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Sri Lanka’s disgrace, Trump’s worst hurrah, and Biden’s finest hour

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by Rajan Philips

For today’s column I was planning on writing on the ‘use and abuse of science in politics,’ both generally about the tortuous relationship the two have been having throughout the world in this pandemic year, and more specifically about what seems to be becoming the political abuse of science in Sri Lanka. As far as I can think of examples, Sri Lanka seems to be the only country where the government has succeeded in dividing the medical scientific community almost right down the middle. And I cannot think of any other way to describe this development except calling it utterly disgraceful.

Differences among doctors and scientists are not uncommon and they could be positively useful. The current differences among world scientists are about the British vaccination protocol to maximize the number of single dosage recipients by extending the time for the second dosage from three weeks to three months, and to mix and match vaccines for the two dosages. This debate is at the cutting edge of Covid-19 vaccine science.

Closer to stone age is the debate in Sri Lanka about cremating or burying the victims of Covid-19. Somehow, the government seems to have strong armed, or socially pressured, a medically learned opinion that the burial of Covid-19 victims might result in armies of an essentially respiratory virus escaping the buried cadavers and rushing through the earth’s esophagus to infect its ground water! What else could one call this, except disgraceful.

 

Trump’s last and worst hurrah

No one, however, will have any hesitation about calling out as DISGRACEFUL, what Donald Trump did in Washington last Wednesday. It was also dangerous. Over the last two months and more, American democracy has been living through the worst of times and the best of times. True to form, after Trump’s worst hurrah on Wednesday, Joe Biden registered his finest hour on Thursday as President elect.

On Wednesday, January 6, the United States Congress was getting into a joint session of the House and the Senate to perform its quadrennial constitutional ritual of affirming the Electoral College votes and declaring Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners of 2020 November presidential election. About the same time Trump was addressing a motley mob of his supporters and egging them on to march on Capitol, while leaving it to them to take whatever course of mischief they could. And they did, storming the Capitol, overpowering security, invading the Senate and House Chambers, forcing the legislators to run for cover, and interrupting proceedings. Five people including a policeman were killed in the melee, and a number of people were injured.

The most shocking aspect of the mob invasion was the total absence of security or police. White thugs were seen freely scaling over parapets on to balconies. It struck everyone who watched the unfolding scenes that it would have been a different story if the protesters were from the Black Lives movement. They would have been gunned down instantly. To his credit, President elect Joe Biden condemned the racist inaction by Police and made it public that his granddaughter, a university student, had emailed him to express her disgust.

This was Trump’s last and desperate attempt to prevent the official declaration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as winners of the November presidential election. Just earlier that morning he had tried to coerce his Vice President Mike Pence to use his totally ceremonial role of announcing Electoral College vote tallies before the joint session, to reject the results of one or more states and throw the whole election into hitherto uncharted chaos. If there could be enough chaos, Trump seems to have figured, he would be able to snatch a second term. Pence refused, and announced his refusal publicly – apparently becoming the first Vice President in American history to publicly contradict his President.

Separately, Trump’s supporters in Congress were trying to challenge and upset the results of six states where Biden’s margin of victory is low. These moves were doomed to fail as a majority of the Congress, in both the House and the Senate, including both Republicans and Democrats, was going to reject these vexations and affirm the clear Electoral College (and the massive popular vote) majority that Biden and Harris had legitimately and legally won. Which the Congress eventually did – by massive majorities, over 300 in the House of 438 members and over 90 out of 100 in the Senate. This was done with the Congress reconvening after the mob interruption, and sitting through the night and finishing its constitutional business in the early hours of Thursday morning.

The 100+ members in the House who ended up voting against the endorsement of the election results are die hard Tea Party supporters on the extreme right of the Republican Party, and the half a dozen Republican Senators who objected to the election results were positioning themselves as candidates for the next (2024) presidential election. But their political calculations have now been trampled and trashed by the Trump mob that ransacked the Capitol. And Trump has disgraced himself far more than any of his many detractors could have.

The man who started his presidency yelling to stop the “American carnage” is now leaving office after failing to incite a mob carnage to extend his presidency. The phrase ‘American carnage’ was written into Trump’s inaugural speech by Stephen Miller, a 30+ right-wing nut, policy wonk and speechwriter. Miller has been the architect of some of Trump’s worst initiatives, especially on immigration. Trump never owned or possessed any pre-meditated political vocabulary or idea when he embarked on his presidential flight. Nor did he come to acquiring anything worthwhile during his tenure as President.

