Favouritism 2.0

The email, automatically generated by the professional social media network LinkedIn, asked me to congratulate a friend on a new position. Normally, I would have. On this occasion, though I chose to ignore LinkedIn’s recommended action, I couldn’t ignore the nature of the position or the context in which it was offered, and clearly, accepted. To fully understand what is inexcusably wrong with governance today, one needs to recall the not so distant past and those who flagged the favouritism and nepotism that ingloriously defined, the Rajapaksa regime. Let’s call what we see today Favouritism 2.0. What are some of its defining characteristics?

One, it is the new normal. Excused, cast aside, justified as necessary, compared to the past and perceived as much better, seen as a necessary evil or the inevitable inconvenience of coalition rule. What was heinous in the past, is silently countenanced today. The abandonment of principled opposition to favouritism runs parallel with the general disinterest in holding those in government accountable to the high standards, and highfalutin rhetoric, sold to the public in the lead up to the Presidential Election, as well as the General Election, last year. In essence, even though the government and the structure of governance we have today falls far short of what was promised – judged not by World Bank, IMF, Western, US-centric or NGO driven metrics, but by what the President, the Prime Minister and those in government themselves have said in public – the refrain is to compare and contrast with the recent past, and be content with the present.

Two, Favouritism 2.0 has a ready constituency. To understand this, one needs to understand the political culture of Sri Lanka. When in power, one takes all. When out of power, one has access to nothing. Power – i.e. State resources, public sector employment, transfers, advisory posts, ministerial powers, access and the power to deny access – is sought to advance largely partisan and parochial goals masked as somehow beneficial to a larger group. Those in power, seek to retain it through fear. Those out of power, perennially conspire to regain it, through favour. Once in power, past favours become a powerful currency – those who bankrolled a campaign or party, those who own influential media, those with the backing of industrialists, influential with certain sections of the diaspora, able to withstand predatory moves by the opposition to buy out allegiance for example find their perceived value to be much higher, by those in leadership positions, than those with the actual experience and talent to get things done in the national interest. This is precisely what we witnessed under the Rajapaksas. It is happening yet again, albeit with one significant difference. Since the baseline was so outrageously bad, and set by a regime abhorred by so many, the same culture that endures is largely excused and indeed accepted, noting that institutional change takes time. There is also the argument of sequencing – that it is more important now to push through the new constitution, and indeed, meaningful mechanisms to entrench transitional justice and reconciliation – than be caught up in principled opposition to appointments, transfers and promotions that are thinly disguised rewards for partisan loyalty.

Three, and perhaps the hardest of all, Favouritism 2.0 involves close friends and erstwhile colleagues. It was, in hindsight, easy to criticise the Rajapaksa regime – towards the end of 2014 in particular, they were increasingly a parody of themselves. It is much harder, for those in civil society today, who suffered the brunt of violence under the Rajapaksa, to be critical of colleagues and friends in government and the various constellations of structures in support of reconciliation, accountability, justice and reform. There are foreign trips no for no good reason. There are consultations, to plan for consultations – and the planning takes more time and effort than the actual consulting part. There is a crisis of imagination – many bemoan what can’t be done for a plethora of reasons, all valid no doubt, but few address what can and should be done, even with limited resources and manoeuvrability. Institutional memory has gone with regime change, and new entrants have an agenda with little consideration for what was done in the past. Not all of what the Rajapaksas did and stood for was heinous or completely wrong. And yet, the political maturity and confidence to discern what can and cannot, from the past, be strengthened is hostage to partisan imperatives to completely erase the past and start everything anew. Ironical, considering the imperatives of transitional justice championed by the government itself. Some in charge today are those we have in past years met socially and exchanged strategies to build resilience. They are journalists who opposed nepotism. They are activists who opposed corruption. They are individuals who abhorred kleptocracy and championed transparency, accountability and principled politics. What was a small yet vocal minority then, is now scattered – and many now in positions of authority within government. While there is great merit to an argument that suggests these individuals are vital to institutional change from within, it is nevertheless problematic when they mirror what in the past would have been immediately framed and condemned as wrong. Perhaps it’s just me, looking in from the outside, unable to come to terms with, or comprehend, the maddening bureaucracy and the realities of working for government.

