x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sri Lanka marks 63 years of freedom

At multidenominational ceremony, expatriates say their country, now unburdened by war, can take its place as a business and travel hub.

Sri Lankan children living in the UAE perform a traditional dance during the Independence Day celebration of their nation at the Al Wasl grounds in Dubai yesterday.
Sri Lankan children living in the UAE perform a traditional dance during the Independence Day celebration of their nation at the Al Wasl grounds in Dubai yesterday.

DUBAI // A prayer ceremony invoking blessings on Sri Lanka marked the South Asian nation's 63rd Independence Day from British colonial rule yesterday.

About 150 expatriates bowed their heads at a function in the Sri Lankan consular office in Dubai as a Buddhist monk and Hindu, Muslim and Christian officials prayed for peace.

"I ask that all people should live as one - Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus," said Abdul Mohammed Rawhan, who read from the Quran. "If people live in harmony there will no trouble in the future." Sri Lanka won independence from the British on February 4, 1948.

This year also marks the second post-war celebrations since the end of decades of ethnic conflict after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. The rebels had fought since 1983 for a separate homeland for the minority Tamils in the Sinhala-majority nation. About 70,000 people were killed in the civil war.

A Hindu priest, Ganesh Iyer, said he prayed for soldiers protecting the country and for expatriates living overseas. According to the Sri Lankan embassy in the UAE, there are about 238,000 Sri Lankans working in the emirates, many of them employed in the fields of healthcare, hospitality and domestic help. Two-way trade between the island nation and the UAE is worth about US$550 million.

"I ask for blessings for the development of the country, for gainful employment of citizens and success for students," Mr Iyer said while chanting Sanskrit verses. "I pray for growth and ask for the prosperity of the Sri Lankan people."

Sri Lanka's new consul general to Dubai and the Northern Emirates, MM Abdul Raheem, who assumed office last month, read a message from the nation's president, Mahinda Rajapakse.

"Building a united Sri Lanka is the best way to preserve our independence," Mr Raheem read from the message.

The consul general said that one of his main tasks was changing Sri Lanka's image for the better and promoting it as a tourist destination and business hub.

"We are celebrating with a new spirit because the country is now free of terrorism," Mr Raheem said. "The people now have a true feeling of independence and freedom. This can be a new beginning for the Sri Lankan diaspora in Dubai and the Northern Emirates of mutual understanding and growth."

Earlier in the ceremony, Mr Raheem unfurled the orange and yellow Sri Lankan national flag, which is decorated with a lion holding a sword. He also lit a brass lamp as a musician blew into a conch shell and played traditional drums.

Chamodh Lasika, a 10-year-old student at Al Diyafah High School in Dubai, was attending his first National Day celebration.

"I love my country," said Chamodh, who was wearing blue and white flowing robes. "I want to always celebrate its freedom. I will come here every year from now on to celebrate our freedom."

Ranjith Abeykoom, a minister who works for the agency that promotes Sri Lankan, said the day signified freedom from the colonial rule.

"For 400 years we were under the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British," he said. "Then we were controlled by others, but now we can formulate our own system."

The UAE imports roughly 90 million kilograms of tea from Sri Lanka yearly, and the country is the main source of tea in the emirates. Up to 80 per cent of that amount is re-exported to countries including Iran and Iraq.

Other Sri Lankan expatriates who have made Dubai their home said the celebrations united them.

"Traditionally, this has been an important day," said Sudath Kuruppu, a sales manager for Sri Lankan Airlines. "You now feel the freedom on Colombo's streets and the meaning of the word independence has been brought back to life."

Suren Swaminathan, a manager with the insurance company Alico, said it helped link children to their home country. "There is always a feeling of nostalgia when we get together," said Mr Swaminathan, who has lived in Dubai for 30 years.

Renchen Perera, a Christian priest, said it was vital that kinship be practised by all.

"Freedom and love come from within," Mr Perera said. "A family must be filled with love, and the same applies for the country. However good the political structure, there should be love for each other. That is a country's true freedom."

rtalwar@thenational.ae