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Country looks to President to get it out of morass



by Jehan Perera

The loss of the USD 480 million grant opportunity provided to Sri Lanka by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was on the cards for some time. The two projects it was meant to implement became too controversial, though on their face they were about promoting economic development. The Transport Project aimed to increase the relative efficiency and capacity of the road network and bus system in the Colombo Metropolitan Region and to reduce the cost of transporting passengers and goods between the central region of the country and ports and markets in the rest of the country. The Land Project was to help the government identify under-utilized state land that might be put to more productive use and maximize rents from lands that the government leases. Both of these projects were interpreted in a negative light to make them a threat to Sri Lanka.

The US government’s decision to withdraw its offer cited its Sri Lankan counterpart’s lack of interest in taking up the offer and therefore the need to shift the funds to other countries. The main problem that was highlighted by opponents of the MCC grant, and by leading government politicians on many occasions, both prior to the elections that they won and after them, was that the MCC grant had linkages to two military cooperation agreements that Sri Lanka has with the United States. These are the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and, Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) which permit the United States to use Sri Lankan facilities for its logistical purposes, including refueling and entry into and exit from Sri Lanka for American military personnel without having to obtain visas. The MCC grant was seen as feeding into the geo-strategic engagements of the United States that would be detrimental to Sri Lankan sovereignty.

The MCC grant provided nationalist politicians and those associated with them the opportunity to fan fear in the minds of the electorate. They predicted the bifurcation of the country by an economic corridor that would stretch from Colombo in the west to Trincomalee in the east. Also that it would make it necessary for Buddhist pilgrims from the south to get visas from the US Embassy to go worship in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura in the north. This was one of the key factors that induced thousands of Buddhist monks to advice their followers about the need to ensure the defeat of the then government to prevent the division of the country. Once nationalism takes a grip on the imagination of a people it becomes very difficult to move them in the opposite direction even if it is in the national interest.



As a result of the US government’s withdrawal of its offer, Sri Lanka will lose two very large economic projects that could have brought in an infusion of foreign exchange and helped the country to modernize two critical sectors of its economy which have lagged in comparison to other developing countries. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, and a host of other comparable countries, Sri Lanka still does not have a bus system where buses run to regular schedules and where the buses have electronic panels which indicate the location of the bus. Likewise, where land is concerned the tenancy or ownership of much of it has not been registered which makes it difficult to use the land in an economically efficient manner. The MCC grant would have upgraded urban transport, land registration and also built several key rural road links to the main roads.

The Rs 89 billion that that the MCC grant would have made available to Sri Lanka could have been utilized for the welfare of the people by renegotiating the activities set out in the grant. The fact that Sri Lanka had received such a large grant from the US might have also induced foreign investors to put their faith in Sri Lanka as they would have been reassured by the US government’s investment in the country as an indication of its economic viability. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been asserting the need for foreign investment in the country instead of loans. This is an indication of his determination to ensure that there is sustainable growth in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the message that will go out now will be a negative message that the US government has given up on Sri Lanka at a time when it faces a massive debt repayment crisis. This negative image will be worsened by the negative credit ratings that Sri Lanka has been receiving from the most well reputed credit rating agencies whose analyses are watched carefully by international investors.

Adding to the problems likely to be faced by the government is the likelihood that the United States together with EU countries will be contemplating a fresh resolution in the UN Human Rights Council to replace the last one on Sri Lanka, Resolution No 40/1 whose period of implementation ends in March 2021. In February of this year, the government decided to withdraw from the implementation of that resolution and the commitments made by its predecessor government when it co-sponsored Resolution No 30/1 in 2015. There is every reason to believe that the government will strenuously resist any new resolution on it. The government is confident that its allies among other developing countries and in particular its strong relationships with China and Russia will enable it to prevail in such a contest. However, the negative publicity resulting from a battle on Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council will serve to act a further deterrent on foreign investors being willing to invest in Sri Lanka.



The forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March 2021 will see Sri Lanka having to face down two sets of challenges. The first is the argument that is being made that Sri Lanka should not be permitted to set a precedent for international institutions by its unilateral withdrawal from its co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 of 2015. Those countries that support the UNHRC as an important global institution for the protection of human rights would not wish to set precedents that enable other countries to back out of commitments they have made. Although at the time of its withdrawal in 2020 from the commitments made in 2015, the Sri Lanka government promised to come up with a nationally driven reconciliation mechanism as an alternative, this has not yet materialized.

The government’s hope will be to muster the support of developing countries as well as its superpower allies, China and Russia, to numerically defeat those countries that wish to put it into the dock again on human rights. However, this hope will be endangered by the alienation of Muslim countries. Turkish news agency TRT reported that the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation expressed concern over the issue of Covid cremation and called for Sri Lankan Muslims to be allowed to bury family members in line with their religious beliefs. “Against this practice, forbidden under Islam, the OIC calls for respect to funeral rites in the Islamic faith,” it said in a statement. The international media, especially in Muslim countries, have reported the story of the 20-day-old baby who was cremated without permitting his parents access to the body. TRT further commented that “The image of a sleeping baby Shaykh has become a symbol for what Sri Lanka’s Muslim community as well as moderates consider cruel and inhuman treatment of the Muslim Coronavirus victims.”

In these circumstances getting the support of Muslim countries at the UNHRC to vote against a human rights resolution on Sri Lanka will prove to be an uphill task. The myth of the uniqueness of Sri Lanka and its special place in the world on account of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean has been dented by the US government’s mechanical exclusion of Sri Lanka from the MCC grant. If Sri Lanka is to prosper, it needs to build its relationships with the world beginning with those within the country. Many government leaders spent the past two weeks apparently enthralled by the herbalist who claims to be son of a goddess and produced a herbal tonic to do battle with the Coronavirus. Unless government leaders analyse problems more rationally they will not be able to cope with the enormous problems of getting Sri Lanka out of our morass. With rational thought that comes from long years he spent in the military, hopefully President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the capacity and power after the passage of the 20th Amendment to lead the country out of the widening morass.

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Strong on vocals



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



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



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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