Puppets, Pawns and Presidents

Sirisena, Wickremesinghe, Gotabaya Rajapakasa, his brother Chamal and Karu Jayasuriya. The last week saw media frame prospective candidates for an office that the incumbent said, nay, swore on 9th January 2015, he would never seek re-election to and would be the last to occupy. Evidence of Sri Lanka’s sickeningly bankrupt political culture is again to be found in how, leaving aside unequivocal promises four years ago, even the catastrophic events of late 2018 and its entrenchment have not resulted in any meaningful measures to abolish the Executive Presidency. While the government continues bizarrely, blindly and blithely with business as usual, the names paraded as Presidential aspirants offer some interesting insights.

Early last week and soon after Chamal Rajapaksa noted he too was open to throwing his hat into the circus, I noted flippantly on Twitter, with two images that juxtaposed him and his brother Gotabaya, that this was classic A/B testing. A technique used in marketing, A/B testing at its simplest is the projection, production or promotion of two or more alternatives, with reactions or responses to each acting as signals around what is an intended or desired outcome. Websites do this all the time, invisibly. From search results to changes in the design and layout, leading websites are in constant A/B testing mode – refining rendering based on context and a multitude of other factors with the aim of retaining audiences, increasing consumption or converting visits to purchases.

In the political domain, what we are seeing is a parallel process – quite brilliant I may add – of first proposing the most heinous and horrendous of candidates so as to engineer a public mood swing away from them, and on to those who would if first proposed, be roundly dismissed. In other words, the very real fear of the worst and most murderous candidate being elected as Executive President, and the clear license that office affords for madness to mutate, may guide the public towards alternatives who are in fact no more decent, democratic or liberal, but aren’t overtly tainted as architects of extra-judicial murder, abductions, war crimes and violence. Proposing some of these names ensures, thus, the mere illusion of choice and is designed the ensure the validation and continuation of the status quo.

That said, there is genuine reason to fear a serious Gotabaya Rajapaksa bid for the Presidency. Viyath Maga is already a platform that connects many, from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, who can be transformed into central nodes of a political campaign. The problem though, is evident in a close study of social media engagement. Soon after a leading Prelate’s recommendation last year that Gotabaya needed to become Hitler to sort out Sri Lanka’s issues – one that, important to record, the individual concerned embraced and never once decried or denounced – social media engagement pegged to around eighty pages I track on Facebook unsurprisingly showed a brief period of heightened production and engagement. However, compared to Namal and Mahinda Rajapaksa respectively, over time, Gotabaya failed to maintain anything close to that sudden peak in popularity. As this column has previously noted, the most rabidly racist and communal content – by order of magnitude – is to be found in the constellation of pages around Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This ranges from imagery and photography, to content and commentary. The degree of frothing, fear-mongering, fascist nationalism promoted and prevalent on these pages does not mirror any other cluster I monitor, save for around one hundred extremist Sinhala-Buddhist sites I keep tabs on. The projection to a larger constituency the interactions I monitor at scale and over time on these and other pages isn’t simple or easy. As an indication however of dynamics that can, at the very least, be proxy indicators for public sentiment and support, the patterns and trends within and amongst these clusters can be extremely revealing. And what it suggests is that, quite apart and aside from external concern and anxiety, the resistance to a Gotabaya candidacy clearly comes from within the SLPP, and in fact, from within the family.

The arc of succession clearly bends towards the paternal instincts of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Tellingly, neither Gotabaya nor Chamal’s announcements have, to date, got any recognition from Mahinda, much less endorsement. Recall the widely-shared telegenics and photography around the opening of the SLPP headquarters in May last year. Gotabaya, Chamal and Mahinda made it a point to be photographed together – smiling, holding hands, standing shoulder to shoulder. Mahinda made it a point to note that Viyath Maga was only a name, and was essentially a vehicle to carry forward his populist chinthanaya. And yet, all that public posturing died down quickly. Unexpected events several months thereafter didn’t benefit Gotabaya or Chamal. Gotabaya wasn’t part of, or featured heavily in Jana Balaya.  And in the middle of all this, Basil Rajapaksa – by many accounts a brilliant political strategist yet without any social media footprint – is also silent. Tainted by violence, scandal and under active investigation for the misappropriation of funds, three of the four brothers are bound together in an unholy alliance that secures their freedom, immunity and impunity only if one or more of them have access to or regain political power. Chamal Rajapaksa’s announcement is interesting in this regard. However, like Basil, with a near zero social media footprint, his appeal to and traction with the SLPP’s core constituency is a great unknown. His allegiances towards and relationship with each brother are also unknown.

Quantitative analysis aside, the qualitative nature of content produced and promoted by social media clusters anchored to Namal, Mahinda and Gotabaya are, counter-intuitively, only rarely in harmony. Further, even when they do in concert promote an idea, message or mission, it is in opposition to the UNP or an external party. There is very little evidence, in other words, of a unified, pan-Rajapaksa campaign or strategy that endures beyond the purely episodic. And if all this wasn’t complex enough, add to the mix what was noted by Dilith Jayaweera in an interview published four years ago, around his relationship with the Rajapaksas. Jayaweera, who leads the country’s premier political communications outfit by far, handles the official accounts of Mahinda, Gotabaya and Namal. Dark yet well-defined signatures of collaboration and coordination abound in many other unofficial pages and accounts pegged to these three individuals. Jayaweera knows full well the challenges noted here, and a whole lot more besides. And that is precisely why the study of what’s not present in, framed by or promoted on each respective social media cluster or official account is so fascinating to study, as probable, prescient indicators of political intent.

