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Working overtime to defend a defence deal

Over the last two months, the U.S. finds itself constantly under scrutiny in Sri Lanka, where it has been accused of pushing the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA), or at least a version of it.

With stiff resistance emerging at the top-most level, from President Maithripala Sirisena, the U.S. mission here is working overtime to defend the proposed agreement.

Tweeting on an article claiming that the U.S. was planning to turn Sri Lanka into a “military colony”, the U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, Alaina Teplitz, said: “Blatant misinformation. There is no plan or intention to establish a U.S. base in Sri Lanka. VFA negotiations only aim to facilitate cooperation and any agreement will fully respect the sovereignty of #SriLanka.”

Later, in a front-page message published in a special media supplement on July 4, she said: “Respect for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty also lays at the heart of our security cooperation.” She reiterated the point in her remarks at a reception held in Colombo to commemorate the American Independence Day. “There is an important quality to the U.S.-Sri Lankan partnership, and it’s one that I want to emphasise tonight — mutual respect. Respect for sovereignty. Respect for quality of life. And even respect for our differences as nations.”

Raging controversy

The controversy has spanned months now, and there are few indications that things might get any easier for the U.S. It was in this backdrop that U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cancelled his scheduled visit to the island nation in late June. The U.S. Embassy attributed the decision to “scheduling conflicts”. Amid growing scrutiny by both local media and some political parties, the SOFA morphed into a ‘Visiting Forces Agreement’ (VFA). However, that has not made it any more acceptable among those resisting it.

A State Department brief on the U.S.’s security negotiations and agreements, including the SOFA and the Acquisition and Cross Servicing agreements (ACSA) that Sri Lanka signed in 2007 and renewed in 2017, notes that “collectively, these agreements facilitate the deployment and movement of U.S. forces and materiel abroad and provide protections for U.S. service members operating overseas”.

“Protections”, to many wary of the deal, only means impunity.

The concern is not confined to certain politicians or nationalist groups. The most recent objection has come from the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The leading business organisation, with prominent private sector representatives, asked the government to clarify the “exact position” in regard to the current status of the SOFA and also the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Agreement, as per which the U.S. is gifting Sri Lanka some $480 million. In a statement, it sought “an enhanced level of transparency with respect to these agreements and their potential consequences”.

In a response addressed to the Chamber’s head, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said there was no SOFA between the U.S. and Sri Lanka, nor was one likely to be signed as it had not been presented to the Cabinet. Mr. Wickremesinghe was “perturbed” by the Chamber’s “express ignorance” on the contents of the SOFA and the MCC. “Politicisation of this reputable business conglomerate under your recent assumption of leadership is to be much regretted,” he told the newly elected head of the Chamber, apparently accusing him of siding with the SOFA-sceptics.

Almost in predictable fashion, Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe are voicing very different views on the matter, in yet another manifestation of the deep divisions in the government. While Mr. Wickremesinghe has insisted that due process has been followed in all discussions with the U.S. so far, Mr. Sirisena, in a recent address, said: “During my tenure as President, I will not allow the government to sign any agreement with any world power...”

Whether it is the SOFA or the VFA, there is little information in the public domain on their specifics. Moreover, it is election year in Sri Lanka. Sovereignty and national security will soon become buzzwords. A defence deal at this point, that too with the U.S., can’t be easy.

Afghan children caught in the crossfire

A massive truck bomb exploded close to a school in the heart of Ghazni city in Afghanistan last Sunday, causing one of the highest child casualties reported in a single day. The explosion caused more than 100 casualties, a majority of them children. The target though, as claimed by the Taliban, was a National Directorate of Security facility close by.

“The bomb exploded around 8.30 a.m. close to Afghan Rahmati School... a private institution for primary kids, and as a result most of the victims were below 11,” Muhib-ur-Rahman Ansar, the provincial director of education from the Ministry of Education, told this correspondent. Mr. Ansar was among the first few to reach the site of the attack to help with rescue operations. “There was so much blood, a few woman teachers were also wounded. The scenes were graphic. I have a few photos but I can’t even think of sharing them,” a discomposed Mr. Ansar said.

