The President at the UN

The version of the English speech released by the PMD this article is based on has now been replaced. The original version, accessed via Google Cache, can be downloaded from here. The current version can be accessed here

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The speech by President Sirisena to the 71st Session of the United Nations in New York last week was rather strange. Reading the official version in English released by the President’s Media Division, I wondered if it was just a synopsis or a bad translation. Turned out to be the latter. The speech in Sinhala, clearly the original version, flows better and is less disjointed. Either out of incompetence or as a deliberate strategy, there are revealing divergences of emphasis between each version of the speech. In Sinhala, there is a clear stress on the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Sri Lanka that prefaces the President’s take on reconciliation. A bias towards the home-grown and endogenous underpins the entire speech, from political ideology and a focus on social democracy to all political reform. This is in line with the President’s political outlook. In July this year, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister had to both hastily and rather unconvincingly clarify that the President’s submission opposing foreign judges in any accountability mechanism as part of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process was a ‘personal opinion’. These tensions are glossed over in the official English version of the speech, which simply states “The government is totally committed to reconciliation process to establish lasting peace”.

To be fair, I would really hate to be the official translator of the President’s speeches in Sinhala to English, or any other language. President Sirisena’s Sinhala is strong, rich, nuanced and incisive. Meticulously-crafted around cadence and content, a diplomatic and at times even outwardly benevolent expression masks what is a brutally clear message around domestic and foreign policy issues very often at odds with the rest of government, the Foreign Minister’s pronouncements and independent of their personal relationship, the political outlook of the PM. The challenge is how to then appreciate the import of a speech by the President, in the complex, shifting political terrain of a coalition government. The speech at the UN last week is a case in point. In Sinhala, it is both a proud refutation of invasive foreign involvement (as perceived by the President), and at the same time, a recognition of and a humble plea for the international community’s support in Sri Lanka’s post-war reform and development. In English, though the speech reads very badly, it is clearly without the emphasis around Sri Lanka’s resistance towards international mechanisms around accountability, inextricably entwined in our tryst with reconciliation. Also in English, there is an emphasis on ‘modern technology’ to ‘arm a new generation with knowledge’. In Sinhala, the repeated focus is on an enlightened country, forging its place on a world arena by force of its learning, outlook and intellect. There is no comparable emphasis on technology, perhaps because in Sinhala, the President is often more backward looking – regularly harking back to archaic history and Sinhala ancients, even as he calls for progress and patience. This tension between translation in English and original in Sinhala reflects what is a growing problem in governance around competing parochialisms. Political appointees of the President perceive political appointees of the PM as their enemies, and independent of any direct order or edict, block, manoeuvre and curry favour with scant regard for actual policy development, implementation or reform. This results in scenarios very far removed from the roseate picture of Sri Lanka painted at the UN. From the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to the actual execution of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), things are going awry – with those in charge incredibly inexperienced, badly selected, without any official anchor or struggling against the constant, occasionally vicious pushback from those appointed by a competing political authority.

Amongst a myriad of other strong undercurrents, the President vs. PM, FM vs. President, MP vs. MP, Government vs. JO, Sirisena vs. Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka vs. Kamal Gunaratne is stymieing progress, and at an increasing pace. Key political actors know this – hence even in the President’s speech at the UN in Sinhala, the repeated call for patience from the international community and indeed, also aimed at a more domestic audience. The problem here is around the management of expectations. Those who voted in the President, and in August last year, voted in this government, are of the ‘new generation’ the President referred to. It is a generation impatient with delays, inconsiderate of the significant challenges around systemic reform and informed by thumb-swipes on palm held devices, participate through thumbs-up icons and shift political loyalties through keypress before ballot. The President’s reference to the importance of ‘authentic thinkings (sic) and visions’ is unlikely to appeal to and address a generation that by default is less interested in high-flown Sinhala than it is in yahapalanaya’s delivery of promises around jobs, economic prosperity, equal opportunity, access to markets and greater freedom of expression and association. Now that’s not happening, and the unrest is growing. And this disconnect between what the President says, does and inspires is worrying. Take for instance his appointment of Nimal Bopage as Secretary to the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms & Mass Media. One of the first things Bopage did was to issue an edict to all the media saying they could face consequences if they used the term ‘joint opposition’. More recently, he went on record saying that the broadcast of ‘Homeland’ on state television was harmful to children and culture. The President’s response to Enrique’s concert are well-known. A lorry driver who filmed the President’s helicopter landing with his mobile phone was recently arrested. Let that sink in. Is this the behaviour of a confident government really in tune with the new generation, modern technology and is as forward looking as it often claims to be? Is this how we are going to ascend to the world stage?

The UN provides a forum for global leaders to place their country on a map. There is limited time, and the speeches are as much about posturing for domestic constituencies as they are about alignments with one or the other power blocs in the international community. This is why the differences in emphasis between the translation and original matter regarding the President’s speech. The English, dry, banal even, is limp, allowing it to be used to pushed whatever opportunistic agenda, liaison, agreement or negotiation the government or President wants for whatever reason. The Sinhala is more revealing, suggesting more clearly the parameters of engagement, the sources of legitimacy and the underpinnings of policy. For all his modernity when read in English especially when compared to his predecessor, President Sirisena remains essentially politically conservative and conventional in outlook when critically examined in Sinhala.

The UN last week deserved a better translation. In fact, so do we.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 25 September 2016.

Whither the new constitution?

“Sri Lanka could be the first country to get views expressed on social media (to contribute to) drafting a new constitution. We want to seek the view and opinions of young people. Participate in this process.”

