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Geostrategic significance of Pompeo’s visit

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By Neville Ladduwahetty

The arrival of US Secretary of State Micheal Pompeo days before the US presidential election has been a cause for much speculation. Judging from the countries he visited––India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia and Vietnam––the Secretary’s whirlwind visits were to strengthen geostrategic ties with these countries as a measure of preparedness to counter the growing dominance of China in the Indo-Pacific region. As part of this exercise what Secretary Pompeo and the US Secretary Defence, Mark Esper, achieved in India was a total makeover of India’s image globally; a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement has now become an ally of the US and committed member of the Quad.

In comparison to what happened in India, the MCC agreement with Sri Lanka amounts to small change. What happened in India would transform a geostrategic alliance with Quad partners into one that would have far-reaching geopolitical implications because its current relationship with the US would affect relations with all its neighbours such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others.

As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, there was considerable apprehension as to whether the government would sign the MCC agreement, notwithstanding the opposition to it ever since the public came to know of its existence. However, following talks with Secretary Pompeo, the President has reportedly informed his Ministers that the MCC Agreement would not be signed. By not making an official statement to this effect and embarrassing its guest for the sake of gaining cheap political capital, the government has acted with maturity and good taste. After all, one does not have to crow when one does not compromise on principles such as sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

 

WHAT THE US ACHIEVED in INDIA

According to a report in The Island of November 1, by Special Correspondent S. Venkat Narayan, India signed five pacts, one of which “was the crucial Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) to share sensitive satellite and map data. This agreement will give India access to topographical, nautical and aeronautical data vital for pinpointed attacks using missiles and armed drones… BECA clears the path for India acquiring armed drones in the first instance and at a later date, fighter aircraft. Esper alluded to the discussions around this topic when he announced that the US planned to sell more fighter planes and drones to India.”

The report states: “A second official said the Indian link up with the US Central Command and African Command indicates that the two countries have bonded on hard security issues. ‘It is quite evident from the 2+2 dialogue that India has completely integrated with other members of the of the four-nation Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (QUAD) to monitor the Indian pacific region’ he said… Esper said the two countries’ focus must now ‘be on institutionalizing and regularizing our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future’ (Ibid).

The report ends thus: “Analysts say that the hesitation on India’s part to embrace the US for its national interests appears to have finally gone. The die has been cast for a strong Indo-US relationship, and it will not matter who wins the American presidential election on November 3”.

Having cast the die for a strong Indo-US relationship that “embraces the US for its national interests”, it makes sense for the Indian Foreign Secretary to question the relevance of non-alignment (Ceylon Today, November 3, 2020). However, for countries such as Sri Lanka, it is not to question the relevance or irrelevance of non-alignment but to accept the reality that India has abandoned a long cherished policy it fathered and nurtured and now finds that very policy an encumbrance because it does not resonate with its current geostrategic interests. It is a let-down not only for Sri Lanka but also to the over One Hundred other countries that committed faithfully to the Non-Aligned Movement. Instead of being despondent, Sri Lanka has to gear itself how to realign itself in keeping with the ongoing tectonic shifts in international relations.

 

FREE and OPEN INDO-PACIFIC

The principle of the QUAD and therefore of India as one of its partners, is to promote “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. Although the stated principle reaffirms the age old international practice of freedom of navigation, the QUAD is essentially a military strategic alliance to counter emerging threats from China in the Indo-Pacific region. These threats arise primarily because most countries in the region have territorial issues with China, starting with the artificial islands that China created in the South China sea. Since Sri Lanka’s Port City is also artificially created, the US has imposed sanctions on companies and/or individuals associated with its construction.

Apart from this, Sri Lanka has no issues with China or any other country. In fact, Prof. Colombage is cited in Ceylon Today of November 3, as having stated that “between 2009 and now, 550 warships from 20 countries have visited Sri Lanka”, thus practicing the principle of free and open navigation in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, Sri Lanka has no cause to align with India or any other country, the way India has done in the name of “national interest”.

 

With India “embracing” the US in a strategic security alliance because of its own national interest, the question for Sri Lanka is what the status of the Agreements and Accords that were forged with India when it was non-aligned is. Now that India has abandoned its former policy and committed to a new relationship with the USA and the QUAD, India’s bona fides as far as Sri Lanka is concerned become questionable because there is a credibility deficit.

