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On February 4th Sri Lanka marks its 66nd anniversary as an independent country; first as the Dominion of Ceylon, and since 1972, as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. This year's anniversary is significant, because it is the first since the end of the island nation's 26-year civil war.
Since gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka has developed a mostly democratic system with 2 dominant political parties. However, one area that was perceived by many to be less than democratic was the Sri Lankan ruling majority's policies toward its Tamil population.
About 74 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. At just under 13 percent, the Tamil population is the largest minority. The 2 groups have lived together for centuries, the chief differences between the 2 being language and religion. Nonetheless, since Sri Lanka gained its independence, relations between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamil communities were increasingly strained, with the Tamil population fearing discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.
Their fears were confirmed in 1956, when the government passed laws declaring Sinhala as the country's official language. It was the first in a series of steps over the following decades that discriminated against the Tamils. As a result, a number of groups advocating independence for Tamils were formed, some of them violent, like the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. Beginning in 1983, the LTTE waged a terrorist war against the Sri Lankan government, which finally ended on May 9, 2009 with the killing by the government army of the last of the LTTE leadership.
That is why this year, Sri Lanka's Independence Day is particularly important: it marks not only the emergence of Sri Lanka as an independent nation, it is also the first celebration of national unity since the end of the civil war.
The Sri Lankan government should take this opportunity to work toward achieving a lasting peace. It must promote justice and political reconciliation for all its citizens, and hold dialogue with all parties, including Tamils inside and outside Sri Lanka, on new mechanisms for devolving power.
Because only when all its citizens are equally represented in the government, and are equal before the law, can Sri Lanka truly live up to the promise of its democratic traditions.