angry, anxious and in no mood to celebrate.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has started to improve some but not all of the acute shortages, acknowledged the somber state of the nation, saying in a televised speech, “We have reached the point of destruction.”
"Let’s seek to heal this wound though it’s difficult and painful. If we endure the suffering and pain for a short period of time, we can get the wound healed completely,” Wickremesinghe said, adding that the first six months of the year will be difficult.
Many Buddhists and Christian clergy had announced a boycott of the celebration in the capital, while activists and others expressed anger at what they see as a waste of money in a time of severe economic crisis.
A group of activists began a silent protest on Friday in the capital, condemning the government’s independence celebration and failure to ease the economic burden. University students also attempted a protest march later Saturday but police blocked them. Troops with assault rifles were stationed every few meters (yards) surrounding the site of the independence ceremony and riot police stood ready to prevent anti-government demonstrations.
Despite the criticism, armed troops paraded along the main esplanade in Colombo, showcasing military equipment as navy ships sailed nearby and helicopters and aircraft flew over the city.
Catholic priest Rev. Cyril Gamini called this year's ceremony commemorating independence from British rule a “crime and waste” at a time when the country is experiencing such economic hardship.
“We ask the government what independence they are going to proudly celebrate by spending a sum of 200 million rupees ($548,000),” said Gamini, adding the Catholic Church does not condone spending public money on the celebration and that no priest would attend the ceremony.
About 7% of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka’s 22 million people are Christians, most of them Catholics. Despite being a minority, the church’s views are respected.
Prominent Buddhist monk Omalpe Sobitha also said there was no reason to celebrate and that the ceremony was just an exhibition of weapons made in other countries.
Sri Lanka is effectively bankrupt and has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package.
The country’s total foreign debt exceeds $51 billion, of which $28 billion has to be repaid by 2027. Unsustainable debt and a severe balance of payment crisis, on top of lingering scars from the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to a severe shortage of essentials such as fuel, medicine and food. Massive protests last year forced Wickremesinghe's predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to flee the country and resign.
Despite some improvements, power cuts continue due to the fuel shortages, hospitals struggle with a lack of medicines, and the treasury cannot raise money to pay government employees.
To manage the country's expenses, the government has increased income taxes sharply and has announced a 6% cut in funds allocated to each ministry. Also, the military, which had swelled to more than 200,000 members amid a long civil war, will be downsized by nearly half by 2030.
Wickremesinghe said that everyone, politicians and the citizens alike, were to blame for the country's woes. He said from the early days of independence, Sri Lankans were divided in terms of race, religion and region.
“We worked for political candidates expecting personal favours in return. Most of us contested not for the country, but for personal power, for greater perks and to earn a little more.”
Wickremesinghe also said steps were being taken to restore ethnic amity in the country by releasing military-occupied land in the ethnic Tamil-majority north and releasing suspects detained for alleged connections with a now-defunct separatist rebel movement. He also promised to devolve maximum power to the Tamil regions.
Tamil rebels fought for an independent state in the country's northeast for more than 25 years until they were crushed by the military in 2009. More than 100,000 people were killed in the conflict by conservative U.N estimates.
Successive governments pledged maximum power-sharing with Tamils, short of a separate homeland, but have not followed up on them.