Finis

Almost exactly five years after starting this column, I will end it before it is ended. The non-publication of the column a week into the new Presidency was a reminder that the space enjoyed by writers to critique political power from January 2015, is now under threat. One must be empathetic with publishers and Editors. A columnist is easily replaced, and once gone, soon forgotten. Loss of advertisements, revoked licenses, vandalised or destroyed presses and the whipping up of widespread public anger or agitation against critical content, no matter how factual, are much greater problems, best avoided. The decision to stop writing is also personal, as much as it is inextricably entwined with the political moment.

My Editor of five years, Manik de Silva, is currently the country’s oldest and most senior person to hold this office. What started as a professional relationship, and years ago, a formal interview for public TV on an erstwhile talk show I hosted, has morphed into a much closer association between your writer and his Editor. Manik is – to a point of fault – measured in tone and expression, capturing with great economy a sentiment others would need more time, words and patience for. In these years I have written to the Sunday Island, continuing the good fortune I’ve had with all my Editors over two decades of public writing, Manik’s edits were, in the rare instance I noticed, stylistic and grammatical in nature – never censorious because of political sensitivity or sensibility. Some columns resonated personally to a degree that moved him to send an email to me on the merits of what I had penned. I have no email from him about pushback I am sure he must have got in response to some of what I wrote, even at a time and in a context where the critique of President or government wouldn’t have resulted in censorship, or far worse. After enjoying the quality of this relationship, and the space it provided for unbridled expression, unrestrained capture and unquestioned framing, Manik’s impending retirement is as good a reason as any to stop this column. A good Editor becomes for long-term columnists a symbol and Ambassador of a publication’s core audience and its values. Bereft of this literary weathervane, firewall against more violent pushback and the certainty of reasoned feedback, writers are at a significant loss to pitch and project writing intended for public consumption. What then soon and irrevocably results in is a quality of writing that is timid, and thus, entirely unappealing – words meant to fill a page. Finally, new Editors are rarely adventurous. Coupled with all publishers now navigating new topographies of political allegiances, it is just too much of a burden to keep lines in the sand in mind when penning a column. I would much rather stop writing when it becomes more a burden than pleasure than continue in some formulaic manner just for the sake of doing it.

Writing on the 13th of December 2015, I ended my first column by noting that “silence is not an option” and that “a critical gaze can only help cement, well beyond [the yahapalanaya] government, what so many of us on the 9th of January [2015] at Independence Square, witnessed with hoarse wonder, and hopeful eyes”. The column was openly critical of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, at a time when many were drunk on the dregs of what was the former government’s dalliance with global admiration. The sheen was beginning to wear off, and to blame were those elected into office then – not those who are, in 2019, back in control. A week later, I looked at public governance and how new approaches to very complex, systemic problems in other countries could inspire more effective and efficient government in Sri Lanka. In the final column that month, I looked at how a prominent UNP MP took it upon herself to mete out her own brand of justice to someone accused of an extra-marital affair with one of her staff members. I noted then that “the litmus test of Sri Lanka’s democracy isn’t around dealing with crimes against humanity or war crimes. It is anchored to seeing the violence that pervades governance for what it is, and resolutely rejecting it”. In close to 260 columns since then, I’ve tackled violence, democracy, policy, governance, foreign relations, the social and religious fabric, media reform, literacy, social media’s regulations and evolution, web content, political communications, election campaigns, new forms of propaganda, computational manipulation of public conversations, various manifestations of hate, incitement to violence, crafty media and political architects placing at risk our democratic institutions, new threats to governance and a disparate selection of political developments from a unique vantage point observing – at a wider and deeper scale than most – often damning and occasionally delightful digital, discursive dynamics and designs. Never a dull week, in five years.

Columns that have resonated the most have been those I’ve thought would be the least appreciated, or resonant with a wider public. In time, I gave up trying to guess what the reaction to what I penned for Sunday would be – it was never what I expected, and often, pleasantly surprising. At Keells or more randomly at shops, lobbies and once – quite bizarrely – in a remote, foreign café over a coffee – readers have offered their take on what I’ve noted. I’ve been the most dismissive of those who have agreed with me, and have had far more memorable conversations with the thrust and parry of wit with those who care enough to talk with me about what they think I get wrong, noting why.

But I fear the space for this is also diminishing apace. A new culture, inspired by the tone, timbre and thrust of recent political campaigns, foments and celebrates immediate reaction over thoughtful response, emotion over intellect and telegenic fever or froth over more reasoned, principled or civil engagement. All this requires writers to be far more tolerant of and oblivious to insidiously engineered public anger, threats and violence that’s digital in nature but now never far from sudden or sustained physical expression. A decade ago, I would have revelled in the possibilities for creative expression faced with both a context and culture hostile towards criticism of governance, government and goons. Now, faced with the formidable challenge of finishing up doctoral research and associated writing, the added burden of having to deal with shrill, inane or asinine content and commentary – sadly now the norm on social media – is just too much.

Stopping this column isn’t to suggest I will stop engaging with political dynamics. There are other forms and platforms for critical reflection and the resistance to authoritarian and majoritarian revanchism. Dissent is now a weed to newly cultivated political terrains. Reclaiming the need and space for its growth will not be easy, quick or effective if just pegged to ways already roundly discredited in the public imagination, and chiefly by those projected as somehow the voice of the UNP, TNA or JVP. Critical columnists who are utterly convinced of their enduring ability to shape public conversations risk the ignominy of irrelevance, even as they continue to be published in the manner they have. A few allowed to write, under a regime that knows the limited resonance and travel of their ideas, risk becoming convenient examples paraded by the government on how vibrant the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka is whenever more sinister violence is meted out against a critical individual or institution. Strategic, carefully framed engagements with those opposed to as well as, very importantly, entirely partial to the new political dispensation and its attendant optics requires a different modus operandi. Columns may not be the way to cement traction to critical ideas. A more personal and private approach, fomenting long-term relationships with disparate groups based on the value of reasoned debate, in turn anchored to evidence and data, is where I will be increasingly found.

