The new tax regime

My father, a retired Chartered Accountant, sent me over WhatsApp photos of several forms that had been mailed to me by the Internal Revenue Department. The letter was received on the 16th. As I am not in the country, he had opened the letter and read through its contents before messaging me. He was worried. The form, titled, ‘Statement of Estimated Income Tax Payable (Self-Assessment Basis)’, was just two pages. The instructions to fill out the form was five pages long. Many others would have got these documents over the course of the past one or two weeks. They are part of this government’s revamped tax regime, aimed overarchingly at the simplification of pre-existing tax frameworks and ensuring that all those above a certain income level pay tax. Nothing wrong in this, in the main. The devil, however, is both in the details and execution.

For starters, the instructions were gobbledygook. My father said he just couldn’t understand it. I said I’d take a look at the instructions and form, which are readily downloadable from the IRD’s website. Things went downhill from there. The very first point noted that “As per the form specified by the Commissioner General in terms of the provisions laid down in Section 90, 91, 92 of the Inland Revenue Act No.24 of 2017, which is in effect from 01.04.2018, each person who is liable to pay income tax, is required to submit a Statement of Estimated Income Tax Payable for a year of assessment on or before the 15th August of that year of assessment”. Given that the letter from the IRD only came on the 16th, I was already late to submit everything. Worse, I was liable to be punished for this under the Inland Revenue Act. But this is where things got even more confusing. “Accordingly pay a penalty equal to the greater of 5% of the amount of the tax owing, plus a further 1% for each month during which the failure to file continues and; Rs.50,000 plus a further Rs.10,000 for each month during which the failure to file continues. (maximum penalty shall be limited to Rs.400, 000)” is verbatim, the language from Section 1.5 of the instructions. I cannot for the life of me fathom what the first part of that means in particular or what any of it means in general. Instances where the prior payments before the initial stage or withholding taxes are not existed is another example, later in the document, that makes no sense whatsoever. I cannot imagine a single ordinary citizen comprehending even remotely, any of this. These are not exceptions. The entire document is defined by vacuous verbosity, grammatically incoherent sentences, an incredibly lousy presentation of instructions, confusing language, a maddening incoherence and examples that don’t make any sense whatsoever. There is no consideration of citizens living abroad who have to file returns or estimates before the deadlines, or in the case of, for example, post-graduate students like myself away from Sri Lanka for several years. There is no electronic and web-based filing system to facilitate submissions or tracking. There are instructions for payments to be made to any branch of the Bank of Ceylon, but no further details like payee or account details given. There are long, unfriendly codes for instalments, but no clear instructions on where or how to use these codes. The entire document reeks of an internal draft sent by one low-level clerk to another, in shorthand and language only they fully comprehend, suddenly released to a hapless general public.

Mangala Samaraweera, the Minister of Finance and Media and Eran Wickramaratne, the State Minister of Finance have been at pains in recent months to push through tax reform and explain the new framework, its importance and how it all works. I have been repeatedly assured that Ivan Dissanayake, the present Commissioner General of the IRD is a progressive individual. Good intentions however only go so far. Those eligible to pay tax, possibly running into the millions, have got these forms from the IRD. On social media, I was informed last week that a revised set of guidelines was being produced in order to deal with the chaos and confusion arising from the current set of instructions. It is unclear what this all means for the stated deadlines for the submission of the forms. In what may be the greatest of ironies, will conscientious citizens be subject to steep and recursive fines just by waiting for clear instructions from the government on how they can comply with the law? It is unclear when the revised guidelines will be produced and published, and since not everyone has access to the web in Sri Lanka, posted. It is unclear why the IRD did not work in concert with the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka in order to not just provide web and mobile phone based means to enter these details but to also help in the design of material to guide citizens. The government now has brilliant young economists who have been exposed to modern, progressive frameworks of citizen engagement, government operations, tax regimes, communications and service delivery mechanisms. Tellingly, some of them are lamenting on social media that they too are at a loss to comprehend and comply with the IRD forms. Where does all this leave the ordinary citizen?

This is ultimately not about tax. The sheer incompetence by the IRD and relevant line ministries in generating willing compliance through the reduction of friction around comprehension, calculation, processing, submission and tracking invariably contributes to growing anger around just how ill-spent tax revenues are, especially in light of MPs who do not attend parliament, yet want pay hikes and even more SUVs. We are dealing with popular public sentiment that channels the frustration over compliance with how things were in the past, and this bungling with a roseate nostalgia around the efficiency with which things were done in the past. A Palaeozoic and maddeningly complex architecture like our country’s tax regime doesn’t lend itself to reform. Recognising this, the government should have invested far more in testing and developing interaction points, dashboard, citizen interfaces and interactive instructions that ease the friction around compliance, for citizens entirely unused to being taxed in this manner. The instructions from the IRD end with a letter from Mr Dissanayake noting his appreciation of responsible citizens who pay tax, not as a responsibility but a social obligation. There’s a whole discussion around how the richest in Sri Lanka will by retaining the best lawyers and accountants, will end up declaring and paying, in comparison to their income, the least amount of tax. Meanwhile, millions of hapless citizens will have to wade through irascibly complicated forms, hotlines that don’t work and instructions that don’t make sense to try to pay their taxes, only to be further fined or penalised by the government for no valid or discernible reason.

