Masking yahapalanaya

Two recent developments, in as many ways, serve as indicators of yahapalanaya’s terminal decline from hope and confidence to insecurity and despair.

The first is the response to and media coverage of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Meethotamulla disaster area. A grammatically convoluted press release by the PM’s office, printed verbatim in the State run English press, suggested the PM would cut short an official trip to Vietnam because of the gravity of the disaster. He was due back in Sri Lanka on a Wednesday. And yet, he only returned to Sri Lanka late Tuesday night. The tepid interest in political leadership aside, on the morning after, in photo after photo, the most obvious and indeed, obnoxious point about the PM’s visit to the disaster area was the face mask he sported. There were two in fact, of different colour and type. One made him look like, as was pointed out on social media, remarkably akin to a villain from one of the recent Batman movies. The other, a lost surgeon. No one else in his entourage wore a mask. The hapless victims of the disaster who were seen with him, living with the putrid stench of the garbage dump for years, destitute after losing family, loved ones and homes, didn’t sport any masks either. It was a public relations debacle. Suggestions that the PM was suffering from poor health on the day of the visit – which may well have been true – came later, and that too, without any concerted official confirmation or communication. This tone deafness around public relations is in fact a defining characteristic of Mr. Wickremesinghe. Somehow packaged in one person is one of the brightest minds and sharpest intellects by far currently in Parliament, and also a monumental PR disaster, almost biologically missing a gene that makes in large part successful politicians what they are – media, people and voter friendly. This isn’t new, to those who have known and worked with him. And therein lies the rub. When Mr. Wickremesinghe is the best chance we have around desperately needed constitutional, political and institutional reform, the central challenge, which also isn’t new, is how to stop him from being his own worst enemy. Progress on this front is shambolic.

The second development comes in the form of a pronouncement by Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne last week, as reported in the media, that President Sirisena requested Minister and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to quit his ministerial portfolio and take up the post of army commander or overall commander for two years to discipline the country. The BBC’s video footage of the cabinet press briefing in Sinhala makes for – and I am genuinely at a loss for words here – interesting viewing. Minister Senaratne starts off by noting that public demonstrations today have, to a large degree, political motivations. He is then asked how Field Marshall Fonseka will help instil discipline in Sri Lanka, to which he first responds by saying that Fonseka is himself a very disciplined individual. He then says Fonseka will expedite all pending investigations that have been dragging on. When pointed out that Fonseka isn’t the Police, Senaratne’s response is that he would be overall Commander, thus suggesting he would possibly outrank the IGP. When asked at the press briefing what Fonseka’s response was to the President’s offer, Senaratne says that if it was in line with clearly outlined responsibilities, he was partial to it. When flagged that citizens and trade unions had a right to protest, Senaratne notes the issue is with their political motivations, by which he means that public agitation supported by the JO is what is really the cause of concern. He also notes that this kind of agitation wasn’t possible under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, hinting at a future where Fonseka may employ similar fear tactics, which later on the press conference, he goes on to deny. He notes that Fonseka will handle protests ‘beautifully’.

The session quickly descends into farce. When asked why a man who headed the Army at a time when its rank and file were engaged in serious, sustained human rights abuses including violence against the media, Senaratne’s response is that Fonseka is actually the person who testified as to how this violence was architected. When asked why Fonseka couldn’t control his own Army, Senaratne responds by saying he doesn’t expect him to, since Senaratne can’t even control everyone in his own Ministry! The Damoclean sword, aimed at the JO but alarming everyone else, is the threat that the President has invited Fonseka to take an overtly more authoritarian, militaristic approach to governance and in particular, crisis response. This is all very familiar.

Shortly after the news of Senaratne’s incendiary statements were made public, the BBC also followed up with Fonseka. Characteristic confusion ensued. Fonseka denied Senaratne’s comments around the offer of taking over the Army, and said that all he had been invited to consider leading was a new crisis response mechanism in response to the disruption by elements only interested in destabilising government. If his response is taken at face value, this indicates a strong, strategic JO united in purpose, and a weak, fearful yet furious and perhaps isolated President unable to come up with any viable alternative to what any party in opposition will do – attempt to regain power. Two things are distinctly clear. The JO will in the weeks and months ahead, with varying degrees of open association, architect public strikes, protests and rallies that will hit all the major sectors of service delivery and government. They will hit traffic choke points, medicine, logistics, fuel, power, communications, tourism. The government, which no doubt knows of these plans to a far greater degree than ordinary citizens, seemingly finds itself at a loss to respond democratically. It may secretly wish for a Gotabaya Rajapaksa type solution, where baton, bullet and brutes are the chief emissaries greeting protestors.

Enter the Fonseka.

On the very same day, Minister Senaratne delivered the keynote address at the ‘Thanthai Chelva’ memorial event, commemorating S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. Going through the live tweeting by the TNA was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Minister Senaratne spoke passionately in favour of federalism and Tamil rights. Lest we forget, this is coming from a government that pushed through crucial and deeply controversial counter-terrorism legislation, the implementation which may well place at much greater risk of torture and abuse the very Tamils Minister Senaratne says he is partial to, without any public consultation or scrutiny, just to regain the GSP + preferential trade agreement.

