Benevolent dictators

Almost exactly seven years ago, a Jayatissa from Nugegoda, writing to The Island, had this to say of the then President. “Now here is a man, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who made use of the post of Executive President and his iron will to completely eliminate Prabhakaran and his cohorts and bring peace to this war-torn country after 30 long years. Already he has started several mega development projects and resettled 90% of the displaced Tamils… Now what the country needs is a ruler like Lee Quan Yu of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia. I dare say that M.R. will not be second to both of them. So why did we hesitate to give such a man to contest for a third or fourth term because he has already shown by his actions so far that he is determined to develop the country. You can be rest assured that even if he chooses to be a dictator he will be a benevolent dictator.”

The sentiment around a ‘benevolent dictator’ runs deeper than just Jayatissa’s open adoration for and adulation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Some historical accounts suggest J.R. Jayawardene’s intent in creating the office of the Executive President was to define a political role that could push through policies and actions that would otherwise be held up in messy politics, partisan struggles and intra-party divides. Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge, with a historic margin of victory, came to office promising to be a benevolent dictator. Many still look at Premadasa’s time in office with nostalgia, as a man who got things done. The fascination with making Sri Lanka a Singapore also stems from the hero-worship of Lee Kuan Yew. Two months ago, Colonel Kithsiri Ekanayake led a delegation of military officers from Sri Lanka to Rwanda on a post-genocide study tour. During the tour, Col. Ekanayake is reported to have openly appreciated the leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his efforts to develop the country.

There is a common thread behind all this. Sri Lankans love to see results, and don’t often care how the results are achieved. The significant militarisation post-war, especially in the North and East, was not just roundly justified by government, it was widely accepted by the South as the best possible way to get things done, also in order to maintain law and order in areas ravaged by war. The construction of shopping precincts in Colombo, as well as other commercial and public infrastructure using Army labour was seen as putting to good use soldiers who would otherwise have idled in barracks. Further, the tangible results, often in a resplendent white facade, were seen as proof that development works best, in Sri Lanka, under a strict command and control regime. In sum, the best sort of development and governance is seen to be better through or under a regimental system controlled by an all-powerful visionary acting in the best interests of the country, than through inept, corrupt civilian and public administration. Gotabaya Rajapaksa knows this, and his political campaign, supported by some of the best advertising and marketing firms in Sri Lanka, is set to capitalise on this widespread public sentiment.

The problem with the model is not so much what can or has been achieved under it, but how the results are brought about. The end justifies the means. As long as there is tangible, material or perceived evidence that resources channelled into a project were utilised in a meaningful manner, the public generally don’t care what violence was employed or threatened in order to achieve the result. Singapore’s economic model and society, Rwanda’s post-genocide rule under Kagame, Premadasa’s development and ‘Gam Udawa’ projects, the reign of CBK and the post-war policies of the Rajapaksa regime in particular, for those close to, involved with, seeking entry into or supportive of those in power, appear deeply desirable and democratic. In reality, though to varying degrees, their authoritarian diktat, the systematic undermining of democratic institutions, the denial of dissent and outright demagoguery, all of these individuals were, or still are in fact the opposite of democratic.

In fact, even that’s not the problem. It’s the support they get from vast swathes of the population to do as they see fit, because of populist rhetoric that slowly but systematically undermines public trust in and support of public administration and civil authorities. The problems in the public sector, instead of being addressed, are weaponised to support the authoritarian bent of those who seek power and control. The emotive electoral submission is one that is geared to build trust in an individual, or set of individuals, who have projected as having proven abilities to get the job done, over government officials, civil servants and others who are hostage to bureaucracy, graft and systemic inefficiencies. It’s a powerful argument. Though invariably anecdotal, in conversations with a wide-range of individuals from across the South of Sri Lanka, the nostalgia is now around a country where despite astronomic corruption, which is acknowledged and condemned, “things happened”. Roads were built. Garbage was collected. Bridges were built. Cities were cleaner, and greener. Parks were maintained. Jobs were given. The private sector was happy. Now, with multiple power centres and the devolution not of political authority, but of corruption, citizens feel yahapalanaya is stagnating, and that for the best of intent, those in power will not be able to deliver the kind of material, kinetic development and existential, economic relief, citizens need.

And so, the fiction of the benevolent dictator will rise again, and gain new currency over 2018. This fiction holds great appeal for the young, professional, urban class, who under the Rajapaksa’s enjoyed, amongst other things, the benefits of a clean, green city without a shred of concern for the violence meted out to the thousands who were evicted, lost everything, and are now living in horrendous conditions. The furore against the destruction of the Colombo Swimming Club pool earlier this year flagged this disconnect quite clearly, where patrons of the exclusive club were absolutely appalled by what had happened to their pool, but unmoved by and blithely unaware of what, for years, had been taking place around them in the city, and in a much more violent manner. A woman, man or coterie that is able to sell the fiction that under them, things will be different – more ordered, less messy, more transparent, less time-consuming, more responsive, less corrupt, more results-oriented, less inefficient – will gain public support the more those in power today are unable to meaningfully strengthen governance, communicate clearly what measures are being taken to strengthen civil administration, and why systemic reform is so tough.

