Old wine

President Sirisena is clearly unhappy. When UPFA MP Kumara Welgama’s house was raided last week in search of two state-owned vehicles, President Sirisena said it was an “immature” act. Especially since of late, the President has taken some effort to demonstrate by example what political immaturity is, we have to take him at his word. This unhappiness is likely the result of being increasingly isolated in office, pressured on the one hand by voices from within the SLFP calling for electoral gain and partisan advancement, yet on the other being unable to do so given the nature of coalition politics as they stand, with the PM and UNP in charge of most affairs. This is then a question of competing visions. The PM and his political, socio-economic ideals, along with attendant constitutional reforms, is supported by a concert of civil society, bi-lateral, multi-lateral, domestic and foreign actors. The President is surrounded more by inward looking domestic gatekeepers and actors, more closely aligned to the security apparatus. The adulation and adoration enjoyed by the President, as a beacon of hope on the evening of 9th January 2015 at Independence Square, has now eroded into a Presidency searching for relevance and legacy. Sirisena feels alone.

Meanwhile, our PM was in Belgium making chocolate. That in the middle of Sri Lanka’s most serious political crisis since the 8th of January 2015, the PM’s media team saw it fit to release photographs of him in a kitchen playing with cocoa clearly indicates, amongst other things and not for the first time, an appalling media strategy of the UNP and a remarkable inability to read the public mood. Upon his return the PM assured us that the GSP Plus trade concessions from the EU would come on tap early next year. But tied to this, what the PM has not commented on is the draft Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), which comes soon after the current Minister of Justice strongly and unapologetically advocated for terrible amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code that had the Human Rights Commission, the Bar Association, several civil society organisations, leading columnists, journalists and ultimately the EU in Sri Lanka itself over Twitter, aghast or deeply concerned.

So while the President’s statements have generated the most attention and censure, the proposed CTA is far more outrageous. Even in draft form, it suggests the outlook of this government is not in fact very far removed from the Rajapaksa-regime’s dangerous fixation on national security, a siege mentality and the silencing of dissent. A brief test then, to support my point by flagging three paragraphs, spanning 37 years.

  1. The intention of causing harm to the unity, territorial integrity or sovereignty of Sri Lanka, or the peaceful coexistence of the people of Sri Lanka, by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, causes or intends to cause, the commission of acts of violence between different communities or racial or religious groups (is a terrorism related offence).
  2. Whoever, by the use of words spoken, written or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, intends to cause or attempts to instigate acts of violence, or to create religious, racial or communal disharmony, or feelings of ill-will or hostility, between communities or different racial or religious groups, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term exceeding two years.
  3. Any person who by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups has committed an offence… is on conviction liable to imprisonment of either description for a period not less than five years but not exceeding twenty years.

One of these excerpts is from the heinous Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, Section 2(1)(h). The other is from an amendment to the Penal Code proposed in December 2015, introduced also by this government ostensibly with a view to curtailing the rise of hate speech. The third is an excerpt from the leaked draft of the CTA, as published by mainstream media recently. Damningly, there is no discernible difference. It doesn’t require a degree in law to immediately understand why it is so deeply ironical, and indeed, both distressing and violent, that a government telling the world they are interested in human rights, is in fact, domestically rehashing, at every given opportunity, the same spirit and form of vile legislation that has been used to murder, torture, imprison unjustly, censor, silence and raise anxiety. The spirit, if not enduring form of the UNP around Black July 1983 clearly casts a long shadow, and is why it is jarring to read that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, unhesitatingly supports the restoration of GSP Plus to Sri Lanka.

Let’s ignore all this. When in 2013, the Rajapaksa regime tried to push through a ‘Code for Media Ethics’ prepared by the Media and Information Ministry, the pushback – domestic and international – was immediate and sustained. The ‘Ethics Code’ proposed at the time banned any publication that contained information which could ‘mislead the public’ or ‘promote anti-national attitudes’. The ban on content extended to “anything amounting to contempt of court’ as well as ‘materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature’ and, incredibly, ‘criticism that affects foreign relations’ – whatever that meant. The draft CTA’s clauses are much more worrying, and extend well beyond the media. And yet, the EU, US, UN and others, including sections of civil society still living in January 2015, have failed to condemn it.

