February 2016


Celebrating Independence Day
February 2016




Opening of the first Parliament at Independence by the Duke of Gloucester, 1948 (Government of Ceylon and UK)

Sri Lanka celebrates the 68th anniversary of independence from Britain on February 4, 2016. The event usually includes a military parade witnessed by politicians, diplomats, distinguished guests and the Sri Lankan public, with the President taking the salute and making a motivational speech that is televised throughout the country.


Words Royston Ellis


The occasion being commemorated is Sri Lanka's independence of foreign occupation and government, which was the outcome of the arrival of Portuguese forces in 1505. The Portuguese involvement increased during the 17th Century, until the Dutch took over in 1656 and stayed for 138 years. A breach between the Dutch and the British during the Napoleonic Wars resulted in Britain invading and laying siege to Colombo in 1796.


However, the Kingdom of Kandy defied British attempts to tidy up the country into a neat package they could call their own. It was not until 1815 that a convention was signed between the British occupiers and the Kandyan chiefs, the 200th anniversary of which went deliberately unobserved in 2015.


A national movement arose in the early 20th Century, with the aim of obtaining political independence. The machinations were considerable and successful, resulting in The Ceylon Independence Act 1947 being passed in the British House of Commons. This granted the country full dominion status. In the words of a contemporary report: "Ceylon had, after years of subjugation to a foreign power, emerged as a free nation in the British Commonwealth of Nations."

Ceylon had, after years of subjugation to a foreign power, emerged as a free nation in the British Commonwealth of Nations

The first Independence Day, on February 4, 1948, was observed with the swearing in of Ceylon's new Governor General, the sitting Governor, Sir Henry Monck-Mason, who was British, at a solemn ceremony at King's House, Colombo. The pageantry was saved for the opening of Parliament at the Assembly Hall in Torrington (now Independence Square) on February 10, 1948 in the presence of HRH Duke of Gloucester (Queen Elizabeth's uncle). There was also a ceremonial hoisting of the Lion Flag over the pattirippuwa (octagon) of the Dalada Maligawa Temple) in Kandy on February 11, acknowledging the prolonged resistance of the Kandyans to British dominance.


Services of thanksgiving were held in the island's Buddhist and Hindu temples, churches and mosques as the Lion Flag of the old Sinhalese kings of Kandy flew in triumph. The Prime minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, delivered a speech expressing the hope that Britain's voluntary renunciation of the colony was a seed which would grow into "a stately tree of mutual and perpetual friendship".


Although from thatdate Ceylon was politically independent, the country was nevertheless a Dominion of the British Commonwealth. The first Independence Day was followed by the passing by the British House of Commons of the British Nationality Act 1948, which enabled each nation to create its own subjects. So the seven million Ceylonese constituting the population of the country then were no longer British.


The annual commemoration of Independence Day was originally a low-key affair celebrated with religious observances. In 1951, a newspaper reported "Moderation characterises Independence Day Anniversary celebrations in towns and rural areas throughout the island." In that same year, Members of Parliament were exempted from the requirement to speak and write in English.


The first Ceylonese Governor General, Sir Oliver E Goonetilleke, was not appointed until 1954, but the post was mainly ceremonial as the government was headed by the Prime Minister. The dominion status remained in existence for 24 years until, on May 22, 1972, Ceylon officially become a Republic within the Commonwealth and the country's name was changed to Sri Lanka. Thirty years after the first Independence Day, on February 4, 1978, Junius Richard Jayawardene took his oath as the first elected Executive President of Sri Lanka.


Each Independence Day since has had a distinctive character. In 1979, the Independence Day celebration was held in Kandy with the Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, as an invitee. In 1980, the main ceremony was held in Matara with President Jayawardene taking the salute at a march past of the armed forces.


In 1981, Independence Day coincided with the 50th anniversary of the introduction of universal adult franchise within the country. Soon after the celebration of independence in 1985,   Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte was declared the country's capital, on February 11.


The 50th anniversary of Independence was celebrated with emphasis on military might with, according to a British newspaper report, 10,000 soldiers lining the streets of Colombo instead of school children. The Prince of Wales (Queen Elizabeth's heir) was the guest of honour, continuing the tradition of a royal presence at notable events. It had originally been planned to celebrate the event in Kandy but a terrorist bomb there on January 25, 1998 resulted in the change of venue to Colombo.


While previous annual celebrations have been on a lavish scale with lots of pomp and pageantry, last year's commemoration of the 67th Independence Day, when President Maithripala Sirisena hoisted the National Flag accompanied by the blowing of conch shells, was described as "sans ostentation and expense".


This February, flag hoisting ceremonies on a minor scale take place throughout the country and the occasion is celebrated with parades and performances by children. Since it is a national holiday, many people take the chance to visit a temple or to spend the day with family and friends enjoying the freedom the holiday brings.

 

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    Hoisting the Sri Lankan flag after gaining independence

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    D. S. Senenayake, first Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka

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    N M Perera, Leader of the Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party

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    J. R. Jayewardene, the first Exectuve President of Sri Lanka being sworn-in, 1978

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    A view of the Sri Lankan Parliament in Sri Jayawardenapura

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    Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe greets President Maithripala Sirisena

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    Commemorative stamps

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    Commemorative stamps

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    Chandrika Kumaratunga, President of Sri Lanka with the Prince of Wales during Sri Lanka's 60th independence day celebrations

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    President Maithripala Sirisena hoisting the national flag in 2015

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