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Sunday, 24 May 2009





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Government Gazette

Republic Day:

A turning point in the island's history

May 22 comes and goes "unheeded and unsung" nowadays. Its significance is forgotten although it is a very, very important day in our island's history.

The day is as important as February 4. Yet, we let the day pass by like any other day, no celebration whatsoever, not even a public holiday. If any mention is made of the importance of the day, it is only a passing reference.

But how many of you are aware of its significance?

The first President of the Republic of Sri Lanka, William Gopallawa and the first Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

It was on this day, May 22, 1972 that our country became truly free and independent. On this historic day the "Republic of Sri Lanka" was born.

February 4 is celebrated as Independence Day. And what is the independence we refer to here? Of course the independence we gained from British rule. From March 2, 1815 our country was a colony in the British Empire. On February 4, 1948 as you are all aware by now we ceased to be a colony governed by Britain, and became free to govern ourselves and conduct our own affairs as we wished.

However, we did not sever (break) all connections with Britain. We were still a Dominion in the British Empire like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Head of State was still the Monarch of Britain. In 1948, when we gained independence, the Monarch was King George VI. He died in 1952 and was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II on February 6, 1952.

From then on, until May 22, 1972 she was our Head of State. She and her father before her, were represented here in Ceylon (as our country was then called) by the Governor General.

We had our own law courts and could pass our own laws, BUT the verdict of the Supeme Court was not final. People could appeal to the Privy Council which is the highest judicial body in Britain (UK). The Privy Council either quashed (dismissed) the Supreme Court verdict or upheld it. So you see, Britain still had a hold on us, in such important matters.

The coalition of three political parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) that won the election in 1970 and formed the government, decided it was time we cut off all such ties with Britain and became a truly free and independent nation like our neighbours, India and Pakistan. Two years after independence, on August 15, 1947, India still had King George, VI as Head of State. The government then decided that India should be truly independent and became a Republic. A new constitution was drafted in 1949, and the Union of India was proclaimed a Republic on January 26, 1950.

Then Pakistan, a new country born on August 14, 1947, did the same six years later. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was proclaimed in March 1956.While our two friends and neighbours were independent republics, we, Ceylon 22 years after independence, were still a Dominion in the British Commonwealth.

The word 'Empire' was dropped by this time. Now it was known as the British Commonwealth of Nations.

What is a republic? It is a State in which supreme power is held by the people or its elected representatives, or by an elected or nominated President, NOT by a monarch.

So, the coalition government of Ceylon soon set about drafting a new constitution. Minister late Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, headed the committee that drafted the new republican constitution.

The new constitution did away with all connections with Britain. The British monarch was no longer Head of the State. So the office of Governor General was redundant.Now Head of State - the President was one of our citizens, He was the Janadhipathi, the chief of the people.

The connection with the Privy Council was severed. The Supreme Court was now Supreme the highest judicial body, in the country. Even the official name of the country. Ceylon, since 1815, was dropped and the old name Sri Lanka was adopted.

The new parliament was called the State Assembly and this was the only assembly of members elected to represent the people. Earlier there were two Houses of Parliament - the Lower House or House of Representatives elected by the people and the Upper House or Senate made up of members nominated by the parties in the Lower House and those nominated by the Governor General. The new constitution did away with the Senate, or Upper House. Now there was only one-House The State Assembly of elected representatives of the people.

The new constitution was adopted by an assembly of the members of the old parliament on May 22, 1972 and the Republic of Sri Lanka was born.The venue of this historic gathering of members of the House of Parliament and invitees from the public, was the Navaranga Hala, in the Royal Junior School. Why the Navaranga Hala? Because the Parliament building could not accommodate such a large gathering.

Do the boys of Royal Junior know that this historic event took place in their hall? Perhaps not all are aware of this fact. This hall is thus linked to the island's history like the 'Magul Maduwa' in Kandy where the Kandyan Convention - handing over the kingdom to the British, was signed on March 2, 1815.William Gopallawa, the out-going Governor General, took his oaths of allegiance to the Republic of Sri Lanka as her first President. All members of the new assembly and ministers took their oath of allegiance. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Sri Lanka. She was also the first woman Prime Minister of the World.

It is a great pity that Republic Day goes unnoticed. So, it is not at all surprising that today many school children and even some adults do not know that this historic event took place on May 22, 1972. It was a turning point in the Island's history of over 2,500 years.

They do not know that one chapter had closed and another began on that day.In the first few years after 1972, Republic Day was a public holiday.

But, in the last 25 years or so, Independence Day is to the fore, February 4 is a public holiday, and a day of celebrations, while Republic Day is just another day which passes us by like last Friday. However, it is not so in India and Pakistan. Both countries celebrate both these days, Independence Day and Republic Day, while we Sri Lankans have allowed Republic Day to fall into oblivion.


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