Do Brazilians speak Sinhala?
SAO PAULO - A huge sign in Portuguese outside a high school in this sprawling Brazilian industrial city of 17 million people, simply reads: Escola. Sounds familiar?

The windows at a suburban train station are numbered with signs reading: Janela 1, Janela 2 and Janela 3. At a restaurant in the heart of the city, a Brazilian journalist relishes a special dish on the dining table. Asked what it was, he says it is called "mangnoca"-- the Portuguese word for manioc.

At the cavernous Sao Paulo conference centre, site of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD 11) last week, even the names of the Brazilian delegates ring a resounding bell from back home.

The official list of Brazilian delegates to UNCTAD 11 may well have been torn off the pages of a telephone directory in Colombo or the suburbs. The last names of the delegates read: Fernando, Silva, Pereira, Corea, Costa, Gomes, Pinto, Salgado, Santiago, de Souza, Almeida, Dias and Rodrigo. And these were Brazilian, not Sri Lanka delegates. The present president of Brazil is a da Silva, the former president was a Fernando.

Since the Sri Lanka delegation to UNCTAD 11 was led by the Minister of Trade, Commerce and Consumer Affairs, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, at least we still got one-half of a Fernando right.

Returning home after a visit to Brazil in the late 1950s, a parliamentary delegation was apparently met by the Lake House correspondent at the then minuscule Katunayake airport.

Asked about the trip, one of our local politicians bragged: "I say, you think that Sinhalese is spoken only in our country. What you don't know is that it is also spoken in Brazil." Did we enrich the Portuguese language or did the Portuguese corrupt our language?

Never to miss a beat, the legendary Observer editor at the time, Tarzie Vittachi, made sure the politician's comment was recorded for posterity. In the 1980s, the Sri Lanka Mission to the United Nations was, not surprisingly, mistaken for the Brazilian Mission.

Our Permanent Representative at that time was a Fonseka (Ben) and our diplomatic staff included Rodrigo (Nihal) and two de Silvas (Piyaratne and Arthur). Rounding up was our driver L.G. Perera.

At the UN, Nihal was constantly mistaken for a Brazilian diplomat, and knowing his remarkable ability to mimic people, he passed off as one, to suit the occasion.

Sri Lanka and Brazil had one thing in common: a Portuguese colonial ruler. But unlike Sri Lanka, Brazil was colonised for nearly three centuries. When Brazil became independent in 1822, it was a devastating blow to Portugal, which lost much of its economic resources drawn mostly from its prized colony.

A country with a population of over 187 million people, Brazil shares boundaries with every single South American country except Chile and Ecuador. It is a regional economic power overshadowing Portugal, which has a population of only 10 million people.

Last week, Brazil upstaged the longstanding claims by its regional rivals Argentina and Mexico to publicly re-assert its "legitimate right to demand" a permanent seat in the 15-member UN Security Council.

"The largest country in South America has a rightful claim to be a permanent member," Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva told reporters at a UN news conference.

For nearly 60 years, the president said, the United Nations has remained static. "It has to change. It has to become more democratic and it has to adapt itself to the political realities of today," he added.

The dominance of the world's five declared nuclear powers as veto-wielding permanent members -- the US, Britain, France, China and Russia -- has been criticised over the years, primarily because the overwhelming majority of member-states from developing nations have been shut out of the Security Council's inner sanctum.

"There has to be equal participation," the Brazilian president said, "and countries from South America, Asia and Africa have the right to be permanent members of the Council." And he was right.

Besides the five permanent members, the Council also has 10 rotating non-permanent members elected on a geographical basis by the 191-member General Assembly every two years. But they don't hold any veto powers.

The United Nations has been debating the reform and restructuring of the Security Council for over 10 years now. But a proposal for expanding the Council beyond the current five permanent members has remained stalemated for several reasons.

The African seat has been claimed at least by three countries in the region: South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. The strongest contender for the Asian seat has been India, with a possible challenge by Indonesia. Brazil has remained the front-runner for the South American seat, which has also been claimed, at various times, by Argentina and Mexico.

Besides regional representation from the developing world, two other member states have claimed their right to permanent seats in the Council: Japan and Germany, both of which are world economic powers.

Last week, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim confirmed speculation that Brazil, India and China are likely to be invited to join the world's most powerful grouping of countries -- the G8- comprising the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.

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