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Appropriate time to appreciate Abraham Kovoor and his son Aries

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By Prof.Kirthi Tennakone
(Email: ktenna@yahoo.co.uk),
National Institute of Fundamental Studies

 

Abraham Kovoor and his son, Aries Kovoor, rendered an exemplary service to the nation; it is now largely forgotten and not acknowledged to the extent they deserve. They were unassuming characters whose ideals stand pre-eminently important in the context of retrograde tendencies in the present day society.

A resurgence in actions, based on superstitions and myths rather than rational argument seems to be escalating as evident from recent happenings in our society. Rituals and quackeries have stood in the way of the efforts to contain the pandemic. Deities not known to exist are said to have prescribed cures and disclosed causes of the illness. Listening to folk healers and soothsayers, people suffer or die in situations where a doctor would have cured their condition permanently. Children are made to feel inferior because of their horoscopes. On the eve of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination they are taken to shrines dedicated to various deities. Decisions based on superstition engender harm to individuals and the society and cause backwardness and misery.

Abraham Kovoor stood against superstitious beliefs, debunked occult practices and equated hoaxers to criminals, demanding their prosecution.

Aries Kovoor, following in the footsteps of his illustrious father, upheld rationalistic views and denounced extravagance. His main concern was why Sri Lanka and many other developing countries continued to remain weak in science? Hence the need to determine causes and adopt remedial measures. He was also critical of institutional empire building – the expansion or enhancing the authority of organisations, for purposes made to appear as development, even though in reality, the outcome turned out to be largely the opposite.

 

Abraham Kovoor: A born rationalist

Abraham Kovoor was born to an acclaimed Christian family in Kerala in 1898, His father was the Vicar General of the Thomma Syrian Church of Malabar. Despite his religious upbringing, he began to question dogmas of faith from childhood. He contracted flu, when he was eight years old, and his mother gave him a syrup, asking him to sip it while praying. The child opposed the instruction, saying, “If I take the medicine while praying, I cannot decide which cured the cough – whether it is the medicine or praying. Therefore, I will first consume the syrup and pray later if the cough had not been relieved.”

Abraham received basic education in a Christian Seminary and earned a degree in Biology from the Bengabasi College, Calcutta. After graduation, he served as a lecturer in Botany at CMS College, Kerala, for a short period, and migrated to Sri Lanka in 1928, accepting a teaching assignment at the Jaffna College. Subsequently, he held similar positions at Richmond College, Galle; S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and Thurstan College, Colombo.

Throughout his career, Abraham Kovoor pointed out the fallacies of superstition and obscurantism and the need for enlightening the society. In one of his books, Abraham Kovoor wrote “All those who claim to possess psychic, para-psychic and spiritual powers are either hoaxers or mentally deranged persons suffering from cryptesthesia (psychological disorder of abnormal perceptions). Nobody has and nobody ever had supernatural powers. They exist only in the pages of scripture and sensation mongering newspapers”.

After retirement, Abraham Kovoor invigorated his effort to curb superstition, presenting challenges to be answered by those who believe or indulge in such practices. In 1968, he offered a reward of Rs. 25,000 to anyone who could reveal the serial number of a currency note concealed in an envelope. Later, the value of the reward was increased to Rs. 1000,000. Understandably, none came forward to take up the challenge! A large majority of persons who claim paranormal capabilities, being frauds, fear exposure.

Supernatural powers do not exist to perform feats ruled out by rational logic. All phenomena determined to exist with certainty have been explained in terms of science or under its scrutiny. Everything observable comes under domain of science. The muddle-headed argument that there exist unobservable things, entails no meaning.

Abraham Kovoor, who said “I do not believe that I have a soul or spirit to survive my death and go to heaven or hell, or to roam about as my ghost, or even to be reborn”, passed away 18th September 1978.