Total casualties have crossed 120, which include 59 children, an official from the Ghazni Public Health Directorate confirmed, adding that at least six people died, including two children. “The children have been admitted to hospital, many with severe injuries. Doctors tell us they are treating serious shrapnel wounds,” Mariam Atahi, communications manager at Save The Children in Afghanistan, said.

Peace talks

The deadly attack came on a day when Afghan representatives gathered in Doha for a rare intra-Afghan meeting with leaders of the Taliban to negotiate peace in the country. Incidentally, one of the aspects discussed at the meeting on Tuesday, two days after the attack in Ghazni, was an assurance of reducing civilian casualties. In a statement issued alongside Afghan representatives, the Taliban agreed to not attack schools, universities, mosques and markets, as well as residential areas.

The Taliban has already been in several rounds of talks with the U.S. seeking an end to the war. At the same time, they have escalated attacks in several parts of the country, with exceeding civilian casualties. A similar attack on a defence facility in Kabul a week ago also hit a school nearby, causing more than 100 casualties, half of them students.

Security analysts predict that Afghanistan will remain the deadliest conflict zone in the world in 2019, far surpassing the levels of violence witnessed in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and other hotspots. This surge of violence is causing discontent and anger among locals. “The peace talks are happening in Qatar but there is bloodshed in Afghanistan. Both parties are trying to showcase their power so they can make a better bargain during the peace deal,” said Nasratullah Sultanzoy, an Education Ministry director and a colleague of Mr. Ansar.

He recalled helping two wounded third grade boys. “They wanted to quickly get back to school after their treatment to prepare for a test the next day. They even offered to help clean the classrooms,” he said. The school building in question stands in complete ruin. “Watching them and their determination towards education moved me to tears. Their dedication gives me hope for the country,” he added, choking up at the memory. “We can’t do much, all we can do is ask for help from God.”

The indiscriminate violence, especially towards children has evoked a strong response from the international community. Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for children, with 8 out of 10 conflict-related child casualties, the result of explosive weapons. “Children are at increased risk to these kinds of attacks and their bodies even less able to withstand the force of a blast. Physical injuries can pale in comparison to the emotional scars many children may carry with them for years after experiencing a traumatic event like this. This is simply unacceptable,” Onno van Manen, country director at Save The Children in Afghanistan, said, appealing to all armed groups in the country to stop the killing and maiming of innocent children. “Think of the future generations.”

Agreeing with Mr. Manen, Mr. Ansar, the Education Ministry official, added: “Avoid killing and hurting the children of Afghanistan, else we will be left with an entire generation scarred and disabled.”

A ‘green revolution’ with Chinese characteristics

Just two hours away from Beijing by bullet train, a “green revolution” with Chinese characteristics is quietly under way. A corner of the Hebei province, once known for its polluting industry — steel mills, cement plants, pottery kilns and coal mines — has broken away from its toxic past. Shamed not long ago as a crucible of PM 2.5 particles, which added to Beijing’s foul air, Hebei’s Fengfeng industrial district, 40 km west of the better known Handan city, has mutated into a pilot green-zone.

Once known for its dinosaurian coal-fired power plants or Jurassic industrial zones built on either side of dusty potholed roads, Fengfeng district has undergone a root-and-branch makeover. “Ours is a resource-based and mining area. But following the spirit of the 19th party Congress [of the Communist Party of China], which instructed us to follow the path of building a green China, we decided to turn our area into a scenic zone,” said Zhang Xuejun, Deputy Mayor of Handan city, in a conversation with a team of visiting diplomats and journalists.

Later over dinner in a vast dining hall, she proudly toasted her guests over beer — a result of a local joint venture with a German partner — and explained that her administration had to face a real challenge of transforming the area.

“Thousands of factories had to be closed and a large number of people that were displaced had to be re-settled. Instead of coal mines and factories, which churned out steel, cement and ceramics, new industry focussing on personal computers, tablets, smartphones and robots had to be rooted,” she recalled.

Local officials said that by 2017, 70% of the targets of realigning manufacturing to industry 4.0 standards, in tune with China’s hi-tech oriented 13th Five-Year Plan, had been met.

Despite the push for a cleaner ecology on President Xi Jinping’s watch, the master plan of Fengfeng’s green revival had actually been rolled out in 2010. “Essentially we had to clean up two adjoining mountains — Yuan Baoshan and Gushan, through which flows Fu Yang river, the mother river of the Handan area,” said Wang Zhiyong, an official at the Handan Municipal Foreign Affairs office.

