Obama as a person

There is a data visualisation on the web called ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, that is anchored to known and recorded drone strikes in Pakistan conducted by the United States. It starts in 2004 and ends in 2015. Around the halfway point, in 2009, out-going President of the US, Barack Obama, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The exponential increase in drone strikes on Pakistan over the next two years in particular is unmistakable. Here’s an interesting passage taken from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“…government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records. An “Insider Threat Program” being implemented in every government department… to help prevent unauthorized disclosures of information by monitoring the behaviour of their colleagues.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this is out of a report dealing with Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime. In fact, this is a 2013 report that focussed on the US administration, under President Obama. In what is a lengthy report, CPJ flags a central and I believe entirely original strategy of the out-going administration as the first to in a sense grow up with and fully embrace social media’s reach.

“… government websites turned out to be part of a strategy, honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favourable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press.”

If you think about it, the adulation and adoration of the out-going President is a product of a svelte media campaign that no doubt will result in at least one book with an insider-partial perspective after January this year, giving insights into how the media operations in Obama’s White House were planned and executed. Before Obama, we didn’t have a news and policy rapping President who went with comedians in cars, danced his way into talk shows, appeared in self-deprecating comedy shows to promote his administration’s work, took questions from YouTube, appeared on Reddit, guest edited issues of Wired magazine and appeared on its cover, published some of the most shared tweets and images on Twitter for any user on its network, was a Facebook phenomenon, contributed to Cosmopolitan magazine and posted on Instagram. For the first time ever in the history of the American Presidency, there are initiatives like ArchiveSocial’s archive of all the social media content produced by Obama administration, MIT Media Lab’s data driven visualisations of Obama’s tweets, and even now a search engine for all the animated GIF images that featured the out-going President, or were in some way connected to his administration’s policies. Obama was the first social media President of the US, and his success at crafting so well his public image was in no small part linked to demeanour, the strength of conviction and character, a scandal free White House, a remarkably normal, loving wife and family, lovely dogs and a disarming sense of humour.

Yet, this is precisely what masks the significant failures of his administration – the disarming of trenchant critique through the adroit use of telegenics over the Internet could well be a political art that marks best Obama’s time at the White House. From the use of drones often with scant regard for national sovereignty, to pervasive surveillance architectures unprecedented in their ability to undermine privacy, from the inability to shut down Guantanamo – an Inauguration Day promise –  which as of 20 January 2017 will still have around forty inmates to his administration’s crackdown on whistle-blowers, much of what will invariably be flagged as wrong or violent under Trump’s administration would in fact have been seeded, championed, strengthened or wilfully ignored under Obama. A central irony will be that the ‘bubbles’ he warned us all against in his final speech as President were those he himself manufactured and largely inhabited – where an America partial to and who placed their trust in Trump were largely outside of, impervious to and indeed, angered by what they saw framed in White House media output under Obama. The more we were taken up by slick media productions featuring Obama and a concert of staff, family and others including Hollywood’s greats, the more we ignored those languishing outside the frames we shared, liked and reacted to so much. This was Trump’s opportunity, which he exploited, and how.

Another irony is how there is now only after the US election an emphasis on false news generation, a post-factual political culture, the danger of unverified news consumption and the realisation that those outside what appears to be an all-encompassing, all-embracing social media gaze or embrace can actually shift political power. Post-factual politics, or the art of openly lying about policies, statements and accountability, defines Sri Lankan politics for as long as I can recall. There is a spike after 2007, with the manufacture of lies that had to support the war, but a counter-factual political culture, deeply resistant to data driven and evidence based policymaking is deeply ingrained in our country over successive administrations. Citizens don’t demand better. Much of media doesn’t care. Politicians go on with impunity. Nothing of what the US media fears with Trump was what local media didn’t endure under Rajapaksa. It was in fact much worse. Everything that can be said of Trump, from his vitriolic expression to a deeply misogynistic, racist brand of politics, can be ascribed to Presidents, politicians and political parties Sri Lankans have endured, and indeed voted into power, for years. This includes prominent members of the present government.

As Obama leaves office and media even in Sri Lanka reflects on his time as President, I wonder what our current crop of politicians will choose to be remembered for. We have in just the first two weeks of 2017 a PM who was outed as a liar over claims made by him and others in government around Volkswagen’s investments in Sri Lanka, or lack thereof. We have a President completely silent over his party’s claims that he will stand as a candidate for elections in 2020 to elect an Executive President – seemingly a complete volte-face from a promise unequivocally made on the evening of 9th January 2015, after Sirisena was sworn into office, to abolish it. Constitutional reform is in a mess. The economy is in a mess. The transitional justice agenda is in a mess, coloured by resistance and repulsion instead reform and revision. Reconciliation is without any clear agenda or strategic vision. The government is becoming increasingly thin-skinned, especially around criticisms generated on and distributed over social media. That Obama-esque moment of 9th January, where hope for a better country drowned out, for most of us assembled that evening at Independence Square, deep-seated cynicism around meaningful reform, is now long gone. We have in its place a reversion to the politics of yesteryear, and though vastly different by way of scale and scope, the brand of politics we thought we had voted out in January 2015. With Trump, the US will see a political culture they had an eight-year respite from. In 2020, the fear is that we return to the politics of 2014. Trump gives the world a modern, malleable model to exploit those left out of the mainstream political discourse, who swayed through populist promise and inward looking nationalism number more than those social media reaches, and a more liberal, cosmopolitan worldview appeals to. We must be open to the dangers we see in the US under Trump being applicable to us in Sri Lanka, under a different political leadership.