Sadly, we do not really deserve any longer the praise we continue to so easily generate internationally. Course correction is possible and in the opposition to the CTA, may come about despite government. It is however important to recognise that the President’s statements and the fallout, coupled with the leaked CTA draft, set the new baseline to assess the state of democracy in Sri Lanka. Into this new equation we must also plug the UNP’s unwillingness to meaningfully investigate multi-billion rupee corruption scandals, which now result in defamation lawsuits against media for exposing the degree to which the rot has taken root.

And so the circus goes on.

What can ‘ordinary citizens’ do? Name. Shame. Warmly welcome the opportunity, as the New York Times did with Trump’s fatuous threats of legal action, to take matters to court, where judicial proceedings will bring to light the full extent of nepotism, corruption, insider trading, favouritism and money trails. Remain vigilant. Remind those in power points from their election manifestos they may want to now forget. Speak out, in ways, on platforms and over media the government can no longer contain, control or censor. Continue to be proud of the 8th of January, knowing that citizens, not an army with weapons, brought about a change thought impossible. Refuse to live in the 8th of January, when so much continues to be so wrong. Remind those in government – they are our servants. They bend, to our will. And as the Royalists in government must surely know, one either learns this, or departs.

Failing greatly

In a recent interview on guest editing the most recent issue of US edition of Wired magazine, President Obama talks about a number of ideas related to science, technology, economics and politics. The incredible breadth and depth of the outgoing US President’s knowledge around what he is asked, without the input of any outsider or advisor, beggars belief. Reading the interview, freely available online on Wired’s website, prompted an observation and question I posed on social media: “…not for the first time, deeply saddened by the fact that Sri Lanka’s best thinkers are nowhere on our party political spectrum. How can we inspire the best in us, when those heading our country are routinely the worst amongst us?”

I had in mind statements made by both the President and PM in Sri Lanka over the course of last week. A quote attributed to the PM and published this week in the National Geographic magazine’s website unequivocally suggested that those missing in Sri Lanka today are in fact, dead. It is not the first time this year he has said precisely this, and in public. If he is so clear about the matter, it raises the question as to why the government established the Office of Missing Persons to inquire into the fate of the thousands who have gone missing during and after the war. Last week was also punctured by Sirisena Jnr and Snr going on rampages. While Jnr’s posse laid waste to a popular nightclub for an indeterminable reason, Snr went on frothing tirade against the FCID, CID and Bribery Commission, noting amongst other things that they were anchored to a political agenda and since it was he who appointed the officials in them, they should in turn keep him informed of all high profile cases. Lest we forget, leading Australian media earlier this year reported that Sirisena, in his avatar as a Cabinet Minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa, had requested kickbacks from Snowy Mountains Engineering Company (SMEC) officials around a multi-million-rupee contract to construct a damn, saying “that he needed to ‘prioritise’ certain payments to unnamed parties ‘since the signing of the contract would depend’ on it”. Unsurprisingly, denying the claims made in the report, President Sirisena ordered the Attorney-General to investigate the matter. No report on the investigation has been made public or tabled in Parliament to date.

An apocryphal story attributed to Churchill and a female socialite springs to mind. Churchill asks the woman to sleep with him for five million pounds. The woman in question readily agrees. Churchill then asks her to sleep with him for five pounds. The woman, aghast, asks Churchill “What kind of a woman do you think I am?”. Churchill retorts by saying “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price”. Despite the President’s tiresome, prosaic moralising, despite the establishment of the OMP and the on-going ‘victim-centric’ consultations around reconciliation supported by the PM, the essential nature of both men who lead our country is now distressingly clear. One cannot practice what he preaches. The other just cannot communicate. We have changed faces in power. The awful nature of power remains the same. We celebrate and focus on cosmetic change, when in fact, systemic change remains elusive and episodic at best. Even under ‘yahapalanaya’, citizens are perennially haggling with feckless men who hold their future hostage to personal whim, corruption, expedient politics or parochial interest, disguised as ‘national interest’. As journalist Shihar Aneez aptly said on Twitter, “a visionary government with very poor media strategy is worse than a government with better media strategy and lack of long term vision”.

What’s the broader context for what Aneez flags?