The circus has clearly come to town. The argument made, not without merit, is that the worst of this government is better than the best of the last regime, around at least, the timbre of democratic governance. Where this argument holds little to no currency is around people who do not feel or perceive tangible existential relief and material gain under yahapalanaya. We have a PM who is grossly insensitive. We have a President, out of fear, fury or foolishness, relying on militaristic solutions to what are political challenges. We have a government without a single-voice, claiming to be for minority rights and democratic governance, yet doing everything it possibly can to undermine both. What government suggests in the morning, quite literally, is not what it claims in the evening. Perhaps all this is justified through the lens of long-term stability. A Thatcherite approach to strikes, and armed with GSP+, an economy more stable than before could contribute to a reduction in the disruption of public and political life, charting an easier path to a Yes vote for reform at the constitutional referendum. And yet, this isn’t the yahapalanaya that was promised. The JO’s success may be less around how it manages the strikes ahead, and more around how it forces government to negotiate on the political turf it circumscribes. It is increasingly clear that the JO, both umbilically linked to and independent of the Rajapaksas, enjoys strategic foresight, an enduring power and popular appeal the government is at wits end to counter, contain or control. One thing in clear. A PM sporting masks and a President with infantile aspirations to greatness by courting the military and its tactics doom us to a future that is far removed from, indeed diametrically opposed to the timbre of government, and promise of governance on the 8th of January 2015.

As the of quoted French adage goes that holds true in Sri Lanka, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A truth more violent than fiction

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I devoted most of my Avurudu break to reading, trying to – and succeeding mostly – to finish a book a day. Two of the most compelling were Shankari Chandran’s ‘Song of the Sun God’ and Anuk Arudpragasam’s ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’. Books like this must come with a warning, and I mean this in half-jest. Shankari’s novel is about the best I’ve read on Sri Lanka, and one of the best I’ve ever read. I am unashamedly biased. The book is essentially about home – Sri Lanka – even as it spans generations and three continents. ontom the thinly veiled references to known places, institutions and people to the more familiar brutality of war and its aftermath, the writing is riveting, unnerving even. Shankari gets under your skin. Not unlike Anuk’s stunning debut, which had me in tears as I read through it in a single sitting, Shankari’s prose is compelling, full of nuance and resonant, in ways a foreign reader will certainly grasp, but a local reader will more fully own and immediately associate with self, family, friends and lived experience. The beautiful tapestry holds, and only ever thinly masks, great violence – not just in what she writes, but in the memories of what the book’s events and characters evoke around what some of us had to confront during the last stages of the war. It is however a deep humanism – of love despite the worst austerity, of resilience in the face of unimaginable violence, of hope in spite of awful loss, of a yearning to return home, despite the worst of what it has done – that at the end of the book, amongst a myriad of other emotions, one is left with. It is the same with Anuk’s book, where the story of a brief marriage, as the title goes, is a vehicle to traverse terrains of violence most have already forgotten, and for different reasons, want kept that way. It is the tenderness amidst unspeakable horror, the attention to detail and palliative care when there is no logical reason to be meticulous or patient, kindness, when there is none of it around, that pervades the difficult pages of this book.

Reading both, I was reminded of magic realism’s flourish in Colombia, at the time Pablo Escobar was on murderous sprees and not unlike our own bheeshana yugaya, the streets ran with blood. The literature that this violence spawns, while anchored to it, also seeks escape – critiquing the politics of violence, blurring the fantastic and real, located in reality yet introducing mysterious events that often kill, hurt, harm or seriously impact characters with no warning, and little reason, not unlike life itself.

The fiction I read provided a frame of reference to engage with news around UN peacekeepers in Haiti that the disaster in Meethotamulla, over the Avurudu weekend, almost conveniently provided cover for. The story, first reported by AP, isn’t the first around nauseating allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Sri Lankan military serving under the UN as peacekeepers. It is however the most detailed account we have so far. AP’s investigations reveal that Sri Lankan peacekeepers wanted sex from girls and boys as young as 12. A girl who says did not even have breasts at the time, for three years, from when she was twelve to fifteen, had sex with nearly fifty peacekeepers, including a “Commandant” who gave her seventy-five cents. At least one hundred and thirty-four Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal U.N. report obtained by the AP. It is worth quoting from the report, as published in the New York Times,

“Victim 2, who was 16 when the U.N. team interviewed her, told them she had sex with a Sri Lankan commander at least three times, describing him as overweight with a moustache and a gold ring on his middle finger. She said he often showed her a picture of his wife. The peacekeepers also taught her some Sinhalese so she could understand and express sexual innuendo; the children even talked to one another in Sinhalese when U.N. investigators were interviewing them.”

I could go on, but the full report is online and a Google search away. The details are horrific. The sheer violence of it all is by order of magnitude more than anything Arudpragasam and Chandran can conjure up with their most sublime fiction. You would think that this would merit serious coverage in the news media, and comprehensive investigations by the Sri Lankan military. Neither is true.

Speaking to BBC’s Sinhala website, the military itself openly admits that no peacekeeper has been charged under the law or brought to courts on account of the allegations. The Army notes that ‘disciplinary’ action has been taken against a Commander and eight others. The nature of this action is indeterminable. The media, including the BBC, didn’t probe more into what actions the military took – their word is simply taken at face value, normalising the most heinous violence through the ‘rotten eggs’ theory, which is paraded whenever questions of accountability are raised. According to this line of argument, the actions of a few do not colour the service and avowed professionalism of the Army writ large, and whenever identified, the personnel in question responsible for infractions, we are told, have been dealt with. No more details are available. The local mainstream media has successfully managed to ignore and downplay the entire story, revealing even post-war, what is a pervasive, deeply ingrained mentality, out of fear or just misguided patriotism, that holds the military above any law, scrutiny and accountability.

