Last week, a large rally took place in Colombo. Villagers from Pānama, a coastal village in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, were demanding the return of their land currently occupied by the Air Force, and were in the city to hand over a petition signed by 20,000 to the Presidential Secretariat. This is a struggle long struggle, for years out of sight, out of mind, by citizens who have little to nothing by way of livelihoods, belongings or hope. Their lands continue to be occupied by the military. They have tried multiple avenues, reached out to multiple levels of government, demonstrating an incredible patience and resilience. They have suffered indignity, callous indifference and insensitivity. In Colombo, Police at the rally photographed them like suspects engaged in some of criminality. The only threat they posed was to bring shame to a government that since coming to power with the promise of reform and redress, hasn’t lived up to expectations. News updates over SMS alerted subscribers to a burning tower in London. There was no mention or coverage of this rally.

On the subject of the fire in London, the Foreign Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a day after a horrible blaze destroyed an apartment complex in the city, published consular contact details and even the mobile phone numbers of key staff. No Sri Lankans were reported to have been in or near the building, or in any way affected by the inferno. Conversely, to date, the MFA and the Minister are yet to issue any information around consular access, hotlines and services for the tens of thousands of our citizens in and around Qatar. For whatever reason, expatriates in London who aren’t affected by a localised blaze get more attention and care from the Foreign Minister and Ministry than a vastly greater number of migrant labour deeply anxious and hostage to the growing volatility of the Qatari region.

As evident from what I have penned over the past two weeks, when catastrophic flooding hit Sri Lanka, the Minister in charge of disaster management, not in the country at the time, decided to spend a day or two in Dubai for indeterminable reasons on his way back to Sri Lanka. We have a government that let lapse a vital insurance scheme that helps pay compensation and damages for citizens who are victims of large-scale natural disasters. This money now has to come from a government already steeped in debt. Hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign funding directly to government around early warning and disaster risk reduction has had no visible impact. All the relevant officials and the Minister continue in office, with no contrition.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto, released late December 2014, noted that he would undertake an investigation into “the import of super luxury motor vehicles, racing cars and motor cycles” and that “action will be taken to recover pertinent taxes”. In 2016 alone, well over a billion rupees were allocated to purchase brand new SUVs for MPs. This sum of money was announced in a year that saw catastrophic flooding, a devastating landslide in Aranayake and the munitions dump disaster in Salawa, leaving over two thousand homes and businesses severely damaged. Education, infant milk and food subsidies, government scholarships and the development of health infrastructure, including a new cancer ward, all cost less than the allocation for the new SUVs.  Worse, many SUVs were resold by the MPs who received them duty free.

The PM last week noted that the Government will bring in new laws to stop religious and ethnic violence if needed. Sections 290, 290A, 291, 291A, 291B of the Penal Code already address this issue, aside from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. The IGP in fact recently reminded his staff of commitments under the ICCPR to arrest the spread of religious intolerance. But we don’t need to get too technical in all this. In calling for new laws, the PM seems to have forgotten that a very public arrest order to bring the head of the BBS, Gnanasara Thero, to book, has not been executed for close upon a month. Another arrest warrant was issued last week. And yet, the Thero has disappeared into thin air and with complete impunity. The Police – all of them, all over the country – apparently cannot find him. Meanwhile, Muslim owned businesses and mosques, across the country, continue to be destroyed, desecrated or damaged. Blithely indifferent, the government issues statements around tolerance, calls for new laws around hate speech and reminds Police officers of their legal obligations.

Colombo is reeling under a water, sanitation and waste management architecture that dates to colonial times and hasn’t been upgraded to keep pace with the city’s explosion in infrastructure and inhabitants. Under successive governments, urban development is sold as leading to a green, clean, high-rise city. The only problem is that the affluence and good life many aspire to, is being replaced by the stark reality of untreated effluent and garbage. Meethotamulla brought centre and forward the fact that the billions of rupees allotted for and spent on urban development, mostly anchored to the Financial City project and high-end apartment complexes, have utterly failed to address challenges around waste and garbage disposal that the CMC is already struggling to cope with. A cosmetic veneer geared towards investment and votes hides, quite literally, a rotting mess within.

Last week, news of an evil spell ostensibly made against the President on a copper plate made front page news in a leading English daily. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, the next day, the President himself sought to assure everyone that he was not afraid of evil spells, as part of an official address at a public gathering. By way of comparison, a President unafraid of evil spells is seemingly running scared of establishing the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), despite legislation passed in Parliament in August 2016.

I could go on, but yahapalanaya’s congenital inability, since January 2015, to prioritise what is really important risks everything it promised and on paper, stood for. Many would attribute this to the warp and whoof of Sri Lanka’s zero sum, parochial and partisan political culture, which arguably strangles the best efforts around reform and course correction. Electorally, this alienates in particular a younger demographic and also minorities. Without the vote of both, neither President nor PM would be in power today. When young citizens feel or perceive they are doing more than government around disaster relief for example, their anger translates into apathy, disengagement or a vote against government and what they don’t want to see the continuation of. When minorities feel or perceive they are being persecuted and with impunity, parallels are made with how they suffered under the previous regime and how little has changed. When the families of the disappeared and missing endure hellish heat, torrential rain, incredible indignity and hopelessness to just ask for answers that were promised to them months ago, the seeds of future conflict are sown by creating a vacuum extremist domestic and foreign elements, to further their own agenda, can easily exploit.  When MPs and their convoys take over our roads, blinding other drivers, horning incessantly, breaking all road rules and darting around pedestrians as if they were skittles, the government itself, entirely independent of anything done or said by the more vociferous elements of the previous regime, rapidly and perhaps even irretrievably loses public trust, goodwill and support.