I have, since December 2015, endeavoured to present what I have discovered, write on what has troubled me and explain what I have studied. The failure to capture attention or communicate is my own. Any success in kindling the imagination, even if it has been to oppose me on principle, is entirely to Manik de Silva’s credit – allowing me, as he has countless others over many decades in journalism – the space to grow in the public gaze, and for a brief moment in time, enjoy the privilege of writing to inform, interest, inspire and influence. For this, I am grateful to him.

And for patiently reading me, over all these years, I remain in your debt.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 29 December 2019.

 

Hidden campaigns

I can’t see Basil Rajapaksa. Social media doesn’t record his actions, feature accounts by or content on him. He isn’t the subject of memes. He doesn’t appear in any of the ego-centric, selfie laden photo albums or posts of the larger more social media savvy family. On Facebook, he was featured just a handful of times during the constitutional coup last year and for around two days after the conclusion of the presidential election this year. Nothing much is said by him in public fora. Reciprocally, few speak of him openly. What he does, says and inspires is best known to the ruling family, and there too, perhaps some brothers more than others. It’s easy to write him off as a dinosaur, outmoded, outdated and unable to capture the considerable potential of digital propaganda vectors to secure electoral gain or edge. Many his age and with a similar profile are indeed irrelevant. Basil Rajapaksa is not. By all accounts I’ve heard over the years from disparate individuals including from opposing political parties, he is reverentially referred to and feared as one of the best political strategists in Sri Lanka. His absence on social media, given this reputation, can only be strategic and intentional. And he is key to plans around the consolidation and entrenchment, through the general election in 2020, of the significant capture of power by the SLPP through a consequential election this year. He is, single-handedly, the best example of why politics in Sri Lanka cannot be understood without the much harder, and possibly downright impossible access to how political strategy is created within a party.

An example from the official cooling period – 48 hours before the election when all campaigning has to stop – showcases what is very likely the foresight and strategy of this Rajapaksa, and how much in tune he and party are with the dominant Southern psyche, myth and limbic response. The Premadasa campaign, aside from frequent verbal diarrhoea and cringeworthy demonstrations of artificial intelligence, was in tone, timbre and thrust a mirror of tenets Gotabaya Rajapaksa proposed in his manifesto, and campaign speeches. Unlike in 2015, when Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa offered two fundamentally different visions, only the JVP offered a radically different take on national policy in 2019’s presidential election campaign. The two leading candidates agreed on much, on paper at least. What the Premadasa campaign harvested – evident in the manner in which posts and accompanying framing was crafted and expressed – was data. The Rajapaksa campaign, on or over social media, did the same and better. But what the Rajapaksa campaign also had was a non-digital powerhouse of voter mobilisation. Temples and telegenic monks featured heavily in the campaign, and to a degree visibly more than in 2015. The campaign symbol of the SLPP was chosen deliberately to resonant with offerings at and symbols associated with Temples. This was particularly effective during the cooling period when the pohottuwa symbol was both digitally distributed sans overt reference to the then-candidate, as well as physically given to devotees at temples. Monks reminded the faithful of a new King all heavenly signs had promised would arrive to save the motherland. The Kelaniya Temple’s discovery of a snake bearing sacred relics of the Buddha in its belly, captured by leading private TV stations and broadcast incessantly, went viral on Facebook. Gossip pages produced video clips that looked like professional news segments. The original clip gave birth to many more shorter ones and still images. The emotional contagion was real, as thousands on Facebook unreservedly worshipped what was seen and believed to be a miracle heralding a saviour, or King. But the discovery was first and foremost captured by and for traditional TV. Additionally, thousands who visited the Temple during the cooling period were reminded of what the sacred relics symbolised and given a pohottuwa. Here was a campaign within a campaign entirely offline in nature and intent, harnessing the unparalleled reach of blind faith as a vector to promote a political candidate as the anointed one. Pure genius.

In various discussions over the past month, I’ve pointed to two examples of why, presently, the SLPP is unassailable. Firstly, the disappearance of Sajith Premadasa after the election. Expressing interest in the conservation of leopards and with posts capturing his love of cricket, the erstwhile candidate demonstrated his inexperience and ineptitude by deserting millions who had voted for him by posting bizarre, banal content and staying silent while media platforms central to his campaign were raided. Secondly, how a network of temples and their chief incumbents were used in a campaign promoting the incumbent President. It is this network, combined with an equally hard to study community of current and ex-military personnel that form the twin pillars of the month-old Presidency’s strategic vision. The incumbent needs a core constituency distinct from and ultimately more enduring than his older brother’s following, captured by charm more than competency. Aside from technocracy, the new and far less charismatic incumbent will rely heavily on these two effective, pervasive and loyal networks to undermine any and all opposition to rule and regime. The digital manifestation of this will be through content – continuously produced and promoted – that projects or promotes Buddhism through a narrow partisan, political lens, through gossip pages that celebrate Buddhist culture and associated beautification of cities and through thinly veiled propaganda or dog-whistle politics guised as sermonising first broadcast on TV, and then shared widely over Facebook. It is a strategic, near-total capture of the public imagination in the South, with long-term intent, to a degree the Rajapaksa regime during 2005-2015 wasn’t able to manage, and the yahapalayana government couldn’t even dream about.

In capturing the highest political office in a manner never thought possible, the new President and his techno-political strategists have created new realities we are only beginning to realise the contours of. I am a student of social media dynamics but am in awe of what the SLPP manages to do outside digital landscapes. One can be distressed and depressed by all this. Hand-wringing aside, the study of these dynamics is central to ways of seeing how power is constructed. The still magnificent Jetavanaramaya’s foundations in Anuradhapura go right to the bedrock, allowing for the construction of the massive, brick stupa. In a similar vein, temples and the military are the new Presidency’s bedrock, and they both go deep into the Southern Sinhala psyche’s mythical, psychological, cultural, linguistic and religious identity. The scaffolding of the Gotabaya Presidency is still new, but in focussing on and preparing for what is to come, civil society risks missing out on lessons from just the past month around what already is, and firmly cemented. The essential disconnect I fear afflicts the UNP as well, where post-election pronouncements and silences suggest a party entirely outmanoeuvred and rudderless to boot, without realising either.