Given his sociopathic craving for power and fame, Trump turned to the worst and the ugliest in America and among Americans to sustain his politics. His worst hurrah was in trying to goad the Americans, or at least a critically sufficient number of them to overturn the results of the presidential election that he lost by quite a margin. By stubbornly overreaching in the end, he has destroyed the chance of leaving even a partisan legacy of mobilizing over 70 million voters to vote for the Republican Party.

Without the power of the presidency and the social media platform that he exploited, with Facebook and Twitter already beginning to isolate him, and deserted by fleeing of his aids and supporters, Trump will find it difficult to remain in the eye of the political storm as he has been doing for the last four years. As his former Defense Secretary James Mattis has noted, Trump “will be deservedly left without a country.” Scotland has already spurned him by officially saying that he is not welcome to visit his golf club there. In America, Trump will be pre-occupied with legal worries.

With only two weeks left in office, there is no point in impeaching Trump or executively removing him under the 25th Amendment. But the calls for one or both, have certainly rattled him and may have prevented him doing anything outrageous, not only domestically, and also internationally. Within a day of openly inciting his mob supporters to overthrow the election, Trump has been chastened to deliver highly scripted statements that a new administration will take over on January 20 and that he will spend his last two weeks in office facilitating a peaceful transfer of power.

He has not been able, however, to find any decency in him to acknowledge that Joe Biden will be the next President. The only remaining surprise about him is whether he would (self) pardon himself out of future legal jeopardies. Whether a self-pardon will be effective is an open legal question, and in any event, it will protect Trump only from federal litigation and not state litigations. There are cases awaiting him in New York, his hometown and home state. But he might never return there. He is now a registered resident of Florida.

 

America’s Game of Inches

Americans call their national game – American Football, a game of inches. The opposing teams lock one another pushing and shoving to gain ground and advance ball possession inch by inch. Aerial passes were a later introduction apparently following a casual suggestion by President Theodore Roosevelt after his son was badly injured in a college football game. American politics seems to be no different. It is a game of inches – checks and balances and separation of powers. There is no room for aerial passes or sweeping landslide victories.

Joe Biden’s impressive popular vote win would have meant nothing if Trump had managed to hold on to the handful of seats that he narrowly lost. Trump would have squeaked through to a second term thanks to the Electoral College system. And the Biden presidency would have been thoroughly ineffectual if the Democrats did not gain control in both the House and the Senate. The Democrats have a majority in the House, but they had to win both Senate seats in Georgia in the runoff elections held on January 5. The Democrats stunningly won both, for the first time in 28 years. But it was again a game of inches – just about a one percent margin of victory.

 

Until recently, the working of the American political system depended on bipartisan agreements in the House and in the Senate. It was not unusual for a sitting President to be opposed by members of his own party in Congress, and for the President to reach out to the opposing party to secure legislative majorities on a case-by-case basis. The Republicans upended the system when they decided to function as a ‘parliamentary’ opposition to President Obama, opposing everything he did or initiated. The same stalemate would have continued for President elect Biden if Republicans had won at least one of the two Senate races in Georgia, which would have kept the Senate under Republican control.

Apart from the Electoral College system, it is the Senate that provides the biggest check against popular majorities and mandates. James Carville, the coiner of the famous Clinton slogan – “It’s the economy, stupid,” never misses an opportunity to remind his young progressive critics that 18% of the American population (living in 26 rural States) elect 52 of America’s 100 Senators. Therein lies the dilemma of winning big on a progressive agenda in New York and in California and running into Senate roadblocks in Washington set up by small state Senators.

The Georgia wins are a great boost to the new Biden-Harris Administration. Both Biden and Harris are former Senators, and Biden had been a Senate fixture from the Nixon era until he became Obama’s Vice President. He has loads of Congress and Senate experience to draw from as he tries to restore normalcy to American politics and its role in the world after four years of Trump chaos.

Joe Biden may not be the man of destiny, but he is a man of great decency and Americans could not have found a better person to replace Trump and reverse his disastrous course. Biden’s address to the nation on Thursday, the day after Trump’s failed carnage, was his finest hour as President elect. He eloquently went through the long charge sheet against Trump, but he was not interested in impeachment but moving on and turning a new page.