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, January 2016

The PM’s assertion earlier this year provides a good frame to appreciate journalist Dharisha Bastians’ tweets on what Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, one of those leading the drafting of Sri Lanka’s new constitution, had noted at a presentation held at the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) recently. Several interesting points are recorded. Dr. Wickramaratne notes that the constitution being drafted is the best under the circumstances (emphasis mine). A constitution that seeks and obtains the consent of the people through plebiscite, has according to him, the best chance of being a lasting one. Noting that compromise is essential and that the new constitution needs to be rights-based, Dr. Wickramaratne avers that though parts of the constitution drafting process will not be made public for fear of adversely affecting internal negotiations, a new constitution cannot be drafted in secret forever and that public debate and involvement is important.

While appreciating the gargantuan difficulty of drafting a constitution in what is a divisive, parochial and generally awful political culture in Sri Lanka, Dr. Wickramaratne’s assertions at ONUR require urgent and more careful consideration. For political parties, a referendum is a single-issue process, unlike an election campaign, which is anchored to multiple issues competing for interest and space. This can be both positive and negative. The single issue campaign is more easily managed. It lends itself to the creation of compelling soundbites, taglines and advertising, allowing for a multi-media, multi-lingual campaign to be centred around a key idea, phrase or question. On the other hand, the single-question agenda allows for a lot of misinformation and propaganda to take seed. A Yes or No campaign may resort to a partial reading of facts, spurious polling and data, and seek to push through in a referendum what may never get popular support in an election campaign. Given the political stakes usually involved in a referendum, both the Yes and No camps are often forced to dilute complex options and issues into short, neatly packaged media that stands the highest chance of going viral – or in other words, being distributed amongst the widest spectrum of audiences within electorates that are splintered by media consumption patterns and other determinants, including language, age, geographic location and identity

In light of this, what’s sorely lacking in Sri Lanka today is an official communications plan to positively and in a progressive manner engage the public around tenets of the new constitution. While Dr. Wickramaratne and others drafting the constitution may think such a plan is entirely distinct from hard negotiations around substance, it is in fact central to the process of drafting and ultimate legitimacy. The absence of such a plan risks everything that is negotiated behind closed doors. The problem is that our political leadership, and those involved in the process, perhaps out of ignorance but more likely driven by partisan, parochial interests, don’t see it this way. And the few who do, without the backing of political leadership, remain silent. Dr. Wickramaratne’s assertion that the constitution will be the best under the circumstances seeks to instil confidence, but is instead a warning. Though educated guesses can be made, we are not explicitly told what the trying circumstances are. Without context, we are in effect told to trust Dr. Wickramaratne and a few others (almost all men) to draft the best possible constitution. While it is in no way a reflection of his own sincerity and indefatigable efforts over decades towards constitutional reform, Dr. Wickramaratne ignores what endures as a significant, and indeed, growing trust deficit between citizens and government. This government is no different to those in the past – with the gap between promise and delivery widening after coming into office. Yahapalanaya’s sheen is long gone, and its promise of radical reform, largely dimmed. To fully trust then a small group of individuals, negotiating in secret, making compromises on our behalf without our knowledge or consent, acting largely on the interests of political parties only interested in retaining as much power as they can, to meaningfully re-engineer our social and political compact with the State is, in the fullest sense of the word, incredible.

There is also the challenge around sequencing. Dr. Wickramaratne seems to believe that it is only at a referendum that citizens can vote in, or opt to reject, a new constitution. This is constitution as end-product, not as on-going conversation or as a document co-authored with the trust of citizens it will enshrine the aspirations of. Constitution as end-product, projected only at a referendum to a public which has, to date, close to zero appreciation of content, risks many things. For starters, the terrain of contestation is likely to be defined by the ever-charismatic Mahinda Rajapaksa, his family and the JO more generally. If the government allows (and sadly, all indications suggest it will) the old guard to first and strongly define how the new constitution is perceived, proponents of it, even as they fervently combat fantastic claims made by the Rajapaksa’s and allied groups, risk amplifying the very assertions that will cement a negative opinion.

And here we run into the tension, also noted by Dr. Wickramaratne, between private negotiations and public scrutiny, between necessary compromise only possible between political elites, and a broader, deeper discussion with citizens around contentious issues. Engaging the public over some of the most contentious issues is counter-intuitive for those involved in complex negotiations – the risk is perceived to be too great. The risk however of being too secretive are greater. Especially in an age of virtually untraceable leaks, parties out of frustration or self-interest can dump entire conversations and blueprints online, which can strengthen their position or ensure that no one else gets what they wanted. Positional bargaining often succeeds best when done in secret, where power dynamics operate independently of constituency awareness or endorsement. Political leaders can say their constituencies want or will never accept something, without ever having to prove this. Opening up the process can help democratise the making a constitution, before it is finalised. It is impossible to design a constitution that equally and adequately responds to twenty-one million citizens. It is however entirely possible to create strategic, coherent and islandwide structures to engage citizens in talking about a new constitution, with the emphasis being on participation and dialogue, assuring everyone who has an opinion that they can voice it, in a free and fair manner. This takes time, effort and money. And yet, the government is in a rush, isn’t putting half the effort it should, and gifts itself luxury SUVs. To hell then with any meaningful process of public consultations around the new constitution.

