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Four countries will decide Lanka’s economic future



by Kumar David

Sri Lanka’s economic predicament is more parlous than the government admits. Prof WD Lakshman of the Central Bank and other regime supporters and sections of the media conceal this obvious reality. Of course much depends on domestic policies but rather like a drowning man we are reliant on lifesavers and rescuers in the vessels around us to pull us to safety. To put it more directly, at this juncture Sri Lanka’s short and medium term economic future depends on the goodwill of others. Five players are critical and in order of importance they are India, China, America and the EU – India because it has the ability to stave us, China our patron, America and the EU are Lanka’s principal export market. In 2018 our main export markets were USA (24.2%), EU which then included UK (18%) and India (7.8%). Our imports in the same year came mainly from China including Taiwan and Hong Kong (28%) and India (23%). Singapore and Japan together provided about 13% of our imports and the EU another 13%. As always these numbers are rounded off because my objective is to sustain the political thrust of my arguments.

About half our fuel imports are from UAE and Oman and about a quarter each from India and Singapore. Though foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals account, in value terms for only about 12% of our imports from India they are vital livelihood commodities. The point I am driving is that Indian power over this Island is not only strategic as a giant neighbour whose military clout can overwhelm us, it is that if any foreigner has the power of life and death over us, it is India. China’s might in the Indian Ocean is not military, rather it is its financial potency in the littoral states scattered across the Belt & Road path. Lanka is broke, it is near to defaulting on debt, only a few can bail us out, China the most generous among them. Handouts from the IMF, America, India and Europe in addition are also welcome. Beggars can’t be choosers. This is the grim picture I am painting, the primacy of the economic crises and dependence for survival on major powers. If you disagree fundamentally about this then you won’t miss anything if you stopped reading at this point: As we enter the UNHRC arena this week what we need to fear much more than denunciation and resolutions of condemnation is that if we were to antagonise any of afore named the big-four breathing down our neck – India, China, America and the EU – it could be curtains for this country.

The economic-financial-debt side is more significant than diplomatic fall out, loss of face or strategic consequences. Re strategic matters it is my view that India is not going to blockade this Island, America doesn’t consider us worth half a battleship, China can’t spare a tugboat to defend Sri Lanka and the EU can’t even defend itself. I have said it before and I say it again, all the talk of Sri Lanka’s vital location on the world’s busiest marine highway is balderdash. Today’s massive container and tanker vessels can go half-way round the world without bunkering and nobody needs to dock here for freight transhipment. India’s concern is to thwart a Chinese stronghold in her backyard chicken coop while China needs friends on maritime routes encircling India. For all concerned it’s no matter of life and death, it’s a pirouette. That is for all concerned except us because we are broke and need alms. And China stands ready to help especially in dealing with the debt crisis in line with its own foreign policy interests. Now one more rumour is in circulation – India it seems has offered $12 million for alternative projects in the three islands off Jaffna that were said to have been pledged to China for energy projects. These are interesting times.

Having made my point let me note down a few matters on the political side. Political circles are buzzing with the following stories all of which may finally swing one way or the other. The most interesting is the Imran Khan saga; while it would be an unthinkable slap-in-the-face to withdraw the invitation to Imran to address parliament there is concern on the government side that he may be ambiguous on Muslim burials and protection for Muslims. While this is not directly related to how most Muslim member countries will vote in Geneva, things are so fluid in respect of what may happen at the sessions that inviting Imran at this moment may not produce the expected benefits or could boomerang. Frankly the Great Khan would do much better playing an invitation match at the Hambantota Stadium than dabbling in local politics. Mahinda promised the Muslims that they could bury their dead – oh yes he did – and now monks and the extremists are attempting to extricate him from a sensible decision. The obnoxious Weerawansa-Vasudeva coup to oust Mahinda and cut a path for GR’s elevation too is related to the fracas in Geneva though I am not suggesting that this, not a power struggle and racist extremism, is the most significant cause underlying the alleged internal conflict. The political MR-side would like a settlement in Geneva short of a commitment to accountability while Executive and military are committed to playing hardball – see for example Kamal Gunaratne’s interview in Ceylon Today Feb 13, 2021.

All these game-plans are still open-ended and we don’t know how the cards will eventually fall in Geneva during the next four weeks. The Core Group and Sri Lanka are bargaining to arrive at a “consensus resolution” and it remains to be seen what horse-trading deal will issue at the consensus altar. I am aware that the Tamil and Muslim parties in the Island and the Tamil diaspora are burning the midnight oil in an effort to include strong accountability requirements in the resolution. Sanctions against individuals and trade and aid sanctions such as withdrawal or GSP or the recent measures announced by the Biden Administration against Burma, are up to individual or groups of countries to impose. However sanctions binding on all countries can be imposed only by the Security Council and that is not going to happen.

What is obvious is that the Geneva saga has become an annual affair – actually the Council meets three times a year but the Sri Lanka human rights infringement issue has been taken up annually placing government and internal political dynamics in a near continuous state of stress. Until such time as Sinhala-Buddhist extremism is laid low, the government of Sri Lanka of whatever party or hue returns to Nonalignment as a means of balancing between the forenamed four powers, and the state agrees to serious prosecution of accountability mechanisms for alleged war crimes, the problem will nag incessantly and damage to the economy will be perennial. In parallel the pursuit of militarisation is gravely weakening the Lankan regime. To what degree it is in China’s interests to pull Sri Lankan chestnuts out of the fire is never predictable.

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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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