 

Aries Kovoor questioned why science was weak in Sri Lanka

Aries Kovoor, born March 3, 1927 completed basic education in Jaffna and pursued a degree course in Botany at the Madras University. Thereafter, he returned to Sri Lanka and worked as a teacher at S. Thomas College. The principal of the school Dr. R.L. Hayman, persuaded him to continue research, making arrangements for him to visit Tata Institute, India, where he studied biological effects of radiation, in a laboratory headed by the nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha. In 1952, he succeeded in earning a research position at Sorbonne University, Paris, later ascending to a professorial rank at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France. He was also Professor at the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka and served as the Advisor on Scientific Affairs to the President of Sri Lanka from 1996-2005.

Aries Kovoor in his capacity as science advisor to the President, analyzed scientific performance of Sri Lanka adopting international norms of judging scientific research.

Scientists are supposed to publish their findings in scholarly journals. Normally, journals accept articles for publication after a strict review by experts in the respective areas of study. Thus, being able to publish in such periodicals, indicate the worthiness of the work. The evidence that your work is read and cited by other authors, further strengthens the recognition of what you have done. Today, there are data bases providing statistics pertaining above criteria determining the quality of research. Aries Kovoor used these data bases to analyze research performance in Sri Lanka. He didn’t fully advocate consensus prevalent in the country that our scientific weakness was a consequence of poor material facilities.

Instead, he believed lack of emphasis on quality of research, institutional bureaucracies and how they were manned, played a bigger role.

Aries Kovoor, opposed institutional empire building, another malady that silently dampens developmental plans and social progress. Empire building means expansion of organisations in terms of material possessions and personnel to meet egos of an individual or group in deviance with the purpose of their establishment. Incompetency, insecurity and seeking undue publicity, prompt empire building. Failure or underperformance, corruption and wasteful consumption of resources are often the causes of empire building.

Aries Kovoor cautioned that the funds allocated to an academic and research institution to achieve an objective should not be utilised to build an extravagant and redundant infrastructure with glorified officials and shining tables. He advocated contractual modes of hiring with higher perks and performance based renewals to ensure elimination of deadwood. The countries where scientific research flourishes have adopted similar strategies.

Aries Kovoor pioneered the establishment of the National Research Council (NRC) of Sri Lanka to accommodate ideals essential for uplifting scientific research and provide funding. He was of the opinion that in order to boost research and higher education, all appointments to academic and research institutions such as Chairmanships, Directors and Members of Governing Boards should be based on their accomplishments. Therefore, he adopted statistics based scholarly publications to recommend the membership of the managing board of NRC. He maintained the view that heads of academic and research institutions should be active researchers, who read write and publish; otherwise, they are unfit to hold such positions. He emphasised that talented Sri Lankan researchers should strive to become leaders in their discipline, and not mere assistants to collaborators overseas.

Aries Kovoor managed NRC as the elected chairman with the help of one single assistant and no other officers. He was always available in office and readily accessible without intervention of a third party, who would truly or falsely say he was not in office or was busy.

The true personality of Aries Kovoor is apparent from the following incident. Once he met with a minor road mishap because he could not properly manoeuvre his old car, when the engine suddenly developed a problem. Although he apologised the aggrieved party expressing willingness to compensate, police took vehicle into custody to check its road worthiness. He was sitting on a bench in the police station for hours. When his official driver arrived, a police officer arrogantly said, “Who this insane man is, he gave a private residential address in Wellawatta and declared he had no religion”. When the driver replied, “He is the Science Advisor to the President”, police officer replied “Sir, why didn’t you tell me all this earlier?”

Aries Kovoor too humble and unassuming in all his dealings, loved to work in the laboratory and amusingly interacted with his students as a primus inter pares. He was a listener, observer and avid reader, rather than talker. At official forums, he spoke mostly when his response pertained to an important decision or a clarification. Unlike his father, he never made public appearances, but was keen to engage in intellectual dialogue with students and colleagues. His attitude was not to work tirelessly to gain credit for himself, but to encourage and praise the good work of others. Unfortunately, such persons do not shine manifestly in the society; many whose success owes much to them, rarely recollect and fail to acknowledge.

Aries Kovoor remained active in his research and mentorship until he reached the age 80 years. He passed away peacefully on 1st December, 2006.

