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Festivals

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

The Sinhala (Aluth Avurudda) and Tamil (Puthandu) New Year, the most eagerly awaited annual festival for Sri Lankan families all over the world, is over.

The New Year was celebrated as the sun moves from Pisces to Aries, marking the end of the harvest season. This is the week when families, primarily Buddhist and Hindu, get the opportunity to observe and perform religious ceremonies as one extended unit. Sri Lankans visit their respective temples, clad in new clothes, to pay their respects to the clergy and seek their blessings for the coming year.

Everything is not about religion, however. There are a host of traditions that are at once auspicious and fun. As the New Year approaches, houses are cleaned, new clothes in the recommended colour are bought and traditional sweetmeats are prepared. At the auspicious time, the New Year is welcomed with the boiling of fresh milk in a new clay pot, the spilling over of which is a symbol of the prosperity the whole family will hopefully enjoy in the New Year. Traditional milk rice, accompanied by the rest of the sweetmeats are then served to the family and to neighbours, to cement the solidarity of the community. There are also a host of fun-filled activities, beating of drums and games like pillow fighting and tug-of-war, which bring cheers and jeers from the spectators.

When I was approaching my teens, my father always took us to our home village of Hikkaduwa, where we met with all our cousins, a large number as my grandparents had nine adult children. We spent all our time together as a family, playing, chatting and fighting. Every morning, my father had us running to the beach, about two miles away. In those days, it was our private beach where we spent the most joyful of mornings, swimming, playing cricket and generally being a public nuisance. After a few hours, we ran back to our family home in Aratchikanda, where a delicious lunch of red rice, fish (ambul thiyal) and more vegetables than we thought existed, prepared by our grandmother, awaited us. It was the most memorable week of the year for me in my formative years.

Although the concept of the extended family is slowly disintegrating amongst Sri Lankan families overseas, it is very much alive in Sri Lanka. The week in mid-April is a holiday for many, when they head to their home villages and meet with the elders and peers of their families, for many the only time they see each other for the whole year. Unfortunately, for those of us whose families are scattered, both physically and emotionally, we have to rely on those memories, and perhaps embellish them in our minds as we grow older.

There are many other festivals in the world which are celebrated to perpetuate the concept of the unity of families. In the western world, the most renowned is Thanksgiving, celebrated in Canada and America, where families gather to celebrate the harvest and other blessings the past year has brought. The festival falls on the last Thursday of November, and the country closes down till the following Monday. Americans believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.

Thanksgiving is rich in legend and symbolism, and the traditional menu for Thanksgiving dinner is turkey, stuffing, yams, cranberries and pumpkin pie. Sri Lankans in America also celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. They include turkey and pumpkin pie in their fare; but invariably, there is also traditional Sri Lankan food like yellow rice and chicken curry, which, frankly, is far more palatable to us than the bland taste of roast turkey and yams.

Unfortunately, in the decades that followed, the descendants of those Anglo-Saxon pilgrims eliminated the descendants of the Wampanoag tribes, and all the millions of people of other tribes who owned the land, in the cruelest acts of genocide the world has ever seen. So today, I guess Thanksgiving is now celebrated for the bounty the American people have received from genocide. And slavery.

Another famous festival is Saint Patrick’s Day, celebrated by the Irish all over the world. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. But the myth has overtaken the truth. St. Patrick did not banish the snakes from Ireland. There have been no snakes in Ireland since the Ice Age. Nor was Patrick Irish. Nor was he canonized by a Pope. Nor was his real name Patrick.

Patrick was captured from Northern Britain by Irish raiders and sold to slavery in Ireland. He escaped and went back to Britain, but around 433 A. D., he returned, against the wishes of his parents, to Ireland, with a mission to convert the Irish heathens to Christianity. He spent the last 30 years of his life in “baptizing Irish pagans, ordaining priests, and building churches and monasteries. Thomas Cahill writes in How the Irish Saved Civilization, “Patrick was really a first – the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law. The step he took was in its way as bold as Columbus’, and a thousand times more humane”.