This is not a tax regime. It is a Kafkaesque script that will through the sheer force of ill-will towards government it will generate, result in hastening the decline of the already dwindling support it enjoys. And the blame for all this lies not with the JO or Rajapaksa. If this is the best the most dedicated, brilliant and progressive minds in government can come up with, I am afraid that with the best of intent, we have ended up with the worst of outcomes.

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An arrest in Bangladesh

The arrest of renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam last week made the news around the world. His torture when in police custody and the extreme physical duress he was forced to undergo was evident in the photos and videos released at the time of his appearance in court. Amnesty International has called him a prisoner of conscience. The charges are ludicrous, and are anchored to sentiments expressed in an interview with Al Jazeera on the violence that has gripped Dhaka recently. The response to the protests by students has showcased a government not unlike what we had in Sri Lanka before 2015, where dissent was tolerated only to the extent batons, water cannons, rubber and real bullets, white vans, terror squads, intimidation, bullying and violence of government allowed. Alam’s fate and what he is accused of is remarkably similar to the awful case of Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, arrested in 2008 under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act on trumped up charges that he incited communal hatred. A year later he was convicted by the Colombo High Court on the charges and sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. Tissainayagam’s case was dog-whistling for others who dared stand up to and write openly against the Rajapaksa regime – a show trial, where one person was made an example of as a warning to others. Alam fares better, one hopes, though at the time of writing, prospects don’t look too good with a government in Bangladesh as thin-skinned, insecure, violently repressive and authoritarian as the Rajapaksa regime was a few years ago.

In studying the evolution of the South Asian as well as global outcry in support of Alam’s release over social media, I paused to think around just how much has changed from the time Tissainayagam was incarcerated, and also tortured when in police custody. At the time, Tissainayagam, as much as Alam is perhaps today in his own country, guilty before any verdict. Those who speak truth, instead of power, find they are outcast by many who may silently, privately or partially believe what they say but have no intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to support reform or change. Those like Alam and Tissainayagam are shunned by their own society, and often by those for whom they speak out for. This can be far crueller and far more devastating than the obviously outlandish charges brought by governments keen to silence them. In a twisted way, the power of Tissainayagam ten years ago, or Alam today, is that those in power know that killing them doesn’t help the cause of authoritarianism since it risks strengthening, post-mortem, their voices to a degree that they cannot really control. You can only kill once. But incarcerated, through the theatre of a judicial process created just to humiliate and subjugate, the lesson can be communicated more clearly and repeatedly. You can then have, as was the case with Tissainayagam in 2010, a public pardoning by the very political authority responsible for his incarceration and torture. The intent here is simple. It is the projection of absolute power – that largesse, including convenient forgiveness, flows from a central authority, to which everything and everyone else must genuflect. It is a reminder of how things should be, and why the dominant narrative spun by this central authority and a constellation of sycophants can and must never be challenged.

Bangladesh is heading into elections later this year. The international community has a delicate balancing act, given the Rohingya crisis and how central Bangladesh is in it. The current government is a vital actor in dealing with the human cost of the violence in the Rakhine state in bordering Myanmar, and it is likely this is a factor in what is clearly a tempered response to Alam’s outrageous imprisonment and torture by the international community. This is a flawed calculation. As in Sri Lanka, a government that resorts to violent means to suppress dissent and targets journalists sets itself up for failure by its own actions. A siege mentality leads to policies that end up reinforcing the fiction of complete control. The Rajapaksa regime never saw Sirisena as a threat in 2014. No one, at any time, in any public fora, or future scenario, placed him as President. No one, in 2014, saw the end of the Rajapaksa regime in the manner it occurred. Alam’s imprisonment is already a litmus test for the Bangladeshi government – his treatment, a blemish, his incarceration, an embarrassment, the charges against, ludicrous and fuelling growing outrage, the silencing of his voice leading to thousands, globally, raising theirs in defence of what he said, stood for and decried on air. The miscalculation by Bangladeshi authorities was in grossly underestimating Alam’s singular life, which has him rooted in countries, communities and contexts far beyond his home country, who see him as one of their own. Family. The challenge now is what to do with him.

To release him would be to suffer loss of face, which in an election year, is anathema for a government and the hardliners within in. To incarcerate him would be to incur the wrath of the international community, the enduring resistance of those in Bangladesh resisting authoritarian diktats and the unceasing call for his release by those around the world. Tissainayagam, after his incarceration, was flagged by President Obama as an ‘emblematic example’ of the violent targeting and harassment of journalists. These statements find expression in foreign policy. Alam’s public profile is such that he becomes even more than today, if imprisoned for longer, a talking point at every major international event and process the Bangladeshi government is part of, hosts or is invited to. He will become a conditionality, a talking point, a bone of contention they cannot wish away.