The President is under pressure and not just because of Daham. The PM is under pressure and not just because of the President’s recent comments. Champika Ranawaka and the JHU are becoming increasingly important strategic players, in for the long-haul and positioning themselves against for example the manic nationalism of the Gotabaya and those who venerate him. The JHU aren’t democrats. The veneer of their progressive politics today hides a darker shade of red, just a little under the surface. And yet they enjoy a distinct, enduring appeal from the private sector, business community and professionals. In the North, we now have a Chief Minister mirroring the worst traits of politicians in the South – merely amplifying for self-advancement and gain, without really meaningfully addressing, a deep-seated disquiet, unmet aspirations and dwindling hope. The deep, dark state, which gave birth to the BBS and its ilk, persists. We know post-Snowden in particular that in any country, the intelligence community exists independent of any real government oversight and scrutiny. Given what they have been witness to and part of, it is likely they have their own agenda in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy is a mess and my last column dealt with the fact that the majority of citizens don’t know what key reforms the government has undertaken, why, what will result from them or where they are presently at. The JO, Rajapaksa’s and their apparatchiks are not going quietly into the night.

It all seems hopeless, at least from outside. And yet, those in government may yet find a way to get us out of this mess.

Perhaps there someone who has the trust of the President, to tell him especially after his pronouncements last week that he doesn’t need to lose face in order to be more conciliatory, if only out of pure self-interest, towards those who walk a different path and want what he doesn’t himself support? They can work out alternatives, negotiate space, create counter-narratives and with the support of (many) others who don’t want to see the return of the Rajapaksas, create a context where his sense of self-worth finds suitable anchor, and there is a working relationship that glosses over the need for frequent pronouncements on policy he will in fact have no real role in the shaping of. Likewise, for the PM – perhaps there someone who has his trust to suggest, urgently and unequivocally, that he has already lost the support of a general public which remains ignorant of his grand visions and plans? Spending millions of dollars for external spin doctors is a poor substitute for the lack of political will and leadership. Any crisis presents opportunities for advancement – can the PM be guided to grasp them, even if he himself can’t see the potential? Can the JHU’s shrink-wrapping of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism as glossy cosmopolitanism be nipped in the bud? Unlikely, though the next best thing that can be done today is to ascertain to what degree a possible Sirisena-Ranawaka or SLFP-JHU nexus in the future can be thwarted by a PM who plans for the non-return of the Rajapaksas in a way that begets support from unlikely quarters to support reform where necessary, including with the new constitution.

We don’t need our President and PM to like, much less love each other. But their leadership and this coalition, warts and all, is essential. Given a penchant for insensitivity and inanity, it is easy to pick on what each said or did and write them off, individually or together. And yet, our self-interest, to never again relive the Rajapaksa years, must motivate us to see beyond what they both are able to, and repeat, as much as and as often as we can, Kennedy’s aphorism that only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.


First published in The Sunday Island, 16 October 2016.

The new constitution that may never be

Gramsci spoke of the pessimism of intellect and the optimism of will. How does this relate to Sri Lanka today? The deafening silence around the process of constitution making, justified by key architects as inevitable in order for progress around tenacious issues to be made, indicates to all but the most delusional the reform process has little to no traction in the public imagination. This is a problem. Basic intelligence suggests a process as vexed as writing a new constitution, without public traction or debate, dumped by government elites for approval just before a referendum risks confusion at best and opposition or rejection at worst. And yet, Sri Lanka really needs a new constitution. If the constitution expresses the will of the people, it needs to be one that guides us away from the structures of power and identity that led to what we are still hostage to – a violent, racist State, largely unable as a first step to even recognise the degree to which it excludes and discriminates. The optimism of will, when embodied in a constitution, is what can guarantee to the extent possible a better future for all citizens, independent of what government, Executive or Prime Minister are, say and do.

Disturbingly though, things are not going well. And that is an understatement.

An islandwide poll conducted by Social Indicator, the polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (to which I am attached as a Senior Researcher) on perceptions around and attitudes towards the new constitution makes for very depressing reading. The official topline report will be released to the public this week. Some of the key findings bear mention.

