The real evil

The women, they said, were alone as the men would be at prayers. Some commented on the youth and beauty of the women, noting how attacking them would be somehow pleasing to the eye. In other groups, an assorted array of knives was an invitation to bring whatever weapon possible to join a mob in cleansing an area of Muslims. Defiling Islam was common, and in some cases it seemed like a competition amongst those participating in the discussion as to how best to come up with insults that were the most heinous or violent. In a widely shared message reported to Facebook, the invitation was to kill all Muslim infants without sparing even one, as they were no different to dogs. And therein lies the rub. After six days, Facebook got back to the person who reported the post noting that it did not violate their community guidelines and policies against hate speech.

Social media platforms as we know them today are broken, badly. Facebook last week was called out by the United Nations in Myanmar as having a central role in fanning the flames of Islamophobia and hate. The situation is more complex. Governments, including those in Mynamar, the Philippines, India and most notably, Russia, are weaponising social media in various ways, using platforms, apps and services used the most daily as a means of communication and engagement against the very sections of society that trust in large part information received or shared on these platforms. This is akin to poisoning on an unprecedented scale, with the target not the body, but mind. And there are many actors competing to wrest control of public perception, with a view to informing their reactions and responses. In the middle of this melee are the social media companies themselves, notably, Facebook, which owns and controls in addition to the eponymous and almost ubiquitous platform, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. Twitter, YouTube and a comparably smaller family of instant messaging apps like Viber or Telegram, which still have users in the hundreds of millions and are growing apace, and you have what the father of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee called ‘platform power’, which is crushing the nature of the web as he conceived it, and wanted it to grow as. His concern is twofold – that Silicon Valley companies today are invisible yet ever-present interlocutors through their technology in how we all interact with the rest of society, and the world. Secondly, that given the sheer numbers online and on these privately controlled platforms, designed to maximise profit over all else, it is a challenge – to say the least – for companies to control their technology against being used for terrorism, the spread of hate or incitement to violence. Money, ethics, jurisdiction, monopoly, privacy, surveillance, oversight, control – there are many wars being fought simultaneously on and around these platforms, around the world.

Sri Lanka is now in the spotlight for just this reason. During the violence in Digana two weeks ago, the government decided to block social media they claimed was fanning the violence, including Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber and Instagram. An immediate consequence of the block was the use of VPNs – apps or sites that easily by-passed the blocks. On Google, searches for popular VPNs over just the course of a week saw an astronomic rise, and VPNs entered popular, social discourse as a way to access what for many was their primary means of communication and engaging with their friends, peers and indeed, customers. Small businesses that rely on social media were badly hit. The telecoms companies that blocked social media sites, and later on, the most popular VPN services, also blocked popular discussion sites (in no way connected to the violence in Digana) and other random websites including blogs. All this was by no means unpopular. Somewhat simplistic surveys done by mainstream media suggested a high degree of public support for the social media blocks, in light of the violence and going by the explanations provided by government at the time. The blocks played into an older generation’s enduring fear – piggybacked on by government – that all social media is evil, all the time, and only serves to corrupt the minds of the young. In their incomprehension of how social media works, what it does and how it helps stem, prevent and combat violence, a blanket ban or block over social media remains one that many are partial to – just like the opposition to the Internet, the VHS recorder, TV and telephone in years past. The significant, multifaceted and growing ways through which social media help combat rumour, misinformation and shape public perceptions around democracy, governance, political participation and social mobilisation for good remain unexplored or often undervalued.

There is a far more sinister element also at play, increasingly evident as the blocks on social media continued long after the violence on the ground in Digana died down. The government, especially under Emergency Regulations, seemed overtly interested in engaging Facebook to stop the transmission of hate on its platforms, but covertly interested in negotiating ways through which dissent could also be controlled. Using Digana as a powerful, emotive reminder of what we as society should never again see, the government seeks to monitor and control the use of social media in particular, in ways yet to be publicly disclosed, and may never be fully revealed. True, governments have a legitimate purpose in ascertaining public mood and sentiment over social media, for obvious reasons related to governance, law and order and policymaking. But the constant refrain in Sri Lanka, including from Ministers in Government, is that it is the Ministry of Defence or the Army best positioned and capable of social media monitoring. This is dangerous for two reasons, at least. One, obviously, the Army isn’t really interested in human rights, the freedom of expression or privacy and the deep or dark State, dormant to date, now has the perfect vector through which to stamp its authority. Secondly, less evident, is that this government for the best of reasons is setting up the worst of templates – one ripe for abuse by more authoritarian, illiberal regimes in the future. Monitoring architectures, by their very nature, are turnkey solutions – which can be used for the benefit of society, or to severely restrict their rights. Who controls the architecture matters in a country without any constitutional or legal provisions to safeguard the right to privacy or oversight around surveillance.

Facebook, as a company, isn’t known for its ethics. For many years, data-driven and evidence-based arguments were presented to the company around the violence and hate produced, promoted, projected over its platform in Sri Lanka. It took Digana for the company to take serious notice. For years, Facebook was asked to strengthen its Sinhala language moderation in order to deal with the reporting of content. This wasn’t done. What is even more disturbing is that content explicitly, through direct translation and without any need for contextual awareness was in violation of community standards, passed muster – suggesting that those in charge of responding to user generated reports at Facebook who understood, or were Sinhalese, allowed their own personal bias and prejudice to take precedence over the company’s moderation guidelines. Facebook’s impunity regarding all this is indicative of Silicon Valley’s approach to the problem of hate writ large – profit first, public relations second, government satisfaction third, user capture fourth, ethics and rights – well, that’s for another day. Coupled with governments like ours who will use any excuse to control, contain and censor inconvenient narratives, and you have a perfect storm.

