Discrimination in 2018

It’s the little things that matter the most.

Google in Sri Lanka now defaults to Sinhala. Whenever you access a Google Form, the interface by default is in Sinhala. Whenever you use Google Maps, road, place and now even names of famous buildings, are rendered in Sinhala. Search for Chunnakam, close to Jaffna, and Google Maps translates the place name, in Sinhala, to ‘Hunugama’ – wrong on so many levels. There is no Tamil place marker either. Jaffna gets a Sinhala label as ‘Yapanaya’, but no Tamil place name, whereas Nallur, just a stone’s throw away, does feature a Tamil place name. Enter a destination – even in Colombo – on to Google Maps. See the driving instructions to get there. From where I live to get to a location in Colombo, for example, the instructions are often a bizarre mix of English and Sinhala – one road I am asked to go on is in English, and the instruction to turn to another is rendered completely in Sinhala. Users on social media who aren’t fluent in reading Sinhala script have expressed their frustration as to why this is the case, with no option to change language.

There appears to be no discernible reason or pattern behind what is a systemic discrimination across Google apps, services and platforms to give primacy to Sinhala, and with no option for the end user to switch to English or Tamil. And it’s not that Google is unable to accurately render Tamil and non-English scripts – just across the Palk Strait, in Tamil Nadu, all place names are in English and Tamil. Just North of this, in Bengaluru, the place names are in English and Kannada. Further up, in Hyderabad, it’s in English and Telegu and above that, in English and Hindi. Someone at Google in India has taken the time and effort to render information in the language spoken the most in a region, as well as English. In Sri Lanka on the other hand, the language on Google Maps now defaults to only Sinhala and English across the island, with comparably just a few locations in the North and East available in Tamil.

But it’s not just Google. As a Microsoft user, whenever a code is requested via my mobile to access one its key services – called two-factor authentication – the accompanying instructions sent with the code over SMS is delivered exclusively in Sinhala, not even in English.

It goes to prove that Google and Microsoft in Sri Lanka are engaged in systemic and sustained discrimination against Tamils and the Tamil language in Sri Lanka, across a range of their key products and services. That there isn’t really any pushback against or greater awareness around this suggests the normalisation of language and ethnic discrimination in Sri Lanka –prejudice is so ingrained, it is invisible, accepted and excused as a minor inconvenience, since the majority are just fine with the way things are.

The problem is compounded when government itself, in 2018, promotes Sinhala only. A case in point – a new website by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) set up for the local government elections, called ‘Nidahas Yugayak’. The website was ceremoniously launched by President Sirisena last week in a ceremony to open a ‘Free Media Centre’, which in the official news report is flagged as the propaganda arm of the party. A revealing conflation between free media and propaganda exposes the underlying, deeply problematic mentality of government. But I digress. The first paragraph on the home page of the new website notes that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951 was started by Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim individuals as a party that treated everyone with respect and did not discriminate against race. The new UPFA website is the official campaign platform for local government elections that will be held across the country this year. The website is exclusively in Sinhala. There is not a single word or section on it in English or Tamil. All featured videos are in Sinhala. All the related social media accounts are in Sinhala. All the President’s speeches are in Sinhala.

Lest we forget, we have a government with numerous even competing line ministries, agencies and departments that deal in national integration and reconciliation. Late last year, Cabinet approval was granted to put up a television studio in the Northern Province to host a television channel to promote reconciliation. The President himself has repeatedly come out in favour of reconciliation in local and international fora. All this makes it much more outrageous that what the President and government says and promises is so far removed from what it actually does and really is.

But where is the outrage? Social media is largely silent about the discrimination against the Tamil language and Tamil peoples by Google and Microsoft. The Southern electorate, to whom all of Sri Lanka is, in the main, a geographic and imagined projection of what the South is for them, don’t even recognise the violence of a Sinhala-only website. Post-war ethnic and language discrimination is thriving, present at the highest levels of government and even in the corporate domain, so often projected and celebrated as being the engine of growth of a more equitable, prosperous and just future.

Where do you start to flag and fight this?

By naming and shaming. Google and Microsoft need to do better. Companies that have clear public policies against discrimination are enacting Sinhala-only policies across a range of key products and services. This needs to be condemned, ceased and corrected. President Sirisena and his party should be hounded by journalists as to why in 2018 they see fit to have a website and all of its content only in Sinhala. The heinous legacy of 1956 mustn’t be countenanced in 2018. To fight against it, language and ethnic discrimination needs to be rendered visible and arguably in a manner that is focussed on and raises the empathy of those in the South around those who cannot read, speak or understand Sinhala. From bad weather alerts and emergency evacuation warnings to vital announcements in government offices, from officials at immigration and emigration counters to invitations and cards sent out by government ministries, from the language of the courts to what the Police use when taking down a statement, the Sinhala-only policy that prevails in practice is a daily, stark reminder of how far post-war Sri Lanka has to go to even begin to address, leave aside completely erase, ethno-lingual discrimination.

