A window to government

A tweet by Ruwan Wijewardene, in response to one by South African cricket Dale Steyn, captured what after the electoral results of 10thof February and even after the restructuring of the UNP, remains a problem – with party and government writ large.

Steyn, in a tweet that went viral, was deeply complimentary of what he saw in Colombo. The visible aspects of development, from the last time he was in the country as far back as 2006, were flagged along with how the roads were clean and the parks were green. Perhaps bereft of good news from their fellow countrymen and women, the tweet had generated at the time of writing nearly 9,000 likes and 1,000 retweets. Lots of cringe-worthy responses replete with hearts, kisses, animated GIFs also ensued. The State Minister for Defence also retweeted Mr Steyn’s original, flagging the current Mayor of Colombo, Rosy Senanayake, with two emoticons of clapping hands. The tweet was meant to be read as Mr Wijewardene congratulating MsSenanayake for all what Mr Steyn had noted. “Can’t wait to see the whole bloody lot of them Twitter clap themselves to electoral oblivion” was one response received when I circulated privately, framing in terms not entirely fit for print, Mr Wijewardene’s tweet and what it suggested was the mentality of the UNP’s top brass. To the reader, it may be unfair and unkind. MsSenanayake assumed office a few months ago. She certainly cannot yet be credited with anything good or held accountable for all that is bad about Colombo. The tweet was perhaps more the reflection of personal friendship expressed in a public manner over social media, and to be appreciated as such, without reading too much into it.

But the frustration I felt, shared by many others, was informed by the study of the UNP’s tone-deafness to public sentiment and optics. In Sinhala, over Facebook and Twitter, one can study content directly from government (from MPs and public officials), favourable to government (by those not elected to or appointed by it), directly from the joint opposition and its allies, as well as conversations unfavourable to or deeply critical of government (by those who aren’t card-carrying members of the JO yet partial to its ideology and perspectives). Each of these individually and taken together reveal a disturbing discontent. The government is in the eye of a cyclone, thinking all is calm and well, yet blithely unaware of what’s menacingly around them. Keep in mind Sri Lanka’s electoral youth bulge, with those between 18-34 constituting nearly a quarter of the total number of those eligible to vote. Keep in mind that on 10thFebruary, nearly 1 million first time voters were eligible to cast their vote. This percentage and number will only grow in months and years to come. We have a demographic which is introduced to and engages in politics, including the production of partisan perspectives, primarily over social media – a fundamentally different, fluid, power dynamic to what the core readership of this newspaper know and are used to around how they interact with politics, elections and elected officials.

This is not some fad.

The larger paradigm shift in politics, happening elsewhere in the world as much as it is in Sri Lanka, is called “parties without partisans”, a phenomenon that goes to the heart of the continuous campaign mode engaged by the JO since January 2015. It is also why the popularity of the present government is in terminal decline. The French politician Maurice Duverger in the 1950’s classified political parties as being cadre, mass or devotee centric. A cadre model was essentially and unashamedly elitist (and by extension, historically almost always exclusively male in senior membership), which during electoral contests, especially as universal franchise expanded, tried to seek support from a larger membership – in ever-widening concentric circles. Mass parties grew the other way around, rooted in social movements like labour unions, and growing to a degree where a few from the movement went on to represent the values and ideals of the group in legislative bodies, and other power blocs. Sri Lanka has political parties that bear the features of both. It most definitely has the cult of personality, which Duverger classified as devotee centric political parties. Here, the fate of the movement or party is pegged to the charisma of an individual leading it. Social media deeply favours populists – those who with charismatic credentials galvanise public support through trenchant opposition to the status quo, and the flagging of a glorious, sovereign past.

Post-2015, Sri Lanka has seen, through the physical manifestation of politics as well as its digital contours over social media, the rapid dissipation of hope around the coalition government, the hoovering of anxiety and apathy by the JO through populism and, within the gravitational pull of the JO, distinct yet strategically aligned orbital narratives that promote an unashamed return to a racial and religious purity, devoid of what’s projected as the false trappings of liberal democracy. This last narrative domain addresses what is a real loss of identity and belonging amongst youth, that counter-intuitively grows the more they are connected to social media and interact with likeminded. The politics discussed here is not one that is exercised, necessarily, through franchise. The legitimacy of franchise itself may be constructed as false and contested as one that benefits a status quo inherently unfair, unjust and discriminatory. Hence, the more conversation there is around politics on social media, the more apathy and anger may grow without any electoral resolution. All this and more suggests that if the government and other political actors are not continuously, meaningfully connected to social media discourse, they already risk misreading public sentiment. Electoral and democratic consequences will follow.