Contrary to what the President, Prime Minister and the whole of government may believe, a quarter of Sri Lankans have no clue that a constitutional reform process is taking place at present. 34.1% know a reform process is taking place, but have no idea about the details or where the process is currently at. The twenty-member Public Representations Committee (PRC), appointed by the PM, held public sittings in all districts of the island earlier this year. Just the written representations to the PRC numbered in the thousands. And yet, echoing concerns made at the time around publicity and awareness raising, the Social Indicator poll brings out that over 70% of Sri Lankans hadn’t heard of the PRC or its activities. It gets worse. A staggering 76.8% hadn’t heard of the Constitutional Assembly, which held its first sitting on the 5th of April 2016 in the Parliament Chamber. Even amongst those who had heard of it, there was no awareness around what it was doing. Unsurprisingly, nearly 60% of Sri Lankans said that the Government hadn’t been successful in communicating the constitutional reform process – such as its importance or progress – to citizens.

Fundamentally, this means that the majority of Sri Lankans today don’t know about the constitution making process, haven’t heard about the PRC much less its final report and are clueless, even if they have a vague idea of what’s going on in government regarding the reform process, around key outcomes and output. There is simply no other way to interpret the data. It is a slow onset catastrophe. The public or political communications aspect is worth flagging. Television remains the single most important vector for news and information, with private channels consumed more than state owned media. This isn’t surprising. What however the data also confirms is, I would argue, an irreversible, growing trend around the importance of Facebook in particular and Internet based sources in general as vectors of news and information. 15.7% from the Southern Province and 11.1% from the Eastern Province said that Facebook is one of their main news sources while 29.5% from the Northern Province and 15.8% from Sabaragamuwa said that emails from friends or family is a main news source for them. Pegged to an earlier social poll conducted in the Western Province by Social Indicator late-2015, what this suggests is that there is increasing opportunity to engage directly a demographic between 18 – 34 through social, web and mobile media and, importantly, that investments in engaging this demographic can in fact also influence an older age group, because of the nature of sharing and forwarding content. Given this data, the tragedy is in the fact that the government is doing nothing at all around an opportunity to proactively define the contours of the new constitution amongst those whose votes placed the President and this government in power.

Flowing from last week’s column, reservoirs of goodwill still run wide and deep for this government. The majority of Sri Lankans believe it is good that the two main political parties have come together in a National Unity Government and also think the two parties should remain together. The challenge is leveraging this enduring appeal to address what can only be politely put as a deeply conservative socio-political outlook by Sinhalese, and the South. Take for instance Article 2 of the present constitution which marks the country as a unitary state. 77.7% of Sinhalese want to retain the phrase ‘unitary state’. Only 14.3% of Tamils, 18.1% of Up-Country Tamils and 28.8% of Muslims concur. There are clear, perhaps growing ethnic divides which are very likely to be the contours of constitutional contestation in the near future. On the question of giving Buddhism a special place in the Constitution, 77% of Sinhalese strongly agree. 73.3% of Tamils strongly disagree. Almost 90% of Tamils and Muslims strongly agree that the new constitution should give all religions equal status. Yet, less than 64% of Sinhalese concur.

There are other interesting insights. 49.3% of Sri Lankan said that for them, a unitary state means one united, indivisible country. The realisation of precisely this is independent of labels given to the architecture of power and its precise configuration between or within centre and periphery. But labels matter, to some more than others. The Sinhalese (55.7%) want labels – they want the new constitution to be identified with markers like ‘unitary state’. Just 15.2% of Tamils, 11.9% of Up-Country Tamils and 22.2% of Muslims concur. Minorities in Sri Lanka want meaningful, systemic reform no matter what the label is. The majority community can’t see beyond what specific arrangements are called. This is a playground for spoilers in the South.

The final section of the report is anchored to the Provincial Council system and its future. One figure stands out, given the current tensions in the North and within the NPC. 69.2% of Tamils believe powers of the Provincial Councils should be increased. Just 37.8% of Sinhalese concur. Support is highest in the Northern (77.8%) Province. In comparison, only 29.5% in the Southern Province agree.

Should we be pessimistic about the potential for change or optimistic around what may happen, despite government? Damningly, there is clearly no real political leadership to what is ostensibly a priority for government. Will publication of this data inspire, even at the 11th hour, action, vision and direction? Gramsci wrote what he did from prison. We are in a prison too, called the ’77 constitution.

Time for a historic jail-break.


First published in The Sunday Island, 9 October 2016.

