Flying Nuts

The President expressing his disdain over the quality of nuts offered on Sri Lankan airlines this week brought back memories of my first flight. I was 20 years old, and it was 21 years ago.

Undergraduate study in Delhi beckoned, but I was more excited about something else. Listening to my parents and my elder sister speak of flying growing up, and reading copiously on the dynamics and science of flight ever since I can remember, I was far more excited about the passage to Delhi by, than what I would be doing there as a student. My father, upon leaving the house, retreated mostly to silent prayer and meditations. Mom said she wanted an aisle seat, a preference arising from easy access to the loo. I chose to sit next to the window, and couldn’t care less for profound prayer or painless passage. A window seat remains to this day my preferred choice. All I did on the flight to Delhi was look out the window, disappointed that the seat parallel to the wing offered little by way of a line of sight to the ground. However, I saw for the first time the sky from 40,000 feet the air. A gradual gradation of fiery hues, an almost cloud sky and an indistinguishable horizon marked only by the rays of the setting sun escaping, giving way to the blackest of black, dotted occasionally by stars. It was magical. I craned and contorted to see, hear and take in everything – the various hydraulic noises, the whine of the engines as they powered up, the waving ailerons as the pilot did pre-flight checks, the blinking cabin lights before it went dark, the pressurisation, the sound of the air-conditioning kicking in, the unintelligible announcements over a tinny loudspeaker heralding the progression on to runway, and finally, take-off. I loved the sensation of being pushed back into the seat and the slight turbulence as the plane took off, which in hindsight would have been terrifying for my father.

Air travel over twenty years ago was glamorous if you sat near the cockpit. Further behind, in Economy Class, it was far worse than a long-distance bus. The legroom was terrible. The food was awful. The service was terrible. There was no TV at the back of the seats. No charging ports. Meals were vegetarian or non-vegetarian but tasted so bad, it may have been the same food with just different labelling. All  this was before smartphones, wi-fi and social media, when the now quaint habit of reading something printed on paper was the preferred means of spending time on board. The flight took over three hours. The story upon landing and the trip into Delhi – involving a steering wheel that came off in the hand of the driver, a van in a ditch, luggage of others with us that had dropped somewhere on the road and spending a sweltering night on the terrace of a house, would require a separate column or perhaps several. But the afterglow of the passage to Delhi, and its sheer magic for someone who had never experienced flight before lingered on. I used to look forward so much to my annual return home for the holidays, not so much for what I knew awaited me back home, but the experience of flight.

Before the devastating attack by the LTTE in 2001, and the resulting security that added to the hassle and theatre of getting into the airport, Katunayake resembled a village market. Easy to get into, poorly marked displays and signage, congregations of people for no discernible reason in various locations, mountains of suitcases, a pervasive and general state of confusion, idle officials who were also the most vociferous, an embryonic at best concept of lines to check in and all manner of arguments. In short, it was a confusing, surreal place, that operated on the unique and indescribable tropical logic of movement – the endless flow of people towards the general direction of counters, immigration and boarding gates. My father’s meticulous preparation spared us from the chaos around the area where the embarkation cards had to be filled. I cannot recall what we did in the airport once the formalities of checking in were over, but distinctly remember wandering around with my mother in search of a functioning toilet for women. There was nothing to do – no lounge we could pay and get access into. The airport itself was much smaller than what it is today – no air-bridges, no coffee shops or Pizza Hut, and a duty-free I recall recoiling from because of horrible lacquered wooden elephants, puppets, demon faces and of all things, brass lamps on display. The passage to the aeroplane, perhaps to give Sri Lankans one last experience of home, was on a crowded, derelict bus, where the operating principle around safety seemed to be that the more people you packed in, the more they would all be protected in case of an accident. I remember holding on to my mother because she couldn’t find anything to hold on to as we lurched our way to the plane.

I still have my tickets from that first flight. This was before the age of stubs. The original ticket had multiple copies of travel details, much like a chequebook. What the passenger was left with was the last page. The carbon copy is all in red, with relevant information meticulously handwritten. What appears to be blue and red coloured hieroglyphs mark seat number and the passage through various checkpoints. There was no automation anywhere – no e-tickets, no online check-in, no mobile passes. Ink, rubber stamp and paper marked one’s passage, from the counter, checkpoint and country.