The elephant in the room, no pun intended, is the UNP. Much if not all of the political dynamics noted above inhabits or grows in and because of a vacuum created by Mr Wickremesinghe. Nothing – absolutely (insert expletive of your choice) nothing – seems to wake the party up from its somnambulism. Not electoral defeat. Not constitutional crises. Not a hostile, manic President. Not friendly advice. Not data. Not evidence. Not experience. Not electoral signals. Not civil society. Not well-known enemies of democracy entrenched in state institutions.

Four years ago the government’s central challenge around this time was around the delivery of a 100-day programme that was overly ambitious and bound to disappoint. This year, citizens should completely give up any vestigial hope in good governance. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves how best to sustain the kind of government that allows us all to best realise our democratic potential.

All bets are off around the configuration, late 2019, that emerges as the custodian of that shared dream.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 20 January 2019.

Some thoughts on ‘The Inhuman Race’

Ordered Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s ‘The Inhuman Race’ no sooner than I saw a tweet by him and Harper-Collins, in quick succession, flagging its availability. Wijeratne’s writing is significant. A few thoughts on ‘Numbercaste’ published on Groundviews noted how original a voice he is and in that book, how a vivid imagination combined with solid research created compelling, fresh sci-fi. As a genre I’ve read and loved since the late 80s, sci-fi for me is defined by a robust interrogation of what’s already produced, present, popular or prevalent, often through prescient warnings and projections of a future, helping the reader consider intended as well as unintended consequences of what may only at present be embryonic, experimental or marginal. ‘Numbercaste’ was precisely that, and for reasons I’ve noted.

Talent scouts at Harper-Collins, who picked up the initially self-published ‘Numbercaste’ and also Wijeratne’s Commonwealth Empire trilogy – commendable achievements for a Sri Lankan writer of any genre – were clearly guided by the reception and reviews of Wijeratne’s writing, as well their own critical review of his potential. On a personal note, Wijeratne’s initial framework and landscape for the Commonwealth Empire trilogy were shared with me soon after the publication of ‘Numbercaste’. The recollection of these initial brushstrokes of what was a compelling and entirely original seed idea – a Sri Lanka which the British never left, projected into the future – that led me to pick up ‘The Inhuman Race’ with great anticipation, and finish in a single reading.

Each work by writer merits its own frame of critique, but there is also value in seeing the arc of a narrative development. From blog to short stories and then on to novel, I came to the first book of the trilogy after having read a lot of Wijeratne’s published fiction, as well as (equally interesting, but to this review, extraneous) non-fiction. He is what you would call prolific by way of output. In or through ‘The Inhuman Race’ the first problem I encountered was of a literary tone, timbre and thrust far less refined and evolved than ‘Numbercaste’. This is confusing for someone who takes this trajectory into Wijeratne’s oeuvre, or even with a different entry vector. The difference is style and substance is evident, and it is not just because what Wijeratne initially shared with me – a world with politics, history, consequences and context far richer in possibility – is so markedly whittled down in the final production. And I am confused why.

The book is set in 2033, when we apparently still have bluetooth, called bluetooth. I doubt we will have connectivity as primitive as bluetooth three decades hence, but this is a minor critique of what is pitched and promoted as sci-fi. The context of the book and trilogy is of a country – Sri Lanka – where the British never left, and more globally, the British Empire never ended. The blurb at the back promises a ‘magnificent novel about what it means to be human’, but the delivery of magnificence, perhaps, is delayed till the next installments. Nothing of what seems obvious would be terrain to build and deconstruct in a country hostage to colonialism is explored. The divide and rule policy of the British is not mentioned. The evolution of ethno-political relations in the context the book is set, that one today in contemporary Sri Lanka can trace back as contributing to deep-seated social, political, identity and geographic cleavages, are untouched. Sinhala and the Sinhalese are dominant, but it is unclear exactly how and why. Kandy, in the first novel of the trilogy, is where the heart of the Sinhala civilisation now rests, but there is no mention or even hint at what lies further North, or East. Contemporary Colombo is woven into the text, but therein lies the rub. What’s woven into the future of Sri Lanka, in the fictional context of on-going British rule, is in fact the very things that have shaped our country since 1948 and independence. And even in the fictional domain, there is no recognition at all of Sri Lanka’s pre-British colonialism by the Dutch and Portuguese, and its own legacy by way of physical artefact, socio-political imprint and communal make-up. There is no emphasis on or investment in, to any discernible or necessary degree what the geo-political terrain of the country would look like had in fact the British continued with their rule – and the almost unlimited canvass of possibility as a result, tethered to what is well-known about their colonial violence and also pegged to technological developments in the UK that seed and spread across the Commonwealth.

The book, if mapped to popular film or Netflix programming, starts off with all the dystopian promise of Children of Men, with the film’s landscape (unsurprisingly captured far better in the novel by P.D. James) morphing into Ex Machina’s questions around AI and self-awareness, and characters initially more reminiscent of Upgrade (or more benignly, D.A.R.Y.L, if anyone reading this was alive in the mid-80s and loved it as much as I do). Instead, and without ruining it for those yet to read it, the book ends up becoming – and without any added nuance, contest or complexity – Westworld, in almost every single way. The lack of originality in ‘The Inhuman Race’ is also evident when read alongside ‘The Vestigial Heart’ by Carme Torras, which came out early last year. Wijeratne, dare I say, is the more lucid writer, but Torras fleshes out better, more honestly, more creatively and far more disturbingly, the essential thesis of ‘The Inhuman Race’, and what at the end of the book, the reader is asked to cogitate.

