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20TH AMENDMENT PRESENTS SPECIAL CHALLENGE IN A PLURAL SOCIETY

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by Jehan Perera

The draft 20th Amendment to the constitution is a tribute to the faith placed in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by the members of the government and the general population. This proposed change in the supreme law of the country will provide him with virtually unfettered powers and dominance over parliament and all other institutions of state. The transfer of power away from parliament and to the President is reflective of the trust and confidence placed in President Rajapaksa by the framers of the proposed law and by the cabinet of ministers that approved it unanimously.

The day after the draft amendment was presented to the general public I participated in a meeting of a divisional level inter-religious committee in Beruwela, a little south of Colombo which has previously been the site of significant inter-religious strife. Those I spoke to were generally of the view that most people were unperturbed by, and indeed positive towards, the proposed law as they believed that the president should be given as much power as needed to solve the country’s problems and make it a developed one.

The widespread hope is that President Rajapaksa will be different from all leaders who came before and will genuinely put the country’s interests before anything else. The track record they see is of the leader who performed the seemingly impossible task of eliminating the LTTE, once known as the most deadly terrorist organization in the world, and keeping the Covid virus at bay, despite it rampaging through much richer and more developed countries.

As President has come to the highest office in the land from outside of politics, he is untainted by the compromises that politics usually entails. The failure of leaders of the past to solve the people’s problems and take the country to the path of self-sustaining development has made President Rajapaksa the focus of people’s hopes. On the other hand, many political commentators, even those who have been supportive of the president and the government, are cautioning against the empowerment of a single institution of governance at the expense of all others.

 

CAUTIONARY VOICES

 

In terms of the amendment, the President can remove the Prime Minister, a member of the cabinet or any other minister and has authority to dissolve Parliament after completion of sittings for a period of one year. The 20th Amendment also empowers the President to make appointments to top positions of the state having obtained observations of the Parliamentary Council, which comprises members from Parliament.

The President will accordingly be empowered to appoint the Chief Justice and judges of the Supreme Court, the President and the judges of the Court of Appeal, the Attorney General, the Auditor General and also to make appointments to the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission, Judicial Service Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, the Finance Commission and the Delimitation Commission.

The evolution of democracy worldwide over the past few centuries has led to concepts of separation of powers where the executive (presidency), legislature (parliament) and judiciary (courts) are made independent of each other, though the degree of such independence will vary from country to country. The 20th Amendment is by and large a return to the 18th Amendment of 2010 which made the Parliament subservient to the Presidency. The abuse of power and corruption that occurred during the pre-2015 period, and their negative consequences, contributed to the change of government at that time. The entire basis of the 19th Amendment was to ensure that the Rule of Law prevailed over the rule of men and that misuse and abuse of power should be prevented through a system of checks and balances in which the independence of institutions such as the judiciary was safeguarded to the maximum.

A justification for the transfer of power to the presidency stems from the inability of the previous government to govern effectively under the 19th Amendment to the constitution which was passed in 2015 in order to reduce the power of the presidency and to strengthen other institutions of governance. In a sense the 20th Amendment is a reaction to the failure of the 19th Amendment which had sought to reverse the centralizing effects of the 18th Amendment.

 

PLURALISM REQUIRED

 

The need for the sharing of power is particularly strong in plural societies where there are different interest and identity groups which need to be represented in decision making. If the rulers and decision makers are from one community, members of other communities will tend to feel alienated. There are incipient signs of this happening. The representation of ethnic and religious minorities in the government, among the ministers and ministry secretaries is very low.

Sri Lanka is a country that experienced three decades of internal war in which the chief protagonists came from different ethnicities and religions. This protracted war lay waste to parts of the country, stunted its developmental potential and caused immense human suffering. It was preceded by three decades of political conflict between the leaders of the different communities which continues to this day. Following the welcome end of the war the country has become increasingly susceptible to inter-religious conflict.

The absence of violence and appearance of peacefulness in Sri Lanka today must not beguile anyone to think that these problems are over for all time. If sections of the people feel that they are not being included in decision making, and that decisions being made exclude them, there can grow an alienation of heart and mind that cannot be stopped by more security measures and more intelligence gathering alone. The importance of parliament in the context of Sri Lanka’s plural society is the fact that its 225 members are meant to represent the interests and loyalties of all of the voters who cast their votes and select those who will best represent them. These votes are drawn from diverse backgrounds, rich and poor, salaried and daily paid, urban and rural, belonging to different ethnicities and professing different religions.

The pluralism that is part and parcel of Sri Lankan society needs to be reflected and protected by its institutions. The best protection against one-dimensional thinking are institutions that have plurality within them, such as parliament, provincial councils and local government authorities. These institutions can become the avenues for voicing and advocating for a collective vision. They need to be empowered and not diminished. What Sri Lanka needs is a plurality of empowered institutions. The cohesion must come from a policy that is inclusive. Central oversight by an honest and strict leadership can ensure that their delivery is efficient.



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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