Our heroes, are our gods – they play us, for their sport.

Wilde was right, life imitates art. Both Arudpragasam and Chandran paint, in different yet equally compelling prose, a wonderfully evocative, horribly effective pastiche of Sri Lanka’s violent history, that I daresay we are cursed to rinse and repeat. But political will’s absence around accountability isn’t fiction’s burden to generate. Both books unflinchingly look at violence with an honesty, humility and humanity that escapes polity and society in Sri Lanka. We remain scared of what, and who, we cannot name. Fiction breaks these boundaries, with scant regard for a culture of politics that enables, nay celebrates, complicity, secrecy and violence. While transitional justice mechanisms remain elusive, fiction such as this may hold the key to not forgetting the circumstances that led to, and arose out of, war. They may also be the only vehicles through which, even just through literary criticism, we embrace the totality of war in a context where even the most heinous of allegations against the Sri Lankan military, very far removed from the theatre of war in Sri Lanka itself, just aren’t important enough to merit attention.

Demonisation, though, is easy. Here too, Chandran and Arudpragasam in their fiction offer a vital lesson. War’s victims and perpetrators are not easily distinguished. Not discounting agency and command responsibility, those who mete out the worst violence, are often those conditioned by duty, fear, habit or trauma. The violence outside Sri Lanka by those involved in the war, is also a direct consequence of the violence they faced and were co-architects of. Their burden, for life, is to harbour what they did, saw and defended, and it is human nature that the sheer trauma of extended exposure to violence manifests itself in ways that replicate violence. ‘Song of a Sun God’ and ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’ show us, without overtly intending to, that the accounting for the past needs to be done with an understanding that even leading agents of violence are, fundamentally, human – as flawed as the rest of us, as normal as the rest of us. The ultimate tragedy of disavowing accountability is not just for the victims who have no closure, but in the perpetuation of violence, by those who were once at the frontlines. Justice is not just about incarceration, the gallows or electric chairs. It is about healing, by first acknowledging that barbarity happened – that it was real, planned and directed.

Put simply, if we continue to countenance the rape and sexual abuse of children, we are complicit in a violence that shames us all. The realities of Haiti and Nandikadal are inextricably entwined with the complex landscapes of Chandran and Arudpragasam’s writing.  Though fiction can be forgotten, facts endure.

We forget this at our peril.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 23 April 2017.

Asking why

As a visiting lecturer at the Department of English, University of Colombo, I have taught a Masters course called ‘Digital Discourses’ since 2014, which is essentially on how people communicate online, over social media and using their smartphones. The course has proven to be very popular, and each year, I am told, over one hundred apply, out of which only a handful are selected. I have lectured as part of a post-graduate diploma course at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, and at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, I taught for some years several modules as part of a course for mid-career professional journalists. I was for some years part of the visiting Faculty at the University of Lugano, in Switzerland and have also lectured at ETH, in Zurich. A fundamental difference between all the classes, across the years, I’ve taught in Sri Lanka and the students I have interacted with abroad isn’t linked to location, syllabi, age, background or gender.

It is to do with their ability to ask a question.

It seems the simplest thing to ask for, and a no-brainer for any student to respond to. And yet, batch after batch, I have stood at the head of class in Sri Lanka in pin drop silence after I’ve asked the students to shut their notebooks, put down their pens, and ask me a question based on whatever I had covered until then in class. The silence has extended to minutes, over which time no one makes eye contact with me, and look at desk, hands or feet, hoping that I give up and go on lecturing. I do not. And so, after a few awkward minutes, a question is asked. It is usually incomprehensible, because the student asking it has never engaged with a style of teaching that gets them to critically engage, reflect, interrupt, argue with reason and question with a ferocious curiosity. From primary on to secondary and then in tertiary education, or when they attend professional development courses, all they are by default able to do is to take down copious notes. No matter what the lecturer says, they will take it down diligently and without question. The lecturer is always assumed to be right, and if there is some suspicion she or he is not, it is never openly brought up.

Abroad, the classes are almost combative in comparison. There is a different level of preparedness, to begin with. Students look to a lecturer to help chart a course for self-exploration around an issue or topic, and less as an all-knowing being there to impart learning to a mute class. It is utterly refreshing to be able to converse, debate and thrash out a point, especially when the class and I differ on interpretation, merit, approach or significance. They learn, but so do I, and the entire system is geared to test not what is memorised and mindlessly copied, but what can be argued with reason, evidence and conviction. Some of my highest marks have been reserved for imaginative approaches to the subjects I have taught that disagree with my own take, yet where robust academic discipline is combined with lateral reading, critical analysis and original thought to produce compelling writing. That level of interaction is a world away from any class I’ve taught in Sri Lanka, over a dozen years.