St. Patrick’s day has been celebrated in Ireland for centuries, and March 17 is considered a holy day of obligation, when pubs were closed in Ireland. A holy day that has been transformed in modern times to a celebration, when getting drunk is almost mandatory. There are drunken St. Patrick’s Day parades all over the United States, started by Irish immigrants in New York and Boston.

As Rev Jack Ward, the Irish American priest says: “Drinking green beer doesn’t make you Irish, it just makes you pee. Real Irish men and women have a place in their hearts for St. Patrick”.

Not for celebrating with a lot of booze for chasing away snakes, but for converting Ireland to Christianity.

But what made me really sad was that the 9th annual Testicle Festival in Deerfield, Michigan, about 35 miles south of Ann Arbor, which was supposed to have taken place last week, has been postponed for May 9, because of Covid-19.

This is a hallowed tradition every year, celebrated not only in Deerfield, but in many small towns in America, which attracts thousands of pilgrims. The featured activity is the consumption of animal’s testicles, usually those of a bull, battered or fried, followed by much merrymaking.

Rivalling Deerfield, USA, the village of Ozrem in Serbia, holds the World Testicle Cooking Championship, serving up testicles in a variety of the arts of cuisine, including testicle pizza, testicle moussaka and goulash. The motto of the event is: “The Scots have their scotch, the Swiss their cheese, we the Serbs have balls”. It also gives awards for “ballsy” newsmakers. President Obama won the award in 2010.

In case anyone would like to attend or even participate in this signature event, it is scheduled to take place in Ozrem on September 2. Everyone who attends will be guaranteed to have a ball.

 

 



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Politics

Covid-19 surge as an opportunity to re-calibrate

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Lockdown. Isolation. Quarantine. Wave. Social. Spread. Cluster. These are not new words. They are however words that have acquired fresh currency courtesy Covid-19. And, as often happens, when used frequently, they lost meaning or rather they are treated with (cultivated) nonchalance.

That’s as far as the general public is concerned. Meaning, all those who are not directly involved in designing policies and developing strategies to prevent or curb the spread of the virus, enforcing safety protocols and of course treating the infected. Yes, from Day One we were told that every single citizen has a responsibility. Indeed such communications were relayed not just through state media but private media institutions, social media and through innumerable notices. We saw them all. We heard them all. We continued to see and hear. We still do. Therefore, if there’s virtue in soul-searching then that’s a national exercise which neither government, opposition, institution (private, public or cooperative) nor individual can brush aside saying ‘not my/our business.’ We can ask, ‘where did we go wrong?’ We can ask ‘where did they (say, the government) go wrong?’ We can also ask, ‘where did I go wrong?’ The yet-to-be-infected or say the non-infected can say/think ‘well, I must have done something right,’ but then again if such an individual violated the basic safety measure of avoiding crowded places he/she would have unknowingly contributed to increasing people-density in certain places (say a shopping complex, a supermarket, a party or religious gathering). You add yourself and you make it that much harder to maintain social distance protocols. That’s one way of playing the blame game. There’s another. You turn your binoculars on the government. It’s fair enough. It’s the state authorities that have to design policy and enforce rules. So we can ask a lot of questions.Did they become paranoid too soon (March to June, 2020)? Did they become complacent thereafter? Didn’t they anticipate a second and third wave? Were they foolhardy in opening the country to tourists? Did they go overboard or were too indulgent with the so-called magic remedies? Have they done enough in terms of preparing for the unforeseen? Was testing done in a systematic way? Did they select and procure the correct complement of vaccines and in adequate quantities? Were they administered prudently? Were preparations for a surge in infections adequate? Then there are questions that are not asked or are not shouted out. Is there some kind of fail safe formula to balance containment with the need to keep the economy moving? Can Sri Lanka afford an extended or comprehensive lockdown? What would you/I say if for instance such measures were put in place? Would we then whine about the economy grinding to a halt? Would you/I keep our mouths shut if businesses large and small were forced to shut down or lay off employees? Would you/I not lament the plight of the poor(er) employees?