Instead of promoting the worst practices, Google and Microsoft should be at the forefront of what can and should be done to address discrimination, with the vast technologies they command used as Rosetta Stones for seamless language translation and transition. But above all, our leading politicians should walk the talk. A Sinhala-only UPFA website that literally celebrates a President who is made out to be a ‘conservative, wholesome, true, agrarian Sinhala Buddhist’ suggests the maddeningly parochial, insular, majoritarian mind-set that got us into a 30-year-old war is still alive. That’s disturbing, if the keys to our democratic potential lie not with racial superiority, but with equality and non-discrimination.

Advertisements

New beginnings, old challenges

As the credit and bank statements roll in, come January, the revelry of late December gives way to sober reflection and serious resolutions. This extends to politics. The final reports, handed over to the President, by commissions appointed to look into Central Bank bonds and corruption garnered, rightfully, the most media and public attention last week. The reports are not yet in the public domain, but the President made a hard-hitting and widely-reported statement based on their findings. At the same time, a Facebook post that went viral on social media identified the current President himself, and not Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the person who brought or wanted back in mainstream politics, nominated, promoted or officially rewarded a terrible array of brutes, underworld kingpins, drug dealers and murderers. They are all named. Given the seriousness of the allegations, the incumbent President – perennially preachy in nature – ought to have made a statement on this as well. To date, however, silence.

To have entrenched within official systems and voted into power, those responsible for its flagrant abuse, has many attendant problems, including obviously significant challenges around meaningful, sustainable political reform, justice and accountability domestically, no matter what is promised in international fora. We focus feverishly around individuals and individual cases of corruption. The mainstream media, primarily because of the partisan bias of owners and fearful of losing out on advertising revenue, doesn’t contextualise or analyse what is a culture of nepotism, corruption and violence that extends deep into the leadership of the current government. The result is a lot of reporting around a small number of cases, sporadically, with the illusion, rather compelling, that attention results in action. Particularly given the electoral tests over 2018, starting in February, the two commission reports, not unlike the many, equally if not more damning COPE reports previously, will be the subject of campaign propaganda and weaponised to suit parochial agendas. Any meaningful prosecution based on judicial review and due process will be kept at bay, because those named and implicated in these recent reports are vital nodes in the fluid equations that project and predict partisan electoral advantage. This is, in effect, a re-run of a familiar, tired script, albeit in the new cinema of yahapalanaya.

If everything imaginable counter to democracy is a hallmark of our mainstream politics and its consociational foundations, holding it at bay at best is arguably only possible with those who are corrupt, or violent, to a degree acceptable to the majority in the South. The litmus test on the 10th of February will be around this acceptability, and to what degree the UNP and SLFP, together and individually, will be held accountable for what they promised. The choice here for us is, put bluntly or simply, whether we are partial to those currently in power who have delivered little of what was promised but are generally tolerant of and supportive of democracy, or a return to favour of those who were in power previously, and the more effective, efficient delivery of promises based on foundations of violence many in fact were fine with, in the South, as long as visible markers of development were present, the cost of living managed and they somehow benefitted. Democracy in Sri Lanka is a contest of perception. It is less about the actual exercise of constitutional rule. The current government suffers from a congenital inability to communicate coherently. This is not something the worst elements of the previous government suffer from. With a President now more interested in his physical security and political survival post-2020, the centrifugal interests that gathered everyone together late 2014 in a thirst to gain power has given way to the centripetal tendencies of coalition politics and a quest to retain power. And while political theorists will mull over the electoral implications of all this, the 700,000 first time voters in February, coupled with millions of others between 18 to 34 who are young, ambitious and really fed up with politics as it is, are those that propaganda, rumour and misinformation will target the most in ways that are publicly visible as well as individually targeted. Either through the ballot or by staying away from it in apathy, both of which are electoral strategies, the political map of Sri Lanka over 2018 will be redrawn in ways that, because we haven’t studied more robustly the impact and reach of social media, many will be surprised by.

This is not all doom and gloom. The telos of electoral uncertainty over 2018 is often and only projected as a return to power by elements voted out in January 2015. The problem with this argument is outlined above – individuals who embody the violence and corruption of the previous regime, if not the very architects of it, are already in government – many with the support of no less than the President. So yahapalanaya is more about keeping in check, to the extent possible, the worst tendencies and excesses of politicians, their family members and apparatchiks, instead of the heady rhetoric of systemic reform it initially promised. Better those in government are honest about this and admit to how hard reform really is when in power – it may actually win them more votes.

The greater danger than a return of, simplistically put, the Rajapaksa regime, is the real and perceived erosion of public support around constitutional reform and accountability, not necessarily in that order. Those partial to the status quo don’t need Gotabaya Rajapaksa to come back into power to derail efforts to bring about a new constitution, so urgently needed, or efforts to keep alive what may well be multi-generational process to hold those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable for their actions. The old regime as well as individuals in the present government just need to seed doubt, anxiety and fear – relatively easily engineered with saffron robe donned brutes on demand, protests that turn violent and online hate – to keep meaningful reform at bay and give those at the helm of government an excuse to pause, and even falsely project an essential timidity as a government sensitive to the wishes of the electorate.

