Sri Lanka celebrates New Year as challenges on UN probe loom

COLOMBO (CIHAN)- Fire crackers boomed on Monday morning announcing the start of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, a unique time that brings together the deeply divided main communities of Sri Lanka together in celebration.
Many know Sri Lanka as the land that had a three decade civil war, which ended in 2009 and is making tenuous steps towards reconciliation. But what is unique is that the majority Singhalese people and minority Tamils join together to celebrate the coming of a New Year every 13 and 14 of April in a deeply traditional ceremony.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the new year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. The festival has close semblance to the Tamil New year, Thai New year, Bengali New Year and Oriya New Year festival in India.
Cultural anthropological history of the “Traditional New Year” goes back to an ancient period in Sri Lankan history. Various beliefs, perhaps those associated with fertility of the harvest, gave birth to many rituals, customs, and ceremonies connected with the New Year.
The aent of Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C. led to a re- interpretation of the existing New Year activities that are mostly based on astrology and auspicious times. The majority of the people in the country are Buddhists, and as such, it is that the Buddhist outlook has predominant in transforming the New Year rites to what they are now.
Most of the Tamil traditions revolve around Hinduism, which has existed side by side with Buddhism, for hundreds of years. New Year practices interpreted in the Hinduism way developed among the Tamil population creating a diverse but connected web of cultural relations.
In month of Bak in the Buddhist calendar (or the month of April according to the Gregorian calendar), when the sun moves (in an astrological sense) from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries) in the celestial sphere is when Sri Lanka celebrates its New Year. This marks the end of the harvest season and also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. Therefore many of the traditions are a way of giving thanks for the harvest and rejuvenating key tasks for future prosperity.
However, unlike the celebration of the new Gregorian calendar year at midnight on December 31, the Sinhalese traditional New Year begins at a time determined by astrological calculations. Also unlike 31st night celebrations, where old year ends at midnight and New Year begins immediately afterwards, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the New Year occur several hours apart from one another for Sri Lankans. “Avrudu” as it is commonly known has existed for thousands of years and continues to bind this diverse nation and provide a symbol of hope for sustainable peace.
It is a time for family, food and fun. Children typically make the most of the New Year as they are on holiday and playing games, getting gifts and eating copious amounts of traditional sweetmeats is the essence of the festival. Most people travel home to spend time with their families and work screeches to a halt as all public and private organizations shut shop for a week.
The end of Sri Lanka’s war resulted in the country posting 8 percent and 8.3 percent growth in 2010 and 2011. Currently per capita income is above 3,000 U.S. dollars, officially making it a middle income country. In 2013 the economy grew by 7.3 percent and this year the Central Bank has ambitious projections of 7.8 percent but consumers complain of the high cost of living, felt perhaps even more during the festive season when its customary to buy gifts for family members, especially children.
In addition, the new year comes just a few weeks after a resolution was passed at the United Nations Human Rights Council ( UNHRC), allowing for a UN probe into allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government during last seven years of the conflict.
The Sri Lankan government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has vehemently rejected the resolution and pledged to prevent UN investigators from entering the country. Both India and China have backed Sri Lanka insisting the international community should not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
Rajapaksa has assured that his government is working hard to reconcile the Sinhalese, who make up about 75 percent of the population with the main minority Tamil population. This was also the main point in his New Year message released to media on Saturday. “It is essential to build national unity to usher in rapid development in the country,” the president’s statement said. “What is outstanding in the traditions of these festivities are coexistence and reconciliation. The most valued quality of this Avurudu (New Year) festival is taking the ideal of understanding and cohesion beyond the family, to the village, the city and the entire country.” The post-war period has indeed been dominated by development in the form of massive infrastructure project. The government has embarked on a massive drive to build ports, airports, highways, railways and bridges, mostly funded by loans from China. According to Finance Ministry data over 4 billion U.S. dollars’ worth of loans have come from China while a myriad of countries including India, Japan, South Korea and even companies from Britain and European Union have chipped in.
Yet undoubtedly the biggest challenge for Sri Lanka in the new year is to bolster its already damaged international reputation while blocking the UN investigation. Already stock market brokers have warned a UN probe could drive away potential investors as well as giving reasons for exiting companies to pull out. Building political and economic confidence with the international community while forestalling the UN inquiry could be the trickiest balancing act yet for Rajapaksa’s eighth year in power. (CihanXinhua)