All this, of course, does nothing whatsoever to really address the root causes of the violence in Digana. Why did the STF attack innocent Muslim civilians? Why were the Police so impotent? Why hasn’t the government addressed racial hatred over three years? Why is a Buddhist monk, a central figure in the promotion of hate, openly seen with and beside the President in official tours abroad, even as he is wanted by the courts in Sri Lanka? Why isn’t the catastrophic failure of our intelligence services a matter of concern? Why did it take Digana for the government to wake up to the nature, volume, vector and sources of hate online, well-known, reported on, and flagged for years by civil society? What has any programme, policy or project on reconciliation done to address underlying communal and social grievances that give rise to this kind of violence? Why is there so much of hatred in those who are so young? Why is it that in Sri Lanka today, an accident, a drunken argument, a brush, nudge, poke or prod, a word or glance, a random action in sober or inebriated state, can immediately or days after, become a flashpoint for the worst communal violence, ignited by architects seeking political gain through chronic instability?

These are questions Facebook cannot answer, because they are our own creations. Social media wasn’t the cause of Digana, Gintota, Ampara or Aluthgama. These are two conversations here. One, around popular technologies and media, is emotive and helps conveniently gloss over the other more urgent, enduring and serious one, around the grievous failure of government. Our interest is perennially around the public optics of cosmetic solutions. Social media and Facebook today grab headlines because it’s easier than tackling the real issues that plague society and polity, post-war. The future if clear. We either fix and address them or face many Digana’s in the future.

Each one, worse than the other.


First published in The Sunday Island, 18 March 2018.


Black March

Unlike the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama four years ago, the horrible violence in Kandy, Digana and surrounding areas was covered in great detail by the mainstream media. As a consequence of dealing with the fallout of the violence over social media, some insights are worth sharing. This is particularly pertinent in light of the censorship of social media carried out under Emergency Regulations by the government, ostensibly with the intent of controlling, curtailing and containing the spread of content that incited violence or fomented hate. The public were also divided – with some noting that social media was the cause of, or certainly added to the violence, and other – like myself – noting that the myopic blocking of key platforms were extremely harmful on a number of fronts and set a terrible precedent for governments in the future to do as they saw fit to curtail information flows. But to this we shall arrive after some observations which mainstream media cannot report on, because their model of journalism isn’t linked to a deep-dive into, or the sifting of social media content.

The sheer volume of social media content generation during the violence was significant. Close to ten thousand tweets in Sinhala and English alone with the hashtag #digana, marking out the content as somehow anchored to what was going on in the area. There were dozens of pages on Facebook that were anchored to extremist Buddhist groups promoting falsehoods, vicious diatribes against the Muslim community and Islam, replete with memes and photography on top of which were often calls to protect Buddhism, congregate at a certain place or Temple to discuss and take action against threats to Buddhism, the accelerated birth rate of Muslims, continuing rumours and purported evidence of sterilisation pills sold or somehow smuggled by Muslims to be used against Sinhalese women, and language that suggested there were violent, invaders, alien, untrustworthy, hostile, ungrateful, ungracious and a community that needed to be taught a lesson or two. Importantly for a discussion on the merits of this content on social media and its influence on the violence over the week is the fact that a lot of this content was openly published, for years on end, by accounts, individuals and institutions who in many cases were openly named, and with contact details given. In other cases, the content was pegged to anonymous or pseudonymous accounts. There are dozens of videos still up on YouTube pegged to individuals and organisations promoting this line of thinking. Repeated reports to Facebook in particular have yielded no relief, since the company does not have the necessary resources to monitor the spread of hate on its platform in Sinhala. Another key development this week was in the form of around seven WhatsApp group invitations I got, with names indicative of the content and discussions they would have featured. It was not an option to enter these groups with my mobile number since I would either have been immediately targeted, kicked out or both. Screenshots sent by those who did infiltrate these groups reminded one of the stories now documented of pre-genocide Rwanda – photos of an assorted array of knives calling for all good men to rally around and deal with a problem, the targeting of women specifically, the highlighting of brick and mortar structures including mosques for destruction, the planning and plotting to destroy community symbols, the coordination of mobs, the fuelling of group think against community and religion, the sharing of videos, photos and other material that was trophy footage from individuals and groups who celebrated the wanton destruction and violence. There was also a link to a group on Telegram I received, and since the government also blocked Viber, it’s clear that instant messaging in general has become a primary vector in the communication of violent content leading up to and especially during riots.

The data on Google is also quite revealing. Over the period covering the height of rioting, the 6th to 8th of March, searches for ‘Molotov cocktails’ on Google indicate a sharp, significant increase in the Central Province. Searches for ‘How to make a petrol bomb’ over the same period shows a similar dramatic increase in Sri Lanka.

Finally, what we saw over the week was the weaponisation of social in an entirely new and unprecedented way with the advent of trolls and bots, adding fuel to rumour, misinformation and disinformation over Twitter in particular. With most leading social media platforms blocked, Twitter became a platform for the dissemination of information as well as a melting pot of ideas, updates, contestation, fact and fiction. Something interest, nay disturbing took place over the course of the week. As revealed by colleague, friend and researcher Raymond Serrato from Democracy Reporting International, who analysed well over fifteen thousand tweets over the course of the week, a few thousand accounts were created that went on to generate very high volumes of content on Digana. This initial production of information, fed into the Twitter ecosystem, was retweeted many times over, serving to mislead, misinform and often grossly simplify events to the benefit of a Sinhala-Buddhist perspective or narrative. These accounts featured fake names and fake photos designed to look like Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil names. They targeted individuals like me and other senior journalists, as well as anyone on Twitter providing perspective to the rioting that held accountable Sri Lanka’s systemic racism, the silence or complicity of the Buddhist clergy, and the criminal nature of what was going on in and around Kandy.