What now can be done? A political communications campaign leading up to the referendum needs to be simple, smart and strategic – not confusing total spend for influence, not ignoring the power and reach of traditional media when emphasising new media, proactively capturing space, innovatively responding to rumour and propaganda, agile in intent, appealing to the heart and at the same time, anchoring key messages to facts. Will this be done by government? I suspect not. The problem is not Dr. Wickramaratne. It is the obduracy of those he answers to.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 18 September 2016

Peace and technology

On Saturday, I gave a short presentation in Zurich on some ideas and challenges related to peacebuilding, a term used and abused a great deal. In Sri Lanka, peacebuilding is for most immediately associated with an industry of actors engaged in conflict resolution or transformation initiatives – locally, regionally or nationally. It’s an association that’s problematic, since for many years –not entirely without merit but often with vindictive, parochial or partisan intent that goes far beyond constructive criticism –  media and mainstream politics have badgered civil society individuals and collectives engaged in this pursuit. On the face of it, searching for and strengthening peace, not unlike a cure for cancer, isn’t something that can be publicly or vehemently opposed. But opposition it does generate, and does so by how peace is defined, communicated and defended. In 2007, I published a column in a mainstream newspaper that clearly noted my opposition to the war, and the despotic, illiberal government of the day. The response, as expected, was deeply divided – readers loved it or hated it, and there was little middle ground. Therein lies the challenge of peacebuilding writ large – it is easy to convince those who are already sold on the idea, but much harder, if not downright impossible to engage those who believe in a war as a means to an end, or the idea that the end (a sort of peace) justifies the means.

My interest in all this goes back to my Masters in University where I studied technology and conflict resolution, but also predates it, when as an undergraduate student in Delhi in the late 90’s, I witnessed the opening up on India’s economy and with it, the advent of the Internet and computing. Back then, I enjoyed better connectivity in Ratmalana than in Delhi. As various computing qualifications (son, who knows AutoCAD or daughter, who knows WordPerfect and Dbase III Plus) found their way into marriage proposals published in the newspapers, I wondered – what impact would technology have on social and political relations, in India and more broadly, in South Asia? This was a time of extremely heightened tensions between India and Pakistan on account of Kashmir, and I wondered what impact communications in the hands of citizens, instead of just propaganda promoted by governments, would have on violent conflict. This was before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and every single thing taken for granted on social media today. It was before in fact the term social media was ever defined or used, and when the only mobile phones around were in fact mobile gyms for strong men. It was when email was basically Yahoo! with around 2Mb per account, before Gmail, when seeking out A/S/L on ICQ was still a thing and MSN Messenger was ‘new’. It was at a time when a wonderful cacophony of noise and blinking lights prefaced connecting to the Internet, and indeed, a year before Google was incorporated as a company. I wondered then, as I continue to do now, what impact would technology have for peacebuilding, and by extension, how would it be used to promote, justify and indeed, hide the cost of war?

Responses to my column in 2007 revealed the extent to which media and communications were in Sri Lanka, already inextricably entwined with the promotion of war. With the fascism of the LTTE and the authoritarianism of government working in tandem, albeit towards very different ends, disinformation campaigns, propaganda and the open, uncontested promotion of incredible claims had already consumed the average citizens through their daily media diet. Lies, repeated for long enough, become indistinguishable from the truth. Through control, censorship and containment – often through violence – reality was constructed, and those who believed in either the narrative of the LTTE or the government could not engage with any conflicting viewpoint or critical questioning. Though we enjoy a very different socio-political context today and even sans the LTTE, the challenge around creating, communicating and sustaining a just peace remains. Why else would there be such hostility around the setting up on the Office for Missing Persons? Why else would there be such violence around the term accountability, even before it is fleshed out? Why else do so many in Sri Lanka remain ignorant of what happened in Nandikadal? Why else are Southern ‘heroes’ so markedly different then and alien to those in the North? Despotic governments, and non-state actors like ISIS are today the most agile, powerful agents in shaping news and information to suit their ends. I’ve witnessed what was the early promise of and potential for emancipation, and architectures of direct, or more responsive democracy, usurped by partisan political interests and increasingly by commercial profit. Only last week, the Editor of one of Norway’s oldest and best known newspapers said he feared Facebook, for the absolute control it had in deleting and blocking content first published in print.  To even talk about the potential of technology for peacebuilding requires a sober assessment of just how much it has failed, and indeed, contributed towards the normalisation of violence, the justification of wars and in Sri Lanka, the premeditated erasure of an inconvenient, recent past.

I continue to have hope. The headlines, news feeds and updates overwhelmingly focus on what’s wrong or going very wrong. There is much that is being done right, in Sri Lanka and beyond. Despite all the violent pushback online and vicious trolling, GLBTIQ communities, women, identity groups that are for whatever reason on the margins of society and politics, adolescent aspirations, small social movements, individuals who bear witness, conversations around race and privilege, information leaks in the public interest, real time updates from locations where no mainstream media has ever been to or will, perspectives that are unusual, voices not usually heard – all this and more is possible now, without permission or cost, for even the illiterate, because of technology. From the information scarcity of just a few years ago we now have a crisis of choice when dealing with a news glut, and peace as a result, engaged with today, is a contested, complex virtual construct as much as it is something that we seek to establish in the real world.

It’s an interesting time to work in this domain. I find myself often at the intersection of politics, media, social change, memorialisation and civic media, all the while trying to imagine (new, innovative, sustainable) ways to connect technology to strengthen, organically, what are essentially fragile conversations, connections or communications.  I am often angered and frustrated by what I have to deal with, but the work is never uninteresting. And while I keep abreast with technology as much as, if not more than I keep abreast with political developments, what drives me is an interest in rights, ethics and dignity. The first requires me to fight for the voice of those I disagree vehemently with in online and other fora.  The second checks my own privilege, and encourages me to engage and reflect in a manner that is hard on ideas, yet gentle on interlocutors. The third is what for me technology, in the domain of peacebuilding, can bring about, to those who have often suffered the most from systemic discrimination. Who knows what the next five or ten years will bring by way of technologies that will shape us. For over fourteen years, I have been driven by an interest in helping the work and ideas of better, far brighter minds in politics, advocacy, activism and academia take root, often in contexts extremely adverse to what is being discussed or proposed. There is no recipe for success here, no panacea. But in technology is the power to transform the worst of our nature.