What must be changed to make sure we can compete in a global marketplace of ideas? I start with my class, and my engagement with students. My first lecture, if it is one of a series, is not just about what I want to talk about, but also encourages students to stop writing and start thinking. I compel them to ask questions. I ask them questions, and push them to answer honestly, and openly. I play off one student’s opinion with another, and ask them to debate. They are often shy at first, and sometimes even angry they can’t just sit in silence and passively take down notes. I encourage the quietest ones to talk, and ask those who soon thrive in an environment they can share their opinions and ideas to help fellow classmates formulate their own thoughts. I often have an eclectic reading list, drawing from best-selling fiction to mainstream and arthouse movies, a range of web content anchored from the serious and sublime to the comedic yet educational. I get the class to install and use relevant apps on their smartphones, draw maps, locate themselves geo-spatially and virtually, ask them to take on new identities through online avatars, and talk with each other using new expressions, and languages that have evolved around the limitations of handheld devices. I ask student to reflect critically on what they do daily over social media, and then use their own content as class material for teaching and deconstruction. I never allow them the luxury of switching off by turning page and expending ink, and by the end of it all, they either love me, or they are very glad to see the last of me.

More than anyone class, my greatest opposition has come from other faculty members in Sri Lanka, especially at one of the institutions noted above, concerned that I set an example they couldn’t and importantly, didn’t want to match. I leave behind all my presentations, and all the content I use in class, in full, with the students. Other lecturers have their notes, and never share them completely with students. Comfortable in the usual, stale pedagogy, I am often a maverick they don’t quite know what to do with.

Which brings me to institutional culture. The Department of English at the University of Colombo is a refreshing departure from what one usually associates with outmoded, outdated approaches to teaching in our tertiary system. I have enjoyed teaching there the most, and also because the Masters course I helped design and now teach is unlike anything else offered by other University’s in the country. Having interacted with a number of media, communications and journalism lecturers and faculty over the years and the obvious fellow mavericks aside, the issue seems to not just be with grossly outdated syllabi, but with Faculty who are sometimes so far removed from and ignorant of contemporary developments in the fields they teach, their students are ahead of them. Coupled with decades old syllabi that hasn’t been sufficiently revised and pedagogy that treats university students as one would toddlers in kindergarten, the dominant institutional culture at tertiary institutions is in fact deeply anti-intellectual, and openly opposed to critical questioning or independent analysis. In what is a perfect storm, the conditions in universities conspire to leave most students with academic qualifications not worth the paper they are printed on.

A radical overhaul is needed, and long overdue. Perhaps a few of us, already embedded in the system, can start a revolution without waiting for the Ministry of Higher Education, University Grants Commission, the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework, or internal governance mechanisms in University’s to design, approve and implement new approaches and frameworks. The joy of teaching is not in hoarding knowledge, but seeing it grow by giving it freely away. I love when I have to come back and do research around a question a student has asked me, and for which in class I have not had an answer. While we often blame students for being lazy, including intellectually, less openly discussed is the fact that teachers encourage this disengagement with critical thinking, because it means they have to work harder and longer. Given the pay-scales, I can understand the resistance to do anything more than the minimum effort required, but if we don’t change the way students learn what they come to know more about, we are in effect producing biological robots across a range of disciplines – able at best to mimic, regurgitate and repeat, but never creatively respond, imagine, create or iteratively learn.

I believe both the necessary and urgent step to arrest this terminal decline is a relatively easy one. It gets students to ask a simple question.

Why?

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 16 April 2017.

The Joint Opposition’s Referendum

Katrathu Kai Mun Alavu; Kallathatu Ulahalvu

‘What you have learnt is a mere handful; What you haven’t learnt is the size of the world’ is a loose translation of what Chola age Tamil poet Avvaiyar wrote. The verdant verse reminds us that what little we know must not blind us to how much more there is to learn. This is a really tough sell when a country is heading into a referendum around a new constitution, and when polling data suggests how little the majority of voters, whose opinion matters the most, actually know about what they will be voting for, or against. The point has been made before, repeatedly. The outcome of a plebiscite is never really about the question(s) asked and more around what voters feel going into the ballot box. The outcome, as with any electoral process really, is more of an emotive response than an intellectual engagement. There are many aspects to this, chief of which is the fact that a population reeling under the cost of living, a catastrophic drought and simply unable to afford a basic basket of food, is not one that can be meaningfully engaged around the nuances of constitutionalising power-sharing, rights, religion or the nature of the executive. If the government is serious about meaningful constitutional reform and a referendum to see it through, it has its work cut out and with no guarantee of success.

Polling data released last week by Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, provides data driven perspectives into the nature of the multi-faceted challenges that lie ahead. Let us be very clear about this. The polling data re-affirms what many suspected. The whole process of vexed partisan negotiations, constitutional blueprints, drafting and necessary political compromise aside, the grief this government faces over an electorate that is unaware of and apathetic towards constitutional reform is almost entirely one of its own making. There is, from the Prime Minister to the UNP writ large, between the PM and the President, and also between the President and the SLFP, a near total breakdown in coherent communication and concrete collaboration, around clear, concise messaging regarding constitutional reform. What has ailed government since January 2015 isn’t going to be fixed in the near future. This is a matter of serious concern, as brought out by the polling.

