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PoliticsSri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Anger at government over independence celebration

Dimuthu Attanayake in Colombo
February 3, 2023

The Sri Lankan government has decided to commemorate the 75th National Independence Day with public funds. But given the country's economic turmoil, locals are in no mood to celebrate.

A group of anti government protesters participate in a sit-in protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Feb. 4, 2023. The protest was against the huge government spending to mark the country’s 75th Independence Day celebrations amid the ongoing economic crisis
The spending of public funds on the celebration has sparked a sit-in protest in ColomboImage: Eranga Jayawardena/AP/picture alliance

Sri Lanka is preparing for an independence day, which is commemorated on February 4, like no other.

But it isn't the grandness of the occasion, nor the significance of three-quarters of a century, that makes this anniversary stand out.

At a time meant for celebration, Sri Lankans are in anything but a party mood.

Many of the country's citizens are outraged by a government willing to spend an estimated LKR 200 million ($548,000 €506,000) amidst a debilitating economic crisis.

What's the background to the crisis?

In the wake of shrinking foreign currency reserves, Sri Lanka was thrust into a spiraling economic crisis last year, with acute shortages of essentials such as fuel and medicine, as well as rising food prices.

There are daily power outages lasting for more than two hours in many areas of the country. This stems from shortages of fuel for thermal power generation. By September last year, Sri Lanka's year on year food inflation hit 94.9%, and inflation hit 69.8%, dropping to 54.2% and 60.1% respectively, by January.

Following its historic debt default in May last year, Sri Lanka is now in the process of negotiating financial assurance from bilateral creditors, an essential step in securing US$ 2.9 billion worth of financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sri Lanka's total government external debt totaled US$ 37.6 billion as of the end of 2021.

Government statistics show that the country's economy contracted 11.8% during the third quarter last year.

More than 50,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition

According to a World Food Programme (WFP) situation report on Sri Lanka published in December 2022, 36% of the families in Sri Lanka are food insecure, and June statistics by UNICEF show that 56,000 children under five years of age have severe acute malnutrition.

But, this weekend, the country is planning to celebrate the 75th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule, which ended in 1948. Makeshift tents are already up in Galle Face, Colombo, Sri Lanka's commercial capital, where the national celebration will be held, not far from the site of last year's anti-government protest, which lasted several months. This will be the first independence celebration of veteran politician turned president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa following his resignation in the throng of mass protests in 2022.


Given the daily struggles of the people, the government spending on the celebrations has been subjected to blistering criticism from many Sri Lankans. Earlier on Friday, the 'Aragalaya' movement that led the anti-government protests last year, announced a 24-hour 'Satyagraha,' a peaceful and non-violent form of protest against the celebrations, set to start on the evening of February 3, in Colombo.

"We are doing this 'Satyagraha' to highlight our displeasure against the massive misuse of public funds while people of Sri Lanka are suffering without [being able to meet] their basic needs," Melani Gunathilaka, an independent activist, and protester from the movement, told DW.

Medical shortages, malnutrition and poverty have led to the suffering of the future generations of Sri Lanka, and basic rights and needs of the people are being threatened, she noted.

The country's medical officers agree, saying that while the 75th independence should be celebrated, how much is spent, and the mode of celebration should have been decided after considering the economic situation of the country and the people.

"Around the country, [public] hospitals, from the National Hospital in Colombo to peripheral hospitals, are faced with drug shortages," Dr. Chamil Wijesinghe, media spokesperson for the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), the most powerful body of medical professionals in Sri Lanka with 130 branches, told DW.

"Around 140 drugs are out of stock, while [the] majority of drugs are in short [supply]. Healthcare services are compromised to a certain extent due to this shortage," Dr. Wijesinghe added.

"So, the GMOA would like to remind the authorities that there are many more priorities when it comes to [the allocation of] limited government funds," he said, especially given the drug shortages, and other daily struggles of the general public.

A collective celebration

But Malinda Seneviratne, an independent political analyst from Sri Lanka, disagrees. A nation state must affirm its status in various ways, and one way of doing this is to collectively celebrate independence or its national holiday, he says.

He adds that last year, Sri Lankans celebrated the Sinhala and Hindu new year as communities, during the harshest of times, despite the lack of fuel, ongoing power cuts and mass protests. "Likewise, independence also must be celebrated collectively," he said.

Seneviratne says that LKR 200 million is not a "huge" amount of money considering the current inflation. When divided by the size of the population [of 22 million] it is approximately LKR 10 per person, he noted.  

"If the government instead distributes this amount equally among the population, won't [the people] instead call it ridiculous? Independence celebration is a national, collective event, so some money is spent," he said.

Millions in Sri Lanka going hungry

Calling for the festivities to be held at a "minimal cost," President Wickremesinghe insisted last week that the celebrations for the 75th anniversary must be held. "If not, the international community will say [Sri Lanka] has no money even for [celebrating independence]," Wickremesinghe said.  

Dhananath Fernando, Chief Executive Officer of Advocata Institute, a Colombo based policy think tank, looks at the dilemma through a different lens.

For example, LKR 200 million may be a small amount compared to the education budget [LKR 232 billion], but people see these things "emotionally," he said, especially when things are not going well, and when children are suffering.

"Sometimes even if LKR 20 is spent by the government, that might still become a concern," he added. In this instance, "the optics" may not be right, because the government is spending on celebrations while people are suffering.

"So rather than spending this money [on independence celebrations], it would have been a better option to save it instead," he said.

Edited by: John Silk

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