The issue of legacy divides historians. Obama will be remembered variously, as we all are. He was exceptional in many ways. Yet more than politician or President, and in the fullness of time, we may come to appreciate more Obama as that father who supported a daughter skip his last official speech, as important as his first in office, in order to study for an exam she had to sit for the next day. His track-record with children, the handshakes with janitors and security guards, the thoughtfulness, reflection, respect and dignity he brought to office – these are qualities that defined Obama the person, beyond Obama as President.

And for that, if not so much more, he will be missed.


First published in The Sunday Island, 15 January 2017.

A report on reconciliation

Last week, the Consultations Task Force (CTF) handed over its final report to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga. It was supposed to be handed over to the President. However, he wasn’t present at the ceremony, on a date and time his office had negotiated after many delays spreading over months. As widely noted, the CTF comprised of eleven members drawn from civil society and was appointed by the Prime Minister in late January 2016, to seek the views and comments of the public on the proposed mechanisms for transitional justice and reconciliation, as per the October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, co-sponsored by the Government of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, you would expect the PM, whose brainchild the CTF was, to be present at the handover ceremony. He wasn’t either.

The optics of the PM’s and President’s combined absence – no accident – will be the defining frame through which government writ large engages with the substance of the report. Already, the Justice Minister has dismissed the CTF’s findings. The Cabinet Spokesperson went on record saying that a key mechanism flagged in the report was not one the Government of Sri Lanka or the UN had agreed to. The comprehensive rebuttal over Twitter from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was unequivocal in its support for the report, and key recommendations therein. To date, the President and the PM have not issued any press release or statement welcoming the report. The Official Secretariat for the Coordination of Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), now the custodian of the report, has no demonstrable capacity to champion any of the recommendations, and furthermore, in an incredible display of incompetence, managed to make a complete hash of the report’s release to the public on the web.

It remains to be seen whether civil society, quite vocally critical of the Rajapaksa regime’s unwillingness and inability to deliver key recommendations in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, will hold this government accountable for, what will invariably be given the signs, the non-implementation of many CTF key recommendations. An acronym soup of official entities risks confusing the general public as well. The CTF, as noted in the report itself, even though set up by government, was debilitated in its ability around public outreach during consultations. Funding was crippled – much slower than expected, far lower than required. The official entities tasked with reconciliation have no coherent coordination framework. Consultation fatigue has set in amongst the general public, with many, even as they engaged with the CTF, clearly noting that they were hugely sceptical of any meaningful redress and reform. Above all, the timbre of the public mood the CTF report clearly flags is far removed from a healthy democracy. Legitimate grievances, from those in the South and families of the military, to those in the North and families of the disappeared, undermine all the rosy scenarios painted by government around a stable, just, peaceful future. This is not some academic argument or the wild imaginings of a few at the helm of CTF. A complete, trilingual archive of submissions, which for the first time in any national consultation held to date in the country will be made public in the months to come, will support and strengthen the report’s thrust.

The CTF is a historic achievement, and by far, one of the most far-ranging consultations around four key mechanisms of transitional justice and reconciliation conducted in any post-war context. Instead of having institutions, frameworks and mechanisms imposed on them, citizens were asked for their opinion around what was important to focus on, why, how and with whom – including the capture of aspirations, concerns and ideas well beyond the four specific mechanisms the CTF was anchored to. You would think that as a consequence, the release of the final report would bring with it a flurry of mainstream media attention, analysis and engagement. This hasn’t happened – the English press has focussed on a single topic – the issue of international involvement in judicial mechanisms. Nowhere is it made clear that the recommendations are reflective of the submissions made by those across the country. Editorials in the Sinhala press have already dismissed the CTF, calling it an NGO canard – unsurprising, given the nationalism that so often cloaks Editorial gaze. At the press conference held by the CTF last week at the Media Ministry, at least one journalist from a leading TV news station sitting in the front row didn’t know what he had come to cover, until he was informed by a colleague what the CTF was. This anecdotal story is more broadly indicative of what we can expect from mainstream media by way of critical engagement with the CTF’s findings.

