Protest in Kurunegala (pictures courtesy Movement for People’s Council
Police carrying a university student at the protest held in Kilinochchi
“This whole movement is essentially based on making people realise the power that people have continued to show over the decades”
- Marisa De Silva, Movement for People’s Council
“People are being killed in hospitals due to substandard drugs and lack of efficient healthcare staff. A referendum is a fundamental right of all people. Since 2023 there has been no local government election and all suppressive laws are being enacted by rulers who don’t have a clear mandate”
- Fr. Jeevantha Pieris
“There’s nothing to celebrate after 76 years. It’s just setting off canons and a sheer display of power. I think people are concerned about violence as well”
- Sumathy Sivamohan, Professor in English, Department of English, University of Peradeniya
Sri Lanka witnessed its 76th Independence Day celebrations which were held with much pomp and pageantry. But this independence ceremony was staged in a backdrop where people are being burdened by heavy taxes and at a time when poverty levels are soaring. This year’s celebrations were out of bounds for citizens owing to security reasons. For some this is a laughable fact given that the country is struggling to escape a debt trap while lawmakers continue to make merry with taxpayers’ money.
Are citizens really free?
While the main Independence Day ceremony took place at Galle Face Green, several protests were organised around the country with the aim of questioning whether there’s actual independence for citizens.
The Movement for People’s Council staged a protest on February 4 where protesters agitated against the incumbent government that recently passed a draconian Online Safety Bill, which would further infringe people’s right to freedom of expression on social media channels. The protesters also highlighted the encroachment of lands in the North; these protests carried out with the motive of underscoring the attempts made by the authorities to gain such lands and fuel racial tensions and also to make aware of the soaring poverty levels and the prevailing issues in providing free healthcare and education.
During the protest, several protesters shared their thoughts with the Daily Mirror;
“Nothing independent about this year’s celebration” – De Silva
Marisa De Silva, representing the Movement for People’s Council said that the Movement was born out of the aragalaya (Protest) where the idea was to get people more involved in politics, so that they get more involved beyond the once in five years voting and letting leaders to do whatever they want during that time.“This whole movement is essentially based on making people realise the power that people have, the power that people have continued to show over the decades with many struggles around the world that have pushed governments to fulfill the rights of people. Basically it’s a movement we like to have across the country where we engage people and help them realise the power that we have and to remind people that whoever is in Parliament is there because of us. They should therefore look after our welfare and not their personal agendas at our expense. The Independence Day protests were staged in 13 towns around the country and we have councils in approximately 13-20 cities.
“The Independence Day protests were staged to stand up in protest against the elaborate and exorbitant Independence Day celebrations which our governments continue to focus on despite having people who can’t make ends meet and who cannot send their children to school. There was nothing independent about this year’s celebration because people weren’t allowed to enter that area for most of the day. There was nothing free or independent this time. The entire country is in disarray. People in the North and East have continuously opposed the Independence Day celebrations because they haven’t been able to exercise their basic rights,” she added.
“Only a certain class of people can celebrate Independence Day”
“The Independence Day is being celebrated by one class of people,” said Duminda Nagamuwa, representing the Frontline Socialist Party. “But the majority of people on the country are devoid of any freedom. The country struggles to provide free education for its children and free healthcare for the citizens. India is already eyeing on the country’s resources in the North. There’s suppression on social media and the government is planning to bring a new act to regulate media institutions. The Anti-Terrorism Act is made even more suppressive for the advantage of lawmakers. When all these laws come into effect only a certain class of people can be celebrating independence. The rulers continue to introduce tax schemes and take away the economic freedom of people. Small and medium entrepreneurs are unable to continue with their businesses due to these decisions. They (People) are being forced to pay off their debts and their properties are being mortgaged. But these rules don’t apply to rich businessmen who have obtained loans from banks. The irony of the situation is that the same lot who took away the freedom of the majority of Sri Lankans is celebrating the Independence Day.”
“Nothing to celebrate after 76 years”
– Prof. Sivamohan
Sumathy Sivamohan, Professor in English at the Department of English, University of Peradeniya said that protests are taking place all over the country at a time when a lot of repression is being ramped up. “This is the second Independence Day after the new regime assumed power and after Sri Lanka signed the IMF package. There’s nothing to celebrate after 76 years. It’s just setting off canons and a sheer display of power. I think people are concerned about violence as well. The protest by University students in the North was tear-gassed. The ‘Buddhistisation’ in the North is being carried out by military support. The economic situation too is dire. If you analyse the lives of the people the middle classes too are feeling the burden. What are people eating? I know of people who leave to the Middle East in search of foreign employment due to poverty. The government increased the age cap to 60 and that means the government too is keen on using the labour of the people to earn money. They increased taxes, but what are the services that the government is giving to people? The meaning of tax is not restricted to paying off a debt. People are awaiting the elections, but nobody has really spoken about bringing a solution to the economic crisis,” she said.
“People are forced to beg”
“If we speak about the true definition of independence, then people should have the freedom to move, think, talk and live freely,” said Velusamy Weerasingham, activist and gender consultant. “But two years ago, Sri Lankans were devoid of their freedom and as a result the aragalaya came about to chase away the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime. But the regime that succeeded robbed the freedom of its people by introducing new laws and acts and by using military and police power. The government took away the people’s right to use freedom of expression by passing the Online Safety Bill. Today no civilian is allowed to witness the Independence Day celebrations. But it is a shame to see how the lawmakers are enjoying the display of canons being set off to the sea while the country is indebted to many other countries. Thereafter they obtain the rest of the money from people, but the celebration is out of bounds for the taxpayers! The taxpayers bore all their expenses for today’s celebration. But those taxpayers are devoid of free education, free healthcare, the right to freedom of expression, children are dropping out of school and engaging in odd jobs to feed their families, the electricity connections of over a million people have been disconnected, there’s a four-fold increase in poverty and in this backdrop how are they celebrating Independence? It is irrelevant whether we became an independent nation from the colonial rule, but it is now clear that we need to gain independence from existing rulers who are responsible for these crises. They have dragged everyone towards poverty. We are now left with a begging bowl and that’s why we gathered here at this protest. What’s the point of celebrating independence when people are forced to beg,” he queried.
“Elections alone cannot solve issues at hand”
– Fr. Pieris
“The passage of the Online Safety Bill will further suppress people,” warned Fr. Jeevantha Pieris. “The rulers want to make slaves out of people. Once the Anti-Terrorism Act too is passed it will rip off citizen’s rights that they are entitled to as per the Constitution. Elections alone cannot solve these issues. People are dying of starvation due to the increase in VAT. People are being killed in hospitals due to substandard drugs and lack of efficient healthcare staff. A referendum is a fundamental right of all people. Since 2023 there has been no local government election and all suppressive laws are being enacted by rulers who don’t have a clear mandate.”
Tear gassed and arrested
Students at the Jaffna University staged a protest in Kilinochchi to highlight that the Independence Day is a black day for Tamils. They demanded the government to provide a solution for issues people face in the North and East. However the police fired teargas at the protesters and at least five university students were arrested.
It was also observed that government supporters were deployed at various locations where civil organizations took to the streets to protest against the gala Independence Day celebrations. In Fort, a group of individuals carrying national flags acknowledged the government for its efforts and that they love this country.