 

 

 

 



Features

Deteriorating rural economy, and food security

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Photo credit: Nefelibata travels

By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna
csweera@sltnet.lk

Sri Lanka is a land of villages. There are around 14,000 of them. According to the Dept. of Census and Statistics, around 80% of the Sri Lankan population live in villages and estates. Most of them are farmers who are supposed to be suitable to be kings if the mud on their bodies are washed out. According to recent estimates, about 30 percent of the total households, in therural districts of Sri Lanka, live below the poverty line. A socio-economic survey, conducted in the recent past, indicates that although the rural sector has the ability to engage in productive activities, there are many constraints.

Wild elephants:

Wild elephants roaming in some of the dry zone villages,causing death to many and destroying property, aggravate the socio-economic hardships the rural sector has to face, affecting their health, education and many other aspects of the lives.

Chronic Kidney Disease:

Around 70,000 people of the country are affected by a chronic kidney disease (CKDu) . They are mostly in the rural areas of the country and are affected socially and economically. The patients in the final stages of CKDu have to go for dialysis which again affects the economy of rural people . In some families both parents have died and their children are helpless.

Water shortage:

In spite of the country receiving around 100 billion cubic meters of water, annually, there are frequent water shortages, mostly in the rural areas where there are around 12,000 tanks. Most of them are silted, reducing the water holding capacity of these tanks, causing rural communities to face shortage of water which seriously affects crop production and various domestic activities.

Transport:

Lack of reasonable transport facilities, in the rural areas, is one of the main setback to Sri Lanka’s overall prosperity. People living in some rural areas have to cross rivers, using inflated rubber tubes, as there are no bridges. A large number of rural roads remain in a dilapidated condition but, the authorities were more interested in constructing highways.

Inputs:

Fertilisers are a major input in crop production. During the last two cropping seasons, inorganic fertilisers, and pesticides, were not available due to the utterly foolish decision of the former government. Currently, fertilisers are available but they were not available at correct times.

Farmers are forced to obtain seeds at a high cost. For example, a kg of chilli seeds is around Rs. 170,000 and a kg of cabbage seed is sold at Rs 400,000 in the market.

Pest attacks cause considerable problems to farmers. Last year there was the sena caterpillar called “Fall Armyworm” (Spodopteria Frugipedera) which destroyed large extents of cultivated crops. According to press reports, the same pest destroyed thousands of hectares of maize in Ampara causing severe difficulties to the farmers. Brown Plant Hopper tends to destroy paddy.

Marketing:

Those farmers who manage to harvest the crop of rice/vegetables are unable to sell it for a reasonable price. Currently, paddy farmers are unable to sell their Yala paddy crop to cover the costs. Often vegetable farmers are forced to destroy their produce due to inability to market their produce at reasonable prices. Marketing of agricultural products, at a profit to the farmer, is an issue which the authorities need to take cognizance of.

Unemployment:

Unemployment is rampant in the country. As a result of government-imposed restrictions on imports, commercial activities of thousands of companies are slowing down, seriously affecting the private sector in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those companies have been compelled to reduce employment, non-renewal of employment contracts, and halting new recruitments, resulting in an increase in unemployment. Thousands of workers, in the construction sector, have already lost their jobs. These business enterprises are currently facing liquidity issues due to a loss of revenue and difficulties in the importation of raw material. Thousands of SMEs have closed down mainly due to lack of inputs, resulting in an increase in unemployment.

As a result of these limiting factors, rural economy is deteriorating. For the success of any development programme to improve the rural economy, it is essential to address the problems of the rural communities. However, the previous governments did not give priority to these critical issues, faced by farmers, who continue to live in abject poverty as a result. Most of them have to pawn their jewellery, or resort to some other ways ,to obtain finances to obtain agricultural inputs, such as seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and labour. Some of them have become prey to micro-credit companies.

All these issues cause untold hardships to thousands of farmers and have a negative impact on the rural economy. No effective actions appear to have been taken, by the relevant authorities, to implement appropriate solutions to these problems, except appointing committees. Those representing the farming community, in the Parliament, appear to be not concerned about the plight of our farming population who have voted them to power.