Asked if he is optimistic, the Leader of the Opposition, in an interview published in The Hindu newspaper last week, said he isn’t pessimistic. The captures so well, in what is said and left unsaid, Sri Lanka’s tryst with democratic reform over 2018 and beyond. At risk of insulting Mr. Sampanthan, our elder statesman, one wish for the new year could be to live a life as long and richly textured as he has, and yet not be witness to as many broken promises. We all know what needs to be done and without delay. One risks disappointment to hope that the new year brings with it better angels to secure a democratic, prosperous and just future for us all, across the political and social spectrum.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 7 January 2018.

The 15%

“I think to not be optimistic is just about the most privileged thing you can be. If you can be pessimistic, you are basically deciding that there’s no hope for a whole group of people who can’t afford to think that way.”

Ophelia Dahl, quoted in The New Yorker’s World Changers list, 18-25 December 2017 issue

As the patina of three years colours yahapalanaya, 2017 too comes to an end. Comprehensive reform initiatives, done best and easily in the first half of a new government, will now be conducted in some shape and form over 2018. It is unclear now what measure of success they will enjoy.

The new year begins with an electoral litmus test, and does not let up. The former regime has already and openly called it a measure of confidence in the current government. Out of 15.7 million eligible voters, as much as 700,000 will vote for the first time. This is the same number the Elections Department said were first time voters in January 2010. In January 2015, the number of those who voted for the first time was reportedly 955,990. Accordingly, in early 2018, around 15% of the total electorate will be between 18-34, who in turn are first to fifth time voters.

This is a demographic bulge with significant electoral consequences. From the way they get news and information to how they trust and perceive content, traditional politics, politicians and political propaganda will need to embrace a significant shift in voter engagement. This in turn will entail investments in different ways – from the fielding of younger candidates to the use of pop stars and television idols in campaigns, and importantly, brand new ways of influencing this specific demographic using social media. This will include the dissemination of carefully and compellingly guised misinformation, campaigns anchored to fear, falsehood, fraternity or more generally, by promoting puerile patriotism. Investments will include ‘troll armies’ – large numbers of geographically dispersed individuals paid by a political party or candidate to promote an idea, individual, party or process by amplifying a set of voices, and violently attacking any and all opposition, critical questioning or alternatives posed online. Coupled with this, investments will also be technical and automated, ensuring that followers of key social media accounts are inflated and also engineered to give the impression around the mass appeal of an idea, by creating an echo chamber of seemingly diverse sounding individuals – with Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala names, both male and female – thereby securing the legitimate attention and buy-in of young, impressionable voters.

It is unclear to what degree, if any, traditional electoral architects in political parties, leave aside the Department of Elections, are embracing these dangers – and for some, verdant opportunities – into their electioneering and election monitoring, respectively. The risk is simple to outline, though much harder to address. Sri Lanka has a very high literacy rate. It also has a very poor media and information literacy. Especially as the distribution of content over social media grows and takes root, a generation conditioned with a pedagogy in school and university that overwhelmingly teaches only rote learning, does not know how to critically question or analyse what they consume. The result is a vote base quick to judge and temper, who act and only later, if at all, think. Rumour, misinformation and more sophisticated electoral campaigns – using, amongst other means, a method called psycho-metric targeting – exploits this media and information literacy deficit for parochial gain, ensuring support for and belief in the most incredible of claims to the detriment of a campaign based on sober reflection, principled opposition, facts, civil engagement or any honest assessment. The risk here is real, present and growing. There are individuals and political parties in our country who are already, silently but effectively exploiting the general ignorance in this area and the near total lack of any oversight, laws or regulations. They are going after the hearts and minds of 15% of the electorate who will, if 2015’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections were anything to go by, be decisive in who gains power, and loses it – next year and beyond.

Combatting all this requires optimism. Painting only doom and gloom does a disservice to the aspirations of young, first time voters and their worldview. The 15% of the electorate that is the battle-ground of political contestation during elections is also the country’s best hope of achieving our democratic potential. There are innovators and entrepreneurs here, creating new ventures that serve global markets. There are social change makers, guided more by what can be done through cooperation and collaboration, a marked difference from more established civil society organisations which compete, viciously, for donor funding. An impatience with governance as it stands, and the embracing of pervasive, affordable new technologies brings with it the potential of socio-political and indeed, economic reform to which this generation alone holds almost all the keys to. From smartphone apps that do real-time tracking of garbage disposal trucks in the East to timely updates of trains better than what any official source is even close to providing, from citizen monitoring and early warning of adverse weather conditions to mobile platforms that track and assist in addressing gender based violence, there are a growing number of interesting needs-based, citizen generated initiatives that entirely by-pass government to provide vital services, brings into government new thinking that’s long-overdue, or by openly shaming the incompetence of public officials, forces government to upgrade their own skills, services and support structures.