What comes in the future will be more of what gave rise to the incumbent President. Part of this will be digital in seed, scope and scale. Much of it will remain pegged to old-fashioned, face to face, human contact and the cultivation of loyalty and votes through sustained contact with citizens – something the UNP, under Wickremesinghe, never ever got. The mix of what can be seen and studied and what is more hidden in the open, is a new dynamic in political communications that heralds an entirely new chapter in governance.

Perhaps the snakes do feel what’s coming in their bellies and are coiled in waiting.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 22 December 2019.

 

Priorities

It’s the conversation you never have about the location of files and status of finances. The passwords to accounts. The method to the madness that is otherwise an indecipherable filing system, where everything is stored, but nothing can be found. It’s the conversation you don’t know how to start, and to begin having is an acknowledgement of mortality and ageing. On the 29th of October, my father suffered significant brain trauma as a result of a fall at home. Since that day, I’ve enacted conversations we never had. About him slowing down and cutting back on some of the more physically demanding activities, he thought he could do. A few days before his fall, my mother dared to suggest he stopped buying several kilos of bananas every week to feed a veritable army of squirrels and birds in our garden since the weight of transporting the bags of fruit was too much for him. My father didn’t budge, and my mother went silent. Witness to this interaction, I now realise I took confidence and comfort – without consciously thinking about it – in my father’s dismissiveness that he needed to do things differently from when he was younger. Care and concern from my mother was perceived as a hint that he was older than he thought he was.

This was not taken kindly.

In hospital though, as age, trauma and post-surgery complications rendered my father no different to a baby – unable to fend for himself, speak or move without assistance – I wondered how I would have even begun a conversation with him about everything my sister, family and I had to discover the hard way after his fall. I don’t have the vocabulary, to begin with, and suspect few of us do. How do you talk to your parents about their death, and what to do in the event of a serious injury that renders them entirely helpless and hostage to the care of family? How does one begin that conversation? Is it over a meal? Before a teledrama? After a particularly resonant episode? In the car, on the way somewhere? On the way back home? Before one goes abroad? Soon after one returns? Is the morning better, depending on routine, or evening? How does one start the conversation? My father and I don’t have a relationship anchored to the sharing of emotional issues. He led his life. I led mine. We connected effortlessly, but ours was never a relationship that openly discussed matters of the heart, or issues like the status of my father’s finances and the location of his investments. Being conscientious to the point of fault, I knew that he knew that I knew he was not in any debt, had planned for his death and for the care of my mother. This unspoken knowledge created its own fiction. That my father wasn’t really 82. That he didn’t need to slow down. That I was interacting with a man unchanged from the father who took me to school and grew up with. He was visibly slowing down in thought, response and movement. But the fiction of this unchanging man, who never really aged and would always be around, simply because it was impossible to think of a home without him, overwhelmed what was logically a growing incompatibility between what he did and could actually do without seriously risking life or limb.

My father’s fall was also a rude introduction to Sri Lanka’s medical landscape and language. It is an entirely alien world and expression, geared, in as much as I can gather, to divest patients of their money as efficiently as possible. The shades of emotions, grief, anxiety, fear, concern, anger, hopelessness and on the rare occasion, joy and hope at the cashier’s floor of the hospital was a profoundly revealing study of how hospitals operate – no pun intended. The standard bill costs of block sums which signify nothing. A detailed bill, counter-intuitively, is much less helpful. The medicines, medical terms and procedures are gobbledygook. When everything from sweeping to a bedsheet change is charged for, and without the knowledge required to monitor the administering of drugs, the hospital’s word is the final one, and the payment becomes a gesture of faith – you are never sure of what you are paying for, or why, but unhesitatingly do so on the basis that it helps the patient recover. At least at a devale in Kataragama, you get some delicious rice to savour at the end of a pooja where bundles of money disappear in a similar fashion through a recess. At the hospital, you just disinfect your hands and move on.

On the plus side, when my father had to be rushed to the hospital due to complications arising from severe infections, I was gobsmacked by the efficiency of the 1990 ‘Suwa Seriya’ service. From call to arrival, it took four minutes. The ambulance was about as well equipped as any I’ve seen. The attendants were kind and helpful. Our driver wasn’t aware that 1990 could take patients to private hospitals on demand, but this inconvenience aside, it beggars belief that this service is now islandwide and free.

Seated or standing by my father’s side, I often thought about what I should be saying to him. Should I shout at him for making it so difficult to unravel his accounts and investments? Do I reach out to a friend to help with a process to access funds locked in an account that would otherwise be close to impossible to achieve, risking my father’s ire of seeking favours from those close to, with or in power? If I did, do I admit this to him? In his half-smile on a face that tried hard to register emotion, I saw my son as an infant – reacting almost automatically to known faces. I realised how my father would have seen me as an infant and how roles were now reversed. I wondered how my mother would take to a nurse who now lives us, and looks after my father to a degree my mother doesn’t have the strength to. How must it be for my mother, to see a stranger see my father naked, vulnerable and helpless? The nurse, as it turns out, is a wonderful individual, and already treated as and very much part of our family. She is a staunch supporter of the incumbent President, which makes for the most interesting conversations on politics, separated by a father whose darting eyes suggests he is either very interested in what we say, or just wants us to shut up. Perhaps unkindly, we keep talking – because talking helps create a new fiction that my father is part of the conversation, and will someday soon, chip in with his own thoughts and words.