Wijeratne’s ‘Numbercaste’ located him, at least for me, as the first truly noteworthy Sri Lankan sci-fi author, our own, budding answer to say an Nnedi Okorafor. ‘The Inhuman Race’ is a lost opportunity in this regard, where so much of what was expected from author, is still-born. Wijeratne’s prose, bizarrely, has also regressed with time. Sentences like “the tunnels were damp, and dark, and things slithered and crawled in here in the dark, but the tunnels also went to many places” are positively cringeworthy. There are many more, and they are all literary conch shells that echo more sublime, stronger writing far more evident in earlier works. Spelling errors litter the book, but here I blame the publisher more than author. It’s so bad, I resorted to a dictionary to check misspellings, because I couldn’t believe they were in fact that, and not a word I didn’t know.

Is it all hopeless? No. Definitely not. Though one hopes the two books to come improve significantly on the first, ‘The Inhuman Race’ is well-worth a read. It is rare for sci fi to come out of Sri Lanka (discounting Clarke) and Wijeratne’s writing taken as a whole, including The Slow Sad Suicide of Rohan Wijeratne, offer a glimpse of what I hope will be a renaissance of truly local, grounded futurism. The book has many merits. For a young adult reader especially, it is a page-turner. The characters are well fleshed out, and the book builds up quite nicely to a climax that is both unexpected, and has the reader yearning for the next installment. The physicality of the fictional world is much more limited than what it could have been, but a post-apocalyptic Sri Lanka in between two empires, full of the familiar and yet, jarringly, set in a future we don’t fully recognise, is overall, finely painted. Wijeratne’s wide interests, from Buddhist philosophy and the dhamma, to history of country and Colombo, is often subtly woven in adding colour and depth to the writing. His research and professional interests, for those who know, also find expression in the book. The courtroom drama and capture of the characters central to it, towards the latter half of the book, are some of the best and indeed, most original, well-penned parts of the book.

In an email I penned to Wijeratne no sooner than I finished the book, I noted that (creative) writing is both thankless and tough. And I asked him to keep writing. I see the author maybe once a year at most. But as a fan, there is so much potential I see in him, aside from his own growth as a writer, to unleash a new generation of authors who, by 2033, I hope will be led to imagine sci fi around a Sri Lanka that continued under the constitution of 1977.

17 January 2018. First published as a Facebook Note

Musical chairs

The appointment of a new Army Chief of Staff. A fresh denial around the use of chemical weapons. The denunciation of a civil society protest against mainstream media supportive of the constitutional coup, not by members of the SLPP, but by those in the UNP and government. A photograph of a former President, the incumbent and the Prime Minister, comfortably seated next to each other, enjoying or at least at a musical show. Newspaper headlines and reports framing dire warnings by the former President, who true to form, relies on the capture of emotions over fact or principle. In just the second week of January, we are presented with the template for what the year ahead holds. It is not looking good, but despite the obvious anxiety, I continue to maintain, is counter-intuitively rather beneficial. The greatest contribution of the constitutional coup to conversations around the grasp of Sri Lanka’s democratic potential was to place in the open and very clearly, who stood for what and where. This endures.

The closest I’ve personally got to Shavendra Silva was on a journey back to Sri Lanka from New York, where as dratted luck would have it, I sat next to him on both legs of the journey. Both disgusted and disturbed by the coincidental placement, I made it a point to not engage in any conversation. Still, I had the luxury of ignoring Silva’s obnoxious proximity. Hundreds of Tamils did not. They suffered, in their hundreds if not thousands, because of who he was and what he did during the fag end of the war. A man barred from attending a UN committee on peacekeeping while serving as the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Sri Lankan Mission in New York, tainted by allegations of war crimes which continue to stick and stain, was nevertheless found entirely fit by the President to be appointed as the new Army Chief of Staff. For a while now, the proclivity of the President to pander to populism was evident, manifest in statements that held the Army beyond reproach. Surprising of late is the degree to which those in the UNP, in a race to the depths of impunity, also express sentiments aimed at a constituency they never got the votes from, or secured any popularity in. A case in point was UNP MP and the State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene’s tweets on the Army’s use of chemical weapons last week. “I denounce the accusations of using chemical weapons by Sri Lankan Armed Forces during the civil war” went the first tweet. Three minutes after, that was deleted and instead “I strongly denounce the use of chemical weapons by Sri Lankan Armed Forces during the civil war”. Perhaps realizing for himself or being sternly told exactly what the implications of this new formulation were, this too was deleted ten minutes after publication and replaced with “I strongly state that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have not used chemical weapons during the civil war”. Clearly, an unprincipled vacillation around principle and oscillation between promises of accountability and the furtherance of impunity colour not just President, but all of government.

It was not so much what Mahinda Rajapaksa said that caught my attention, but how he framed it. Marketing’s rule of three is well-known and applied in advertising, but here we have Rajapaksa embracing it to produce and project abject fear, in a way guaranteed to maximise reaction, retention and recall. This statement prepped for release at the start of this year and lapped up by electronic, print and social media was clearly part of a larger, post-constitutional coup media strategy by those well-versed in political communications, geared towards the electoral realisation of an outcome attempted through different means late last year. But the substance also matters. Rajapaksa’s signature sensationalism isn’t ignorance or stupidity. It is informed, calculating and strategic dog-whistling. And while the currency and appeal of his brand, along with that of the SLPP, significantly diminished in statistically measurable terms and unprecedented ways from October to December, it would be folly to think it will remain as unpopular as the year progresses. Recalling what was noted last week in this column, the coup’s entrenchment already shows – through primary data gathering and topline analysis related to on-going research – signs of angering and re-casting as overwhelmingly apathetic those who supported the restoration of constitutionalism. Both truly ironic and telling then that last week, the one voice who in Parliament noted that there was a distinct lack of political will around accountability and investigations into violence against journalists – TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran – is on the overwhelmingly racist social media constellations partial to or featuring content from the SLPP and Rajapaksas, promoted and projected as a terrorist. So in what may be the defining frames of 2019, it is terrorism to be partial to constitutionalism, seek accountability and justice, and somehow democratic to be partial to condoning war crimes, entertaining alleged war criminals and stoking up fear based on thinly veiled racism and violent communalism.

