Sri Lanka marked 75 years since independence with a somber military parade on Saturday, as its president urged reflection on past "errors and failures" at a time of national crisis. Since the 1948 end of British rule, the island nation has spent much of its history at war with itself, including a decades-long Tamil separatist rebellion that claimed up to 100,000 lives and two deadly communist insurgencies.
Its 22 million people are also still reeling from the hardships triggered by an unprecedented economic collapse last year that brought months of food and fuel shortages. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office last July at the peak of the resulting political unrest, said Saturday's anniversary came at "an extremely critical and challenging time".
"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 in a statement. Wickremesinghe, flanked by top military brass, watched the hour-long procession of soldiers and army vehicles along a seafront promenade in the capital Colombo, inaugurated by ceremonial artillery fire but boycotted by opposition parties. For several months last year the boulevard was the site of a protest encampment erected by Sri Lankans outraged over the island's economic calamity and mismanagement by its leaders.
The protest movement peaked in July when a huge crowd stormed the home of Wickremesinghe's predecessor and chased him into temporary exile, from where he issued his resignation. Wickremesinghe ordered security forces to dismantle the camp hours after he was sworn into office and has since set about repairing Sri Lanka's ruined finances. His government has hiked taxes and is negotiating with international creditors including India and China to clear the way for an urgently needed International Monetary Fund bailout.
"I am confident that even at this juncture we will pool our energies... to rise up from the current economic abyss and build back stronger," Wickremesinghe's statement said. - Troubled history - But the impact of the crisis is still being acutely felt, with Wickremesinghe saying last week that the economy had contracted by up to 11 percent in 2022. On Friday the UN children's agency reported that nearly one in three Sri Lankans were in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the downturn. "Sri Lanka is a bankrupt nation, so we have to start from zero now," political analyst Ranga Kalansooriya told AFP ahead of the independence anniversary.
The economic collapse is the latest of several calamities that have pockmarked Sri Lanka's history since independence.
Nearly 31,000 people were killed when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami struck the tropical nation's coastline. A series of coordinated Islamist attacks on hotels and churches during Easter Sunday services in 2019 killed 279 people. Rights groups say that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of the decades-long civil war during an army assault that crushed the remnants of the Tamil Tigers leadership. Sri Lanka has resisted international calls for a probe into war crimes allegations and later governments have been accused of abetting continued discrimination against the island's Tamil minority. Kalansooriya said Sri Lanka had yet to heal the wounds from the long conflict and its political leaders had failed to bring reconciliation. "We needed a Mandela in Sri Lanka," he said, "but what happened in the aftermath was entirely different."
Sri Lanka, a tropical paradise that has spent much of its modern history at war with itself, on Saturday marked 75 years since the end of British colonial rule. Here are nine key dates in the history of the island nation:
- 1948: Independence - On February 4, 1948, the South Asian island of Ceylon is granted independence after more than 150 years as a colony under the British crown. Its first government inherits an economy more prosperous than other regional countries but largely dependent on tea plantations, worked by ethnic Tamil laborers brought over from neighboring India.
- 1972: Tamil Tigers formed - The same year Ceylon adopts a republican constitution and renames itself, Sri Lanka, a separatist rebellion is launched by a Tamil armed movement.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the group later renames itself, soon begins a campaign of suicide bombings, assassinations, and attacks on infrastructure that escalates into an all-out civil war.
- 1987: Indian peacekeepers deployed
- Neighbouring India deploys troops to parts of Sri Lanka to maintain a fragile truce but winds up fighting the Tamil Tigers guerrillas it had previously trained and equipped. India withdraws in 1990 after losing more than 1,200 soldiers and the following year its former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber.
- 1993: President assassinated - President Ranasinghe Premadasa is killed in an attack by a Tamil Tigers suicide bomber during a May Day rally in the capital Colombo.
- 2004: Boxing Day tsunami - Nearly 31,000 people are killed when the Boxing Day tsunami strikes several towns on Sri Lanka's eastern and southern coasts.
- 2009: Civil war ends - Tamil Tigers leaders are killed in a huge military assault that crushes the rebellion and ends a decades-old civil war that claimed up to 100,000 lives.
- 2015: UN urges war crimes probe - The UN calls for an independent probe into alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan government forces during the civil war. Human rights groups say that 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the war's final weeks after indiscriminate attacks on LTTE strongholds.
- 2019: Easter Sunday bombings - Coordinated suicide bombings on Easter Sunday church services and upscale hotels by an Islamist cell kill 279 people, prompting reprisal attacks on Sri Lanka's Muslim community.
- 2022: Economic crisis - Sri Lanka defaults on its foreign debt after running out of foreign currency to pay for vital imports, forcing its 22 million people to endure months of food and fuel shortages.
The resulting hardships spark huge protests that peak when a crowd storms the home of then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who flees the country and issues his resignation from Singapore.