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Trapped between a rock and a hard place



Don’t exaggerate Lanka’s strategic importance to the Great Powers

by Kumar David

The foreign powers relevant to Sri Lanka’s predicament, in order of involvement are India, China, the United States, and Pakistan to a lesser degree. Japan, Australia and the UK will bestir themselves to the extent that the US compels them. To India the island is so critical that a threat to its security such as setting up a hostile military base will provoke a hard militarised response. US military interest is to backup India and deny China military facilities, but its economic forebodings are deeper and it has vowed to push back China’s economic wallop and in particular to spoke the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by which China is taking over the Asian politico-economic landscape. This colkumn last week (Sept 6) titled “America’s New Cold War” was about this.

India is concerned about the tilting Sino-Lanka axis from many perspectives – security, regional economy and Belt-and-Road; see strategic papers: and The first paper is written from the perspective, true at one time, that Mahinda is China’s man. It is more complex now with GR-MR manoeuvring between the IMF, China, the US and India to keep the wolf of foreign debt and interest repayment from the door. They have recently even proposed the partial-sale of private banks to multilateral agencies. The Rajapaksas will throw themselves at the mercy of anyone for a debt moratorium, new loans and MCC grants; beggars can’t be choosers. Modi and Indian security folks would like to buy the Rasapaksas off with deals and loans and Lanka cannot afford to pose a strategic threat to anyone. On the other hand, GR and MR are well aware that the big money is with China. It’s a hard world!

Though Sri Lanka’s economic-strategic location is useful to China as a centre point on shipping lanes to the Suez Canal, the Persian Gulf (and its oil), and China dependent East Africa, the island’s military-strategic significance should not be exaggerated. The crucial choke point for China and for all Far Eastern shipping is the Malacca Strait, a narrow strip of water between Peninsular Malaya and Sumatra, two miles (2.8km) wide at its narrowest and 550 miles (890km) long. It carries a quarter of the world’s oil shipments, a quarter of global freight, and 100,000 vessels transit it each year. It is the Malacca Strait, not Sri Lanka, that is a nightmare for China because the US Navy can throttle the Strait and China does not have the clout to respond.

Hence BRI: Five corridors, three operational and two a bit dicey. The Mongolia-Russia railway to the Baltic Sea and the more southerly and more important Eurasia railway are both operational. A branch of the latter through Iran into the Middle East and Turkey maps the Ancient Silk Route – this Central and West Asia Corridor is a third, part-operational arm. The fourth in fitful “progress” is the Pakistan Corridor of roads crossing through contested parts of Kashmir and rail links to the Arabian Gulf port of Gwardar. Fifth the Myanmar-Bangladesh Corridor to the Bay of Bengal port of Chittagong runs through India so it may never get done, but Chittagong is being developed as a transit port. This fifth proposal has a slice on the side, sometimes called a Sixth Corridor, down the spine of Peninsula Malaysia to Singapore. This too is unlikely to get done.

A profoundly important new development is the China-Iran deal signed a few days ago. China will invest $400b in petrochemicals ($280b) and transport ($120b) in exchange for a 32% discount on Iranian oil for the next 25 years. The rail project will connect the Iranian port city of Chabahar to Zahedan near Iran’s Afghan border and presumably go north to join the Eurasia Corridor. Last year India stopped buying Iranian oil to please Washington and Delhi has also reinforced military ties with Israel. Tehran’s attitude changed; in effect the US and India have pushed Iran into China’s welcoming arms and a new strategic partnership is taking shape; perhaps it will include Russia and Turkey in the future. So, as per plan the via-Pakistan route to Gwadar will be paralleled by a via-Iran route to Chabahar, and significantly Chabahar is at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. This complex now becomes a Pakistan-Iran Corridor. What is significant after this gets done is that the Malacca Strait and Lankan ports may, but unlikely, be bypassed for freight, but will certainly dim on the Chinese strategic radar.

Were the Communist Party less hostile and repressive of every other mass organisation (the Catholic Church, Fulan Gong and now the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang who are not prepared to abandon their faith) China could much improve its image among Muslim nations, and critically in this context, among the people of Iran. One-party Stalinism (or semi-Stalinism) suffers from a complex, a deep sense of insecurity, a foreboding of all other big entities.

There are other reasons than sea-lanes and security not to exaggerate the standing of the Chinese connection. Lanka does not export much to China which needs oil, gas, high-tech and masses of electronic chips that we do not have. The PRC exports tons of the same stuff as we do to the whole world and a wider variety and better quality – garments, manufactures. We have not even found niche markets in China for our specialist foods. For training professionals (doctors, engineers, IT types) and post-graduate placements, we are bound hand and foot to the English-speaking world. Investments from China are large but front loaded with a big graft slab for our leaders – all mega projects include a slice. Actually, China does not care as loans are commercial-repayable and unlike Western agencies which are accountable at home, the Chinese public cares tuppence if projects are alabaster-pure white-elephants. Mattala, Hambantota Stadium, highway projects, anything that has the label Rajapaksa in front is likely to be superfluous and a graft opportunity.

The US blacklisting 24 Chinese companies is unlikely to affect Lanka. The giant holding entity China Communication Construction Company (CCCC) has not been named though several of its subsidiaries have. These subs are not involved in the Colombo Port City Project, a different CCCC spin-off, China Harbours – which criminally pumped tens of millions into the 2015 Presidential race – has a stake in the Port City project. This all seemed clear, though last week the Colombo US Embassy muddies the waters with a warning. Separately, the US Secretary of State, Defence Secretary and National Security advisor have been in telephone contact with President Gota not to mention a letter from Trump said to have been handed over to Gota. But all to make sure that Lanka does not get out of line in the new anti-China cold-war. But we are dead broke – the 2020 fiscal deficit will be about 10%, I believe the highest ever in the country’s history and the economy limps from bad to worse. China not India or the US has the money so as beggars who can’t afford to be choosers where are we to beg and what are we to choose? Things will roll on in this style for five, maybe ten more years.


[Both this and last week’s essay have greatly benefitted from information supplied by a Mongolian Comrade]

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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