These are hard things to explain, and the fatigue around it is real. One recognises that agonising over these statements and their import is a privileged conversation, at certain strata. The existential realities of life and loss in the North are less well captured, but more concerning for residents, survivors, victims and citizens in the former war zones. And it is here that the photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena enjoyed a music concert together hurts the most. Change voted for by most in the North in 2015 was not to have the incumbent collude with the former President. Change that most stood up for, at a time when the denouement of the constitutional crisis wasn’t anywhere close to what ultimately transpired, wasn’t to have the incumbent Prime Minister sit both current and former President at music concerts. While some public, political events and circumstances render close physical proximity inevitable despite significant political differences and personal distaste, this was a concert – one that any one of the three could have easily declined participation in knowing full well who they would be seen and seated together with. That they did not reveal much more than the public pronouncements from any of them denouncing each other. Add to this the fact that the greatest defenders of the worst and most unprincipled, partisan media come from within government, and you have a situation where hope and faith in democratic governance and the delivery of justice, amongst other things, fades into risible insignificance. Save that for mothers of the disappeared, victims of the Rajapaksa regime’s violence, survivors of war now living under military surveillance and independent journalists, this is no laughing matter. The sceptre of violent pushback is now a new dawn away, if not through Executive fiat, then in what yet again seems entirely probable, through electoral outcomes.

It is this significant loss of choice and meaningful alternatives to those in power which defines our political landscape. The photo at the musical concert was in an unintended way, extremely apt. Musical chairs and the Sinhala adage around the band playing while the ship sinks are two metaphors that may define how history records what’s to come, and soon.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 13 January 2019.

Digital Blooms | Article for LMD, January 2019

Witnessing a constitutional crisis through social media

Of the many frames of reference readers may employ to help comprehend the extraordinary developments in Sri Lanka after the 26th of October, I doubt images of flowers in bloom or flower beds would immediately spring to mind. And yet, this is how I see Sri Lanka, or more precisely, how I study the debates, conversations, events and processes that shape our polity and society today. My doctoral research is anchored to the study of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, post-war. There is an entire canon of academic research and literature around the use and abuse of social media around revolutions. Little to nothing is published around the role, reach and relevance of Facebook and Twitter in societies coming out of war. I inhabit the intersection of what’s called data science – the study of very large datasets – politics and peacebuilding. My chief interest is in creating social media ecosystems – think of it like immunisation – resilient to content and actors who incite hate and violence.

Having set up Groundviews in 2006, the country’s first civic media platform that continues to publish content that cannot or will not go up in mainstream media, my research at present is anchored to the dynamics of social media beyond inflammatory and simplistic headlines. I look at Facebook and Twitter at scale – meaning, in the hundreds of thousands of posts – sifting through content in English and Sinhala for patterns and trends that can help explain complex interactions between what is produced, shared and engaged with online, and what this content goes on to inspire in the real world. A causal linkage between online hate and kinetic violence is elusive and not the goal of my research. I am more interested in how Sri Lanka’s 18-34 demographic are introduced to politics, and subsequently, engage with political developments on social media.

The research is hard. A large part of it is visualising upwards of hundreds of thousands of records in ways that can help flesh out conversational dynamics. Facebook and Twitter have different affordances – meaning that you can do things on one you cannot on the other. The most obvious difference is with the length of a post – Twitter allows a far more limited number of characters than Facebook. Looking at how conversations grow, spread and eventually die offers insights into what exactly generates the most traction on social media, and why. Over time, armed with contextual knowledge, the data can also help prefigure a proclivity towards certain responses.

The mushroom around Jana Balaya, the political protest engineered by Namal Rajapaksa in early September captures three key hashtags on Twitter used by the organisers. Even without knowing anything about data science, the singular way the graph is structured – like a hub and spoke, with a few key accounts at the centre every one else links to – is evident. Compare this to the mushroom that captures, around the same time, a campaign by Amnesty International South Asia around enforced disappearances. Using the hashtag the organisers used, the graph very clearly shows several clusters within a larger one. Not unlike a matryoshka doll, each cluster is its own ecosystem, within the larger campaign. The two campaigns are visually distinct. Both visualisations are created using thousands of tweets, computationally arranged in such a way that groups them according to ties to other accounts. This gives researchers the ability to figure out who in the larger network really drives the discussion as well as other influential actors who act as bridges or amplifiers. All this is useless without contextual knowledge, which is why my research is anchored to socio-political dynamics at home, which I know far more than a foreign country.

