|Sri Lankan navy personnel prepare to fire a 21-gun salute on the seafront Galle Face Promenade to mark Sri Lanka's 65th anniversary of independence from Britain in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Feb. 4, 2013. (Xinhua/Pushpika Karunaratne)
By Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO, Jan. 4 (Xinhua) -- Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Monday took a tough stance against Western criticism on human rights and reconciliation aspects within the island and called for ethnic harmony in an island that has a long history of racial dischord.
For the first time in history Sri Lanka's 65th Independence Day celebrations were held in the scenic seaside town of Trincomalee in the once war torn Eastern Province. The town was liberated from the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam in 2008.
Over three thousand military personnel from the army, air force, navy and police participated in a massive parade while 860 children made up a colourful cultural display. However, the celebrations got off to a drenched start with rains holding up the programme for more than an hour.
Sporadic rains continued to provide much discomfort to participants with media, diplomats and other invitees having to scramble for shade several times during the two-and half-hour extravaganza. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not protected from the elements during the signing on the national anthem.
Perhaps to wrap up faster Rajapaksa made a comparatively short speech of eighteen minutes that highlighted the upcoming challenges to Sri Lanka's international image.
Clearly referring to the U.S. decision to table a second resolution on Sri Lanka at the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) later this month, Rajapaksa recalled that the UN Charter stood for the sovereign integrity of member states.
"Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter," he said.
He went on to say that Sri Lanka has always respected the Charter of the United Nations.
"We strongly hold the position that whether powerful or weak, any country in the United Nations Organization should respect its Charter."
Canada has already agreed to support the U.S. while Britain and India are yet to decide their stance on supporting the resolution. The situation is made all the more crucial, analysts say as these countries also receive over 60 percent of Sri Lanka's exports and could have deep economic impact on a country focused on economic growth.
Undeterred by these developments Rajapaksa emphasised that he would not allow any external interference and pledged to continue the non-aligned foreign policy adopted by Sri Lanka. He noted that the new diplomatic relations being promoted by the government are in line with this ideology.
The president was also vocal about recent tension between the Sinhalese and Muslims communities in different parts of the country. He insisted that the peace won at the end of three decades of war in 2009 should not be squandered with fresh ethnic violence.
"It is necessary to state on this occasion that as much as racism, religious differences too can be a cause for the destruction of a country. If anyone is trying to build religious rivalry in Sri Lanka again, they do not serve their religion, but serve the interests of separatism in the country. We cannot leave room for what could not be achieved through terrorism to be gained by this," he added.
Sri Lanka's main opposition, the United National Party (UNP), was a notable absentee at the Independence Day celebrations, preferring to hold a separate event in the southern city of Galle. The President's two brothers, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary GotabayaRajapaksa were also not present but Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne, though looking frail, was at hand to welcome President Rajapaksa.
Trincomalee town looked at its best with miles of roads, fences and public buildings being spruced up for the event. National flags fluttered everywhere but shops were closed as most residents preferred to spend the day at home. However, there were plenty of crowds that had arrived from other parts of the country.
The government is keen to see the Eastern Province economically developed and has made it a part of the massive infrastructure development push taking place elsewhere in the country. During the last four year more than ten billion dollars are estimated to have been spent on infrastructural projects including highways, ports, airports and harbours.
Most of the VIP guests were accommodated in the air force and other camps. The latter was also the venue for a massive party with over 3 000 guests on Monday evening and smaller get-togethers were scattered at the scenic coves along the shoreline. Vehicle convoys were whizzing through tight security cordons linked around the town with little attention to speed limits.
State-run Ceylon Transport Board busses that brought hundreds of people from other towns were lined up near seven massive white tent arches near the shoreline. The tents were occupied by VIP guest including tri-forces commanders and diplomatic community while the people were herded into a ground, which was churned into a mud pit due to the rains.
Following the Independence Day celebrations many broke into groups to explore Trincomalee while the military parade participants piled into busses and left for their camps with baila tunes from their respective bands trailing merrily after them.