A crisis of prioritisation may well be the defining feature historians choose to focus on when studying the period this government was in power. Increasingly, all signs seem to indicate that time will be just a single-term in office.


First published in The Sunday Island, 18 may 2017.

Gods in government

Last Sunday, I wrote about how Sri Lanka’s Minister of Disaster Management never returned hurriedly to Sri Lanka to deal with the catastrophic flooding which hit the country last month, and instead, on his way back to the country from an international conference – ironically on disaster management – had an extended stopover in Dubai for indeterminable reasons. Last week, in coordination with colleagues at work, an RTI request was lodged in order to ascertain just what the Minister was doing outside the country, using public funds, when he should have been on the ground leading relief efforts. To date, there has been no statement whatsoever, leave aside any degree of contrition in public from the Minister, his Ministry or other public officials from the Meteorological Department or the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) around failures in early warning, response and relief coordination.

We should be angry. We should demand the resignation of the Minister and all public officials who fail in what we expect them to do. The lack of accountability and near total impunity around governance arises from elected representatives and appointed officials who know that once in office, the public no matter what will rarely seek their removal. This needs to change, but not just because of last month’s flooding.

An article by journalist Amantha Perera, who has perhaps the most experience around disaster reporting in the country, published by IRIN, quotes Lalith Chandrapala, Director General of the Meteorological Department who says the department doesn’t have Doppler radar capability in 2017 and that with Japanese funding, two stations will be set up in the next two years. Four years ago, in 2013, a storm killed at least fifty fishermen at sea. At the time, an article published by Amantha, also on IRIN, quotes DMC’s Assistant Director Sarath Lal Kumara saying that a new Doppler Radar system would be operational by August, that year. One year prior to this, in 2012, the then Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera was quoted in the mainstream print media, after devastating flooding that year, saying that a Doppler radar system had been installed at Gongala Kanda in Deniyaya and that it would be operational by the end of that year. Two years ago, in 2015, mainstream print media reported that the Doppler radar system was dysfunctional, even though it was shipped to Sri Lanka as far back as 2011. The same media report notes that the Meteorological Department was in discussions with Japanese parties to secure two more Doppler radar systems.

We have then multiple officials and Ministers, over successive governments, for at least six years, misinforming and misdirecting the public around life-saving adverse weather detection equipment financed by bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements, as well as public coffers. Over this period of time, due to rains alone and because of little to no warning coupled with abysmal planning, we have had hundreds of thousands displaced, tens of thousands of homes and buildings completely or partially destroyed and the catastrophic loss of human life including children, women and men – a cost to family, community and country that is really incalculable. The responsibility for all this lies with those heading relevant line ministries and government institutions. And yet, they continue in their employment, no questions asked.

Last Sunday, as well as at a meeting at the United Nations in Colombo convened last week to discuss how social media played a role in the flood relief operations, I called this lack of accountability criminal. I also said that institutions like the World Bank, UN and other bilateral and multilateral donors who support Sri Lanka’s disaster risk reduction and prevention programmes are now part of the problem, instead of supporting the development of solutions and proper planning. As part of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the UN Development Group maintains a transparency portal on the web which, for purposes of public accountability, publishes the sum of money going into development in each UN member state, divided by sector. In 2016, Sri Lanka got US$ 100,417,924 towards disaster prevention and preparedness. That’s 25% of the total sum of money towards developmental assistance as calculated on the portal. It is unclear whether the UN country office in Sri Lanka will hold accountable the institutions and ministries it funded, for this considerable amount over 2016 alone, around their inability to plan for, provide early warning around, or create comprehensive collaboration, coordination and communication platforms after a disaster. Without strict controls, key performance indicators or naming and shaming, foreign funding and technical support will just go to waste. Donors and foreign governments need to peg future funding to key deliverables, ask for comprehensive reasons around systemic failures or stop funding the government of Sri Lanka with immediate effect. It is either this, or becoming partners in fostering a culture of impunity that leads to the loss of life.

Much more can be done with data from the private sector that can around emergencies be leveraged by government and other mandated authorities, like the Red Cross in Sri Lanka. Facebook last week, in collaboration with WFP, UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched a way through which near real-time maps of population displacement and movements after disasters can be drawn. This is based on the millions of Facebook users alone, and amongst other sources, data they generate through their actions and the geo-location features of Facebook’s apps on smartphones. Sri Lankan telecommunications companies like to endlessly promote their selflessness and largesse after a disaster. Tellingly however, there is no reported case around how billions of call data records, generated daily, is made available to and used by relevant ministries, departments and agencies for disaster risk reduction, as well as post-disaster search and rescue, or relief operations. This data, pseudonymised to protect individual privacy, is already available for think-tanks dealing with development. Telcos and government haven’t, even in 2017, thought about how beyond the telegenics of a disaster, this data can help with disaster planning and response, in near real time data, based around customer location. This information can help direct relief and supplies to where people are gathered most, moving towards, or those marooned in areas most affected by a disaster, complementing aerial reconnaissance and other means. Another suggestion made at the UN meeting last week was to encourage government to open up their datasets around disasters, and to stop publishing daily updates in proprietary, closed formats like PDFs, which cannot be indexed or ingested by systems tailored for disaster response, or the reporting of urgent needs.