Much obviously has changed. Much, however, remains the same. Our airport remains a terrible place for anyone not travelling in Business Class. I have resorted to tweeting to MPs responsible for tourism and aviation, capturing photos of what in 2017 deplorable conditions were like in the waiting areas of the airport. Immigration officials are most often absent. When present, they are morose, rude and inefficient. Luggage services are from the 80’s, and on one occasion, part of the carousel came off and lodged itself in between the suitcases. There is no convenient, comfortable and coherent public transport infrastructure that connects our international airport with the city, or beyond. The single highway to and from the airport has a chokepoint in Kelaniya so bad that one often spends more time in traffic to go home, than a short-flight from any neighbouring country. Staff at the airport are uniformly rude or vary their helpfulness based on how one is dressed. The announcements are often only in Sinhala and English. Migrant workers are treated horribly. Chinese comes before Tamil in some displays. The waiting areas are chaotic. The public toilets are hellish. People are still packed into buses to go to aircraft. The waiting areas on the ground floor are unchanged from the time I took my first flight two decades ago. And besides all this, our national carrier is an egregious embarrassment – with eye-watering losses, mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and every imaginable managerial incompetence rewarded by ever greater misuse of public money.

The President’s concern over the quality of nuts served on board is misplaced. There are more significant problems that would be far more obvious to him and those in power if they used the airport as millions of others do – instead of being whisked to and from it as VIPs. I absolutely love flying to this day, but with equal passion, hate flying into or out of Sri Lanka. The best part of coming back or flying out, if during the day, is seeing our country’s wonderful, verdant beauty from the air. Everything else is diabolical. There are more important things than nuts those in government can turn their attention to if they really wanted to improve our national airline and international airport, as the first and last impressions of Sri Lanka.

The best part about home shouldn’t be the joy that comes from leaving it behind.

First published in The Sunday Island, 16 September 2018.

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Jana Balaya

It’s a fair comment to make that the people who cut short work and desperately tried to get out of Colombo early on 5th September by far exceeded those who came in as part of Namal Rajapaksa’s Jana Balaya campaign. Social media posted photos of hapless commuters hanging precariously on trains leaving Fort Railway Station, as the city braced itself for what was called by some involved in the protest, an ‘invasion’ of Colombo. But it is evident that not ‘all the sons of Apachchi’ (which some in the campaign used to refer to those in it), were interested enough in Jana Balaya to come out and join what at the end turned out to be a string of street parties, street entertainment and drunken revelry. The question is why.

On social media, Jana Balaya arguably created the most amount of engagement around any event of its kind on Facebook and Twitter. During the day, around live video feeds on Facebook alone, close to 2 million watched the political theatre of Jana Balaya as it unfolded. This included close to 400,000 on Namal Rajapaksa’s Facebook page alone. A staggering 600,000 watched live feeds over the Facebook page of a private TV station. It is clear that amongst a specific demographic, television is no longer the primary vector through which live news broadcasts are consumed. Each of these live feeds generated tens of thousands of comments and reactions. I haven’t yet looked at the engagement driven by photos, which is usually high. On Twitter, there were over 5,000 tweets with one or all of the three official hashtags used by the protest. There may have been many more that tweeted on the protest without using one or more of these hashtags. Each of these accounts acts as an amplifier, showing to their friends and followers what was posted or republished. The likely digital footprint of content around Jana Balaya potentially, if not demonstrably, runs into the millions over just two of Sri Lanka’s most used social media platforms. Preliminary metrics around the scale and spread of content on Instagram – a photo sharing network that is also very popular – suggest Jana Balaya generated tens of thousands of likes. Overall then, the campaign was digitally unprecedented in Sri Lanka, generated the kind of engagement organically, that campaigns which boost content through paid advertising, can’t often reach. Millions were interested, engaged, watched, commented, shared and reacted. Namal Rajapaksa as an individual, and Namal Rajapaksa as a vehicle or platform to communicate the JO’s discontent is unassailable, with an active, devoted fan base by order of magnitude larger than anyone else, even in his own family.