Which brings us back to Mr Wijewardene’s tweet. It embodies succinctly, the sheer disconnect he, his party, his leader, and this government has with a tsunami of anxiety, anger, fear and resentment amongst young voters. The word is used consciously, for in Japanese, tsunami loosely translates into harbour wave, where sailors at sea came back to find their homes and shoreline devastated by a phenomenon that had passed beneath them. Sri Lanka’s electoral shoreline is 2020. We have already seen the first wave in February. The farcical restructuring of the UNP by shuffling old men and incompetence around has worsened the UNPs’ appeal. The President is his own brand of pathos. Suffice to say, and without any exaggeration, that when visualised as line graphs – capturing the production of and engagement with content produced in Sinhala alone on Facebook or Twitter, over the past year – that which is against or deeply critical of government appears like a Himalayan range, with content from and partial to government flatlining in comparison.

But I suppose as long as we are tweeting at friends in government and happily clapping on Twitter, all will be well.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 15 July 2018.

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A harbour of discontent

An article published in the New York Times generates a sobering frame of accountability and corruption in Sri Lanka today. After publication in print and online, the article generated extremely high readership, sharing and other stories, referencing the original. The role, reach and relevance of the New York Times was buttressed considerably since 2016 by domestic pushback in the US from quarters in Washington DC chagrined by the paper’s unwavering and unflattering scrutiny of policy, pronouncement and politics. The manner in which the story spread in Sri Lanka was revealing, though this brief summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance and variance present in the capture and contestation of the original story, especially over social media.

The immediate and expected response from the Rajapaksa camp was to deny and decry vehemently. This initial enfilade was followed by various pronouncements over social media promising a more robust official response, which however didn’t appear for days. In the meanwhile, the former Central Bank Governor released content in response to the article, which was picked up and distributed by the Rajapaksa camp as evidence of the story’s false premises, and bias. The official response, badly formatted and without spell-checking in English, was perhaps first drafted in Sinhala. Stylistically, the English version was clearly the product of many authors. By the time the Rajapaksa’s produced an official response, the original article had gone viral. At the same time and over social media, an unprecedented cacophony of trolls – accounts with fake photos and names, activated after a long period of being dormant, or freshly created – started to attack in particular the journalist from the New York Times and those she had worked with in Sri Lanka. Personal attacks produced by close associates of the Rajapaksa camp over social media helped these trolls, in two ways. One, by the production of content that tried to name and shame the journalists involved in the story as having hidden agendas, partial to or somehow architected by the UNP. Two, by the support they extended to more vicious commentary of trolls by the act of actively liking their content on Twitter – a process which cannot be automated or accidentally occur. These trolls, in a frenzy of activity, let loose a barrage of verbal abuse against those partial to the merits of the story. Many of the worst comments were explicitly liked by prominent, official, personally curated accounts of the Rajapaksa camp, signifying that they were partial to not just the pushback, but the expression used and the violence engineered. On TV, politicians from the Joint Opposition held up photos of those involved in the story and said that the entire article was rehashing content first published in the Daily News newspaper, some years ago. After the official response from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office, the former President, those close to him and the troll army all noted how they would sue the New York Times. Many, your author included, roundly welcomed this move, as a way in which facts and documents pertinent to the article would be through court proceedings, be made public.

The public and private pressure – not all of which is in the public domain – directed at those who worked on the story was so bad, and happened at such an accelerated pace, the New York Times issued an unprecedented public warning noting that any issue the former President had with the substance of the article should only be taken up with the newspaper, and not by threats of violence or retribution. This warning was echoed by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Foreign Correspondents Association of Sri Lanka, as well as other domestic and international media freedom groups. The shrill threats of suing the newspaper died down. Late last week, Rajapaksa regime acolytes over social media, giving their ‘personal’ opinion, noted that it would be a waste of money and that it was far more useful to go after the conspirators in Sri Lanka who fueled the story. Meanwhile, in response to a complaint lodged by a government MP, the CID was reported to have launched an investigation into the allegations noted in the New York Times article. The only problem here was that the New York Times highlighted in some detail content it claimed was sourced from on-going investigations into the Hambantota Port deal and campaign financing around it. On social media, your author and others flagged the sheer absurdity, truly comedic if not for how tragic a picture it painted of governance in 2018, of the CID investigating an on-going investigation purportedly conducted by the CID itself!

The farce only got worse (or better?) towards the end of the week. The Media Secretary to the former President spun the original article as somehow linked to a statement by John Kerry made in 2016 which had helped the UNP government come to power, and that the New York Times, ideologically partial to or part of Obama-Clinton liberalism, opposed the incumbent US President as well as China, which in turn was why in concert with senior figures in government, who with local collaborators embedded in the mainstream media, conspired to produce the article – all with a view to discrediting Mahinda Rajapaksa!

Your author has lived through and heard a lot of conspiracy theories since 2002. This one though – by sheer force of imagination – was in a different league.

