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Biden-Harris Inauguration Ceremonies and Poets of Democracy



by Rajan Philips

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took their oaths as President and Vice President last Wednesday, January 20. It was a peaceful transition of power in America, as it has been every four years for over 200 years. The difference this year was that the transition took place in a highly fortified capital, in a socially distanced and politically divided country. Modifying Bill Clinton’s old line, the new President said in his inaugural speech: “We’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” The example was there in the peaceful transition of the nation’s political power, except this time it needed the deployment of the state’s coercive power to keep it peaceful. It was a swift turnaround after Trump’s failed self-coup (auto-golpe, as in original Spanish) two weeks ago. But the shadow hung heavy over Washington. Biden’s inaugural poet, the 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, captured the moment, asking “Where can we find light / In this never-ending shade?”

The big, fat fly in the inauguration ointment was of course Donald Trump, who lost the election in November but could never get over it. He did not show up at his successor’s inauguration. Instead, he flew away to Florida, after the parody of a farewell ceremony attended by an estimated crowd of 200 people comprising family and residual staffers, to the blaring of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, not to mention the 21-gun salute that he craved and was given. Even Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, kept away from this farce, and attended Biden’s inauguration as the sole representative of the old regime. And historians, even before history, have already ranked Trump, the only President to be impeached twice, as America’s worst president ever.


Inauguration ceremonies

American presidential inaugurations are full of pomp and ceremonies. Historically, they may have evolved from early republican adaptations of monarchical rituals of the Empire that America broke free from. Not unlike the design of the capital City of Washington modelled on the classical architecture of Rome, the ancient First Republic, that also had Senators. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both promoters of the adaptations of classical architecture, a style that persisted till the 1930s. President Washington’s most important legacy, however, is considered to be his walking away from office after two terms, in 1797, and creating the precedent for peaceful transition of power in a modern republic. George III, the bipolar English King at that time, was apparently stunned by the retirement from power by his American nemesis. Donald Trump has been the only President ever to try to break from the precedent set by the country’s founding President.

The first post-Trump inauguration had its special moments and meanings. Diversity and pluralism were writ large over it. It was a historic occasion for America to have a woman, a woman of colour, and the first descendant of immigrant parents from Jamaica and Tamil Nadu, become the country’s second in command. Swearing in Kamala Harris was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court. Joe Biden is the second Catholic to become President, sixty years after President Kennedy. Administering the presidential oath was Chief Justice John Roberts, the first Catholic Chief Justice. Sixty years ago, such a concurrence would have been called Catholic Action. Not anymore. Joe Biden, a devout and practicing Catholic, is to the left of the American Catholic establishment, the very mobile and socially conservative Catholic middle classes.

Post-Trump, Biden’s twin inaugural themes were unity and democracy. He did not soar like Obama, that was left to Lady Gaga and her rendition of the National Anthem. But Biden exuded strength and sincerity. Just as Abraham Lincoln had said in 1863 that his “whole soul” was in the proclamation of emancipation from slavery, President Biden promised: “My whole soul is in this: bringing America together.” There is no underestimating the challenges that this task faces, especially while grappling with the four daunting challenges he listed: the pandemic, climate, racial justice, and the economy.

And the theme of democracy is tied up with all of them, and not rarefied from any of them. He did not say much on foreign policy except for acknowledging that “the world is watching,” and asserting that “America has been tested, and we have come out stronger for it.” The world will indeed be watching. But the world saw that the American promise for democracy is still alive where it should generationally be – in Amanda Gorman’s stirring recitation of her inauguration poem, “The Hill we climb.”

Poets of Democracy


Tomorrow, January 25, is Robbie Burns day, a day mostly marked in many parts of the world by Scots and their friends, in consuming haggis, drinking Scotch, and piping bagpipes. But there is a serious side to the Scottish icon and his poetry, for Burns has been called, “the master poet of democracy,” and that he was made to be so by “the ordeal of poverty and toil,” and not by some bourgeois attributes or sensibilities.

Burns’s “sympathy for the oppressed and support for revolution” made him a passionate champion of American Independence and the French Revolution. He went further in his 1792 poem: The Rights of Woman, surpassing both Thomas Paine (Rights of Man), and the great Thomas Jefferson (Declaration of Independence), showing poetic prescience in proclaiming:

“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things, The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings; While quacks of State must each produce his plan, And even children lisp the Rights of Man; Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention, The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”

That same year, 1792, Burns wrote another poem: “The Slave’s Lament”, based on his work experience in Jamaica. That and other poems of Burns inspired and were frequently cited by both Fredrick Douglas, the celebrated African American abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln, the President of emancipation.

It is indeed a poetic coincidence that more than 200 years after Burns, a young African American female poet should articulate the same themes of democracy and egalitarianism that inspired Burns in wholly different circumstances in far away Scotland. Stepping into a tradition of reading poetry at presidential inaugurations that President Kennedy had started in 1961 by inviting Robert Frost, no less, Amanda Gorman positively stole a good part of the inauguration thunder with her poise, panache and, of course, her poetry.

A Harvard graduate and the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, Ms. Gorman had been invited by President Biden on the suggestion of his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who is an educator. As she later said, Ms. Gorman wrote the poem in two halves, the first before the January 6 siege of the Capitol, and the second after the siege. “That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem,” she has told the media. Poetic admirers have called the poem’s title, “The Hill We Climb,” as suggesting “both labour and transcendence.” The poem was aspirational in the first half, and defiant in the second:


We the successors of a country and a time,

Where a skinny Black girl,

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,

can dream of becoming president,

only to find herself reciting for one.


We’ve seen a force that would shatter –

our nation rather than share it,

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,

it can never be permanently defeated.

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.

According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.

People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.

We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.

Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.

Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.

The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.


The way forward

If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.


(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?

It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.

Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:

“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”

My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:

“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.

“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.

“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.

The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:

“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”

the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.

Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!




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The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one. 

By Ian Buruma

One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.

But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.

America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’

As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.

Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.

But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.

Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.

Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.

The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).

Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.

Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.

Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.

This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.


(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)

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