The CTF’s press conference underscored other structural concerns I had with the final report. What was a process of consultation mandated and initiated by government, is now pitched as a report that is a clarion call for civil society to hold government accountable around implementation. This shift here is telling and perhaps the result of the CTF’s inability, at least for now, to openly criticise the PM for not following through with the promise of consultations. Though the report emphasises the critical role of civil society, it is essentially a complete revamp of the State as it is structured now. This is a task for government. And herein lies the rub. The entire report is written with the assumption that government will champion its recommendations. If it was evident even during consultations – with plenty of evidence on this score – that the government would not in fact take kindly to what was proposed, the report should have been structured around what could be done despite government, and refocussed recommendations around regional, international, media and civil society strategies to diplomatically and by other means strongly encourage political office to take heed of vital recommendations in line with existing commitments at the UN in Geneva. A report that pegs the success of reform to a government that isn’t really interested in it stands little chance of success. Further, there is no prioritisation of the recommendations, which when reading the report can be seen as overwhelming – even to government. Arguably, this will come by way of consultations around how the recommendations can be implemented, but we don’t find in the report safeguards against filibuster by focussing on the least important points, and in the noise and attention generated as a consequence, pushing to the periphery far more important recommendations that need to be urgently implemented. An inadvertent consequence of strong, sustained civil society advocacy and activism around the recommendations may also be that it gives life to what leading critics of the report, including from within government, misleadingly say it is – an NGO campaign. If the government itself doesn’t give life and leadership to reform and reconciliation, civil society cannot fill the gap. And since this isn’t about regime change but rather State reform, it is unclear to what degree civil society itself has the competency and capacity to engage with government, over the long-term, to achieve intended outcomes. And finally, no political party, even though invited by the CTF, made any representation or submission whatsoever. Beyond the bi-partisan coalition in power, this suggests the political firmament of Sri Lanka is hostile to or at best dismissive of the CTF’s recommendations and by extension, what so many citizens so desperately want to see, achieve and feel, post-war.

The great pity of merely quoting politicians, reading slanted Editorials and news features, hostile opinion pieces and other material against the CTF and its findings is that they will be entirely unreflective of the rich, textured and multi-faceted foci in the report, anchored to the thousands across the country who, despite visible and repeated intimidation, came out and spoke their mind. Even in the passages and points dealing with the military and their opinion, there is opportunity for engagement and negotiation. Arguably, at close to 1,000 pages spread over two volumes, this will be read completely by just a handful at best. Even the Executive Summary is too long for most. Much will need to be done to communicate back to those who engaged what the report focussed on, and beyond, how a government fearful of pushback from the South, the military and Buddhist clergy can be supported, without being co-opted, in a courageous reform agenda.

The CTF is a historic attempt. Let our disagreement as well as our support be based on what’s in the report, which essentially requires us to read, at the very least, the Executive Summary. One also risks disappointment to hope there is the political will to take the key recommendations forward. This will require compromise on all sides, but is there any task more important than this? The sustenance of a government that that embodies everything that is denied to citizens must not be how history records this time. The CTF’s report is cartography we must explore.

Else we will forever be lost.


First published in The Sunday Island, 8 January 2017.

The patina of politics

Another year ends. Two years ago, around the same time, the violent uncertainty of what the 8th of January would bring led to muted celebrations around Christmas and New Year. The anxiety and fear that overwhelmingly coloured this time is already largely forgotten. Much hand-wringing will ensue around 2016, from the cultural icons who died over the course of the year to racists and murderers elected to political office. This too shall pass, when 2017 proves to be a comparably better year, or far worse. Although strictly from a monarchist viewpoint, the framing of 1992 as ‘annus horribilis’ by Queen Elizabeth II is now relegated to the periphery of history and largely forgotten by even those who closely follow the Royals. Likewise, what moves us to celebrate or lament 2016 will also, sooner than we realise, be forgotten. There are however some deep ironies about how we end this year.

There is nothing that comes out of Syria today, that is any different to what far less bore witness to in the first half of 2009 in Sri Lanka. It’s tragi-comic to see how so many in Sri Lanka now lament the fate of so many children, women and men in Syria, yet were supportive of or tellingly silent around the violence just a few hundred kilometres away, in their own country, seven years ago. Even as we mourn, so visibly, the loss of George Michael and David Bowie, we remain overwhelmingly homophobic in Sri Lanka, with legislation in the statue books that criminalises same sex relations. Early November, on Facebook alone, lamentation around the election of Trump as the next President of the US in Sri Lanka reached a crescendo. Cut from the same racist mould, Trump is no different to Mahinda Rajapaksa. And yet, the outcry of disdain over the Rajapaksa regime and what it actually did never reached the levels it did for Trump, thousands of miles away, and what he for now has only promised to do. The phenomenon of false news, and especially, the role of online social media in spreading misinformation has gripped the world after the US elections and the infamous Brexit referendum in the UK. These are online phenomena pro-democracy activists and civil rights groups have been dealing with for many years in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world, with the State as the primary producer of campaigns, which go viral on social media, targeting a religion, community or traits attributed to a particular group, area or race. What was a policy of outright violence against critics and journalists during the war, in Sri Lanka, turned into a more nuanced, far more effective policy of censorship and control of media post-war. We have lived, and arguably thrived in a post-factual society for years before it dawned on sections of American polity and society that the news they consumed wasn’t really anchored to any discernible fact. From technology companies in Silicon Valley to journalism schools around the world, there is now clear focus on verification. During the awful anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama, and as far back as 2014, a few of us spent sleepless nights debunking what at the time were vitriolic, incendiary stories, pegged to photos from Myanmar, around how Muslims were being burnt and attacked. From 2009 onwards, with content around the war, demonstrations around the country, key stories including promotional videos by government, official press releases, policy statements at the UN and other domestic fora, civic media and civil society crunched numbers, verified figures, did research, cross-referenced articles and provided insight, information and context to stories that were otherwise, at best, only partially true. All this was done without the help of a single Silicon Valley company, who are all, after the US elections, only now scrambling to algorithmically and also through renewed human curation combat the flow of incredibly harmful misinformation over their platforms.