Since the 26th of October, several key dynamics and trends have emerged, strengthening what I have observed for months. Gossip in Sinhala on Facebook is the primary driver of news and information, including political frames. This is extremely disturbing on many levels, since these pages – which numbers in the hundreds – produce content as such great volume and velocity, they are by order of magnitude engaged with more than mainstream news sites in any language. Ethics are absent and professional optional on these pages. Those who engage believe they are very well-informed, when in fact they are entirely ill or misinformed. On the other hand, memes – or cartoons produced anonymously – are hugely popular as a vehicle for incisive political critique. Often, the assumption is that exposure to this content makes consumers better informed. Sadly, this too is not the case.

Think of followers or fans as different species of flowers, growing side by side. What may look visually quite appealing is in fact a significant, growing problem. Each bloom is distinct, and doesn’t interact with others. Likewise on social media, fans of a politician, party or brand rarely if ever engage with anything that contests their beliefs. Worse, they are hostile towards difference. These are called echo chambers, which are hyper-partisan and rife for the injection of rumour engineered to instigate violence.

Responding to these complex, violent dynamics is made harder by the fact that dissent, advocacy and activism, in a context of authoritarian control of all other media, is also to be found on social media. Vital speeches made at the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero’s memorial event were censored by mainstream media and only carried over social media. Compelling letters, statements, press releases and short essays opposing the unconstitutional coup are rife on social media, just as much as content seeking to legitimise, justify and normalise it are also strategically produced and promoted.

This is Sri Lanka’s new battleground. Its dynamics are complex and evolving, but the simple fact is this – every single political party, politician and other actors vying for political power, recognise the value of capturing attention, containing negative messaging and controlling the narrative on social media. My research, like a medical doctor would, examines all this as a contagion. The worst we can be, and amongst us, often overwhelm our better angels on social media. The odds are stacked against those of us who seek to strengthen civil discourse, decency, dignity and democracy online. I work to increase those odds and believe the democratic potential of Sri Lanka is anchored to getting this right.

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First published in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD), January 2019. Download PDF of the article here. Download PDF of the article as it appeared in the magazine here.

The continuing coup

New Year. Old problems. Those who have have taken a medium or long haul flight in recent years know the feeling. You are promised hundreds of channels of the best entertainment, more than enough to last the length of the flight. In reality, the films and shows are those you have seen before, the music isn’t to your taste and the quality of either isn’t very good. It is the illusion of choice, forcing you to watch reruns because there’s no other option, or switch off and sleep. Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics also, periodically, offers the promise of meaningful change and renewal, but in fact only ever offers dramatic re-enactments of a tired script with the same actors, made up badly to look differently. Some in fact, just play themselves. One is reminded of a quote from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel ‘The Leopard’, where a character – an Italian aristocrat – notes that “If we want things to stay the way they are, things will have to change”.  

Weeks after Mr. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister again, despite evidence in the public domain, those responsible for the coup – from President downwards – go about their lies and lives with impunity. Individuals appointed during the coup to key positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Information Department and other Ministries, continue in their service. Ambassadors who supported the coup, actively and openly, continue to hold their posting. Members of Parliament responsible for unprecedented, wanton violence on the floor of the house and the destruction of public property, have not yet been held accountable. Individuals who convinced the President that his actions were constitutional, as noted by the President himself, haven’t been identified and dealt with. The President is on record requesting that those appointed to state media during the coup, including ITN, Rupavahini and Lake House, aren’t removed from their positions. The Minister has complied. 

2019 starts with the constitutional coup’s enduring success, which is to place in positions of commanding authority – around both domestic policy and foreign relations – individuals who are deeply illiberal, undemocratic, and loyal to President above principle, professionalism, constitution or country. They will undermine, actively work against, stall and reverse progressive measures brought about by the government and work towards political anchors and goals partial to the former administration,  including its domestic and international allies. But what does the Prime Minister have to say about all this? One doesn’t know, because he hasn’t said anything. And therein lies the rub. Many, who were spontaneously animated and agitated to strengthen democracy in October, find the ominously silent yet definite entrenchment of the coup’s dynamics disturbing. I am one of them. 

There is another reason for my disquiet, after what is more widely recognised as the end of the constitutional coup mid-December. What was anecdotally shared and intuitively grasped by those on Twitter during the coup was the fact that the content sounded and looked markedly different to what it was usually, before the coup. Twitter in Sri Lanka plays a vital role in the now well-established  media ecosystem through its ability to shape conversations, accentuate attention and drive traffic towards certain place, product, pole, person or party. And as with all social media, its influence extends beyond just those connected to it and engaging on it. From May to December last year, I collected around 332,000 tweets in the public domain, anchored to two of the most used hashtags in the country. Likewise, I collected just over 181,000 tweets from last week of October to the beginning of December, covering the timespan of the coup and as a historic moment. Keeping in mind the theory of six degrees of separation, I was surprised to learn that over the months I had data for in 2018, those using Twitter captured by my research net were separated by just under four degrees. During the coup however, there is statistical evidence to prove that the use of and users on Twitter grew. In the collection anchored to the coup, the average connection between users was just over five degrees. This indicates an increase of those on Twitter – numerically as well as by way of diversity – in a very short span of time. This significant growth was the result of dormant users coming back on to the platform, as well as new users using the platform to produce and distribute content, including personal frames of anxiety, resistance and hope. Research over November alone indicated clearly that Twitter, as well as Facebook, were dominated not by content supporting the coup and the President’s actions, but by pushback. In other words, those most volubly against the President and Rajapaksa, were those who were not card-carrying supporters of the UNP or Mr. Wickremesinghe.