And yet, few turned out to join the protest in Colombo. Independently and easily verifiable estimates done by me using a web platform designed to calculate crowd density, in turn based on photography put out by the organisers themselves as well as two leading journalists reporting for international wire news services. The analysis indicates the number partying on the streets, passing out or occasionally clinging on to the top of lamp-posts was at most around 50,000. At my most charitable reading – giving Jana Balaya tens of thousands of protestors more than were actually present – the numbers still fell far short of the crowd that gathered at the massive JO May Day rally at Galle Face, in 2017 as well as the massive crowds in Nugegoda, in January 2017, around a rally that Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke at. Given the silly, amateurish pronouncements by the government before 5th September around the possible use of rubber bullets and attempts to use legal means to shut down venues, it is clear they too believed that engagement online would translate into feet on the ground. My interest in ascertaining the number that turned out, in the end, was piqued by what the organisers themselves said. Milinda Rajapaksha, the spokesperson of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, claimed thousands of buses were coming into Colombo. News reports on the 5th claimed 700 buses had left from Kurunegala alone. Namal Rajapaksa, towards evening, tweeted that crowds were still pouring in, even though, ironically, an accompanying photo indicated the opposite. These figures simply didn’t match with those present around a single junction in Colombo, which had shut down not because of Jana Balaya’s crowd, but in anticipation of a much larger, more geographically spread protest.

If this was Namal Rajapaksa’s show of strength in a non-digital domain – an attempt to demonstrate to family and beyond, that he could rally the troops as it were, it is unclear how it can be termed a success by measures the campaign itself had set for itself in the weeks before 5th September. From framing to focus, from ideas to intent, the content and commentary during the day, tellingly, were anchored to Namal and his father, not Gotabaya or anyone else in the JO. Gotabaya appears, then just disappears. A tired Mahinda Rajapaksa, even with a faulty sound system, generated ripples of enthusiasm in the crowd by the sheer force of his charisma and amongst friends who clearly yearn for him to be back in the office he once held. Yet, content online doesn’t capture any discernible, strong political message the campaign was ostensibly anchored to. There was no lead up to anything politically significant or anchored to the core tenets of the Jana Balaya campaign. The banners, placards, posters, and chants of the crowd simply dissipate into pockets of revelry or aimless wandering. The skill of coordination and organisation behind the campaign seems to have planned for a much larger turnout. The organisers then took to the promotion of falsehood – the closure of shops, and the supposed growing number of attacks on buses bringing in protestors, perhaps as a measure to explain the low turnout. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not to be outdone or outshone, went further and tweeted a photo of the massive crowd for his brother’s rally in Nugegoda, in January last year, as one that was taken in Colombo on the 5th of September. Several retweeted this before, only upon naming and shaming, the content was deleted with no apology or clarification. It isn’t even clear whether Namal, Mahinda, Gotabaya or a single leader of the JO stayed the night with a dwindling crowd of supporters who staged a satyagraha of sorts by sleeping out or sitting on the road.

The failure of Jana Balaya to live up to its hype is even more strange given the SLPP’s electoral fortunes in February. One reading is that Namal Rajapaksa’s digital footprint may only be that. The significant inability to get his fans and followers to come out and join a protest could be entirely independent of his enduring ability to influence or inform their political frames, in the lead up to an election or referendum. Another reading could be that the politics of rallies and protests have given way to a politics of digital dissent and witnessing, where the preferred mode of participation or engagement is primarily through smartphone or browser. This is concerning when juxtaposed with what Mahinda Deshapriya, the head of the Elections Commission, has already flagged as very low voter registration. Namal Rajapaksa must be commended for trying his best to get fans and followers out on to the streets. His inability to do so is something we should seriously reflect on more, beyond partisan frames. On and after the event, cracks within the Rajapaksa family are evident too, and more broadly, within the JO, with websites linked or deeply partial to Wimal Weerawamsa, dismissing Jana Balaya soon after its conclusion. Just a few months ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was primus inter pares as a Presidential candidate. There’s already a complete shift, or reversion to type with Mahinda as godfather and Namal as the scion. Fluid, flammable, familial configurations and reconfigurations are afoot, not unlike what Mario Puzo conjured.