But really useful solutions can also be relatively low-tech. Take the DMC’s Twitter feed, an important source of information especially during and immediately after a disaster. Last year, critical warnings around severe weather conditions were uploaded against a green or blue background. This year, it was red and brown, at various times. In sum, the severity of the alert bears no relation to the choice of colour. This flies in the face of logic, and established protocols around early warning by for example the Philippines Government, which has an alerting system basic on green, yellow and red (mirroring traffic lights) around disasters. The Philippines government even has officially recognised hashtags for use around disasters by those on Twitter reporting on needs, alerts and situation updates. Even in Bangladesh, things are more developed than they are in Sri Lanka. When at the height of flooding, Twitter reached out in order to help them compile a list of the most useful, active and reliable sources on the platform reporting on the floods, they refused to believe me when I said there was not a single line ministry, Minister, department, agency or public official on Twitter, save for DMC, that was active around the disaster. We are so backward in our adoption of basic technology that it beggars disbelief around leading social media companies that want to help save lives.

Just the simple implementation of a colour coded public warning framework can help reduce anxiety, help with planning, coordinated evacuations and public information dissemination. Yet, this eludes government, along with common-sense, accountability, innovation, collaboration, coordination and communication. In every imaginable way official entities can prepare for and respond to a disaster, systems and frameworks are found lacking. There is no doubt that citizens will in the future, independent of government, help others in need. However, the spontaneity, sophistication and success of these citizen led post-disaster initiatives may ironically make government more complacent, allowing them to take credit for things that they have had no role engineering or even supporting. We must not allow the impunity to continue. The loss of life is not the result of severe weather alone. It is the result of openly lying, the misallocation of public money and foreign funding, a lack of accountability and a culture of impunity. Our anger should be directed at our public representatives, who have names, designations and faces.

We may not be able to influence the weather gods, but those who think they are gods in government must be reminded, unequivocally, they are not.


First published in The Sunday Island, 11 June 2017.

Disaster response

The most obvious disaster around the recent flooding in Sri Lanka was not caused by weather. For the entirety of the height of the disaster, the Minister tasked with Disaster Management wasn’t anywhere close to the areas affected, or even in Sri Lanka. Instead of returning to the country urgently to deal with a real disaster, the Minister was instead in Mexico, speaking about disasters. News media subsequently reported that on the way back to Sri Lanka, he had also broken his journey in Dubai. No news report to date suggests any degree of contrition. Anger directed against the missing Minister on social media in particular took the form of cartoons, memes, tweets, Facebook posts and a petition to call for his resignation. The Minister’s absence was a metaphor for the government’s disaster preparedness, which remains, even in 2017 a good idea. Donors supporting various government line ministries, agencies and departments tasked with disaster risk reduction and early warning need to question, scale back or stop funding. The intended outcomes of loans, technical assistance, grants, knowledge transfers and other measures to strengthen the country’s ability to plan for and mitigate the impact of extreme weather are very far from being achieved. This is basic corruption that bilateral and multilateral donors are supporting – for those in relevant government bodies to enjoy the benefits of training, both local and foreign, equipment and funding, with little to nothing to show for it by way of actual work and warning. Over just the past few years, we have seen this gross negligence leading to the untimely death of hundreds, including children and infants. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been fully or partially destroyed. This is statistical fact, not conjecture, hyperbole or partisan rhetoric. And yet, not a single official or Minister has taken responsibility and even offered to resign. Not a single Minister who owns, or received and didn’t go on to sell off-road capable luxury SUVs were seen in their constituency taking the vehicles out to help flood relief operations, unlike many citizens with similar vehicles who did. With each disaster, the earlier ones are forgotten. And the circus just goes on.

Social media provides a vector through which citizens, tired of and angry with government, are directly helping others in distress. The communication, collaboration and coordination in response to the flooding this year was mediated over social media to an unprecedented degree. The broad contours of entirely organic movements over social media to provide relief and support are already familiar, starting with the flooding from last year to the drought earlier this year. Some aspects of this are worth noting for at least one simple reason. A government writ large, and disaster management authorities in particular unable or unwilling to tap into, monitor, verify, action and archive this wealth of information is not one that is capable of saving lives. There is a growing body of research which looks at the role and relevance of social media content in early warning, disaster response and relief operations, pegged to factors like the media used, medium, language, cost, accessibility and volume. All available research suggests the amount of information produced over social media alone, if ingested in a meaningful and methodical manner, can help official disaster relief operations, contribute to early warning and help in mitigation. Sri Lanka is not there yet, by a long shot. What we do find is the use of social media largely by citizens, for citizens – with information flows that go from WhatsApp to Twitter to Facebook in a matter of minutes. From databases around relief and volunteer operations to rapidly updated lists of collection points, from private taxi companies with their apps facilitating boats and even air support services to the hot-wiring of government agencies with crowdsourced Tamil translation capacity, social media plays a critical role in disaster response entirely independent of government.

