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National security and SAARC



There is a growing tendency among sections of influential opinion in our part of the world to focus on economic and related benefits that closer ties with relatively larger regional organizations, such as BIMSTEC, could bring, but it could prove counter-productive for small states of South Asia to allow the importance of SAARC to be downplayed in their regional policies, in the process. The mounting economic shocks administered by COVID-19 ought to drive this lesson home.

Major powers of South Asia, such as India, are seen by some as particularly keen on strengthening their cooperative ties, for example, with BIMSTEC and BCIM, but small countries like Sri Lanka cannot do so at the cost of their ties with SAARC. However, this is not to imply that India is paying markedly reduced attention to SAARC. It’s just that SAARC has come to be seen as not fully measuring-up to expectations. Hence, the tendency among some regional states to look beyond SAARC for the betterment of collective and individual economic prospects.

This tendency to downplay SAARC, considering its seeming ineffectiveness, is only to be expected but post-COVID-19 times are so bleak from an economic standpoint in particular that states in our part of the world could be committing a grave regional policy blunder by writing-off SAARC as a failed catalyst in regional cooperation. The truth is that economic failure is the current lot of most countries and regions. The time is ‘now’ to increasingly and vigorously facilitate collective economic cooperation. SAARC, accordingly, is of continued relevance and usefulness.

Besides, there are issues pertaining to security and defence that are peculiar to the SAARC region only that necessitate closer cooperation among the countries of South Asia, both big and small. In this connection, the decades-long argument on regional cooperation still holds. Deliberations on individual and collective security, for example, do not come within the scope of SAARC but continued efforts at regional economic cooperation among the SAARC Eight could help to a degree in defusing security-linked tensions in South Asia. It ought to be demonstrated by the SAARC Eight that stepped-up economic cooperation and the resultant spirit of amity among them could, to some extent, facilitate the resolution of regional security questions. Interestingly, the collective economic miseries resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic reinforce the validity of this line of thinking that optimists on SAARC affairs have been voicing over the years. The economic downturn, post-COVID-19, is of such proportions that there is no alternative to cooperation in the economic field in particular, within South Asia.

Needless to say, stepped-up economic cooperation within South Asia, while generating a degree of amity in the SAARC region, could improve the overall security climate within South Asia. That is, national and collective security could be steadily strengthened. This would be a result of the mutual faith that economic cooperation generates. And it is a country’s immediate environs that impacts most on its security. It is for this reason that multi-dimensional cooperation within SAARC should be considered a top priority by the relevant states.

It is economics that holds the key. It is not possible to speak of national or regional security without taking into consideration economic security, that of individual countries and otherwise. That is, economic security is central to national and international security. Those sections in Sri Lanka who are loud on ‘national security’ need to focus on this relationship.

The ruining of economic prospects, nationally and otherwise, leads to social unrest and discontent. When the latter occurs, using the ‘big stick’ on people or subjecting citizenries to repression in the name of ‘national security’ proves ineffective in the medium and long terms for governments. It is stable economic equity that leads to a measure of enduring peace, within states and internationally.

Likewise, one ought to be feather-brained to argue that ‘national security’ and domestic reconciliation are mutually-exclusive things. Without cooperative and peaceful living among communities ‘national security’ cannot be had and it is economic equity that usually solidifies internal peace and security. Simplistic thinking on these questions could prove fatal for countries.

In the case of South Asia, the predominant power is, of course, India. If regional security is to be achieved, India’s neighbours would need to learn to live with her and vice versa. The countries of the region are obliged to take into account each others sensitivities. They would need to frame their policies, taking into account these sensitivities, if regional security is to be fostered and consolidated.

The COVID-19 pandemic strongly underscores the above considerations. India’s GDP has reportedly shrunk by -23.9 per cent in the present crisis. Except in the case of a relatively robust economy, like that of Bangladesh, most of the other countries’ economies will be badly hit to the degree to which the Indian economy suffers a downturn. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, hamstrung by a lack of economic outreach, cannot depend too heavily on extra-regional economic organizations, such as BIMSTEC, for her economic sustenance. They would have no choice but to integrate their economies, to the extent possible, with the major economies in their midst, such as those of India and Pakistan.

But the Indian economy could not be expected to be hemmed in for too long by any current economic constraints on account of its relative vibrancy. It can afford to look very much beyond South Asia for its economic nourishment, the current economic decline notwithstanding. The size and strength of its economy enables it to do this. But this does not apply to the smaller and more vulnerable economies of the region. They need to depend mainly on their immediate neighbours.

It does not follow from the foregoing that the small states of South Asia should confine their economic interactions and exchanges to only their region. They must increasingly seek economic opportunities and markets, for instance, beyond South Asia. They need to remain internationalist in outlook and reach. But it should be realized that these states’ immediate environs determine the main directions in which they develop, in economic and security terms.



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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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