At its most democratic, Namal Rajapaksa’s idea is laudatory and not something his father’s authoritarianism provided any space for – a non-violent platform for people to freely express dissent. What however Jana Balaya became, revealed and failed to achieve, on 5th September, was more illuminating, resulting in a political message far removed from what the organisers intended.

We live in interesting times.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 September 2018.

Digital flowers

My love of nature, and by extension, the nature of things, comes in large part from my grandparents. Archchi and Seeya were often in and tended to our garden at home. Archchi had her routine, and I occasionally followed her around, doing nothing at all to help, but listening to what she said as she swept, weeded and watered. After they died, the challenge of tending to the various vegetable patches, plants, shrubs and trees became more apparent, and what they did daily, more valued.

Delivering a lecture recently on social media and path dependence post-war – the framing or critique of the world today as, to varying degrees, dependent on past decisions – I recalled what my grand-parents did and likened my current research to how a botanist would study a flower. From stem to petal, bud to bloom, the growth of something aesthetically beautiful sheds light into the nature of the plant, where it is located and how it pollinates. In some cases, like with Daphne or the Lily of the Valley, a flower pleasing to look at can be quite harmful and injurious to health. Some flowers, like the Daffodil, are mildly harmful only if one comes into contact with a certain part. The same flower bed can give life to a large variety of flowers, or vast quantities of the same kind. The botanist may choose to cross-pollinate, choosing to accentuate certain features of one variety, say resilience to strong sunlight, with the qualities of another, like colour or the shape of a petal.

Social media, when graphed or visualised, is remarkably like flowers in bloom. When plotted in a way that tracks its genesis, temporal spread and growth, the data almost magically gathers in clusters determined by fidelity to an idea or sentiment, approximate geographic location, affinity with a campaign or slogan, use of a particular app, content production at a certain time, or connections with certain other key individuals in the network. You can then do what a gardener does – look for aberrations like a certain colour appearing within what is predominantly an area of a different hue. Or why blooms that dominate a certain area don’t feature in other section. You might dig deeper into the roots of the blooms, to understand what gives it colour, shape or form. You might follow its branches, to understand how they grow outwards, and sometimes fight with other growth for dominance. Archchi liked her flower beds in an orderly fashion. Prefaced by a ‘me balanna putha’ she used to point at weeds, and with great vengeance and vigour, root them out. My research into social media differs in this respect, for I have no power or control over what I observe, based on content already published, produced and promoted. There is, however, one similarity. Like Archchi used to with uncanny accuracy and with almost muscle memory, hone in on the areas prone to and often featured weed growth, social media analysis also allows for the study of factors injurious to a network. By learning how they grow, attract, spread and infiltrate, content harmful or puts at risk the health of the network can with some accuracy be identified and tracked.

The effort taken to explain the nature of my research is in the service of more broadly promoting the importance of it, beyond academia. Last week, I conducted two studies based on available data. One, a comparison between a campaign around enforced disappearances led by Amnesty International and another campaign, spearheaded by Namal Rajapaksa, around a protest march into Colombo. Two, a study into what the official Facebook pages of Mahinda, Gotabaya, Namal, Yoshitha, Rohitha and Shiranthi Rajapaksa, the President, PM, Mangala Samaraweera, UNP, SLFP and SLPP had each liked – an affordance on the platform that allows the administrator of one page to like another page. Both, through data, confirmed what many have suspected, variously claimed or intuitively known for a while – that post-war Sri Lanka is a deeply divided country, especially along partisan political lines.