Chaotic pluralism

My conversations with individuals and institutions over the course of last week highlighted what a few in government and many more outside already know and fear. Since the 8th of January 2015, politics as usual has trumped the promise of a new political culture, captured best by the yahapalanaya brand. This was expected, though to see and live through it, is no less depressing. A friend succinctly flagged salient features of the challenge at a meeting held to trace the contours of what today is a promising, new, government led communications initiative. Those in power now trust more those they perceived to be loyal (either to self or party) more than those with skills and experience. Critical commentary, including that which holds the President, PM and the rest of government accountable to the promises they themselves made, is seen as unnecessary, inconvenient and as a sign of trouble. So instead of attending to or focusing on the short-comings flagged, attention is almost entirely devoted to deny, decry or destroy the messenger. Adding to this is a new and already complex constellation of party political appointees and personal favourites, acting as gatekeepers and firewalls to ideas, information and input that can from those without any interest in SUVs, the perks of office or foreign jaunts, strengthen governance.

The result is government in a cocoon and a debilitating metamorphosis of governance from promise to reality. Those in government are surrounded by outmoded, outdated thinking by those who favour self-advancement through genuflection. Rather than call their bluff, for vanity, partisan parochialism, fear or some misguided strategic interest, those in power continuously countenance the bad advice they receive from those they have appointed to positions of significant authority. The more powerful the office, the more isolating it is. This is why even with the best of intent, efforts around course-correction through for example better, more strategic media and communications planning will fail unless there is traction from the highest political offices in the country. This works to the Joint Opposition’s benefit, and those in government who are deeply conventional and conservative in their political outlook, resisting to the extent they can the absolutely vital upgrade to and reboot of our constitutional operating system.

What this means is that everything officially on the table – from transitional justice to constitutional reform and fragile negotiations over policymaking conducted sub rosa, is at risk. And yet, the art of the long view requires us to appreciate that individuals and institutions in power are, to varying degrees, hostage to the systemic nature of power. Political reform, beyond manifestos and in almost every single instance when in power, is deeply often combatively resisted. However, despite what appears to be a growing disenchantment with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration across the media landscape, I remain cautiously optimistic for several reasons.

The criticism against government, though increasing in volume, vectors and velocity, is still fuelled and framed by a fidelity towards yahapalanaya more than strident opposition towards President or PM. In other words, the criticism is not a call, yet, for changing government. And given that it is the JO and the Rajapaksa’s who want to reclaim power, any direct, open effort to regain authority will result in an immediate, sustained and entirely organic opposition that spans the digital to physical resistance. This is important, because this support for government isn’t engineered or controlled by government. The authors of a recent book called Political Turbulence call this ‘the turbulent world of chaotic pluralism’. What this means is that despite the characteristic and continuing incompetence from and in the present government, there is still a geographically, linguistically and ethno-politically diverse and distributed community who will, without seeking political reward or recognition, fight against a return to what was before the 8th of January 2015. The challenge around more fully leveraging this reservoir of conditional support is not that, by and large, this community has no desire to be openly associated with government. It is because the majority of those dealing with strategic communications and media in government still think of social media as a dark art, millennials with the greatest of disdain, online political organisation as entirely independent of real world political interactions, or social media as just having a Facebook page that one uploads photos of oneself at various opening ceremonies, cutting ribbons or carrying a hapless infant or child. Despite this, chaotic pluralism means the best ambassadors of government may often lie outside it.

The risk is that fatigue sets in. Incremental reform over the long term as a proposition for systemic change isn’t really appealing for the most politically vocal and active segment of our society. Their imagination is framed by minutes and weeks, not months and years. If those who feel, to whatever degree, they contributed to the Presidency and government we enjoy today are still without voice, and what they aspire to, voted in, hope for and support is precisely what government is not doing or undermining, what will immediately result is disengagement and disenchantment. Through this alone, the government loses a bulwark against political regression. Over time and unaddressed, the waves of criticism against government from this demographic can be hard to distinguish from the propaganda of the JO, even if the two camps remain, ideologically and motivationally, largely distinct.  These are ‘wicked problems’ – significant challenges that morph even as you study them, and change even as you find good enough responses. The government needs the best minds to address them, and not just from within party ranks.