Domestically, a leitmotif throughout the year was to compare and contrast the present government with the Rajapaksa regime. This will continue over 2017. There was much to condemn. The President’s son ran amok, with total impunity. Serious allegations of corruption involving the President, before he took office and reported widely in Australian media, have been conveniently forgotten. Media doesn’t (dare) ask, the President’s Office doesn’t say. The UNP has sought to cushion those directly responsible for bond scams and basically sold vast swathes of Sri Lanka back to China. The government has embraced pistol totting brutes, feted the violence of a Navy Commander against media, failed to make any meaningful headway whatsoever into allegations of colossal corruption by the previous regime, actively engages and visibly promotes the most rabidly racist monks, sends torturers to sessions of the UN in Geneva against the State-sponsored use of torture, countenances the drafting of laws to replace the heinous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that are in effect far worse and undermines investigations into corruption by forcing the resignation of key officials. In addition, the President’s comments resulted in murder suspects from the armed forces, in remand custody, being let off while hundreds of others, detained under the PTA, continue to languish in prison. Clearly, much is wrong under yahapalanaya and in principle, if not in the scale, scope and reach of the rot, no different to the Rajapaksas.

And yet, so much has also changed. For starters, many take the government to task in the mainstream media without fear of violent pushback. There is, on paper at least, Right to Information legislation and an Office on Missing Persons. Though using the Rajapaksas as a baseline is in many ways wrong, Sri Lanka today is a qualitatively different place to what it was just two years ago. The art of the long view requires us, in fairness to the better angels of the President, Prime Minister and those in Parliament truly interested in meaningful reform, to acknowledge that it is nigh impossible to completely reboot, and over a single term of government, what is a systemic failure of politics cultivated over decades. This is not to gloss over, or somehow excuse what is so wrong at present. It is to recognise the complexity of reform, and how what is a long-term, complex, deeply political process will never match expectations set through an election manifesto, or the pace at which civil society demands change. The next year will require us to hold the government accountable around the delivery of its key promises – at a time when the constitutional reform agenda is already losing steam and terribly mired in confusion. Concurrently, it requires those outside government to come up with creative alternatives to help those inside it negotiate and navigate the reform agenda whilst saving face, recognising for example that some public positions and pronouncements are geared towards the generation of public opinion, which in turn can be referenced and useful in pushing through that which is resisted internally.  In all this, the risks of co-option will endure, and while being generally supportive of government, the challenge of maintaining a critical distance will persist.

Let’s call this the patina of our politics – how year after year, often despite government, democracy is tenaciously fought for and somehow persists. Whether we agree or are part of it, this constant struggle leaves on all our lives and our country an indelible mark that frames whatever spin the government of the day tries to sell. And that goes for the rest of the world too, where no matter how monumental a change next year brings – also in many ways we cannot yet imagine – the struggle for justice, rights, decency and democracy will continue, in various forms, as it always has.

And must.

The optics of feeling

I like to smell books, which admittedly on more than one occasion has generated looks of concern in bookstores. I like their tactile feel, which is why I prefer even at greater cost a hardback over a paperback – there’s just more book to enjoy. Though the value and convenience of storing hundreds of books a thumb press away doesn’t escape me, I remain wedded to the consumption and collection of books as physical objects, with each spine, cover, jacket and page having a unique character, texture and feel. Conversely, while we marvel at the industrial design of our modern-day electronics with tempered glass and buffed aluminium, a new e-book reader, smartphone or tablet looks and feels exactly the same. Cold to touch. Recognising the importance of haptic feedback and sensory perception, design and manufacturing are moving into what’s called tactile reassurance (TR) – focussing on how products feel, as opposed to just how good they work.

But what does any of this have to do with governance?