That interests and inspires me.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 September 2016.

Some thoughts on ‘Close to the Bone’

Close to the Bone’, billed as a theatrical collaboration between Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke and Isuru Kumarasinghe, was part of Colomboscope 2016 and held at the Presidential Suite, Cinnamon Lakeside. Almost exactly three years ago, Welandawe-Prematilleke directed ‘Paraya’, also an immersive theatre experience held as part of that year’s Colomboscope, albeit in a markedly different, much more dilapidated yet far more expansive venue. ‘Paraya’ was compelling. As with ‘Close to the Bone’, there was an element of technology involved – a blog called ‘The National Happiness Authority’, created for and anchored to the production, provided details of the world in which the production was set. It’s still there online, providing a glimpse into what was a well-researched, immersive production critiquing a country post-war, censorship, militarisation and at the time, a serious democratic deficit. As Gehan Gunatilleke in his review of the production noted,

“The triumph of ‘Paraya’ was its ability to immerse us in the milieu and expose us for our complicity. The natural reaction to the production—exalting it in the abstract as a brilliant political critique—may in fact betray us further… The story of ‘Paraya’ does not end when the lights go out and the apprehensive applause begins. It continues today with our every act of blind compliance.”

Clearly, a hard act to follow. ‘Close to the Bone’ continues Welandawe-Prematilleke’s interest in immersive theatre, which in a country only ever interested in theatre at the Wendt, cannot be commended highly enough. In its thematic underpinnings and plot, the production also mirrored issues highlighted in ‘Better Than Ever Before’ staged at the British Council in July, also written and performed by Welandawe-Prematilleke. My interest in going to see ‘Close to the Bone’ was in part to see how for Welandawe-Prematilleke, what is clearly an enduring interest in interrogating class, choice and urban development manifested itself in a new work. ‘Better than Ever Before’ was an utter fiasco. Would this production be any better?

Intent matters. Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke’s choice of subject, style of theatre, location and characters suggest they wanted us – all of a certain class, social background and privilege – to be more conscious of ourselves, our choices, and the attendant, thinly veiled yet very real violence we architect, countenance and go on to justify, at the end of each production. The production sought to unsettle and reveal not just by was done and said overtly, but also by insights into what each character was thinking at a given point of time, independent of what they were doing, or saying openly. This was done through technology, and the issue here is that what was so central to the experience of the play, was so ill-thought through.

First, the good. The syncing of internal thoughts with what the characters said out aloud was sheer brilliance, when it worked. The production’s Facebook page gives an insight into how this was achieved, and deserves recognition as something that was really inspired and if I am not wrong, done for the first time in Sri Lanka. Having access to the thoughts of characters added depth and texture, and while the production could be enjoyed without this added input, having it meant a deeper, more granular understanding of why a character did or said something. The ambient sounds and music also added to atmosphere, creating tension or setting up a scene even as the actors rushed from place to place. But what was a great idea in the main, simply failed too many times. The technical challenges were not insurmountable. The placement of routers was inappropriate. Bridge routers could have been used to boost the signal to the periphery, where the signal simply didn’t extend to. The model of routers used and the Wi-Fi standard they were based on simply could not cope with the number of users in the location. What all this resulted in was an experience that placed many of us at a disadvantage on multiple levels – having to fiddle around with our phones in the middle of the production, having to deal with sudden and recurrent signal loss, the sudden switching of sound streams, corrupted audio and sometimes a loss of synchronisation between live action and internal monologue. Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke are not required to know advanced wireless networking. But between them, they certainly have ready access to a wider community who would have freely helped with knowledge and equipment to make the technology far more resilient to the demands of the production. However, the inability or unwillingness of the directors and producers to ensure that overall, technology matched the demands of plot, pace and place, unfavourably impacted the experience of the play, which was a real pity.

A central reason why the technology failed so badly brings me to the second most frustrating aspect of the production – the numbers in the audience. The Presidential Suite at Cinnamon Lakeside was clearly never designed with an immersive theatrical production in mind. Given the layout and architecture of the space, it is unfathomable why Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke decided to accommodate, for each production, forty people as audience, plus production crew and the four actors, bringing in total those in a rather confined space closer to fifty. The technology failed and the very essence of immersive theatre failed because there were too many people. Characters often quickly disappeared into a sea of bodies. They couldn’t be followed. They couldn’t be observed. The concentration of people overwhelmed the routers. Following a character out of the suite and back in resulted in the complete loss of signal. Action in certain spaces could only accommodate at most four or five, and there were often three or four times that number all attempting to get a good vantage point, before giving up and by extension, losing out on key moments. Immersive theatre requires intimacy, and if exploration is explicitly billed as part of what the audience is actively encouraged to do, the numbers each night killed it. It is also unclear if Kumarasinghe, Welandawe-Prematilleke and the others in the play took the journey as an audience member, to understand how we would see, follow and interact with the performance. In locating key moments in places where, given numbers, no one really had clear access to, much of the play was lost – a case in point being the moment Kusal (the character played by Welandawe-Prematilleke) hid a bloodied garment under a bed, which a friend just a few feet away and from just a slightly different perspective completely missed. I bent down and examined the garment soon after Kusal left the room in a rush and everyone rushed after him. More should have got that chance, after seeing what I did. The production note averred that “if you do not move, you will not see the play”. While true, the fact was that even if you wanted to move, you often could not. This was not a failure of space or location – it was a failure of design and imagination. Perhaps Kumarasinghe and Welandawe-Prematilleke wanted to make as much money as possible to cover production costs, or they just didn’t think about how the excessive numbers would impact the production. Either way, as immersive theatre goes, ‘Close to the Bone’ failed spectacularly.