Favouritism 2.0 is seen as somehow more benign. In contrast to what we endured in the past, the same culture encouraged today is justified by sometimes flagging the nature and credentials of the individuals who go on to accept, without any real merit, positions of authority. She or he is one of us (‘ape minissu’), and this makes it ok. Those who submit this argument tend to forget that it was the same one offered by the Rajapaksas. The nature of an individual or group doesn’t erase the violence of favouritism and nepotism. A nicer demeanour or person unjustly placed in a position of authority makes for a good poster, yet continues the same evisceration of institutions that the Rajapaksas almost perfected. A friend in a position of power now means a favour or appointment is a call, email or instant message away. And yet, to indulge in such acts is to erase the distinction between yahapalanaya’s ideals, and the Rajapaksa’s sordid legacy. Clearly, perhaps with the best of intentions, individuals who should know better are accepting positions they are not entitled to hold, or see no harm in occupying. The new fiction is that, collectively, those in government today are of a calibre distinct from the past, and that even if the institutional nepotism and favouritism continues, it is not to the detriment of the country. This is a spurious argument.

Ironically perhaps, the hardest thing under yahapalanaya will be, at the risk of losing close friendships, to stand up to what continues to be so wrong. It was hard, for different reasons, under the Rajapaksas to call out nepotism and favouritism. It is no less vital today.


First published in The Sunday Island,  24 April 2016

Openly hidden

I teach social media verification, and recalled during a class I am teaching this week some of the content that came my way in the first half of 2009. The media landscape in general, and social media in particular, wasn’t then what it is now. Self-censorship was the norm, and high. Mainstream media, out of fear of violence or forcibly through the strict control of advertising revenue, accepted and published the government’s propaganda without question. Social media was still a novelty – Facebook and Twitter seven years ago weren’t platforms known or used to the extent they are today. Flickr and YouTube were used for photos and videos respectively, and were the primary platforms to feature various accounts from Nandikadal and elsewhere were the war was reaching its bloody end, including from ostensibly first-person perspectives. I remember clearly one Flickr account, belonging to an organisation connected to the LTTE based in the United Kingdom, which published photos that claimed to be from 2009, but were in fact taken previously, during what was also a mass exodus due to heightened violence. The scenes were gut-wrenching – destitute women and children who were walking skeletons, macabre injuries and the hardest of all, awful wounds on children and infants. As any indication of hostilities in the early part of 2009 though, they were not just useless – they were also entirely misleading and often deliberately so. While the LTTE and its international proxies put out (by 2009’s standards) a tsunami of video and photographic updates, the Sri Lankan government relied on its near total control of mainstream media and a few embedded journalists reporting the Army’s script. Whereas the Army and government were interested in a domestic media consumer, the LTTE’s media was clearly aimed at the international community and sections of the diaspora. Much of this content published in the public domain is now almost impossible to find, but clearly, helped corner the Sri Lankan government soon after May 9th2009, by downplaying or literally erasing the LTTE’s own atrocities and highlighting shelling and bombing by the Army. Reciprocally, by attempting to control the narrative through its own brutish censorship, the government ultimately lost control of it entirely and the plot to boot. The Army’s own propaganda – often hilariously badly produced – served only to increase scepticism. Each side became a parody of the other.

If anything, the media landscape has over the past seven years become even more complex. What was once published in the public domain, is now distributed over Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, popular instant messaging apps for smartphones and tablets. This makes it close to impossible to monitor the production and dissemination of content that may in fact be entirely false and designed only to inflame tensions. Hate speech resides openly in Sinhala on Facebook, mocking attempts by Facebook itself to address the growth of content that violently targets individuals and communities. The grand strategy of elections now embraces social media as vectors to influence hearts and emotions, minds be damned. Policies no longer play any discernibly important role in elections, as we are guided more by what we feel about a candidate or party.

Media shapes what we feel by framing what we hear, see or read. What’s different from seven years ago is that today’s propaganda is ephemeral (in say the case of Snapchat, an app that deletes content after a certain time), hidden in the open (in the case of mobile chat apps) and is quickly spread over a dizzying spectrum of media (animated images over Twitter called GIFs, short video clips, compelling infographics, immersive maps, and increasingly, interactive 3D content).

In light of these developments, I am often asked the question as to whether another Nandikadal could occur today, or years into the future, given the ubiquity of eye-witness technology. My response is to observe Syria – possibly one of, if not the most recorded violent conflict over social media. We have thousands of hours of video, possibly millions of photographs, tweets, Facebook posts, articles on the web. And yet, the violence continues. Clearly then, social media’s ubiquity is no guarantee against war. This is partly because of social media’s very success. Cricket. Entertainment. Inspirational quotes. Coffee and food. Holiday destinations. Dogs and pets. Outfits. Families and selfies. This is usually my newsfeed on desktop and mobile. Increasing choice has led to increased isolation, and our awareness of and engagement with the world is now largely determined by a new, transnational, unaccountable yet extremely powerful censor – the algorithms that govern social media timelines. What we like and share, in turn determines what we see and know. If we don’t know what to ask, or haven’t the curiosity (and courage) to go where we are uncomfortable, what we see and understand as the world is largely determined by what we believe in, and our own socio-economic circumstances.