The data-driven evidence for this over Twitter alone is significant, because the rapid expansion in those active is a proxy indicator for the support and goodwill that the UNP and Mr. Wickremesinghe organically attracted. Though users didn’t increase in much the same way, on Facebook, there was an exponential increase in the production of content and engagement with it. Given the entrenchment of the coup’s destructive and disturbing dynamics, it is unclear how as this year progresses, those who came out to the streets in November and December 2018 – many for the first time in their lives – and produced content over social media, will react to what is already evident as another lost opportunity for meaningful democratic reform and change. 

This is more significant than the slow erosion of support for the January 2015 configuration. There is a constituency that is clearly anti-Rajapaksa but not pro-Wickremesinghe, that is opposed to authoritarianism as much as it is opposed to the UNP’s nepotism and corruption. This new constituency doesn’t act according to established norms of a party cadre, because they are fluid and flexible in partisan affiliation – assured in what they don’t want to see, and guided more by what they would like to bring about no matter who is in power. This is not something traditional political parties know how to deal with, much less even recognise. While not an exact science, the anger this constituency will feel toward a government they fought hard to protect because of democratic and constitutional principles, acting now against this very spirit, will invariably have an electoral consequence. The degree and depth of this initially virtual discontent and its subsequent expression through franchise runs the spectrum of non-participation (believing nothing changes) through to voting in the known evil, given that multiple chances given to hope and change went to waste.

Post-coup, the most significant difference between Sirisena and Rajapaksa is the spelling of their surnames. Everything else is interchangeable. It goes to show that democracy in Sri Lanka this year faces a challenge unseen even prior to 2015’s Presidential preference and mandate. A President who acts in concert with a former President he was once a sworn enemy of. A Prime Minister who does not act to safeguard and strengthen the overwhelming democratic mandate he received just over a month ago. A constituency that clearly cares more about democracy and constitutionalism than those in government. And the prospect of elections where the greatest distinction projected by competing voices is really the smallest of difference. 

It is customary to begin a new year with hope. But if holding on to hope requires the jettison of stark realities, I will choose to brace myself around what is to come, instead of being surprised later this year around dynamics evident just after the coup. The only constant in our politics, evidently, is change that changes nothing. 

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First published in The Sunday Island, 6 January 2019.

Year in review

It’s been a long year, or more precisely, feels like it. Yet at its end, 2018 also feels short – punctured by individuals, institutions, violent events, chance discoveries, demagogues and Democrats. One and a half months of pre-planned reading and research went out the window on the morning of 27th October. Not without strange symmetry, this year, for me, ended the way it began – in ways I could not have planned for or even anticipated.

In February, applying for a visa, I discovered by complete chance that I was technically under Police surveillance and on a watch-list since CHOGM, held five years ago. My great crime, I was told, had been to articulate opinions critical of the then government to international media. Writing at the time to these pages, I wondered how many more are, to date, under the same blanket surveillance, forgotten now but on file, with re-animation a command or click away. The experience was also a stark reminder of Sri Lanka’s deep or dark state, hyperactive even today in the war-torn regions and with documentation on, going back years, individuals who were inconvenient to the former government. The pervasiveness and scope of these intelligence operations against former, rehabilitated combatants and civilians deemed threats are unclear. Far from dying embers of an erstwhile Police state, these operations continue in stealth, unquestioned, unaccountable and unseen, even under the present government – a diurnal and nocturnal fact of life for those in the North, by order of magnitude more than it is ever felt or present in the South.

Almost coinciding with when I did get Police clearance for my visa, towards the end of February, the unprecedented violence in Digana further postponed my departure. Coming soon after the SLPP victory in the local government polls – itself a rude but necessary wake-up call for the government – the violence generated global interest on account of the role, reach and relevance of social media. Echoing the violence in Burma along the same lines, major social media companies were found entirely unprepared for and ignorant of local dynamics that used their technology to seed, sow and spread violence, hate and fear. At a time when Mark Zuckerberg was being questioned by Congress in the US, the nature of violent online content and its influence, if any, in instigating kinetic, physical violence was a white-hot topic in Sri Lanka – and not just on account of the President’s unilateral action to block social media at the height of the violence. Those debates continued throughout the year, sadly informed by ignorance and hysteria more than sober, evidence-based policymaking and writing.

A year ago this weekend, the local government poll campaigning had just started, and it was evident the President was already acting as a spoiler. In what at the time the clearest evidence that the coalition government was coming apart and in near total disarray, campaigning for the SLPP under the pohottuwa symbol was invariably and directly aided by the President’s vicious criticism of the Prime Minister and the UNP. The result on the 10th of February was not unexpected given what at the time was fatigue, in many quarters, with a government that was clearly crumbling, fumbling, bumbling and stumbling instead of simply doing what it had promised and received a mandate for. It is the result of the electoral result that was more damning, with the UNP promising much by way of internal party reform, only to end up with a risible and ridiculous restructuring. Every single data point collected on social media around individual politicians and political parties since starting doctoral research in April indicated, and very clearly, the government would not have easily survived another electoral test at the end of its term or a referendum, whichever came first. Content on and discussions around constitutional reform were statistically barely registered, reflected what in other mainstream media and discourse was also almost entirely absent by way of emphasis or interest. Jana Balaya, the march to Colombo organised by Namal Rajapaksa in September, though a failure judged by footfall and physical participation, nevertheless galvanised at the time, on social media and amongst a key demographic, the seething disconnect with searing discontent of government.