A recent article in The Forecast, published by Monocle magazine, focusses on material design principles that have ushered in over the past few years many products and devices that look really good, but feel ultimately the same – soulless. Can a similar observation be made around government? A case in point – MP Sumanthiran’s recent assertion in Parliament that one billion rupees allotted for a vertical tower in the North with space for offices and entertainment was utterly meaningless and far removed from what the people actually needed. How people feel really matters, independent of what is done for them. This is true not just of infrastructure development. The report of the Consultations Task Force (CTF) which will be released early January is a record of what many around Sri Lanka feel about reconciliation mechanisms proposed by the government. The submissions from victims is especially important in this regard, since they are less interested in the precise architecture of mechanisms around reconciliation and transitional justice, and far more keen to be heard, with sensitivity and empathy. It is not enough, indeed, perhaps even detrimental to present to those who already feel they are not part of this country’s social and political fabric gleaming new houses, new UN resolutions or path-breaking legislation sans implementation. Largesse from government, no matter how well designed, executed and intentioned, will never supplant development that is anchored to actual needs, and the realisation of the more intangible aspects of citizenship – how one is made to feel at a government office, seeing correctly spelt bus signboards, hearing one’s own language over a hospital’s public address system, having a permanent address, feeling secure in one’s home, dealing with empathetic government officials, being addressed in a civil manner even when in the wrong or ignorant or having the basic respect afforded to a community, socio-economic group, religious affiliation, school, location, political affiliation or surname, extended to everyone no matter who they are, what they worship, where they live and what they do.

Though the analogy may never have been made before, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to me is the equivalent of a new smartphone. It promises much by way of improving one’s life and is beautiful to behold. But the operating system, beguiling as it is, does things the user doesn’t ask, assuming, often incorrectly, it is what the user wants or needs. What is at first a tolerable glitch, given how good everything looks and how different it was to what was the norm previous, soon becomes an insufferable and fatal flaw, where the trust and confidence placed on basic operating procedures is constantly undermined by an instruction set and logic that operates entirely independent of the end user. What I’m trying to get at is the disconnect today between the promises of government and how people feel about governance.

A Colombo resplendent with Christmas decorations masks existential concerns of a majority, under our year-end sale radar, for whom personal debt, loans and the cost of living remains intolerable. There are no discernible indications the government is sensitive to this. This is not to suggest political populism as the alternative. It is to propose the value of empathy as political currency, which the leading lights of the JO know only too well. In the middle of a debilitating debt repayment crisis, buying SUVs, renting even more SUVs and driving SUVs in a manner that puts everyone else on the road at risk of sudden death, allowing children of politicians to run amok, continuing with vanity infrastructure projects, postponing ad nauseam the public release of a report capturing the grievances of those most affected by violence, the inability to speak to and with those who are poverty stricken in the South and have lost a great deal to war, the unwillingness to directly and meaningfully engage with people on the ground in the North post-war – these and so much more mark this government as one that is as good at promising change as it is in fact unable to make people feel change has come.

And therein lies the rub. If there is one word that captures best the timbre of governance and the perception of government today, it is insensitivity. It is, without an iota of doubt, a world apart from the violence that marked the previous regime. Tactile reassurance in the world of design tries to make products feel better. A parallel could be governance that is more responsive to what citizens actually need and say, instead of continuous promises around what the government tries to pass off as what it thinks citizens demands. It is not enough to make infrastructure. Citizens who don’t really feel it is in response to what they really need have no interest in helping maintain anything that is done by the State, and may even be in their anger driven to destroy and decry what appears to be, on the face of it, progressive development. It is unclear the government realises this, but there is a ready lesson from the recent past, where no amount of ports, highways, towers, high-rises, airports and beautification was able to keep in power a regime that over time and despite the greatest political charisma at the helm, lost its ability to make people feel good about themselves, and governance. History must not be allowed to repeat itself, as tragedy or farce.


First published in The Sunday Island, 25 December 2016

From kakistocracy to yahapalanaya

A conversation with a close friend visiting Sri Lanka last week was an opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, nearly two years after gaining power. We met in the wake of the incident in Hambantota where the Navy Commander, on Human Rights Day, verbally abused a journalist and then proceeded to assault him. Unlike incidents in the North and East, where equal if not far more brutal methods of quelling dissent and bearing witness continue unabated even post-war, this episode went viral over social media and was well covered in the mainstream electronic and print media. Responses to it are revealing.

The PM’s initial response was that the journalist went to the wrong Police Station to complain about the incident. An investigation into the behaviour of the Navy Commander was initiated and a report handed over the PM. Nothing by way of reprimand or disciplinary action resulted out of it. Instead, the Navy Commander was praised by the government and feted by the PM for ending blockade of the Hambantota Port. The Director General of Information said that the central issue was around the violation of media ethics. In a strangely worded press release, though condemning the brutish Navy Commander, the Director General strongly suggested that the journalist was somehow more to blame.  The Deputy Minister of Media condemned the attack on the journalist and the foul language used by the Navy Commander, noting that it ran counter to the mandate given by the people to the government. Erstwhile Army Commander and now Government MP Sarath Fonseka was reported in the media stating that “everything had happened in an acceptable manner” and that the Navy Commander had merely “pushed [the journalist] away from the security circle”. There is no comment from the President on the incident to date.