What this splintering has done is to make it almost impossible for government to truly control a narrative. Attempting to really control media production around an offensive similar to Nandikadal today would be to face with challenges that didn’t exist in 2009 – from cinematic quality cameras on drones to devices like the Narrative Camera which take photos continuously in very high resolution of whatever it is facing, and can subsequently be uploaded online, indexed by location or date and time. All this is ripe for the worst sort of propaganda as well – just look at ISIL and their slick, well produced recruitment videos. And there is also the matter of algorithmic news selection. Today’s censors are in fact far more powerful than the Rajapaksa’s ever were, and their greatest success lies in how they are perceived, at best, or being benign agents of content delivery, or occasionally, regime change. This is Facebook. This is Twitter. This is Google. Readers of this newspaper may come from a demographic that sees these platforms as purely the domain of their children or grand-children, and yet, their influence radiates far beyond those that just use them on a daily basis. Anger or alienate, somehow, any one or more of these giants, and you will cease to exist even though you may have a web address that is public, a story worth telling and content worth sharing.

Social media verification for me, from 2009, was guided by a yearning to go to the heart of a story, by either verifying as true content presented to me, or by proving it false. But it’s not about technology really. I believe media – civic, social, electronic and print – should shape how we engage with what matters the most to our present and future, instead of just pandering only to what sells, generates the most likes, retweets or views. A disturbing paradox of vastly increased choice and incredibly diminished media literacy defines our social media age. I am struggling to teach how best to overcome what surely will be a landscape where wars do happen, just not with our knowledge – or interest. There is no guarantee of success.


First published in The Sunday Island, 17 April 2016.


The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

Maya Angelou

‘Sampur’, a new and compelling short documentary by filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam released last week, is now freely available online and over social media. The film deals with displacement. Seven years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, that so many in Sri Lanka can’t go back to their homes may come as a surprise to some readers. The documentary centres around internally displaced individuals from Sampur – a town located about thirty kilometres South-East of Trincomalee. The hellish conditions those displaced had to endure for over nine years was, in part, highlighted by the enervating heat we’ve endured for so many weeks across Sri Lanka. If from the relative comfort and security of our own homes we often complain about the withering weather, it is hard – even when their lives and living conditions are projected in high definition – to truly imagine the lives of entire families confined to small shelters, tin roofs over their heads, with no electricity or running water. The film showcased the struggle of seven individuals to return home. There are many more in similar conditions, also waiting to go back home.

The end of the war was a ripe moment for those displaced to return to their homes. This did not happen. Instead they spent years in IDP camps before returning to find their land still occupied, and were forced to live in temporary, makeshift housing. The opening up of the North and East to journalists provided new frames and opportunities to capture stories that for decades were marginal, or even violently erased. And yet, their stories are still not meaningfully documented or reported. The filmmaker highlighted another ironical development, post-war. During war, he noted, an intrepid filmmaker was able to capture footage from the North and East under the radar of the military and other officials. Since 2015, he noted that while filmmakers can move around freely, the military continued to block or ban the filming of tracts of land, festivals, or specific locations, despite official requests from government authorities to allow filming. So while Sri Lanka’s post-war “success story” continues to generate kudos from the international community, thousands continue to be traumatised by the presence of the military. This is not hyperbole. A character in ‘Sampur’ speaks of how humiliating it is to have to ask permission from the military weeks in advance to just visit a temple, only to be turned down with no reason given. Another says how scared she was of being shot by the military when returning to her own home. It’s just one line amongst many others that are equally poignant, and points to an enduring fear years after the end of war in Sri Lanka that can’t be laughed off or somehow wished away.

A rough analogy would be to have armed, resident and State-sponsored burglars in your home, who on a logic entirely distinct from and independent of you or your family, opened and closed the front door, oversaw what you did and said, used your home as they saw fit. Further, they also saw you you and your family as annoyingly occupying property that belonged to the State, even though it really is your own land to which you have a legal entitlement to.