There were other ill-thought out aspects. In ‘Paraya’, the characters the audience could choose to follow were present from the start. In ‘Close to the Bone’, forty people had on screen four choices, but at the start of the production and for a good few minutes into it, only two characters in front of them. As a loose analogy, there is in computing a phrase called the ‘tyranny of the default’, to explain why when presented with a pre-selected option on-screen, most users will never choose another. When all of the audience were at first only presented with two characters – Kusal or Tania (played by Thanuja Jayawardene) – very few opted to switch to Yasodha (Subha Wijesiriwardene) or Sanchia (Tehani Chitty), after they appeared. What this also meant was that those tuned into Kusal or Tania’s audio streams experienced the worst network glitches. Furthermore, on each night’s second cycle, most who followed either Kusal would have opted to follow Tania, and vice-versa, instead of switching to perhaps equally if not more interesting narratives contained in the characters of Yasodha and Sanchia. It is impossible to fathom whether the production’s structural bias towards two characters out of four was deliberate or inadvertent, but it did, for me, negatively impact the experience of the play.

And here we get into plot. The production had a clear focus on class and high-rise living, but mediated through lines which often risked caricature. Unlike the degree of research which had gone into ‘Paraya’, there was little understanding around the complex, varied and mutable politics and optics of post-war urban development in Colombo. The dialogue was often painfully contrived especially when characters expressed opinions related to choice, lifestyle, location or privilege, intended to reflect insecurities of urban, middle-class society. The plot builds up tension towards a violent denouement, but as was experienced, frustrating to engage with given how much of it was lost or partially encountered because of mercurial technology and over-crowding. It was hard to determine with any certainty the intent of Welandawe-Prematilleke or Kumarasinghe. What may have for them and the actors been a clear critique that was well communicated, for the audience was opaque, scattered and distant. All four characters were clearly interesting in their own way, with their personal histories inextricably entwined through blood ties, lust, love, friendship, shared insecurities or some heady combination of all this. It was no small feat to think of four interweaving stories all coming to a climax in the course of a single evening. And yet, so much of texture present perhaps in the script was largely lost to an audience struggling with technology and often only on the margins of what was being acted out, outside the dining room, living room and balcony.

And finally, a word about acting. All four actors are well-seasoned and familiar with the kind of theatre they engaged in, which helped. Welandawe-Prematilleke, after a string of dreadful productions and performances at the British Council, was back to form and rendered Kusal very well – a man often with no (audible) conscience, vacillating from self-pity and loathing to braggadocio and false courage – as a friend observed, like a chained elephant straining to break free. Jayawardene, as Tania, admirably played Kusal’s wife – a woman clearly rather unhinged and (willing?) hostage to her circumstances, but holding it together for the sake of appearances. Both Chitty’s and Wijesiriwardene’s characters added texture to a play clearly centred around Kusal and Tania. Either through choice of casting or through interpretation, Wijesiriwardene’s character – as I experienced it – often approximated what the actor is and sounds like in real life, and was as a result far less engaging that Chitty, who played out her role, and an interesting past with Kusal, with just the right tension. However, this observation is more to do with the nature of immersive theatre, where one can never fully appreciate all the characters equally in just one evening. Some who followed Yasodha said they encountered a complex, layered character that was well drawn out, which makes me regret I didn’t go for more than one night of the production.

From a production by Welandawe-Prematilleke, much is always expected, for which he has only himself to blame. Sadly, ‘Close to the Bone’ failed as a complete theatre experience. A few elements that worked occasionally, and actors who were good enough, do not a memorable theatre experience make. My significant disappointment with this production is that with a bit more effort Welandawe-Prematilleke’s idea, which was clearly a great one, could have survived into a production that was good, if not great itself. This didn’t happen, and it is our loss as much as it is his. Gunatilleke’s take on ‘Paraya’ was that the play sucked us in, and even as we complimented it, what we were really doing was to acknowledge our complicity in what it critiqued. ‘Close to the Bone’ inspired discussions around motivation, location and history, but overwhelmingly in the context of confusion and frustration around what was missed, could have been done better, failed, was unseen or unheard. Texture, acting, plot and the politics of place even were largely lost, save for a few who were out of sheer luck, at the right time, at the right place, and with a functional audio stream. But are brief glimpses of brilliance and insight enough to rescue a production? Is good acting enough to overcome technological failure? Is a director’s original vision enough to excuse poor execution? Does the shallowness of characters reveal a lack of research, or that character’s own lack of depth? Do we forgive failures of planning by way of supporting experimental theatre, or do we call it out, noting that theatre, especially when ticketed, has a responsibility to an audience to deliver the best possible performance? ‘Close to the Bone’ wanted to critique and help reflect. It largely failed. But the questions it raised, perhaps not just the ones it intended to, resonate. Perhaps that is why it will be remembered – as what could have been, and should have been, instead of what was.