Though much can be taken from this inchoate spectrum of responses, there is a simpler question to ask. If a former Army Commander, now an MP in Government, is wilfully blind to violence of word and deed, in the full glare of media in the South, can he and by extension, this government led by a President who so openly sides with the military, be expected to deliver on promises around accountability? The incident became, unsurprisingly, a platform for the Rajapaksa’s to pontificate and the JO to agitate. Many flagged how the military was used in Rathupaswala against citizens agitating for clean water. Few if any, however, openly drew parallels between behaviour now rewarded by Prime Ministerial commendation and the impunity with which the military conducted operations in the North and East, out of sight, out of mind. It is a sobering reflection of the power the military machinery continues to wield, and how before what will be a historic year for political reform, the government will be entirely unconvinced of openly disciplining bullies and brutes in uniform.

In early 2015, Sri Lanka emerged from ten years of kakistocracy, or rule by the worst possible people, to what was hoped would be a government that restored the faith in and practice of democracy. That heady optimism was entirely misplaced, and we knew it then. What continues to surprise is the degree to which that early promise keeps being reneged. A pragmatic assessment would be to accept that negotiating the military, the various nefarious deals that glue a coalition government, the sundry interests of those in the coalition including around political aspirations to higher office, the inherited secrets of the former regime including around the end of war, the monumental debt and its repayment, a West full of obsequious praise yet short on funding and China, close to the old regime and with a heavy footprint around the country, requires government to stay the course and ignore any higher ideals. The plaintive cries of civil society are a headache for those in power, but nothing yet another visiting American diplomat full of praise, another military exercise with Navy SEALs, another tender with China, another international bi-lateral trade agreement, news of a new concessionary loan by the World Bank, some non-committal reference to the Volkswagen factory, the imminent launch of Google Loon with free Wi-Fi for all or a good innings by the Sri Lankan cricket team can’t fix. Sri Lankans dwell deeply on daily matters, but over the longer term, are perfectly happy to accept what sporadically, they rave and rant against. This is well-known, and abused by government. Systemic reform won’t be the result of yahapalanaya as entrenched in government writ large, but the spirit of yahapalanaya appropriated by singular individuals in the State machinery, civil society and a demographic whose votes placed this government in power. This will take time.

Meanwhile, appreciating what is overall a progressive bent in politics, despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary, requires the assessment of what we endure today with what we fought against just two years ago at around the same time. The tension at the time of the stakes around the Presidential election, and how much of effort was put into entirely organic, non-hierarchical, social media powered structures that creatively adapted to attacks, challenges and opportunities is now already faded from memory. The Rajapaksa’s were a cancer, and the rot of their nepotism, corruption and violence, from Temple Trees to everything we touched, saw, read or experienced, had reached a point where even those within the regime and yet biologically removed from the first family saw an uncertain political future, where constant veneration only ever resulted in a limited theatre for parochial gain and corruption. We are right to constantly hold this government up to a higher standard, set not by us, but by yahapalanaya’s founding principles as noted in Sirisena’s Presidential election manifesto. It is not necessary to always remind readers of what we suffered from in the recent past, and how different a country it is today, warts and all. It is vital though that in our criticism, we also steer well away from efforts at appropriating our intent, words and action by those from the old regime, who through utterly false equivalence deviously delivered, suggest what is wrong today is no different to what they were blamed for doing.

The Director General of Information, as wrong as I believe he was in his assertion that the journalist was himself to blame for the assault by the Navy Commander, organised a public meeting to discuss the incident. Anyone with an opinion on the matter was invited to attend, and the meeting was held at the Media Ministry premises. He was openly taken to task. Journalists openly expressed their disgust, disappointment and anger, including through personally identifiable social media accounts. Protests were held across the country. The incident and the various responses to it became a front-page news story. None of this could have been even remotely dreamt of just over two years ago.

The challenge today is not just to vehemently oppose, decry and condemn excesses of power. It is to constantly engage with government, and for those in power the realisation, tough as it is, that some of the most vocal critics outside Parliament may in fact be those most interested in protecting yahapalanaya’s democratic legacy. Negotiating the complex, constantly morphing terrain that frames this tension between being inside and outside government will define the year ahead. Success, seen as the establishment of a political culture that is more democratic than what we enjoy even today, will rely on the imagination of those who will engage with this tension, in turn requiring humility, courage, imagination and wit in far more measure than we see today, from everyone concerned.


First published in The Sunday Island, 18 December 2016.

An apology for an apology

Responses and reactions to the statement in Parliament last week by the Prime Minister around the burning of the Public Library in Jaffna are a revealing case study in reconciliation’s progress, nearly two years into the Sirisena administration.