This year, Facebook and Twitter played a visibility larger role than with the flooding that gripped the country last year. The hugely successful donation campaign of lunch packets at the Fort Railway Station was facilitated over social media in general, and Facebook in particular. Facebook is now a viable vector into key demographic groups across geography, and importantly, primarily in Sinhala. The communication of and collaboration around relief operations using Facebook has clear implications for information flows far beyond disasters, including, importantly, information flows leading up to a referendum. The same can be said of Twitter. 28,237 tweets were produced in just one week around the response to flooding using four key hashtags on the platform, #floodsl, #floods17, #floodsl2017 and #slflood. Twitter India published, for the first time around any major disaster in Sri Lanka, a list of key accounts including civic media, journalists, the Disaster Management Centre and the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the height of the flooding, Twitter produced well over two tweets a minute with one or more of the hashtags archived, which is for our country an unprecedented volume. Information on Twitter was so important and timely, guides were published on how to get vital updates published by for example the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) on Twitter alone over SMS to any mobile phone, using any network.

The DMC, waking up from deep slumber, stepped up their use of social media. Ordinary citizens, not anyone government, helped with the verification of their Twitter account, thereby raising the credibility of their content. Collaborating with the Gudppl initiative helped DMC put out life-saving information in Tamil, and not just in English or Sinhala. They asked those affected and others to send in photos of affected areas, which was published on a web based map. They publicised WhatsApp groups linked to relief operations. They engaged with enraged citizens over Twitter, and put out content in a carefully curated manner, which though late begin with, was much appreciated. Social media was also responsible in flagging the role and selfless actions of government officials, even as their Ministers, Heads of Agencies and Departments and the official systems failed them miserably. It seems that in the absence of any sort of official recognition, social media is all they have to vent their frustration with what lies beyond their control, and be praised for doing what they can.

Particularly because of the violent and divisive antics Gnanasara Thero just one week prior, a number of social media updates, with compelling entirely citizen generated photography, focussed on how religion and ethnicity played no part in determining relief and recovery efforts. This content went viral. Those in government tasked with reconciliation were encouraged to archive and showcase this content in the months ahead, to combat the rise of what remains a festering, unresolved issue over the hate and dangerous speech produced by the BBS, with near complete impunity.

Other questions remain, from the technical to the practical. Government agencies publishing life-saving information, even in 2017, continue to use proprietary, closed formats that locks in vital information, instead of opening it out. Disaster reporting itself remains a casualty. The mainstream media including social media focussed on deaths and destruction, which is understandable. But there is little to no focus on underlying causes for these disasters, save for the simplistic reporting around rainfall. Deforestation, environmental devastation, lack of disaster risk reduction in urban planning and indeed, ill-advised urban development and other related issues simply go under-reported, at best. Every time, the disaster itself generates headlines and hand-wringing, but what contributes to it, never does. It is unclear to what degree the DMC, which got the capacity to work in Tamil during the flooding, will retain this capacity. Above all, whether government takes accountability seriously.

At a basic minimum, a government that expects to remain in power and win a referendum needs to ensure citizens don’t unnecessarily die. This isn’t rocket-science. It’s basic common-sense. Tellingly, not only does it elude those in power, they don’t really seem to care.

A saffron tinge

I was down with a high-fever when I created Sri Lanka’s first online response against Islamophobia, back in April 2012. News reports of a violent mob in Dambulla, led by the then Mahanayaka of the Rangiri Dambulu chapter Inamaluwe Sumangala thero, proceeded to deface and destroy a mosque they deemed illegal. The basis of the illegality was highly questionable, but this didn’t stop the monks who were part of the mob engaging in a violence that beggared belief. As flagged on a hastily setup site I created to gather signatures against the violence and the very real threat, at the time, of its spread and escalation, there was a member of the sangha who disrobed and exposed himself, in public, in front of the mosque. In one video, still online, Ven. Inamaluwe Sumangala thero suggested that the maniacal mob was actually a shramadaanaya, and that destroying the mosque was something that they should in fact be helped by the (then) government. In a video broadcast in a television news segment at the time, there is a particularly chilling exchange between the erstwhile Chief Prelate of the Dambulla Temple and a Hindu resident of the area. The female, who is not once disrespectful in her submissions to the Prelate, says that from when she was small, she had worshipped at a Kovil in the area. In a menacing Sinhala idiom that loses a lot of its original venom and violence in translation, the Chief Prelate threatens to either remove the Kovil, or have it removed along with the homes of the Hindu residents, noting that they are all there illegally. The Chief Prelate goes on to note, through a Sinhala adage, that not only are the crows attempting to fly over their heads, they are now attempting to enter the nest as well – a clear reference to the Hindus and Muslims in the areas. The woman assures the Chief Prelate, with great deference even in light of an incendiary expression, that there is nothing for him to fear about their worship. However, the Prelate’s answer is again menacing in Sinhala, noting that she can take her gods wherever they want to, but away from the sacred ground of the Temple.

At the time, the petition generated around one thousand six hundred responses from a wide section of society. All of the comments and signatures, coming to around two hundred pages, were printed, bound and delivered to all relevant line ministries, the Dambulla Temple and the President’s Office with a covering note expressing the need for the State to respond to the violent extremism. The only response from the President’s Office was a letter acknowledging the receipt of the petition. Other initiatives followed by those concerned around the growing fascism including the Rally for Unity, a collective of young individuals who created a platform that attracted, at the time, a diverse group of people to champion diversity, tolerance and co-existence. The late. Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero was one of the movement’s first supporters, against what at the time was the heady rise of BBS violence, and with near total impunity. The tragic 2014 anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama cemented the perception that the government at the time was closely linked to the BBS, which instigated the violence, if only because for an incredible length of time – around three days – no mainstream newspaper in Sri Lanka dared to report on the scale or the full import of the violence.

