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Cardinal’s wake-up call throws light on Geneva response

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By Jehan Perera

 

There is no longer any doubt that a resolution on Sri Lanka will be presented at the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council later this month. This resolution will be presented by a core group of countries, led by the United Kingdom and will be supported by the United States which, though not a current member of the UNHRC, has opted to return to it under the presidency of Joe Biden. This will be a powerful combination for a small country like Sri Lanka to challenge. It does not appear that Sri Lanka will present its own counter resolution. There was perhaps a miscalculation of the waning power of the western countries in the face of the rise of China. The western powers continue to dominate international institutions. The absence of a coherent foreign policy is reflective of the much greater power of the countries that Sri Lanka is having to contend with.

President Biden has made it his administration’s policy to work in tandem with his country’s traditional and like-minded allies on issues requiring international cooperation. Sri Lanka would be an example, or test case of the new US administration’s foreign policy priorities. The indications are that they will be oriented towards human rights and the strengthening of international institutions set up over the past several decades. President Biden’s early appointees have been weighted in favour of those with internationalist perspectives and a significant number of them are of South Asian origin, the most important of whom is Vice President Kamala Harris. They are likely to consider Sri Lanka to be a country of special interest.

In itself Sri Lanka is an interesting and important country for world politics at present. This can be seen in the changes the government is making in rapid succession in its dealings with foreign powers which appear to be pressuring it on all sides. The geopolitical location of the country makes it important to the security of both neighbouring India and to the sea lanes that all the big powers utilize. This can be the only explanation for the sudden reversals of decisions such as in the case of the denial to India and Japan of the Eastern Terminal at the Colombo Port, the inability to proceed with the Chinese bid for a solar power project on three islands off Jaffna and the withdrawal of the invitation to international cricket icon Imran Khan, now Prime Minister of Pakistan, to address Parliament. For the reason that Sri Lanka is important to all these countries, and to the world, it may become an example for others to learn from. The government has a duty to do its best by its citizens and being a small country this will be best done without antagonizing any powerful country or bloc of countries.

 

STRONG OBSERVATIONS

 

The government’s successful election campaigns of November 2019 and August 2020 highlighted the issues of national sovereignty and the resolve not to permit international intervention detrimental to the national interest. The emergence of the new government with a large majority gave a sense of confidence that the government would be able to forge its own path in international politics. The government leaders made promises not to brook any foreign interference in internal affairs. The government’s withdrawal from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of UNHRC Resolution 30/1 of 2015 was a vindication of that promise. There was hope that the majority of countries in the UNHRC would accept this withdrawal which was bolstered by the pledge by China and Russia not to permit other countries to take any UN-sanctioned collective action against Sri Lanka. However, the question is that if a country had invited assistance from many countries to sort out their internal armed conflict could they now assert that this was an internal matter only. In fact, the countries that gave assistance may themselves be held accountable for the violations that took place.

The draft of the forthcoming UNHRC resolution and its operative paragraphs have made their appearance in the media. The overall political context that the drafters of the resolution see is “accelerating militarization of civilian government functions, erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights, ongoing impunity and political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations in “emblematic cases,” policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religions or belief, surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, arbitrary detention, allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment and sexual and gender based violence, and that these trends threaten to reverse the limited but important gains made in recent years and with the recurrence of policies and practices that gave rise to the grave violation of the past.”

Some key parts of the resolution are as follows: Concern about the decision to mandate cremations for all those deceased from COVID-19 which has prevented Muslims and members of other religions from practising their own burial religious rites; A comprehensive accountability process for all violations and abuses of human rights committed in Sri Lanka, including those by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; The importance of democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions and ensure that all provincial councils are able to operate effectively in accordance with the thirteenth amendment to the constitution of Sri Lankan; Requests the Office of the High Commissioner to enhance its monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including progress on reconciliation and accountability. Recently the cases against the security forces have been withdrawn or recommended for withdrawal with no reference to judiciary at all by the Political Victimization Commission which is a matter of controversy.

 

SILVER LINING

 

The silver lining in this draft resolution from the government’s perspective is that it does not mention the intention to take the country to the International Criminal Court or any international or hybrid tribunal. The draft document seems to expect the national, or local, judicial system to deal with these issues. However, the draft document also has a section in which it calls on the UN system to ensure that evidence of violations of human rights are preserved and analysed for future use. This suggests that if the national judicial system fails to meet their obligations, there will be the option to resort to the international system to fill the gap. This approach is not dissimilar to that of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who has unexpectedly become an advocate of international justice. The Cardinal effectively gives leadership to the Catholic Church on political issues. It is a clear warning that there is something that has gone wrong in the state of Sri Lanka.

In his recent pronouncements, and in leading a protest at the Katuwapitiya Church that suffered from one of the suicide bombings on Easter Sunday, 2019, the Cardinal expressed his disappointment at the government’s inquiry into those bombings that specially targeted the Catholic community. He participated in a silent protest by hundreds of Catholics including families of the victims, to oppose the Cabinet Committee appointed to study the reports compiled by the Presidential Commission probing the April 21st attacks. The Cardinal pointed out that the Presidential Commission of Inquiry which comprised five intellectual judges, gave their recommendations and decision so that the government and the Attorney General can take action. He added that he would call for an international investigation if the national investigation was undermined. He has subsequently added that he would appeal to the Vatican, which is the power centre of the worldwide Catholic Church.

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s recent position is a reversal of his previously held position on similar issues. In the aftermath of the war in 2009 he was a staunch opponent of international interventions in support of accountability for human rights violations. He consistently took the position that Sri Lanka had the internal resources in terms of history, culture and integrity to find its own solution based on justice to post-war issues and challenged the double standards of the international community. The change in the Cardinal’s position is a wake-up call to the government that it risks losing the support of even those civic and religious leaders who have been supportive of its efforts to keep the international community at arms-length with regard to finding solutions based on justice. Instead of trying to combat the forthcoming UNHRC resolution, the government needs to take actions that win back the confidence of those who presently call for international intervention out of frustration that justice is not available within Sri Lanka. This may be done by the government acting upon the pledge of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be the President of all Sri Lankans and be willing to correct the wrongs done to any section of the Sri Lankan population.

 

 



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Features

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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