Between Jayawardene, Premedasa, Wijetunge, Kumaratunge, Rajapaksa and now Sirisena, the country has oscillated between times of overt, clear authoritarianism and, at least on the face of it or to begin with, trust in a more democratic form of government. Each swing of the pendulum brings with it the almost total erasure of what came before, and so, after each swing also comes, with time, nostalgia for how things were in the past. We are never happy with the present, or seeking to address, looking ahead, what ails us today. We perennially relive the past, and are best comforted too by promises, no matter how fatuous, to bring the past back to life. 2015’s twilight is 2020’s dawn. Many benevolent dictators lie in waiting.


First published in The Sunday Island, 22 October 2017.


We are what we consume

Conversations over the past week, in person and over social media, were anchored to a bizarre news report published in a leading daily newspaper on the purported private life of a woman who had visited a doctor. This is putting is politely and mildly. The actual news report was deeply sexist and replete with lascivious gossip and unsubstantiated allegations. It beggared belief that an Editor of any serious newspaper thought it fit to print and newsworthy. Ethics Eye, a media watchdog anchored to Verité Research, regularly publishes evidence based research and analysis around how print media in Sri Lanka publish content with scant regard for ethics, professional standards or robust editorial oversight. A diplomat your author met last week put this down to the nearly three decades of war, and near evisceration of independent and professional media standards in the country, in the North under the LTTE as well as in the South, under successive governments. This assertion was contested. Eight years after the end of the war, and two years after President Sirisena was elected to office, media standards continue to be what they are because of a cancer within the media itself. And yet to speak of this, to write about this, or openly admit to this, is anathema.

Therein lies the rub, because we are essentially what we consume. Morgan Spurlock’s critically acclaimed 2004 documentary ‘Super Size Me’ was a remarkable study in how the consumption of fast food led to a dramatic, visible decline of the filmmaker’s health, including, importantly, his psychological well-being. A constant craving for food, never fully satiated, led to obesity, high cholesterol and a dulled cognitive capacity, in just a few weeks. There is a parallel, not often drawn, around the consumption of sensationalist media, which parades the worst gossip and entertainment at best as serious news reporting, and citizenship. How we engage with polity and society is framed by what we know. If these media frames are constantly focussing or based on the banal, the unsubstantiated, the mainstream, the majoritarian, the male gaze or the dominant, our worldview over time becomes invariably prejudiced as well – to the extent that we will fight tooth and nail to deny it, and decry anyone who calls us biased. A critical deterioration happens without us knowing it.

Last week, I visualised all the updates from a major English language based SMS news alerts provider from July 2015 to October 2017. This came to around forty-seven thousand words, or a ninety-six page, single-spaced document. I stripped away the common phrases like the name of the service provider, prefixes and suffixes. The visualisation was in the form of a word cloud, which based on frequency, determines the size of a word. The higher the number of times a word has been used, the larger the typeface. Conversely, the least frequently used words appear smaller. I placed the visualisation in the public domain for others to also study and offered some preliminary thoughts around how, on the face of it, I interpreted the visualisation. Cricket (scores and updates), corruption and crime feature heavily. The Rajapaksa’s also continue to be in the media gaze – and my point was that all publicity, is for them, good publicity. Mainstream politics dominates, and that too, news around only political developments at a national level. What was absent from the visualisation was as important as what was present. There is little to no emphasis whatsoever on human interest stories, constitutional reform, transitional justice and reconciliation. The updates are extremely Colombo-centric, and what is important for or happening in the South, East and North are entirely absent. I asked on Facebook that with a (media) diet like this, what sort of citizenry and mind-set mainstream media creates.

Civic media – media platforms that exist independent of mainstream media and run by individuals or civil society institutions, almost exclusively online and over social media – have blossomed post-war in particular, but don’t yet reach a critical mass.  While these platforms and what they produce or present influence a younger demographic, newspapers still command a larger footprint and additionally, are also now consumed over respective mobile apps and social media accounts. It matters then what they frame, and how they frame it. If in 2018 Sri Lanka is heading into a referendum over a new constitution, it matters than a leading SMS news provider has almost zero coverage of the key issues. If the country is reeling from the rise of fascist monks, it matters that the media doesn’t cover stories around diversity, the non-violence negotiation of difference, and inter-religious relations that have existed for centuries. If the dominant social and political discourse is around race relations and notions of racial superiority or purity, it matters that the mainstream media hasn’t focussed on how, as author and renowned architect Sunela Jayawardene in her book ‘the Line of Lanka’ avers is the emergence of ‘today’s pristine Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher’ from ‘the marriages of Rakusa and Naga, Yaka and Aryan, Veddah and Chola, Pandyans, Arabs and Greeks, Malays, Dutch, Portuguese, English and Persians’. If the South is to understand the enduring existential challenges of those in the North post-war, it matters that the media never really covers the daily lives and struggles of citizens in the Jaffna Peninsula and around it. If we are to comprehend and act upon the extent to which this year’s drought has impacted farmers and agriculture, and how this in turn impacts the entire country’s economy, the mainstream media’s inability and unwillingness to frame a long-drawn out, catastrophic environmental disaster is particularly revealing. If reporting on reconciliation is only ever anchored to the rare instance the President or Prime Minister mentions it as a lofty goal of government in a speech, we will never know the plight of hundreds of mothers and others who are literally begging the State to give any information around the whereabouts of loved ones who have disappeared. If women are only framed as sexualised objects, and mental health is only ever reported as sensationalised suicide covered in horrific, gory detail, consumers will invariably react and respond in ways that perpetuate what gives life to and normalises gender based violence and self-harm.