Much was expected from the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in holding the fascism of the BBS at bay, at least, soon after being elected to power. The erosion of that optimism has been steady, and not all that slow. In 2014, leading up to and as a platform to mount opposition against the incumbents in power, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge launched a public appeal for tolerance, pluralism and diversity, which at the time, the UNP signed up to and very publicly committed to uphold. The document was also placed in the public domain for comments, and was one which the former government was also approached with. The many collectives on Facebook in particular in support of the BBS at the height of its frothing hate campaigns transformed into anti-Sirisena, anti-Wickremesinghe groups at the Presidential and Parliamentary elections respectively. The votes of those who are partial to extremism were never those courted by, or given to the current government. Which adds to the tragedy around the degree to which it has pandered to the likes of the BBS. Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa became the new champion of extremism in government, enjoying a degree of impunity as he openly championed, courted and coordinated statements and actions with the BBS that clearly suggested he was supported by others, and by powerful, covert power blocs deeply embedded in a government that was overtly still opposed to racism.

Three key studies around dangerous speech online, and in particular on Facebook in Sinhala, conducted from 2014 to 2016 by the Centre for Policy Alternatives suggest that proponents of extremism – from the BBS to the Sinha-Le movement remained active online, with targets of their campaign focussing on leaders of the present government, as well as minority faith and ethnic groups. The calls to violence aren’t just against brick and mortar structures like mosques. They are thinly veiled calls to maim, kill and destroy individuals, groups and communities the campaigns clearly identify as being existentialist threats to the country, and its card-carrying Sinhala-Buddhist credentials. The continuous manufacture of this dangerous speech online generates a high-level of engagement through ‘likes’ on Facebook, sharing and commenting. The inability of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to give political leadership to stem extremism has strengthened a fringe lunacy online into a more mainstream discourse that appeals to, and first reaches, a politically active demographic.

In just the past weeks, the documented violence against business establishments and mosques resulted in unequivocal statements from the Canadian, US, UK, EU and UN representatives in Sri Lanka around the need to secure Sri Lanka’s democratic potential against extremism. Sadly, strong political leadership in 2017 seems to clearly come from the diplomatic community and multi-lateral organisations more than Parliament, the President or Prime Minister. Despite an arrest order and a ban on travel last week, the leader of the BBS remains at large, with rumours openly published in the media – to date uncontested by government – which suggest he has sought refuge in a safe house belonging to a powerful member of the Cabinet. And so, the farce continues. In the North, Tamils and hapless families of former combatants, as well as those who have no clue about the fate of their loved ones who were forcibly abducted or disappeared, are denied the space to mourn, and worse, treated as suspects. The simple act of a name in carved in stone as a way to remember is enough to raise national security fears. In the South however, the violence instigated by the BBS and the continued support for this extremism from within government passes muster. There is a clear, real problem.

We have a President, Prime Minister and IGP, who with the full weight of State apparatus, still cannot arrest a fascist monk. This is a script that allows extremism to seed, spread and succeed, through the theatre of the absurd. And we are all hopeless spectators in it.


First published in The Sunday Island newspaper, 28 May 2017.

Eight years hence

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.


There are seventy-one mentions of ‘Army’ in the four hundred and ninety-one-page final report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF), released earlier this year. One paragraph is worth flagging in full.

“The Army representatives also stated that although they had achieved the Government’s objective under its political direction and in difficult and challenging circumstances, they felt a lack of solidarity and support at present. They stated their support for a truth-seeking process and if there is any evidence of criminal activity, for the prosecution of the guilty. Given that as far as they were concerned, no criminal activity had been undertaken, they saw no need for amnesty either. Whilst they insisted that civilians were not deliberately targeted and that a policy of zero-civilian casualties was followed, they conceded the possibility of civilian deaths on account of civilians being caught in the crossfire. They also denied that sexual violence was used as a weapon of war. The Air Force reiterated that no crimes were committed and no illegal weapons used.”

Reading the full report, there is a revealing divide between the responses of the armed forces and the thousands of others whose testimony is reflected in it. The military is concerned with the end of the war, and the circumstances that led to its violent denouement. Testimonies by citizens who appeared in front of the CTF, as noted in the final report, are almost completely around the involvement of the army in violence that ranges from extra-judicial killings and abductions to the destruction of homes, fertile land and acts that subject hapless citizens to incredible indignity, intimidation and indifference. Much of this testimony covers a period of time after the end of the war. There is a clear ethnic divide both in how the army is perceived, with the most disturbing testimony coming from Tamils. Reading the report around testimony given by Sinhalese who had suffered the violence of ’71 and ’89, it is clear that lines of empathy are drawn. Those who have suffered violence in the South, recognise how much worse it would have been in the North.

And yet, the report itself and the testimony in it, is already forgotten. The very Prime Minister who commissioned the report has distanced himself from it. Tamil and Sinhala translations of the full report, promised in January, were never released by the government. Public awareness of the report, through mainstream media, was overwhelmingly limited to the role of foreign judges in justice mechanisms, and more precisely, the intemperate pushback against this. The perceptions of the army, based on individual testimonies of violence, remain hidden, even as they are recorded in what some have called one of the most comprehensive processes of public consultation on transitional justice ever to be conducted post-war.