Fieldwork for the survey was conducted from 14th to 19th March, with 1,992 respondents in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages, across all Provinces. The resulting insight into the public perceptions around constitutional reform are nothing short of damning.  Asked what the overall view of the government’s performance since January 2015, there is a clear disconnect between the Northern and Southern Provinces, and between the Tamil and Sinhala communities. This in fact is a common thread throughout the responses to survey questions, highlighting the inescapable fact that Sri Lanka continues to be sharply divided by geography and ethnic identity, even or especially, post-war. Keeping in mind Sri Lanka’s electoral register and the density of voters in each Province, the nature of the problem is clear. Amongst the Sinhalese, 48.7% think the government’s performance is bad or very bad, compared to 6.2% of Tamils who think the same. Nearly 80% in the Northern Province thought the government’s performance was good. Yet, it’s just shy of 30% in the Southern Province.

The data suggests the almost complete outsourcing of voter education around constitutional reform to the JO, or other spoilers. Over 55% note that the government is very unsuccessful or somewhat unsuccessful in informing people about the constitutional reform process. The same percentage thinks that publicising the content of discussions within the Constitutional Assembly and its sub-committees around constitutional reform is very unsuccessful or somewhat unsuccessful. Revealingly, despite the Public Representations Committee’s islandwide consultations over 2016 (with over 2,500 in-person submissions, 800 over email, 150 through fax and 700 submissions through the post or handed in) the poll flags that 31.4% across the country believe the government has been very unsuccessful in obtaining citizens’ perspectives about what should be included and what should change in the new constitution.

Even if they don’t know about the details and status, the number of those who say they are aware of the current constitutional reform process has increased from October last year. On the face of it, this is a good thing. But when we dig further into the data, as other commentators have also flagged, this awareness seems to spring from negative publicity, misinformation and disinformation around the reform process. For example, nationally, those who think Sri Lanka needs a new constitution has dropped from 33.9% in October last year to 23.5% in March. Those who think the current constitution should endure with some changes has increased from 33.6% in October 2016, to 38.9% last month. The appetite for, and interest in a new constitution, is noticeably diminishing. Likewise, support for the complete abolition of the Executive Presidential system has declined from 35.7% in October, to 30.1% in March.

There is a stark divergence in opinion around the fundamental nature of the state, especially between the Northern and Southern Provinces. Nationally, 53.4% want explicit mention of the unitary state in the new constitution. 57% of those in the Southern Province concur, along with over 73% in both the Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Conversely, just 13.7% in the Northern Province agree. Secularism, and its constitutional expression, is another fault line. Nationally, 70.3% state that Buddhism should be given the foremost place in the new constitution. 85.3% of the Sinhala community, unsurprisingly, concur. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, just 9.4% of the Tamil community are of the same opinion. Federalism, in the public imagination, isn’t very popular. A mere 13.2% nationally want it ingrained in the new constitution. In the Northern Province, support for federalism is just over 63%. In the Southern Province, it’s a paltry 7.2%. An underlying structural inequality coupled with divisions based on geographic loci and ethnic identity endure, creating for government the challenge of addressing what is not a new problem – a deeply divided Sri Lanka.

Given the near complete absence of political will to address these challenges which have been studied, flagged, fleshed out, warned against and yet ignored for decades, the government faces the unenviable task of championing a vital referendum, when most don’t even want it. Nationally, 66.2% think there are more important issues than constitutional reform and transitional justice for the government to address. In Sabaragamuwa, the figure is as high as 96.8%. On the other hand, just 13.8% in the Northern Province agree. Unsurprisingly, those who continue to suffer structural inequality and racism the most, want meaningful reform urgently. But the data reveals a more complex picture – suggesting that the disinterest in constitutional reform and transitional justice stems from economic impoverishment. When asked what issues were more important to respondents, the answers given were all related to cost of living, unemployment and other economic indicators.

Avvaiyar verse holds a vital warning for government. If we arrive at a referendum this year – and there is no guarantee on this score – voters will respond with what they believe at the time the new constitution holds for them. Simpler, emotive messages, by definition the least accurate and oftentimes the most retrogressive, will hold sway over academic, intellectual arguments in support of more progressive, meaningful constitutional reform. In other words, the JO is winning public opinion by producing more content, more volubly and more frequently than the government cares to counter. The data from October and March are not just snapshots of public opinion. They demonstrate key trends. Given the clear indications, availability of data and what is an avowed interest in pushing through constitutional reform, one at least can be assured the government will do what it always has in the past to secure a yes vote.

Absolutely nothing.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 9 April 2017.

Reading what I wanted to

A recent conversation with a close friend centred around our deep love of reading, reminding me of a life-long relationship with books. The first I recall were inherited from my sister, taking me to worlds far beyond the confines of my home in Ratmalana, from the subterranean passages leading to Kirrin Island on to enchanted woods, escaping the suds of Dame Washalot. To this day, I recall with perfect clarity how much I wanted to eat toffee shocks. By way of comparison, I cannot remember a single thing of what I memorized for my exams in school. Sybil Wettasinghe’s books were recited by my grandmother, prefacing ‘Muvan Palassa’ on SLBC’s AM broadcasts. Both were keenly anticipated and lovingly received. At S. Thomas’, the class and special subject prizes were in the form of vouchers from Lake House, at the time located near Regal Cinema. It was a cavernous space from a child’s perspective, and I loved getting lost amidst the shelves. The Caves bookstore in Fort, and the row upon row of second hand booksellers in Maradana were frequent haunts as well. The Peoples Publishing House, near Hotel Nippon, was frequented for literature from the USSR, published in the same format as Readers Digest, but with an unsurprising Communist bent, decrying the West through fiery prose and defiant art. I imagined Akka as Ethel, but loved her too much to put her through what Crompton’s imagination subjected William’s sister to, in Just William. Of the thirty-nine in the series, by my A/L’s, I had managed to find and read around two dozen. The search for the rest continues. From the Case Files of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys to the Choose Your Own Adventures series published by Bantam Books, from dozens of Ladybird books to a subscription to National Geographic before I hit my teens, perhaps the complete absence at the time of any other source of entertainment led to a voracious reading habit.