For its part, the UNP – seemingly unaware of any on-going investigation by the CID and dealing with a political nuclear winter after MP Vijayakala’s pro-LTTE statement, distanced itself from allegations in the article that it was forced to hand over the port to the Chinese. In doing so, astute observers noted that the PM was no different to the former President in denying allegations in the article which were politically inconvenient, without any robust material evidence or public debate. Meanwhile, China also unsurprisingly denounced the article as fabrication and fiction. The pro-Rajapaksa troll and tripe army, activated shortly after the article went live, focused their attention more towards those in Sri Lanka, instead of a global media giant that clearly couldn’t be dragged into their snake pit. From at first a frothing Hydra-headed monster, the pushback – online and through more traditional means, morphed into a sharper, more strategic, ominous spear intentionally aimed increasingly at those in Sri Lanka, in tandem with the Rajapaksa camp’s shift in focus to go after – legally or by other means – those they perceived to be behind the article.

It is unlikely the lead author of the New York Times expected any of this. The theatre of the absurd surrounding the publication of the article holds some humbling lessons. Journalists, freelancers and fixers in Sri Lanka tasked with helping international media institutions cover in-depth stories now know the fate that will befall them if and when they cross a line in the sand that raises the ire of those in power or seeking to regain it. It is a chilling effect that will impact quality, probative, investigative journalism. The current government will not deliver on promises to hold the Rajapaksas accountable for corruption. The Rajapaksas have much to hide, going by the raw nerve that was touched and the telling dynamics of the responses to the article. China has much to hide, going by what it has said and importantly, what it has not said. It takes the New York Times to bring to public attention investigations that are so dormant, the CID itself seems to be unaware of them. It takes an international newspaper to focus, however short-lived, public debate on issues our President, our Prime Minister, the government, and domestic media should be leading the scrutiny around.

The New York Times article may have set out to flesh-out Mahinda Rajapaksa’s corruption. What it has inadvertently achieved is to flag the current government’s inability and unwillingness to hold the former President answerable. Clearly, accountability is just a word that features in campaign manifestos.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 8 July 2018.

A response to Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda

In ‘Waiting for Herr Hitler’, Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda a week ago asked the question if Sri Lanka was ready for an elected dictator. The article makes a number of interesting points, and suggests that no matter what more recent consternation has been around the call by a leading Buddhist monk for a Hitler to rise to save the country, polling data on the state of democracy in South Asia and Sri Lanka indicates that in fact, the Sri Lankan population will not tolerate theocratic-fascism or any variant. The data is from 2014, and Prof. Uyangoda suggests the electoral outcomes from 2015 support the findings. It is debatable however whether the public mood is still the same.

The issue for me, analysing thousands of posts and comments in Sinhala, in the 18-34 demographic – who didn’t vote in 2015 but did in February 2018, and will constitute around a quarter of the eligible vote base moving forward – is that the seething anger, disillusionment, apathy, disappointment and disconnect finds electoral expression in one of two ways. One, a vote in favour of the known evil – a regime that though murderous and corrupt, got rid of garbage, built roads, and essentially – for the psyche of youth who are at the same time, connected to Facebook yet entirely provincial in their thinking – gave their lives meaning, and a future they could see themselves be part of, with dignity. The evisceration of all these – the perceived indignity at present as a consequence of many socio-political, economic and religious factors, and the disappointment with the non-delivery of promises around jobs, the economy or combatting corruption, leads to the second possible electoral expression, which is non-engagement. Or more precisely, the conduct of politics through social media, instead of exercising one’s franchise. Take for example the vector of Sinhala gossip sites over Facebook and in Sinhala. The volume (amount) and velocity (speed of production), combined with the lack of veracity (any basis in accurate, factual reporting) are markers of any gossip site anchored mainly to sensationalist news generation over famous celebrities and their love or personal lives. In Sri Lanka, these sites also package, promote and produce content around politics – though not in the way you would read this newspaper, or switch on the news at eight. There are unique aspects to this production. It is episodic, highly visual, low on text but high in embedded cultural appeal and meaning, geared towards virality, often asks to be shared and generates an engagement that by order of magnitude is more significant than anything, more generally, the mainstream media in Sinhala on Facebook puts out. English language content, over any leading social media platform, doesn’t even come close.

The results of the polls Prof. Uyangoda places his faith around the more or less democratic future of Sri Lanka need to be calibrated against what is today a demographic that has the greatest impatience with democratic politics, seen as inherently inefficient and messy, and a growing interest in authoritarian politics. Importantly, fascism and authoritarianism – and their definitions from political science – are not necessarily how this (pulsating, online) demographic sees or explains their support of key individuals or political movements. The projection of populism takes seed and root precisely because the promises and policies of the present government have not. This filling of a vacuum is happening apace, and in a way that will – without an iota of a doubt – impact and influence electoral politics, even though the equation is never as simplistic as a vote against the government for every bile covered comment or post on Facebook. This is pegged to Prof. Uyangoda’s observation that the present government has an “unsatisfactory record of a weak democracy”.