From idiom and expression to platform and medium, what is a sophisticated, scathing wit especially in Sinhala through popular culture increasingly berates those in government. This means that a key demographic still cares, and gives a damn. This means they are observant, follow government policy with interest and are still partial to the promise of yahapalanaya in contrast to what was voted out of power. This means that with skill and significant investments in time, there is a community that creates content which regularly goes viral, lampooning those in power for not doing what they promised. Surely, these are signs of a healthy democracy unimaginable just two or three years ago? What we see today in Sri Lanka is that the most textured discussions on politics is often led by those outside political parties. It is a discussion that is rich, varied and multi-polar, anchored to not just one entity, location or language. It cannot be censored and through a variety of mediums encourages those who were never before part of these dialogues to participate, freely, through like, comment, selfie, hashtag, video, soundbite, emoticon, filter, livestream or instant message, aside from the consumption of traditional mainstream media.

This is arguably very new for government in Sri Lanka and stands in stark contrast to the Rajapaksa’s rule through violence, fear and anxiety. Must we carry their entrails into the future? The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration continues to enjoy the confidence of many, and yet still see principled criticism with fear, discomfort and disdain. A few interested in governance beyond SUVs and have the ear of the President and PM need to tell them, gently but firmly and repeatedly, that to lose the organic support they enjoy today, in person, through party and over digital domains, would be the first step in losing what is an important legacy they can write together.

And that would be such a pity.


First published in The Sunday Island, 2 October 2016.

Shape South Asia 2016 & ‘Corridors of Power’

I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

The first video went into the background of the exhibition.

The second was anchored to the 3D renderings of each of the models.

My note on the concept, research and evolution of the project can be read below.

Asanga Welikala’s background research into and overview of the project can be read below.

Channa Daswatte’s take on the project can be read below.

Asia Foundation LankaCorps Fellows Presentation

The Asia Foundation’s LankaCorps Fellowship programme is one I’ve been associated with and supported from its inception. It’s described on the TAF website site,

…a unique opportunity for young leaders of Sri Lankan heritage to professionally engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in Sri Lanka. The program aims to foster the involvement and understanding of young members of the expatriate Sri Lankan community who have limited in-depth experience with the country of their heritage. Each year, The Asia Foundation selects an outstanding group of LankaCorps Fellows to live and work for six months in Sri Lanka, granting them the unique chance to “explore their roots while giving back.

Every year and for each cohort, I am invited by TAF to give an overview of Sri Lanka’s political, social and media landscape as well as to cover in some detail the work of Groundviews in particular, and civic media in general.

In this year’s presentation done earlier this month, I looked at the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government a year on, with the euphoria and expectations from 2015 markedly changed. I looked at the mega-development projects, a quick scorecard of governance, undergraduate tensions from around the country with racial overtones, the passage of the Right to Information Act, the passage of the Office for Missing Persons Act, more generally the issue of transitional justice and the work of the Consultation Task Force (plus the plethora of other entities involved in reconciliation), the politics and optics of memorialization and the tryst with a new constitution, which most in Sri Lanka are completely in the dark about. I also talked about the dire macro-economic situation Sri Lanka finds itself in.

I then talked about the work I’ve spearheaded with Groundviews, and the media terrain in Sri Lanka post-8th January 2015 in particular.

The President at the UN

The version of the English speech released by the PMD this article is based on has now been replaced. The original version, accessed via Google Cache, can be downloaded from here. The current version can be accessed here


The speech by President Sirisena to the 71st Session of the United Nations in New York last week was rather strange. Reading the official version in English released by the President’s Media Division, I wondered if it was just a synopsis or a bad translation. Turned out to be the latter. The speech in Sinhala, clearly the original version, flows better and is less disjointed. Either out of incompetence or as a deliberate strategy, there are revealing divergences of emphasis between each version of the speech. In Sinhala, there is a clear stress on the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Sri Lanka that prefaces the President’s take on reconciliation. A bias towards the home-grown and endogenous underpins the entire speech, from political ideology and a focus on social democracy to all political reform. This is in line with the President’s political outlook. In July this year, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister had to both hastily and rather unconvincingly clarify that the President’s submission opposing foreign judges in any accountability mechanism as part of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process was a ‘personal opinion’. These tensions are glossed over in the official English version of the speech, which simply states “The government is totally committed to reconciliation process to establish lasting peace”.