Alam’s power as a photographer, bearing witness to so much around him, is a belief that we – Asians, people of colour, brown folk, those from the Global South or in Hans Rosling’s framing, those from Tier 2 or 3 countries – are the best placed and able to tell our own stories. Alam started to say this, and work on ways to promote stories from the Global South, by those in the Global South, long before it was fashionable to promote this way of framing and working. He largely defined, by his own life and work, the importance of bearing witness to vital narratives as only those embedded in the context could best frame, empathically grasp and were there to live through. The parachuting journalist, and the white person’s burden to frame or recount was eschewed in favour of photos, frames and stories told by those with a deeper commitment to the stories they covered. This deeply political critique, for Alam, extended to what he saw as wrong and unjust within his own country. For this, he is today held in custody, tortured and charged with crimes by the state that are as absurd in their submission as they are positively disturbing in their intent.

Few spoke out when Tissainayagam suffered under the Rajapaksa regime’s violent outlook. If a country’s wealth is measured by how much it values democratic dissent and a healthy, strong contest of competing ideas, Tissainayagam’s on-going exile along with so many others makes Sri Lanka incredibly poor, post-war. Bangladesh doesn’t need to go down the same path. Alam must be released, unharmed, without delay. Every day he suffers the ignominy of imprisonment is a blemish Bangladesh will not easily walk away from.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 12 August 2018.

An essential report

A report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British House of Commons on disinformation and the phenomenon loosely called ‘fake news’ was released exactly a week ago. It is a profoundly important document, and vital for policymakers in Sri Lanka to take note of. I am not in the country and cannot say for certain, but a cursory scan of mainstream news reports suggests this report hasn’t got any coverage whatsoever in the press, radio or TV. This is a pity. At less than 80 pages and written for a non-expert audience in an engaging manner, the report covers in detail the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook, from the perspective of the United Kingdom. However, what it highlights through serious, impartial investigation spanning months, expert testimony including of those from the companies at the heart of the scandal, trans-Atlantic cooperation with US authorities and the testimony of technology, media and national security experts has a deep, direct, enduring impact on the timbre of democracy in many countries, including Sri Lanka.

A leitmotif of the report is that existing electoral, democratic and legal frameworks dealing with the phenomena studied is not ‘fit for purpose’, a polite way of saying most policymakers don’t really understand what’s going on, much less how to address it. In Sri Lanka, it’s far worse. Senior policymakers, when told explicitly and repeatedly of clear, present and growing dangers to official social media accounts, choose to ignore warnings. The House of Commons report is a chilling reminder of just how high the stakes are, and how seriously the British government is taking the threat. Not unlike in Sri Lanka, the Parliamentary Committee opens the report by acknowledging that British citizens frame their worldview, from local events and national politics to global incidents and processes, over social media. This is a problem in so far as it is ripe for manipulation at a scale markedly more than and different to propaganda in the past over mainstream print and broadcast. One of the first points the report makes is that the very nature of social media makes it almost impossible for Parliamentary oversight. Arguably, this is a good thing in a country like Sri Lanka, where even since 2015, every few months there is a threat by the President or senior politicians around the ban, block or censorship of social media as the only way in which, for them, misinformation can be controlled or curtailed. The House of Commons takes a more informed approach, noting that ‘complex, global issues… cannot be tackled by blunt, reactive and outmoded legislative instruments’. The recommendations at the end of the report are anchored to how democratic institutions including electoral mechanisms can be made more resilient to measures by malevolent actors who seek to incite hyper-partisan rhetoric, exacerbate violence and increase communal rifts.

Interesting to read in light of the frothing, shrill chorus of Mahinda Rajapaksa supporters who cried ‘fake news’ when a New York Timesarticle late-June exposed China’s influence peddling, is that the House of Commons report explicitly rejects the term as one that is meaningless without any agreed definition and used by many today to dismiss and decry inconvenient truths. The report also flags two important points – that the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK needs to be staffed by experts who are better than those employed by private technology firms, but that pay-scales and red-tape within government prevents this recruitment from taking place. This mirrors the situation in our public service, which continues in the main to only attract individuals of a competence and capacity, at best, equal to the pay they are given. Those outside of government, in marketing, advertising and already engaged in adversarial social media operations are more skilful, better funded and more connected with the like-mindedinstitutions and individuals from countries noted in the House of Commons report, and beyond.

In November 2017, I met with the the Chairperson of the Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya, two other Commissioners and some others from their IT division to talk about how, in the lead-up to the local government elections in February this year, as well as all elections henceforth, the Commission needed to be aware of, guard against and enact policies around the unregulated use of social media in political campaigns. I handed a detailed ten-page document flagging the risks already evident at the time, which led to guidelines issuedby the Elections Commission that extended, at for the first time, the hiatus around open campaigning before election day to social media domains as well. Compliance and monitoring are enduring challenges, as is the longer-standing discussion around campaign financing which is of paramount importance in a world of so-called ‘dark ads’ which target individuals over social media in a manner outside any procedural or official oversight. The House of Commons report flags all this and notes that ‘electoral law needs to be updated to reflect changes in campaigning techniques, and the move from physical leaflets and billboards to online, micro-targeted political campaigning’. The report also goes on to recommend ‘a code for advertising through social media during election periods’ along with ‘tougher requirements for political campaigns to declare their spending soon after or during a campaign’. Mr. Deshapriya, the Elections Commission and those in government are well-advised to look into comparable measures that can help protect the integrity of our own electoral processes and mechanisms.

