Sri Lanka marked its 75th independence anniversary on Saturday as a bankrupt nation, with many citizens angry, anxious and in no mood to celebrate.
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.
Despite the criticism, armed troops paraded along the main esplanade in Colombo, showcasing military equipment as navy ships sailed in the sea 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 Mr. 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 Sri Lanka’s 22 million people in this Buddhist-majority nation are Christians, most of them Catholics. Despite being a minority, the church’s views are respected.
Prominent Buddhist monk Rev. Omalpe Sobitha said there is no reason to celebrate and that the ceremony is 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.
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.
The shortages led to protests last year that forced then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign.
There have been signs of improvement under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, but power cuts continue due to the fuel shortages, hospitals face medicine shortages and the treasury is struggling to raise money to pay government employees’ salaries.
The economic crisis has made people angry and apathetic toward political leaders.
To manage the country's expenses, the government has increased income taxes sharply and has announced a 6% cut in funds allocated to every ministry this year. 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.
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.
Sri Lanka must correct its ‘errors and failures’: President Wickremesinghe
Sri Lanka needs to rectify its “errors and failures” and review its strengths and gains as a nation, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Saturday, as the country marked its 75th anniversary of independence at a critical time when it is reeling under an unprecedented economic crisis.
The main Independence Day event was attended by foreign dignitaries, including India’s Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan.
Mr. Wickremesinghe presided over the ceremony which featured a military parade with a 21-gun salute.
The celebrations happened despite criticism from Opposition groups who claimed the events costing Rupees 200 million were a waste as the island nation continues to grip in its worst economic crisis since gaining independence.
In his message, Mr. Wickremesinghe said: “Our 75th anniversary of independence from colonial rule is being observed during an extremely critical and challenging time in the country”.
“However it presents an opportunity for us not only to review our strengths and gains as a nation but also to rectify our errors and failures,” he said.
(With PTI inputs)