In the middle of all this, and far better known and reported was catastrophic, shameful government inaction and impotence in the face of violence. Instead of attention and action, we got censorship. As noted by me in public over the course of the week, the blocking of social media directly increased distrust of and pushback to Government, contributed to international media headlines which have painted Sri Lanka in a very negative light, fuelled significant and growing concerns by foreign investors, severely impacted the operations of the civic media teams and professional journalists in Sri Lanka to respond to and know about ground conditions, severely and tragically curtailed the ability of victims of violence to make their voice and concerns heard and finally, emphatically did not contributed to a reduction in mob violence on the ground – despite what the Commander of the Army noted late into the week. This is because the use of VPNs was openly and first promoted by the very group whipping up the violence and hate, content continued to be exchanged over WhatsApp by a number of the groups, and pre-planned attacks, vectors of violence and targets, once mobs had assembled in an area, didn’t require further coordination or collaboration using social media – they knew what to do, how to do it, and where to go.

Early and sustained reports from the worst affected areas indicated that the Police did little or nothing and that they were grossly outnumbered by the mobs. There are dozens of videos around how the mobs roamed freely during curfew, and importantly, imposed under a State of Emergency. It is evident the government has no capacity whatsoever to monitor social media, and that its only approach to it is to shut it down completely no matter what the consequences. As reported by so many, until the weekend, neither the President nor Prime Minister had gone to Digana. Throughout the week, the Chief Prelates were silent. Episodic, inspiring stories of communities, Buddhist priests and ordinary citizens standing up to the violence, giving refuge, security and showing up in solidarity to mosques and shelters gave a glimmer of hope that even in the darkest of times, not all were consumed by hate. But fear and anxiety persist and grow, across the country, spanning the usual social, economic and political divisions – around what this violence truly highlights, and how it is controlled by forces that turn it on and dial it up with almost total impunity, at their whim.

The past week was a grim reminder that Sri Lanka is post-war, but yet not a country with or at peace. What lies ahead, for us all?


First published in The Sunday Island, 11 March 2018.

Cascading regime change

Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times last week galvanised a number of conversations I have recently had with journalists and others based in the US around the state of democracy, in their country, post-Trump.

My Democrat American interlocutors are despondent, but also realise the many Americas that reside within the United States is not a phenomenon understood by most including those in power, and resulted in those who felt under-served and marginalised revolting against a visible political firmament associated with and perceived to be favourable towards those of colour. A predominantly white America – poor, hopeless, jobless – who felt their socio-economic conditions, not getting any better and scarcely talked about, trumped (no pun intended) at the Presidential vote confidence in and campaigns anchored to what was first projected as a post-racial America, which even towards the end of Obama’s two terms in office was a risible fallacy. A majority, it turns out, struck back at the triumphant audacity of hope for a minority, just eight years before. The conversation invariably sought to draw parallels between Sri Lanka today, three years after or into the Sirisena Presidency, and the US. The interest was in how by anchoring policies towards the historically marginalised, a larger majority, worried about their own place and future could be undervalued, to the detriment of political reform over the longer-term.

There are no easy parallels of course, but Krugman’s column featured a political term and theory: cascading regime change. Many in the US suggested to me that faced with an incumbent President and political architecture in Capitol Hill few felt strong enough to tackle head on, socio-political interest and activism centred around causes championed by smaller, more local communities. This extends to movements that obliquely taken on socio-political issues polity does not meaningfully address, or politicians are guilty of perpetuating. Overwhelming. The unprecedented support for and courageous revelations as part of the #metoo movement, Oprah’s rousing Your Time’s Up speech at the Golden Globes as well as more recently, the We call BS movement after the speech by Emma Gonzalez in memory of those who died in the mass shooting in Florida are all examples of this, in the US. #metoo is now a global phenomenon, and faced with depressing political leaders and repressive governments, communities are voting with irrepressible hashtags, retweets, status messages, parades, gatherings and writings on wall, online, media and street.  Cascading regime change explains this phenomenon, where interest in mainstream politics is seemingly overshadowed by participation in alternative political, social movements anchored to single issues, championed by influential people not in mainstream politics, or galvanised by the mass-telling or recounting of personal stories, wherein erstwhile victims become powerful agents of change. Krugman sees this as a positive trend in the US today, with so many movements taking on what the White House today stands opposed to, or is an outrageous supporter of. The term and theory can be applied elsewhere.

