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ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK

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On the evening of Sept 23, 1999, Qantas Flight QF1 was approaching to land at Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. The nine-year-old Boeing 747-400, registered VH-OJH and named City of Darwin, was carrying 391 passengers and 19 crew. It was en route from Sydney, Australia to London on the first leg of the so called ‘Kangaroo Route’.

That evening there were scattered thunder showers over Bangkok, which was quite common at that time of the year. The flight was uneventful and routine until the top of descent (‘TOD’) was reached. On the flightdeck that rainy night was a 49-year-old Captain with 15,881 hours of experience, a 36-year-old First Officer (F/O) with 8,973 hours of flying time, and a 35-year-old, 6,685-hour Second Officer (S/O). Also seated on the flightdeck was the latter pilot’s wife. If a crew member’s wife or partner was travelling as a passenger, it was not unusual in those pre-9/11 times for the captain to invite her to occupy the extra observer’s seat, or ‘jump seat’.

Visibility unacceptable

During the approach, the aircraft was being flown by the F/O, under the supervision of the Captain, who was a company-designated Base Training Instructor (a trainer in take offs and landings for pilots). The crew did a thorough briefing, which included the expected weather and visibility conditions in Bangkok. In aviation meteorology, good visibility is normally reported as being 10km (kilometres) or more. On this occasion the visibility was reported by the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) as 7km in rain. In fact, the F/O suggested that if the visibility was unacceptable, they should go around (abort the landing), climb away from proximity to the ground, and enter a holding pattern somewhere in the clear until it was safe to attempt a second approach and landing. To this the Captain remarked that 7km visibility was not too bad and acceptable as it was only due to showers of rain.

However, when QF1 was on its final approach for Runway 21 Left the intensity of rain at the airport increased and visibility began dropping further, down to 4km. It was observed by then that the rain clouds were directly above the airport. At this point the Captain suggested that automatic brakes (autobrakes) were selected to a higher no. 3 setting to compensate for a wet runway and the possible chance of skidding and aquaplaning. The aircraft’s anti-skid brake system would provide for safer stopping.

The visibility then went down to a mere 1,500 meters. Another Qantas flight (QF15) approaching the same runway just ahead of QF1 decided to go around. Unfortunately, that aircraft was speaking with the air traffic control tower on their radio frequency and could not be monitored by QF1 which was on the different ‘approach’ radio frequency.

‘Situational awareness’

Had the QF1 crew heard their own company aircraft discontinuing its landing and initiating a go-around, there is no doubt that they would have been mentally prepared for what to expect closer to the airport. When going around, the pilot is expected to announce that decision to the control tower. To operate safely, pilots of today rely on their hearing perhaps to a greater degree than visual cues, to form a mental picture by listening out for other aircraft operators who all work on a common radio frequency. This enhances their knowledge of what is going on around them and is commonly known as ‘situational awareness’.

As per company-dictated procedures, the F/O intended to use partial flaps ‘25’ for landing, and idle reverse thrust after landing. A higher ‘full’ flap setting would allow the aircraft to touchdown at a lower speed; and that, more than idle reverse thrust, would have allowed the aircraft to decelerate quickly. That would have been more appropriate for a wet runway.

Soon they spotted the lead-in approach lights to the runway, and the lights at the runway threshold. These lights were visible through the moderate rain which was not a deterrent to the crew visually orientating themselves, with wings level and a continuous descent in the final approach. The remainder of the runway lights were, however, obscured by the heavy rain over the runway.

Unfortunately, the F/O flattened out his descent in the rain and floated beyond his projected touchdown point (1,000ft from the threshold), so the captain had to remind him to keep on descending and get the aircraft on the ground quickly. As a matter of interest a ballpark rate of descent that pilots use to maintain an ideal 3-degree glide path is half the ground speed indicated by the GPS plus a zero, in feet per minute. For example, if the GPS-indicated ground speed was 160 knots, the pilot should strive to keep a rate of descent of about half of 160, that is 80, plus a ‘0’: 800 feet per minute. A rate of descent less than that will cause the aircraft to ‘float’ while using up valuable ‘real estate’ ahead. As an old aviation adage goes, ‘Runway behind you is useless. Runway ahead is priceless.’

