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Friction-reduction talks in South Asia off to unpromising start

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Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in Tamil Nadu's Mamallapura m during their second informal summit on October 12, 2019.

The indications are that the internal turmoil in Afghanistan is churning up one of the most mind-numbing humanitarian crises in world history but some principal external powers who could do much to relieve Afghanistan’s lot do not seem to be putting their best foot forward in that direction. For example, as this is being written India is hosting National Security Advisor level talks in New Delhi among some of its most prominent neighbours to resolve acute security concerns relating to the Afghan situation and other issues but Pakistan and China have reportedly shown disinclination to join the talks.

The multilateral ‘Regional Security Dialogue’ chaired by India’s National Security Advisor Ajith Doval is essentially aimed at arriving at consensual positions on South and South West Asia’s security concerns, among other goals, and is the third such parley to be held in recent years but in the absence of China and Pakistan it is left to be wondered whether the talks would yield fruitful results. However, Iran and Russia are party to the talks and this could contribute some weight to the deliberations which will be attended by some key Central Asian states as well. The latter are: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic.

Afghanistan’s domestic crisis has taken a turn for the worse with tens of thousands of Afghan citizens fleeing the country of their birth. The main reason for this phenomenal exodus is nothing less than hunger and mounting material hardships. They are running the gauntlet of a vast expanse of desert to get to Central Asia and Iran and from there to the Mediterranean and Europe. The Taliban is reportedly not halting this exodus for the simple reason that it cannot provide for the escaping Afghans. TV footage showed bedraggled families readying for the hazardous journey huddled in battered pickups and other utility vehicles under the eyes of Taliban gunmen.

Clearly, the Afghan situation ought to be morally-troubling for the world. UN agencies, such as the WHO, are apparently sparing no pains to provide relief to starving Afghanistan but the rest of the international community too is conscience-bound to help out in Afghanistan and such support ought to come in double-quick time.

However, it is the help of Afghanistan’s closest neighbours that would count most. While many of these neighbours could be expected to be quite generous when it comes to humanitarian assistance, the same could not be said of security cooperation on which inter-state politics have a considerable bearing. As mentioned in this column previously, the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan left behind a yawning power vacuum which is being filled by China. In this move it is having the cooperation of Pakistan, since these countries are the best of regional allies. The reported decision by China and Pakistan not to attend the ongoing regional security parley in New Delhi leads to the conclusion that these powers are acting in concert on regional security questions.

The fact that Pakistan and China are allies of the Taliban regime is of considerable significance when focusing on the inter-state politics of South and South West Asia and their wider implications. The Taliban regime was not invited to the New Delhi forum and the conclusion is inescapable that China and Pakistan chose not to attend the parley on account of this decision by India. Since the Taliban regime lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, its attendance at formal international and regional parleys on matters of importance is a contentious question and this issue is bound to have weighed very heavily with New Delhi. Democracies such as India are not bound to recognize the Taliban regime as long as it does not meet the criteria set by the international community for state legitimacy.

However, China and Pakistan are among the foremost of regional powers and their non-appearance at the New Delhi talks does not augur well for the swift resolution of questions that are integral to the stability and wellbeing of South West Asia and beyond. Ideally, China and Pakistan ought to use their influence with the Taliban to induce it into meeting some of the criteria set out by the world community for legitimacy and recognition. But would they set aside regional power rivalries, such as those that they are having with India, and influence the Taliban into accepting the standards of the international community? This is weightiest question of all in this context.

Right now, China and India could not be expected to act consensually on regional security issues in a hurry in consideration of the state of their bilateral relations. If the issues cropping-up on the Line of Actual Control dividing India and China, for example, could be resolved constructively and peacefully it could have some positive effects on the countries’ overall bilateral relations. This would enable these powers to work consensually on regional security issues. At the moment, the chances of this occurring any time soon are rather remote.

In the case of India-Pakistan relations, issues pertaining to ideology are keeping the states divided, as has always been the case. However, of late these questions have aggravated, resulting in interstate ties taking on a particularly divisive note. For instance, there are the issues flowing from the recognition of the Taliban and other religious extremist outfits by Pakistan. Such recognition could result in terrorism enjoying a new lease of life in South Asia. This is a legitimate concern of the world of democracy and if it is troubling India, the latter cannot be faulted.

How to blend religion with politics, has been a particularly South Asian political puzzle. Religion could be the basis of a state as long as it integrates into its being essential democratic principles and values. This is a matter the entirety of the states of South Asia need to focus on and not only Pakistan. There is Sri Lanka, for example, which seemingly cannot make up its mind as to whether it must be secular or theocratic. As long as such policy dilemmas remain unresolved, South Asia is likely to remain a highly restive region. But, as in the case of Afghanistan, people are suffering immeasurably as a result of these questions. Saving human lives should be the foremost priority for states.



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A little place in Kandana…

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While the dawning of the New Year, 2022, in Melbourne, Australia, didn’t turn out to be as exciting, as one would have expected, mainly due to the Omicron virus, there was plenty of action in our scene.

Although not all bands found work coming their way, DJs, I’m told, had a field day, pumping up the action from behind the consoles.

Kurumbar…in Kandana! To be honest, I can’t remember when I last checked out Kandana, but some 31st night revellers indicated to me that they had a great time at a venue, called Kurumbar…in Kandana!

According to reports coming my way, their New Year’s Eve bash was awesome, with the well-known and ever popular DJ Tom Hart as the host.

Tom Hart, who is generally associated with the radio scene (Real Radio), did the needful with some great retro music. It was a fun-filled event, with loads of competitions throughout the night.

Kurumbar is said to be the newest, and probably, the most exciting place in town, with state-of-the-art lighting, and a sound setup that is bound to keep you away from your seat, right throughout the night.

For dance enthusiasts who want a change of scene, and to experience something awesome, and exciting, Kurumbar is just a 15-minute drive from Colombo.

Kurumbar, by the way, is the brainchild of Harsha Galagana, who has been a mobile DJ, since 2002.

His one dream was to have his own discotheque, in a serene location, with ample parking for over 100 vehicles, and that dream has become a reality, they say.

Kurumbar boasts of lots of exciting theme nights; disco night, and ladies’ night, to name a few, plus signature cocktails and fusion food, prepared by star quality chefs.

The next mega event, on the cards, is the Valentine’s Ball, and the management of Kurumbar is already planning out an evening that will be loaded with fun and excitement.

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UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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