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President needs to rise above parochial considerations

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By Jehan Perera

 

The initial optimism that accompanied President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ascension to the presidency is wearing thin, in the face of the seemingly insurmountable problems he has to deal with, including the economic crisis, and, most unexpectedly the COVID-19 spread. But there are also the more traditional issues of abuse of power, corruption and inter-community tensions that are raising their heads. The recent prison riot, which has seen brutality, is what people remember of the past and must not recur under a government that cares for its people, regardless of their stations in life or communities. When he won the presidential election, in November 2019, there was a great deal of hope that the President was a leader with strong convictions who would immediately take charge and put things right in an efficient manner.

Although the first few months, that followed his election, saw little in the direction of such positive change, this was attributed to the fact that the new government, under him, still remained a minority government, with a Parliament elected in 2015. The dissolution of Parliament, in March 2019, was followed by decision-making by the executive without the check and balance of the legislature. There was anticipation that the change for the better would have to await the general elections. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic dealt a blow to these expectations by delaying the general elections. It was during this time that disturbing signs began to emerge that little had changed and that the old system was reasserting itself and limiting the scope of the changes that the people so eagerly awaited.

Despite the general elections of August 2020, and the large majority obtained by the ruling party, there was another roadblock to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that needed to be cleared according to the election manifesto of the ruling party. This was the 19th Amendment to the constitution which was a legacy of the previous government and intended to weaken the President’s powers and share them with Parliament. So once again it appeared that the President’s hands were tied. The President’s determination to have the 20th Amendment replace the 19th was therefore seen by the majority of people as an indication of his commitment to ensure a change for the better by re-concentrating power in the presidency. When the people voted overwhelmingly for President Rajapaksa, they did so in the expectation of a strong leader who would protect the people’s rights.

 

EXPECTATIONS BELIED

The popular desire for a strong leader arose from the failure of the previous government to give the people a sense that it was strong and cohesive and would protect them and the country. Like the present government, that government too was voted into power with high expectations of a corruption-free government that also respected people’s human rights and obtained the support of the international community and investors to propel the country forward in terms of economic development. However, the manner in which the former government was seen as giving in to international pressure, especially on the issue of the war victory and human rights issues related to it, was viewed negatively by a large segment of the population. The inability of that government to protect the people from the Easter Sunday bombings and their disastrous human and economic costs made the case very strong for a change of government.

It was in this context that there was a popular expectation that the passage of the 20th Amendment would empower the President to be the protector of the people from those who would exploit the country for their personal benefit, whether local or international. However, starting with the building of new roads in the protected ancient forest of Sinharaja, and the spate of lands in various parts of the country being acquired for private economic usage, the situation in the country is not working out that way. The 20th Amendment of October 2020 has re-concentrated power in the presidency. But this has weakened the system of checks and balances to make it appear that the government leadership wishes to limit the institutional obstacles to doing what it wants to do. There are numerous accounts of the destruction of the environment, including forest land and mangroves, for the economic profit of private interests.

It can now be seen that the country is plunging deeper into political and economic crisis. The legal system is seen to be failing to vindicate human rights and deeply felt religious sensibilities in the case of enforced Covid cremations even in contravention of the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission. The arrest of Shani Abeysekera, the former director of the Criminal Investigations Department, and his imprisonment in conditions in which he has contracted Covid, would send a chilling message to police officers about the dangers of pursuing wrongdoers who have political connections. At the same time there has been the acquittal of several government officials on trial for corruption, including those involving the misuse of state resources.

The weakening of checks and balances is also seen in the directive ordering closure of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the electricity sector regulator and the designated regulator for water services. The cancellation or overruling by the Presidential Secretary of an institution that has been established under an Act of Parliament sends a very concerning message that other laws be reviewed by officials outside of Parliament and be nullified. This will serve to undermine the powers of Parliament and the confidence of the citizenry with regard to the institutions of governance. This needs review to the effect that an Act of Parliament may not be nullified without the concurrence of Parliament to ensure that the system of checks and balances continues.

 

RESPONSIVE PEOPLE

The deterioration in inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations taking place at the present time is another serious cause for concern. Ironically, this deterioration is not at the level of the communities on the ground, though it is likely that they too will be dragged into the polarization unless remedial measures are taken at the national level. The relations between people of different communities at the ground level are neither hostile nor confrontational with regard to each other. However, there is an element of confrontation that is building up between the ethnic and religious minorities and the state. In the case of the Muslim community it is on account of the enforced cremation of Covid victims who have died. In the case of the Tamil community it is on account of the issue of whether they can remember the dead.

The controversies over Covid cremation and memorializing the war dead is now becoming a national political issue to the extent of parliamentarians utilizing Parliament to debate the issue and to discredit one another and to instill fears of future security threats to each side. This has increased the level of ethno-nationalist rhetoric which will increase the polarization between the communities. This will have its impact on the ground which those who wish to utilize to their advantage even at the cost of social and community peace will seize upon. But this is not a formula for a society that seeks to encourage economic investments by corporate and private investors, local and foreign, which is essential to reach the goal of the economic development that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has set for himself and the country.

The question is how the government will seek to ensure the continuing confidence of the people in its governance and decisions it takes. Now that the 20th Amendment has been passed into law, President Rajapaksa is best positioned to make the decisions that call for sacrifice but which are fair by all. Although the situation in the country is not working out the way that it was expected to, the majority of people in the rural hinterlands continue to place their trust in the President and in the genuineness of his commitment to change that embraces all citizens. So would the people in other parts of the country if they see that sacrifices are being made all round, and that politically connected elites are not unfairly being enriched at their expense. As Mahatma Gandhi said a century ago, let not their leaders mistrust them, for theirs is a very responsive nature.



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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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