The approach speed was a few knots faster but within limits.While the Captain was aware that the Boeing 747 floated further in than the normal 1000 feet from the threshold, it was still within company tolerance limits. Hence, the Captain increased the autobrakes setting to no. ’4’ without telling the rest of the crew. The heavy rain in the middle of the runway, prevented him from seeing the lights at the end of the runway, so he was unsure of their position relative to the length of the runway. Therefore he did the next best thing and ordered a go-around at low level. The standard procedure was for the F/O, who was flying the aircraft, to press the ‘Go-Around’ buttons on the throttles. When either or both buttons are pressed the aircraft goes into the go-around mode: engine power increases automatically, the autobrakes switch off, and the Flight Director System provides the pilot with a precise nose-up attitude to fly. This manoeuvre is regularly practiced in the flight simulator, under supervision of an instructor. However, in this instance, for some reason the F/O increased the throttles manually without pressing the go-around buttons (using his index and the middle fingers). Consequently, the aircraft continued to descend due to its momentum and the wheels touched down on the runway softly.

By now they had passed the patch of intense rain at the centre of the runway and could see the lights at the end of the runway. The captain made a judgement call, without announcing to the rest of the crew, and closed the throttles by placing his right hand over the F/O’s left hand which was already controlling the throttles. In the process he inadvertently failed to close (throttle back) the number one (left outer) engine which was still operating at high thrust. As a result the automatic spoilers (air brakes), although armed, did not deploy as it did not satisfy auto-spoiler computer logic which demanded that all engines must be at idle power with the aircraft on ground for the spoilers to ‘pop up’. As the name implies, when the aircraft has touched down the spoilers ‘spoil’ the lift generated by the wings and forces the aircraft to stay firmly on its wheels to facilitate effective braking. The auto spoilers were eventually deployed only after the F/O pulled the no. 1 throttle back to idle power. The autobrakes also dropped off to ‘disarm’ position as one thrust lever was still at full thrust for over three seconds with the aircraft ‘on ground’, yet nobody on the flightdeck noticed it.

Usually, once a decision is made to go around and climb away from the ground, the flight crew are expected to stick to the plan without attempting to reverse their decision, for example attempting to land again. The Captain being a flight instructor who teaches takeoffs and landings decided to carry this out while accepting the risks. His unilateral actions obviously caused confusion on the flightdeck. At that point no-one knew who was in control of the aircraft. The standard aviation practice, from the pilots’ fledgling days, would have been that the instructors and captains brief the trainee or F/O that if they take over, they will announce loudly: “I have control”. In turn the trainee or First Officer must say, “you have control” so that there is no ambiguity. If appropriate to give back control to the other pilot, the instructor/captain must announce again loudly, “You have control”, and the other should again acknowledge by saying, “I have control”.

Wife in flightdeck

In this instance, did the Captain quietly interfere and not announce to avoid embarrassment to the F/O as the second officer’s wife was present in the flightdeck? We don’t know. But I have seen that happen. The Australian accident investigators in their final report say that her presence did not affect the outcome of the accident. That is true. This aspect is purely the point of view of the writer who was a trained Human Factors Facilitator for a Far Eastern carrier.

Back at Bangkok … realising the urgency to slow down, both pilots were frantically braking using the manual brakes on the rudder pedals to bring the aircraft to a stop. As in most jet aircraft, there were four other stopping devices installed in the four engines, known as thrust reverses, which are effective at high speed. In their confusion the two pilots forgot to use them. The third pilot (second officer) didn’t remind the other two operating pilots either. (The roar of engine noise that passengers hear immediately after landing is the deployment of reverse thrust.) The devices literally deflect the engine thrust forward and engine power increases to assist the spoilers and wheel brakes to bring the aircraft to a stop. The thrust reverse controls are on the forward part of the throttle levers themselves and could be moved in one smooth movement up and backwards through an idle detent, after the throttles are closed.