Where I differ somewhat is with Prof. Uyangoda’s point, building from this, that illiberal and now, overtly fascist alternatives to government, are becoming attractive. While true, this ignores the spectrum of illiberal and undemocratic from within the present government, as a response to a popularity in terminal decline. This is from the authoritarian’s rulebook – what the Rajapaksa’s did, packaged in new forms more sensitive to pushback from media, civil society and the international community, but emphatically not inherently liberal or democratic. And it is getting worse. From the extremely ill-advised block around Facebook earlier this year (which data has proven did nothing to stop the violence), to more recent and repeated pronouncements by the President,  a vital demographic – already directly opposed to or large disillusioned with government – are being warned to expect even more friction around access to social media platforms in the future. It doesn’t take a political scientist to fathom how when the oxygen of this particular demographic is constricted, the writhing pain will find, amongst other more kinetic forms, specific electoral expression – or indeed, force an electoral contest well before its expected time. It would be very wrong to project or perceive this government as inherently and overwhelmingly benevolent or liberal. It also fears – unsurprisingly and as much as anyone else in power does – architects plotting its demise using the very means it used to come to power.

Prof. Uyangoda makes a final point about how for the first time in history, Sri Lankan voters would be presented with an avowedly non-democratic alternative, which is absolutely open about its authoritarian project as a regime choice. While accurate and disturbing, one also recalls the choice between the two leading Presidential candidates in January 2010, one of whom is in government, and the other, charismatic and impish as ever, is busily harvesting a wave of disenchantment through his signature populism. The choice in that election wasn’t one between two democrats. The TNA chose one. That person’s record in war around human rights in general and the freedom of expression, in particular, is a Google search away. So in a sense, what was presented then as a viable alternative to Mahinda Rajapaksa was someone far worse, unshackled by political experience and governed entirely by a mindset where the end justifies the means, where command and control is the root of order, and where efficiency and effectiveness, founded on precision and subordination, was the basis of governance. The man we fear today, called upon to become a Hitler, eight years ago, was another man. He was then in disguise. In a way, who we fear more today is more honest and open. He makes no qualms about his disdain for anything democratic.

Essentialism, anchoring politics to tribalism or certain defining traits of community or race, is rife with pitfalls and inaccuracies. And yet, it seems in the North as much as in the South, engineered as well as organic, the call and clamour is for a return to strongman, strongarm rule. Democracy, I fear very much, in light of these recurrent sons of soil, like Icarus, takes flight only for short periods of time, only to come crashing down.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 1 July 2018.

Conversations hiding in plain sight

Sri Lanka is many things. Yet arguably apart for a brief time after the cricket world cup final in 1996, one country it is not and has never been. Variously projected and perceived as strength in diversity or a bone of contention, many imagined nations within the 65,610 square kilometres of our island coalesce and converge, as much as they grow distant and diverge. These existential fears and myths are rich fodder for parochial, political gain. Mahinda Rajapaksa just last week said that one of the problems the country faces is that Sinhalese Buddhists don’t have nine to ten children anymore, and are thus facing extinction because of the artificial imposition of birth control. His comments, at a Temple and aimed at the sangha, flows into an explosive yet factually unfounded trope where another community in Sri Lanka is said to be increasing their progeny at an exponential rate, given their ability to marry more than one woman, thus a few decades hence, encroaching on and ultimately ruling Buddha’s chosen land. Discriminated against in ways incomprehensible to those who aren’t subject to it daily, violently subjugated and even post-war, militarily corralled communities are fighting for their dignity and identity, even as those projected and perceived as the majority community, based on numeric strength, have deep rooted, enduring and growing existential fears around their own future. Consuming in English alone media – both mainstream or social – masks pulsating drivers and changing contours of these distinct nations, each vying for geographic or territorial contiguity as well as legitimacy. If as we know the country has a youth bulge in its electorate, with those between 18 to 34 constituting the majority of the vote base in all elections to come, understanding how they see, stand aside from and also contribute to this idea of a country called Sri Lanka is important.

Imagine, if you will, an old fountain pen and blotting paper. Imagine three of our points of contact where fresh ink leaks to paper, and the stain that spreads across it, creating a unique pattern or design. If in close proximity, these blots will merge and eat into each other, darkening the overlap even as they create upon close inspection, embedded, distinct edges within each other’s pattern or spread. The initial point of contact with fountain pen will be darker than the edges, where the ink has run out. Depending on pressure, viscosity of ink, time of contact and other factors, each ink blot will have its distinct signature. Social media in Tamil, Sinhala and English are like ink blots. Each blossom and bloom around specific issues, at various times, and differently too, depending on which platform one is looking at. Twitter, for example, has a different dynamic around pace, tone, substance and attention than Facebook. These are called technical affordances – things that each platform allow a user to do. Facebook for example allows longer descriptions and a range of reactions. Twitter does not. Instagram, anchored to photography, offers, quite literally, a frame as a way to look at the world. Depending on platform, the conversations and foci also shift. But there’s more to this. For decades, Sinhala, Tamil and English mainstream media have offered very different frames of the same country. Depending on which media one consumes, during and even after the war, the perception of country, its faults as well as its potential, is vastly, often irreconcilably different. The democratising use, unstoppable spread and indubitable appeal of social media, for a younger demographic, one would imagine would move away from this corrosive bias and prejudice.