Have we studied adequately the political economy of pharmaceuticals, including vaccines (procurement of raw materials, production and distribution)? If someone told me/you that the USA used its Defense Production Act to ban exports of the materials needed to make vaccines to India, resulting in a 50% drop in production, would I/you believe it and conclude that vaccination is not free of politics, free of the profit-motive?It’s all about how easy we want to make it for ourselves, isn’t it? It has something to do with political preference hasn’t it? In the early days of the pandemic there was fear and foreboding. Even paranoia. Things got better and people were less paranoid. The recent surge in infections has produced a hike in worry. People are frustrated. They need someone to target. Anyone. Anyone but themselves. They want everyone (else) to do their bit and the government to do much more than it can hope to, but many are reluctant to do their bit. It’s easy to vent and ‘someone else’ is always a better target. We are not rich in self-reflection. We are poor when it comes to responsibility. In the early days there was a sense of siege. Fear made people think of coping mechanisms at all levels. Maybe we will return to all that. Maybe the government will figure out a way to allocate resources prudently and design better balancing systems (of pandemic response and an acceptable/reasonable level of basic economic and social activity).Speculation, however, can only help so much. It is clear that a concerted effort by one and all would help. Criticism has a role to play in all this. If it is constructive. If it is motivated by decent intention. For example, a year ago, an opposition in disarray ranted and raved about ‘risks’ when elections were to be held. When the second wave hit us a couple of months later, some people got into we-told-you-so gloating mode. Obviously they knew very little about the behavior of the virus and cared even less. What does tomorrow hold? Can anyone answer? What should be done? What should not be done? Talk to 10 people. Make that eight persons who have an axe to grind about this government. They won’t speak ‘in one voice’. Talk to ten ‘experts’. Same effect, I would wager. Everyone is a self-appointed epidemiologist these days. Everyone is an expert on balancing pandemic-mitigation and managing the economy. Everyone is more or less in the dark and if you doubt this, check out the various measures put in place by various governments and how these strategies have been amended over the past 18 months or so. There’s a lot that a lot of people can do. There are some basic things that an individual can do. Perhaps it might be useful to go back to one of the rules-of-thumb that did the rounds in the early days of the pandemic: assume that you are infected (rather than assuming someone else is infected). Assume also, if you like, that the virus is in your face, so to speak. That might bring those who prefer to loaf in ethereal regions back to earth.

It’s about doing what we can. It’s about doing no harm. Dialing down anger. Being kind. Restrictions of any kind provide one thing: the space for sober reflection. Not a bad thing. It could even be seen as a blessing, an opportunity to re-calibrate a lot of things, not just the response to the virus.

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views]

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Politics

What the opposition should not do

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by Uditha Devapriya

Can one question the government without wondering what, or where, the opposition is? It’s been over a year since the Samagi Jana Balavegaya walked out on the United National Party, half a year since it reduced that party to one (still unclaimed) seat in parliament. Has the party aspired to the ideal of a broad-based movement? Or has it weakened with the passing months, offering a paltry resistance to the government? Do its actions speak well to its constituencies? Or is it pursuing greener pastures, uncharted real estate, elsewhere?

To be sure, these are tough questions. But they must be brought up. The problem isn’t that no one’s answering them, but that no one’s asking them.

From its inception, the SJB was hit by a series of unfortunate travails. These do not make a pretty picture, and far from receding, they in fact continue to bedevil it.

For starters, there was the issue of the party’s legal status. Had it conformed the country’s electoral laws, or in its haste, had it flouted them? It took a UNP candidate (Oshala Herath) to raise the question at the Supreme Court; though the case did not go his way, conversations between him and the Chairman of the Election Commission, plus an associate of Mangala Samaraweera, made headlines when that candidate leaked them online.

The resulting controversy may or may not have tarnished the SJB’s prospects at the general election, but its convulsions haven’t died down. Ironically enough, one of its National List parliamentarians, the most colourful and controversial from that party, teeters today between government and opposition, having voted for the 20th Amendment; what’s ironic there is this MP’s legal ownership, through her husband, of the ostensibly anti-regime party.