The comparison between the Amnesty and Namal Rajapaksa campaign was interesting because it is the first time I could study two campaigns, deeply pegged to social media for promotion and engagement, but also with activities pegged to the real world. Put simply, those who engaged with, were part of or chose to be affiliated with one campaign, weren’t part of the other. Think of it as a small flower bed (those on or using social media) giving bloom to two very different kinds of flowers, near but entirely distinct to each other. The lack of cross-pollination, and the purity of each variety suggests a disconnect between disappearances and the timbre of governance, and reciprocally, the issues raised by a protest march pegged to development, economy, socio-political and economic rights, and the concerns highlighted by a campaign on human rights violations.

A similar disconnect was discovered in the study of Facebook pages. Here, pages belonging to the government formed an echo chamber that was completely distinct from pages belonging to the Rajapaksas and the Joint Opposition. A fan or follower of one would be almost completely masked from what a competing political and partisan group liked. Of course, this is exactly how fans and followers of government or the JO like it. And this is also precisely why it is a big, and disturbingly, growing problem. Without a basic foundation of civic values, a cosmopolitan nationalism, and a progressive patriotism that is informed by but isn’t hostage to tradition and culture, the worldview of many who will vote for the first time, or are young voters, is predominantly framed by the parochial and partisan networks they belong to. Activism in one domain – around human rights violations – is seen as motivated by actors, or factors, entirely distinct from (and for some, perhaps even hostile to) what is projected as more ‘patriotic forces’ gathering to decry the decay of governance. Simple logic suggests that interest in one would lead to at the very least, an inquiry into related domains. This doesn’t happen. The Sinhala phrase ‘lin madiyo’ – or frogs in a well, springs to mind as the aptest way of describing what our youngest citizens are growing into and have already normalised.

Archchi’s and Seeya’s passing is a personal loss, felt keenly in the most unexpected ways – like when I walk in my garden back home in Ratmalana, noticing a weed or disarray growth that one or both of them wouldn’t have permitted. As a researcher now, I see blossoms, blooms and buds of a different nature, but pegged to the same principles of a vibrant, healthy garden I was introduced to growing up. My flower bed, as it were, is Sri Lanka’s young citizenry. The flowers I see bloom are political discussions and the contest of ideas. What I observe is disturbing. The completely false is taking root, and the outrageously partisan is growing. The health of the network is in decline, even as its growth is exponentially increasing. Those engaging with or connecting through social media, instead of nurturing a cross-pollination of ideas that makes us consider debate or difference as a key element of democracy, consider instead that what matters far more is to be surrounded by those who are like-minded.

My columns are attempts to caution against what just a few of us, at most, are studying, but impacts everyone beyond who they want to see in power and vote for. These studies are far more mature in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, where the dramatic democratic decay – so evident political life and expression – has been exploited by foreign actors to seed division and distrust. It is not too late for us, but time is running out.

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Published in The Island newspaper, 2 Septemeber 2018.

A Q&A and a radio production

Two public events framed this week, at least from the perspective of doctoral study into the dynamics of social media. I am away from Sri Lanka, but not apart from the country. The geographic distance is necessary isolation which allows the time and space to study, at greater scale, patterns and trends that go on to define the country’s political landscape. To varying degrees, much of what is noted somehow in Sinhala over social media is reflective of or goes on to inform individual and communal political frames. The footprint of what’s digital is wider and deeper than just those connected. Think of it like you would a newspaper, bought once, but shared with family, friends and colleagues. The whole newspaper is sometimes handed over. On occasions, a page is taken out and passed on, with something of interest to the recipient, giver or both. Sometimes, maybe towards the end of the day, a small section is torn and kept, or shared, again because it merits the attention of someone else who didn’t get the news, or to aid recollection weeks or years down the line. Social media similarly has what is called a long-tail, where content produced today can re-surface and be re-shared, with renewed vitality and vigour, years down the line. To study social media, while academic, is also to understand how contemporary society essentially grapples with politics. This is especially pertinent in light of what the head of the Elections Commission tells us is a dramatic decline in the number of new voter registrations, citing apathy. What drives this disengagement and disenchantment, after the record voter turnouts at the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in 2015, is fundamental to understanding how politics, at every election or plebiscite henceforth, will be captured, ceded, conducted and contested.

