by Rex. I. De Silva
(Continued from last week)
In the nineteenth century the Government employed a “shark charmer” to protect divers during the pearl fisheries. He did this by means of incantations and other “magical” rituals. There apparently were no fatalities from shark attacks while he was on duty. This is hardly surprising as during the old pearl fisheries, divers and boats arrived from as far away as Arabia, (what is now) Pakistan, and India. Hundreds of divers and boats, and the resulting noise and turmoil, would have kept even the boldest sharks away. The chank divers and we did very well without the assistance of such a virtuoso.
Nevertheless, sharks (mora) were not rare – far from it. One or two harmless white-tip reef sharks often stayed around while we were spearfishing, possibly in the expectation of stealing our catch. In fact, we speared fish every day in order to feed the chank divers, boat crew and ourselves. Nurse sharks, which are primarily nocturnal, stayed in their caves during the day where we sometimes encountered them apparently in deep sleep. A variety of requiem sharks, including the blacktail, reef blacktip, graceful shark, pig-eye shark, a dangerous looking brute, and blacktip were seen from time to time.
One morning while I was spearfishing a largish shark swam towards me. The vertical dark stripes helped to identify it as a tiger shark (koti mora), a reputedly dangerous species. It was probably attracted to the fish I had speared which were on a stringer loosely fastened to my waist. I quickly undid the stringer, deciding to let the shark have the fish if it became aggressive. I also released the safety catch of my speargun and kept a finger on the trigger, although the weapon would probably have been poor protection at best.
The shark approached slowly to within about five metres, made a wide half-circle around me and then, seemingly alarmed, swam away. I had mixed feelings at the time; anxiety, combined with admiration at the beauty and grace of the creature. In retrospect, however, this encounter was to me the highlight of our expedition. This was the only live tiger shark I saw in Sri Lanka. Later I came across others in the Maldives, but that is another story. The chank divers told us that they often saw hammerhead sharks, but disappointingly we did not see any.
I speared a jack (parawa) on one of the deeper reefs, and as I was surfacing for air a largish grey shark seized the fish, tore off the posterior half and swam away, leaving only the head and part of the thorax on my spear. I am often asked if sharks are a danger and I invariably reply that they are usually a potential rather than actual danger, in Sri Lankan waters at least.
Most of the sharks we saw were accompanied by suckerfish. These are slim fish with a sucker apparatus on their heads by which they attach themselves to sharks, and other creatures, such as turtles and rays. The suckerfish feeds off scraps from its host’s meals and also gets transportation and possibly a degree of protection from its larger companion.
Large schools of yellowfin barracuda (jeela, silava) were common. These fish have a Jekyll and Hyde reputation. They school during the day when they are usually quite harmless but disperse at dusk to hunt individually. They can then become dangerous and several divers have been attacked at night.
We encountered many large eagle rays (vavul maduwa). They are gentle giants, which appear to fly underwater like enormous birds. Eagle rays relish chanks and other shellfish and we often came upon remains of their feasts on the seabed.
I saw my first guitar fish, a strange creature which looks like a cross between a shark and ray. It is however a true ray as the gill-slits are on the ventral surface. We also encountered a few electric rays. These are sluggish bottom-dwellers which have the ability to produce a powerful electric shock that is used to stun prey and also for self-defence. I might mention that as a schoolboy I hand-speared one of these rays and received a shock which made me lose hold of my spear and also deprived me of speech for a minute or two.
The herbivorous green turtle (gal kasbava, mas kasbava) was common on the seagrass and seaweed beds. We also occasionally met with its relatives the hawksbill (pothu kasbava, pang kasbava) and olive ridley (mada kasbava, eramudu kasbava). One morning we saw a very large loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), so-named because of its large head. This is the second largest turtle species in our waters. We were probably the first humans it had seen as it swam around us in apparent curiosity.
Most interesting though was the giant leatherback turtle (dhara kasbava, vavul kasbava ) in which a thick leathery covering replaces the bony carapace of the other turtles. Leatherbacks grow to almost three metres in length and although not rare on the deeper banks, are wary and difficult to approach underwater. From the boat I watched one dive. It flipped backwards, almost somersaulting to submerge.
Some giant fish
Giant groupers (kossa, gal bola, gal kossa) were rather scarce, possibly due to a relative sparseness of large caves. Nevertheless we saw a few estuary groupers, at least one of which we estimated at around 100 kg in weight.
A single, large, one and a half metre long potato cod – actually a grouper despite its name – turned up when I shot a large golden snapper, which a white-tip reef shark tried to steal off my spear. The grouper also wanted the snapper and rammed the shark, making it retreat a short distance. The grouper then made for my fish and I had to kick at it and swim for the boat. The shark lost interest, but the grouper trailed me until I threw the snapper into the vessel.
While diving in deep water Rodney pointed out two large fish which resembled the common reef sweetlips (boraluwa), except that each probably weighed around 50 kg. These were the first giant sweetlips I had seen. The species was always rare and sightings few.