In Sri Lanka, we do not have a comparable interest in civic movements because civics isn’t really part of our social fabric. The local government election in February, and elections in general, are the primary means through which Sri Lankans exercise their approval or lack thereof of government policies. But even here, there is a discernible change around issues are kept alive and sometimes even brought to the fore. Despite many in polity seeking to undervalue or drown inconvenient truths – ranging from corruption in the present government to accountability for crimes committed by the previous regime – social media keeps the issues alive. These wild and varied conversations are sometimes fuelled, openly or secretly, by those in power or who seek to regain political authority. These self-serving narratives aside, more organic, persistent conversations bemoan the lack of progress, identify suspects, name culprits, shame politicians, peg values to deals, reveal the details of corruption, ridicule half-hearted efforts to address graft and question the bona fides of government to really take-on various crimes committed, after 2015 and before. Before the local government poll, the discontent with government was palpable even from a cursory glance at social media’s froth. Deeper within and beyond those vocal on social media, the discontent was being further fermented by socio-political forces anchored to the government’s inability to reach out to, engage and address the fears of the South. We then had a cascade of discontent – those in the South felt alienated by a government that couldn’t communicate its policies and held in contempt those who elected it. Those in the North felt let down by the trust placed in government to address their existential concerns. Promises were reneged, the South was ignored, and in this verdant vacuum, expedient politics took root. All entirely unsurprising, and forewarned even.

Krugman makes the point that cascading regime change isn’t always a force for the good, or a marker of progress. January 2015 marked an occasion where the theory captured how, despite all the State machinery abused and at their disposal coupled with hundreds of millions at the very least spent on campaigning, the Rajapaksa regime lost in a way no one could have predicted. It is likely to happen again. The local government election galvanised a population who were passive till then, and through the exercise of their franchise, expressed their frustration with the inability of government to deliver much of what they had promised. The vote mirrors vibrant, open and critical social media discourse around issues like garbage collection, the cost of living, the price of essential goods, the cost of public transportation, the dilapidated condition of public services, the award of tenders, the purchase of luxury SUVs for politicians and other issues not directly anchored to a specific policy of or individual in government but reflective of its record and public acceptance as a whole. In fact, the term and phrase ‘regime change’ is not alien to Sri Lanka. Its application has almost always been to raise fears around the legitimate operation of electoral democracy or, after an illiberal government has been voted out of power, to demonise the socio-political forces that championed change, often as agents of Western governments or their intelligence services. Krugman’s thesis is more nuanced and can help explain, from here on till 2020, why this government may well continue its haemorrhaging of votes.

A public, disenchanted with politics as it stands, who voted their disapproval in February, have been confronted not by humble, meaningful course correction, but a confounded farrago of egotism, parochialism and imbecility by those holding the highest political offices in the country. It is likely that the angry chatter on social media will grow, engineered in part by those who want disenchantment with the current political dispensation to grow, and in larger part by those just fed up with politics as it is. The known evil and disappointment, the majority’s electoral equation may well be, is better than the voting in of heady promise only to be frustrated more.

And this is something those in government would do well to be cognisant of. The litmus test of policies is no longer just at the ballot. It is through the strategic, sustained harvesting of public opinion over social media, and also through active probing of public sentiment through a range of polling and investigative tools. Simply put, a government attentive to public sentiment can also shape it proactively and to its benefit. Whether this government can or will is another question, and one I personally have only ever answered in the negative.


First published in The Sunday Island, 4 March 2018.

A Digital Demos

A dozen years ago, Sri Lanka was a very different place. I was frustrated with mainstream media’s inability and unwillingness to report on the worsening situation in the North and East. The country was in the throes of a humanitarian emergency. The ceasefire agreement had broken down. We didn’t realise and could never guess then what was to come in 2009, but in 2006, the signs were evident we were heading back to war. In November, I published the first article on a web-based platform I created to bear witness to vital accounts no one else would touch, report or focus on. It was a situation report from Vakarai, noting that about twenty-five thousand civilians in the region, close to Batticaloa, needed food, medicines, shelter, water and sanitation facilities urgently. This wasn’t the kind of update newspapers at the time, in any language, carried.

A month later, my son was born.

Since then, I have nurtured two children. One, a physical being not unlike any other child and the required parenting, not unlike what fatherhood usually entails. The other, an unprecedented virtual construct and space. I was new to both roles, but with parenting a child, guidance and advice was more readily available. In creating a pioneering citizen journalism platform, there wasn’t really anyone I could turn to. No one had attempted anything of the sort in the country. This was a time predating social media, so there were no comparable examples, even from the region. Facebook was two years old and still strictly limited to alumni of Universities in the US. WhatsApp and Instagram hadn’t yet been invented. There were no smartphones, and feature-phones were all the rage – with the most rudimentary, largely text based mobile web browsing that took an eternity to render on small, low resolution screens. Many still used dial-up to connect to the web, since broadband (ADSL connections) had only been introduced around three years ago.

I stumbled my way through care-giving for two infants. My progeny aside, the online platform’s timbre, curation and execution – even if it were to fail – needed to set the bar for others to start from. If it was worth doing, it needed to be done well. Ultimately, the platform turned out to be quite resilient even when confronted with my own maddening myopia. In the second half of 2009, guided – nay, blinded – by a desire to bear witness to the horrible, inhuman conditions in what was then the largest Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in the world called Menik Farm, I offered as a prize what was at the time a coveted handheld high-definition video camera to anyone who could send me footage of daily strife and life within its confines. The sheer violence of the request and endeavour, putting at grave risk those already suffering so much, I soon came to realise. Disgraced and ridiculed, my best intentions resulted in the platform taking such a reputational hit, it had nearly to shut down. My son has his mother to protect him from my well-intentioned blunders. There was nothing to inoculate the web platform from the founder’s failings. So I learnt as I went along. What kept me going was a belief in technology’s ability to bear witness to what many others in or with power, sought to deny, decry and destroy.