This is Sampur in a nutshell. The absurdity of it all is in fact what so many endure, with no recourse to the law, no savings to start anew elsewhere, and in fact, no desire to leave their homes. The indignity is what is most disturbing. Long after you’ve forgotten what was said by someone, you remember how you felt. Successive governments have promised equality and freedom for Tamils. Few have made them feel at home. The excuse for what is essentially systemic racism on multiple levels can no longer be that political change takes time. It’s really quite basic – allowing someone to go back to their homes in lands privately owned and occupied by generations, cultivate their land, sleep without fear of being shot at. Being spoken to in a language they can communicate in. Being treated with dignity, or at the very least, with nothing more than the same rudeness and maddening inefficiency that all of us face when dealing with government. There are various theories about winning hearts and minds as integral to a just and lasting peace. Intellectual exercises around power sharing, electoral reform and transitional justice have no traction with displaced people eking out a living. Symbolic gestures matter perhaps far more? The restoration of a title deed. Even a simple hut in one’s own land, constructed by oneself, contrary to the government’s recent attempts at resettlement with recipients having no say over the type of house with little or no room for modification according to individual needs. Symbolic gestures can over time, and in the aggregate, invariably strengthen more complex institutional, constitutional and political reform agendas. No matter what genius guides a top-level political reform process, if communities and individuals like those depicted in ‘Sampur’ continue to live the way they have since 2006, we risk more violent conflict – and there is no sugar-coating this.

This would be such a tragedy, for all of us.

This is why ‘Sampur’ as a film, Sampur as a location, and Sampur as a frame of reference cuts across party political, communal, ethnic, economic and other identity markers. The film will be broadcast on TV and will hopefully resonate amongst those in other parts of the country who have also been displaced, or forcefully evicted. Those in Colombo need not look as far East as Trincomalee – the relatively invisible yet sustained evisceration of entire neighbourhoods and inter-ethnic, inter-religious communities who have lived together for decades, under the ‘beautification’ drive of the previous government and the megapolis plans of the present government, strongly mirrors the violence of those featured in the film. And while we may debate the scale and scope of the violence, the point of ‘Sampur’ is that we never lose sight of an essential, shared humanity.

This Sunday it’s very likely that you have this newspaper in your hands, or are reading this article on your palm or desktop, at home. Whatever form home takes and wherever it is, you are the custodian of a small piece of Earth’s crust to open out to others, to grow trees or bonsai, to build or break down, sell or rent out, walk in and out whenever you please and with whoever you please. To sing in the shower, or hog the loo. To run away from, or return gratefully to. To show off to others, or just admire privately. To party or rest. Pause to think about everything home means to you and your family. Where you are now. Where you grew up. Is it really too much to ask the same freedom, the same contentment, security and dignity for everyone in our country – especially for those who have lost so much?

Systemic change

If it ain’t broke, fix it. This clearly goes against conventional wisdom. Yet hacking the system is something anyone can and should do. It is vital to democracy. You don’t need to be Snowden, Assange or Manning. You don’t need to take the mad risks Wael Ghonim or Sombat Boonngamonanong undertook willingly. We can all do it. And we must, because if we don’t, history will likely repeat itself. And in Sri Lanka this means reliving a bloody past best memorialised, not relived.

It is a significant challenge that is under-appreciated. When today many of us confronted with what is clearly wrong, we are mostly pre-conditioned to somehow rationalise it, because bearing witness and speaking out offers little reward. This is why racism, discrimination, hate speech, corruption and violence persist. We are silent, even in the face of the inexcusable injustice because of a number of reasons – profit, social status, geographic location, party political office, gender, class, caste, fear or out of self-interest. Yet express this openly, and few will agree. Everyone wants to be seen as a democrat, yet few are. Breaking down existing systems will require a hard reboot, to use an analogy from computing. There is however, even amongst the erstwhile regime change mind-set, resistance to complete reset. The systems are essentially convenient and expedient, just not the people who inhabited them from 2005 – 2015. The opposition against the Rajapaksas was tellingly not really an opposition against a corrosive, despicable political culture. Most of what was so wrong under the Rajapaksa regime can be openly seen today. Just not to the same degree, or led by the same individuals, expressed in the same way or done in a similar fashion. The principled opposition to all this though is muted.

A culture and system that offers what is essentially the good life to politicians, no matter how partial we are to them, is simply not a democracy. How do we hack the system to give the President and PM a hard time, not because we dislike them but because that is what is needed? A good starting point is to understand political office, in our country, that exists largely to control, censor, curtail and contain. Our political system demands conformity, not change, and values deference over dissidence. Idealism is frowned upon. Because no one really trusts anyone else, the gatekeepers – folks with the most power – are those who broker introductions and are able to secure an audience. Allegiance wins over competence – loyalty to an individual or party is what matters, not merit, critical thinking or the courage to admit failure. Friends and colleagues now inhabiting various tiers of government, as well as others, close to various figures who wield great power, all say the same thing. The system is completely broken. You would think that this would galvanise action to fix it. But no. What old friend and colleague Asanga Welikala, referring to Sri Lanka’s State of Emergency called the ‘normalisation of the exception’, runs so deep, change is only seen as necessary when out of power, and in the interest of gaining it. Otherwise things are generally peachy.