Given the performance of government over the past three years, it is clear that public communication isn’t high on the agenda. This is a big problem. A recent and characteristically vague promise by the PM around a social media referendum, whatever that meant and perhaps thankfully, hasn’t seen the light of day. Every day we are told sections of polity and society are with one or the other political grouping. There is a lot of lecturing or posturing, and not a whole lot of engagement.

There is no meaningful capture of what really the 15% of the electorate over 2018 actually do, who they are, what they want and aspire to be, who their role models are, what they want out of politics and politicians, and how they would like to see governance frameworks that aid their work, goals and life choices. This impacts political analysis as well, because the pessimism we project over Sri Lanka’s democratic fabric over 2018 is based on, largely speaking, an ignorance of what nearly 2.4 million voters think, perceive or believe in. Strategically, they are now thought of in utilitarian terms around how, either misguided or falsely animated, they are useful pawns in parochial politics. The spectrum of responses to this must embrace a more attentive, responsive engagement to highlight what makes this demographic tick – not just with a view to using them for various political ends, but as a way of celebrating what even with the greatest of hostility, difficulty, bias, corruption and bureaucratic bungling, these young people have achieved in a wide range of fields and disciplines.

In them, entirely independent of who is in power and in government, lies the longer-term resilience of Sri Lanka – an enduring hope around incremental change and progress which requires the cultivation of minds, innovation and trust beyond electoral contests. Our better angels are not with any political force or party. They are in the 15% everyone in power covets. Arguably, this 15% needs its own representation. Its own leadership. Its own voice. They are a new bloc. They are a paradigm shift.

2015 was a harbinger of this shift. 2018 will see the cementing of it. Both as curse and blessing, we live in interesting times!

Beyond echo chambers

It boils down to this. Three years into the yahapalanaya government, is our support of it now contingent on the fear of the Rajapaksa’s coming back into power? If that is the case, to what extent do we gloss over and excuse the trappings of power, and the failure of this President and Prime Minister, to actualise the promises they made before coming to power? To what degree to we posit the visible failure of reform on how difficult it is to reshape a political architecture founded on corruption, nepotism and violence, and the lack of genuine political leadership, courage or vision? To what degree does traditional civil society, which championed this President, now countenance what is three years in a record of a steady decline into parochialism, and an overpowering interest over political survival over the heady, selfless ideals noted in his first speech on January 9th, 2015? Connected to this, what degree does civil society, now connected via instant messaging, email or a call away from friends who are significant figures in the Wickremesinghe administration, countenance the catastrophic loss of credibility on account of the government’s inability to pursue those they promised would be held accountable? In conversations with the diverse group of individuals who entirely organically came together – without any external support or funding – in order to get rid of the former President late-2014, there is a palpable sense of frustration, anger, sadness and far more disturbingly, apathy. In an election now overtly made into a litmus test of the current government with the statements made by the former President last week, it is unclear if those in power realise that the narrow margin of electoral victory in both Parliamentary and Presidential elections over 2015 was largely pegged to a youth vote, amongst the 18-34 demographic. This is a group that isn’t voting for anyone. They vote against what they see. The vote that brought the President and Prime Minister to power wasn’t a vote for a political party or individual. It was a vote opposed to what they saw as elements in the political fabric they wanted to get rid of, change or reform. This is a demographic that doesn’t carry to their grave a political party affiliation or loyalty. They will shift their vote, they will not vote at all. To what degree does the government understand this, in their political machinations to retain power?

I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the promise of January 2015 (leave aside Christmas cheer around the corner). But the signs are now too obvious to ignore. We have a Minister of Media and Finance who is more vocal, courageous, open and principled than even our Prime Minister or certainly, President. We have a Foreign Minister who exists somewhere deep in the bowels of a Ministry that isn’t even making the inside pages of newsprint leave aside forging new strategic alliances with China – who we have to creatively embrace not always shun, India, who we cannot ever forget, the West, who hold the keys to our networking with a cosmopolitan future, and regional allies who remind us of our essential non-aligned past and present. We have other Ministers who now justify extra-legal censorship of online content just because it seemingly upsets the President, instead of the free and open domains for expression we were told we would enjoy. There are mothers of the disappeared quite literally dying in the North before seeing any justice, despite various public promises by the President. How he lives with that knowledge of letting down so badly and callously those who have suffered and lost so much in war much is anyone’s guess. But political life goes on. And on the margins, now threatening to become a main act centre stage, are echoes of our violent past now in the guise of saviours – men who did good and great things. Men who defeated terrorism. Men who beautified our cities. Men above corruption, selfless, and visionary to boot. Men now capable of capturing a vote base that is upset with the non-delivery of promises by those in power.