The official investigation conducted by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) deduced by analysing the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) that in this case the runway surface was flooded resulting from the intense rain and produced a phenomenon referred to as ‘aquaplaning’ whereby a thin layer of water is trapped between the runway surface and the tyres, rendering the brakes less effective and increasing the likelihood of skidding. Aquaplaning could occur where the depth of water is as little as 3mm (1/8 of an inch). From 146 knots the huge Boeing 747 took four seconds to reduce its speed to 134 knots. Seventeen more seconds to reduce to 94 knots and it entered an area at the end of the runway known as the stopway, then overran it at a speed of 88 knots on to a muddy patch of grass. At 79 knots the aircraft struck an Instrument Landing System (ILS) localiser antenna (on the extended centre line of the runway) which demolished the nose wheel and the right landing gear, while also damaging the aircraft’s public address (PA) system, before sliding on its nose to stop 220 metres beyond the end of the stopway just before a perimeter road.

Damage from overrun

An inspection of the aircraft soon after the crash confirmed that the spoilers had been deployed and flaps were selected to an intermediate position ‘25’ in keeping with company policy. However it was also confirmed that reverse thrust had not been used after the touchdown. No significant injuries to passengers and crew were reported. The subsequent precautionary passenger evacuation was affected by the unavailability of the PA system.

Investigators further observed that the aircraft had suffered substantial damage resulting from the overrun. The demolition of the nose and wing-mounted right-hand gear caused a wing to drop slightly to the right allowing the two engines on the right wing to contact the ground as the airplane slowed down. A complete examination of the aircraft showed that every system on the 747 was in good working order before the overrun.

Between 1970 and 1998, there had been 111 overruns of Western-built aircraft. In fact, the final accident investigation report observed that runway overruns were quite common in the industry for Western-built, high-capacity aircraft. Often, long and/or fast landings and wet runways were factors in these accidents.

Usually there is a chain of errors that leads to such an accident or incident:

(1) If the crew used a higher flap setting than the Qantas-recommended (preferred) setting of position ‘25’, they would have touched down at a lower speed and stopped quicker. Full landing flaps (‘30’) would have created aerodynamic drag and assisted in stopping.

(2) Their landing approach was faster than normal (within company limits).

(3) The aircraft floated passed the normal 1,000 foot touchdown point.

(4) If the crew took the adverse weather into consideration and briefed themselves to use full reverse thrust after touchdown that would have assisted the wheel braking action. (While the two nose wheels had no brakes, the 16 main wheels, on the four main landing gear assemblies, had brakes equipped with anti-skid systems.)

(5) The captain did not stick to the original plan of action to carry out a go-around, when unsure of their position on the runway.

(6) Reversing the go-around decision unilaterally by the captain without announcing to the rest of the crew resulted in confusion.

(7) When closing throttles one (no. 1) was inadvertently left at full power, leaving the aircraft’s computer logic in disarray.

(8) No proper procedure for taking over and handing over of control was used.

(9) The crew members forgot to use reverse thrust after touchdown.

The Australian investigators, who are not expected to apportion blame, declared, after analysing performance data, that if spoilers and full reverse thrust were used, they would have been able to stop within the limited landing distance available. There was no way they could not use reverse thrust and stop. Further investigation into the ‘cause behind the cause’, by applying thorough accident analysis, discovered that it was a systemic problem in Qantas Airways. Amongst other things, inadequate emphasis during simulator training on deviating from company-preferred Flap 25 and idle reverse, when necessary, on contaminated and wet runways. This was confirmed by the training department. Flap 25 and idle reverse was apparently introduced and accepted by Qantas as a cost-cutting exercise, and to reduce noise. The flight simulators were incapable of providing realistic wet/contaminated runway simulations. The written word for wet/contaminated runway operations in the training manuals were found ‘hidden’ under the cold weather operations section (ice and snow). Many crews including those involved in the accident were not aware of the extra precautions to be exercised on wet/contaminated runways recommended in the book. Usually, Qantas crews encountered ice and snow in Japan and Europe in their route network.

Qantas was fortunate that no-one was injured. It is rumoured that they spent more than the cost of a brand-new Boeing 747-400 to repair and put VH-OJH back in service, just to maintain its long-held record as ‘the safest airline in the world’ and not have a ‘hull loss’ on their hands.



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Impressive Indian scene…

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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.

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Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community

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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.

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The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality

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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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