When two years ago, the house I was living in on rent was burgled twice, I was upset at what was taken, yet more relieved that not a single one of my books was touched. The twin incidents also revealed how little in Sri Lanka we value books today, which for a society that has inscribed verse in rock and history on ola leaves for centuries before the Gutenberg press, is more than a little ironic. On the one hand, the reading we encourage our children to do the most is linked to syllabi in school. Nothing beyond is really encouraged, since it is often perceived to steal time away from what needs to be consumed, instead of what is liked to be read. Compounding this, Colombo is about the worst capital in South Asia for books. They are expensive, the selection is terrible and the largest bookshops we have are dwarfed by what those in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or even Nepal. One of my fondest memories as an undergraduate student in Delhi was speaking with the beloved Balraj Bahri Malhotra, who sadly passed away last year. Malhotra-ji, in his late 60’s at the time, was emphatically and entirely dismissive of what I actually wanted to buy when I visited the eponymous Bahrisons in Khan Market, instead insisting on the purchase of Anurag Marthur’s An Inscrutable American, noting – correctly as it turned out – it would appeal to me. He knew by heart both the content and location of every single book in his shop. You just do not find that kind of character or have that kind of experience in any bookshop in Sri Lanka. I recall once going to Vijitha Yapa’s at Unity Plaza many years ago, asking to be shown the fantasy section, only to have a female assistant visibly turn red and walk away hurriedly. Though Pratchett was in stock, no one in the bookstore knew who he was, or in what genre he was a master of. For any book listed in school syllabi, you will be shown a specific location. Ask for any recommendation around a good read, or for books akin to something you’ve read before from an author, genre, period or around an issue, and you hit a blank wall.

This is emblematic of a deep-seated problem with our primary and secondary education system. The average school bag of a child today is heavier than what many airlines would allow as cabin luggage. And yet all the printed material transported to and from school daily is largely geared towards one purpose – rote learning and regurgitation. Reading becomes a chore, disliked because of what need to be memorised. Instead of escaping to imaginary, foreign worlds, reading is this constant, nagging reminder of how much one needs to consume in order to beat the competition in class, get a scholarship, ace an exam or win a prize. Understandably, if reading is only ever engaged with as laborious homework or a chore, escape to the non-literary world of gaming, online content, and video through console, computer, smartphone or tablet is inevitable.

The lament that children don’t read, or don’t read as widely as they should, is a constant refrain. Instead of deriving pleasure, if children chiefly consider reading as something required of them by parents and teachers, we are in effect creating barriers to lateral, critical thinking – the root of innovation, entrepreneurship, solutions generation, creativity and indeed, active citizenship. As a child and teenager, I only ever asked for and was invariably given or gifted books. My parents were interested in good grades, but never once penalised or punished me for reading well beyond myopic, outdated, mind-deadening syllabi. Only years later did I realise the value of the freedom they allowed me.

The books I read in school and university, far beyond what I was tested on, are today some of my most prized possessions. The spines are brittle, the covers faded and the pages yellowing – but the feel and smell of these books remind me of my first encounters with difference and diversity, of world’s beyond where I was and told I was part of, characters so vividly drawn I wanted to be them or run away from, of countries and weather, beyond the tropics, I yearned to travel to and experience. Through books beyond the world of exams, I learnt about what lies beyond, and indeed, is far more important than grades and class placement. I only wish more children today, especially as tragic news of suicides after the release of O/L results reaches us, were allowed by their teachers, parents and care-givers to read whatever they wanted to, as much as they desired.

To read widely is to appreciate and more fully embrace the potential of life. We need to tell our children this.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 2 April 2017.

Dignity and digital identities

My national identity card was issued in 1996, over twenty years ago. It’s the first and only one I’ve ever had. The photo is already of a person largely unrecognisable even to myself. The information written on the card has faded. The lamination, unsurprisingly, is coming undone at the edges. And yet, this ageing slice of plastic remains a vital piece of documentation I have to carry around at all times. I also have a passport, more recently issued and the fifth I’ve had since 1997. During the war, I was required to individually register, along with all other mobile subscribers in Sri Lanka pursuant to a directive by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, with Dialog. The registration, which for Dialog was digital and accessed by dialling #132#, paired my phone’s SIM card to my NIC and home address, and required me to give a photo, proof of residence and complete a detailed form. Since I had a mobile broadband connection with Mobitel at the time, registration with them resulted in a plastic ID card, that I had to carry around with me as well whenever I had the dongle on my person. But this is already forgotten history. The NIC is now all I really need. And this seems to be the basis for ideas proposed by the government in the public domain, over the past couple of months, for the digitisation of an ageing process, platform and service.

On the face of it, this both long overdue and of vital importance in the years to come. With access to government services and platforms mediated by proof of identity, a digital NIC can in theory facilitate easier access and service delivery. I often forget my blood group. Incorporating this information into an NIC for emergency services to access can be a life-saver. There are plans to incorporate biometric information as well, which again on the face of it can help with the significant reduction of, for example, voter fraud and election malpractice. Given the perishable nature of current national identity cards, and how easy they are to forge, a complete revamp of citizenship registration is really necessary. The debate then is not on the need, but in the details around how the government goes about this.