And therein lies the rub. To what degree is our civil society championing the very ideals that projected this government into power? And if the default mode of public engagement today is a respectful deference, silence or worse, support without qualification – because to do anything different risks the ire of friends in government – what does it signal to those who look at civil society as a more critical voice, or platform? In trying to negotiate the optics of how government sees it, is civil society losing its credibility amongst those who were partial to its agenda late-2014? If then there was a clear, perhaps even coincidental overlapping of civil society interests and the interests of those who didn’t then overtly identify themselves as part of civil society to reject, reform and reboot a particular political culture and its chief proponents, the two have grown apart. Arguably, how it has negotiated the post-2015 politics had enabled it to work its way into the inner chambers of government – and this is not all bad. The President is cocooned, believing what he wants to believe because there is no one telling him anything that risks their privileged access to power. The only option is to access the Prime Minister, and with all the attendant risks, he alone has the intellect to comprehend what he is told, critically question and engage. But the bigger picture optics are awry. Civil society, President and Prime Minister operate in their own spheres of influence, and like bubbles, occasionally coalesce but exist entirely independent of each other. Seeing this, and without understanding the complexities of governance or coalition government, young voters are sick and tired of politics as usual, and the absence of any tangible reform at the pace it was promised. Without any coherent communications from government around why things that were promised aren’t done, or how they have tried but failed, conspiracy theories, gossip, rumour are the primary vectors through which voters now develop and cement their perceptions. The more emotive the message, the better the grip it has on the public imagination.

Civil society often blames government for this loss of public confidence. They also have to take some of the blame for it. 2015 brought to an end the oppositional nature of civil society and government, and it is clear that what’s needed now is a more nuanced, strategic approach to critical engagement without co-option, and a pragmatic realism around what can be done, independent of what was promised – incrementalism as a driving mantra in all domains, ranging from constitutional reform to foreign policy and economic development. But this overarching strategic foresight is largely lacking. In its place we have this interest in retaining access to those in power, seemingly at whatever cost, driven by the fear of what may happen if the old regime comes back into power. These twin dynamics fuel each other. The second is certainly a valid, existential concern for those who courageously stood up against the Rajapaksa’s violent, brutal, censorious authoritarian fiat. The first though is a fear that one gives into only to the detriment of a more principled approach to constant, critical review, and by extension, the vital support of those beyond just an echo chamber.

Silence is not an option. Even when our friends are in power.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 17 December 2017.

Frontier issues

Or as a colleague from the United Nations recently quipped, more like front-door issues. The new UN Secretary General António Guterres is an engineer and academic. The second helps him understand complexity. The first makes him want to fix things. It’s a good combination. For the first time in many years, the UN is under-going a comprehensive, systemic reboot. It will take many years and will invariably frustrate even the best laid plans, but the optimism around revamping the institution is palpable. The thrust is twofold. One, to make the UN system better able to understand and respond to contemporary challenges. Two, to inject institutional agility to a degree that enables the UN system proactively deal with contours of conflict, instability and disparities in the years to come. Combined with this is a desire to better understand the opportunities that new technologies bring to the mandates of UN agencies and departments.

I’ve had this in mind over the past two weeks, which have been unusually hectic. Over the previous weekend, I moderated a discussion on the future of digital conversations in Sri Lanka, looking at how new technologies are changing the way society sees and organises itself, and as a consequence, the political fabric of the country. I spoke on a UNESCO organised panel on fighting impunity against journalists in Sri Lanka, which also flagged how digital surveillance impacts the freedom of expression. I have on three occasions and in very different fora, including with diplomats based in Colombo, dealt with the growing challenges faced by Maldivian activists and independent journalists in their country and the need to create virtual networks of solidarity and content sharing resilient enough to withstand infiltration, disruption or systemic corruption. I’ve meet with several leading agencies in the United Nations system in New York and Geneva, including individuals at the cutting-edge of thinking around issues like Big Data, artificial intelligence, business intelligence, predictive analytics, data visualisation, ethics, data governance, human rights, change management and future scenario development. In an hour-long interaction with the Build Peace Summit held in Bogota, Colombia over Skype video, I dealt with how new technologies and social media, including the so-called ‘fake news’ phenomenon, will deeply impact peace negotiations, especially in the future.

Two things are worth noting. It’s when you leave Sri Lanka that you realise what a small island we are, and how what we are so completely consumed by when in the country, pales into insignificance when travelling outside of it. On the other hand, what we have endured in Sri Lanka and continue to live with is also ahead of the curve in many domains. What the West now considers a threat to democracy and electoral processes – fake news – is the same propaganda on steroids that we have suffered under for many years, under successive governments. What we did around the creation of sophisticated and secure digital communications networks to combat violence, illiberal governance and authoritarian rule are now templates for others, around the world, to follow and learn from. The innovation as a consequence of necessity, the resilience as a consequence of adversity, the challenges as a consequence of corruption, systemic failure of government and bureaucratic dysfunctionality – these are all things we are used to and take in our stride. Our insights now have trans-national value and application.