There is no centralized planning in farming in the country which, sometimes, leads farmers to cultivating the same crop/s, ultimately resulting in gluts. Previous governments attempted to solve this problem by implementing programmes, such as Api Wawamu-Rata Nagamu and Divineguma. But we continue to spend nearly Rs.300 billion, annually to import food. If the authorities are genuinely keen to improve the rural economy, they need to address these issues.

Food Security:

Food Security is closely related to rural economy. According to the United Nation’s Committee on World Food Security, food security is at maximum level when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. According to World Food Programme’ s latest food security assessment, about three in 10 households (6.26 million people) in Sri Lanka are food insecure. Cost of essential foods has increased during the last few months hindering the population’s ability to consume nutritious food in sufficient amounts. The food security situation is worst among people living in the estate sector.

Nutritious food to meet the dietary requirements of people need to contain mainly carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. The local production of carbohydrates (mainly rice and sugar), and proteins (fish and milk) is inadequate to meet the demand. Hence, these food items are imported. During the last few years, we have spent nearly Rs. 300 billion, annually, on food imports, although it has decreased during the last few months, mainly due to restrictions on import of some food.

Availability of rice locally has decreased mainly because of inadequate availability of plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) through inorganic fertilisers. This has caused large amounts of rice to be imported. There appears to be no effective programmes to increase sugar production in the country. About two decades ago, in the1990s, sugarcane was cultivated in about 25, 000 hectares. At present, only about 12,000 ha are under sugarcane. The sugar factory, in Kantale, remains out of production, for nearly 15 years.

Availability of fish and milk has reduced due to a number of factors which the government appears to be not taking appropriate measures to increase the production of these items. According to press reports, the government is planning to import cattle from India and Pakistan to increase local milk production. It is foolish to import cattle to enhance milk production in the country without implementing an integrated programme to upgrade local cattle, making available cattle feed and improving veterinary practices in the country.

In Sri Lanka, during the last two decades, perhaps a few thousands of research studies, related to food security, involving billions of rupees worth of scarce resources, have been conducted. It is important that we utilize these research findings to find solutions to the pressing problems of the country. But there appears to be no effective system to make use of the research findings. Lack of an integrated plan is a factor responsible for the decline in food security. There has been rhetoric on rural economic development during the last few years. It is meaningful and effective actions that are necessary.

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A first indication of readiness to go on a new path

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By Jehan Perera

None too soon, President Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be putting the brakes on the government’s policy of repression in dealing with public protests. His decision to initially sign the Gazette notification declaring key areas of Colombo to be High Security Zones was roundly criticised by human rights organisations including the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. The business sector also complained that this decision which appears to have been made by the security establishment would be injurious to business. Revoking the High Security Zones made practical sense in view of the dubious legal basis of the declaration. The High Security Zones were to be set up under the Official Secrets Act which has hardly anything in common with the purpose of the new regulations.

The High Security Zone concept, which was practiced in the North and East of the country during the time of war, would have made it difficult for vehicles to even park on the roads without first obtaining special permission. There were also legal cases filed in the Supreme Court alleging violation of constitutional rights. The president would also have been aware of the resolution on Sri Lanka that is about to be presented for a vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As many as 26 countries have agreed to co-sponsor the resolution, of which 10 are current members of the UNHRC. Sri Lanka is finding itself isolated in terms of human rights in the eyes of the international community which can have costly consequences in terms of reducing the international sympathy and support that the country needs at this time.

The president’s early resort to the security forces to clamp down on the protest movement came as a surprise as his prior track record would have suggested a more nuanced approach to dealing with public agitation. As a follow up to the revocation of the High Security Zones, the president needs to consider revamping government policy on addressing the protest movement. So far the government approach has focused on suppressing the protest movement, on the justification that it will destabilise the economy through strike actions and by chaos on the streets. However, in Sri Lanka’s democratic system a policy of repression is unlikely to be workable. A government that is reluctant to go to the polls must not use the security forces as its prop. The president’s withdrawal of the High Security Zones in Colombo may be understood as an acknowledgement of this reality.