He also chose the occasion to announce his new Attorney General – Merrick Garland, a highly respected Federal Appeals Court Judge, whom President Obama nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016, but only to have him spurned by the Republican Senate on the grounds that it was an election year. Now it is just reward for Justice, for if there is any area that requires immediate restoration after Trump, it is the Department of Justice. Both men recounted that the American Department of Justice (DOJ) was established in 1870 to enforce civil liberties and eliminate the menace of Ku Klux Klan. And they promised that the DOJ will be rebooted to its original purpose.

 

 

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Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Uttareethara Maha Nayaka Thera turns 88

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It was in the year 1803 that there was a renaissance within the Maha Sangha (the Great Community of Buddhist Monks) in Sri Lanka thereby adding a fresh chapter to the history of the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka. This was when the Most Venerable Welitara Sri Gnanawimala Thera, the Great Prelate received the Upasampada or the Higher Ordination in Burma, returned to Sri Lanka and established the Sri Lanka Amarapura Nikaya. (The name of this monk is embellished with traditional appellations such as Bodhisattva Gunopetha or being imbued with the qualities of a Bodhisattva or Buddha-Aspirant, and Preacher to King and Emperor.)

Thus the Amarapura Nikaya, which began with this Most Venerable Thera, later spread itself very rapidly down five generations of the Sangha spanning the entire Island. These generations of the Sangha organized themselves into 22 Nikayas. This was with the blessings of each of the Mahanayakas. They also preserved the identity of each such Nikaya.

In Sri Lanka, Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha was formed in 1952 with the concurrence of 15 of these subsidiary Nikayas. Presidents of the Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha have been;

1. the Most Venerable Prelate Beruwela Siri Nivasa Thera

2. the Most Venerable Mapalane Pannalankara Maha Nayaka,

3. the Most Venerable Uddammita Dhammarakhita Maha Nayaka,

4. the Most Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maithri Maha Nayaka

5. the Most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Nayaka.

In the year 1962 all 22 Sub-Nikayas came together to form a more organized and properly constituted Sri Lanka Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha. It was the Most Venerable Agga Maha Panditha Balangoda Ananda Maithri Thera who was installed as President and has been succeeded by;

1. the Most Venerable Dhammavansha Thera,

2. the Most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha,

3. the Most Venerable Ahungalla Wimalanandi,

4. the Most Venerable Kandegedara Sumanavansha,

5. the Most Venerable Boyagama Wimalasiri,

6. the Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa and

7. the Most Venerable Dodampahala Chandrasiri.

The Most Venerable Chief Prelate Ganthune Assaji Thera is the current chair.

In terms of the Constitution approved in 1992, an Office of Supreme Prelate (Uttareethara Mahanayaka) was created, and the first to hold this office was the Most Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayaka Thera who was succeeded by Most Venerable Davuldena Gnaneesara Thera. After his demise the Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Thera, who turns eighty-eight today assumed and continues to be the Uttareethara Mahanayaka.

He was born on 26th January 1933 and ordained as a monk with the permission of his parents, on 17th August 1948. He received his Higher Ordination on 10th July 1954 at the Udakkukhepa Seemamalakaya set up on the River named the Kalu Ganga in Kalutara.

He had his training and primary instruction in the Buddha Dhamma from his Venerable Preceptors, later entered the Paramadhamma Chetiya Pirivena for his education. It was at the Maha Pirivena in Maligakanda where he received his Higher Education in three languages, under the shadow and tutelage of the Most Venerable Pandita Baddegama Piyaratana Thera.

With the demise of his preceptor, Dhammavasa Thera became the Prelate of the Dharmapala-arama Viharaya in Mount Lavinia. By this time he had already become very popular by broadcasting and delivering sermons in temples and in private homes, contributing to articles disseminating the Dhamma, and articles on topical subjects through the full-moon day publication entitled “Budusarana”, then to daily newspapers, and to the Vesak Annuals published by M D Gunasena & Co., Dinamina etc.

The Thera was also engaged in social welfare activities of the area by setting up Children’s and Young Persons’ Societies within the Vihara.

With the passage of time and the demise of remarkably eloquent monks such as the Most Venerable Narada Thera, Prelate of the Vajira-aramaya, Heenatiyana Dhammaloka, Kotikawatte Saddhatissa, Pitakotte Somananda, Kalukondayawe Pannasekera and other such classic preachers, Kotugoda Dhammavasa Thera stands out as a prime orator among those who came to the limelight after the days of the erudite monks of yesteryear.

Owing to the ceaseless invitations to deliver sermons extended to our Venerable Thera he travelled to various regions of the Island, yet fulfilling all his duties pertaining to his own Nikaya and to the work of the Sangha Sabha neglecting nothing whatever. With all this he continued to participate in the discharge of the infinite services expected of all erstwhile office bearers of the Sangha Sabha.