Which brings me to the UN Secretary General’s interest in what he terms ‘frontier issues’ – things that will define the operational context for the UN in the years to come, as both threats and opportunities. Artificial Intelligence features heavily in these discussions and at first glance, isn’t all that relevant in Sri Lanka. But take how 18-34-year olds in our country engage with the world and consume news and information. Anyone with a Google or Facebook account linked to their smartphone now can automatically get context-aware, location-sensitive, individually tailored messages in a timely manner – ranging from reminders to travel times, incorporating traffic congestion. AI already helps power rapid fire responses to emails and instant messages, based on their actual content. We all inhabit invisible cocoons that are generated by algorithms that now monitor and track our every mouse-click, glance and thumb press and swipe. Almost every aspect of our lives – actively generated or passively captured – now generates raw data, which is aggregated, commodified and sold to bidders which include governments. That can and does lead to more effective and efficient governance. It can also contribute directly to a degree of authoritarianism that binds those under it to a surveillance so pervasive, even opting out by disconnecting completely from everything would mark them out as miscreants. In a short span of time, what we see as photos, what we hear as sound, and what we consume as moving visuals can and will all be digitally manipulated in real time, in a manner indistinguishable to the human eye and comprehension. Imagine this future, with the sophisticated misinformation campaigns already conducted over social media in Sri Lanka using newsfeeds and social media accounts to mobilise a young demographic to rally, vote or violently react against something. And yet, there is rich opportunity here as well, to use the same algorithms to strengthen, secure and sustain dignity, diversity and democracy. The question is whether government and civil society are aware of what these opportunities are, and how to leverage them.

What binds the new UN Secretary General’s vision for a revamped UN with the discussions I’ve had with so many is, in the main, a global as well as local trust deficit around institutions, which are failing citizens. The resulting void is filled by commercial entities and solutions that often make us products, stripping us of basic rights even as we enjoy the convenience of technologies that respond to the way we live, think and work. There is no easy technocratic solution to what is essentially a growing democratic deficit, even in peacetime. Disenchantment with and distrust of political institutions continues even under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Promises made in international fora, the 2025 economic vision, the technocratic bias – these only appeal to and stick mostly with those who are already benefitting from an architecture that alienates the vulnerable, the traditional farmer, the soldier, the ex-combatant, pockets of extreme poverty in the South, and entire communities in the North. How can AI help governments comprehend what they aren’t plugged into or cognisant of? How can citizen generated data like mobile reloads help us understand the impact of socio-economic policies? What impact does misinformation have on socio-economic progress, if left unchecked and allowed to grow amongst a population who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction? What investments are those who seek power making in the domain of social media that allows them to influence first time voters in ways they cannot easily identify as partisan propaganda? How are we protecting the privacy of citizens, even as we embrace the potential of enabling them with ID cards that allow them easier access to basic goods and services?

Small countries like Sri Lanka are a hotbed of conversations, tensions, faultlines as well as innovation, opportunities, ideas and experience that allow us to see beyond the obvious, including in envisioning the future. Maybe that’s where the UN also needs to start – to recognise that the frontier issues already identified are already old hat for many around the world, and that to truly reform, the UN needs to actively listen to those outside its usual concentric circles of advisors.

The Global South writ large has much to offer in this regard. Will the UN listen?

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 10 December 2017.

Bad faith or bad weather?

At the time of writing this column, eleven have died because of a storm that hit Sri Lanka. Five are missing. Over sixty-one thousand people across the island are affected by the disaster. Images of the devastation are all over the news, including over updates on social media pushed out from the Sri Lanka Red Cross. In this context, worth recalling in some detail a news report published in the mainstream media in English quoting Met Department Director and “Forecaster” Anusha Warnasooriya.

Warnasooriya dismissed the storm system as one that would merely travel over Sri Lanka on its way to India. Warning people not to panic over “foreign reports” which according to her are “unreliable”, she went on to say that “the build-up of a storm could be identified early and the Met Department would know if there was such a threat”. Sri Lanka’s Met Dept, despite regional and global evidence to the contrary, had in under a day before a major storm hit Sri Lanka, no indication around its severity. It issued no public warning. It did nothing.

Warnasooriya’s last public Facebook update is from July this year, where she is interviewed by a TV channel on the Meteorological Department’s ability to forecast adverse weather. There are some incredible claims made in the course of a short interview. Referring to Doppler Radar technology, which Sri Lanka does not yet have, she claims that even with it, weather forecasts can only be done two hours in advance. She is asked what measures the Meteorological Department has taken to warn the public around sudden low-pressure systems and the resulting bad weather patterns. Warnasooriya stresses that the public has understood that her Department has made advances in how the public is engaged with and warned. Noting the dangers of false warning, she avers that the Department is able to warn the public no sooner than they are around seventy to eighty percent certain of an impending bad weather. Asked as to how she sees the technical or technological capacity and competence of the Department in relation to other countries, Warnasooriya notes that more than this, the problem lies in where Sri Lanka is situated, and due to the fact that the country “stores a lot of energy”, whatever that means. There is a fascination with numerical weather prediction, to what in the interview seems to be the repeated dismissal of technologies like Doppler Radar.