All this of course is not new. Though urgent and desirable, what’s also entirely unlikely is that the mainstream media culture will undergo any significant transformation. From mercenary owners to conservative men at the helm, from political patronage to a reliance on advertising, from a lack of training to poor pay, from sexism in the newsroom to more generally, consumers who don’t really demand better, the mainstream media culture is rotten to the core. We will continue to complain about the state Sri Lanka is in and how much better she can be, but never really pause to think about the role of mainstream media in supporting our better angels, and a more democratic future. Unsurprisingly then, despite all our frequent mutter, reform will invariably stutter.


First published in The Sunday Island, 15 October 2017.

Art in and as activism

The Wendt, the National Art Gallery, Sapumal Foundation, Barefoot, JDA Perera, Red Dot, Theertha and other spaces associated with the visual and performance arts today didn’t exist or were entirely alien to me growing up, in the 80s and early 90s. Colombo at the time was a city of checkpoints, high-walls, barbed-wire and armed, stentorian sentries. In addition, a lower middle-class family couldn’t afford an engagement with the arts. My parents, who meticulously planned our outings during the day especially during the UNP-JVP ‘bheeshana yugaya’ and when violence in the North strongly suggested retaliatory attacks in the city by way of suicide bombings, never prioritised the arts or visiting the few places at the time one could engage with cultural traditions and practice. There were more pressing existential priorities – not always being together in case one them was killed, leaving Akka and I orphaned. Stocking up on food, in case curfew was suddenly imposed. Keeping the petrol tank always full, and never undertaking journeys without a time by which one would be home, before dusk. In all the family trips to Colombo around thirty years ago, I remember the architectural scars of July 1983 and at the time, more recent kinetic scars of suicide bombing shrapnel, enmeshing and dotting the city. The anxiety was palpable, and the fear, real. I do not know what it was like for the higher echelons of society, but for us, the necessary performance of mundane, daily rituals – around school, groceries, work, housework, visits to relatives, visits by relatives – was the lens and vector through which society writ large was engaged with. Though it wasn’t evident at the time and there was no choice in the matter, it was a very limited frame, in every way imaginable. Art simply didn’t enter it, especially for a lower-middle class family.

My first acrylic encounter and artistic framing of Sri Lanka (and its systemic violence) was through the now renowned T. Shanaathanan’s art in Delhi, India. I was doing my Bachelors. He was also a student, doing his MFA. Shanaathanan continues to define, for me, an artistic endeavour that bears witness to inconvenient truths which is intellectually engaging, never sterile, continuously refined and inclusive. By this I mean the production of art that is geared not at collectors, the wealthy or merely to adorn an otherwise empty space on a wall that matches the room décor – but art that informs, illuminates and ultimately, is a call for engagement. Art that subverts. As quoted in Open Magazine after I saw Shanaathanan’s ‘Cabinet of Resistance’ at the Kochi-Muziris Art Biennale earlier this year, “By presenting the lives of others through this work, [he] is able to transport us, through index cards, into the banality of violence, in all its forms— beyond the enfilade of a battlefield, to the domestic; beyond the headline-grabbing deaths, to loss so painful it can only ever be told as parable; away from the communal to the deeply personal.”

The singer-songwriter M.I.A. (Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam) has an interesting art book based on her music, and what inspires it. M.I.A. is more popular outside of Sri Lankan than in the country, where her considerable talent in music isn’t recognised by local radio stations, perhaps because of controversies surrounding her equally considerable ignorance in domestic politics outside of histrionic soundbites. But the book – in the psychedelic and shocking in the signature style of M.I.A – is a compelling, unusual visual story of resistance, violence and ultimately, the systemic nature of racism in Sri Lanka, which for most is so invisible, it is vehemently contested when surfaced.

On similar lines, it’s easy to flag and find the more popular and visible acts of resistance and activism through art. It’s harder to appreciate the smaller acts of artistic resistance – street and performance art, mural, graffiti, symbols and signs in public spaces. Godwin Constantine’s 1994 performance ‘Broken Palmyra’, Haththotuwegama’s street theatre, the creative scripts and performances during the ‘Bheeshana Yugaya’, as documented by Ranjini Obeysekara, which foresaw violent Police intervention at the end of a play to break up performance and audience, and wrote this into plot and action – are markers of a rich tradition of resistance in the performance spaces and theatrical traditions of Sri Lanka. Post-war and since 2009, through the Colombo Dance Platform, Colomboscope and smaller platforms facilitated by Theertha, performance as resistance and reflection has seen an up-surge, dealing with complex yet urgent social, political, economic and cultural issues mainstream artists, with a more commercial bent, have shied away from.

Today, Facebook memes often constitute individual acts of resistance, and collectively flag a burgeoning critical review of politics that is born digital. From cartoon and satire to animated GIFs and short videos, the rise of social media has spurned new forms, techniques of and platforms for art that offer new engagement dynamics. The subjects of critique find they can no longer capture, contain, censor or kill art, and its producers, easily. Ridicule, revulsion, recognition or respect now has digital form, and established artists like Anoma Wijewardene have been in recent years experimenting with locating their output at the intersection of where the real and the virtual meet, or collide. But the rise of digital platforms has also led to new artists – from photographers on Instagram to illustrators and cartoonists on Behance, from videographers on Vimeo to music productions on SoundCloud, a rich diversity of art also embraces creative forms of resistance, in new spaces online.