Let’s take the working assumption of a digitisation project. The end-product, say a credit card sized piece of plastic, needs to contain, at the very least, all the information currently on my NIC. Amongst other marginalised and vulnerable communities, immediate problems arise when dealing with families of the disappeared, the internally displaced and the many thousands working in tea plantations. These individuals have multiple forms of identification, based on transactional needs, geo-location and other factors. Some of these forms of identification are multi-page, handwritten documents. Others are issued by intermediaries like private industries which they work under. The lack of permanent addresses hinders still the issue of national identity cards. Some forms of identification, valid and vital in areas they live and work in, are useless in other parts of the country. If the archetype for a national electronic database of citizens, the basis of a digital identity card, is the average citizen in the South of Sri Lanka, the very livelihood of millions elsewhere in the country will be put at risk. Forms of identification vary by community, location, identity group, profession, gender and other circumstances linked to war, displacement and enforced disappearances. These are complex challenges that have to be planned for at the outset, lest a digital identity card becomes in the years to come the marker of a new societal divide between those who have (priority) access to services, and those who are, by design, left out.

At a presentation on surveillance and privacy given to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka last week, I flagged other concerns around the development of an electronic ID, based on information available in the public domain. There are enduring concerns around a very porous firewall between information collected by the Department for Registration of Persons and the Ministry of Defence, and an assorted array of intelligence services. In the absence of robust, modern data protection laws, information on individuals, their families, profession, home address, work address and biometric data that with little or no judicial oversight or due process can be accessed by State intelligence services is a dystopian future best resisted. If in the guise of efficiency and effectiveness, our lives are essentially overseen and controlled by stentorian agencies that can deny, disrupt, control or curtail our access to essential services, an e-NIC may well result in an Orwellian society where citizens are controlled, monitored and cast out of official systems based on favour or fear. These dangers of an ill-advised and poorly architected e-NIC project aren’t yet well known, or publicly discussed.

The appeal to the Bar Association was to help lead this discussion, and in the public domain. We can look to India in this regard, and the robust, critical and on-going discussions around the Aadhar digital ID card and more broadly, the work and mandate of the Unique Identification Authority of India. Clearly, a purely transactional model will not work. An ID, any ID, is essentially proof that a someone is who they say they are. Humans, over their life, change. We change religion, sexual identity, gender orientation, our politics, our addresses, our partners, our jobs. Our retinas, fingerprints and blood group remain with us from birth to death, but everything else is a social, political or cultural construct of choice or chance. The freedom to move freely within and between these different identities is a vital part of citizenship. Inflexibility in systems that register us as we were once, but not as we are today or want to be in the future, risk systemic discrimination on a potentially large scale, deeply impacting, amongst other things, the registration of, births, deaths, marriages, the opening of bank accounts, school and university entry, rations, land ownership or transfers, hospitalisation and state medical care, vehicle ownership, personal insurance, domestic and foreign travel, employment, EPF and ETF. If an e-NIC is to be a lynchpin of smart cities, as they are proposed today, we need much more scrutiny and debate over what exactly the government is proposing, how it is going to go about it, who will be given the task of developing it, maintaining it and in a context where even the President’s website is effortlessly hacked by a teenager, protecting this information.

All of this is not to suggest, as any principled critique of the government’s plans so often risks, the complete abandonment of an overhaul around how citizens are registered, and interact with official systems and processes. In the ready enthusiasm around the proposed e-NIC, the risk of a largely technocratic approach is that those most in need of the State to recognise them, are ironically those most at risk of even further alienation and isolation. Dignity is inextricably entwined into identity. Expectations of privacy and its protection vary, but is uniformly important to address at a systemic level. There can be no back-door between a citizenship database and intelligence services. Gender, class, location, economic group, profession – the very things an e-NIC records, can place the individuals thus recorded at greater disadvantage, unless policies are put in place to secure rights post-digitisation, especially around access to information in official systems and the revision or updating of personal data.

These are not simple challenges, but they are not insurmountable either. In both design and implementation, our e-NIC project needs to embrace a legacy of war and violence, as well as multiple identities our citizens possess and migrate between. If our models and working assumptions are, as is so often the case, only ever based on lived experiences in the South, we risk a digital dystopia through an even more ingrained, systemic discrimination. The promise of digitisation is about a better country, for all. The first step of going digital is for the technocrats at least to experience and understand how the most vulnerable communities and citizens negotiate life in the physical world. Perhaps then, we stand a better chance of a more just, dignified and equitable digital future.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 26 March 2017.

The propaganda landscape

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer… And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Hannah Arendt

Columnists are already writing in favour of or warning against the ascendency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa by 2020, along with the resurgence of the old political order in a new guise. The non-delivery of campaign promises coupled with a non-existent communication strategy makes the current government its own worst enemy. All the JO has to do is to hope climate change continues to wreak havoc with our harvests, activate violent elements in the deep state still partial to the old guard when necessary, clandestinely support anti-government demonstrations at key traffic choke points in and around Colombo and re-activate what was in late 2014 a well-oiled propaganda machine. It’s that last part which interests me the most, if only because interactions with multiple sections of government over two years suggests the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has no plan, capacity or resources to counter a sophisticated misinformation and disinformation campaign engineered by the JO.