Tellingly, there is no discernible evidence, however, that it does.

Take the sentencing of Gnanasara Thero. 24 hours after the judgement in courts, it was Facebook that was the key driver of news around the Thero, in Sinhala. Gossip sites overwhelmed anything mainstream news sites put out, across social media but especially on Facebook. As I noted at the time on social media, a quick scan of the posts across many public pages highlighting the incarceration revealed a world full of grief, hate, bile, revenge, violence, misogyny and almost outright support for the Thero to the vicious, venomous condemnation of everything and everyone else. It was a different universe from commentary and responses in English, over Twitter, celebrating the judgement and supporting Sandya Eknaligoda. A black flag protest had begun on Facebook, with many choosing to change their profile image with a black flag or the image of the Thero. Videos uploaded to Facebook by young men, including young priests, called upon the Sinhalese rise up, fight, take up arms against a grave injustice and insult to the Sasana, Buddhism and the Sinhalese (not necessarily in that order). Even more humbling was the realisation that looking at this organic generation and spread of bile, the anxiety, anger and fear captured therein was deep-rooted and unaddressed by policymakers, or even civil society.

I revisited the issue and the data around a week after, just before the Thero was given bail. My focus was on Sinhala as well as English, looking at Twitter and Facebook. In Sinhala, multiple spellings of the Thero’s name were used to make ensure I captured as much of the public discussion as possible. I discovered 124 Facebook pages highlighting the Thero’s incarceration, generating 105 posts, viewed around 430,000 times. On Facebook, you can also share content and like it, both of which potentially places the original material on the news feeds of friends. It is thus probable that this content reached hundreds of thousands more, at the very least, over just one week. Content ranged from hurt and sadness to more strident calls for all Sinhalese-Buddhists to rise up and fight at a historic moment. Over same time, there were just 13 discrete accounts on Twitter highlighting the Thero. The most engaging post on Facebook was around 187 times more actively liked or shared than the most retweeted (or shared content) on Twitter. Clearly, Facebook, especially in Sinhala, and not Twitter in any language, is the primary vector of political news and information for a young demographic in Sri Lanka.

Like ink blots, each language had its primary audience, and while there was some overlap, much of the content was geared to stoke up or resonate with pre-existing fears. Revealingly, a week after the Thero’s judgement, mainstream news accounts on Facebook had taken over content generation from gossip sites. One leading private TV channel in particular ran a number of videos very clearly and almost completely partial to the Thero, generating tens of thousands of views cumulatively. Thus, while gossip sites are quick to disseminate news and information, in deeply problematic ways, they are also quick to move on. Even over social media, what drives deep-seated communal and religious prejudice seem to be, based on a study of Gnanasara Thero’s brief sojourn in prison and reporting around it on Facebook and Twitter, mainstream media’s accounts or presence. This is a far cry from what our President and politicians often decry as a bunch of racists abusing social media to spread misinformation and hate.

The same patterns are visible around the form and substance of Sinhala and English language content anchored to the Asgiriya’s Thero’s comments on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Interestingly, across both episodes, content in Sinhala by the sangha or featuring the sangha, deeply critical of the Buddha Sasana or a particular thero, generates comparably less views but also attracts, by order of magnitude, far less venom and vicious pushback. There may be a lesson here, or many. There are certainly warning signs for those who aren’t deeply attentive to the fluid contours of popular, public discourse over social media vectors that are today centre and forward in shaping political opinion.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 24 June 2018.

Apples and oranges

“If Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes to power it’s not due his own merits but due to the great betrayal and incompetence of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. My so called influence has no bearing.”

Departing US Ambassador Atul Keshap was in the news last week, associated with comments around Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his bid for Presidency. The substance of whatever this senior diplomat said is not what I am interested in, and in any case, has been unsurprisingly denied by those he met with. It is Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an idea, and Viyathmaga – his political project – as a platform. In recent weeks I have written about my own fears of the man, and the surveillance I was unknowingly subject to for years as a consequence of running afoul of the Rajapaksa regime. Many others have expressed similar sentiments in the media, and some with much greater insight into the man and his militant machinery. It is however his political project I am more interested in, independent of his individual identity and past.

Viyathmaga’s vision and mission, which I’ve read many times, is compelling. In spirit and tone, if not in substance and thrust, it is impossible to be opposed to it because it captures in essence the same vision for the country as the Sirisena manifesto did late 2014. Respecting difference, the value of meritocracy and a democratic credo are all anchored to personal frames of action and spirituality – a slight (calculated) shift from the Sirisena manifesto embracing what animated people in 2015 and plugging it for 2020. It is necessarily silent on everything else, because populism is essentially that – a thin ideology, that in its projection of authenticity opportunistically embraces other cultures, ideas, processes and people in the pursuit of its own goals. Gotabaya Rajapaksa plays an old game, but with some new tricks.

