Modi’s Buddhist Diplomacy Fails to Dispel Sri Lankan Suspicions

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 15th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BANGKOK (IDN) – The May 11-12 visit to Sri Lanka by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the UN Day of Vesak festival as a special guest was designed to woo Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority, but reactions in the Sri Lankan media indicates that it has not succeeded in dispelling their suspicions about “Indian colonialism” of their small neighbour. Continue reading “Modi’s Buddhist Diplomacy Fails to Dispel Sri Lankan Suspicions”


Asian-Fuelled Heritage Tourism Could Be An SDG Enabler

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) – The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, held for the first time in Southeast Asia, pivoted on how Asia-fuelled tourism would impact the industry worldwide. The discussions also centred around whether tourism could be an enabler of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if it were heritage-focused offering community experiences – rather than “exotic” sites – so that significant leakages of tourism revenue could be tapped. Continue reading “Asian-Fuelled Heritage Tourism Could Be An SDG Enabler”

Thailand Discovering the Power of Woman Travellers

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) – Thailand has long been a magnet for male travellers from the West, but now the kingdom’s tourism authorities are recognizing the power of woman travellers especially from Asia – among others from India, China and Japan.

“Sun is rising in the East (for Thailand),” says Srisuda Wanapinyosak, Deputy Governor for International Marketing (Asia and South Pacific) at Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). “Asian economies are good and people travel. This is a good opportunity for Thailand,” she tells IDN.

With European economies in the doldrums, Thailand has lost much of its former tourist market, but Asians have compensated for the decline, says Srisuda. There were nearly 8.8 million visitors from China in 2016 and 1.2 million from India visiting Thailand. The gender ratio was almost equal. Continue reading “Thailand Discovering the Power of Woman Travellers”

ASEAN Attempts to Build on a Shared Language: Music

By Kalinga Seneviratne


VIENTIANE, Feb 2 2012 (IPS) – A landmark concert featuring artistes from eight of the ten South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) took place here on Jan. 21, in an effort to build a regional community through the common language of music.

Still, the performers and the organisers of the event agree unilaterally that regional governments need to play a major role in promoting this shared culture through dedicated national efforts.

“Laos took the initiative in organising this first ASEAN concert and we hope other member countries will take turns hosting the event every year,” Khamphanh Phonthongsy, the Lao representative on the cultural sub-committee of ASEAN’s committee of culture and information (COCI) told IPS.

Organized by the Lao ministry of information, culture and tourism, the concert featured representatives from Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia. Singapore and Myanmar were the only countries that did not send performers.

Each country artist sang two songs, one in their own language and one in English.

Though there was no live orchestra, most of the musical numbers were accompanied by dancers adorned in their traditional dress, which added extra colour to an already vibrant evening.

“All the dancers were local,” explained Phonthongsy. “ASEAN performers sent us DVDs of their dance routines and we trained Laotian dancers to perform them.”

The singers and dancers only rehearsed once together the day before the concert. The smooth movement of the Laotian dancers on stage proved that there are deep similarities between the musical cultures of the regions.

“I used to search YouTube for ASEAN music but now I can experience it for myself. I (was) so excited to be part of this first ASEAN concert and think we need to do more,” said Laotian pop star Tee Oudalai.

Vietnamese pop star Lo Ngoc Hau agrees. She said that TV channels in her country do not air musical programmes from other countries in the region. “I have to listen to CDs (to find out about ASEAN music),” she lamented.

The Lao national television network ran a live broadcast of the two-and-a-half-hour concert from the national cultural hall in Vietiane and beamed the show to 20 other countries via satellite feed.

Sadly, the Lao organisers told IPS, no other member country took up the feed to broadcast it on their local channels.

Filipino artist Jan Pablo argues that the common denominator for most ASEAN countries is agriculture, a theme that runs through many of the region’s traditional folk songs. Though most of the performers sang in different languages, Pablo believes this common theme could be exploited to bond the region together via musical exchange.

“We can influence people though music,” he told IPS. “But we need more publicity and promotion. Government radio stations must help in this, since we cannot expect commercial radio to make us popular.”

The concert reflected the rich diversity of ASEAN music, featuring numerous items that could potentially become cultural hits in the region.

Speaking to IPS after the concert, Brunei pop star Putri Noriza said that the audience seemed excited by the songs “because they came for a cultural exchange.”

However, she isn’t sure the time is ripe for introducing the Malay dangdut or joget rhythms – popular dance forms with beats as infectious as Indian bhangra or Latin America’s lambada – as a form of dance music for the region, even though Indonesian singer Indri Tribuana received an encore for her dangdut performance.

“Some say that they don’t like it, but when they hear it for the first time they change their minds,” noted Tribuana. “I chose dangdut because it represents my country and most Indonesians love it.”

Pablo argues that the domination of Anglo-American recording companies in the region has made it very difficult for someone singing in their local language to make it big in the region.

Even within the Philippines, he complained, most commercial broadcasters prefer English music because they believe it will generate the most revenue.

“If you want to become popular singing original Filipino music you have to do it through the pubs and the underground (music scene) – not commercially,” he stressed.

The omnipresence of Western music in the region was a primary reason for organisers’ stipulation that each artist performs one of their two songs in English.

But though this is the official language of communications within the regional bloc, few of the performers were fluent in it. Despite memorizing English songs using CDs, these performances paled in comparison to the numbers done in a local language.

ASEAN has set 2015 as the date for integrating the ten nations into one community, but often music and culture take a backseat while business people and politicians discuss trade and economic integration.

The COCI was set up in 1979 with the aim of promoting regional integration through cultural exchanges. It acts through national committees, which usually function under their respective information or cultural ministries.