He pointed out that under the plan, the Baoshan area, where old factories, mines and residences were located, was on course to become an eco-tourism zone.

That task has mostly been accomplished. From the top of the Baoshan mountain, the slopes appear awash in green — the result of tree plantations on an industrial scale. “Millions of trees have been planted, ranging from conifers to fruit trees. The result is that the area once known for limestone quarrying and coal mines has morphed into a picturesque south Xintiang forest park,” a local official said.

Officials say they have been following the template of President Xi, quoting him as saying that “clean water and green mountains are equal to gold and silver”.

Tourism industry

With the economic model changing, officials are focussing on the tourism industry as a new generator of wealth and jobs. Consequently, the Buddhist grottoes carved into the barren but imposing Xiangtangshan cliffs have emerged as a star attraction in this eco-heritage turnaround.

The 36 Buddhist caves, spread into three stunning clusters in the Xiangtangshan zone, are a big draw. The northern cluster is carved into the Gushan mountain, while the other two are at sites known as Nan Xiangtangshan and “Little Xiangtangshan”.

But similar to the fate of the Dunhuang caves in the Gobi desert, where iconic pieces of Buddhist sculpture ended up in western museums and private collections, wagon loads of artwork from Xiangtangshan have been funnelled abroad.

According to some accounts, many of the pieces of sculpture were sold to American art collector Charles Freer and have been displayed at the Freer Gallery in Washington.

In order to co-link the heritage cluster with the eco-tourism zone, a 27 km road has been built in record time. Amid lush greenery, tourists can stop at vantage points on the way to soak in the view, before arriving at the Xiangtangshan cultural base, known for its sprawling Bodhi square.

Climate change knows no holiday

A train full of children and teens, singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive”, arrived in Oranienburg from Berlin on the first Friday of July. “Oh hey! It’s hot out here, there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere!” they broke into a rather appropriate chant, since last month was the hottest June ever recorded on earth, according to the European satellite agency, Copernicus Climate Change Service.

As the train pulled into Oranienburg, a town of 45,000 inhabitants, roughly 35 km from the capital, the Fridays for Future protesters on the train and at the station merged into one. “Tell me what democracy looks like?” asked 15-year-old Tobias Fiedler, a local co-organiser, on a makeshift stage. “This is what democracy looks like!” was the thunderous response of over 350 children and teens, holding banners and placards made of recycled material. Most, aged eight to early 20s, were unaccompanied by their parents, holding banners like, “Vote because our planet can’t”, and chanting, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” The weekly protests, started in August 2018, have seen students around the globe skip classes every Friday to demand political action against climate change.

The Fridays for Future paralysed Oranienburg for a few hours as the protesters walked for almost 4 km in the town centre, culminating the march outside the Oranienburg Palace. A series of speeches followed the march, including one by Luisa Neubauer, Germany’s Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist who started the School Strike for Climate movement in August last year.

Ahead of elections in three east German States — Brandenburg and Saxony in September and Thuringia in October — Ms. Neubauer urged political parties to factor in climate change in their manifestos. As schools in Brandenburg have shut for summer holidays, Fridays for Future is travelling around the State. “Our demands are to make climate change a priority, because no political party is doing enough,” says 15-year-old Masha Wille, who hopes the protests will influence the coming elections.

The march in Oranienburg halted outside the city administration office for a few minutes. As the students demanded better environmental policies, more public transport, less cars and a heavy tax on carbon footprint, government officials stepped outside the building looking bewildered. “Hey hey, who does not jump, he’s for coal!” chanted one of the protesters as the rest jumped in support. In the last Fridays for Future in June, before the legislators went on a summer recess, protesters made a human chain around the Reichstag building in Berlin that houses the German Parliament, symbolically blocking exits. “People who don’t make climate policy don’t deserve a break,” the organisers wrote on Twitter. June also witnessed the biggest Fridays for Future in Aachen, where over 40,000 students from around Europe gathered to demand a quicker end to coal dependency and the reduction of greenhouse gases.

