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People’s continued trust in govt. must not be in vain

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by Jehan Perera 

In his address to the nation a year after winning the presidential election, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, “After I came into power, I appointed suitable officials in charge of the security apparatus of the country and gave them the required authority to carry out their responsibilities without any compromise. The intelligence services that had collapsed in the past were restructured and revitalized.  Accordingly, we have managed to control the possibility of a resurgence of extremism in any form. A very effective and robust programme has been implemented to control the drug menace. There is no room anymore to engage in drug trafficking or operate the underworld from inside of prison cells as in the past. People of this country no longer have reasons to live in fear of underworld gangs, extortionists and racketeers.”

The budget debate taking place at this time is when the country has suffered a setback in its efforts to keep the Covid pandemic at bay.  There is increasing criticism being voiced especially in the social media and civil society at the government’s utilization of the military at the expense of civilian leadership in meeting this health challenge.  The increase in the military budget and the diminished health budget in the context of the enormous increase in the budget deficit is indicative of the government’s priorities.  The military is playing an increased role in civilian affairs, not only leading the battle against the coronavirus but also in terms of administrative presence in the government bureaucracy, with retired military personnel being deployed to positions of leadership. This seems to reflect the President’s personal faith in the military forces he served both as a combat officer and later as Defence Secretary.   

The increasing criticism of the government in the social media which is outside of government control indicates disillusionment of sections of the intelligentsia who utilize the social media.  There are criticisms from both extremes, which suggests that the government is not being sufficiently Sinhala Buddhist in its orientation to some sections while being too much identified with one community to the exclusion of those of other communities.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has answered these criticisms in his recent address to the nation.  He stated that “The best yardstick of the success or failure of mine is the public opinion and not the organized propaganda spread by political opponents on social media platforms.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that the president’s popularity continues to be high at the community level in the Sinhala Buddhist heartland and possibly elsewhere as well.

 

FIELD ANECDOTES

This past weekend while the budget was being debated in Parliament there was a meeting on peacebuilding in Kandy organised by the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) with the participation of civil society representatives and university academics.  The main theme of discussion was to assess the peace processes of the past and to generate ideas that would support a nationally-driven reconciliation process.  One of the significant proposals to arise out of the meeting was for the participants to make a joint submission to the Expert Committee on Constitutional Reform appointed by the government.  The importance of a new constitution in the post-war context is that it will define the powers of government at the national and sub-national levels which is important to mitigate the long standing conflicts and tensions between the different ethnic and religious communities.

During the breaks for lunch and tea at the meeting on peacebuilding in Kandy some of the participants discussed the situation in the surrounding villages with the hotel staff who said that their villages continued to support the government strongly.  They said that the President was popular and their hope was strong that he would make a difference where other leaders had failed.  They also spoke positively of the role of the military and especially of the Army Commander General Shavendra Silva and the leadership they saw him giving to the Covid containment drive and the news briefings he gave.  This positive impression of the role played by the military and the popular Army Commander may aid the government to make the military more representative of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious diversity by recruitment of more minorities.

On the way back to Colombo we stopped at a dilapidated roadside shop to buy fruit especially the pink jambola that is difficult to find in Colombo.  While making our purchases we asked the shop owner what he thought of the current situation.  He said that business was down as few passing vehicles stopped to buy anything as they used to in the past due to the Covid threat.  When I asked him what he thought of the government, he said that he had confidence in the President.  The other politicians I specifically asked him about did not seem to command his confidence in the manner the President did.  When I asked him about the role played by the military his face lit up and he said he believed in General Shavendra Silva.  He said that if the previous government had been in power, there would be tens of thousands of Covid deaths by now. These may not be factual statements as leaders of the opposition parties urged a lockdown even before the government implemented one. But such statements indicate the state of mind of the people at the present time.

Not wanting to lose this opportunity to tap into local knowledge, I asked my discussant whether he feared the white vans that abducted people in the past would make their reappearance.  He did not seem to grasp the significance of the white van to those who showed political opposition to the government or to those who had become its victims. He said he had no such fears as the government was catching all the criminals and drug pushers and putting them into jail.  He compared this to the situation under the previous government, and said that they had used the criminals and drug pushers to do their dirty work and let them roam about freely.  This is anecdotal evidence of continuing strong support for the President’s policies and belief in his sincerity. 

 

REDUCED HATREDS

One of the positive features of the past year, since the election of President Rajapaksa, has been the reduction if not absence of any anti-minority riot and the diminished hate speech against minorities in the media. This has come as a relief to those who are ethnic and religious minorities. Both the presidential and general elections were polarizing ones in which primeval ethnic and religious fears were mobilized by the contesting politicians with backing from sections of civil society, professionals and the media.  Interestingly those who were at the forefront of the ruling party’s nationalist campaign during the elections, which benefited both the president and the government, are now much less visible.  Indeed they seem to be subdued and there are rumours that due to their disenchantment they may be considering new political alliances.

It is noteworthy that in his speeches President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has frequently reiterated that he will ensure justice and equal treatment to all sections of the people while reiterating the reality that his victory at the presidential election was due to the votes of the Sinhala Buddhist ethnic and religious majority. However, he has been taking pains to correct any adverse fallout of his statements that affirm that he is concerned and taking actions to support one set of communal interests at the expense of equity and fairplay to citizens. In his address to the nation last week the President said that “An administration that protects the rights of all citizens regardless of racial or religious differences will be established during my tenure.” 

One of the key proposals made at the meeting in Kandy was to establish a Pluralism and Diversity Commission on the lines of the independent commissions that were established under the 17th and 19th Amendments to the constitution but with more powers to ensure that all communities and all religious were treated equitably so that they would not feel alienated.  This was an idea that had been broached at a national inter-religious conference organised by the National Peace Council (NPC) in 2018 at which a Pluralism Charter was developed and ratified by the participants. This charter was the outcome of three years of consultations with multi religious and multi ethnic communities mobilized through work at the ground level.  It reflected the need for a shift in thinking to one in which equal rights, equal opportunities and equal protection become the norm for each and every citizen. This is a proposal that will be made to the Expert Committee on Constitutional Reform whose deadline is November 30.



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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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