The numerical forecasting she speaks of, that the Meteorological Department in Sri Lanka seems to be married to, isn’t your average Excel spreadsheet running on a normal PC. Currently the world’s most powerful supercomputer – actually an array of three running in tandem – dedicated to weather analysis resides in Met Office in the United Kingdom. As the website of the Met Office notes, the computational power is mind-boggling – fourteen thousand trillion arithmetic operations per second or more than two million calculations per second for every man, woman and child on planet Earth. The supercomputer also has twenty-four petabytes of storage for saving data, which to put into perspective is enough to store over 100 years’ worth of high definition (Blu-ray) movies.

Warnasooriya’s misplaced patriotism and love for home-grown numerical weather prediction, one doubts very much, is founded on even a fraction of this computation power required to do any sort of accurate forecasting. And therein lies the rub. Sri Lanka’s Met Dept operates with near total impunity. Year and year, even as preventable deaths pile up, even as public anger over any sort of adequate warning grows, its officials claim they are doing a good job and contrary to all discernible evidence, assure us they provide the best possible information in a timely manner. The reality isn’t hard to find, and not just in the death and destruction around us today. The last update on the Met Dept.’s Twitter feed is, at the time of writing, from five days ago. It is an automated update from a service that tracks how many followed and unfollowed the account. The last actual weather update is from 17th April. Every single tweet since is an automated tweet that bears no relation whatsoever to the purpose of the Met Dept, and its account on social media.

There is an enduring disaster in Sri Lanka. And it is our public weather forecasting system writ large. Earlier in the year, agencies, departments and line ministries engaged blamed each other for the lack of warning around catastrophic flooding that devastated large parts of the country and our farming output, for the second year in a row. From an incompetent, inconsiderate Minister of Disaster Management who doesn’t even rush back to the country when abroad and after a major disaster hits, to the farcical nature of updates from the Disaster Management Centre, official channels are at best terrible. At least over social media, which now informs many more than just those who have a Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp account, the Sri Lanka Red Cross, renowned journalists and climate change experts like Amantha Perera and even individuals like Gopiharan Perinpam, whose day job is at Sri Lanka Customs, provide trusted, timely and informative updates in the lead up to and during a disaster. It is a remarkable, revealing role reversal, where official information channels and authorities are the least trusted, most hated and the last to update, whereas citizens over social media are the first to inform others with trusted, reliable information sourced from recognised, respected international and regional weather reports which use the latest satellite imagery, forecasting models and weather updates.

Warnasooriya’s comments last week hint also hint at a larger malaise the bedevils our progress – misplaced patriotism. Weather knows no geographic or political boundary. Nature has no respect whatsoever for man-made borders and sovereignty. In suggesting that Sri Lanka should be inherently sceptical of forecasts issued by foreign agencies and trusted sources outside the country, the Met Dept suggests a modus operandi that is manifestly absurd if not downright tragic – that weather alerts and forecasting can only be done within Sri Lanka, and by Sri Lankans, if they are to be truly believed and reliable. Every single smartphone sold in Sri Lanka today has baked into its operating system weather forecasting better than what the Met Dept in Sri Lanka provides, the DMC alerts the public on, the Ministry of Disaster Management is capable of embracing and the Minister is possibly even remotely aware of.

The impunity around all of this is its own story – there appears to be no real interest in learning from mistakes or meaningful reform. Human resources around, for example, the basic translation of the few alerts that do make it out into Tamil, are almost wholly absent. But they abound in civil society, where a combination of technology, skills and information dissemination are now supplanting the role of official agencies. And that’s possibly where investment needs to occur – towards developing, in a country like Sri Lanka, citizen-driven, citizen-centric, technologically underpinned, public weather alerting models that leverage over twenty-one million SIM cards and coast to coast connectivity to disseminate reliable, fact-based warnings in a timely manner. If this strikes one as far-fetched or absurd, just think about the millions of dollars, year after year, from domestic budgets and foreign financing, that goes into propping up government agencies that openly say they can only predict weather two hours in advance.

The choice surely is clear, even if our weather is not.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 3 December 2017.

Feet of clay

Planning the online operations of an islandwide election monitoring body isn’t an easy affair at the best of times. Making matters more complex was the political context leading up to the Presidential Election on 8th January 2015. Fears of disruption on multiple levels, rigging and takeover of monitoring operations meant redundancy had to be planned from scratch. A hotel room was paid for in cash for three days to mirror the online information gathering and dissemination operations around the election in case the main office was raided, forcibly shut down or network connectivity blocked. Trusted friends were asked to become administrators of key websites and social media accounts, in case those in charge in Sri Lanka were arrested, detained or worse. Multiple network connections were maintained, from dongles and phones to the hotel’s own internet access over a proxy, in order to mask traffic and reduce suspicion. A WhatsApp group was created, that had at its peak on election day well over three hundred local and foreign journalists, activists, diplomats and others. Regular updates were posted, and the platform was chosen because it was that much harder to block or disrupt. My life was at the time was spent mostly in virtual conversations around pushback to the Rajapaksa regime’s information operations and propaganda, as well as information security operations for a major election monitoring body and a concert of other actors monitoring and responding to political developments. From around the 7th morning to the evening of the 9th, many of could count at most in single digits the hours we slept. It was, by far, the most stressful time at work. Requests from various media organisations after the election result was announced went unanswered, or for those journalists I was close to, politely declined. It was just too exhausting, and the relief once the final result was announced, was completely overwhelming.