Last week, the State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said that no one would be allowed to discredit the security forces, who had fearlessly safeguarded this country. The Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva used the collapse of a building in Colombo to lavishly praise the army. The army both men venerate, and go to great lengths to protect, is unrecognisable from the army reflected in the CTF report’s testimonies. And therein lies the rub. The south, even eight years after the end of the war, aren’t aware of the degree to which the army has eviscerated trust in the North, not just by what is alleged during the end of the war, but in how it has acted with impunity after the 19th of May 2009, as an instrument of systemic racism, the suppression of dissent and violent land grabs, the scale of which isn’t still evident in the South. An entity portrayed as and largely revered in the south as saviours of the nation are agents of gross violence in the north. The disconnect could not be starker.

In fact, those who know it most acutely could well be the army itself. Their website is replete with press releases around how the army is involved in activities it thinks wins the hearts and minds of those in the north. I have no doubt many soldiers who engage in this work, do it with the genuine belief they are contributing to positive change. I also have no doubt that not all of these activities, no matter how insensitive they seem to outsiders, are undertaken with malevolent intent by the army. They do aim to do good. In the interactions with Police, Navy, Army and Airforce personnel as part of a diploma course in peace and conflict studies I taught at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies around 2005/2006, not a single one said they enjoyed war, killing or making enemies of the Tamil people. Everyone in class, over repeated batches, claimed they were the ones in the frontlines who had the bear the brunt of promises made by politicians in Colombo. The recognition that the army can be a meaningful participant in reconciliation is anchored to those in its rank and file who followed orders they didn’t agree with, and want now to make amends for a violence they were instrumental in meting out.

But this is also the limit of the ‘rotten apples’ theory – the belief that the worst atrocities were committed by a select few. Fearful of electoral pushback or worse, assassination, no government for the foreseeable future will take meaningful measures around accountability. It simply will not happen. The fiction of the army as saviour and hero will continue, in media, textbooks, public life and discourse, memorialisation, policy and politics. The disconnect will grow in the north. The question is what this gives rise to in the years to come. The CTF’s final report suggests that those asking simply for closure, if not given what they deserve, will invariably seed a violence born out of not out unwarranted hate, vindictiveness or unjust cause, but a hopelessness, grief, trauma and fear, the very validity of which continues to be questioned. Eight years after the end of the war, it bears repeating that so much of what gave rise to violence in the first place remain topics no one really wants to talk about openly.

The fate of the CTF report is indicative of how resistant government is to holding the army in particular accountable, or even remotely associated with a behaviour, over decades, that clearly suggests it is above the law. The end continues to justify the means. Chief architects of a violence that matched the ferocity of the LTTE continue to be rewarded and protected, even as the Foreign Minister decries in parliament the previous regime and its efforts to protect those accused of war crimes through diplomatic immunity. The more vehement the opposition to accountability, the more destined we are to repeat history. I believe elements within the military’s rank and file know this better than most, despite their public positions. Reconciliation’s future in Sri Lanka in inextricably entwined with how and to what degree the army is involved. One risks disappointment to hope that wiser counsel will prevail over expedient gain, self-interest, and ultimately, a cancerous guilt.


Published first in The Sunday Island, 21 May 2017.

On India

Everyone has a story about India, even those who haven’t travelled to or within the country. Often, especially in the West, the most common references to India are anchored to accent, religion, sport, cinema or food. It is not surprising to discover the country first through travelogue, film, literature or devouring the ubiquitous British invention, chicken tikka masala, now served in India as well. As Prime Minister Modi visits Sri Lanka for Vesak, I recalled my own encounters with his country.

My first flight to India was also my first ever flight. We landed in the sweltering heat of Summer in New Delhi, with several other families all flying in to admit their children to University. On the way to our temporary lodgings that evening, the steering wheel of the van we were in, though mercifully close to our destination, came off in the hands of the driver. Seated in front, I recall vividly how this stark fact escaped the driver for a few seconds that lasted an eternity, as he, half-asleep, continued to turn a wheel that wasn’t connected to anything. Jolting awake at the realisation of the disconnect between his function and what was now an autonomous vehicle, several thrusts to brake pedal managed to eventually create enough friction to turn the van into a ditch, which had the intended effect of halting progress. The violent stop meant that inside the van, those seated and the luggage stacked behind were, upon looking back, almost inextricably entwined. After significant effort to disentangle in what was even in the early hours of the morning an oppressive latent heat emanating from concrete, tar and pavement – we trudged wearily to a friend’s house. In the fortnight thereafter, in heat that shot beyond forty degrees Celsius, I had to learn how to gain admission to the University of Delhi, since what was a madness that had some method to locals was indecipherable to anyone from abroad. This meant finding a College that would admit me first, and then going to the University with a letter of acceptance for admission. All this required endless forms, travel to and from places widely spaced apart in hellish heat, feverish mobs instead of queues, three-wheeler drivers who fleeced anyone who couldn’t understand the language and officials who for whatever reason, never gave out information accurately, in full or an intelligible way.

It was unspeakably horrible, and I hated India and everything about it.

