‘Bankrupt’ Sri Lanka’s Independence Day splurge leaves citizens furious

There was widespread anger after it emerged that the celebration would cost SLR 200 million; this at a time when the government admits its coffers are mostly empty and people are struggling to afford even essentials

Sri Lanka Independence Day
Sri Lanka's Independence Day ceremony was held under tight security over concerns that protesters would attempt to disrupt the event. Image: Twitter

Sri Lanka marked its 75th Independence Day on February 4 amid widespread public discontent in the face of the country’s worst economic crisis since independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

The government of President Ranil WickremesingThe ceremony was held under tight security over concerns that protesters would attempt to disrupt the event.he marked the milestone with a military parade along the oceanfront promenade in Colombo known as Galle Face Green.

There was widespread anger after it emerged that the celebration would cost SLR 200 million. At a time when the government admitted that its coffers are mostly empty and people are struggling to afford even essentials, the decision to hold such an extravaganza was seen as a criminal waste of public funds.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, other opposition parties and the Catholic Church were among those who boycotted the event in protest. Catholic priest Cyril Gamini Fernando called the event a “crime and waste” at a time when the country was bankrupt.


President defends celebration

While acknowledging that the celebration has attracted criticism, the President defended it. “We must celebrate the 75th Independence Anniversary; otherwise, the world will say that we are not capable of celebrating even our independence,” Wickremesinghe told a group of officials.

A massive security operation was put in place in and around Colombo in the days leading up to the event and on Independence Day itself. Armed soldiers patrolled the city’s streets while police also obtained a court order to prevent protesters from marching towards Galle Face.

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A group of activists involved in the ‘Aragalaya’ (Struggle) movement that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country last year attempted to hold a 24-hour ‘Satyagraha’ from the evening of February 3 in Colombo to show their displeasure at the decision to go ahead with the celebration. They were confronted by riot police and at night were attacked by outsiders. Activists claim that instead of arresting the attackers, police fired tear gas and water cannon at the peaceful protesters, who were also beaten with batons. Four activists were also arrested, with at least one being hospitalized. Police did later arrest three suspects in connection with the attack on the ‘Satyagraha’.

Attack on protesters

Nuwan Bopage, a lawyer who was present during the protest, accused the police of setting thugs on the peaceful demonstrators and then attempting to portray that they intervened to break up a clash. “A court order had been issued barring protesters from gathering near Galle Face but the court did not prohibit a peaceful protest being held elsewhere. The police attempted to misrepresent the court order and get us to leave, which failed. It was then that they withdrew and allowed a group of thugs to attack us.”

Bopage noted that as citizens, they had every right to protest against holding an Independence Day celebration when the country was in economic turmoil. “The incident shows that peaceful protesters will now have to contend with thugs under the control of the police in addition to the police themselves,” he said.

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The military parade went ahead under the patronage of President Wickremesinghe. More than 6,000 members of the armed forces and police marched along Galle Face Boulevard to the tune of bands while navy ships sailed offshore and air force planes flew overhead. Aside from foreign diplomats based in Colombo, a number of foreign dignitaries were also present. They included ministers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Japan and Bangladesh as well as the Secretary General of the Commonwealth.

Mass misery

While the government may proclaim the event a success, many ordinary Sri Lankans see little to celebrate. Though the country’s key inflation rate eased to 54.2 per cent in January from 57.2 per cent in December as part of a downward trend, the cost of living remains high. Petrol and domestic gas prices were again increased within the past week while the power sector regulator is weighing a proposal to significantly raise electricity tariffs from this month — the second such hike in five months. There are also daily powers cuts lasting more than two hours.

Meanwhile, unions representing doctors and medical staff have been sounding alarm over the crippling shortages of drugs and medical equipment in hospitals. They warn that the state-run health sector, which provides universal healthcare, is on the verge of collapse.

“I used to watch the (Independence Day) ceremony every year. We did it even when we were overseas. But for the first time in my life, I didn’t even switch on the TV,” said a doctor in a government-run hospital, voicing her disgust at the decision to hold the celebration.

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“It’s an unnecessary expense as there’s no reason to celebrate,” added Yohan Perera (43), a Human Resources Consultant from a Colombo suburb. He related a story told by an elderly acquaintance who recently contacted one of Colombo’s leading government-run hospitals to check if she could undergo a certain medical procedure. “She was told they didn’t even have enough medical plasters, let alone equipment, needed to conduct the procedure she wanted.”

Galle Face

Perera recently quit his job and set up as a freelance consultant. With a wife and two young daughters to support, he could no longer stay on at his workplace, which had cut salaries of staff by 40 per cent in the face of the economic crisis.

Galle Face, the venue where the parade was held, is also home to the Presidential Secretariat. It was outside this building that thousands of protesters set up camp in April last year to launch the ‘Aragalaya’ (Struggle) demanding the resignation of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for mishandling the economy.

Much has changed since then, but much also remains the same. President Wickremesinghe, who assumed the Premiership in May and who was elected by Parliament as President in August, has consolidated his power with a mixture of diplomacy and brute force. He, however, is dependent on the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party to push through his agenda in Parliament as the SLPP still holds most seats in the legislature.

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Wickremesinghe’s government is currently attempting to secure a vital USD 2.9 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which involves making painful economic reforms such as raising taxes, reducing government subsidies and restructuring the country’s bloated state sector.

Tax regime

Some of those measures, such as the decision to impose a Pay As You Earn (PAYE) tax on all Sri Lankans earning above Rs. 100,000 a month, have proved controversial. The tax affects those in the high-income bracket, but this is made up mostly of professionals such as doctors, engineers and bank employees. Unions representing professionals have blasted the new tax regime, where the tax rate progressively increases from 6 per cent to 36 per cent for higher income earners. There are threats of a collective trade union action in the near future if the tax is not reduced.

Addressing the nation on the evening of February 4, President Wickremesinghe, however, vowed to continue with his new reform programme “regardless of the obstacles the anarchist political forces seek to create.”

“On several occasions, I pointed out the seriousness and danger of the looming economic crisis we are facing today. I have already said that the first six months of this year will be extremely difficult. We have to face this difficult situation in our stride, although unwillingly, for the sake of the country,” he said, warning that there were “no short cuts” out of the crisis.

He concluded his address by calling for unity to carry forward a government programme so that Sri Lanka can become one of the most developed countries by 2048 when it will celebrate 100 years of independence.