The report doesn’t mince words when it comes to Russian disinformation campaigns around the Brexitreferendum, and other electoral processes in the EU. Russia is for the UK a Tier 1 national security threat. We should then inquire, at the very least, why a prominent young politician from Sri Lanka for no public or discernible reason has visited Moscow several times this year alone. The report flags the real, growing threat around the weaponization of social media, through companies that in the past have used data from Facebook. The House of Commons is scathing in its criticism of Facebook in particular, and the lack of accountability, transparency and cooperation from the company. In part, this comes from a confusion around whether Facebook is a platform or publisher. The ability to exacerbate underlying socio-political and religious tension using Facebook in particular, and social media in general was demonstrated by those responsible for the awful violence in Digana, earlier this year. This will get worse. Our government already has the legal instruments needed to address the rise and spread of hate and violence, but chooses instead to simplistically blame Facebook for the violence. The reality is more complex, and requires our policymakers, not unlike those in Singapore, through parliamentary hearings, public consultations and expert testimony from Sri Lankans, help it safeguard our democratic traditions. Nothing less than our sovereignty and national security are at stake.

Finally, there is an entire section in the House of Commons report dedicated to digital media and information literacy. The fundamental issue, as true in Sri Lanka as it is in the UK is that, as the report avers, ‘most users do not understand how the content they read has got there, but accept it without question’. 61.5% of those polled in a survey conducted a few years ago by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in the Western Province said that they tell others whatever they consume and find interest over social media. This means the influence and impact of content on social media is wider, deeper and greater than just those who are users of it, or connected to the internet. Our policymakers don’t get this. Recognizing that more immediate solutions are needed in concert with technology companies, the House of Commons report notes that ‘digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths’.

I don’t know if anyone in government has read the report by the House of Commons. I’d go as far as to recommend that the British High Commission in Sri Lanka sends a formal copy of this report to our President, Prime Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Defence, the Elections Commission and the Human Rights Commission. The risk and threat matrix that the weaponization of social media coupled with media and information illiteracy pose is the same for society and polity in Sri Lanka as it is in the UK. A concerted, well-coordinated national as well as global effort is required to combat this, and we need to start now.

The next election will be too late.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 5 August 2018.

On Travel

The girl, at most five, was enthralled with the functioning of the lift and the lights on the panel. She took my hand, held it in a firm grip, addressed me as Mom and expressed a desire to go up and down several times in the lift, much to the amusement of her real mother standing opposite us and the others in the lift. Realising her mistake at our laughter, the girl darted across and hid behind her real mother, while another woman in the lift assured me I’d make a good mother if it ever came to that.

The boy barely had facial hair. He and others around his age were entrusted with a checkpoint on the road, just off the A9, mid-2002. We were perhaps the first group of journalists they had ever met, on a road that had just opened to civilian traffic at the time. At first, they wanted to appear tough – the tyranny of menial work made worse at an age when carefree play and fun should have defined their life. Yet, here they were, asking us questions around intent, journey and destination. I was in front, and observed one boy, T-56 in hand, get into the driver’s seat of our Toyota Hiace van, and look around. He saw the CD player on the dashboard and asked me what it was. I turned it on. His face lit up. In minutes, he and his fellow sentries were all smiles – hearing for the first time some pop music, blaring out on the van’s speakers. We were allowed to pass, but we all glanced back with a profound sadness as we left, not knowing what would be the fate of those child soldiers.

At LAX, the infamous airport at Los Angeles, a turbaned Sikh, over six feet tall, approached me and asked me a question I thought was designed to throw me – which it did. I had never been asked before, at an airport or anywhere else, whether I had used Nivea moisturiser. The fact that I did, I admitted to him with a mix of confusion, slight alarm and inquisitiveness. He smiled and said he needed to pat me down, even though it was most likely a false positive. A false what I asked, fearing the worst as a person of colour suspected of something when transiting through an American airport, post-9/11. He smiled and said that Nivea moisturiser often set off the smear test equipment at LAX. I was too dumbfounded to answer, but subjected myself to a gloved, strapping Sikh’s intimate body search – followed by a profuse apology for doing so – before I boarded my flight. The random profiling when transiting at LAX, since then, has been fairly consistent, though I’ve never seen the same Sikh since.

In 2004, when at a bar with a fellow Masters student who was a former Canadian peacekeeper and exchanging stories, I was firmly and intentionally pinched in the butt. Taking comfort in the brawn of my company if it came to a physical resolution of what just happened, I turned around, not knowing quite what to expect. A good-looking middle-aged woman, nonplussed, looked at me in the eye, said I was a cutie and asked me to not forget the condoms in the men’s room when leaving the place. She then downed her drink, bid us good night, and left the bar. The barman, witness to the exchange, poured us another round on the house. We drank it in silence.