Hacking this requires in the first instance to stand up to what’s wrong. It takes just a photo. A short video clip. A tweet. A Facebook post. Something up on Instagram or a comment on a news media site. A voice recording. To wit, the argument isn’t that technology is a panacea that suddenly makes risk averse citizens into guard dogs of dignity, decency and democracy. Growing up in violence is to invariably grow used to it. And yet, the suggestion is that if we are able to inspire and encourage enough people, over time, to capture enough instances of where politics and governance fail us, we then have the evidence – suitably captured, studied, verified and presented – to galvanise many others to follow suit. You don’t change the political architecture by merely replacing leaders. You change it by re-engineering how society observes and responds, and how the actions of a few can be engineered to snowball into the aspirations of many. This is a long-term process, and independent of (though arguably sometimes entwined with) regime change.

Obviously, hacking yahapalanaya isn’t going to be popular. The brand still has power. The immediate pushback will be to not mess around with something, warts and all, that is far better than what was endured previously. So many now in government are friends, and those who put their lives on the line leading up the 8th of January last year. A natural affinity creates a dangerous barrier to more open, principled critique. The argument will be that change takes time. That things can’t be rushed. I would argue however to be impatient with everyone and everything, all the time. The trick though is not just to complain about inaction or elephantine reform. It is to do something about it. We need more whistle-blowers, and programmes, freely accessible, that educate citizens on how to release information in the public interest and at the same time, manage risk around violent pushback. From a computing standpoint, we need data crunchers, visual analysts – the cross-disciplinary roles that should undergird advocacy and activism today. We need those who make and importantly, break stuff by taking apart what exists. This doesn’t always take great technical skill. The person who asks for a reason. The person who refuses to take no for an answer. The person who wants more details around a decision. The person who raises a question with local government. The person who refuses to move aside for a blaring convoy of SUVs. The person who walks on the grass near Parliament. Encourages children to gently touch the glass tank full of fish at Diyata Uyana. Paints some subversive graffiti on beautified Colombo’s whitewashed walls. Refuses to stand up when a politician walks in. All small acts of defiance. Vandalism may not be vigilance, but if a more chaotic, less pristine, edgier city is one that is able to better resist mindless conformity, I’d take it.

None of this is entirely radical or new. Most of what I’ve noted here is already happening, despite government. Yahapalanaya may well end up being, over time, a Rajapaksa regime in sheep-skin, but citizens are speaking out. Without going back to white-vans and grease-yakas, the government cannot effectively control how it is scrutinised, resisted, questioned or opposed. The thing about freedom is that it is contagious and can lay waste to even the best laid plans to control a narrative to only fit what’s convenient, to a few. This government showed us that. It would do well to not forget it.

Hiding the Right to Information

I took the effort to measure it.

On the day after the the Right to Information bill was presented in Parliament, a leading daily newspaper devoted eight times more coverage to a soft drink ad on its front page than covering this historic development. A ‘grand sale’ of a leading home department store took up ten times more space. The birthday celebrations of the PM covered six times more space. The story of a Minister’s 500,000 rupee worth gem that was lost and found took up three times more space.  The comparisons continue to be mind-boggling. The news story on RTI featured just three lines. In contrast, the front page lead of a Minister’s lost gem stone was twice as long.

One is forced to ask if Sri Lanka’s mainstream media is willing and able to report in the public’s interest, or is governed by Editorial decisions hostage to keeping advertisers and political paymasters happy. The problem is not just with mainstream print. It extends to SMS news services as well. Recently, I visualised hundreds of updates sent to my mobile, from October 2015 to March this year, by a leading SMS ‘news’ provider I had subscribed to. The top 50 terms used most frequently over six months is quite revealing. The updates are extremely Colombo centric – vital updates from other districts, provinces or cities are very much on the margins, at best, of this provider’s news agenda. Updates around various MPs and arrests dominate the news agenda. No other sport comes close to cricket – where high profile matches get, sometimes, updates around key overs and not just the match result at the end. The names of tournaments to the countries we play against come out strongly in the data drive visualisation. Linked to the focus on politicians, President Sirisena wins over PM Wickremesinghe in terms of mentions, and by a long shot. This could be because media, especially from 2005 – early January 2015, was almost entirely focussed on the Executive’s actions and statements. The legacy of this is that even with the 19th Amendment, the media continue to focus on the office of the Executive, without recognising the powers of the PM to shape our national discourse and agenda. Of course, it could also be the result of our PM, and indeed, his government, being so atrocious with media relations. What’s particularly revealing is the extent to which the Rajapaksas still feature in, at least this SMS provider’s news agenda. Mahinda and his family may be out of power, but they still centre and forward in news coverage.