DECLARE AMNESTY

There is general acknowledgement that the President is the most suitable for the task of negotiating with, and making the political case, for more international aid to come to Sri Lanka. During his recent visits to foreign countries he met with top world leaders and would have made his mark. However, it is also important that the president should make his mark on the Sri Lankan people. He needs to win the trust of the people who did not vote for him. Having consolidated himself following his election by parliament to be president, he needs to take a more pro-active role in addressing the roots of the protest movement and not simply quashing its manifestations. There is a need to inform the people what the government will be doing to directly address the terrible impact of the economic crisis on the poorer sections of the population.

There is a widespread sense that those arrested for being members of the protest movement ought not to be subjected to the heavy hand of the law. At the present time, both in Geneva and in Sri Lanka, government spokespersons are denying the severity of the problems that exists. Successive governments denied the excesses that occurred during the war period, both in Geneva and at home. In Sri Lanka the majority of the population were prepared to go along with the denials of war time excesses due to the nature of the ethnic conflict that pitted the ethnic communities against one another. However, a policy of denying the impact of the economic crisis on the poor will not be able to garner similar support from any community in Sri Lanka and will end up pitting the majority of people against the government, just as happened during the height of the Aragalaya.

A declaration of an amnesty for all those accused and arrested for being part of the protest movement would be an act of follow-up statesmanship considering the controversy these arrests are causing both internationally and nationally with the human rights groups and the general public. The ongoing arrests of some who have been part of the protest movement have been justified on the basis that they engaged in violence or supported it. Others are accused of having burnt down the houses of government ministers, including the president’s own ancestral house which contained his family library and valuable works of art. Some have been arrested without being charged before the courts.

Magnanimity, empathy and fairness are very powerful in binding the community together. This is an opportunity for the president to show his empathy with all those others who down the years have lost their own homes to violence, during the two JVP insurrections and during the long period of the ethnic war. The government plans to compensate its members who lost their houses. It needs to also compensate those who lost their lives due to government failure, the most recent being those who died standing in long lines, or when their substandard gas cylinders exploded.

ACCEPT TRUTH

At present, the government is denying the veracity of studies done by international organisations, including UN organisations, on the extent of the malnutrition and stunting that affects children. They are also denying the veracity of claims of corruption in the procurement of fuel and other large contracts, even in the midst of economic crisis. It is also doing little to ameliorate these problems. The government points to the restoration of reasonable supplies of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and electricity which can create an impression of normalcy, but only for those who can afford the much higher prices at which these commodities are available. The government denials of the unequal distribution of the burden will ring hollow with the masses of people, whose support is needed if the government is to govern in a stable political environment.

Instead of denying the existence of problems, the government needs to accept their existence and take measures to address them. This applies to both the problems within the country and that are being discussed internationally. It needs to recognise that its denials have got no traction in Geneva, which is why Sri Lanka has had to face nine resolutions, each one getting more difficult to respond to. The resolution that will be voted on in the UN Human Rights Council later this week will call for greater support for the UN’s evidence gathering mechanism that has already been set up and to provide more support to those countries that pursue universal jurisprudence for crimes committed by Sri Lankan political and military leaders anywhere in the world.

The government needs to use every opportunity it can to seek the support of the international community. With the draft resolution now presented, the eyes of the international community are upon Sri Lanka. While it is too late to change the draft resolution, which will be soon voted on, the government can still seek to restore goodwill among those that are pursuing the resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva. An amnesty for those who participated in the protest movement could send a positive signal that the government is willing to heed the concerns of the international community regarding human rights and democratic freedoms. The possibility of amnesty to be part of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which there is acknowledgment of past violations, expression of regret and accountability for them can also be explored.

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Treaty for a Lost City – inconvenient facts or legal myths?

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By Andrew Sheng
Asia News Netowrk

Is Hong Kong a lost city or being re-born after its baptism of fire? Hong Kong was always a “borrowed place, borrowed time”, to quote the legendary journalist Richard Hughes (1906-1984), immortalised in John Le Carre’s novels on the intersection of media and espionage in cities like Berlin or Istanbul located at the borderlands of great power conflicts. Having returned the city on 1 July 1997, can Britain hold China to the terms and conditions of the 1984 Joint Declaration with China?