It was only in the months and years to come, alone as an undergrad student and travelling around the country by train, that I came to love the country. Admittedly, that love never extended to Delhi as a city. It was, even twenty years ago, insufferable, but for different reasons than one can readily peg today. More than the traffic and pollution, out of control even in the late-nineties, the timbre of the people I met in Delhi was overwhelmingly eviscerating. They were without heart and soul. In well under a year, through sheer necessity and constant, deep immersion, I was fluent in everyday conversational Hindi. This allowed me entry into the personal experiences of rickshaw-wallah’s, often as I shared their food on street-side, street-level, stalls. They were victims and perpetrators, from Bihar and elsewhere. Men on edge. Men who had no love for the city there were in, and less love for where they came from. Men who couldn’t contemplate a future – in a very literal sense – since they were consumed by just getting through every day, a never ending existentialist crisis that made them malleable to any voice, no matter how incredible, that offered them a better future. Delhi was a hard place, and it made you hard. But it was also, perhaps unwittingly, a great teacher. Living in Delhi taught me to cook, wash and clean toilets (of the squatting variety), barter, bargain, fight, run away, cross busy intersections (the trick being to keep walking at a regular pace no matter what, because if you hesitate and stop, you die) and negotiate a bureaucracy designed to enslave those in it, and drive to drink those encountering it.

Not all India was as grating as Delhi, and not all those in in the city were without heart and soul. The close bond with many wonderful Professors at Kirori Mal College continues, and some of my best friends remain those I met in Delhi, including many who were born and schooled in the city. But it was through travel beyond Delhi that I learnt to love the country writ large. The train journeys were never short of epic. From Delhi to Chennai, and then on to Pune and Bangalore for a theatre festival. In my final year, after shipping home all of my books, Delhi to Trichy on the Konkan Express, under the Western Ghatts and skirting the verdant fields of Kerala. The gastronomic variety of station food. The abundance of colour. I was in India before any conceivable social media, smartphones and even broadband, when Yahoo! offered 2Mb in total, and Google, leave aside Gmail, wasn’t even around. I never used a computer in University. There were none around. The only computers I used were in subterranean cybercafés in Kamla Nagar, close to the North Campus of Delhi University or at the British Council library, for which one had to pay every half an hour in order to use. Nirula’s was the only fast food chain around, and the coffee houses were gloriously smoke-infested, noisy, beautifully decaying meeting grounds for the dissection of play, politics or party.

Amidst all this, there were revealing absences and silences too. The North-East of India was erased from public discourse – it was like the region didn’t exist on the conversational and media map of the country. Gender based violence, from mutilation and rape to systemic discrimination and even murder, was already high, but not really discussed as undergrads. We walked past corpses on road on the way to exams, dead because of either the cold or heat. The sheer abundance of humanity had resulted in a strange devaluation of life. Garlanded cows seemed to have a better deal than most at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. The so-called Kargil War was fought in my second year of College, and the realisation that two nuclear warhead wielding States were in open conflict was chilling. It was also then that I learnt that India’s first successful nuclear bomb test was codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’ – an irony that escaped many I brought this up with.
The contradictions continue. I took my first train journey in India last week – from Chennai to Bangalore, and then on to Mysore – in over seventeen years. Much has obviously changed. Much remains the same. Sadly, a lot has grown worse. The India seen by train in urban areas is one big cesspool of excrement, rotting garbage and squalor. Inside the train, the Incredible India! campaign looks like a cruel joke, representing a country a world apart from what’s just outside the window. A grotesque materialism has gripped many parts of the country, and the politics are more violent and divisive than ever.

The India I love, however, it still there. The indescribable beauty of Mysore stretching to horizon, seen from Chamundi Hill, around sunset. The miracle of modern transportation that is the Delhi metro. The boutique beers of Bangalore, along with the sheer variety of food and venues to eat in that city alone. Path-breaking wireless cash services like PayTM, even as the violence of demonetisation impacts far more than those who make the news. An arts, theatre and cultural landscape, in most cities, that is greater and richer in depth, scope, imagination and curatorial prowess than anything Sri Lanka has hosted. Fast and reliable Google Wi-Fi in railway stations, even as basic access to platforms for the disabled remain absent. Progress cheek in jowl with so much left to be done, or deliberately left undone.

The late High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in Delhi, Mangala Moonesinghe and his wife Gnana, gracious hosts of the student community at the time, never failed to encourage us to travel within India and critically imbibe tradition, myth and even at the time, aspects of an embryonic modernity. Sadly, few in the student community listened. But those who did found a country that defies then, as it does today, easy capture. India is Kali, irrepressible and through sheer force of time, devouring those who suspect the country’s resilience and innovation despite the worst austerity and politics. India then is an idea, continuing a tryst with destiny and embracing all of us that neighbour it, willingly or not, in its wake. And even as we must continue to stamp our unique identity in South Asia, Sri Lanka forgets or seeks to somehow devalue India, as country, idea, continent, market, friend or adversary, to its own peril.

You can love or hate the country. But you just cannot ignore India.


First published in The Sunday Island, 14 May 2017.