Years later in another country, having coffee and a bagel by myself, I read a magazine on design and architecture. Engrossed in the material and my own thoughts, I went to keep the magazine on the rack I took it from when a man blocked my way, apologized and then asked me if I was a designer. I said I was not, but that I was both interested in and had worked on architectural and design initiatives that stood at the intersection of democracy and constitutionalism. He wished me the best of luck, shook my hand, and went on to order his own bagel and coffee. I had never met him before, and never saw him again.

Mindful of my experience at LAX, I expected the worst some years later when I was taken aside at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC by a black American Customs and Border Protection Officer. Looking at my visas to Afghanistan, he asked why I went there so often. I explained the nature of my work. He took this as an invitation to recount how nice it was to briefly chat with Colin Powell after he had left office and whenever he transited via Dulles International. We then talked briefly about international affairs, before he stamped my passport and said Godspeed. I still don’t know whether these interactions are part of interrogation techniques to screen persons who are for whatever reason red-flagged, or whether he was genuinely interested in my work. Either way, the experience of recounting what I do to CBP officers at various airports in the US has almost always resulted in a brief conversation on the state of the world.

Taxi drivers somehow see in me someone they can unilaterally initiate a conversation with. This occasionally has its merits. In San Francisco, I was dropped to the airport by an Indian who had come to the US years ago to study particle physics, had since got his doctorate, married, had a family and now just drove around for the fun of it. We talked about singularity, the death of science in the US (post-Trump), and the importance of liberal arts in a rounded education. In Washington DC, after I asked the driver to turn up the volume playing NPR, a news segment on an international incident sparked a conversation on the trappings of American foreign policy in Afghanistan. A Lebanese-American woman, who had as a single parent put her two sons through College, recounted a hard, challenging life in the US since she immigrated and how proud she was of her sons, who were both now practising dentists. A Pakistani driver in New York spoke fondly of India, an Indian spoke of his fear of a nuclear war with Pakistan, a Bangladeshi told me where to get the best Sri Lankan food outside of Staten Island, a Haitian talked with me about my time in Port au Prince and his family’s travails after the earthquake, a Greek in Melbourne, dropping me to the airport, confessed he was still drunk after the country’s shock win over Portugal in the 2004 Euro Cup and that all his porcelain had to be replaced. I’ve eaten hot meals by the roadside with the rickshaw-wallahs in Delhi, hailing from a poverty in Bihar that beggars belief. In Nairobi, I was once introduced to the children of my driver, because he wanted them to meet someone they could learn from.

To travel is to both generate and garner stories. From over 20 years of travel, I too have plenty of stories of horrible, painful, racist and xenophobic experiences of flights, individuals, trips and places. Social media often amplifies these stories, suggesting to those who haven’t travelled that to do so is to encounter the worst of humanity more regularly than the best of who we are, in the most expected of places and circumstances. In my lifetime, some of us will inhabit a world of driverless cars, automated immigration and emigration, artificial intelligence powered conversations as well as electronic transactions that replace human interaction. A click, tap, swipe and press world mediated by plastic card, smartphone or chip promises efficiency and a reduction of traditional pain points associated with the tyranny of clerical or underpaid work. And yet, I’ll still yearn for travel punctured by a talkative driver, the possibility of a pleasant surprise from unexpected quarters, and human contact, over machine interaction and algorithmic efficiency. To travel is to confront one’s humanity. Our stories of travel, the good and the bad, is a reflection of ourselves. Where would our best stories of country and foreign lands come from, in a world where our only interaction is with a screen?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 29 July 2019.

Broken promises

The car was under a tarpaulin that only covered half of it. It was a burnt out shell, mangled beyond easy recognition of model or make. This mess of twisted metal, fused plastic, congealed rubber and blackened shards of glass was deposited in front of the Police Station I had gone to pay a fine. I cannot now remember the offence I was charged with. I know I was called to the police station almost as an object of curiosity the other officers could also look at since I had refused to pay a bribe to get out of the hassle of going to Post Office and Police Station to recover my license. I was in no rush, and clearly, they weren’t used to rushing, so in the middle of our conversation around the general state of politics, on a hunch, I asked what case the burnt car up front was associated with. They felt the need to bend over and almost whisper the name. Thajudeen. It was several years after his untimely death, but before January 2015. I returned once more to the Police Station several months after, this time to ask for some details related to some maddening bureaucratic red-tape. The tarp was gone. Grass and bracken had started to grow around the car, and an abandoned bird’s nest was in it. It was also beginning to decay and rust. Whatever use it had for forensics or even evidence was long gone, but clearly, the Police could neither dispose of it nor use it. I didn’t ask about the charred shell on that second visit. I didn’t need to. It was already part of the landscape around the station, invisible to those who worked in and came to it.