A lot has changed since 2014’s Presidential campaign. Psychometrics is playing an increasing role in how media campaigns target individuals. For example, many wouldn’t think twice about granting access to a simple, engaging game, an interesting poll, astrology or cricket app that requires Facebook to work. My newsfeed on Facebook is littered with those who have provided access to a third party, resulting in pseudo-insights that are fun to share and result in what is really intended – the viral sharing of content that in turn provides access to more social media accounts. This in turn provides insights around how carefully crafted communications can sway undecided voters and strengthen the fears of those opposed to a party or candidate. While all this requires significant investment and expertise, it is not impossible, certainly by 2020.

Add to this advancements in technology itself. Adobe, the maker of the eponymous photo editing suite, showcased last year a new product that allows the sophisticated manipulation of audio. Though it won’t for several years at least work in Sinhala or Tamil, by 2020 we will have technology in the hands of anyone with a computer to manipulate a voice recording to make any speaker in English say whatever it is you want them to say, in their own voice. The listener will be none the wiser. Also in 2016 came the preview of technology that manipulated the face of a speaker on TV in real time. This meant that a recording of an individual broadcast on TV, for example, could with audio manipulation software be made to say anything you wanted them to say. The consumer would both see and hear sentences, which they would go on to believe and act on, that the original speaker never really said. These are new frontiers of propaganda that we don’t even know how to comprehensively identify, much less guard against.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and outspoken critic of Putin tweeted in December that the “point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth”. Repeat a lie often enough, and counter-narratives are buried. Fake news is another useful tool – not just by way of producing and disseminating misleading content, but also by volubly decrying critical content and commentary as fake, serving to increase scepticism and fuel apathy which benefits the suppression of facts. The average citizen and media consumer will be oblivious to any of this. Sri Lanka’s very high literacy helps with the dissemination of and engagement around news. On the other hand, the country’s very poor media literacy helps the spread of unverified rumour as well as content without any basis in fact. Coupled with what continues to be high growth in smartphones and data consumption, there is a readymade foundation for the manipulation of information and news the closer we get to 2020.

The government’s reaction to this will be to set in motion mechanisms that monitor social media for content that seeks to inflame communal tensions, and spread rumours. This is both a danger and a false hope. The JO is decentralised, which is its power. It has access to sophisticated marketing and advertising firms that in turn have access to market research data, historical polling data down to polling division, psychometric profiles and sophisticated media monitoring mechanisms across all languages. There is an overarching strategy with decentralised execution – individuals and institutions follow a comprehensive strategic vision laid by a few architects, but aren’t micro-managed and are free to execute campaigns in support of campaign goals as best they see fit. Conversely, the government’s response will be highly centralised and by extension, inflexible. We will see a return to, albeit through an inversion, the kind of media output last seen late 2014 in the lead up to the Presidential election. It is the JO today better at messaging, not government. And all it has to do is to generate one of two things – an interest in registering opposition to government policies or by strengthening apathy, increasing the non-participation around referenda or elections. The government will most likely respond to what it cannot control by reverting to the same methods and tactics used in the past to suppress the spread of content. This in turn will backfire, leading to condemnation from within and outside of Sri Lanka. The JO will gain credibility.

The thing is, even knowing the contours of the threat doesn’t generate measurable interest from government in tackling it with the sophistication and urgency it merits. This must be the most laid back government in history, going into a contentious, historic referendum later in the year. There is no political leadership. There is no coherent plan around generating a Yes vote. There is no discernible strategy to counter moves to strengthen the No vote. It’s almost as if there is no real interest in the referendum itself. But for whatever reason may be a disinterest in this year’s plebiscite is no indicator of a similar attitude closer to 2020. The retention of power when confronted with the loss of political authority, given a zero-sum culture that defines our partisan politics, will invariably result in an unprecedented information war. This is evident even today. Take SAITM. The Hambantota Port. Mattala. The Port City project. The transitional justice agenda. The constitutional reform agenda. The one leitmotif across all these issues is confusion, a deluge of news and commentary with competing viewpoints, leading to frustration, anger and disengagement. There is a set of strategic architects behind all this, and it isn’t government. What in the short term are efforts to foster opposition to constitutional reform will seamlessly migrate into campaigns to secure power.

What’s sinister about what is otherwise a perfectly democratic and legitimate interest in re-election is the weaponisation of voters. Unable to critically question, fed up with non-delivery of promises, left out in decision making, talked down to by government, ignored by policies they can’t identify with, frustrated by a daily commute, unable to afford a basic food basket and fed instead with carefully engineered propaganda, the JO will aim to destabilise polity and society and in the ensuing chaos, offer a vision of calm, prosperity and stability – giving life to the popular expression that even with corruption, “there was something done and development you could see” under the Rajapaksa’s, not unlike the nostalgia today around the brutal Premadasa era.

The researcher in me is really interested in how this will all pan out. As a citizen, I am deeply fearful of what this will mean for the quality of our democracy. What is fertile ground for study is also the terrain for despair. The dynamics of 2014’s electoral campaigning are going to get more complex closer to 2020, and my fear is that Sri Lanka’s citizens aren’t ready or willing to critically engage. And that suits at least one power bloc in our country just fine.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 19 March 2017.