Last week, I thought my father would die. His breathing was erratic and laboured. He had a fever that sometimes went away only to come back with a vengeance. His eyes were rolled up. He had lost a lot of weight and was little more than skin and bone. I told a close friend he looked like comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s hilarious puppet, Achmed the dead terrorist. I had mentally prepared myself for his passing. I held his hand, and this is where fact and fiction blur. I could swear he moved a finger to grab mine. Perhaps he didn’t. Maybe I just wanted him to live, and in that momentary but convincing triumph of hope over reality, the mind conjures signs of life.

Soon after, my father miraculously fought off multiple infections, and eventually returned home. Though I wish it was crafted or presented differently, his condition at home is a reminder that what matters more or most is not about who is at Temple Trees, but time with family. And in their twilight years, time with parents – suffering how irreconcilably different they are to us, but loving them all the same, as they have loved us, all our lives.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 15 December 2019.

Murals as masks

If a key political actor or set of allied actors wanted to secure more power, all the while appearing not to be interested in it, how could one go about it? Lessons of 2018 suggest that unconstitutional means don’t secure public support, or at the very least, risk generating swathes of support for political opponents through valid claims of authoritarian overreach. Rigging an election is increasingly hard to get away with through traditional, physical means of ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation or manipulating the count. If and when done, these acts in their aggregate are recorded, shared and blemish the electoral outcome, again creating enduring doubts around legitimacy that can hound those in power. Sri Lanka’s extremely manual and labour intensive electoral processes is a powerful defence against digital manipulation of results, through more automated or digital voting architectures. Killing political opponents cannot be ruled out but is risky in a context where a botched operation, telegenic survivor or charismatic next of kin can lead to the exposure, embarrassment of military or political architects. Propaganda, from the State or government praising itself, after decades of the worst sort, has limited traction amongst first, second or third time voters since 2015, numbering in the millions. If the avowed aim of a political actor is to varying degrees pegged to technocracy, self-effacement and meritocracy, regime entrenchment and the masking of more brutish, base authoritarian tendencies becomes even harder – nepotism shows, violence is easily captured and shared, renewed large-scale corruption risks public censure, rewarding the same old faces results in pushback from core constituencies whose anger, alienation or apathy can be difficult to tackle in the aggregate. If in tandem, the attempt is to visually and in practice distinguish the new government and presidency from those closely related who have held significant political authority in the past, the same tactics as yesteryear cannot be employed. Capturing political authority, regime entrenchment and authoritarianism projected to be perceived as benign or benevolent requires a very different kind of political communications strategy, where the co-architects of democratic decay are voters themselves.

What would that look like?

In a note penned last week to help civil society think through significant risks around misinformation, new vectors of propaganda & the weaponisation of social media at scale in the months and years ahead, I flagged a compelling new pincer movement favouring majoritarian narratives, authoritarian creep and populist entrenchment in the guise of more efficient and effective governance. And it starts with murals and the beautification of Sri Lanka.

No sane citizen would be opposed to the idea or goal of a cleaner, greener country. And that’s the point. Beautification as a political aesthetic is near impossible to counter since opposition to it can easily and enduringly be dismissed. The opposite of beauty is ugliness. No one wants an uglier or dirtier country. Beautification in the past occurred under the heavy-handed aegis of government. Murals herald a more nuanced version of it. The government now celebrates what is ostensibly a youth-led, citizen movement to tear down old posters, clean up walls and paint them. In just under a fortnight, this new trend, projected and promoted as a movement engulfing the entire country, started as random posts on social media capturing newly drawn art in indeterminable places. Soon after, influential accounts belonging to popular singers and those associated with a particular candidate at the recently concluded presidential election campaign amplified these sporadic posts, celebrating them and framing them as evidence of a country reborn, or renewed. Electronic media then produced video segments, broadcast during prime time news. These videos, along with the posts of the influential accounts, resulted in what appeared at first blush to be an organic explosion in murals and public art across Sri Lanka. The President himself, on 2nd December, posted a video on this phenomenon on his official Facebook page. At the time of writing, this video has generated 189,000 views, 25,000 reactions, 1,500 comments and 7,000 shares on Facebook. These are, unsurprisingly, very high numbers which beget even greater engagement across platforms, media and geographies.

A deeper dive into this celebration of public art and murals provides more telling insights into intent. The murals are all, in as much as can be determined from the posts capturing them, in the South. They are predominantly anchored to framing army personnel, frames from the end of the war, lions, the Buddhist flag or Sinhala-Buddhist motifs. The controversial brigadier once stationed at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London, who symbolically wanted to cut the throats of Tamils protesting in front of it, features heavily in the murals. Lions with blooming manes and soldiers as heroes dominate the photos of the murals shared on social media. Curiously, given their ubiquity on three-wheelers, Che and Bob Marley aren’t up on any of the walls. Another set of images captured individuals putting up political posters, ostensibly from the JVP. On Facebook and Twitter, the pushback was violent, immediate and sustained. Those putting up the posters, and the party that the posters framed, were seen as enemies of a more beautiful Sri Lanka by contributing to what is now projected as visual pollution arising from pasting posters calling for political mobilisation against the government. The space, thus, for opposing politics, policies and practices is shrinking not just in the media and figuratively, but literally. If murals adorn all walls, the public themselves begin to see posters that defile public art as unworthy of attention and deserving the strongest condemnation. The substance and framing of what’s in the poster goes unheeded. The poster itself is the enemy. Even more telling was the reaction to a BBC video critiquing the subject selection of the posters. In it, a recognised psychologist noted that renewed, large and public frames of war and militarisation could harm the mental development of children. The violent, venomous responses to the BBC and its local correspondent, a Muslim, openly incited hate and harm for what was seen as an affront to an organic, citizen-led drive to beautify the country and celebrate those who brought peace. The groups celebrating the purported diversity in the murals and those painting them were precisely those who violently lashed out against anyone who chose to question them and saved the worst hate for those who weren’t Sinhala-Buddhist.