When the story of payments made to the Rajapaksa campaign emerged in the New York Times, and subsequently, US$ 150,000 given to the Pushpa Rajapaksa Foundation, the propaganda farms of the former first family went into high gear. Though revealing in its intensity and targets, it was a strategic error which they too realised, since the revelations brought to light investigations around the projects and payments that for years had languished. In the last quarter of 2017, your author was told by an individual with access to the highest echelons of power in the current government that all the evidence needed for a conviction in the Thajudeen murder case was with the IGP. Months later, we are no closer to any closure. The Lasantha Wickremetunge murder case drags on, and the most significant violence to family and friends is no longer the fact that the investigation is going nowhere, but the occasional theatre by politicians and police in the media to suggest it is. Not a single one of the allegations noted in public in the first half of 2015 around corruption anchored to the Rajapaksas – from the money they had stashed to the commissions they had got, from the tenders they have given to broadcast and telecoms spectrum licensing, from development projects to defence deals – has come to any meaningful end, either through the exoneration of those accused, or their criminal indictment. I find myself, regrettably, siding with the Rajapaksas who today can simply dismiss new or renewed claims of engineering violence or corruption by just flagging the fact that no investigation into them has borne any fruit. The ‘deal deshapalanaya’, feared in 2015, is now cemented in the public imagination – a consociational compact that protects those in, with or aspiring to power as members of an elite, who squabble in public but in private, promise not to pursue each other since it is never clear or certain for how long the popular mandate is retained.

It is sickening.

As part of my on-going academic research, I now collect and analyse Facebook and Twitter data on a large scale, ranging in the millions of records per platform. My focus is not on cricket or entertainment. I look at a demographic between 18 to 34 and how they are first introduced to a particular subject or issue, what they go on to say, how information spreads, who spreads it, in what language, how and over what platform. The next three years of my life will be spent around the task of understanding better through observation and interrogation, anchored to local socio-political dynamics, the reasons underpinning anxiety, fear and anger over social media. Looking at just around 3 million tweets and approximately 110 million Facebook posts over the past year, one of the dominant leitmotifs is this deep disappointment with the government to bring about the change it said it would. Right now, bringing up allegations against the Rajapaksas and using their time as a reminder of what we should never go back to actually backfires because it results in those who voted this government in asking why it has done so little around justice and accountability. And so, in a strange way, the allegations in the New York Times and the cheque for $150,000 actually help the Rajapaksas gain more credibility and popularity, because their story is the stronger more appealing one over the government’s already tired, incredible narratives.

This is a problem for governance. A lack of faith in government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where its ouster is perceived as inevitable the more it is unable to bridge the trust deficit. The Rajapaksas know this and are exploiting it. All they have to do is to personally support or engineer through a complex constellation of allies and anonymous accounts are episodic calamities that through physical means (rallies, demonstrations, strikes, breakdowns, disruptions) or virtual (spreading misinformation and disinformation) strengthen the perception of a country at the brink of collapse, going nowhere. Looking at the data alone, it is clear the government is unclear on strategy, doesn’t speak with a clear, shared vision, has many power centres, is utterly uncoordinated and unwaveringly unwieldy. This is highlighted and exploited over social media, where the chief demographic is made to see greater merit in authoritarianism over the trappings of democracy.  It is real. It is working. And the most potent fuel is not from the JO, but from the government itself.

I don’t know what’s become of Thajudeen’s car. It’s a symbol of not just the travesty of justice in his case, but how political authority and power extends well beyond the term of a government. His killers are free. In public. Engaging with politics. Producing content on and for social media. The corrupt are free. The murderers are free. The dealers, contractors, brokers, mercenaries, fixers are all free. In a Parliamentary debate on the allegations surfaced by the New York Times, neither the Rajapaksa’s, for all their braggadocio, nor many in the UNP, for all moralising, were present. Evidently, only foreign media and journalists, and a handful in Sri Lanka care about holding those corrupt accountable. This hasn’t gone unnoticed on social media, where many feel it is better to have a government that does, instead of a government that just promises.

They may well have their chance to bring that about, soon.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 22 July 2018.

A window to government

A tweet by Ruwan Wijewardene, in response to one by South African cricket Dale Steyn, captured what after the electoral results of 10thof February and even after the restructuring of the UNP, remains a problem – with party and government writ large.

Steyn, in a tweet that went viral, was deeply complimentary of what he saw in Colombo. The visible aspects of development, from the last time he was in the country as far back as 2006, were flagged along with how the roads were clean and the parks were green. Perhaps bereft of good news from their fellow countrymen and women, the tweet had generated at the time of writing nearly 9,000 likes and 1,000 retweets. Lots of cringe-worthy responses replete with hearts, kisses, animated GIFs also ensued. The State Minister for Defence also retweeted Mr Steyn’s original, flagging the current Mayor of Colombo, Rosy Senanayake, with two emoticons of clapping hands. The tweet was meant to be read as Mr Wijewardene congratulating MsSenanayake for all what Mr Steyn had noted. “Can’t wait to see the whole bloody lot of them Twitter clap themselves to electoral oblivion” was one response received when I circulated privately, framing in terms not entirely fit for print, Mr Wijewardene’s tweet and what it suggested was the mentality of the UNP’s top brass. To the reader, it may be unfair and unkind. MsSenanayake assumed office a few months ago. She certainly cannot yet be credited with anything good or held accountable for all that is bad about Colombo. The tweet was perhaps more the reflection of personal friendship expressed in a public manner over social media, and to be appreciated as such, without reading too much into it.