Mainstream media and social media, including the social media accounts of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms and the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed what they termed was an apology from the Prime Minister. Tellingly, the Prime Minister’s own social media accounts and official website, up until Thursday, didn’t even mention his statement in passing. This didn’t stop media reports, in print and online, which suggested he had in fact apologised for the burning of the Public Library. The viral spread of this “apology” began long before the context within which the PM made his statement was in the public domain. Verbatim and when read, the PM’s statements resonate very differently to when placed in the context they were delivered. Around a four-minute clip of the severe and sustained heckling the PM had to endure in Parliament during a contentious debate around housing the North and East was uploaded by a news group not long after the first reports around the statement went viral. In this video, a PM under pressure almost flippantly acknowledges that the library was burnt under a UNP government and says sorry for it, before challenging MPs from the former regime to own up to their own acts of violence. An MP behind the PM is smirking as he says this. This was pure political theatre, and true to script, sincerity of meaning was never the intent. This was a PM responding to heckling by an off-the-cuff remark around one of the most violent acts against a community and language in the history of our country. The amplification of this remark, which I noted was under ten seconds, was not the PM’s fault. A mainstream media, including influential voices on social media who didn’t wait to hear the context in which the PM said what he did before praising him were responsible for making what was a comment in passing, made under duress, into an “apology” on the lines of what for example former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said on 23 July 2004, on the 21st anniversary of Black July. Here was an entire speech crafted as a national apology for the events of July 1983, with of course its own attendant problems. But the intent, the delivery and the occasion were considered. The Prime Minister’s comments last week were nowhere near as reflective. At best, this was a casual acknowledgement of an act of violence. An apology though, this was not.

The burning of an entire library, as with the scale and ferocity of violence over twenty-seven years of war, remains largely incomprehensible for most. The facts and figures available online and elsewhere around the event don’t capture the emotional, psychological impact of the event. Imagine an arsonist who broke into your home, took letters, books and other personal effects and made a bonfire of them in your garden, with complete impunity. It may well be the case that the material was worthless through the gaze of an insurer, or for anyone other than you and your family for whom they would be irreplaceable. Some of the texts may have had some historical value. Most would have had a sentimental value, passed on from generation to generation. A few may well have been rare manuscripts or texts that could have been highly valued independently. A newer book may have held more value than an older text. An older album may have held more worth than a more recent digital print. Sometimes, a common book may have held incalculable value because of an inscription, dedication or autograph. You quickly realise that the books and texts you have at home actually capture much more than the space they occupy. They are history, identity and memory, with a value and significance more than what can ever be pegged by a clinical valuation. Imagine then the destruction of this material, on larger scale. Amplify what you would feel at the burning of your personal effects and books, to a community which saw in the flames of an erstwhile library their own flesh being burnt. Sri Lanka often focusses on July 1983’s ethnic pogrom as a turning point in communal relations. I consider the burning of the Jaffna public library to be as bad, if not worse.

I don’t think the PM intended to add insult to injury as a consequence of a remark in Parliament that was clearly not carefully considered. There are even those who have openly said that in these ten seconds, they see a degree of contrition that can now be built on by others from the PM’s party, and beyond. On the other hand, the PM’s empathetic nature is not something that’s well known. Earlier this year, he went on record saying that those who remain disappeared are most probably dead, with scant regard for the impact of these words would have on the families and loved ones of the disappeared. As political-economist Kithmina Hewage noted on Twitter, “the reconciliation process has been so slow, our major breakthroughs are now inadvertent!” While immediate opposition to this observation will highlight the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons, the work of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, the establishment of SCRM and other high-profile statements around transitional justice and reconciliation, what we have is a government that through ill-considered statements undermines grander plans.

The question then becomes how we value statements of individual politicians versus the intent and actions of government writ large. We are frequently reminded to be forgiving around a government that continues to be compared to the previous regime. And because this baseline is so low, the government continues to comparably fare very well. Does this excuse flippant statements and school boyish debating tactics in Parliament? I don’t believe so. A cosmopolitan-internationalist PM sans charisma is tasked with leading the country through a key referendum in 2017. This is both the opportunity and tragedy. What for the PM, in his mind, is clever repartee invariably resonates very differently amongst various key constituencies he seems irascibly immune to connecting with, and yet central to the success of constitutional reform.

Through an ill-considered, off the cuff remark lasting just a few seconds, our PM has opened the door to more long-lasting criticism around the government’s sincerity around reconciliation beyond telegenics. Though unfortunate, it perhaps also offers an opportunity in the near future for a more considered official apology that acknowledges what is the bloody, violent history of the PM’s party against Tamils in the early 80s and also against thousands of young Sinhalese tortured and murdered in the late 80s. If apologies are to be made, an accounting for this heinous past in the South, just as much as any accounting for the past in the North towards the end of the war, is important.

One hopes those who have the trust and respect of the PM will alert him to this.


First published in The Sunday Island, 11 December 2016.