If this engineered authenticity is one half of the pincer, the other is a surveillance blanket covering Sri Lanka allowing those in power to determine, with great precision, who says what, to whom, where, why and how. Even if some argue much of this surveillance will be directed inward, to monitor those in or close to government, it still provides a panopticon effect, where the fear of being watched or monitored automatically and drastically reduces interest in dissent, including its promotion. If surveillance serves to silence, the new propaganda around beautification is the first salvo of a longer-term and larger strategic operation to engineer the unquestioned acceptance and normalisation of majoritarianism. The voters become willing agents of the State, enraptured by what is overtly present, oblivious to what is missing or the importance of political dissent captured in posters advertising a rally, play, movement, gathering, film or lecture. The social and political engineering at play now is an attempt to drastically shrink the space for critique and the coordination of dissent by overlaying walls with murals the public themselves become custodians of. And the police, now entrusted with beautification, will also be soon tasked with the protection of this public art. The remaining space, digital in nature, will be taken care of by surveillance and resulting anxieties.

The essential template captured here, anchored to the total capture of public imagination and through it, political power, is an entirely new, powerful and dangerous one. It builds on the past. In December 2006, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a leading advertising agency in Colombo to draw a mural on a wall that was pockmarked with shrapnel from the assassination attempt on the then defence secretary’s life. That man is now President, and it is unsurprising to see murals as a centrepiece of his political playbook. The erasure of Northern geography, realities, peoples and identities from beautification’s popular frames suggest communal faultlines rendered so disturbingly through the electoral results map of the recently concluded Presidential Election continue to widen and deepen.

What these murals mask is more than what they reveal. But to scratch under their surface or overlay them with dissent risks violent pushback from citizens themselves, and not high political office. And that’s the ultimate success and goal of this chilling project. To use us, against us.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 8 December 2019.

New questions

What is the line in the sand? How is it drawn and by whom? What happens if I cross it? Is the line this week the same as it will be next week? What are the words I can and cannot use? What are the triggers and metaphors that pass muster, and if they do one week, is it a guarantee of use in the weeks to come? How will words used be perceived, independent of intent? And perceived in whatever manner by the powers above, below or beyond, how will they be acted upon? Will instructions be given, or will those close to pulsating power take matters into their own hands, secure in the knowledge of impunity and protection even if dark deeds are discovered? Do I go silent and be counted, by others, into the ranks of those who are more directly under threat and fear for their lives? How do I maintain a necessary distance from well-meaning international media who don’t understand the challenging space for dissent since the 16th, negotiated daily with awful familiarity for some, in so many ways, visible and invisible? It is easy for them to write stridently, yet harder for Sri Lankan subjects to be in a story while resident in the country. The distinction of wanting to share a story, and not wanting to be the story, is often lost. In the continuation of my column, will others see a different kind of capitulation – a more restrained, self-censored version of your author, writing for the sake of being published, instead of bearing witness to what matters, how it must be framed? Is it better to just stop writing entirely, knowing full well that doing so allows louder narratives with far weaker substance occupy the vacuum left by more critical writing? Is it ego and a futile obduracy that fuels critical dissent under authoritarianism, when every sinew of society and polity recommends retreat or retraction? Do the few remaining who capture inconvenient truths, who given dwindling numbers, incessant ridicule and violent pushback are tolerated and even possibly celebrated by political authority, carry on by creating their own fiction about impact, import and legacy of writing? Does this writing matter at all – a question asked not to curry adulation, but as critical inquiry into the value of writing that, by design or accident, increasingly annoys and alienates readers for no other fault than focusing on a set of issues no one else is aware of and cares little about? If the proposed trajectory of the country is affirmed with a mandate of over six million, what role or relevance is there for a single citizen-columnist to question this power and its interpretation as the elected see fit?

In a note penned a few days ago capturing the current political context from the lens of my doctoral research into social media, I noted that the Rajapaksa Regime 2.0’s unparalleled capability of seeding, shaping and spreading narratives will largely ensure dissent is forgotten quickly, even if its architects and authors are kept alive. The questions above are those I’ve grappled with this entire week. I’ve never sought payment for this column or given any. The writing is its own pleasure and reward. Every Thursday or Friday, with the exception of just three or four weeks over five years, I think about or sit down to write this column wherever in the world I am, and whatever I am in the midst of doing. Since early 2018, I used this column to translate my research in a form and frame fit for an audience very far removed from what I saw and studied. The Sunday Island readers are hostile – and from a writer, this is to varying degrees challenge, compliment and privilege.

The unconvinced and sceptical reader is a wonderful challenge that sharpens how best to communicate best ideas and discoveries important to place for public consideration. Hostility is a compliment because the worst enemy of a writer is, counter-intuitively, an uncritical readership. Constant and mindless adulation blunts critical reflection. This (and any) column is a privilege too. The opportunity to reach an important demographic contra-distinct to and disconnected from those more easily reached over social media is rare and offered to a select few. Every word must count, because newsprint is a precious and as a limited commodity, must not be wasted. This is why, even though often happily and inextricably entwined in digital media’s seed and spread, I love a newspaper in its original, printed form. The joy of writing for one outstrips, by far, any payment offered by the publisher. What we pen matters. And with this knowledge, comes the responsibility to push the envelope of public debate, risking truculent pushback to savour, in the fullness of time, the confession that one’s content had inspired the unlikeliest of individuals to see things differently, or disagree with reason. These are the deeply personal convictions and considerations that drive the writing readers, oblivious to all this, love to debate, decry or occasionally, agree with.