But the frustration I felt, shared by many others, was informed by the study of the UNP’s tone-deafness to public sentiment and optics. In Sinhala, over Facebook and Twitter, one can study content directly from government (from MPs and public officials), favourable to government (by those not elected to or appointed by it), directly from the joint opposition and its allies, as well as conversations unfavourable to or deeply critical of government (by those who aren’t card-carrying members of the JO yet partial to its ideology and perspectives). Each of these individually and taken together reveal a disturbing discontent. The government is in the eye of a cyclone, thinking all is calm and well, yet blithely unaware of what’s menacingly around them. Keep in mind Sri Lanka’s electoral youth bulge, with those between 18-34 constituting nearly a quarter of the total number of those eligible to vote. Keep in mind that on 10thFebruary, nearly 1 million first time voters were eligible to cast their vote. This percentage and number will only grow in months and years to come. We have a demographic which is introduced to and engages in politics, including the production of partisan perspectives, primarily over social media – a fundamentally different, fluid, power dynamic to what the core readership of this newspaper know and are used to around how they interact with politics, elections and elected officials.

This is not some fad.

The larger paradigm shift in politics, happening elsewhere in the world as much as it is in Sri Lanka, is called “parties without partisans”, a phenomenon that goes to the heart of the continuous campaign mode engaged by the JO since January 2015. It is also why the popularity of the present government is in terminal decline. The French politician Maurice Duverger in the 1950’s classified political parties as being cadre, mass or devotee centric. A cadre model was essentially and unashamedly elitist (and by extension, historically almost always exclusively male in senior membership), which during electoral contests, especially as universal franchise expanded, tried to seek support from a larger membership – in ever-widening concentric circles. Mass parties grew the other way around, rooted in social movements like labour unions, and growing to a degree where a few from the movement went on to represent the values and ideals of the group in legislative bodies, and other power blocs. Sri Lanka has political parties that bear the features of both. It most definitely has the cult of personality, which Duverger classified as devotee centric political parties. Here, the fate of the movement or party is pegged to the charisma of an individual leading it. Social media deeply favours populists – those who with charismatic credentials galvanise public support through trenchant opposition to the status quo, and the flagging of a glorious, sovereign past.

Post-2015, Sri Lanka has seen, through the physical manifestation of politics as well as its digital contours over social media, the rapid dissipation of hope around the coalition government, the hoovering of anxiety and apathy by the JO through populism and, within the gravitational pull of the JO, distinct yet strategically aligned orbital narratives that promote an unashamed return to a racial and religious purity, devoid of what’s projected as the false trappings of liberal democracy. This last narrative domain addresses what is a real loss of identity and belonging amongst youth, that counter-intuitively grows the more they are connected to social media and interact with likeminded. The politics discussed here is not one that is exercised, necessarily, through franchise. The legitimacy of franchise itself may be constructed as false and contested as one that benefits a status quo inherently unfair, unjust and discriminatory. Hence, the more conversation there is around politics on social media, the more apathy and anger may grow without any electoral resolution. All this and more suggests that if the government and other political actors are not continuously, meaningfully connected to social media discourse, they already risk misreading public sentiment. Electoral and democratic consequences will follow.

Which brings us back to Mr Wijewardene’s tweet. It embodies succinctly, the sheer disconnect he, his party, his leader, and this government has with a tsunami of anxiety, anger, fear and resentment amongst young voters. The word is used consciously, for in Japanese, tsunami loosely translates into harbour wave, where sailors at sea came back to find their homes and shoreline devastated by a phenomenon that had passed beneath them. Sri Lanka’s electoral shoreline is 2020. We have already seen the first wave in February. The farcical restructuring of the UNP by shuffling old men and incompetence around has worsened the UNPs’ appeal. The President is his own brand of pathos. Suffice to say, and without any exaggeration, that when visualised as line graphs – capturing the production of and engagement with content produced in Sinhala alone on Facebook or Twitter, over the past year – that which is against or deeply critical of government appears like a Himalayan range, with content from and partial to government flatlining in comparison.

But I suppose as long as we are tweeting at friends in government and happily clapping on Twitter, all will be well.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 15 July 2018.

A harbour of discontent

An article published in the New York Times generates a sobering frame of accountability and corruption in Sri Lanka today. After publication in print and online, the article generated extremely high readership, sharing and other stories, referencing the original. The role, reach and relevance of the New York Times was buttressed considerably since 2016 by domestic pushback in the US from quarters in Washington DC chagrined by the paper’s unwavering and unflattering scrutiny of policy, pronouncement and politics. The manner in which the story spread in Sri Lanka was revealing, though this brief summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance and variance present in the capture and contestation of the original story, especially over social media.