And therein lies the challenge – how to inspire, going forward, art that is political, and yet appeals to more than those already tuned into the politics of the frame, space or performance. Gallerists and curators will have a key role in this, imagining first new frames that artists are invited to inhabit, collaborate within and ultimately, redefine. But there is a role for us too – as those who see and support the arts. We can and must be resistant to what is often a lazy, ill-conceived and intellectually vacuous presentations and output that of late overwhelms well-known and much visited art platforms. The most compelling art may best spring from austerity, but also flourishes in a tradition where it is robustly contested – where the conversation around art is not about price or proof of purchase, but about the ideas presented.

Ultimately, it is not about the art and artist. It is about us, and what kind of society and world we would like to see in concrete form, which sometimes is most powerfully and first glimpsed through the abstract, ephemeral frames art affords.


First published in The Sunday Island, 8th October 2017.

The global and the local

My work outside of Sri Lanka is influenced deeply by what I do in the country, and reciprocally, what I do beyond our borders informs how I respond to challenges within it. Over the past three weeks, the intensity of travel and work prevented me from submitting a column. In part, it was because of how far away I was the country. To a larger degree though, it was because I was involved in shaping projects that responded to the same kind of socio-political dynamics we endure, and fight against, in Sri Lanka.

In Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia in Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia, a region to which I’ve travelled twice this year, the socio-political dynamics are uncannily similar to Sri Lanka. The transitional justice agenda, post-genocide and post-war, is at varying stages. In some countries, memorialisation – both as a political construct and resulting urban architectural features – forgets the manner in which atrocities were committed by troops and state sponsored militia, and instead focusses on the loss of life as a consequence of enemy offensives and actions. In other countries, there is no memorialisation – a conscious decision to forget, and move on. The economic disparity, coupled with enduring effects of war – youth under-employment, unemployment, urban poverty – results in society that is on edge, unable to move forward, unwilling to face the past, splintering from within. On the other hand, every country in this region sees a high use of smartphones and the relatively cheap availability of broadband. So, while unemployment is sky rocketing, youth reload data (with money taken or borrowed from parents and grandparents) to engage with each other, and what they understand as politics, mediated through thumb and palm, in parks, alleyways, sofas, souks, beds, buses, souks and other places. You can see the disconnect from public and family life, and the immersion in an alternative reality governed by the algorithms of a news feed, the narcissism of likes, and the on-demand anonymity of online engagement. Youth here feel connected, but almost exclusively inhabit, online and over social media, bubbles – peers, friends, colleagues and others who are echo chambers, reinforcing group-think, focussing on gossip and entertainment, and through these vectors, mainstream politics. This is fertile terrain for the subversion and corruption of impressionable minds by everyone from populist politicians, right-wing Christian clergy, conspiracy theorists and mullahs who are in fact thinly veiled militants. Unsurprisingly then, one finds rumour, misinformation, disinformation (essentially, propaganda and gossip to varying degrees wrapped as serious news and content) colouring the worldview, engagement and emotions of a young demographic.

As a counterpoint, a conference organised by the Junior Chamber International in Kuching, Malaysia offered a chance to interact with several hundred participants – all working in private industry – from over one hundred countries, and under the age of forty. Speaking at and facilitating two workshops, several leitmotifs emerged. Those with economic means are worried about the unresponsive nature of mainstream politics in their respective countries. Counter-intuitively, this critique goes deeper than the nature of government. It wasn’t just the participants from countries with a known democratic deficit who complained that, as they saw it, mainstream politics didn’t reflect to any meaningful degree or sustained manner, their hopes and aspirations. Young professionals from the West – from mature democracies – also complained that government was increasingly alienating them. This manifested itself through a very low interest in franchise (“nothing really changes”) to anger (“we bring in the money, they waste it with corruption and bureaucracy”). Participants from around the world found in common that the language they spoke – of innovation, an interest in changing the status quo, new ways of working, new kinds of jobs and value creation, an interest in migrant and mobile working, travel, a low interest in savings when young, but a healthy interest in financial independence – where opportunities and challenges governments, and business as usual, simply didn’t embrace.

In Myanmar, I was working with several civil society organisations from across the country when the violence that has now gripped global headlines first broke out. Snippets, competing narratives and the first images of the violence in the Rakhine came by way of WhatsApp messages and Facebook Messenger, followed by email. This was several days before serious mainstream media coverage of the issue in the country. It took much longer for the world to react to what was going on. This information ecosystem is ripe for disinformation and rumour, which when engineered and disseminated broadly, serves to do two things primarily – get people to react to information that is clearly intended to incite hatred and violence against another religion or community, or devalue the veracity of information over these channels in general. The first is what most choose to focus on. The second is more pernicious, because very often, those who suffer the brunt of violence only have the phones they carry around with them to document the violence. When this valuable footage that bears witness to atrocities on the ground is also mistrusted, it serves to undermine the urgency of a political and whole of government response to quell the violence, and empathy. Similar tactics were employed in Sri Lanka three years ago, when interestingly, old images of Rohingya from the Rakhine were distributed over instant messaging platforms and Twitter purporting to be from Aluthgama, taken during the anti-Muslim riots.