Chinese University of Hong Kong Law Professor CL Lim’s book, ” The Sino-British Joint Declaration” is a meticulously researched legal history of how the Joint Declaration came into being and whether it still has the force of law on both parties. There is a presumption that the Joint Declaration granted democratic rights to Hong Kong. The legal story is much more complex. This book draws on the British National Archives and study of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (1990), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) [ICCPR], United Nations Charter, etc., to lay out the facts and opinions for the reader to judge who is right or wrong.

Cities and states are defined by their Constitutions, communal values, geography, cultures and histories. Prior to 1841, Hong Kong was a barren rock that was indisputably part of China. Hong was ceded under the Treaty of Nanjing after the First Opium War (1839-42); but the expiry of the 99 year New Territories lease meant that Britain could not hold onto Hong Kong after 1997. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), following earlier Chinese governments, has never recognised any “unequal treaty” with the Western Powers, but adopted the face-saving principle that “a sovereign may delegate under international law such control or authority to another for a limited period.” Once that sovereignty is resumed, the PRC will not brook any interference in its internal sovereign matters.

This book reads like a series of Queen’s Counsel briefs, densely argued on complex and subtle points presenting different opinions and perspectives. In normal legal disputes, the arbiter would be an independent court, but there is no final decision between China and United Kingdom, which are the five members of the UN Security Council that can veto any rulings at the United Nations level. The only appeal left is to the court of global public opinion, which is today dominated by the English-speaking media. As media today becomes more and more ideologically driven, it is unlikely that deeply held views will be changed by legal or rational arguments.

The genesis of the Joint Declaration was the need to ensure a smooth return of Hong Kong to China. In 1983, when the New Territories lease (covering 92% of Hong Kong) was running out, Britain initially sought to renew the lease, but found that China under Deng Xiaoping was adamant that China would resume sovereignty over Hong Kong. With confidence slipping, the Hong Kong currency was under attack, only to be restored by a peg against the US dollar. This gave impetus to settle the terms and conditions of return. As the book painstakingly pointed out, British negotiators were operating from a weak hand, wanting to retain as much influence and economic benefits as possible post-1997.

As described in Chapter 3, democracy under colonialism was never part of the negotiations. Hong Kong representatives played no part in the discussions between two sovereign powers. The Joint Declaration itself did not mention the word “democracy”. It basically stated that the Hong Kong SAR “will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” (Article 2) and that rights and freedoms will be ensured by Hong Kong SAR law (Article 5). Since the Basic Law, HKSAR’s constitution, is PRC law, the final interpretation falls to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, not necessarily by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals.

The real point of dispute lies in the National Security Law, which was passed by the National People’s Congress in 2020, after the Hong Kong legislature was unable to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law. As public disorder arose with violent protests, the practical issue was whether HKSAR government could handle them without a National Security Law. Hong Kong was uniquely handicapped because in every other international financial centre, there exists very draconian national security laws that protect the integrity and security of the financial system, economy and sovereignty. Hong Kong was deeply polarised. No compromise seemed possible, and continued protests and violence would have destroyed Hong Kong. Between a rock and a hard place, the National Security Law was the least painful alternative barring more physical violence.

Treaty on a Lost Place highlighted the absurd situation of two sovereigns signing one piece of paper having different points of view. Such constructive ambiguity papered over destructive alternatives. The last British Governor Chris Patten was successful in persuading some Hongkongers that one man-one vote was what they deserve. Whether that is a cure all for Hong Kong’s ill is another matter. That his Conservative Party leadership was elected opaquely by of British people shows that different systems may not always practice what they preach. Hong Kong elites failed to correct the injustices that many young faced in not providing them affordable homes with meaningful, well paid jobs. Beijing’s mistake perhaps was to trust that Hong Kong could on her own resolve these contradictions within the larger struggle between China and the West on many fronts.

A Treaty is only a piece of paper. A city is not lost to Britain or China, but lost in its own direction, which must be re-found. The answers will not be found in international law, because that is itself being rediscovered in a new age of multipolar contestation. This book is a major contribution to our understanding of how international law is only one of many guides to the future. Hong Kong has to rediscover her own identity inside a larger identity. That is the tragedy and opportunity facing all islands within the grand ocean of mankind.

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