In 2011, Prof. Andrew Wilson coined the term ‘political technologist’, capturing through an examination of Putin’s Russia how through the adroit manipulation of media, including social media, authoritarian power can be strengthened and sustained. The model of containment and control is an interesting one. The use of physical violence ranging from murder and torture to abduction and intimidation is strategic and almost mathematically methodical – aimed at a few, always with plausible deniability. At the same time, the regime gives the public through entertainment unfettered access to a plethora of competing, often confusing content to debate endlessly and be distracted by. The real concerns over governance and democracy are thus limited to a select few, either geographically contained or weakly linked, who cannot gain any real traction for their work amidst an enduring tsunami of likes and shares. Even if episodically able to attract attention, the sheer volume of misinformation and disinformation can very quickly, and relatively easily, drown out critical content.

China’s model – simplistically and often projected as blanket censorship of anything politically inconvenient – we know is anything but. A dissertation by Margaret Earling Roberts called this fascinating framework a mix of fear, friction and flooding. Fear, the most obvious, to control the production and spread of inconvenient truths. Friction, being processes by which through delays in loading times, challenges around access, the requirement to register, or see some unrelated content beforehand (think of all those annoying ads before a YouTube video starts to play, but for much longer and with no real option to skip) critical commentary isn’t censored – it’s just made harder to access. Genius stroke, because human nature is geared to consume the content of least resistance. Finally, flooding, which not unlike Putin’s Russia, gives the public what they want and like the most – entertainment.

Given the relations with Putin and Xi Jinping, and looking at the media output of the JO in general, it would not be unrealistic to think that the some of the advice around regaining power is linked to how technology can be leveraged to channel popular discontent to parochial ends. But while this is conjecture, the data around the JO campaigns and content on social media suggests they are leveraging – consciously or purely by coincidence – dynamics of what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells calls the ‘network society’. When I made a brief presentation of this to some senior policymakers and politicians late last year, anchored to a paper on technology and referenda, the response was revealing. A few minutes devoted to concern, surprise and praise for new thinking around older challenges. The rest of the discussion was around how the existing, ageing, unrepresentative, illiberal, corrupt, failing, frustrating and futile party political architecture could address the risks outlined around authoritarianism’s propensity to weaponise democratic affordances.

In other words, no one in the room got it. The campaigns of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa get it.

Suffice to say that it is possible to see through data in the public domain, how Viyathmaga and Namal Rajapaksa’s media output fare, in relation to what the government through its leaders or constituent political parties put out. By almost any yardstick, the engagement with content generated by the JO today across all social media is by order of magnitude consistently greater, wider and deeper than anything, anyone from government has produced at any time since 2015.

Quite frankly, the interesting study here is not so much how far ahead of government the JO is, but what the data suggests are strategic differences in the political vision and campaigns of Namal and his Uncle. One, aiming to cultivate adulation, admiration and adoration for harvesting a decade or two hence. The other, networking with high net worth, influential individuals, framing, projecting and producing content with a more immediate, tangible political goal. The two networks are fluid and overlap, but also in demographics, reach and engagement, diverge. The real contest, as other political analysts have hinted at, is not so much what comes after yahapalanaya, but what comes after what will most likely replace it.

Always up-front with what I feel and think around those I like, I wrote a while ago to someone who spoke at one of Gotabaya’s events. Part of the response I received, quoted above, tells its own story. The Rajapaksa’s offer a vision that, ironically, appeals most now to those who voted in this government in 2015. Unmet promises fobbed off by those in power, indignity, insensitivity, enduring economic hardship, existentialist fears around faith, future and identity and more, from all parts of the country, have now metastasised into active, sustained and importantly, entirely organic engagement with criticism of government, framed by the JO, involving millions.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, the response isn’t technological in the main.

Those who feel marginalised, unheard, disappointed, disconnected and anxious need to see, hear and importantly feel they have a way to communicate their grievances. This requires regular, physical contact and consultation. Not Facebook updates about Vision 2025. Photos on social media soon after 10th February revealed that the SLPP had a booklet distributed amongst its elected officials across all the LG bodies around how to work towards 2020. I haven’t seen what is in it, but the intent is clear. It is unclear what if anything the government has by way of a similar, bottom-up, strategic, comprehensive and cohesive vision that connects it with the people.

Instead, we have those in government who can’t even grasp the disconnect, and worse, honestly believe it can be solved by what has been done before.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 June 2018.