As so many of us wearily trudged at first, and then as we saw others, with quicker pace and a lightness of step, ran towards Independence Square on the evening of the 9th to witness the first public swearing in of a President, some of us expected a large bomb, an RPG or a sniper to bring the proceedings to a violent end. The election of the new President was that unexpected and incredible. As counting stopped for hours on end in the early hours that same day, many feared the worst. A factual record of what transpired at Temple Trees we may never find out, but from various accounts in the public domain, the result wasn’t one that was guaranteed, expected or easy to engineer. How close we were to a different result wasn’t at the time Sirisena was sworn in, known to anyone save perhaps for those on the podium itself. We were just relieved. Going back to photos and videos taken that evening, the crowd, the atmosphere, the relief, the joy is all palpable. And a few minutes into his first speech, when the new President said in no uncertain terms he did not want to stand ever again for election as President, the cheers from the crowd underscored what was a key electoral pledge – abolishing the Executive Presidency as it stood then. In Sirisena, even the most cynical amongst us – knowing full well the hope would wane, and the man would disappoint – saw the promise of a new, exciting socio-political compact. The violence, fear and anxiety had ended, and in this one man – President Sirisena – we saw the prospect of a country post-war that could finally go about winning peace. I went back to hotel room, dismantled the global architecture setup for monitoring operations, shut down, checked out, went home and slept for close upon a day. Sirisena was in power. His worst would be better than the Rajapaksa’s best. Things would be ok.

Nearly three years on, Sirisena’s worst is in fact better than what would have been Mahinda Rajapaksa’s third term under the eighteenth amendment. But a terrible, low baseline isn’t really any measure for the success of his Presidency. The cracks in Sirisena’s public persona appeared soon after he was elected to office, but they are now more blatant and visible. From a towering beacon of hope, our President has become a small, insecure, thin-skinned, petty political figure, influenced by the worst amongst us, impervious to a better legacy and higher ideals, incapable of self-criticism and honest reflection, unable or unwilling to keep promises and clearly interested in another term as Executive President, by suggesting through prevarication it is what the party or people want. From what his manifesto promised would be done in one hundred days, three years on, the President’s key crusades are now against, incorrectly as it turns out, the high sugar content in chocolate milk drinks. A website with critical commentary against him remains blocked without any legal basis, ironically giving credence to all manner of conspiracy theories and downgrading Sri Lanka’s media freedom rankings. Investigations by the AG’s Department, ordered by the President himself into allegations of high-level corruption that include him when he was a Minister under the Rajapaksa regime, are now completely forgotten. The great national icon and President of Sri Lanka has yet to issue any statement on the violence in Gintota. The President’s daughter ghost-writes a book on him, calling him the nation’s father. A Presidential Commission in the issue of Central Bank bonds is now associated with disturbing over-reach, media leaks and controversy around surveillance – the very things associated with the Rajapaksa regime we thought we had seen an end to in January 2015. Truly cringe-worthy, banal, regressive stuff, at a time when political leadership is needed the most.

And yet, criticism is hushed and limited. Warts and all, we are assured that he remains deeply committed to issues like missing persons, constitutional reform to the extent possible, a political settlement to the Tamil national question, and weeding out corruption. But elsewhere and amongst the general public, the discontent is palpable. President Sirisena came into office not because voters liked the UNP or him. He came into office because many didn’t want Mahinda Rajapaksa for a third term. The margin of victory was slim – at the peak of his popularity, President Sirisena divided the electorate. Today, instead of a desire for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa – a spent political force – there is a twin-pronged attack on democratic stability. One, apathy – the disengagement with electoral politics in particular because of the non-delivery of promises. Two, a nostalgic desire to bring back efficient and effective government instead of one that so clearly cannot keep even Colombo clean. The nostalgia around the second masks what is essentially a drive towards militarisation. The first trend, clearly highlighted by the marked decrease in voter registration in Colombo alone, risks the capture of a young, impressionable, angry demographic by extreme, violent nationalism and electoral outcomes, through sophisticated social engineering cum propaganda, that favours a return of those from or associated with the old regime.

It’s not a good recipe leading up to 2020. President Sirisena has himself to blame. Or perhaps we should be kinder, and blame the political architecture as it stands today, which eviscerates, decade after decade, the country’s most optimistic, hopeful moments into a slow yet steady decay. Repeatedly asked what I can do to animate first-time voters in 2020, I honestly don’t know what to say. Without political leadership, and clear vision, nothing anyone else can do will generate interest in political reform. President Sirisena, for me and so many others, was a beacon of hope. He is today a ghost of what he once presented himself to be. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for Sri Lanka too – a country whose innate greatness always lies in a future never truly captured or realised, but tantalisingly visible, and at times, even within our reach.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 26 November 2017.