The platform is now what it is and many things to many people. Through dozen years of managing it every single day without any break, some insights into the flow and nature of online conversations are worth sharing. Nothing goes up on the platform without approval, from original content to comments. This means the worst diatribes and hate, in fact, often directed against the Rajapaksas, never go up. Civility matters, and in creating a safe space for principled disagreement to flourish, community and conversation were enriched. Counterintuitively, the worst hate faced by site and self came post-war, through comments against the Muslim community and those who were seen to be partial to them, at the height of the BBS violence across the country leading up to Aluthgama in 2014. Commentary and conversation on the platform itself has declined significantly in the past three years. On the other hand, engagement, sharing and readership over social media has grown astronomically and without pause. Technology has played a key role in gathering, shaping, producing and delivering stories. At a time when journalists were being abducted, tortured, murdered, silenced and forced into exile, the platform continued its operations and featured what few others dared to focus on or frame, because the platform was designed to be irrepressible even in an austere, censorious context.

That said, technology itself wasn’t and must never be the end goal. The people and stories were. Communicating realities out of sight, out of mind to many outside the North and East, as well as, post-war, stories from the South rarely covered by mainstream media is extremely tough, because the attention economy is getting harder to capture and retain. A younger demographic who grew up with social media and the web click, flick and swipe their way through content at a pace that is both disturbing and challenging – the first because one wonders whether despite the sheer volume of content consumed, an entire generation knows and cares far less about the world they live in, and the second because a publisher has to compete with cute cats to place on record stories of far greater value.

It is easy to demonise and devalue what one does not fully understand. Despite recent media headlines and developments, I retain hope through years of direct observation that politics, rights and democracy do matter to a younger generation and that their negotiation of the world, though on the surface cosmetic, is moderated in more complex ways. Friends, peers, social structures, groups and even sometimes the device, platform and app shape worldviews today in ways traditional media hasn’t fully grasped, at least in Sri Lanka. The ability to be agile in the development of content allowed the platform to reach out to and engage with audiences otherwise alienated by other media. We hacked their attention with content that shed light on country and context. Today, I am repeatedly confronted with young adults who say that as undergraduates or A/L students, they learnt often for the first time about things even their parents didn’t know or talk about through the platform I created in 2006. That ages me greatly, but more seriously, is also quite refreshing to hear.

I am now moving on. The best time to give up a good thing is when it is at the peak of its health. The platform is now in the hands of two gifted, young individuals who often speak to each other in a language replete acronyms, memes, GIFs and hashtags even I don’t comprehend. At the same time, they are both committed to the same values the platform was founded on, and has all these years, championed. They are not alone. For all the hand-wringing and despair of commentators and parents around wasted youth fuelled by social media, these very platforms are now the bedrock of our democracy. It is here Sri Lanka’s future is increasingly farmed, forged and fought. It is here new ideas take root and germinate. True, social media is violent, sexist, patriarchal, misogynistic and often brings out the worst in us by highlighting the worst amongst us. But there is so much more that is positive, helpful, insightful and hopeful. One just has to go beyond headlines.

There’s a lesson there for others in the media, too often engaged in a race to the bottom by comparing numbers, readers and other metrics to the detriment of what journalism is at its core about – the transport of readers to issues they didn’t know they would be interested in, till they encountered it in an immersive, compelling way. My son, precisely the same age as the platform I created, is a digital native – as interested in physical books as he is in virtual content, navigating vibrant Viber groups with as much ease as he interacts with people in person. This is the future. This is our future. Rather than simplistically or disastrously seek to intervene, censor and control, parents and politicians need to focus on ways the best of us and the best in us can be inspired, guided and framed in ways old media, conventional journalists and conservative minds could never even begin to imagine.

I have been part of these discussions for as long as I can remember. I suspect I will continue to be, for many years to come.


First published in The Sunday Island, 25 March 2018.

What the poll portends

Since results of last weekend’s local government election were released, Hindu kovils were vandalised in Mannar, Muslims were subject to violence in Veyangalla and Uguraspitiya and an ebullient Mahinda Rajapaksa has commanded the media gaze. Much to unpack here.

The election result itself is an indication of many things that were foretold and forewarned, and a re-run of the technocratic gaze that ultimately ousted the Wickremesinghe led UNF government back in the days of the ceasefire agreement. Lessons unlearnt then, remain unheeded now. The lack of any official press release from the PM or President after the election and the inability to even convene a press conference suggests the ferocity of the SLPP’s electoral sweep took even them by surprise. The former President on the other hand, ever the mediagenic genius, had no problem whatsoever commanding the headlines. While the UNP and SLFP descended into a kindergarten mode of you said, they said, he said, I’m never speaking to you ever again, here’s a toffee so be my friend style politics, and in full display of an already disgruntled and disgusted voting public, the SLPP’s media blitz was on par with its electoral performance – excellently executed, and for the most part, effective.

The mainstream media’s frothing fascination with every titbit of political gossip since last Sunday has been to the detriment of more sober reporting and reflections on the result and its aftermath. Lost in the melee of updates was reportage on the license some felt, as a result of the SLPP victory, to act violently against religious and ethnic minorities, with memories of guaranteed impunity. When this was flagged on Twitter, a barrage of insults and bitter invective followed by self-styled champions of the SLPP, reminiscent of the violence online that mirrored the awful censorship offline under the Rajapaksa regime. The fact that the SLPP swept the local government poll is not a surprising. This was the government’s election to lose, not the SLPP’s to win. What’s disturbing as a consequence are the immediate and distinct markers of extremism and violence, now pent up, that lie in wait within the SLPP’s constituent socio-political make-up, salivating at the chance to take and be in power again.

Revealingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s celebratory messages on Facebook, just after the result and during the week, are only in Sinhala and English. Tamil, even a hint of it, doesn’t feature. This speaks to a singular mindset unchanged in the three years since we last felt its megalomaniacal impulse. Tamils still continue to be marginal, at best, for the SLPP. And by extension, any democratic impulse to recognise and accommodate legitimate Tamil grievances is moot. This was evident in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement at the SLPP’s press conference. Pointing to a map of Sri Lanka and the wards the SLPP had won, Rajapaksa noted that even the territory of Eelam had reduced. This is a remarkable statement, even as a Freudian slip. For the former President, the North and East of Sri Lanka are still, predominantly, Eelam – or as a reflection of popular Southern imagination, partial to and under the influence of, to date, the violent separatism of the LTTE – militarily defeated nearly ten years ago. The former President continues to frame citizens in these areas as terrorists, violently separatist by nature. What is more interesting is the support he gets for this viewpoint. Over Twitter, Rajiva Wijesinha averred that the reason Rajapaksa declaring Eelam was reduced was because “the people [in these areas] supported a range of viewpoints including the SLPP, not just [a] UNP/TNA combine”. The defence is a curious one, even by Wijesinha’s standards. If the North and East vote for the TNA or UNP, they are justified in being called a territory of Eelam. By contrast, the argument goes, only if they vote in Rajapaksa or now the SLPP do they demonstrate they have eschewed violent separatism and are truly part of Sri Lanka.

This essentially racist mindset is not surprising to associate with the JO and SLPP. It is far more violent when one encounters it in the present government, and soon after last week’s electoral drubbing. No less than Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, a senior member of the UNP and close to the PM, believes that the party’s poor performance at the local government election was because the Sri Lankan anthem was sung in Tamil on Independence Day. News reports suggest that Marapana believes the Sinhala-Buddhist vote base of the UNP lost fifty-thousand votes every time the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung. How this precise figure was arrived at is anyone’s guess. Couple Marapana’s ridiculous assertion with Government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne’s view that 55% voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa and that the key take-away for him from the local government election was that the 8th January 2015 mandate was strengthened, and you find a government as I noted on Twitter that doesn’t know what they’ve lost, how they’ve lost or in fact, that they’ve lost.

Thus, it isn’t the potential resurgence authoritarianism and violence that is worrying – or what Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda calls a ‘democratic setback’ in the event the President and PM fail to agree on a reform agenda moving forward. It is the fact that the political huddle within the SLFP and UNP, to consolidate power, block the other party and stop the haemorrhaging of votes will in intent, focus and execution, match the SLPP’s huddle to consolidate electoral gains. Southern polity’s chief focus henceforth will be driven by a fear of losing more votes in the South, or the interest of recapturing what was lost. Even with the best of outcomes in the form of continued cohabitation and an extension of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the window of opportunity for meaningful reform is now comprehensively gone. It is unclear to what degree even incrementalism can succeed, given what will be a deep, enduring hesitation to promote anything radically different to the status quo that can be used or perceived to be ripe for exploitation by the SLPP to whip up angry opposition.

The fun and games have already begun. The SLPP, perhaps privately embarrassed by the violence meted out by the party’s supporters and interested, temporarily, in not alienating a minority vote, now wants an investigation into the anti-Muslim communal riots in Aluthgama, from June 2014. It also distances itself from the BBS. The chutzpah of G.L. Peiris to want an investigation now into events Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, despite promises of redress and robust investigation at the time, didn’t deliver on, is perhaps lost on the majority of who voted for the SLPP. Memories are short, and the existential burden of living under a government that hasn’t delivered on its promises perhaps outweighs what was known and even reviled about the previous regime.

And that’s precisely the point. The SLPP won for the same reason Sirisena was elected to power three years ago. It was a vote in opposition to the incumbents – a score card on their inability to deliver what was expected or promised. It was much less a vote in support of a party or individual. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe 2015 mandate, in reality, was less about constitutional reform writ large or transitional justice. It was more about bringing to justice those who were corrupt, and visibly eschewing the political culture that defined the Rajapaksa regime. It was about the abolition of the Executive Presidency. In all these efforts, the present government has failed miserably. The SLPP won not because Mahinda Rajapaksa gained new fans. It won because the present government comprehensively lost many who believed in it and voted for it, three years ago, and offers nothing by way of a compelling vision anchored to ground realities. It is pathologically unable to communicate. If voters see no difference between government today and what they endured in the past, it is likely they will go with the known devil, instead of present day leaders who cannot even agree amongst themselves.

It matters little to me therefore about what the President and Prime Minister will say and do in the weeks ahead. The consolidation of power and its negotiation will be, whatever the end configuration, to the detriment of genuine reform, the Tamil national question, accountability, meaningful constitutional reform and justice. The jolt of fear around a Rajapaksa resurgence will most likely only result in pandering to the fears of Southern polity and society, instead of crafting public opinion and mature political leadership, that demonstrates by example what it is to not be racist, reductionist or retrogressive. My disappointment with the local government result is not that the SLPP won so much. It is that the government, three years into power, has won so little.


First published in The Sunday Island, 18 March 2018.

