February 2018


Sri Lanka Celebrates 70 Years of Independence
February 2018




Hoisting the flag of the newly independent nation for the first time at Independence Square, Colombo

As Sri Lanka commemorates seven decades of Independence, a look back on the nation's journey from colonial rule to life as an independent country.


Words: Sanjiva Wijesinha


On February 4th this year, Sri Lanka will celebrate her 70th birthday. It was on this day in 1948 that the British, who conquered the island in 1796, formally granted independence to a land that had been controlled by European nations for nearly 450 years.


Initially the country was occupied by the Portuguese who arrived in 1505 and established direct rule of the coastal region following the death of King Dharmapala of Kotte. Subsequently the Dutch ruled since 1640. However, in 1796 the Dutch surrendered to the British who initially planned to administer the island from India as part of their Madras Presidency - but recognising the potential and valuable natural harbours of this strategically located island off the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, they made it a crown colony with its own governor independent and separate from British India. Thus, Sri Lanka became a crown colony in 1802 and with the signing of the Kandyan Convention in 1815 the entire island came under the British. And thus the country became Ceylon.


Unlike other former British colonies such as the United States, India, Pakistan and Kenya, self-rule was achieved here by negotiation, consultation and compromise. Largely due to the efforts of nationalist leaders such as D S Senanayake (who became the nation's first Prime Minister), Ponnambalam Ramanathan, James Pieris, E W Perera and T B Jayah to name just a few, independence from the British became a reality in 1948. Sri Lanka became a dominion within the British Commonwealth. This was similar to the status of countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which even today govern themselves, but have the British sovereign (currently Queen Elizabeth II) as their head of state.

Unlike other former British colonies such as the United States, India, Pakistan and Kenya, self-rule was achieved here by negotiation, consultation and compromise.


Ceylon after independence was governed by a democratically elected bicameral legislature modelled on Britain's two houses of parliament in Westminster. Interestingly, in the first elections to the colony's state council in 1932 both women and men were entitled to contest seats and to vote. This was long before women had the vote in other Asian countries. In fact, women had been given the vote in Britain only three years previously.


Having been a dominion under the British crown for 34 years, in 1972 the country voted to become a republic with its own head of state and hence forth became known as Sri Lanka.


Sri Lanka has achieved much during the past seven decades. For a start, the country has made impressive strides in fields such as education, health and gender parity - having today a highly educated population with one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. The rate of female literacy too is very high; women occupy prominent roles in administration and the professions. This after all is the nation, which in 1965, gave the world its first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike - many years before Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher became prime ministers in their countries.

This after all is the nation which in 1965 gave the world its first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike...


When the British left in 1948 the country's economy was essentially an agrarian one - growing tea, rubber, cinnamon and coconut that were shipped through British companies to markets in the western world. Although plantations still play a big role in the country's exports, tourism is now a major foreign exchange earner. Over the last ten years the island has become a popular tourist destination offering visitors a variety of activities and experiences on an island just 65,000 square kilometres in area. Whether you are interested in culture and heritage, such as historical temples or magnificent religious festivals, wildlife or rainforest walks, beautiful tropical beaches for surfing or just lazing, succulent fresh seafood or the world's best tea - Sri Lanka has something for everyone!

The Independence Day celebrations will be held at the Galle Face Green on February 4, 2018 from 8.30am to 11.30am.


Just as Sri Lankans retained, even after the British left, those quirky English habits such as drinking afternoon tea and driving on the left of the road, they also retained a love of the typically English game of Cricket, the most popular sport in the country. One of Sri Lanka's greatest sporting achievements came when the national team won the Cricket World Cup in 1996, defeating the more fancied and powerful Australians in the final game.


Colombo's skyline has certainly changed since I was a child. Modern highways now link the capital city to the old seaport of Galle, with its picturesque Dutch Fort and also Matara in the South. To the North it connects to the ancient cultural centre of Jaffna with the impressive Nallur Kandasamy Kovil and beautiful Casuarina Beach.


This island with a long and colourful history going back millennia has over these many years become a melting pot of ethnic and religious groups - but it was only seventy years ago that it took its place as an independent nation on the world stage.


For a small nation of just 22 million people living on an island, it has been a blessed and eventful journey.

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    D S Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon

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    Stamp issued in 1949 to commemorate the first anniversary of Independence

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    Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon and the first woman prime minister of the world

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    The Duke of Gloucester, representing Queen Elizabeth II, reads the proclamation granting independence to Ceylon on February 4, 1948

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    Modern highways such as the Southern Expressway have changed the landscape of the country

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    A parachute display at the 69th Independence Day Parade (2017)
    © Ministry of Defence

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