Corridors of Power

I do not recall the exact moment, but I do remember a time when I was so frustrated with the Rajapaksa regime’s blatant disregard for the constitution that I wondered how best I could communicate a critique of power to even those who would vote for, and loved him. This was after the 18th Amendment, late 2010. I was interested in a way to engage with what I hated to see come about, in full knowledge, at the time, that those opposed to what Mahinda Rajapaksa did were in a minority. I had one relatively successful previous attempt which suggested when instead of presenting a contrasting opinion, which can be variously, violently and immediately dismissed, a way to debate the substance of a contentious issue is created, a rather different timbre of engagement ensues.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected into office for the second time and for his 65th birthday, there was for some unfathomable reason a Guinness World Record breaking attempt to make the largest kiribath.  Photos of the attempt are still easily discoverable online. Instead of merely calling out the former President on this colossal waste at what was the height of his popularity, WFP and UN figures for health and nutrition were used with statistics around thousands of IDPs languishing in camps at the time. Extrapolating from the ingredients the number of calories used, an attempt was made to demonstrate how the record-breaking kiribath could in fact have fed hundreds of families without basic food or nutrition, and for how long. The critique was data-driven from sources that could be independently verified. Instead of pitting disgust and outrage against adulation and adoration, the article resulted in comments that had those who said they voted for the former President say they were appalled at the meaningless waste around this attempt.

Could a similar effort be done around the concentration of power in the Executive after the 18th Amendment? I came up with an idea to flesh-out and clearly communicate the powers defined in a constitution – between citizens and the State, and also between the arms of government – using architecture. From palaces to churches, from mausoleums to entire cities, power – and more precisely, the nature of political authority – has gone on to define the architecture of a period, dynasty, regime, reign or Reich. I wanted to turn this on its head, using architecture to help explore and explain powers in a constitution that were, to the majority of citizens, abstract, complex words that didn’t really have any meaningful impact on their more existential concerns.

I approached two individuals, Asanga Welikala and Channa Daswatta, leading minds on constitutional theory and architecture respectively, with my idea. After Welikala’s initial research into over 40 years of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, Daswatta and I, for close upon a year, met regularly in his office and later on, with his staff as well, to flesh out through architectural drawings, models and schematics the powers, for example between the centre and periphery, or between the legislature and the executive, enshrined in the constitutions of 1972, 1978 and key amendments thereafter. At the time we started on the project, no one could foresee what transpired on 8th January 2015. After the election of Sirisena, the project also embraced discussions around and the subsequent passage of the 19th Amendment. Those leading the drafting of the new constitution, as well as those close to and advising the President spoke during the course of the week the exhibition was held in Colombo, late 2015.

Many, including those who openly identified themselves as supporters of the former regime came up and said that the marriage of constitutional theory and architecture allowed them to see anew the challenges around the centralisation of power, and other aspects of our present constitution, like Article 9, the 13th Amendment and the independence of the judiciary, in a new, critical light. They noted that the exhibition’s appeal was anchored to its interrogation of power, instead of just being a trenchant critique of a particular individual who held the office of Executive President. A severely vision impaired person came up and said, just by carefully touching four models on display, that at the end of it, he could grasp what I had tried to communicate around the unsustainable nature of power as it was configured after the 18th Amendment. Accompanied by his mother, a twelve-year-old, with whom I talked at length based on what he saw and was able to peer into, left with a greater appreciation of the maddening complexity of government. His mother told me later on that the exhibition gave him a perspective around the constitution they would have as parents never been able to give, and school would never have even imagined imparting.

I took ‘Corridors of Power’ to Jaffna, Kandy, Batticaloa and finally to Galle this year. There is a deep, widespread interest in constitutional rule, and by extension, what goes into and what is left out of the new constitution. Apathy and disinterest is easy to come by, but is largely on account of a mainstream media and indeed, a government that for whatever reason, hasn’t the imagination, interest or resources to engage citizens around constitution making outside of episodic stories and consultations. In Batticaloa, we were inundated with questions around power, privilege, periphery-centre relations, religion, identity and devolution. Students from the Eastern University were interested in creating a short skit based on the exhibition, in order to carry on and promote discussions around constitutional rule. In Jaffna, at the historic Public Library were the exhibition was held, groups had animated discussions around what they wanted the new constitution to reflect and represent, going well-beyond the 19th Amendment and indeed, the 13th Amendment as well. In Kandy, at the General Post Office auditorium, I engaged with LSSP members and leftists, who critiqued the constitutional evolution since 1972 from a working-class perspective. In Galle, groups that came said the exhibition helped them think through not just citizenship and the nature of the State, but also the configuration of authority and the delegation of power within their own, large organisations.

Beyond the exhibition, there is a clear thirst across Sri Lanka for on-going engagement on the kind of government, governance and constitution people would like to see. I don’t believe this engagement will stymie complex negotiations around the constitution. I do believe, strongly, that the lack of sustained public engagement will result in an exponentially harder sell of any new constitution. Ultimately, if a small exhibition in just five cities was able to animate so many who didn’t fully realise the importance of constitutionalism, imagine what government and indeed, mainstream media can and arguably should do on a broader, deeper scale.

This is not happening. So, ask yourselves this – who really benefits from ignorance and apathy?


First published in The Sunday Island, 4 December 2016.