Yet today and since mid-November, there are other considerations. Does one risk everything for critical writing that invites violent pushback? When do personal rewards outweigh growing risk? The fatigue is real and already debilitating amongst many other writers and activists I’ve been in touch with since mid-November. The decision to stop writing also risks being captured or caricatured as self-censorship, which is an act of restraint or redaction anchored to distinct sources of fear. Driving other silences is anxiety – the inability to determine how, what, when or from where violent pushback will come. In 2009, writing in what was then a column in the Sunday Leader, I flagged a memorable passage from James Blinn’s compelling Gulf War novel ‘The Ardvaark goes to War’. In it the hero is asked what makes him feel anxious. His answer precisely captures the space dissent inhabits today, echoing the post-war past

What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of everything. You think war scares me? Is that what you think? Well, it does, it scares the shit out of me. I’m afraid of my ignorance. I’m afraid of things I can’t see, things I don’t even have words for… But the main thing that frightens me is fear.

Before 2015, taking a video on Galle Face with a group of friends in silly outfits, a dance routine outside World Trade Centre, a selfie, not moving for flashing headlines and incessant horns from behind, insisting waiting in line to be served, bumping into someone, asking someone to get out of the way in order to pass, being seen with someone, going somewhere, saying something, not doing something, a hashtag, a profile image, a Facebook post, a WhatsApp message, fiction or journalism, a name or nickname, an idea or symbol, an institution or individual, an economic statistic, a visit to a foreign country, being seen at the airport check-in counter, attending a rally, expressing support of a critical idea, wearing something, having a certain name, not being able to speak a language, insisting on translation, buying from a certain shop, liking a brand – these were all monitored and judged through national security, majoritarian or authoritarian lenses.

We are now back in those times, with beggars locked up and dissent cleared as fast as garbage. Backed by popular mandate, interpreted by those in and close to political authority as they see fit, some of us today face what the UNP and its leadership have also engineered in the past with those they found inconvenient. The vicious cycle continues. The tragedy then is not about one or two columns and their future, or legacy. It is about a country that from school to public office, actively devalues and destroys critical thinking. A country of voters is convenient for unbridled political authority. A democracy with citizens, less so. And in this reading, it is not what was entirely expected of and from those in power today that is so damning. It is the silence of those who were defeated in the election. Principles matter the most when not in power and without political authority. Standing up for what’s right and just isn’t contingent on electoral victory. It is simply a matter of saying or doing it. A few columnists must not and cannot be the conscience of a country that the opposition’s abandoned.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 1 December 2019

6 days

Author’s note: On the invitation of the Editor, I’ve written to the Sunday Island newspaper every week since late 2015. Not a single column since then was rejected or even significantly edited, until this one. As I noted on Twitter, the Editor citing “orders from above” said that my column would not be published.

This isn’t the first time content anchored to Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fallen foul of owners of a newspaper. For many years, I was a columnist in ‘The Nation’ newspaper, under the then Editor Malinda Seneviratne. Malinda’s politics differ vastly to mine, but as Editor, he didn’t edit out a single word of what I wrote, repeatedly noting to me and others that as Editor, what he wanted in the newspaper was a diversity of opinion, including those he disagreed with but presented well. Sadly, the pressure from the owner increased – first to encourage me to obliquely reference the Rajapaksas, then to focus on Mahinda but not on Gotabaya and finally, to not mention Gotabaya at all. On a trip abroad and under a temporary Editor, my column was stopped.

The fear of or deference to the Rajapaksas runs deep. In 2015, I was invited by the Sri Lanka Insitute of Architects to write a piece for ‘The Architect’ magazine on ‘democratic space’. The Editor in Chief a few weeks before publication noted that references to the Rajapaksa’s were problematic and that the Sri Lanka Insitute of Architects was in fact entirely partial to the hugely problematic beautification projects in Colombo led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the then all-powerful Defence Secretary. I ended up publishing the piece on Groundviews.

Dr. Charitha Herath, embedded in the new Presidency and Sri Lanka Podujana Party, responded to my tweet noting,

In this tweet we see the template for how the Rajapaksas will control (and strategically also allow) critical dissent in Sri Lanka under a Gotabaya Presidency. Moderates within the SLPP will either out of genuine personal conviction or more coercive direction, publish content that avers the Presidency and government have nothing to do with overt censorship. In parallel, media owners, out of fear or seeking favour – knowing full well their businesses run & rely on ads as well as political servitude – will proactively jettison voices and authors they deem inconvenient or risk raising the ire of the Rajapaksas. This jettisoning will not be based on orders from the Presidency. The President’s reputation and the Rajapaksa legacy is enough to instil fear. Coupled with this, enhanced and pervasive surveillance will be used to track tone, timbre and thrust of thought against or partial to Presidency and government. Those who are critical will be monitored more and silenced in ways that set an example for others to abide by or go silent on account of.

The more violent suppression of critical voices may occur too, but I think unlikely in a context where dissent will simply not have any meaningful space to seed or spread, on social media or in the real world. All the while, moderates like Dr. Herath, who I’ve known for years, will – sincerely I believe – claim that no orders were given to censor critical voices, creating plausible deniability for Presidency and government around the most draconian censorship, hidden in the open.

If the fear, less than a week into Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency is such that just around 1,200 words is deemed too much criticism for a newspaper to publish by the powers that be, the future of Sri Lanka’s writers, activists, independent and investigative journalists, thespians, actors, academics and citizens interested in holding those in power accountable is bleak, at best. As I noted in my censored column below,

The Rubicon crossed on the 16th was more than an electoral victory for the incumbent. It is the end of a Sri Lanka as we know it, and the birth of something else in its place, which shares a name, but little else.