‘Paraya’ was a template of what we should and need to see more of. We now have a  production that Welandawe-Prematilleke must not return to, and can learn much from. Perhaps not a bad thing to have these markers so early on in the life of a young director, of whom much is still expected in the future.

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First published on Groundviews.

Flipside of smart cities

My column last week touched on the extremely problematic Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Sri Lanka and a well-known Chinese telecommunications company, known to have sold sophisticated surveillance equipment to the Rajapaksa regime. Despite disturbing recent revelations in the mainstream media that have gone unquestioned in Parliament, a high-profile visit by Sri Lanka’s PM to the company’s Shenzhen headquarters resulted in an MoU that invited the company, inter alia, “to participate in ICT planning and infrastructure construction for Smart Colombo”.

Arguably, companies are interested in profit, and governments are often good customers. Why the present government continues to deal with – without any due diligence or scrutiny of past business practices –the same enterprises that had a direct role in seeking to undermine the democratic fabric in Sri Lanka is what is more outrageous. Clearly, money is at stake and with more zeroes than can be easily comprehended. As clearly, politics and optics are at play – an early, expedient distancing from China during elections, now facing near complete reversal in light of dire macro-economic circumstances, which the US for all its visiting warships, aircraft and diplomats, can’t provide an alternative to. Effusive tweets from State Department don’t FDI make. With projects like the much touted Google Loon lost somewhere in the stratospheric promises our politicians and their apparatchiks make, the Government needs high-profile technical partners with appropriate technology solutions to undergird its vision for the Western Province make-over, including the Port City project. Transactional diplomacy with Chinese companies is thus a no-brainer for a government already hostage to the Chinese government through monumental debt. And so we will be saddled with network infrastructure, from China, of indeterminable quality and standards, from the very companies that sought to undermine our civil liberties, and without any safeguards around data integrity or privacy integrated into systems that will impact all our lives, no matter what we do, or where we live.

This matters because what appears to be a really technical or technological challenge, best debated by experts, is really something that will impact – in a very real way – our lives in and entry to cities, and well-beyond. There has been much written about smart cities – about the millions of dollars of saving accrued per annum on account of more efficient and effective service delivery, more streamlined governance and the icing on the cake, local government that is more responsive and citizen centric. These buzzwords find their way into advertorials, press releases, academic papers and even official government policies. This is the promise. What is the reality? The underlying infrastructure around a smart city is digital. What that means is that our negotiation of city life – from travel and transport to a myriad of transactions – will be mediated through services linked to personal identity. How a digital personal identity is created and managed is up for grabs – it could be through a smart-chip, a social security single number or by the conversion of current laminated, hand-written NIC to an electronic version (e-NIC). A smart city is also about the aggregation of what are now disparate systems. For example, a bus pass linked to a debit card, which in turn is linked to a mobile phone based payment system, that can be topped up online or through a telco with one’s identity verified by a unique e-NIC number. Smart cities are about other things as well – traffic light and driving lane management that is dynamically adjusted on the volume of traffic, and historical data around traffic flows in a particular area. Real time updates on public transportation. Simple, single portal based access for citizens to engage with government services. Dashboards that showcase report card based feedback on things like garbage disposal. Free parking around a city that shows up in real time on a mobile. Hospitals and accredited doctors who securely share medical records.

What the smart city promises, ultimately, is a better quality of life. Underlying this, and often unquestioned, is what one has to give up in order to enjoy la dolce vita. And here we must consider a 17-year old’s successful attempts to hack our President’s website. The connection is a simple one. A smart city is actually anchored to giving up some privacy in return for mostly the promise, and hopefully, also the delivery of material and mental well-being. Identity management – what each citizen does, who they are, where they are, what they need and various other transactional records from transport to tax, need a high degree of security to manage and oversee. Else, simply put, everything from impersonations to crime, extortion, blackmail, data loss and surveillance stand a chance of increasing exponentially if records aren’t securely managed. And importantly, the risk to records is not just from juvenile or criminal elements of society. It is from within government itself. If our intelligence services have ready access to the back-end data around a smart city with scant or weak judicial oversight, or worse, through gateways we may not even know exist, foreign powers gain access to sensitive information that even in the aggregate can yield insights into social, political and economic trends, our civil liberties are compromised in very real and dangerous ways. And even if you resist by non-registration or compliance, you are still at risk – just as much cybercrime today directly impacts even those who bank in person and using real money.

Which brings us back to the now infamous 17-year old. The JO wants to give him a job as an IT consultant, perhaps one of the better ideas they’ve had since it resonates with many others who question more than the young gentleman’s actions, the ineptitude of those in charge of security around official web properties. And while this teenager was caught and is in custody, there has not been a single line of reporting and no official response from government around how or to what degree officials in charge of network security for the President’s Office have been held accountable for what was clearly a grossly over-paid hack job. This isn’t the first time official government websites have been hacked. A simple Google search brings up at least one serious disruption or deletion of a high-profile official government website every year, for the past several years. And this is just what’s reported in the media – the cover-up of many more incidents, perhaps far more serious, is more than likely.

So it takes a 17-year old hacker to bring to light the serious concerns around not just over an MoU with a Chinese company, but around the government’s e-NIC project and its entire vision for a digital Sri Lanka. A glittering promise is what’s sold, and it is a compelling fiction. Citizens willingly buy into it. Telcos see profit. Governments see control. Cities see positive returns on investments. Private enterprise sees more consumers. Largely hidden though are serious concerns around the commercialisation of essential services, the nature of command and control architectures, access to information even under RTI, information management practices by public agencies and above all, oversight mechanisms. Smart cities, especially where there is or has recently been a huge democratic deficit, run the risk of turning inquiring citizens to obedient consumers, where dangerous new inequalities – between say those who can afford to secure their privacy vs. those who cannot – are created even as older class differentiations are torn down.