The immediate and expected response from the Rajapaksa camp was to deny and decry vehemently. This initial enfilade was followed by various pronouncements over social media promising a more robust official response, which however didn’t appear for days. In the meanwhile, the former Central Bank Governor released content in response to the article, which was picked up and distributed by the Rajapaksa camp as evidence of the story’s false premises, and bias. The official response, badly formatted and without spell-checking in English, was perhaps first drafted in Sinhala. Stylistically, the English version was clearly the product of many authors. By the time the Rajapaksa’s produced an official response, the original article had gone viral. At the same time and over social media, an unprecedented cacophony of trolls – accounts with fake photos and names, activated after a long period of being dormant, or freshly created – started to attack in particular the journalist from the New York Times and those she had worked with in Sri Lanka. Personal attacks produced by close associates of the Rajapaksa camp over social media helped these trolls, in two ways. One, by the production of content that tried to name and shame the journalists involved in the story as having hidden agendas, partial to or somehow architected by the UNP. Two, by the support they extended to more vicious commentary of trolls by the act of actively liking their content on Twitter – a process which cannot be automated or accidentally occur. These trolls, in a frenzy of activity, let loose a barrage of verbal abuse against those partial to the merits of the story. Many of the worst comments were explicitly liked by prominent, official, personally curated accounts of the Rajapaksa camp, signifying that they were partial to not just the pushback, but the expression used and the violence engineered. On TV, politicians from the Joint Opposition held up photos of those involved in the story and said that the entire article was rehashing content first published in the Daily News newspaper, some years ago. After the official response from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office, the former President, those close to him and the troll army all noted how they would sue the New York Times. Many, your author included, roundly welcomed this move, as a way in which facts and documents pertinent to the article would be through court proceedings, be made public.

The public and private pressure – not all of which is in the public domain – directed at those who worked on the story was so bad, and happened at such an accelerated pace, the New York Times issued an unprecedented public warning noting that any issue the former President had with the substance of the article should only be taken up with the newspaper, and not by threats of violence or retribution. This warning was echoed by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Foreign Correspondents Association of Sri Lanka, as well as other domestic and international media freedom groups. The shrill threats of suing the newspaper died down. Late last week, Rajapaksa regime acolytes over social media, giving their ‘personal’ opinion, noted that it would be a waste of money and that it was far more useful to go after the conspirators in Sri Lanka who fueled the story. Meanwhile, in response to a complaint lodged by a government MP, the CID was reported to have launched an investigation into the allegations noted in the New York Times article. The only problem here was that the New York Times highlighted in some detail content it claimed was sourced from on-going investigations into the Hambantota Port deal and campaign financing around it. On social media, your author and others flagged the sheer absurdity, truly comedic if not for how tragic a picture it painted of governance in 2018, of the CID investigating an on-going investigation purportedly conducted by the CID itself!

The farce only got worse (or better?) towards the end of the week. The Media Secretary to the former President spun the original article as somehow linked to a statement by John Kerry made in 2016 which had helped the UNP government come to power, and that the New York Times, ideologically partial to or part of Obama-Clinton liberalism, opposed the incumbent US President as well as China, which in turn was why in concert with senior figures in government, who with local collaborators embedded in the mainstream media, conspired to produce the article – all with a view to discrediting Mahinda Rajapaksa!

Your author has lived through and heard a lot of conspiracy theories since 2002. This one though – by sheer force of imagination – was in a different league.

For its part, the UNP – seemingly unaware of any on-going investigation by the CID and dealing with a political nuclear winter after MP Vijayakala’s pro-LTTE statement, distanced itself from allegations in the article that it was forced to hand over the port to the Chinese. In doing so, astute observers noted that the PM was no different to the former President in denying allegations in the article which were politically inconvenient, without any robust material evidence or public debate. Meanwhile, China also unsurprisingly denounced the article as fabrication and fiction. The pro-Rajapaksa troll and tripe army, activated shortly after the article went live, focused their attention more towards those in Sri Lanka, instead of a global media giant that clearly couldn’t be dragged into their snake pit. From at first a frothing Hydra-headed monster, the pushback – online and through more traditional means, morphed into a sharper, more strategic, ominous spear intentionally aimed increasingly at those in Sri Lanka, in tandem with the Rajapaksa camp’s shift in focus to go after – legally or by other means – those they perceived to be behind the article.

It is unlikely the lead author of the New York Times expected any of this. The theatre of the absurd surrounding the publication of the article holds some humbling lessons. Journalists, freelancers and fixers in Sri Lanka tasked with helping international media institutions cover in-depth stories now know the fate that will befall them if and when they cross a line in the sand that raises the ire of those in power or seeking to regain it. It is a chilling effect that will impact quality, probative, investigative journalism. The current government will not deliver on promises to hold the Rajapaksas accountable for corruption. The Rajapaksas have much to hide, going by the raw nerve that was touched and the telling dynamics of the responses to the article. China has much to hide, going by what it has said and importantly, what it has not said. It takes the New York Times to bring to public attention investigations that are so dormant, the CID itself seems to be unaware of them. It takes an international newspaper to focus, however short-lived, public debate on issues our President, our Prime Minister, the government, and domestic media should be leading the scrutiny around.

The New York Times article may have set out to flesh-out Mahinda Rajapaksa’s corruption. What it has inadvertently achieved is to flag the current government’s inability and unwillingness to hold the former President answerable. Clearly, accountability is just a word that features in campaign manifestos.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 8 July 2018.