Most recently in San Francisco, I led some conversations around opportunities and challenges around the use of technology in humanitarian aid, and more generally, in the strengthening of human rights. Leitmotifs that emerged were interesting. The existing world order – including international humanitarian law which governs war – currently has no clue, capacity or competency to deal with threats that are the result of targeted offensives launched against critical infrastructure and vulnerable populations over the Internet. These are not embryonic or emergent. The field of offensive cyber-operations, and reciprocally, cyber-defence, is already mature even though governing norms, legal frameworks and definitions simply haven’t kept up with the heady pace of technological change. It’s now possible for a just a few dollars to slow down or crash a friend’s PC whilst playing a tournament online or for a very different order of strategic advantage, disrupt or seriously harm an entire country’s banking, medical services or power grid. In Sri Lanka, the very same authorities who can’t even secure the President’s website from successful hacking attempts of a teenager are those that promise us benefits of an electronic national identity card system, where biometric and personal data, to a very invasive degree, will be stored online. It is a ticking time-bomb that, entirely independent of the known malevolence of our government, can hold entire swathes of the population hostage and render them, almost instantaneously, destitute, through identity theft of an order we haven’t seen, aren’t prepared for and simply won’t know what to do when it happens.

All this suggest a couple of things, globally evident and locally relevant. The aspirations of the young need to be reflected in government. Government itself needs to be younger, more responsive and more innovative. Propaganda is pervasive, and it is often more effective than verified news at shaping the public narrative and official responses. Vital witness testimony, despite the promise of the internet to give everyone a voice, remains hidden, especially from mainstream media. Extremism online is a problem, and use the same platforms to spread fear, violence and harm as hundreds of millions use to document and discuss their cappuccino’s perfect froth. This makes technology companies in Silicon Valley – often more powerful than individual governments – important intermediaries in every country their products and services are present in, when combatting propaganda, disinformation and the rapid spread of hate. The primary vectors of news and information for youth is now social media, over a smartphone. Refugees and IDPs need and go in search of information and Internet access as much as water and food. Existing international covenants around the rules of war need to be revised to embrace cyber-terrorism.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to any of these challenges. Whereas warts and all, conversations across multiple continents and countries on these issues is anchored to strategic engagement, reform and planning, government officials, politicians and policymakers in Sri Lanka remain set in their ways, largely unwilling and seemingly unable to change. We all stand to lose.


First published in The Sunday Island, 1 October 2017


The word is Russian, and comes from its intelligence services. The meaning isn’t hard to guess in English – disinformation. The phenomenon is global in scope and reach. There are now new, cutting-edge companies in the West, whose clients are powerful politicians across the world, employing disinformation campaigns to malign opponents, misdirect public attention, quell dissent, overwhelm critique, shut down social media accounts of critics, game elections and ultimately, gain or retain power. The causal link between sophisticated disinformation campaigns and the retention of political authority is murky only because the money trails and the technologies remain shrouded in secrecy. This is no longer a dark art – it is close to an exact science involving algorithms and other means that target individuals, marketing campaigns that focus on key constituencies and the use of psychological devices online, including sophisticated propaganda campaigns, to shift votes. We are used to war being kinetic – the use of weapons, singed tree-tops, soiled bodies and scarred landscapes. There are other wars today – for our attention, over what we hold true, believe in and indeed, choose to vote for. The main theatre for these wars is the media, sometimes as a pawn, sometimes as an active, willing participant. Newspapers, TV and radio stations in Sri Lanka, bought and owned by individuals linked to dubious financial deals or businessmen close to, or want to be close to government, are the easy examples. More insidious are campaigns over social media, which fewer understand the reach and impact of.  For example, a website you are encouraged to connect to using your Facebook credentials that tells you how you will look like as you age, which Hollywood or Game of Thrones star you resemble the most, your key psychological traits or your most ideal partner amongst your friends could in fact be harvesting over a much longer period, without your knowledge, personal information in vast databases, outside of Facebook, that capture your likes, age, location, sex, political preferences, shopping habits, reading choices and other metrics. In the hands of a political campaign, this is a goldmine of information. Keen readers will know how this sort of information – called psychometric profiling – has already been used in the US, UK, France, Colombia and other countries, in key elections or referenda, to swing votes in favour for or opposed to candidates and ideas. This is coming to Sri Lanka as well, and we need to be prepared for it. A country with high adult literacy but very poor media and information literacy is ripe for the colonisation of the mind. As we move towards 2020, those who want to regain power, perhaps more than those who may want to retain power, will use these technologies and tactics to create noise, spectacle and confusion. Rarely if ever will they be used to inform, alert and truly engage. Civil society, which hardly ever demonstrates any meaningful understanding of new technologies and is imaginatively stuck in a mind-set anchored to placard holding street level activism and mainstream media based advocacy, will be hostage to sophisticated propaganda campaigns they don’t know even exist.

These are real challenges and they aren’t going away. I regularly engage with a number of individuals and institutions, largely outside of Sri Lanka, attempting to use new and social media to promote conflict transformation, democracy and human rights, who are keenly aware that even with the potential pitfalls and dangers, there are also real opportunities to non-violently accommodate difference, connect the unlike-minded and expose bias. In Kuching last week, at the inaugural Junior Chamber International (JCI) International Summit on Peace, discussions I led were anchored to communications, peacebuilding and governance. The focus was around how the technologies in the hands of so many today could be used to promote peace, rights and strengthen democratic governance. There were over one hundred countries represented at the conference. The participants were, at most, in their mid-thirties. They came with very different experiences of confronting or using media, politics, governance, activism and advocacy at national and local levels. Two points they all agreed on – social media played a central role in shaping public opinion today, and they all needed to catch up with those in power who used increasingly sophisticated means to capture public attention.