All of this is to not say that smart cities aren’t needed here, or indeed, long overdue. But we must ask how with successive governments so inept at digital security, and the present government in bed with Chinese companies which have had no qualms undermining our civil liberties, a smart city can actually protect the dignity, liberty and freedom of all those who subscribe to and live in it, and indeed, all those outside, in the margins, risking death through deletion.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 4 September 2016.

The willing suspension of disbelief

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first coined the phrase, and I use it here to loosely describe what is an enduring condition of the Sri Lankan polity and society. What the phrase means is to pause one’s critical faculties to enjoy what is clearly incredible or unbelievable. Suspending critical questioning, it can be argued, could be out of choice – for example, no one who sees any big-budget alien flick from Hollywood questions why all extra-terrestrials seem to only target Los Angeles or the White House, or why it takes an undeniably all-American hero to save the rest of the world from an existential threat. The film is entertainment, and for the sake of being entertained, we accept the fiction – from premise and plot to the computer generated special effects. In contrast, the suspension of disbelief for the majority of voters in Sri Lanka isn’t a conscious choice to rest what is otherwise a keen ability to critically question and analyse. It is their default state of being. The average voter isn’t concerned about learning more about what politicians say or do. Gossip has more traction than news, and worse, is believed by more. We see this in the media – anonymous or single-sourced stories litter newsprint and broadcasts, and front-pages, without an iota of irony, prominently feature gossip, as gossip. We see this during elections – where promises, no matter how incredible, sway voters and manifestos are at best documents uploaded to short-lived campaign websites. Politicians know this. Voters who forget, and supinely accept what is told to them, benefit those in power and those who seek it.

It matters that we strive to change this. Two very different examples highlight why. The first is the issue of ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen’s murder. The investigations are still on-going. In December 2015, Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senarathna very clearly told mainstream media that CCTV footage captured not just his murder, but the involvement of individuals from highly-placed families in Sri Lanka – a reference directed at the former government. In January 2016, a report submitted to court by the Department of Computer Science of the University of Colombo recommended sending the CCTV footage to a foreign agency for further review as the Department did not possess the technology to carry out further investigations. Several months later, in June, news media reported that the AG’s Department had informed the courts that the CCTV footage had been referred to British Colombia Institution of Technology in Canada for forensics analysis, which could be expected by early August. News reports late August suggest that the courts had only then given permission to the CID to send the footage to Canada.

The on-going saga of analysing the CCTV footage, when looked at in perspective, is hard to comprehend as anything other than an attempt to stall a murder investigation. But this speaks to more than Thajudeen’s murder. When Channel 4 released their ‘Killing Fields’ documentary on Sri Lanka, the greater furore was around trophy footage captured on video, allegedly showing members of the Sri Lankan armed forces abusing and summarily executing blindfolded prisoners. This was just a few years ago, yet readers may struggle to recall the detailed opinions of the number of experts called upon to examine this video, from UN Special Rapporteurs Philip Alston and Christopher Heyns, to Dr. Chathura de Silva from the University of Moratuwa and finally, as directed by the LLRC, Professor E. A. Yfantis from the University of Nevada. In October 2015, Channel 4, which reported it had received an advance draft report of the ‘Missing Persons Commission’, led by retired Judge Maxwell Paranagama and ordered by former President Rajapaksa, noted that ‘the video footage [was] genuine’, supported by ‘forensic pathology and other corroborative expert evidence.’

Thajudeen and the Channel 4 video showcase the awful politics of forensics, where CCTV evidence or trophy footage from war – independent of what they depict, are anchored to and the need to investigate them thoroughly – become for politicians convenient and emotive agitprop, to malign and misinform. No one today asks how it is that for Thajudeen’s CCTV footage, courts were informed that there is a lack of forensics expertise in the country, but for the Channel 4 video, there was plenty of it around, and moreover, believed. No one questions MP Senarathna’s assertions from just under a year ago, and the basis for the claims he made at the time.

Why?

The second example of the willing suspension of disbelief comes by way of the PM’s recent trip to China. The trip came just after allegations made MP Harin Fernando, followed up by independent newspaper reports, around surveillance equipment brought to Sri Lanka by the former government just months prior to the January 2015 Presidential election. The equipment bought by SLT, according to these reports, was to intercept voice calls and high speed data, and clearly, with zero regard for any judicial oversight or legal framework. The exact same company that sold us this equipment hosted the PM on his visit to China and signed an MoU on ICT cooperation with our Ministry of Telecommunications. No questions have been asked in Parliament on the importation of this equipment, and under whose authorisation. The company itself has not come out in the open with any clarification. And yet we have a PM who without any due diligence or hesitation, goes to the same company for a technical agreement on backend infrastructure that will undergird our urban development. Imagine a food processing company that tries to poison you. This is akin to going to that same company to deliver food supplies, without any inquiry whatsoever around past practices, to an entire city’s inhabitants.

The PM will get away with this, as will the Chinese company, MP Fernando, SLT and the others involved in these deals, past and present. The Attorney-General won’t have to answer questions around revealing delays in the Thajudeen case. MP Senarathna won’t have to explain why he said what he did in December last year. Dr. de Silva won’t have to explain why video footage he found doctored, the Paranagama Commission found important and credible enough to warrant robust inquiry. No one remembers. No one questions. No one, sadly, really cares.