And yet, nothing this year compared to what the evening of the 26th October bore witness to. Of the reams already written on the constitutional coup, including through this column looking at social media at scale, country, constitution and context faced unprecedented change or challenge. We will never go back to how things were on the morning of the 26th. Enduring questions remain, but it is unclear who are – now that the crisis is over – champions of systemic reform. It isn’t the President, who is a national embarrassment, political liability and prone to what can only, sadly, be called lunacy. It isn’t Mr. Wickremesinghe, whose rightful position and place as Prime Minister was so staunchly defended by so many not because of personal affinity or partisan loyalty, but in principle and out of constitutional providence. After the crisis, however, the tsunami of goodwill and support that surged to the UNP is ebbing. This is mainly because – tragically true to form – Mr. Wickremesinghe is unable to connect with a pan-political, socially diverse, geographically spread, demographically young and spirited, democratic, reformist movement that deconstructs the UNP as he sees it, and others in the party, vying for his position, want to (re)create it. The best indication of this came by way of pushback to a tweet holding a large private TV and media network responsible for outright misinformation during the constitutional coup, in support of the Rajapaksas. The tweet, which didn’t reference any particular individual within the UNP, was very quickly responded to by Harsha de Silva and Sajith Premedasa, who were in turn widely ridiculed for defending and condoning what throughout November, by everyone in support of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s restitution as PM, flagged as indefensible, and downright criminal. So while the PM today talks about a black media mafia, senior members of his own party, including its deputy leader, defend and condone this very media and content that supported the President and the Rajapaksas. Finally, the architects and champions of systemic reform cannot be anyone in the SLPP.

Think about it for a moment. We are told today, with straight faces, that propaganda and media coverage on the SLPP membership taken by Mahinda and Namal Rajapaksa was in fact, not really leaving the SLFP. We are told that the coup was really an attempt at creating a caretaker government, when not a single conversation, or any content around the time of the President’s unconstitutional action late October, referenced this. In fact, the campaign pegged to a vote only came about as a result of the interim relief by the Court of Appeal, mid-November. We are then told that the vote would determine the legitimacy of parliament at a time when parliament had been elected, legitimately, and had constitutionally determined that Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLPP, three times over, didn’t command a majority. Thus, the very people who wanted a vote, essentially ridiculed franchise. This too, with a straight face. The first reactions to the Supreme Court ruling, on social media, are no longer present. That’s because Namal Rajapaksa and others from or partial to the SLPP were all in contempt of court with immediate reactions that questioned or ridiculed the judgement and portrayed the bench as individuals executing an agenda architected by the usual evil nexus of foreign powers, NGOs and a liberal elite. Populism, the SLPP’s brand, was mixed with blatant racism, which continues.  

Imagine 2018 as a political uterus, giving birth to dynamics that challenge what endures as 2015’s democratic moment. The President’s affaire du cœur with the Rajapaksas, now openly conducted, continues apace and with impunity too. No indication yet, or in the near future, that he and those he conspired with will face any accountability. Large, influential sections of the mainstream media clearly contribute to our democratic deficit, including but not limited to state media which twice in as many months as completely reversed the tone and timbre of reporting to reflect whoever is in power. The UNP’s current and future leadership offer no demonstrable grasp of the support they, for the moment, enjoy and stand to, again, lose. Riven by internal conflict, the patriarch of the SLPP and paterfamilias of Rajapaksas will struggle to create a path for filial succession, clearly now easily beguiled by those in his party who see this one weakness as a way to control him, and execute their own designs. The TNA will also struggle, ironically precisely because of the central role they played in defeating the President’s shenanigans. The JVP, enjoying a surge of popular support, will in the near to medium term electoral landscape, play a role more influential than existing data suggests they were able to engineer late 2014, leading up to the Presidential election. All of this, and much more, is happening at once, merging, morphing, coalescing and violently repelling. Nothing is certain.

And therein lies the rub. Without urgent, bold action, the UNP stands to lose far more than the President or the SLPP. The technical nature of the coup and its devastating, disturbing dynamics will invariably lose ground, over time, to emotive, populist arguments that propose deeply illiberal ideas, through different means and channels. And the economic fallout of the coup, ironically, will over the medium term aid the SLPP and the President, because it will be the UNP that bears the brunt of the fallout, in global market and financial conditions that simply will not support easy recovery. But the greatest threat to government comes from those who stood up over November against the coup. Apathetic, frustrated, angry and disconnected, in and through the coup, they found, almost overnight, a calling and voice. It is clear the democratic dividend fought for, will simply not materialise. What happens then is an open question, that through franchise, will be answered next year.

But instead of course-correction, we have political amnesia, and what was just last month the prancing support of civil society, is now a galloping retreat from what so many protesting wanted to see, beyond the same old men, in the same old positions, doing the same old things. 

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First published in The Sunday Island, 30th December 2018.

Tectonic shifts

I first saw the Cathedral in Christchurch through satellite imagery. This perspective, from space, didn’t give a sense of the building’s grandeur, evident at ground level. Neither had I visited New Zealand when I saw it, nor at the time, did I have any plans to either. Late February 2011, a new web platform was set up to assess the damage to the city after an earthquake devastated the city on the 22nd. Part of a wider range of technologies that pioneered crowd-sourced disaster relief, the platform was the first of its kind at the time, allowing anyone, anywhere in the world, help in vital post-disaster damage assessments through their browser. I spent about three to four days glued to my laptop, going through tile after tile, recording what I saw. Hundreds, if not many more at the time, joined me in what was a global effort to help Christchurch ascertain which areas of the city were most badly in need of urgent assistance. Thousands of man hours contributed to an effort the city and government couldn’t manage themselves, creating a template and setting a foundation for many disaster relief efforts that followed. 