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6 days

The day after the 7th President was sworn into office, racism celebrated a new birth on Facebook. Across many pages that played a key role in President’s electoral bid, the message was simple and clear. Sri Lanka was for Sinhalese Buddhists only, and his victory ensured the country would remain thus. All Tamils were labelled terrorists. An electoral map of districts that voted for the President’s opponent was juxtaposed with a map of Eelam. The implication, explicitly noted or implicitly projected, was that the opponent’s bid was to divide Sri Lanka and give the Tamils what the LTTE wanted. And because of this ingratitude, the suggestion was that the Sinhalese should inhabit these areas as well since nothing good would ever come from Tamils. The Sri Lankan flag was replaced by the Lion flag next to the Buddhist flag. Lions, in fact, dominated the images across these pages. In other pages, the Lion covered the entire map of Sri Lanka. ‘Lions are back’ proclaimed a notorious page supporting the new President, with an image of him and his brother on two ends, with a Lion in the middle. In the background to the images of both men, maps of Sri Lanka covered by the Lion symbol. In more explicit posts, Hakeem, Bathiudeen and Sampanthan were called the f word, reminding them that the electoral result was an indication the Sinhala race wasn’t dead. Many pages congratulated the new President as the representative of the Sinhala Buddhists. Hyper-conscious of public optics, the new President tweeted that “I am the President of not only those who voted for me but also those who voted against me and irrespective of which race or religion they belong to.” And yet, the racism on the pages continues in the same vein. All the posts are hugely popular.

On Day 3, Major General Kamal Gunaratne was appointed as the new Secretary of Defence. I last wrote about Gunaratne in October 2017, after encountering a speech of his at a Viyathmaga public meeting, made in front of the man who is now President. The video of his speech is still on YouTube. Gunaratne’s comments were directed at those like myself who remain deeply committed to a new constitution. The translation of the comments made in Sinhala, noted in my column, are worth repeating in light of the position he now holds.

Gunaratne wants those who support a new constitution dead, because he proposes they are in fact traitors. He normalises death to traitors as something natural, and inevitable. He wants a return to the height of the JVP’s violence in the late 80’s in order to create the context to deal with those who support a new constitution. His desire to punish traitors extends post-mortem. Mirroring the humiliation the JVP meted out to its political opponents even after being murdered, he wants those who were in favour of a new constitution to not even be given a proper burial. He doesn’t want Buddhist priests to bless them or even to visit their homes.

The Viyathmaga audience claps loudly and enthusiastically at Gunaratne’s comments. As noted in the Hansard and reported in international media, Gunaratne is alleged to have murdered an employee at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Brazil. Other news reports capture his time at a leading international school in Sri Lanka, and the terror to both parents and children that ensued. Gunaratne joins the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Shavendra Silva – a man whose bulky frame serves primarily to carry the weight of allegations of war crimes against him – as the chief architects of national security, aided by state intelligence services and a deep or dark state entirely partial to the Rajapaksas.

On Day 4, the new President was framed in a set of extraordinary photos at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. Flanked by Buddhist monks, Nilame’s and the ornate, ostentatious regalia of Kandyan pomp and pageantry in full display, the new President, dead centre, projected himself, comfortably, as a King. The same day, Shani Abeysekara, till that day the Director of the CID, was demoted as a personal assistant to a DIG, one of the lowest ranks in the Police force. Abeysekara was in charge of cases involving the Rajapaksas, including the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Thajudeen and the disappearance of Eknaligoda.

On Day 5, a day after the new President’s brother was sworn in as Prime Minister, the entire website of the PM’s office was wiped clean. Nothing remains of the old site as a vital repository of public records linked to the former incumbent’s years as PM. Exactly a year ago, during the constitutional coup, the then illegal PM did precisely the same thing. When the coup failed, the site was restored. This disturbing proclivity to completely delete history, erase public records, wipe clean government sites of any and all material framing or focused on political opponents informs the new President’s approach to governance.

On Day 6, I woke up wondering what the multi-billion rupee investments on surveillance, through bilateral agreements with China, Israel and Russia – now entirely in the hands of the new President and his team – would lead to. Counter-intuitively, the new President’s time in office could well be the most peaceful Sri Lanka’s seen yet. The disbanding of extremist Buddhist groups, self-censorship of journalists, abject fear felt by all minorities and the very real fatigue of civil society to fight against however many years or even decades the first family will remain in power almost guarantees that opposition to the Presidency will be muted, at best, within the country. Pervasive surveillance spanning human, communications and digital media, aided and abetted by all telcos present in the country, will result in a public sphere were inconvenient truths and dissent will be controlled, contained or censored. Coordination amongst and collaboration of any opposition to the Presidency will be tracked. At the same time, because the new President’s PR is a cut above anything else in the country, vast sums of money will be spent on propaganda for consumption within the country, and marketing campaigns to promote the country abroad. With markets rebounding, investor confidence returning, tourism promotion, branded content, sponsored ads, paid tours of celebrities and a country without any visible manifestation of internal strife, the new Presidency stands to be marked by what in common parlance the people wanted – a leader who took care of garbage and made a city look clean. On that score, the President will deliver. Entirely lost will be a focus on rights and accountability. Any focus on these, and the barbarians no longer at the gate, but inside Temple Trees, will be let loose silently, to devour their prey in the dead of night, so that the carcasses in the morning are a reminder of how little dissent means in a country moving forward, with intellect, meritocracy and Buddhism at the helm.

All this is more the failure of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena than the success of the incumbents. Shavendra wasn’t appointed by the new President. One wonders if the former government was waiting for an astrologically sound hour to release the findings of Shani Abeysekara’s investigations. None of the allegations made in public about the corruption of the Rejapaksa regime by the leading lights of the former government were backed up by investigations that led to indictments. The Parliamentary Select Committee report’s capture of the former President’s ineptitude and the PM’s lack of leadership are criminal in nature and negligence. The public had had enough, and understandably so. The inheritance of incompetence though is shared, and therein lies the rub. Not everyone who voted in the new President is a racist, or even close. But the vote to place him in power will result in a renewed reign of racism. Many see 2005-2015 as what Sri Lanka will return to. I do not subscribe to this. White vans may not need to come back, and journalists will not need to be murdered. Knowing the nature of the beast and the popular support it enjoys at present, no one will dare say or do anything to upset it. The result of this will be the entrenchment of the Rajapaksas and the normalisation of everything that is abusive, corrupt, violent, exclusive, authoritarian, sexist, communal or majoritarian.