The silences are damning. There is no rights based focus on the news agenda – those displaced, disappeared, landless and continue to be at risk of violence, don’t even remotely feature on the news agenda. If you looked at the past six months, coverage of the Public Representations Commission (PRC) and the whole process of constitution building remains marginal, at best. The Right to Information (RTI) is legislation that has been well over a decade in the making, and absolutely fundamental to an empowered citizenry being able to hold government accountable. The importance of RTI can be judged by its greatest opponents – the former government. In 2011, the President at the time had told a group of Editors that RTI wasn’t needed in Sri Lanka as he would answer any questions they might have. In July 2012, the then Secretary to the Ministry of Media and Information said that that RTI risked national security, and hence would not be introduced. As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted at the time, “almost always, when a government has something to hide, it says access to information will threaten national security – even though national security issues are exempt from disclosure in all nations’ right to information laws.”

After well over a decade of agitation and multiple attempts to introduce to Parliament, an RTI Bill that isn’t perfect but is the strongest we’ve had was presented to Parliament, and is expected to become law around May or June. The mainstream media’s response is to feature Avurudu sales, birthday celebrations, missing gemstones and soft drinks. Not a single Editorial in any leading English newspaper covered the tabling of the Bill in Parliament. If the media doesn’t set the agenda, it is unlikely the public will be animated around, much less actually use, RTI legislation to its fullest. Even a cursory glance at India’s or Bangladesh’s RTI regimes suggest that the introduction of the Bill is the first step of a much longer road. Yet in those countries, the media promoted the use of RTI, and not just episodically. An agenda set by advertisers, a media owned by partisan political interest and journalists who don’t value the importance of RTI in their work suggest that even with the passing of the Bill in Parliament in around two months, enabling legislation or greater accountability in theory, is no guarantee in practice.

This can be changed by championing RTI through different vectors. Getting the people to agitate for, understand, and go on to use RTI provisions can, by frustrating and annoying government agencies unused to scrutiny on a sustained basis, make them fear the sunlight of questions. Government is going to fear RTI, and there is no denying this, but not just for the obvious reasons. Grossly under-appreciated in the implementation of RTI will be the training and staffing of information officers, and the change management at all levels across the whole of government that needs to take place. All this takes money. Sri Lanka is in dire economic straits. RTI will add a burden to a fragile first term government it can ill afford, and measures must be taken to match what will be a rising tide of public expectations and demands with the ability of government to respond. All this can be fuelled by civic media, but ultimately, it’s mainstream media that will reach the most amount of people. From TV stations to spots on radio, from editorials to op-eds, from ads in the public interest to creative campaigns, from RTI drives to innovative apps, from using telcos and their reach to revamping an ageing Postal Department to promote RTI applications by offering free postage, or pre-printed forms – there are endless opportunities to really give life to legislation so many, in the face of the greatest adversity, have championed.

Birthdays, Avurudu sales, gem stones and soft drinks are important for a few. RTI impacts every single person in Sri Lanka – our children, parents, relatives, neighbours, colleagues, friends and rivals even. The simple mathematics of it, one hopes, will compel mainstream media as well as government to take RTI seriously.

We all deserve it.


First published in The Sunday Island, on 27th March 2016.

Blurring the domestic and foreign


Earlier this week I sent a compelling new report by the Mercator Capacity Building Centre for Leadership and Advocacy (LEAD) to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister. I picked up an extra copy for him from a workshop in Berlin I attended in February, where the report was co-presented by someone from the German government and LEAD. The report captures an interesting change-management process at the German Federal Foreign Office, tied to radically revising decision making and strategic response in an increasingly complex and inter-dependent international landscape. In a covering note I sent the Minister, I noted how the significant challenges faced by the Germans around changing a conservative, risk and change averse, anachronistic institutional culture resonated deeply with the organisational culture within Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry, and indeed, across the whole of government in Sri Lanka. The overall conclusion of the report is worth flagging.

“Adapting a foreign policy organisation to the realities of the digital age is first and foremost a leadership question: Only with the right personnel in leadership positions within the organisation can a resilient internal culture based on trust and individual agency flourish. Robust institutions are those that internalise change and empower their employees and stakeholders while creating space for risk-taking and failure – two things that are critical to building a learning organisation.”