‘Good initiative’

The movement also got a boost after German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the demonstrations in a video podcast early this year, calling Fridays for Future a “good initiative”. The pro-environment Greens party has also been riding high on climate politics. But the movement seeks to remain independent from supporting any party. “Those using us for their political agenda should leave this demonstration now,” shouted one of the speakers at the Oranienburg protest.

A week before the Brandenburg election, Fridays for Future Berlin plans to organise its biggest summer protest. But the challenge is to maintain the momentum through the summer vacation. “The break is also an incentive for those kids who don’t want to bunk school for the protest,” says 20-year-old Louis Motaal, one of the organisers in Berlin.

Protesters like Mr. Motaal and Ms. Wille see the movement gathering more participants. “To mobilise students, we use WhatsApp quite a lot, like in India,” says Mr. Motaal, who spent a year around Jaipur on a student exchange programme. What about Facebook? “Who uses Facebook?” he smirks, before diving back into the sea of students.

Real shame means this

Getty Images/ iStock

Respected Madam/Sir,

Humiliation. Disgrace. International shame. Total nose-cutting in front of the whole world.

Non-stop these words are coming out of my son’s mouth since India vs. New Zealand cricket match.

Madam/sir, whether you are remembering my son? Maybe you are thinking, “Oho, Mr. Mathrubootham has not written one single word about his working from home son for decades. Whether son has finally got some nice job in office in America or Bombay or Koyambedu or anywhere but guest bedroom?”

No chance. He is still in house only. And he is still doing work from home only. Once a week I will ask him, “Son, what and all you have done this week?” He will say some big words like internet and ecommerce and all. And I will say, “All the best as long as you are enjoying and it’s not against Indian Penal Code I have no problem. But if police is coming to this house even once then promise on Tirupati Balaji I will take bail money and give it to constable and say, ‘Thambi, take this pocket money and beat him for two-three more hours.’”

Fancy dress

Thursday morning he got up at 8 itself and sat in front of TV wearing Indian cricket uniform. I said, “Kanna, why you are wearing fancy dress like some buffoon? Tomorrow if Virat Kohli is reaching final of 100 metres swimming in Olympics means you will sit whole day in underwear? Whether it will increase chance of India winning by one milligram?” He said, “Appa, please don’t make such anti-national talks.”

When India started batting, he said, “This is too easy appa, India definitely winning within 40 overs. Better to start preparing for World Cup final and take leave now itself.”

I said, “Kamalam, do you have phone number for Guinness Book of World Records?” He asked, “Appa why you want?” I said, “Because, kanna, I think this is first time one single person has put so many nonsense things in just two sentences. Minimum you will get national record.” He said, “Appa, how dare you, explain what nonsense I said?”

I said, “Firstly, it is Indian cricket team. Anything is possible. One minute Sachin Tendulkar will get muttai zero. Next minute Anil Kumble will score double century. Next match Venkatesh Prasad will stop ball before it crosses boundary. Ha ha ha ha, what nonsense you’re saying, you will take leave. Bloody fool, as if you are RBI governor. For you what means working day and what means leave. Sitting in bedroom means working day, sitting in sitting room means leave.”

He said “Appa, have you seen any cricket match since 2000? Venkatesh Prasad and all retired since Jambavan period.”

Real humiliation

Madam/sir, then what happened? Exactly what I told only. India mega super defeat. And my son spent 48 hours screaming in the house. Humiliation. Tragedy. National disgrace. Etc. Madam/sir, what he knows about real humiliation? I will tell.

Five-six years back for housing colony annual day they said husband-wife doubles shuttle badminton tournament. We put up our names. First match no problem, we defeated Mr. and Mrs. Prathapan in 20 minutes.

Second match against Nalini and husband from upstairs. Both parties very equal. Tight competition. Then Nalini is hitting shuttle cock high in the air. Mrs. M. said, “Don’t worry, I am going to smash.” I said, “No problem, all the best.” Mrs. M. jumped into the air like P.V. Sindhu and did one smash. First shuttlecock hit my face and then racket. I took two-three steps and fell directly on top of Mrs. D’Costa who was umpire. During fall, elastic of my shorts got stuck on handle for pulling the net up and down.

So now Mrs. D’Costa is on ground, Mr. Mathrubootham is on top of Mrs. D’Costa, and he is not wearing shorts. Photographer was there.

Madam/sir, this is real humiliation.

Yours in happy memories,

J. Mathrubootham

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