May Day mayday

It was truly a Kafkaesque experience. I have for nearly twenty years gone to Sleek Salon on Vajira Road. On the Friday before May Day, as I was getting a haircut, a fellow customer received two calls and made one. There was no attempt whatsoever to leave the men’s salon to take the calls, or to conduct the conversations in a hushed tone. The first call was a negotiation over extra buses to cart people to a rally on May Day. The political party making the request wasn’t clear. Evident, just by listening to the responses, was that a significant premium on offer if the buses were supplied. The caller was told, apologetically, there were no more buses available, at whatever price. The second call had the recipient repeatedly state his official designation and where he was, which to the caller was at an important meeting. The import of this blatant falsehood was only evident in the third call, which he made to his legal counsel. On this call, all of us in the room were privy to the news that an open warrant had been issued for his arrest, and that the Police were in his office awaiting his return. According to what he informed his lawyer, it was around the non-payment of a large bill for which he apparently bore no responsibility.

An official clearly holding an important government position, with impunity, loudly speaking in public as a broker for public transport used for partisan purposes, apparently wanted by the Police over financial anomalies, calls a lawyer to keep him from going to prison, all the while calmly seated getting a haircut, and at one point asking the barber to jot down the mobile number of the Police constable waiting to arrest him. Save for furtive glances reflected through mirrors and cocked eyebrows, the rest of us in the room didn’t know how to react.

The whole episode was a snapshot of Sri Lanka today – where the positively bizarre exists cheek in jowl with the ordinary, and where the lack of shame over serious allegations or even the threat of arrest is the norm for those with clear political clout or are proxies to power. As it would have to others present in the room, it reminded me of what things were like under the Rajapaksa regime and what Asanga Welikala, an academic and friend, calls the ‘normalisation of the exception’, a disturbing socio-political condition where what is ethically suspect or essentially wrong and violent in form, substance, spirit or implementation, nevertheless garners popular support over time by appearing to be the usual way of going about business, or conducting governance.

And this is how we went into May Day.

Most May Day rallies now resemble rock concerts. Guest appearances, soundbites, music, song and dance before and after the main stage appearance of some pretentious individual – beyond the reach of even those attending – livestreamed, plastered across social media and this year, captured through drones as well. A leading journalist vented, not incorrectly, that May Day is more about the genuflection towards select individuals heading political parties than anything remotely related to highlighting the rights and struggles of workers. Not that the crowds seem to care – out of coercion, curiosity or some coordination – they come in droves, sometimes, as was the case on Galle Face this year, even to die. It is unclear whether they listen to what is said on the main stage, or care enough to. Those on the main stage clearly don’t care about anything they say they do – if they did, at the very least and on May Day, they too would come in buses and trains, not luxury SUVs. The fiction around rally, congregation, stage, speech, intoxication and subsequent dispersion is a well-known, rehearsed script.

But beyond public theatre, May Day is also anchored to the projection of power and the perception of popularity. This completely pointless contest between political parties is nevertheless an inescapable, annual litmus test, outside uncertain timelines of elections. All leading politicians and political parties plan for May Day as a show of strength. And this year, the Joint Opposition’s rally at Galle Face green put the others to shame. Judge the success of it not by what the JO says, but the degree to which those in government, and in power, go to downplay it.

On social media, one young card-carrying UNP supporter tried to suggest that the area in front of the main stage had only ten thousand seats. Even a cursory glance at any photo suggests a density, in that area alone, of at least three to four times more. Other attempts appeared to be more scientific, but were in fact anything but – blocking out grids in the crowd and suggesting each grid had one hundred people, a patently absurd under-estimation.

Lest we forget, the power of optics is more than just the number of people who attend a rally. It is about how the rally is covered and from what angles. Here too, the JO was ahead through better, more strategic planning. From the time the crowd was coming into Galle Face green, with video footage put on social media by Namal Rajapaksa, and taken from what appears to be the rooftop of the Taj Samudra hotel, to the perspectives afforded by drones, the live coverage as well as carefully selected photos released to the public gave a sense of scale. In comparison, what is to date publicly available on the social media accounts of the President and Prime Minister focus on a few individuals, and less on the (smaller) crowds that came to their rallies. And even here, as any novice photographer worth her salt will attest, angles matter. There is simply no spatial awareness in the government’s official output, no sense of scale, perspective, a framing that conveys numbers or the use of vantage points to communicate the length of a procession, or the breadth of a crowd.

If May Day is essentially a contest fought around the projection of popular support through media, as much as if not more than actual feet on the ground, the JO came out on top. And this is a vicious cycle. How crowds are enticed to participate is well-known – few ever come out of their own desire. And yet, this is beside the point. The photos of the JO rally carry a currency the government cannot easily or effectively match, which when coupled with debilitating strikes in the near future, strengthens a perception that the government is haemorrhaging the popular vote. The JO only has to show this in order to sow uncertainty, fear and doubt in the minds of citizens, business, investors and diplomats. The government as a basic minimum response has to demonstrate how much of the popular vote it retains, a task that is increasingly difficult.

I end where I began. For far too many, May Day’s theatrics aside, governance as a feeling and something that is experienced is disturbingly familiar today to what so many thought was voted out in January 2015. Intellectually, the analysis may with sound reasoning argue that things are indeed very different. But the heart wins over the mind. If like at Sleek Salon, hapless citizens are only ever entreated to impunity, the abuse of power and a corrupt political culture, it is likely they become either apathetic, angry or both – anathema to a government in power, that hopes to retain it. It is unclear the political leadership we have today cares enough for course correction.


First published in The Sunday Island, 7 May 2016.