This admittedly may sound like gobbledegook for many readers here. What in essence the report suggests is that old thinking (doing things a certain way because they have always been done a certain way), and any information gathering, analysis and response based on it, is grossly inadequate to deal with foreign policy considerations today. It is true in the case of Germany. It is true for Sri Lanka.

Several other points were made. How today, domestic policies and foreign policy are inextricably entwined. Playing to the gallery at home has deep and enduring implications, in an age of pervasive social media and rapid crowd-sourced translations, around how the country is perceived internationally. How without leveraging communications technology and social media in particular, a foreign ministry cannot fulfil its mandate, or indeed, keep a country and its interests secure. How there was a shift from using military, industrial or financial clout as the primary props of foreign policy to a renewed emphasis on soft-power (which small nation-states are often more adept and agile at wielding). How foreign policy, even within the government itself, was now being driven by other arms and agencies of government – for example in Sri Lanka, where at various times and for varied reasons, Ministers, with no mandate from the MFA, have spoken in public around reconciliation, accountability, diaspora issues, international obligations around transitional justice, the inclusion of international actors in domestic frameworks and investigations into alleged war crimes.

My interest in stealthily taking an extra copy of the report for Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry was to, in a little way, help him and his team to think about organisational change, from the bottom up, to deal with key challenges over the lifetime of the government. For example, the pro-LTTE diaspora is enervated, not erased. The Sinhala-Buddhist fringe lunatics are frothing from Canberra to Toronto. From individuals to institutions, overtly through positions of political authority and influence, to covertly, through trans-national networks of financing and power-brokering, Sri Lanka’s government will face the brunt of disaffection from powerful extremist forces outside our borders, and indeed, ability to control, contain or censor. It is simply a question of when and how often. Not if. This is not a challenge that a scorched earth policy akin to Nandikadal can mitigate or address. The challenge is organic, which requires entirely new frames of analysis and out-of-the-box thinking to effectively identify, assess, mitigate and respond. Furthermore, our Foreign Minister is going around making various promises around reconciliation and transitional justice that domestic institutions and mechanisms have clearly still not been set up to effectively address and act upon. The rather stark disconnect between the promises and pronouncements made internationally, and the confusion and chaos that dominates domestically, is really hard to cover-up. Domestic inaction will have an international fall-out. Increasing international impatience will have domestic implications.

In response, building in something called ‘agility’ will be the hardest challenge for our Foreign Minister – and one shared by change agents across the whole of government. Agility is the opposite of hierarchical decision making – it is the ability of a team, institution or indeed, government as a whole, to democratise decision making within an accountable framework, moving away from traditional models of authority to rapid, effective responses based on competency, consultation and collaboration. All of this is of course entirely alien to our government, and to be fair, most other governments. But what ails many is not an excuse to continue our own lethargy. As the LEAD report suggests, agility is central to institutional effectiveness, and can be engineered by looking at simple steps like more flexible job descriptions that allow short-term mobility within government ministries and between staff grades, to inter-departmental teams around key challenges and interests. It’s in essence moving away from ossified, soul destroying offices where everyone unquestioningly follows the Minister, the Deputy Minister, their Secretary’s, their Secretary’s minions, the minion’s favourites, their own deputy’s and then the close friends of the deputy’s – in that pecking order – to a ministry and indeed, a government that encourages and retains qualified, innovative, dynamic minds in an egalitarian, merit based culture. One can dream!

Yet, no matter how desirable, is any of this really possible? Was the change on the 8th of January 2015 deemed possible even on the 1st of January that month? From the end of apartheid to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, significant systemic change has a few key common markers. One, it often comes far faster than at first imagined, or thought possible. Two, it can come from within, because of a few inspired, visionary leaders. Three, context can force institutions to change, out of fear or an interest in retaining relevance. Four, institutions and individuals unable and unwilling to change, will fail – and do so spectacularly.

For a government, this means that unless they embrace what for example the LEAD report flags as vital issues to anchor policymaking around today, they will fail and essentially, lose voters. For a line ministry, like the MFA here, institutional change will require the Foreign Minister to set an example around how he empowers staff to leverage non-State actors, trans-national diaspora, bilateral relations and soft-power branding to further Sri Lanka’s interests, and indeed, use our international standing as currency to encourage other parts of and individuals in government to live up to expectations.

Can it be done? Perhaps Browning had the answer when he wrote that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for”.


Published first in The Sunday Island on 20th March 2016.