But catching up is the problem. A study of the manner in which content is published and disseminated over social media in Sri Lanka alone, by the BBS and groups aligned to it, is instructive. The worst dregs of our society, seem to be the best in promoting their ideology. The best ideas we have are lost in the resulting cacophony. The noise and violence deters many from participating. The viral nature of the content, produced by a few, suggests a wider appreciation. Moderate voices, who many well be in the majority, are silent or silenced. This in turn makes extremism more mainstream, and over time, fighting it harder. The means through which to identify and intervene in a timely, effective and sustained manner around content inciting hate produced in Sinhala is beyond the technical capabilities of leading social media platforms. For any company based in Silicon Valley, Sinhala is not a language of any consequence. All this is advantageous to disinformation campaigns in Sri Lanka, which can rely on around five million users on Facebook and millions more on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook Messenger and Viber to often mindlessly share and promote sensational or even satirical content far removed from truth or fact. This is why media and information literacy programmes are essential, instead of what will be, I have no doubt, a mad rush towards investments in avant-garde marketing campaigns that try to outdo political rivals in their inability to snag the attention of voters, any way possible.

Teach a citizen to ask why, and you have a strong democracy. Compel a voter which way to vote, and you have a weak state.

Civil society needs to do more. There are no shortcuts. Recognising the danger of disinformation to colour the outcome of policymaking, electoral results and public opinion in general, urgent investments are needed to capture and retain young, driven staff who can engage creatively, effectively and proactively using social media. Management styles need to change too – centralised, bureaucratic organisations are anathema for iterative, adaptive and responsive advocacy campaigns. They will fail miserably.

Disinformation is a cancer, and it is growing. At home, disinformation can be curtailed by pausing, reflecting and before retelling or sharing in any way, asking if what one consumed is really credible, not just because it appeals to you, or sounds, looks or feels right. Search. Ask around. Even if to disagree, look out for differing opinions. Recognise that those who hold different values treat you with the same suspicion, and perhaps even hate, as you would hold them – and that they are also loving parents, doting grandparents, respectable leaders, pay their taxes, live in the same neighbourhoods, share the same country, and ultimately, are fellow citizens. Disinformation works best when deep socio-political divisions are present – by expanding them, seeding doubt, creating fear and othering. Completely relying on public and private institutions to save us from dezinformatsiya glosses over so much individual citizens can do to not be taken in by highly-developed propaganda. We all need to join this fight, because it is our future at stake.


First published in The Sunday Island, 10 September 2017.

A Tale of Two Cities

I am told I was around six when I questioned the size of the Buddha statues at Bellanwila Temple. I had told my grandmother that there was no way a man of those dimensions could exist, and had also wondered why it was necessary to have such big statues to worship someone who everybody thought was important anyway. I cannot recall my grandmother’s response, but a twin impetus – a deep attraction to and curiosity around spirituality, and an abiding suspicion, bordering on repulsion towards established religion – has coloured my life since. Fast forward to the hyper-real theatre of worship, violence and veneration framed by the BBS, conversations around the role and place of Buddhism in the new constitution and the very visible genuflection of politics in front of the sangha, the early disconnect from popular signs and symbolism of religion has grown into a study of hypocrisy – how the worst amongst us are often also the most overtly pious. From suspected war criminals to murderers, those who blatantly lie, steal and are the most corrupt are amongst the most welcome benefactors to leading temples. The sangha, writ large, is also far from benign or benevolent. In what is constantly projected by them as a worsening existential crisis, the ostensible protection of the dhamma repeatedly morphs into a range of excuses used to support noise pollution, animal cruelty, interference in politics, incitement to violence, the spread of hate, archaeological fiction, land encroachment and supine silence around, or indeed, outright support towards the sermonising of hate and harm. It is almost as if the sangha realise they are far removed from the teachings of the Buddha, and seek to mask this – to themselves and their followers – with ever greater displays of religiosity and a tactile, ostentatious, loud, material record and display of faith.

The greater the decay, the more visible the rituals.

A Tale of Two Cities, conceptualised by Renu Modi, was an artistic collaboration between Gallery Espace and the Serendipity Arts Trust, both based in India and the Theertha International Artists’ Collective based in Sri Lanka. The art, having been exhibited in India, came to Colombo last month. The curatorial advisor Ruhanie Perera’s introduction to the catalogue frames the art on display within the politics of both countries writ large, as well as Varanasi and Anuradhapura as specific geographic locations, and sites of religious worship. On the opening night of the exhibition at Theertha, located in what is a small house located in Borella, the total lack of ventilation and resulting stifling heat made any prolonged engagement with the art impossible. And yet, the art, even in passing, was resonant, appealing and thought-provoking. In the decline or absence of spiritual guidance by traditional custodians of the dhamma in saffron, the art provided both critique and insight, education as well as reflection. This was an interesting inversion, of a teaching and exploration led not by those usually associated with sermonising, but by an artistic gaze, necessarily critical and removed, and yet, through frames, form, focus, material and subject, served to sharply guide one’s attention towards aspects of the dhamma or how religion shaped, and was shaped by, the inhabitants of and visitors to two sacred cities. The audience were pilgrims, and the materiality of the stifling air, the very heat and sweat, a reminder of corporeal impermanence. The air became, over that evening, artefact, a reminder of how fleeting and fragile everything is, even as the art itself captured efforts to preserve religion over centuries. All this made it somewhat ironic to discover the price the art was being sold at, if only because the collection of it was an expensive act of futility, serving more than anything else to highlight the folly of establishing monetary value for that which would not last, and could not be owned after death. And yet, since some I met were in fact contemplating seriously buying the art, the meditation – outside, in the much cooler even air – then shifted to the politics of privilege, and in turn, how that was dealt with in the Buddha’s teachings including as represented through the art itself.