Slitting our future

Lost in the melee of throat-slitting last week were statements by the President and high-profile members of the UNP. At an election rally in Jaffna, the President is reported to have personally assured that no one who had been disappeared was kept in any secret location, camp or in the jungle. He had not mentioned a word about justice or holding those accountable for disappearances accountable. Separately, in an interview to a leading private TV station, the President averred that former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was removed from his position because he agreed to co-sponsor a resolution at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva proposing the inclusion of foreign judges in investigations around allegations of human rights violations including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Juxtapose this with what others are saying about us. In September last year, media reported that the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells, praised the progress made by Sri Lanka under the leadership of the President around democratic reforms and reconciliation. In October last year, Mark Field, UK Minister for Asia and the Pacific, welcomed the government’s commitment to reconciliation and strengthening democracy. Also in November, news media reported that reconciliation programmes under the President came in for special praise by visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In early January 2018, Japan’s Foreign Minister Tharo Kono reportedly pledged his government’s “fullest support for the development and reconciliation process of Sri Lanka”. In July 2017, state media noted that Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, had lauded efforts made by the President to strengthen reconciliation. Earlier that year, in April 2017, Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestag), Norbert Lammert in an official visit to the country noted that the President had taken effective steps to strengthen democracy and improve human rights and reconciliation. An official delegation of the European Union Parliament late last year, expressing concern that progress around reconciliation was slower than hoped, welcomed the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons. The only problem is that the OMP has yet to be constituted, and the chief stumbling block is the President.

It is entirely unclear where the well-springs of hope lie for those who remain sanguine about prospects for meaningful reconciliation, accountability and transitional justice in Sri Lanka. We have a President who now intervenes to overturn the suspension, pending inquiry, of a person whose actions in London reveal, in no uncertain terms, the mentality of the Sri Lankan Army. If this was what was threatened in broad daylight and the full glare of media in London, imagine how much worse it would have been in the scorching heat of Nandikadal, in 2009, far away from any media gaze save for trophy footage by aggressors. It is this President who says on national TV that he will not allow the electric chair to come to Sri Lanka, ignorant perhaps that as a non-signatory country to the Rome Statue, the International Criminal Court – which in the popular public imagination is equated with the electric chair – has no jurisdiction or power over us. The President’s populism reached a crescendo in the lead up to the local government election. This was to be expected, though perhaps not at the levels of shrill insanity and inanity on display. What is more concerning is the power dynamic within the coalition government moving forward, with a President so vehemently, visibly and volubly against principle tenets of accountability, reconciliation and transitional justice.

Clearly, contrary to the buoyant optimism of foreign diplomats and leaders, our political malaise runs deeper. Take the statements by senior UNP figures. Largely under-reported in the mainstream media at the time and indeed, to date, the significant violence around Colombo’s beautification under the former regime and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in particular is well-documented in reports anchored to the testimonies of tens of thousands displaced or relocated to living conditions by order of magnitude far worse that they experienced in the places there were originally residents of. More than most, UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva knows this.  But for whatever reason, this did not prevent him from unilaterally praising Gotabaya Rajapaksa in December last year for “his efforts in beautifying” Colombo. In a comparatively late awakening to what was by then a readymade populist platform, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene praised Brigadier Priyankara Fernando’s throat-slitting gesture as the right signal to give pro-LTTE diaspora. Not to be outshone, Navin Dissanayake, UNP MP and Minister of Plantation Industries said that the Brigadier enjoys diplomatic immunity for actions performed within the embassy premises. Previously, just after the President reversed the suspension, Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake stated that they would not be conducting an inquiry into the actions by the Brigadier, adding that “that it was not in any way or form a threat meant for the protesters”.

Mind-bending stuff, this. There was photo doing the rounds of Brigadier Priyankara Fernando pointing a finger to the Sri Lankan flag pinned to his uniform. Whereas videos and photos of the throat-slitting went viral, this image captures more fully and accurately Sri Lanka today, three years into the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The two stripes of our flag – representing Tamils and Muslims – have always faced the Sinhala Lion’s kastane, or sword. In London, on the other side, the stripes confronted the pointed finger of Brigadier Fernando, soon after he had used it to symbolise a knife cutting the heads of Tamil protestors. And so there we have it. The first and enduring reaction to excesses by the Army is genuflection out of fear of losing votes. We have a President opposed to accountability, blocking the OMP and by extension, inimical to any meaningful reconciliation. We have members of the UNP who are no better. We have officials in our diplomatic missions whose mindless reactions are now the greatest fuel for the fund raising and propaganda efforts of the equally moronic pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora and allies. The dregs of society on both sides of the nationalist-patriotic spectrum, fuel each other’s frothing madness.

This is so sad. Men in uniform continue to, with total impunity and even abroad, act in a violent manner. We have an Army that says recorded evidence of violent, offensive behaviour by officials in a diplomatic mission does not remotely constitute anything that requires condemnation, leave aside punitive action. We have officials representing Sri Lanka who are oblivious to diplomacy, and worse, members of the military hand-picked by the government who are the worst imaginable ambassadors of our country. If Brigadier Fernando’s actions aren’t investigated, what hope is there for more robust investigations, as the President keeps promising us, into more serious allegations of violence? The response across the political spectrum and over social media in particular reveal a country very far from being reconciled with its past. It suggests that strategically, we are unable to effectively counter pro-LTTE provocations because internally and domestically, we continue to be wedded to racist, discriminatory mindsets which frame policy and fear progress. What is manifest overtly, is a rot that lies deep within. What is obvious now in London, is a cancer within the country that metastasized in 2009. What our politicians say and the public cheer on and vote in, is what holds us back and takes us into the past.

This is Sri Lanka today. A very different country to what the diplomats and foreign dignitaries talk about with high praise. Brigadier Fernando may have meant it differently, but what he did and how he was captured in London is in fact the future we face. Sri Lanka, led by the current government, is murdering its democratic potential. And voters are cheering this awful demise on, eyes wide open.