Owing to such convulsions, the passage of the 20th Amendment deepened divisions in the SJB. For the first time here, a section of the opposition connived with the government over legislation that boosted the incumbent’s powers. This in turn reflected the contradictions of the regime: the ruling party had to resort to support from minority parties, in the opposition, to pass the Amendment. The resulting backlash against the SJB over this has done very little to address the rift between the ruling party and its critics. Forgotten in that paroxysm of anger, though, was one stark fact: most of the SJB still stood against the 20th Amendment. In 2010, by contrast, the UNP chose to abstain in toto from the vote on the 18th Amendment.

That’s hardly a consolation, however. If in the debate over 20A the opposition dithered (apart from a display of amateur theatrics, including waving anti-20A banners and donning “blood-spattered” cloths), over the imprisonment of its most outspoken candidate, it downright caved in and buckled down. Here popular opinion remains sharply divided: should the SJB have left Ranjan Ramanayake’s seat vacant, or should it have replaced him with another?

The opposition faced a classic Catch-22: the first option seemed comradely, the second more pragmatic, yet by opting for the latter, it reinforced allegations among undecided voters, even supporters, of it being unable to hold the line. Ramanayake himself did not take kindly to the capitulation, as his apoplectic response on Facebook shows.

On the level of ideology the SJB has done all it can to distance itself from the regime and the UNP. Yet the result seems to be less a distancing from than a midway compromise with these outfits. Consider its relationship with the UNP. As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out only too clearly, a party associated with the politics of appeasement and capitulation for over a quarter century isn’t the ideal partner for any rational-minded opposition. But Jayatilleka appears to be in a minority of one among his contemporaries: other commentators, including those on the Left, advocate rapprochement instead of rupture.

Hence Harindra Dassanayake quips that “the SJB alone cannot defend democracy or form a government”, Krishantha Cooray questions whether it shares “its mother party’s economic vision”, Kumar David invokes Trotsky’s precept of marching separately but striking together to justify it getting together with that mother party, and someone calling himself “Prince of Kandy” fails to see it propounding any “real political ideology.” These polemics lead to two conclusions: the SJB cannot stand alone, and it must return to the UNP.

Since Jayatilleka has replied to these commentators, I will not restate what he has written on them. What’s curious isn’t so much their insistence on these two parties getting together (or for the rebellious son to yield place to the mother), as their belief that the one cannot, in the long run, do without the other. Does this necessarily mean they have no faith in the SJB’s potential to grow independently, free of the UNP? Debatable. If it does, then it indicates that such commentators, including those on the Left, associate the opposition with a party which still hasn’t filled in the one seat it got at last year’s general election.

This, of course, is nothing to be astonished about: Ranil Wickremesinghe led the opposition for 20 years. Sajith Premadasa’s rebellions against the Dear Leader (as Indi Samarajiva calls Ranil) did not begin in 2019, but they peaked in the post-Easter conjuncture. As such the SJB is more recent, too recent for dissenting voices and voters to consider it a viable successor to the UNP. Moreover, the middle-class, which since 1956 has determined the prospects and the trajectories of new parties and disgraced oppositions, still has not carved a place within its consciousness for Premadasa. For these voters, the most protean electorate in the country, the SLPP and SJB represent two wings of the much derided 225. Detached and disengaged from the 225, Wickremesinghe seems to have become a Lazarus for them: every other middle-class voter I meet today wants him back. Again, nothing to be astonished about.

Such paradoxical responses to the old opposition and the new should come as a concern, but not a surprise, to the SJB and those who support it. Sri Lanka’s middle-class is protean, yet it is also inherently compradorist. If it prefers a strongman like Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Sajith Premadasa and gives him unexpected majorities through the Kelani Valley – electorates like Homagama, Maharagama, Kesbewa, right until Avissawella – concurrently cutting into the southern heartland all the way through to suburbs closer to Colombo, including Moratuwa, it also, in the same vein, prefers Ranil Wickremesinghe to Sajith Premadasa.

Sajith Premadasa doesn’t yet command a presence among this peculiarly compradore middle-class. That, in its own way, is worrying. Not because I hold a candle to Sajith Premadasa, nor because I think he is the last great hope of the opposition, but because the absence of middle-class support can compel the SJB to neglect new ground – electorates the UNP neglected, like the Sinhala peasantry – and hang on to the Kelani Valley petty bourgeoisie, which has tended to shift, wildly, between compradorist neoliberals and authoritarian nationalists.

