Independence Day

Sri Lanka has just celebrated seventy years of independence from us Brits. You might expect such a notable anniversary to be accompanied by massive celebrations across the island but most of this kind of thing happens in Colombo and consists of the usual military showing-off. The day before National Day (Independence Day) on 4th February I asked a tuk-tuk driver whether there were any celebrations planned in Kandy. “Maybe one meeting, sir” he replied. “That’s disappointing on such an important day” “Not for me sir. I think everything better if the British come back.” Not the first time I’d heard this sentiment but usually it comes from older people not young tuk-tuk drivers. I made a bland comment about the British having done some good things and some bad things which elicited no response.

On the day itself I went for a walk in the hills with our friend Charlie who is over here at the moment. On the road back down to Jungle Tide we were passed by a succession of tuk-tuks adorned with large national flags, just driving around and shouting cheerfully at everyone they passed. “Good morning, sir!” they exclaimed and waved as they went on their merry way. Charlie mordantly commented that it was a little surprising to hear Sri Lankans addressing white men as “sir” on their Independence Day.

The Earl and Countess of Wessex did come over for the events. They even managed a side trip to Kandy and went around Peradeniya Gardens in a golf buggy but their busy schedule prevented them coming for afternoon tea at Jungle Tide. An official communique from the Ministry of Information described the Guest of Honour as “HRH Prince Edward, the Duck of Edinburgh”.

Of more significance has been the local elections, held on 10th February. As a former local government employee and a local democracy junkie I have mixed feelings about the Sri Lanka local elections. A mixture of envy and fear, to be precise. Envy that local government is taken seriously; fear that elections can be used as an encouragement to inter-communal strife. Some weeks ago we were shopping in Kandy where the traffic was even worse than usual. The city was log-jammed on a midweek morning. We asked our driver what was happening. “Ah, sir, this is elections.” “But the elections aren’t until February!” “Yes, this Nomination Day”. In the UK nomination to stand in a local election consists of scraping together a few signatures and taking a form into the council’s offices where it is no doubt briefly scrutinised and filed. Not in Sri Lanka. Each candidate turns up with busloads of supporters and a fleet of tuk-tuks crammed with yet more in order to present their forms to the officials. The assumption being that the officials are likely to be in the pay of a rival party and may rule the nomination forms invalid unless there is a show of force to suggest what might be the consequence of such a decision.

But the elections seem to have passed off peacefully. And I don’t intend to comment on the results…

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