First published in The Sunday Island, 11 February 2018.

Seventy Years

To belong to an island is to look outwards, understanding that the horizon is not simply a boundary between what is visible and what is invisible, what is known and unknown, but a challenge: to imagine, to yearn, to leave, to search, to return.

– Nicholas Laughlin in So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans

It took many years from the time it was requested, for it to be installed. Large, heavy and with a rotary dial, our family’s first phone was placed in my parent’s room. Before that, my sister and I walked around two hundred meters to use the only phone in our neighbourhood. It was placed in a shop that half-heartedly sold other things, almost as an excuse to to lure more people to use the phone. BBS in the 90s meant something very different to what the acronym is known for today, and I used to be a member. Later, I connected to the Internet over a modem at 28.8kbps, using Netscape.  I skipped tuition during my O/Ls to tinker with motherboards, and programme dBase III Plus. I assembled computers, and was amongst the first to try out Windows 95 when it was launched, with a pirated copy of course. There was little to no local content on the web at the time, and the web itself was new. There was no social media, and there were no smartphones. Neither had been invented. Our family bought the Island newspaper. We could only watch two State owned TV stations, and the first private TV based UHF broadcasts, only possible to be viewed with the purchase of a  new antenna, would be advertised around this time. Archchi still listened to ‘Muwanpalassa’ on AM radio. There were no FM stations, or private radio stations over any frequency. There was no broadband. I recall family visits to other homes, and reciprocally, many coming over to visit us. This occasional, an unplanned face to face interaction, was richly textured – the adults spoke at length, the children played or were utterly bored with each, and either way, didn’t dare interrupt.

This is a snapshot of the media and information landscape I grew up in, and until my first mobile phone in 2002, I inhabited. What I knew of contemporary Sri Lanka was mediated through this media. It’s all very different now. Already, the heady optimism around social media at the time of ‘Arab Spring’ has now given way to a new scepticism around whether with greater choice, comes a stronger democracy. It’s important though to locate the pace of progress of telecommunications in Sri Lanka as we reflect on seventy years of independence. In around a quarter of a century, we have gone from paper, frequency, brick and mortar based media to digital media. In any bus, while private radio blares through speakers, commuters remain glued to their screens. Our politics, as well as our appreciation of country, identity, and our place in the world, comes from a range of diverse voices, each one competing for authority, attention and peer recognition. When the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester came in 1948 to grant us independence, the televised coverage of their visit would never reach anyone in the then Ceylon for decades. Updates on Twitter on the visit of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, in 2018, generates responses in real time, many of them rightfully ridiculing the farcical genuflection of royalty we left behind in 1948. But what’s really changed?

How we see ourselves and our country are today inextricably entwined with the style, tone, substance and selection of media consumed personally, targeted individually, shared widely amongst friends, but not consumed beyond the like-minded. In our seventieth year of independence, we are, like so many countries, splintering as a society from within, our attention colonised by social media’s addictive power. Looking back, when growing up, mainstream media had this strange communal glue – all the subscribers of one newspaper, more or less thought of the world and country in the same way, allowing for disagreement to take place with the subscribers of another newspaper, face to face or through the ballot. Today we see our country differently, depending on what we have accounts on, who we choose to follow, which platforms we engage on, what media we see and for how long, what we decide to share and thereby validate amongst friends and how we choose to capture what we experience, with documenting through image now more important in many instances than savouring the place, person or experience. This is not a world my grandparents would remotely recognise.

But there is no point hand-wringing about a simpler or better past. Our media and information landscape is by way of technical architecture and original content, better than it was a quarter century ago, and a world apart from what it was just a few years ago. The democratisation of media, the affordability of access and the rich engagement over many languages – Tamil, English, Sinhala, Sin-glish, emoticons, memes, stories, stickers – renders and reveals many countries, all jostling with each other for attention – sometimes violently clashing, and most other times, existing independent of each other to serve those who subscribe. What we so desperately lack today is not freedom from the British Empire, but independence from puny imaginations – an island-mentality that first and often only sees as a threat anything and anyone from outside, and anyone different from within. We drag down, including viciously over social media, those who dare to be something better than we can be, or are contrary to how we think everyone should be. Even in digital spheres, we remain pre-modern. We continuously blame on the British what we have ourselves failed to engineer, and ignore the growing danger of social media in a country were many cannot and do not question what they consume.

But this is all known, and I do not want to end with petty pessimism, a luxury of a few who can afford to be thus. The tryst of our own democratic destiny, Nehruvian or not, is inextricably entwined the media and information we consume. We are what we choose to engage with. I look at the hate and ignorance so evident all around us, and despair at how such a verdant island can be infected with such small-minded people. But every time I think this, I also recognise the value and potential of media today to open hearts and minds. To emancipate. To nourish and in our country, create active citizenship. To embrace as Nicholas Laughlin notes, the potential of being a country greater than we are, and what we think we can be.

Our independence isn’t at Galle Face. It is on this page, and if online, in every thumb or key-press. In choosing to engage, share, like, comment or forward, we promote a vision of our country in our own mould. That mould needs to be re-cast. We have independent from a coloniser, but we remain colonised in our outlook. That’s on us, not the British. We may today engage with seventy years of independence digitally, but do so with a socio-political mentality that pre-dates even 1948. Unless we can address this anachronism of self-perception and imagination, we will continue as a country to be cosmetically modern, but catastrophically colonised by our own demons.


First published in The Sunday Island, 4 February 2018.