Missed opportunities

I was around 25 when the ceasefire agreement by the United National Front government, with Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM, was freshly inked. Some of the most visible checkpoints in Colombo, for the first time in my life, were removed. I was part of a group of journalists who were the first to go up North on the newly re-opened A9, to meet with the LTTE, journalists in the North – including some of the first on the ground to use digital video and photography to document inconvenient truths – as well as activists in the region. Our minibus was regularly checked by young boys, facial hair just barely evident, cocking T-56s, and absolutely fascinated with the workings of the CD player. I remember the Omanthai checkpoints, the documentation, the lines, the questions and no-man’s land, overseen by the ICRC. I remember the LTTE police and their outfits, the strict speed limits, their constitution for Eelam in printed form (a fascinating document to read) and in later years, the Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi, the famous bakery run by LTTE cadre who churned out the most amazing maalu paan. The structurally flawed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was entrusted with an impossible task, and we often met and talked with them around what didn’t make it to public reports. Up in Jaffna, where there was less than a handful of hotels to stay in, we booked rooms in a shelled out city, framed by topless Palmyrah trees and riddled with bullet holes of varying calibre, spread and depth, like a surreal lunar landscape, vertically presented. I visited the North around sixteen to twenty times from 2002 to 2005. Each trip had regular stops, but each was also marked by incident or accident, some fortuitous, some not, all memorable. I remember speaking to suicide cadres, all women, with journalists from Nepal and other South Asian countries trying to grasp – unsuccessfully of course – what drove them to do what they did. The voices against the LTTE amongst Tamil journalists were present and growing, but fearful and suppressed. The merits of Tamil nationalism and the LTTE’s violent vision was conflated in public, and it was only in hushed tones and in corner of halls or even just outside our van that dissent, frustration, fear and anger against ‘the boys’ was expressed – often with an appeal for nuanced reporting that didn’t colour everyone with the same brush.

In the nearly twenty times I took the A9 to the North and travelled the length and breadth of the country during 2002 to 2005, the challenge for those who undertook the journey from the media was around how best to frame so many stories that were untold, and how hard it was to tell them. These were the stories behind the sensationalism, the headlines, the press releases, the public posturing and the political pronouncements. Many of them remain untold. Many could and should have been captured and told at the time.

Sadly, they were not.

Sixteen years is a long time, but there is one dominant impression that’s stuck with me. The UNF government wasn’t interested in or capable of communicating anything related to the ceasefire process in a coherent, coordinated and strategic manner. The peace dividend, as it was then framed and projected, was seen as a self-evident project or prize, for which the public across Sri Lanka would automatically be thankful for. This thinking also projected electoral gains and success into the future as a consequence of this belief that the public was with the government. The PM, ever the technocrat, much younger and perhaps more idealistic at the time, dealing with a President who was then very different to what she is, says and does in retirement today, was so deeply frustrating not because what he wanted to do didn’t make sense, or was unworthy of pursuing. He was just not interested in public, political communication. From the Buddhist clergy to the JVP, from populist nationalism within Sri Lanka to the lunatic fringe in the diasporas from both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, spoilers had a field day in framing the agenda. What we heard, saw and experienced on the ground rarely made it to mainstream media aside from the entirely accidental, episodic or sporadic. What happened was inevitable – the partisan, parochial overtook compelling human interest stories, with the violations of and violence around the CFA overwhelming reportage. So much more could have been done by government to capture, frame and project more aspirations, fears, and even the root causes of anger, hurt, resentment and fear.

It just wasn’t.

If any of this is familiar to some, it is not because the country today is what it was then. Much has changed. And yet, it is because ironically, we again have a government which has lost the plot when it comes to political communication. Politically, there is a rise of networked power married to populism’s resurgence by appealing to personal frames of hope and anxiety in the South. There is now a young, important demographic that doesn’t vote based on some inherited, lifelong party political allegiance blind to everything else. In an age where the most compelling story wins hearts and minds, the government doesn’t even know how to tell one. The advent of social media brings the ability to measure through data, and with greater frequency and more granularity, what was during the CFA left to intuition and more traditional public or private polls. Suffice to say that even a cursory study of data reveals that the JO is in a different league. None of this can be easily projected into electoral demise or success, but offer clear indications, especially around and after the results of the local government election in February, around what voters think, see and want. The government remains impervious to all this. Perhaps heartening for some, what the UNP does, promises or says barely registers as a blip across leading social media platforms, week after week, in the midst of content which by political design or entirely organically, is negative, angry, violent, anxious, fearful, oppositional, insular, xenophobic, suspicious, callously dismissive, impatient and deeply disillusioned.

The demise of the CFA was not monocausal. The demise of yahapalanaya is not because of a single person, party or process. But to me, what tragically links both is a person and a party so utterly convinced they have a grasp on affairs, they are blind to see they emphatically do not. The end to all this, I fear, is all too familiar, and indeed, near.

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Published first in The Sunday Island, 10 June 2018.

