COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka marked its 75th anniversary of independence on Saturday as a bankrupt nation, with many citizens angry, scared and in no mood to celebrate.
Many Buddhists and Christian clerics had announced a boycott of the celebration in the capital, while activists and others have expressed anger over what they see as a waste of money at a time of severe economic crisis.
Despite criticism, armed troops marched along Colombo’s main promenade displaying military equipment, while navy ships sailed the sea and helicopters and planes flew overhead.
Catholic priest Reverend Cyril Gamini has called this year’s celebration of independence from British rule a “crime and a waste” at a time when the country is going through such economic difficulties.
“We ask the government which independence they will proudly celebrate by spending a sum of 200 million rupees ($548,000),” Gamini said, adding that the Catholic Church does not condone spending public funds on the celebration, and that no priest would attend the ceremony. .
Around 7% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people in this predominantly Buddhist country are Christians, most of them Catholics. Although they are a minority, the views of the church are respected.
Prominent Buddhist monk Omalpe Sobitha also said there was no reason to celebrate and the ceremony was just a display of weapons made in other countries.
Sri Lanka is effectively bankrupt and has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund.
The country’s total external debt exceeds $51 billion, of which $28 billion is due to be repaid by 2027. In addition to the lingering scars of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsustainable debt and a severe balance of payments crisis have resulted in severe shortages of basic necessities such as fuel, medicine and food.
The shortage sparked protests last year that forced then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign.
There have been signs of improvement under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, but power cuts continue due to fuel shortages, hospitals are struggling with medicine and the treasury can’t find money to pay salaries government employees.
The crisis has made people apathetic towards political leaders.
In order to contain the country’s spending, the government drastically increased income taxes and announced a 6% reduction in funding allocated to each ministry for the year. The army, too, which has grown to more than 200,000 during a long civil war, will be reduced by nearly half by 2030.
A group of activists began a silent protest in the capital on Friday, condemning the government’s independence celebrations and its failure to ease economic pressure.
Bharata Mallawarachi, Associated Press
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