To be fair, I would really hate to be the official translator of the President’s speeches in Sinhala to English, or any other language. President Sirisena’s Sinhala is strong, rich, nuanced and incisive. Meticulously-crafted around cadence and content, a diplomatic and at times even outwardly benevolent expression masks what is a brutally clear message around domestic and foreign policy issues very often at odds with the rest of government, the Foreign Minister’s pronouncements and independent of their personal relationship, the political outlook of the PM. The challenge is how to then appreciate the import of a speech by the President, in the complex, shifting political terrain of a coalition government. The speech at the UN last week is a case in point. In Sinhala, it is both a proud refutation of invasive foreign involvement (as perceived by the President), and at the same time, a recognition of and a humble plea for the international community’s support in Sri Lanka’s post-war reform and development. In English, though the speech reads very badly, it is clearly without the emphasis around Sri Lanka’s resistance towards international mechanisms around accountability, inextricably entwined in our tryst with reconciliation. Also in English, there is an emphasis on ‘modern technology’ to ‘arm a new generation with knowledge’. In Sinhala, the repeated focus is on an enlightened country, forging its place on a world arena by force of its learning, outlook and intellect. There is no comparable emphasis on technology, perhaps because in Sinhala, the President is often more backward looking – regularly harking back to archaic history and Sinhala ancients, even as he calls for progress and patience. This tension between translation in English and original in Sinhala reflects what is a growing problem in governance around competing parochialisms. Political appointees of the President perceive political appointees of the PM as their enemies, and independent of any direct order or edict, block, manoeuvre and curry favour with scant regard for actual policy development, implementation or reform. This results in scenarios very far removed from the roseate picture of Sri Lanka painted at the UN. From the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to the actual execution of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), things are going awry – with those in charge incredibly inexperienced, badly selected, without any official anchor or struggling against the constant, occasionally vicious pushback from those appointed by a competing political authority.

Amongst a myriad of other strong undercurrents, the President vs. PM, FM vs. President, MP vs. MP, Government vs. JO, Sirisena vs. Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka vs. Kamal Gunaratne is stymieing progress, and at an increasing pace. Key political actors know this – hence even in the President’s speech at the UN in Sinhala, the repeated call for patience from the international community and indeed, also aimed at a more domestic audience. The problem here is around the management of expectations. Those who voted in the President, and in August last year, voted in this government, are of the ‘new generation’ the President referred to. It is a generation impatient with delays, inconsiderate of the significant challenges around systemic reform and informed by thumb-swipes on palm held devices, participate through thumbs-up icons and shift political loyalties through keypress before ballot. The President’s reference to the importance of ‘authentic thinkings (sic) and visions’ is unlikely to appeal to and address a generation that by default is less interested in high-flown Sinhala than it is in yahapalanaya’s delivery of promises around jobs, economic prosperity, equal opportunity, access to markets and greater freedom of expression and association. Now that’s not happening, and the unrest is growing. And this disconnect between what the President says, does and inspires is worrying. Take for instance his appointment of Nimal Bopage as Secretary to the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms & Mass Media. One of the first things Bopage did was to issue an edict to all the media saying they could face consequences if they used the term ‘joint opposition’. More recently, he went on record saying that the broadcast of ‘Homeland’ on state television was harmful to children and culture. The President’s response to Enrique’s concert are well-known. A lorry driver who filmed the President’s helicopter landing with his mobile phone was recently arrested. Let that sink in. Is this the behaviour of a confident government really in tune with the new generation, modern technology and is as forward looking as it often claims to be? Is this how we are going to ascend to the world stage?

The UN provides a forum for global leaders to place their country on a map. There is limited time, and the speeches are as much about posturing for domestic constituencies as they are about alignments with one or the other power blocs in the international community. This is why the differences in emphasis between the translation and original matter regarding the President’s speech. The English, dry, banal even, is limp, allowing it to be used to pushed whatever opportunistic agenda, liaison, agreement or negotiation the government or President wants for whatever reason. The Sinhala is more revealing, suggesting more clearly the parameters of engagement, the sources of legitimacy and the underpinnings of policy. For all his modernity when read in English especially when compared to his predecessor, President Sirisena remains essentially politically conservative and conventional in outlook when critically examined in Sinhala.

The UN last week deserved a better translation. In fact, so do we.


First published in The Sunday Island, 25 September 2016.