In my father’s hometown of Pitabaddera, whenever we visited my grand-father, we also trekked to see the village monk. I remember him, brown robed, on an ageless haansi-putuwa, a ceramic bowl with a patina of betal as companion, giraya in hand, cutting areca nuts with quiet purpose until a particularly tough one elicited voluble protest, interrupting speech and sermon. Thaththa and I sat beneath him, comfortably. Memories from over thirty years ago are hazy, but I distinctly recall conversations around family, friends and politics. The priest used these as vectors to engage my father on what I recall was pali scripture, the sound of which enthralled me more, as a child, than whatever it signified. I recall once seeing the priest’s posterior, through a hole in his robe. I asked Thaththa if we could get him a new one. I liked the priest, and these first encounters with the dhamma through an individual who clearly didn’t profit from preaching. The Buddha in the temple was small, accessible. Human. In later years, I would yearn for and love the serenity of quiet reflection next to the immense Kiri Vehera in Kataragama, but in this temple, the stupa was small – a size determined by how much the surrounding villagers at the time of construction had been able to afford, without any political patronage.

I was taken back to these memories by A Tale of Two Cities, of a Buddhism that gained traction by the merit of its teaching and its deep humanism. The art blurred the distinction between sacred and scarred, locating much of what is Buddhism today in terrains of deep violence, including within the temple-space. In this sense, it was located in sort of Buddhist tradition and philosophy I encountered as a child in Pitabeddara, and have only very rarely enjoyed an interaction with anywhere else in Sri Lanka. Much of the art also invited a reflection on pilgrimage today – whether what should be a journey of deep questioning and spiritual awakening is now more of a robotic affair, mindlessly parroting sound, shuffling from stone to step, palms clasped out of habit, a commercial enterprise sold as a test of faith. The act of pilgrimage, usually to a location, was through this exhibition made into a journey within oneself, around location.

Anoli Perera’s work focussed on these aspects in particular. Bandu Manamperi took a more nuanced approach – where stress and fault lines, around faith, were rendered in the materiality of his work, to which a certain sanctity could easily be projected. His broken sandakadapahana for example seems quite normal, until you observe that the stress induced undulations actually alter the nature of the object in subtle but definite ways. Chintan Upadhyay’s stunning photography of Thuparamaya forces us to consider what is framed, its meaning, our relationship with it, the artist’s deliberation around it, and essentially, the (almost non-existent) connection between material worship of a space and the search, within and without, for nibbana. Unsurprisingly, for those familiar with his work, artist Jagath Weerasinghe’s work explores the tragically rich terrain of violence inextricably entwined in Sri Lanka with the perpetuating and promotion of Buddhism. It is a violence that is invisible, on-going, systemic and utterly corrosive. This essential leitmotif carried forward by Pala Pothupitiya, who interrogates the relationship between the Executive today, the Kings of yore, the State and the protection of Buddhism – a curious, constitutionally enshrined concept which in effect normalises the greatest of violence if and when the service of the dhamma.

A Tale of Two Cities is a misnomer. The exhibition is in fact a deep meditation on the human condition, and in that sense, transcends its most obvious anchors to geography, Buddhism and the specific politics of two countries.  The journey through the art is a metaphysical one, and if you think it through, questions the many constructions around and atop of which so much of what we mindlessly, out of habit or fear, parrot and accept as religion. The impulse of those who could afford it was to contemplate the capture an aesthetic that through purchase and ownership could be divorced from the political, which they didn’t really want to confront. The artist has the last laugh, because there is no real separation possible from carefully considered anchors to place, politics, philosophy and vectors of violence. Not unlike the dhamma, the essential truth of which doesn’t require brick, mortar and even belief to exist, the enduring value of A Tale of Two Cities is in how it subverts the ordinary into vectors that interrogate religion, society and politics. The exhibition is in effect a sermon in disguise.

For me, the pull it was mostly personal. The exhibition took me back to my first encounters of the religion I was born into. It sharpened the anxiety I feel when I encounter anything from the BBS, because it runs counter to memories of the village priest I knew, felt safe being with and wanted to hear more from. It heightened my fear that charlatans in saffron, amplified by expedient politicians together hold hostage much of Sri Lanka’s, and indeed, India’s democratic potential. But it was also a relief, to see this anxiety isn’t new or mine alone. The art captures many anxieties, over many centuries, by many people. The dhamma has survived, often entirely independent of efforts to preserve and promote it. A lesson there, and through this compelling art, for those who so volubly submit much more needs to be done to secure and strengthen the primacy of a religion, when the Buddha himself preached no such thing.


First published in The Sunday Island, 3 September 2017.

Village and city

After just over an hour of driving on a Sunday, Padukka offers a level of bucolic bliss that belies the fact that it is so close to Colombo. The drive is absolutely stunning in the morning, just after sunrise. A selenic mist embraces vast, verdant paddy fields. The road winds through villages, and often through lush green forest areas. The languor of buffalo is offset by the flurry of birds feasting on the rich pickings off fertile earth. Children in white stream into temples. Dogs own the roads and don’t always move for oncoming traffic. Driving through the area with the shutters down, the air smells, feels and is very different to Colombo and its suburbs. Conversations between neighbours, and sometimes instructions from opposite sides of the roads, are loud enough to waft in as one drives through. This is still a very rustic, beautiful part of the country. Being surrounded by, for the most part, vast rubber estates and wild nature may seem particularly appealing for anyone from the city. Despite this, I couldn’t live here over the long-term.