With the US and India signing the key Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement “to share sensitive satellite map data”, India now has “access to topographical, nautical and aeronautical data even within Sri Lanka’s Greater Economic Zone. Such vital information gives India a clear and distinct advantage over Sri Lanka, that it did not have before. Such advantages are often exploited by major powers to the detriment of the smaller States. The irony in such a situation for India is that it shed blood to rid itself of colonialism, and later banded with other former colonial states to be fully free of colonial exploitation, but would itself become a coloniser and exploiter under the new relationship with the US, all in the name of “national interest”.

Reliance on the Non-Aligned Movement to bail out Sri Lanka from such a predicament would amount to blowing in the wind. Nor would appeals to India to play fair on account of centuries of deep and abiding bonding be of any help. What is at stake is pure and simple exploitation couched in smooth language based on “principles” such as free and open Indo-Pacific on the surface while exploiting what belongs to others beneath that geographic surface.

STRATEGY for SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka has to gear itself to face the emerging challenges arising from the dynamics of the newly forged US/India relationship. In this regard, Sri Lanka has to prepare itself to address how it is to structure the state including the institutions of government that best suits its own security, geography and its cultural roots under a new Constitution. In this regard, Sri Lanka should keep India informed only of the major trends of such an exercise not with the hope of securing India’s acquiescence, but as a matter of courtesy.

As for the economy, Sri Lanka should adopt measures that encourage the private sector to implement locally funded infrastructure projects to the maximum extent possible. By way of a real life experience, where this has benefited and continues to benefit the country is in the field of Water Supply. When Dinesh Gunawardena was Minister of Urban Development and Water Supply, a proposal was made to Dr. P.B. Jayasundara, who was the Secretary to the Treasury, to implement water supply schemes using locally raised funds because design and construction capabilities including materials required were available in Sri Lanka. The idea was welcomed but took time to germinate. With time and patience, today, out of a total of forty-four (44) small and medium scale Water Supply Projects throughout the country, twenty-two (22) are being implemented using local funding. Furthermore, locally funded projects are less costly than the foreign-funded ones.

Sri Lanka has the know-how and capability to undertake large scale Water Supply Projects as well. The issue however is the lack of funding. In such instances, instead of handing over the total project to foreign sources at a higher cost, the government should raise foreign funds and implement them locally because the local costs are considerably lower, and that means the foreign funds needed are significantly less than giving the entire project to foreign sources.

Such an approach should also be adopted for the construction of expressways that are toll roads as well, because even if such projects are given to foreign sources they are subcontracted out to local companies. Therefore, funds for infrastructure projects should be raised from foreign sources other than governments, and implemented locally at lower costs instead of handing over implementation to foreign sources at higher costs.

The benefits to the country that cannot be quantified in pure monetary terms are (1) That every project comes with it its share of challenges; exposing local personnel to the associated challenges means that they gain experience that otherwise they would never have received; (2) the fact that funding is sought from sources other than governments,means the country retains its independence without having to compromise its foreign relations thus avoiding financially related traps that are exploited by countries; (3) except for high priority projects such as power and energy, other projects should be delayed until Sri Lanka is able to catch its breath from the effects of the COVID – 19 Pandemic, and (4) to give Sri Lanka’s private sector every encouragement to engage with the private sector in other countries in projects that add value to local raw materials and minerals, and/or in projects that would substitute imports.

CONCLUSION

India and the US won big following the visit of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary Defence Mark Esper. In fact, it was so big that the MCC Compact with Sri Lanka amounted to small change. Perhaps, it was this that made Secretary Pompeo leave the decision on the MCC Compact to Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan people.

For the US, it got India to “embrace” a new relationship with the US and become a committed partner of the QUAD to a point where India’s Foreign Secretary has questioned the relevance of non-alignment. These shifts have transformed the geostrategic impact of Pompeo’s visit into a geopolitical one, and in the process have shaken the foundation of India/Sri Lanka relations. For India, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) with the US gives access to maps and data relating to the Indian Ocean that are invaluable to it both militarily and economically. This data has to include much information relating the Sri Lanka’s Greater Economic Zone. This places Sri Lanka at a serious disadvantage that is bound to be exploited by India.

These tectonic shifts become the motivation for Sri Lanka to break free from its former constraints imposed by Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, and restructure the State and its Institutions to ensure its own security in keeping with its geography and cultural values, under the new Constitution. In the meantime, Sri Lanka should revisit and refashion its economic strategies on the lines recommended above, thereby underscoring its commitment to the country’s Sovereignty, Independence and Territorial Integrity.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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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

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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

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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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