Our respected Thera was gradually chosen to hold various posts within the Amarapura Nikaya. Some such are his appointment in 1970 as an ordained member of the Working Committee and to the Post of Honorary Prelate (Maha Nayaka); in 1981 as the Chief Ecclesiastical Sangha Nayaka; and in 1990 as the Deputy Chief (Anunayaka) of the Amarapura Nikaya. At the same time it is because of his quality of being industrious that he was elected the Secretary (Lekhakadhikari).

The Venerable Anunayaka Thera who served the Maha Sangha Sabha of the Sri Lanka Amarapura Nikaya with great dedication, in order to ensure its unity and advancement, was in 1980 appointed its Co-Secretary (Sama Lekhakadhikari) and in 1992 as its Chief Secretary (Maha Lekhakadhikari) It is only appropriate to place on record that during this period of about fifteen years he performed a very special quality of service to the Sasana by updating the Amarapura Sangha Sabha; by setting up a Kathikavata (Ecclesiastical Edict) for the Amarapura Nikaya (whereby ‘rules governing the discipline and conduct of Buddhist monks including matters related to the settlement of disputes’ together with a Sanghadhikarana Panatha (i.e. an Ecclesiastical Act) were drafted and approved; and finally by drafting a strong, formal Constitution and obtaining approval for same.

It was on 17th December 2016 that the Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Anunayaka Thera became the Mahanayaka of the Amarapura Nikaya, and that on a proposal made by none other than the Most Venerable Agga-maha-panditha Ambalangoda Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera who, at the time, was himself the incumbent.

On 3rd October 2008 the Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Maha Nayaka Thera was appointed to the post of Chairman, and it was on 26th May 2017 that he was elected Uttareethara Maha Nayaka or Supreme Maha Nayaka, which is the highest position within the Sri Lanka Amarapura Nikaya.

He has visited many countries in Asia and Europe disseminating the Dhamma and participating in Conferences thereby earning great international fame. Meanwhile he also serves as the incumbent monk of the Sri Lanka-aramaya in Myanmar and of the Charumathie Viharaya in Nepal.

In the matters of national and religious issues in the country he expresses his views in such a calm and collected manner that he has earned the respect of the Supreme Maha Nayaka Theras of other Nikayas and politicians both in power and in the Opposition and of intellectuals.

He has been honored with the title of “Agga Maha Panditha” by the Government of Myanmar. Although other honorary awards were conferred upon him by foreign countries and foreign institutions he does not use them, entirely because of his humble disposition.

At the end of and exposition of the Dhamma (a Dharma Desana) at Temple Trees His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa (who was then the incumbent President of the country) made an offering to him of about 14 perches of land in Wellawatte. Upon this land stands today, the “Office of the Sangha Sabha of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya”, a three-storied building replete with all conceivable facilities. It is a matter of great joy to us that in honour of the Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammavasa Maha Nayaka Thera it was possible for us to make an offering of this building to the Buddha Sasana, on the 15th of August 2020.

We offer merit to His Excellency the President and the Honourable Prime Minister who are today attending to each and every need of our Supreme Maha Nayaka Thera in a spirit of extending infinite regard and respect to him, in appreciation of the national and religious service the Maha Thera has rendered.

Let us also gratefully place on record that the Honourable Sajit Premadasa, Leader of the Opposition, has provided an elevator as an offering to facilitate the caring for our Mahanayaka Thera.

I also wish to thank the Doctors, the Staff of the Nawaloka Hospital, Members of the Nikaya-abhivrudhi Dayaka Sabha (Organization for the Advancement of the Nikaya) and the Dayaka Sabha of the Mahanayaka’s Vihara and who are all providing medical care.

Arrangements were made by the Dayaka Sabha and the student monks to offer alms to the Sangha to mark the birthday of our Thera when he reached the age of 88, on 26th January 2021.

On 21st January 2021 at 7.00 p.m. a Bodhi Pooja was organized by the Amarapura Nikaya-abhivruddi Dayaka Sabha at the historic Kalutara Bodhi to invoke blessings upon our Supreme Maha Thera.

May the Supreme Maha Nayaka Agga Maha Panditha Kotugoda Dhammavasa Maha Nahimi live a life free from sickness and sorrow.

 

Deshamanya Ajita de Zoysa

Chairman

Sri Lanka Nikaya-abhivruddi Dayaka Sabha

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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