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Christmas beneath the corona cloud

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By Capt Elmo Jayawardena

elmojay1@gmail.com

It looks like when Silver Bells ring this year and Silent Night takes the air, Santa himself will be struggling to do his rounds with possible curfews and lockdowns. Corona has tortured the entire world in horrific measures, and is now getting ready for the final kill. The pandemic is going to ruin our festive season, as never before. It is nobody’s fault but that is how fate had decided to throw the dice. Of course, in many countries the battle against Corona raged yo-yoing between winning and losing. Most preventive actions and Covid 19 treatments were more like Russian Roulette. While the medical world was fighting against time to find a cure, the unknown menace was spreading and killing people. That has been the story of the year 2020 for most, a time of trauma and sorrow that completely engulfed the entire planet. Yet, there is hope in the horizon as vaccine solutions are making their stealthy appearances. We are now in the interim period till Pfizer or its competitors find a ‘sure-shot’ cure to put the world back to normal.

Let’s take a look at the celebration itself. Subdued Christmases are nothing new in Sri Lanka, or in the entire world, for that matter. Many of us have experienced the full blast of poverty-stricken Christmases or war-ravaged Christmases. Of course, they came in different waves, but they drowned us in wallowing pity for the sheer lack of money or the freedom to celebrate. Children were the most affected in this yuletide crossroad. Even when things were normal, the haves had flamboyance and festivity while the have-nots wrote meaningless letters to Santa Claus, asking for the moon. It is the have-nots who heard other people’s carols and crackers and watched neighborhood skyrockets screeching up to blast and flower-shower the midnight sky. This is a familiar cruelty in any kind of celebration where the have-nots are concerned.

The 2020 festivities somehow appear quite different. The change of season will be the same with the cold winds blowing to announce the coming of Christmas. I was at a shopping mall recently and noticed how empty everything was. The uniformed staff hung around the show cases waiting for customers who didn’t seem to be coming. The usual piped music had vanished; no Jingle Bells or reindeer Rudolphs to make sure Santa Claus was coming to town. Even the all too familiar red and white Christmassy caps that the salesgirls wore were missing. The haves still have, but the mood has been burnt to cinders. It sure looked crystal clear that Corona had levelled the playingfield for all to sulk and sigh in frustration. Whether you are rich or poor, there are no fancy celebrations this Christmas as was customary in the years gone by. It is a whole new ball game, totally ‘coronafied’ from the crust to the core. The only way we can counter that is by having a sharing and caring Christmas with some serious efforts to uplift those who for some reason Santa always seem to miss.

Let’s be realistic. Whatever the form of celebration we are thinking of, better make sure it is confined within the walls of our homes. That is the best way to be safe, and that is what the health authorities will advise to keep Corona at bay. Those rules may not apply to all and sundry across the country. Isn’t it a fact that ‘kissing goes by favour? I’d rather not go in that direction. Instead, let me simmer with my impotent anger where rights and wrongs of applying rules are concerned. After all, what is good for the goose is not good for the gander when the proletariat is at the receiving end.

Pre-Christmas frolicking has already been cancelled. The post-Christmas partying is uncertain. The thousands that flew in crossing continents to be with their loved ones for the December holidays are not coming. The two-week quarantine on arrival alone is a major deterrent. The flights are drastically reduced, and the airports almost empty. The once majestic jet aeroplanes that came sardine packed with holidaymakers are not in the sky. They are like mummified dinosaurs gathering dust in aviation graveyards. None will come from abroad, that is certain. No option but to go virtual to wish each other on Zoom or Facetime. People will resist the gloom by putting up their Christmas trees and playing beautiful carols. Small mercies no doubt, but better than no mercies. Kids can still be made to believe that the ‘Ho Ho Man’ will climb down the chimney or creep through a window and leave his gifts beneath the tree. I presume that is one of the few traditions that can survive the 2020 Christmas if the parent Santas can not only find their way to the shops but also have the means to buy the goods.

Let’s look at the shopping scene. Making lists and buying gifts for those in the favoured lot is a major mind-boggling exercise. As for the poor, they don’t have that problem. Never mind others they may not have money to buy anything for their own family. It is only the haves who exchange gifts during this season; one must at least be a ‘semi-have’ to join this shopping and gifting parade. The romance of Christmas has always been a privilege of the rich.

You never see have-nots sitting at Cinnamon Grand Coffee Shop and munching chicken pies or at a Pizza Hut selecting meals from menu cards. Theirs is the Christmas of the poor, just scrambling whatever they could to light up a kid’s face who is bewildered why Santa Claus never came to his home with train sets and what not. 2020 is sure going to be different. Corona has taken care of that. Haves or have-nots, the syllabus will be the same; stuck at home with no visiting or visitors, and no way out till the vaccine comes to Sri Lanka to give us a new lease in life.

Taking a peep at that wondrous week from Christmas to the New Year, prospects do look bleak even to the die-hard optimist. With physical distancing and very few gatherings, the choices will be limited or non-existent. Yes, you can hire Tasty Caterers or Perera & Sons and have a party. But who will come? Then there are traditional family get-togethers that are a custom of the Christmas season. The annual Peiris Clan Party or Fernando or Dias party that had been in existence from the days of the great grandparents. These are always meticulously organised and the host rotated with regimental precision. They are all gone with the wind in 2020. Cannot even plan as no one knows where the next cluster will surface and how quickly a lockdown or a curfew will be imposed. With all the Corona related issues facing us, it might be better to stay home and have a solitary meal listening to carols in the background and watching the ever-blinking lights of the Christmas tree.

As I write this on the 13th of December, the prognosis does not seem comfortable leading up to the New Year. The daily Corona infected counts are quite high, and they seem to be remaining high. The Health Authority’s advice is for us to stay home as much as possible to avoid life threatening contact with a Corona patient. Christmas or no Christmas, it is wise to be safe in self isolation. Maybe, that’s what we all should do.

As for the celebration, it may be a blessing to take a ‘time out’ this year and ponder what Christmas is all about? It is the birthday of Jesus Christ. We count the days for it to dawn to have a fantastic time with family and friends, to exchange gifts and wine and dine.

Then what about the Birthday Boy? Shouldn’t he too be included and gifted for his own birthday?

That is the answer for this year’s Corona misery. The ‘have-nots’ are all around us. We the blessed ‘haves’ have a golden opportunity to take our celebration to those in need, the multitude of ‘have-nots’ around us. Once the thought enters our mind the acts of kindness will spread beyond our wildest imagination. No church to attend and no way to host the grand Christmas lunch, so let’s just change the play and reach the poor. New Year’s Eve will come, and the bands will be silent, dance floors are sure to be empty. But the poor will be there, around every corner. Let us offer them a gift or fulfil a pressing need and watch the glint in their eyes and the smiles that light up their faces. That would be a wonderful celebration of Christmas. Let’s pick a street kid or two and take them to ARPICO and let them push a trolley and pick things they dream about – some chocolates, biscuits, maybe a sultana cake or a water pistol and a tennis ball. Anything is manna from heaven to such a kid.

Corona will not be able to stop the joy we will feel in sharing. That will be our 2020 Christmas.

Our collective efforts will surely make so many happy. But without a doubt, it is we who will be most rewarded. Let’s look for the Birthday Boy – He will be loitering aimlessly on the streets or lingering in a ramshackle slum. After all, it is His birthday we are celebrating.

Let’s go find Him among the poor. This will be a meaningful way to celebrate the Corona Christmas.

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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Features

Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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Features

LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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