Turns out I am not alone. In 2014, the UN noted that fifty-four percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a proportion that it expected to increase to sixty-six percent by 2050. Existing borders, geo-physical as well mental or imagined, between village and city, have blurred to a degree that the once clear distinction is often meaningless. The village is dying and is being, literally, left behind. The city is booming. But in a country like Sri Lanka, the heady pace of urbanisation hides a multitude of growing social challenges.

Seeing a city by way of elevation helps understand some of the issues associated with an urbanisation that is ill-planned and unsustainable. The view from the top floors of a commercial high-rise, or penthouse level of an apartment, far above the ground and with a wide, unimpeded field of vision, gives an appealing perspective of the city. At the ground level, things are fundamentally different – from the noise, congestion, waste, pollution and throngs of pedestrians to a field of vision entirely shadowed by an essentially oppressive, inaccessible, alien architecture that towers above and around. At this level, looking at what’s above can get someone killed, and so you don’t. The view from below looking up is an aspirational perspective, of wanting to ascend and through upward mobility, a better life. The view from above looking at what’s beneath is a gaze of power and wealth, giving a distinct identity to an address but also strategic distance from any specific location. The owner of a multi-million-rupee luxury apartment can say they live in Colombo. But in fact, the Colombo they live in is a space of European fittings, marble and luxe, coded and restricted entry, where just an extra parking lot costs upwards of a million rupees, the electricity never goes off, the water pressure never dies down, is climate controlled, without humidity, offering views that render everyone below, quite literally, invisible. There are interesting – if that’s the word – exceptions. The view from the State built apartments many of the city’s poor have been often without any real choice relocated into also offer great views. However, in a perverse and indeed violent inversion, the terrible squalor and austerity the new apartments have forced upon residents is a far cry from the relatively large spaces, wealth and freedom they enjoyed at ground level, in homes and houses they once inhabited which have been razed to the ground by governments interested in urban development at whatever cost.

In Padukka as in many other villages, close, daily social interactions remain anchored to physical meetings at specific loci like well, shop, junction or temple – where anyone can go and get to. In Colombo today, spaces to meet and interact increasingly price out those who cannot afford the cost of a beverage or meal. During the war, and largely on account of it, Colombo was an affordable city. It no longer is. Prices are now comparable to London and New York, which is absurd, considering the often-terrible quality of what one consumes or purchases.

The greening of Colombo attempts to bring the best of the village into the heart of the city. What is happening in reality is the privatisation of public spaces. Aside from the bizarre rules about playing, running and walking on the grass that are the result of an invisible militarisation that already pervasive in public authorities, public spaces in the future will very likely be outsourced to, owned or regulated by private entities – corporations, or collectives managed by a privileged few. On paper and in computer renderings, these spaces will look utterly beautiful. And yet, access to and movement within them will be strictly regulated – from opening and closing times to the manner of dress and appropriate behaviour. What is sold as the creation of Galle Face type spaces around the city is in reality the construction of socio-economic exclusion zones. The poor may, a few decades hence, have no place to play.

Around thirty-years ago, I recall going with my parents to see the then newly opened Majestic City. We were in awe. Liberty Plaza was the only mall around till then. ‘Akasa Kade’ scaled incredible heights, with only the awe-inspiring ‘pittu bambu’ towers of the Central Bank rising above it. Flower Road was almost like an urban forest – green, lush, not a commercial establishment, apartment or office in sight. From the top of Hill Street in Dehiwala, you could easily see a large stretch of the sea, unhindered by concrete or construction. The arc from the tip of Mount Lavinia to the tip of the Colombo harbour was almost flat terrain, at most two storey houses and seashore – no Marine Drive, no high-rises, no sea-front hotels. The Oberoi was where the very rich at the time held their weddings, till the Hilton came up and we marvelled at its size. All this seems rather quaint now, in a Colombo defined by the dust and debris of construction. My fear is this. One of the main roads to Padukka is also the main access road to the E01 highway, entering it at Kahatuduwa. In the years to come, areas like Padukka will become more quickly accessible, pushing up land prices and basically doing to the countryside now what has happened in the immediate suburbs of Colombo over the past couple of years.

That would be a great pity.

If urbanisation is inescapable, and indeed, perhaps even desirable, it needs to be done right. Public transportation, communications, network infrastructure, housing, electricity, water and sanitation are all easier to manage and deploy in a city as opposed to vast swathes of countryside. But the hardware of a city needs to be in harmony with the software – the people, the communal relations, the spaces for unexpected meetings between widely varying socio-economic groups to take place. China for example is building entire cities, but no one is moving into them. They are surreal, modern ghost cities. Just build, and inhabitants won’t always come. Padukka has a very strong sense of community, and of a collective responsibility to protect the village from harmful forces. Colombo and other cities just don’t have this beyond most front gates. Entire neighbourhoods where the sense of community was strongest have now given way to high-rises, and the Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala families who once all lived adjacent to each other, are now dispersed and displaced. This breakdown of a city’s oldest social fabric is what so many luxury apartments have been built on. It is pure violence. I worry that with the slow creep of urbanisation, what I love about Padukka today will be gone thirty years hence.

Question is, will anyone but a select few really miss it?


First published in The Sunday Island, 28 August 2017.