The willing suspension of disbelief may help us enjoy a book or blockbuster, but leads to disastrous consequences in the domain of democratic governance. Thing is, it is the status quo in Sri Lanka that neither government nor voter really want to change. And that is, in a nutshell, why even under yahapalanaya, impunity will reign.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 28 August 2016.

Premonitions around a referendum

A vigil, called ‘Different Yet Equal’, organised last week in Colombo by a group of individuals against the racism promoted by the BBS and Sinha-le movement prompted some revealing reactions, in person and online.

Coming as it does a year after this government was elected into office, the reactions showcase significant challenges ahead around the meaningful implementation of mechanisms around transitional justice, and also, as importantly, seeing through a new constitution. The reaction to the vigil on the street was indicative of an intolerance that endures albeit now without the tacit approval of government. Clearly intended to disrupt and decry, foul mouthed monks and goons carrying the controversial Sinha-le flag came on the scene and through violence, volume and venom, proceeded to capture attention, especially amongst mainstream media. The pushback also came in online fora, in the days after the vigil. Some of the first responses were clearly ill-thought out and relied on very badly Photoshopped images. The issue though was not with the lack of technical proficiency, but the underlying ideology that drove the creation of this content. As I noted in a post published on Facebook soon after the vigil,

“Though this poster is very easily debunked, the intent is clear. It is not just aimed at discrediting those who organised the vigil. The purpose it serves is larger and holds currency for longer. The intent here is to mislead and spread hate against identity groups targeted by Sinha-le as being somehow anti-patriotic, alien and invasive. The intended audience is called upon to act by stirring up emotion, and though this poster is debunked… it is very unlikely this analysis will permeate the audiences on Facebook and over instant messaging this poster has already taken seed in. And herein lies the rub. A single poster reveals that campaigns against hate, and countering violent extremism (CVE) in Sri Lanka, still encounters violent reactions. It suggests that in person and online, in geo-spatial domains as well as virtual platforms, Sinha-le proponents will through volume, violence and vigour seek to establish their lies and propaganda in the political, social and religious mainstream… the ideology that gave rise to [the poster], is less easily addressed and its entrenchment a serious challenge not just for the occasional vigil, but for constitutional reform, transitional justice and our democratic potential writ large.”

There is also a very interesting network dynamic at play, that civil society can I fear only look upon enviously. Outside the usual physical violence, which is the immediate reaction of racists to anyone who dares question them or their beliefs, there is great unity amongst disparate groups online, and interestingly, between online groups partial to the former government and the ideology of the BBS or Sinha-le. A closer study reveals that what are seemingly different online groups may in fact have the same administrators, and that fans or followers overlap to a great degree. However, it is the organic way they respond to an event like the vigil last week that is most interesting. The attacks seem to spread from one group to another – content created or shared in one group informs content in other groups. Each group responds with the usual diatribes, homophobia, incitement to hate, sexism and violence, and almost exclusively in Sinhala. First the event is decried. And then the attacks are directed against individuals, circled in red or highlighted in some other way. The intent here is to name and shame, thereby through anxiety and fear constructing barriers against those who wish to stand up against racism in the future. The attacks are particularly vicious against women. Anyone perceived to be a Muslim is also the target of a particular brand of hate. The construction of aggression is decentralised – some of the violent pushback online is amateurish, some, very professionally produced. Collectively, in a short span of time after a peaceful vigil, this content serves to drown out the voices against racism by targeting organisers and supporters, their friends, family and colleagues. Promotional material by organisers, especially photos of those who attended a protest or vigil, is often used against them. Social media accounts are scoured for unsecured content that lends itself to manipulation or reuse in defamatory, often violent ways. Civil society is not even close to this degree of organic organisation and response. There is a cautionary lesson here.

At a time when government is engaged in something as complex and vital as envisioning a new constitution, our political leadership is largely silent around it or at best, engaged in the pursuit of issuing contradictory statements. This is mirrored in other domains. Transitional justice is reduced to contradictory statements on the involvement of foreign judges. Today, civil society, not government, is saddled with communicating the core tenets of yahapalanaya. This comes at a time when both the government and President are increasingly defined by how removed they are from the path they once promised would be what defined governance. A civil society that is fractured within through in-fighting and petty bickering, saddled with propping up a government with only cosmetic interest in yahapalanaya, is emphatically not one that can also sustain debates around a new constitution or mechanisms around transitional justice. Political leadership is precisely that, and outsourcing simply will not work. Civil society cannot step in willy-nilly, and indeed, by trying to do so, will invariably undermine its own legitimacy by risking co-option. The challenge is greater when confronted with the kind of organic resistance racism poses, in real life as well in online fora that, as data shows, increasingly informs action amongst the most politically active demographic across the country.

The threat then is very serious, and goes beyond the responses to last week’s vigil. True enough, the BBS is a shadow of what it was in the past under the Rajapaksa regime, and the culture of impunity at the time which gave rise to the violence in Aluthgama is no more. However, a referendum around the new constitution will face a tsunami of rabid Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism – sadly familiar yet utterly frightening in its capacity to capture the public imagination – that will be unleashed by the Joint Opposition and a cacophony of allied voices. And instead of strategically countering what is to come, we have a President who instead of even considering alternatives, or encouraging open, constructive, public debate, continues to engage in populist posturing around key clauses in a new constitution. Combined with this, we have a Prime Minister for whom meaningful public engagement is generally anathema.

Before 8th January 2015, the tragedy was what government was, and did. After 8th January 2015, the tragedy is what government cannot inspire, do or say. The risk calculus is well known. And yet, why isn’t this government moved to action?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21 August 2016