However, prior attempts to unify the region through music, like the ASEAN Golden Voice Festival pioneered by Vietnam in 2008 or Thailand’s 2009 ASEAN concert in honour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 60th anniversary of coronation, did not make it onto COCI’s official ASEAN calendar.

Khamphou Phiasakha, secretary for ASEAN COCI said that he was awaiting approval of next year’s concert from the committee of permanent representatives to ASEAN at their meeting in Thailand later this year.

Singapore: Community Theatre Confronts Gender Stereotypes

By Kalinga Seneviratne


SINGAPORE, Jul 17 2013 (IPS) – The play opens with a man and his mother waiting impatiently at the dining table in the family home. A woman rushes in after a busy day at the office with takeaway DINNER packets, followed by her son and daughter who walk in expecting their mother to serve them a meal.

The scene continues with the grandmother chastising her daughter-in-law for coming home late and failing to prepare the meal herself, a refrain quickly taken up by the husband. The young daughter is meanwhile pulled up for wearing a short skirt, though she is quick to retort that the grandmother is simply “old-fashioned”.

An undercurrent of tension that threatens to give way to violence runs through the play, which is exactly what the writers and producers intended.

‘Just a Bad Day’, a forum theatre piece designed to explore the struggles of ordinary Singaporean women against stereotyping and gender violence, is quickly making the rounds of this affluent Southeast Asian city-state, highlighting the hunger for dialogue around an issue that often gets swept under the rug.

As Director Li Xie told IPS, “Physical violence is very visible but subtle violence is hard to detect.” Yet it is exactly this latter form of violence that women in Singapore confront on a daily basis.

The 2013 Human Development Report, published annually by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), puts Singapore at 13th place in the gender development index, above Western countries such as the U.S., UK, Ireland and Austria, and fellow neighbours Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Over 71 percent of women in Singapore have at least a secondary education and 57 percent participate in the labour force.

With such an impressive track record, one would believe that women here enjoy a high social status, but the reality is very different.

Entering the labour force has been both a blessing and a curse, as women are now expected to play the dual role of working mother and traditional housewife, who must cook the family meal and attend to all the domestic chores after putting in long hours on the JOB.

“We wanted to address these gender stereotypes, prejudices and biases [because] that’s where change starts,” argues Kokila Annamalai, communications executive at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the co-producer of the play.

She added that social conditioning of both men and women must be stopped at “an early stage” so as to prevent psychological violence in the future.

AWARE, the leading women’s lobby group in Singapore, has fought for over three decades for equal rights for women in the WORKPLACE and at home.

Now, the NGO is taking its campaign to a new level through the use of community forum theatre, a form that allows the audience to actively participate in the outcome of the play.

“Through this intimate performance, we hope to provoke thought and discussion on the less tangible forms of violence against women that continue to be a reality in Singapore,” Annamalai told IPS.

‘Just A Bad Day’, produced in collaboration with the community theatre company Drama Box, is a flagship project of the ‘We Can’ campaign, a global initiative involving 3.9 million people who have pledged not to “tolerate violence against women”.

As the 16th country to join the movement, Singapore has adopted the mantra “Change starts with me”, and hopes to reach 10,000 people by the end of the year.

A crucial tool in that plan is the performance piece, devised by a team of “change makers” who will spend the rest of this year taking the play to community centres, schools and universities around the country. First staged on Jun. 26, the play was recently presented at a youth festival called Scape where over 100 youth between the ages of 16 and 25 attended the show and participated actively in formulating a new outcome.

One audience member intervened in the first scene and got into the role of the working mother-housewife by explaining to the grandmother that women today have to work to maintain a family’s standard of living.

The original actress had portrayed a subdued and frustrated character, but the young girl in the audience injected a more aggressive quality into the mother’s role, pushing the grandmother to take a different view of the situation.

Rachel Chung, who originally played the role of the mother, told IPS after the show that she herself has experienced the kind of psychological violence depicted in the scene.

“Violence in my life started with verbal tirades, insults and put-downs from my partner,” Chung said in a recent interview. “He then assaulted me with profanities. Soon, he started shoving me when I ‘stepped out of line’ and this escalated into more physical abuse like slapping and punching.”

Stressing that violence is not “always black and blue”, Chung insisted that the “damage to my morale and self worth caused by the emotional abuse was no less than the physical injuries.”

She pointed out that one in 10 women in Singapore have experienced psychological abuse, and surveys have shown that eight in 10 Singaporeans will not interfere in domestic disputes, even if they know that a friend, relative or neighbour is being abused.

Chung called the campaign a “movement to make change” and invited men and boys to join in, citing their support as crucial for success.

Lupin Tan, who acted as the father in ‘Just a Bad Day’, told IPS that he joined the cast because of a personal connection to the role, having been what he called a “male chauvinistic father”.

He was one among 70 people who responded to a FACEBOOK post calling for volunteers. Twenty were eventually chosen to go through a month-long exercise with Drama Theatre and come up with three scenes that would then be incorporated into the final play.

“It was important for me to reach out to people with [similar] experiences, who are unaware of this type of violence towards women,” Tan told IPS.

According to Xie, the point of the play is to force audience members to ask themselves: “What would I have done?”

Provoking spontaneity and action is important in a society where many perceive calls for help as women “making mountains out of molehills.”

In fact, a survey of over 655 men, conducted by the Ngee Ann Polytechnic School of Business and ACCOUNTANCY, found that 13 percent of respondents believe women who are raped “asked for it”, while 29 percent of men believe that most women make “false” claims of rape.

It is for this very reason that Annamalai believes theatre can be useful, since it offers a non-threatening opening to a conversation and “shows rather than tells” a way forward, to a more equitable society.