Moment to movement

In Myanmar over this week, I worked with some key civil society organisations from Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere around issues eerily similar to what Sri Lanka has faced, and continues to endure, around hate speech, governance, rights and democracy. Both Sri Lanka and Myanmar suffer from, although to varying degrees, an inability to grow vital democratic moments – like for example a historic election – into meaningful reformist movements aimed at changing the culture of institutions. This is arguably very hard.

Mobilisation around and for an election is fundamentally different from generating and sustaining interest in the power structures and culture that governs institutions. Culture and power are often personality driven, ingrained deeply and often invisible and unquestioned even to those who negotiate it.  The maddening minutiae of government bureaucracy is a hard sell for long-term engagement. Clarifying how whole of government works (or not as is often the case) is much harder than the rhetoric promising reform and change leading up to an election. The same technology that is today pivotal in any campaign can turn quickly into a cacophony of competing interests. Even with the best of intentions, the co-option of critical civil society voices into official government structures often rids them of the liberty to express personal opinion. While change agents are necessary to manoeuvre within the monsters our public institutions have become, friends inside government can serve to stifle vital constructive criticism – from something as simple as not wanting to hurt the feelings of a colleague or friend – that in turn and over time, risks contributing to failed promises and only cosmetic reform of the status quo.

The harm in all of this is very real, even if it not immediately or openly appreciated. The heady hope and optimism around the election of President Sirisena in early 2015 is now long gone. Around the Parliamentary election in August last year, the Damoclean prospect of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ilk re-capturing an overbearing influence over Parliament galvanised support, organically and from varied groups, around campaigns to strengthen and continue with January 2015’s promise of change. And yet, what we witness almost every week are examples of an abrasive, arrogant political culture that endures, nay thrives, even after the Rajapaksa’s are gone. The mechanisms around public consultation are, as they stand today textbook examples of how to not craft the systematic capture of history in the making. From the Public Representations Committee on the new constitution to the Task Force around the design of reconciliation mechanisms, public submissions are encouraged by Government, but with no real official support to the extent needed. Documenting for posterity, opening up channels to appeal to and engage with first and second time voters, capturing opinions and ideas from the public domain, responding to credible public survey based markers of opportunities and risks, crafting effective outreach strategies, having public fora in easily accessible places – the lack of these and so much more stymie genuine engagement. Systemic change comes by kindling the public imagination. This hasn’t happened beyond two key elections last year. With all this and more comes apathy, amongst the very demographic that voted in those in government today and the President. This is dangerous, because it raises the bar exponentially for political engagement around the promise of reform and change in the future, allowing for illiberal, violent, corrupt and authoritarian practices to continue for longer. If citizens don’t believe systems can change, if they aren’t educated around how difficult it is for institutional cultures to transform, if the government doesn’t clarify continuously what exactly it is doing around reform and openly discuss why some efforts, as they will, fail, citizens will over time believe that all politicians, and all governments, are pretty much the same.

There is some hope.

At the workshop in Yangon this week, from LGBTQ activists to those working on opening up Parliamentary proceedings, from those interested in helping the displaced and disenfranchised to others who wanted to take action against violence against women, the demographic was overwhelmingly young and indeed, from the remotest reaches of the country. Some of them will be imprisoned or risk incarceration of worse. Others will migrate or move on to more lucrative professions. A mad or committed few however will continue to do what they have done. And that’s all it takes. Over the week, I talked about engineering tipping points – how, even against seemingly insurmountable odds, through the amplification of critical dissent through means that are today impossible to completely censor, control or contain, social change – beyond regime change – can be augmented and in some cases even accelerated. From 100 day trackers last year to the protest at Independence Square last week, from the government’s ignoble backtracking over the bizarre media website registration edict to the open anger around the Minister of Education’s perception of AIDS, from the strident criticism of the President and Prime Minister over so many issues and incidents to the freedom of cartoonists to lampoon whoever they want – these are indicators of, for Sri Lanka, a new resilience and impatience governance that doesn’t work, and government that doesn’t deliver.

Were key historic moments in Myanmar and Sri Lanka over 2015 translated into wider, deeper and longer-term reform movements? Arguably not, in the main. Coalitions, networks and collectives mobilised around the 8th of January and 17th of August last year in Sri Lanka, mobilised largely around reform and change, have dissolved. Similar collectives around the 8th of November in Myanmar are already enervated. Those in Yangon are already talking about how difficult it will be to change public institutions. On so many fronts, Yangon is much more disadvantaged than Colombo. And yet, those here are innovating with much less than what we in Sri Lanka enjoy, and often go on to complain about. Should this not make us all the more committed towards reforming what we have inherited, and what clearly only works for a few?


First published in The Sunday Island on 13 March 2016.