Visiting in person, for the first time, the city last week and seeing the Cathedral in its present condition requires a column of its own. It is, even in ruin and an advanced state of decay, a majestic building to behold, retaining a dignity unblemished by the disaster. 185 people died that fateful February day. Christchurch was changed irrevocably. Everywhere, the city still carries the scars of the devastation – from the plethora of parking lots where once buildings stood, to structures taken over by bracken and adorned by graffiti that visually contribute to a wonderful character and feel, yet also serve as reminders of how massive and widespread the disaster was. I could also write about the discovery of and walking down Colombo Street, one of the oldest roads in the city and now its main thoroughfare, named after the Anglican bishopric of Sri Lanka. I could write about community-led urban rejuvenation of neighbourhoods or how old, colonial buildings, now repurposed as hip cafes or trendy restaurants, carefully preserve key architectural features and facades, seamlessly yet intentionally merging history with modernity. The inevitable consequence of having to pay for what is almost an entirely new city, I could focus on the branded shopping that has almost entirely crowded out once vibrant local businesses, forcing many from the city and area to look for cheaper rent in less frequented suburbs or just shutter their business, unable to afford the high rent and associated taxes. All this and more colours a city still grappling with their tsunami-moment.

What I do want to write about in some detail may not immediately seem to be connected with home. Tūranga, opened on 12th October, is the city’s new public library. I have been to and love spending time in the British Library, the Boston Public Library and the New York Public Library, which defy easy or comprehensive capture for those who haven’t experienced them. All these libraries are nothing like anything in Sri Lanka that we know and associate with the term. Tūranga is, even in comparison to these buildings, quite extraordinary. The architecture, developed in collaboration with the Maori, incorporates communal motifs and is designed in such a way as to face culturally important points in the region. It is absolutely breathtaking from outside, and equally so from inside. A quote from the Danish lead architect Carsten Auer from the firm schmidt hammer lassen is worth repeating as frame that captures the ethos of the building,

“Libraries have moved on from being repositories of books to being multi-media hubs and social hubs. The modern library is the ‘third space’ between home and work. It’s a place where you can meet people or be ‘alone together,’ enjoying sharing a social and recreational space with others, even if you are not engaging directly with them.”

With over 180,000 books and magazines to start with, an mind-boggling number of Lego pieces, free WiFi, free meeting spaces better equipped than most offices in Colombo I have seen, an audio and video production studio, maker-spaces for kids to print their own 3D creations, an entire floor devoted to young adults and children to play and read, two excellent cafes, floor to ceiling glass enclosed, sound-proofed quiet rooms, completely digitised catalogues, equipment that I had to ask staff about because they were so alien (something that looked and sounded like a Geiger counter, hooked up to a smart phone, when run across shelves, does inventory and identifies misplaced books) to the seating, which ranged from bean bags and lounge to ergonomically designed chairs paired to communal or individual work tables, I’ve never seen anything remotely like this building.

Membership is, astonishingly, free.

On the first floor, as I walked through the building, I saw unaccompanied children – in groups or entirely alone, in various contortions and corners (one was upside down on a bean bag), immersed in reading. That touched a chord, and of all things in the world, made me tear up. A short while later, as I was taken around the library by a volunteer guide who, as luck would have it, was a gentleman with over 30 years of experience in journalism and had retired as the Editor of a leading regional newspaper, I was able to articulate to myself and him why that image touched a nerve I didn’t realise was raw. We talked about Ondaatje, literature, journalism, the earthquake and obviously, on reading. When the conversation turned, invariably, to contemporary politics, I had to encapsulate in a nutshell the catastrophic and enduring consequences of the President’s actions on 26th October. Recalling Will Durant’s quote on how civilisation exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice, I said that not unlike the earthquake which struck his city, the tectonic political shift in Sri Lanka would reverberate for some time to come, with after-shocks, anxiety and the slow but undeniable recognition that the country would not be the same again, or could revert to what once was. As I said this, we were surrounding by children, reading. I went on to say that so much he took for granted – access to and an appreciation of the arts, culture, literature, for free, from childhood, was precisely what was marginal, devalued, de-funded or under-funded back home. Coming out of the experience of documenting the coup, what struck me was how our appreciation of what happened is limited, in a temporal sense. Aside from what little we know about the significant economic implications, even our concern about the fallout of the coup is limited at best to a few years hence and to macro-economic indicators. And yet at Tūranga I saw the kind of long-term investment we never really see in Sri Lanka – public spaces for learning, information and knowledge, encouraging children to critically question, experiment, roam and think free. A library as a space for public congregation and interaction just doesn’t exist in Sri Lanka. Heck, even the importance of a basic library is lacking. Some weeks ago I spoke to some intrepid young students in Sri Lanka who were behind a campaign to collect book donations to establish and populate a library in a fairly large out-station school which I was told hadn’t one. For me, that is beyond astonishing – it borders on the criminal.

That wonderful image of a child, upside down, immersed in his reading, struck a chord because it captures in a single frame every single thing in Sri Lanka we do not yet and have for decades never invested meaningfully in – children, public spaces, community, the arts, culture, reading, education, innovation and the development of critical thinking. I realised that I teared up not only because I sorely missed my son in that moment, but also because I was reminded – beyond the tens of millions of social media data points I’ve engaged with over eight weeks – of how tragically under-developed we are as a country, writ large. The five levels of Tūranga are anchored to Maori concepts of connection, community, identity, discovery and creativity. Precisely the things we have for decades neglected and continue to marginalise. And that is why for all our chest-thumping patriotism and priapic nationalism, we will in reality, continue to languish behind even our South Asian sisters.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 23 December 2018.