Two great jacks emerged from a crevice in a sandstone reef where I was diving. One bore the normal silvery-grey coloration of the species whereas, to my great astonishment, the other was black. As I had never before observed a black jack (no pun intended) I asked Rodney if he could account for this aberration. He replied that he too had on a few occasions come across this phenomenon, but had no ready explanation. It was many years later that a research paper on Caribbean marine fishes clarified the mystery. The black coloration is apparently the courtship (or mating) livery of male jacks of several species. The fish presumably revert to their normal coloration after sometime.
Leisure in camp
On some days we would finish diving early. Rodney and I would then explore the jungles around our camp, while Trevor who did not like jungles stayed back. We would encounter grey langurs, black-naped hare, and other denizens of the forest. After a shower of rain we often saw star tortoises grazing out in the open. One purpose of these jungle outings was to shoot a few grey partridge for the pot in order to vary our otherwise monotonous fish diet. Nights in the camp were peaceful and quiet. The silence was occasionally broken by the strains of “Oh Danny Boy”, Rodney’s favourite song played on his piano accordion, or sometimes by the rather mournful chants of the divers.
The dark unpolluted skies were an astronomer’s delight, with stars shining as they never do in the city. It was here that I saw my first fireball or bolide, a very bright, slow-moving meteor or shooting-star. This one left a glowing train, which remained visible for several minutes.
Reef off Silavatturai
One morning Rodney persuaded the captain to take us to Silavatturai reef, which he (Rodney) had visited earlier. The reef is shallow and is made up of magnificent corals interspersed with sandy patches. In most of these sandy areas we would find one or two large coralheads, around and under which were a variety of fish, including schools of silver sweetlips (boraluwa) and numbers of lobsters, including the large ornate spiny lobster (pokurissa).. That day we speared our quota of fish in less than fifteen minutes, and at night dined on lobster.
Several species of gastropod molluscs, including the large tiger cowrie (kavadiya) were common on the reef. The sandy areas harboured a variety of cone shells, including the colourful but highly venomous textile cone. This mollusc has a poisonous sting capable of killing a human. Colourful angelfish (manamalaya), butterflyfish, and moorish idols were almost everywhere, giving the reef a festive atmosphere. There were no large fish, the exception being a single great barracuda ( jeela, silava, ulava). This species, unlike its congener the yellowfin, can be dangerous by day as well as at night, although attacks are rare. If harpooned it will sometimes turn on its attacker and, being large and having a fearsome set of dagger-like teeth, is well able to cause severe injury or perhaps even death.
It was on Silavaturai reef that we encountered parrotfish in some numbers. These are often brightly coloured fish in which the teeth are fused into a parrot-like “beak”, giving the group its name. Parrotfish feed primarily on algae and corals; hence their relative abundance on this reef. The males of most species occur in two phases, viz. the initial phase (sexually mature) young males which resemble the females, and the older terminal phase males (“supermales”) which are usually larger and differ considerably from the younger males.
In the past this sometimes led to confusion, with females and young males being classified as one species and “supermales” as another. Despite the fair size of many individuals, they were spared from our spears as the flesh of most parrotfish, while edible, lacks flavour. Another interesting fact about this family is that many species of parrotfish secrete a mucous cocoon around themselves before settling down to sleep at night, which they do in a crevice or cave in the reef. The exact function of the cocoon is not known, but is suspected to be protective.
It was on Silavatturai reef that I first encountered the courtship of a pair of octopuses (buvalla) in four metres of water. They stayed at arms length and the (presumed) male gently stroked the female with one of its arms. I found this behaviour touching and almost human in its gentleness. Frank Lane in his classic work “The kingdom of the octopus” states that courtship can go on for hours or even days. The female octopus however makes the ultimate sacrifice. After laying her eggs in an underwater cave she stops feeding to guard and care for them. She uses the suckers on her arms to clean them and jets water from her siphon to keep them aerated. One of her duties is to protect the eggs from predators, including other octopuses. The mother often dies soon after her babies hatch out.
It was in deeper water on the seaward side of the reef that we were spectators to a mysterious act. Two large cuttlefish (poku dhalla) had joined together head-to-head with arms entwined. In this species a blue line runs around the body at the junction of mantle and fin. In the two individuals we watched, these lines glowed and pulsated like neon lights. They remained motionless, except for the rippling movements of their fins. Whether this was courtship, mating, or aggressive behaviour between two males I did not know. Rodney and Trevor were equally mystified. None of us had seen anything like it before. I learned subsequently that this was mating behaviour.
All too soon our ten-day expedition came to an end and we regrettably had to return to “civilization”. As we packed the vehicle and said good-bye to our new friends, I promised myself that I would return to the Pearl Banks someday. I never did.
Rodney passed away in November 1989. He is sorely missed by his many friends. Trevor now lives in retirement in Melbourne. We meet occasionally but strangely never talk about the underwater adventures we once shared.
(Excerpted from ‘Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka: experiences and encounters’ compiled by CG Uragoda)
Impressive Indian scene…
Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.
Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.
Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.
Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.
Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”
However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.
“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”
Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.
She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.
“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”
Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.
“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.
“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”
Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.
And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”
Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.
Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community
On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).
Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.
The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.
Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.
By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.
We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.
The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.
Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.
This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.
Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.
Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.
Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!
Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.
The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.
All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.
To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.
I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.
The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.
I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.
More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?
It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.
The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality
A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.
It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.
However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.
Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.
The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.
Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.
India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.
The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.
But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.
Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.
Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.
Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.
Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.
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