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February 4, 1948 :

The day that changed the destiny of a nation

The ceremonial opening of Sri Lanka's first Parliament at Independence Square on February 10, 1948

The first Independence Day

With renewed hope, Sri Lanka would be celebrating its glorious 63rd Independence Day in another five days. It is the second Independence Day in a terrorism-free country. The event marks not only the defeat of the nearly 133 years of British rule, but also the remarkable sense of living in a truly peaceful country. There is a new awakening and stirring among Sri Lankans; the pride of silencing one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world while some powerful nations with all resources at their command are still grappling with terrorism.

Commenting on the independence we gained in 1948, certain scholars have written that freedom was achieved without shedding a drop of blood.

When taking the freedom struggle into consideration, this however, is doubtful. It seems to be a little far from the truth. If not for the independence we gained in 1948, we would never have developed to the level that we are today.

Just two years after the last Sinhala Kingdom came to an end, people of the Kandyan region started rebelling against the British rulers. Several other regions such as Dumbara, Matale, Hewaheta and Sabaragamuwa joined in the uprising which reached a peak in Uva-Wellassa. Since 1818, the freedom-loving sons of Sri Lanka, both clergy and laity, had been spearheading the freedom struggle at great risk to their lives.

Moneravila Keppetipola Dissawa, who served the British as one of the high local officials, also joined the rebellion. The then Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg called in reinforcements as the rebellion became more intense. The British, to control the uprising, destroyed hundreds of acres of paddy cultivation, burned villages and killed many Sinhalese, especially in Uva-Wellassa. Keppetipola Dissawa was caught and beheaded.

According to the Crown Lands Ordinance and Waste Lands Ordinance, Sri Lankans lost their inherited land. According to records, nearly 1.3 million acres of land were confiscated by the British. Such lands gained forcibly were sold to British planters to start coffee cultivation. When coffee was destroyed by the blight, the British started growing tea and by the mid-19th century, Ceylon Tea had become popular in the British market, bringing great wealth to a small class of white tea planters. The British realised that the highlands of Sri Lanka were suited for coffee, tea and rubber cultivations and got the farmer community out of them, also bringing a death trap to Sri Lanka's valuable fauna and flora.

Rebel leaders

Led by Kadahapola Unnanse, a Bhikkhu, the second rebellion started in the Matale region and was joined by two young men, namely Francis Fernando from Moratuwa and Don David from Peliyagoda. They became famous as Weera Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda. Facing British reinforcements and firepower, their struggle with guerilla tactics failed and eventually the leaders were executed. They are still living heroes for patriotic Sri Lankans.

D.S. Senanayake at the planting of a mango sapling to mark the historic occasion

Though the Portuguese first invaded our country, followed by the Dutch, it was the British who heavily changed Sri Lanka's economic, legal, political and social background. Two segments could be seen in the latter part of Sri Lankan's freedom struggle - the Constitutionalists and the rebellious groups.

The Constitutionalists group comprised stalwarts of Sri Lanka's political history such as D.S. Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Robert Gunawardena, Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe, Ponnambalam brothers and T.B. Jayah along with other less radical members such as Natesa Iyer and D.A. Rajapaksa.

Patriotic citizens from all ethnicities joined hands to regain Sri Lanka's lost independence. Educationists, politicians and citizens of different ethnic groups were heavily involved in the freedom struggle. Hundreds of Ceylonese were arrested by the British colonial government during the riots of 1915.

Those who faced imprisonment without charges included prominent figures of the independence movement such as F.R. Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake, Anagarika Dharmapala, Dr. C.A. Hewavitarne, Captain Henry Pedris, D.C. Senanayake, Baron Jayatilaka, Edwin Wijeyeratne, W.A. de Silva, Arthur V. Dias, John Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena and A.E. Goonesinghe.

Political independence

Sri Lankans' struggle to gain political independence from the British paved the way for the Donoughmore Commission reforms to take place in 1931 followed by the Soulbury Commission recommendations. The Soulbury Commission was the most important result of the agitation for constitutional reforms in the 1930s.

British rule in Sri Lanka started under King George III (1815-1820) and continued under eight monarchs. Sri Lanka was ruled by George IV (1820-1830), William IV (1830-1837), Queen Victoria (1837-1901), Edward VII (1901-1910), George V (1910-1936), Edward VIII in 1936 and George VI from 1936.

Edward VIII abdicated the British Throne in favour of his love for Mrs. Wallis Simpson. On February 4, 1948 Sri Lanka regained political freedom from British Imperialism when King George VI sent his brother, the Duke of Gloucester as his representative to transfer power to locals.

In 1952, Queen Elizabeth II ascended the British Throne.

Sri Lanka was not the only Asian country that regained freedom from the British during the period 1947 and 1948. India and Myanmar (then Burma) started progressing rapidly following their newly won freedom. Myanmar, in particular, had sent out all non-nationals living there as illegal immigrants.

A few remains of the colonial era still linger around us. We still retain many beneficial characteristics of that era. For instance, English has been retained as a medium of instruction in schools as it was in the immediate post-independent era. Cricket has been the most popular sport of the country irrespective of ethnicity or religion. As Brigham Young once said, true independence and freedom can only exist in doing what's right.

Republic status

Sri Lanka shed its Dominion coat in 1972 and became a Republic. The Senate was abolished and Sinhala was established as the official language with Tamil as a second language. Appeals to the British Privy Council were abolished. Colonial plantations were nationalised.

Pioneers of Sri Lanka's freedom movement

Gloomy days followed under the JVP insurrection in 1971 and later with the emergence of LTTE terrorism in the North. A new constitution was introduced in 1978 which drastically altered the nature of governance in Sri Lanka. It replaced the previous Westminster style parliamentary government with a new presidential system modelled after that of France, with a powerful chief executive.

The President was to be elected by direct suffrage for a six-year term and was empowered to appoint, with Parliamentary approval, the Prime Minister and to preside over Cabinet meetings. J.R. Jayewardene became the first Executive President under the new Constitution.

It would be worth recalling that at the time of Independence in 1948, we were economically well ahead in the Asian region which prompted even a prime minister in the region to recommend that his country follow our model. The present Government, committed as it is to development, has taken vast strides in this regard.

Spiritual advancement must go hand in hand with such material development to create a virtue-loving society. The Government has spearheaded a campaign to materialise this objective, converting them to a civilised society. The President's Mathata Thitha concept is one such step.

Today, this new-found unity, a result of eradicating terrorism from our motherland, has opened the doors to the true potential of the country. Every Sri Lankan must do his/her part to lift the country out of its gloomy past. It is hoped that the fresh beginning would galvanise each citizen to do more during this second and most decisive phase of our Independence.

 

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