The first event was a Facebook Q&A with Member of Parliament Namal Rajapaksa. Readers will I hope trust me enough to believe, without the sharing of more precise statistics, that Mr Rajapaksa’s father, the former President, and his Uncles, the former Secretary of Defence and former Minister of Economic Development respectively, dominate – amongst all the official Facebook pages I monitor belonging to politicians including the current President and Prime Minister – conversations anchored explicitly to party politics. The Rajapaksas know their audience. They speak their vernacular. They are on the devices their audience use to exchange political framing. They are on the apps their target audiences already on, or are migrating to. They put out content in a way that makes engagement and sharing easy. In the same week that saw Mr Rajapaksa take to Facebook for a Q&A session, some from the UNP also shared on social media achievements of the government over three years. I do not doubt there is much to say or promote. Sharing an infographic that one couldn’t read on a smartphone, with tiny letters and a layout perfect for A4, but disastrous for mobile, ran counter with the more organic, strategic and ultimately appealing adoption and adaptation of social media by the Rajapaksas. This isn’t new. Since coming to power, neither the President nor the Prime Minister has had any formal engagement through social media with a constituency that will determine whether they remain in power or not. Post-war, the then President, his Secretary, the Governor of the Bank of Ceylon and others had Twitter and Facebook interactions, which were the first of their kind in the country and set the baseline for what politicians should be doing with social media. The issue was not that they were sincere in answering, honest in their responses, necessarily articulate in their vision or circumspect around their actions. They set the agenda and frame around which the discussions took place, ensuring that leading up to, at the time and in the afterglow of these interactions, their political frame dominated everything else. This is what they continue to do even out of power. Mr. Rajapaksa’s Facebook Q&A was interesting for the numbers it attracted as much as the terrain covered. He targeted a specific constituency, used a platform popular with them, chose a good time, promoted the event, generated organic virality, countenanced a wide variety of questions and gave decent answers to many.

Compare and contrast this with high drama on social media between various arms of government. A week or so after the Prime Minister noted that great strides had been made around reconciliation since the government came into power, the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, led by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, produced a radio series on reconciliation that the Cultural Affairs Ministry ostensibly banned or blocked, leading the Media and Finance Minister, on social as well as mainstream media, urging the ban to be lifted. The social media accounts of ONUR as well as the Media Minister tried to explain the production and pushed back on the ban. The reasons for the ban aren’t clear, but it seems like someone, somewhere, thought it insulted Buddhism – which in our country is the one thing when brandished in public invariably guaranteed to win over any other logic, fact or verifiable merit around anything. The few who remain interested in what this government has to say were thus, over the past couple of days, entreated not to a programme on reconciliation – which the Prime Minister may still think is perfectly peachy – but a very public spat between three government agencies that made no sense whatsoever. The incompetence, incoherence and indecisiveness of and within government stood in stark contrast to the more strategic and well-executed social media engagement of Mr Rajapaksa. If I was in this demographic, and not a fan of Mr Rajapaksa already, I would be partial to seeing what he said more than I would be attracted by or interested in what government had to say. This speaks to and resonates with the apathy flagged by the Elections Commission. Nothing that the government is doing, saying or framing captures the interest of those whose votes will matter around the passing of a new constitution or at the next presidential and general elections.

All this, of course, is merely 2018’s version of a long-held malaise around the UNP writ large, and the Hon. Prime Minister in particular. Public communications aren’t what they are interested in, or good at. The cancer is now growing, where along with a sunset coalition’s friction getting worse and spilling over into the public gaze, the tensions within government – entirely independent of what the JO does and says – now acts as its own censorious agent.

Ultimately, this is not just about what is done or said on Facebook or Twitter. What is on social provides insight into the workings of producers, processes and parties, whether by design or accident. There is one family, and a larger political movement, who can capture the attention of a young demographic. Retention, veracity, impact and translation to votes aside, the fact is that they dominate political frames. There is a government which not just bungles output on social media, they cannot even agree amongst themselves the broadcast of what they themselves produced. No good drama will go unpunished.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 26 August 2018.

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.

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.