The shift of popular discourse and the public imagination to embrace the tenets of authoritarianism as essential to and inextricable from stable governance is a legacy future governments will not be able to roll-back, or even want to. The Rubicon crossed on the 16th was more than an electoral victory for the incumbent. It is the end of a Sri Lanka as we know it, and the birth of something else in its place, which shares a name, but little else.

A new connection

The affable and unflappable customer service representative I’ve known for years. On this day she looked particularly hassled dealing with a woman who insisted she had a phone line that wasn’t in SLT’s system. Eavesdropping on conversations in government offices reveals as much about the state of country, community and context as it does about the nature of government service and the individuals in it. As my number was called, a random individual occupied chair to ask how to get a slip in order to occupy the chair. This was told, and said person promptly got up, grinned at me, and left the building. It is unclear whether the instruction was understood or whether the journey to SLT was to ascertain this vital nugget of information for someone else. After the mandatory exchange of pleasantries, I requested an SLT fibre connection and dutifully located my house on Google Maps. I left with the assurance that someone would attend to the matter promptly. That was around four weeks ago. To be fair by SLT, many have attended to my application with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but nothing has progressed.

Every week since the first Monday I lodged my application, I’ve made a pilgrimage to the Ratmalana SLT to ascertain progress. The first week I was told it was in the process of being processed – an entirely unhelpful answer delivered with a smile and shrug, suggesting karma had more a role in the fibre connection’s processing than SLT itself. Accepting this universal truth, I left with a silent prayer to the Buddha to access my karma reserves and withdraw whatever sum needed to get me my connection. It turns out karma doesn’t work like an ATM or I didn’t have enough in my account for the Buddha to withdraw. Either way, the next Monday, I coincidentally met with the same woman who took helped with the application. Appalled I hadn’t got my connection, she was visibly angry and said that everything from SLT was approved and authorised. The delay was with Huawei. A note to the Manager would be penned. A complaint would be lodged. Lamentations of having wasted my time and apologies for the delay ensued. I had taken a liking to this woman’s honesty of a system that she had no real control over. A week later, a three-wheeler with three men turned up, walked around my garden and house, and left. I was told they would call. They didn’t call. When I called them, they said my house needed a pole to draw the wire from the road. I accepted this and asked if I needed to do anything in order to hasten the process of getting the connection. I was assured I didn’t have to do a thing, and that everything would be done from their end.

A week later, I went back to SLT. Thought I had a ticket several numbers down from the sequence of customers called to the counters, the woman who had lodged my application saw me and called me over. Her face was a mix of dread and disappointment. Hurried keystrokes and muttering ensued. I asked her to not get angry, a role reversal from the usual interaction over the counter at government offices. A man’s name was mentioned as the engineer from Huawei responsible for putting poles and giving new connections. I asked where he was located. I was told he was in the next building on the first floor. His phone wasn’t working, so I was asked to go over and ascertain what was going on, noting that I was sent across by SLT. This I did. The man was courteous and unhurried. I was asked for my number. I asked him which number he wanted. I was told I had a number from SLT. I said I did not. This, he said, was impossible – I should have been given a number. I said I wasn’t. Now looking entirely confused, hurried keystrokes ensued, only to be followed by the assurance that I would have been given a number. I again assured him I wasn’t given a number, and asked if my NIC number could be used to determine this mysterious number. This I was told he couldn’t do from his terminal. I was asked to go back to SLT and get this number. So I went back to SLT. The woman asked me what number he wanted. I said I didn’t know, but that he said she would know. She said she didn’t know. She tried him again on the phone, which didn’t work. Then she hunted for my initial written application in a thick folder of other applications. I saw her face turned a deep shade of red, realising that this number – whatever it was – hadn’t been written down. Seconds before, there were loud threats  to go with me to her Manager in order to complain about the man from Huawei. Once the mistake was discovered, however, there was a meek admission that the number requested was actually one that SLT should have provided me weeks ago. Armed with this number, and another mysterious number for good measure written on the corner of an SLT brochure that featured only very fair Sri Lankans, I went again to the building next door and up the first floor. My smartwatch congratulated me on the number of steps I was taking and the flights of stairs I was ascending. I mentally thanked SLT for this vital contribution to my health.

The Huawei man, now armed with my number, proceeded to tell another colleague, seated next to him, to take down details from his screen. This was shouted across with such volume that the entire office was privy to my details, not unlike a polling centre. The other man dutifully noted down a string of numbers and dashes. This was then repeated to the man I met, who upon punching in the codes, assured me someone would be around to fix the pole.

A man did arrive on a motorcycle the next day. I wasn’t sure how he could alone, and on a bike, fix a pole. But it turned out he was a pole scout for Huawei, who assured me that I actually didn’t need one. The ensuing conversation was surreal. I was asked if the team that told me I needed a pole came in a blue-three wheeler. I said I couldn’t remember the colour of the three-wheeler that came. He then warned me, with great concern and grave face, that a team in a blue three-wheeler from SLT was going around telling prospective fibre customers that they needed poles, when they did not. As evidence of this assertaion, I was shown a box on the road from which a wire could be drawn. I nodded, gravely. I was then told where he had to go to vote, because it was important. Not having asked him anything about the election, I nevertheless agreed with the sentiment. The gentleman promptly left on his motorcycle, blaming, vociferously, Huawei for sending a box from some unheard of town to road next to mine, assuring me that the box could have come from somewhere closer, asking me if I had lived anywhere else, and telling me he would return after the election.

I closed the gate pinching myself to see if I was dreaming.

Four weeks and counting, I am none the wiser as to when I will get my new SLT fibre connection. This Sunday, Sri Lanka will have a new President. He inherits a profoundly dysfunctional country. He will not fix it. Beyond and beneath the veneer of glossy ads, facades, promises, launches, press releases and celebrity openings, Sri Lanka is a country where who you know, and what you know about them, still matters. Every single citizen-facing facility, form and farce, favours those in and with power.

I hope, someday, we vote to change that.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 November 2019.