If the SJB gets more petty bourgeoisified than it is, it can only cave into a line no different to what the UNP was following: not the most advisable of strategies. Yet this is the line analysts want the SJB to follow, a line Dayan Jayatilleka explicitly warns against.

I believe the analysts have got it wrong. The SJB’s response to a democracy deficit should not be adherence to a failed ideology. The Kelani Valley petty bourgeoisie – not limited to the Kelani Valley alone – champions a Ranil Wickremesinghe or a Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the same reason why neoliberal globalisation and retrogressive nationalism cohabit the same space: both appeal to a middle bourgeoisie desperate for any figure which can provide it with security and stability. This explains how, at the height of Sinhala nationalist backlash against mainstream political parties, the middle-class voted for the UNP in 2000, returned the PA in 2004, and gave a wafer-thin margin of defeat for Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005.

In its idealisation of compradore neoliberalism or compradore nationalism, the middle-class continues to shape the trajectory of mainstream parties, indeed of fringe parties also (even if its support for the latter outside parliament hasn’t translated into support for their aspirations for parliament). Given its ideological predilections, falling in line with this crowd seems for me the height of folly. Far from following such a strategy, the government and the opposition should instead engage with marginalised groups: not just the peasantry and working class, but every ethnic, social, and economic minority, across the racial and class divide.

The compradorist pretensions of the middle-class have not got this country anywhere. Both government and opposition must oversee a shift in focus to other electorates. I do not see this happening here, on either side. Between the crevice of neoliberal globalisation and the abyss of neoconservative nationalism, there thus seems to be no centre. That is worrying.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.co

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Recognition of Mihintale as a World Heritage Site is long overdue

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Sigiriya to which Everyman referred to in the Sunday Island of April 25 is one of the 11 sites here UNESCO had declared as World Heritage Sites.

The others are the ancient city of Polonnaruwa , the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the old town of Galle and its fortifications, the sacred city of Anuradhapura and the sacred city of Kandy . Two others are recognized as nature sites – the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

‘World Heritage’ is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such have been inscribed on the World Heritage List ‘to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.’

Being named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO brings worldwide recognition, tourist attraction and hence revenue and even external assistance in the form of finances and expertise when necessary.

With a civilization going back to more than three millennia, one would expect more heritage sites to be included from Sri Lanka. My mind immediately goes to Mihintale which has been described as the fountain/cradle of SrI Lankan civilization. This is where Mahinda Thera, the son of the Emperor Asoka met King Devanampiyatissa. Their historic meeting led to the creation of a tremendous political, religious ,cultural ,and a social movement, signs of which are still seen scattered over thousands of acres in Mihintale. Pride of place is, of course, taken by the spot where the historic meeting took place. For centuries thousands of pilgrims climbed the near 2,000 granite steps to pay homage to someone they considered the Anubudu .

Below are the ruins of a huge monastery complex which included a refectory and a hospital described as one of the oldest in the world. The two slab inscriptions belonging to the period of King Mihindu (956 – 976 AD) contains records of payments made to the service staff. Nearby is a meeting hall of the monks where they discussed the Dhamma and the Vinaya.

Added to all these is the significance of the message Mahinda Thera conveyed to King Devanampiyatissa when they met on Mihintale rock. Mahinda’s memorable words, “O great King, the birds of the air and the beasts of the forest have equal right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou. The land belongs to the people and all living beings; thou art only its guardian.” The king being on a hunt, this was the ideal time for the Thera to deliver the immemorial message applicable to the King then and even more applicable to the world today.

It is said that ‘In order to qualify for the World Heritage List, the properties need to be of universal value, which means they have to be extraordinary and signify value beyond the national boundaries. In other words, they need to evoke a sense of awe and meaning to people all over the world, irrespective of where the site is located.’

On this criterion Mihintale qualifies to be a World Heritage Site for more than one reason. But to win such approval, the site must be the waiting list. Unfortunately Mihintale is not even on Sri Lanka’s waiting list!.

Recognition of Mihintale as a World Heritage site is long overdue and the initiative to achieve this must be taken by the Sri Lankan state.

. P.G.Punchihewa Colombo.

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