Omphalos Syndrome

You are my creator,
But I am your master…
Mary Shelley (1818)

Given the trend of tirades, it is not unreasonable to expect that President Sirisena will wake up one of these days and disclaim everything he did and said in 2015. The change maker is clearly out, though the charlatan arguably never left. The hope around and pegged to him is long gone. There is, short of a miracle, nothing progressive that he was the face of, and championed, when first seeking office that will now come to pass. This includes, above all else, a new constitution. There is an increasing manic tinge, of someone increasingly unhinged, that colours his pronouncements. A video last week of him disavowing any knowledge around actions he clearly and very publicly took credit just after coming to office went viral, which in this case, would have added to his insecurities about social media. From the titan who took on a terrible regime, he is now greatly reduced – a moral, political, ethical and personal deflation that is almost entirely self-inflicted. President Sirisena is now a caricature of himself, a necessary evil to engage with but entirely peripheral as a person. There is no pleasure in seeing this. What a monumental fall from the person we emphatically cheered on, hoarse, tired and in a general state of sheer disbelief, a little over three years ago.

In his defence, the lofty garb of idealism that once adorned him wasn’t bespoke. The political project to have him run for Presidency was strictly utilitarian based on a simple equation around who could win against Mahinda Rajapaksa at a time when he was, constitutionally, set to rule for life. The selection of Sirisena wasn’t based on anything remotely Presidential in him. He wasn’t an idiot, but he was useful. An intended outcome was needed, and he was the best vessel. Sirisena as a Presidential mendicant had what Fonseka as Presidential aspirant, in 2010, did not – the element of surprise and public appeal, not arising from any great service or intellect, but as a consequence of a lifetime of political mediocrity singularly defined by loyalty to the SLFP. All bets in, the gamble paid off, perhaps surprising those now in power more than those who were ousted.

But now the puppet has found it can walk and talk, and occasionally, think. With new life, unsurprisingly, comes anxiety and fear, of losing what is enjoyed, a future without the guarantee of adulation and adoration, the satisfaction of granting an audience, and being, de facto, the key protagonist of any script on the political stage. Hence the risible ricocheting of late, from one mad outburst to another, striving to appeal to constituencies who harbour no regard or love for him, posturing as saviour to things he was never asked to protect much less promote, and parading as a moraliser in chief.  The chutzpah of yahapalanaya’s chief custodian to deform, decry, and destroy the ideals he was entrusted with is only matched by a catastrophic selfishness, which is now self-evident. All this is compounded by the odious curse of the office he holds and its power to attract charlatans as advisors and gatekeepers, poisoning the incumbent with only what he wants to hear, instead of what he needs or has to.

What have we lost? A ripe moment for change, and for the better. What the government asks us to celebrate – RTI, the OMP, an active, strong Human Rights Commission, significant price reductions in the cost of essential medicines – are policies they have actively pursued, fought for, and implemented. These are not insignificant. Though it may be on account of an imprecise translation of the Sinhala original, English news media reported last week that the President had “restored the rule of law, strengthened democratic institutions and created a free judiciary and media in the last three years”.  This formulation, placing himself and his munificence centre and forward, is revealing. It is possible to clampdown and censor an independent media. It is possible to eviscerate an independent judiciary. It is possible to undermine democratic institutions. It is possible to blatantly disregard and violently deny the Rule of Law. Gotabaya Rajapakse, with the impunity afforded as a consequence of an elder brother as President, did all this and more. But the basis of democratic governance is that all these elements are present and vested in the people, independent of incumbents in power. They are constitutionally enshrined, and are thus inviolable protections or affordances citizens enjoy. It is not for the President to bestow them to us. And for a President who claims to have restored a free media, it is mind-boggling how in the same speech the President talks of control, containment and essentially, censorship – entirely in line with steps taken by the President’s Office to block websites earlier this year. Tellingly, Sirisena’s tacit justification of this is by asserting he has no problem with websites that do “the correct thing” and “provide good entertainment to the people”. These are subjective measures, selfishly exercised.

Question is, now what. President Sirisena is an experiment which has outgrown its laboratory, with unintended consequences now overwhelming and undermining promising, even miraculous, early results. The mutation is fast growing, and latching on to what slouches towards centres of power, with designs of reclamation. Far worse, electorally speaking and over the longer term, is the vastly diminished enthusiasm around what was first produced, promoted and promised by the man and his mission. Millions who voted for a culture of politics that was in substance and process different to what was voted out, are entreated to more of the same. It is unclear whether the full violence of this is recognised by those in power.

President Sirisena has lost control of the necessary narrative that binds government to its people, which he seeks to hide through greater volume. The shriller and more frequent the assertions of self-importance, the greater the assurance the man and the project he was entrusted with, has failed. Yahapalanaya’s glow today is not one of or generated by the relief, joy and hope of 2015, but the embers of that dream, crashed and burnt. Newsreel footage of the Hindenburg, crashing to the ground in 1937, come to mind and is not an inappropriate metaphor.

We wanted a saviour. We gave life to a Frankenstein.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 3 June 2018.