Premonitions around a referendum

A vigil, called ‘Different Yet Equal’, organised last week in Colombo by a group of individuals against the racism promoted by the BBS and Sinha-le movement prompted some revealing reactions, in person and online.

Coming as it does a year after this government was elected into office, the reactions showcase significant challenges ahead around the meaningful implementation of mechanisms around transitional justice, and also, as importantly, seeing through a new constitution. The reaction to the vigil on the street was indicative of an intolerance that endures albeit now without the tacit approval of government. Clearly intended to disrupt and decry, foul mouthed monks and goons carrying the controversial Sinha-le flag came on the scene and through violence, volume and venom, proceeded to capture attention, especially amongst mainstream media. The pushback also came in online fora, in the days after the vigil. Some of the first responses were clearly ill-thought out and relied on very badly Photoshopped images. The issue though was not with the lack of technical proficiency, but the underlying ideology that drove the creation of this content. As I noted in a post published on Facebook soon after the vigil,

“Though this poster is very easily debunked, the intent is clear. It is not just aimed at discrediting those who organised the vigil. The purpose it serves is larger and holds currency for longer. The intent here is to mislead and spread hate against identity groups targeted by Sinha-le as being somehow anti-patriotic, alien and invasive. The intended audience is called upon to act by stirring up emotion, and though this poster is debunked… it is very unlikely this analysis will permeate the audiences on Facebook and over instant messaging this poster has already taken seed in. And herein lies the rub. A single poster reveals that campaigns against hate, and countering violent extremism (CVE) in Sri Lanka, still encounters violent reactions. It suggests that in person and online, in geo-spatial domains as well as virtual platforms, Sinha-le proponents will through volume, violence and vigour seek to establish their lies and propaganda in the political, social and religious mainstream… the ideology that gave rise to [the poster], is less easily addressed and its entrenchment a serious challenge not just for the occasional vigil, but for constitutional reform, transitional justice and our democratic potential writ large.”

There is also a very interesting network dynamic at play, that civil society can I fear only look upon enviously. Outside the usual physical violence, which is the immediate reaction of racists to anyone who dares question them or their beliefs, there is great unity amongst disparate groups online, and interestingly, between online groups partial to the former government and the ideology of the BBS or Sinha-le. A closer study reveals that what are seemingly different online groups may in fact have the same administrators, and that fans or followers overlap to a great degree. However, it is the organic way they respond to an event like the vigil last week that is most interesting. The attacks seem to spread from one group to another – content created or shared in one group informs content in other groups. Each group responds with the usual diatribes, homophobia, incitement to hate, sexism and violence, and almost exclusively in Sinhala. First the event is decried. And then the attacks are directed against individuals, circled in red or highlighted in some other way. The intent here is to name and shame, thereby through anxiety and fear constructing barriers against those who wish to stand up against racism in the future. The attacks are particularly vicious against women. Anyone perceived to be a Muslim is also the target of a particular brand of hate. The construction of aggression is decentralised – some of the violent pushback online is amateurish, some, very professionally produced. Collectively, in a short span of time after a peaceful vigil, this content serves to drown out the voices against racism by targeting organisers and supporters, their friends, family and colleagues. Promotional material by organisers, especially photos of those who attended a protest or vigil, is often used against them. Social media accounts are scoured for unsecured content that lends itself to manipulation or reuse in defamatory, often violent ways. Civil society is not even close to this degree of organic organisation and response. There is a cautionary lesson here.

At a time when government is engaged in something as complex and vital as envisioning a new constitution, our political leadership is largely silent around it or at best, engaged in the pursuit of issuing contradictory statements. This is mirrored in other domains. Transitional justice is reduced to contradictory statements on the involvement of foreign judges. Today, civil society, not government, is saddled with communicating the core tenets of yahapalanaya. This comes at a time when both the government and President are increasingly defined by how removed they are from the path they once promised would be what defined governance. A civil society that is fractured within through in-fighting and petty bickering, saddled with propping up a government with only cosmetic interest in yahapalanaya, is emphatically not one that can also sustain debates around a new constitution or mechanisms around transitional justice. Political leadership is precisely that, and outsourcing simply will not work. Civil society cannot step in willy-nilly, and indeed, by trying to do so, will invariably undermine its own legitimacy by risking co-option. The challenge is greater when confronted with the kind of organic resistance racism poses, in real life as well in online fora that, as data shows, increasingly informs action amongst the most politically active demographic across the country.

The threat then is very serious, and goes beyond the responses to last week’s vigil. True enough, the BBS is a shadow of what it was in the past under the Rajapaksa regime, and the culture of impunity at the time which gave rise to the violence in Aluthgama is no more. However, a referendum around the new constitution will face a tsunami of rabid Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism – sadly familiar yet utterly frightening in its capacity to capture the public imagination – that will be unleashed by the Joint Opposition and a cacophony of allied voices. And instead of strategically countering what is to come, we have a President who instead of even considering alternatives, or encouraging open, constructive, public debate, continues to engage in populist posturing around key clauses in a new constitution. Combined with this, we have a Prime Minister for whom meaningful public engagement is generally anathema.

Before 8th January 2015, the tragedy was what government was, and did. After 8th January 2015, the tragedy is what government cannot inspire, do or say. The risk calculus is well known. And yet, why isn’t this government moved to action?


First published in The Sunday Island, 21 August 2016

A deeper state of mind

So he was glad the war was finished. But as for the notion of Eelam itself, “that will never be gone”, he said, looking suddenly intense, old and bitter. “But we can’t speak of it; we have not the power. Those that have the power can say. What can we say? We can’t say. But it will never be gone.”

Mr. Arayappan, quoted by Mark Whitaker in his essay featured in Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam and Daniel Bass

The convenience, or perhaps trappings of power, position and privilege often result in sanguine predictions for Sri Lanka’s post-war future. Last week, Cabinet approved the purchase of new fighter jets, apparently to replace the country’s ageing existing fleet. Following the approval given to the import of luxury SUVs for MPs, this is at a time when news reports suggest 95.4% of all government revenue is going towards debt repayment. And though incredible in the fullest sense of the word, fighter planes, creature comforts and cruise control clearly trump education, health and public utilities for our policymakers. There is clearly a rot at our core the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe democratic cred seeks to gloss over. It is a rot out of sight and out of mind for many, and conveniently so, in light of attention anchored to glistening computer renderings of urban spaces, the adulation of government by the international community and high-level engagements with bi-laterals and multi-laterals.

Arguably, a lot that is positive is taking place. The debate around the setting up of a permanent office to look into missing persons and enforced disappearances. The OMP bill, debated last week in Parliament, covers individuals who are missing (1) as a consequence of the conflict in the North and East, including soldiers who are missing in action; (2) in connection with political unrest or civil disturbances; and (3) from an enforced disappearance as defined by international law. This alone would never have been even remotely contemplated by the former regime. Earlier this year, a twenty member Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms, appointed by the PM held sittings across the country and came out with a substantive report. There is an Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. There is a Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms. There is currently a Consultation Task Force seeking public opinion across the country. These are all unprecedented moves. Though not always clear or coherent, there is open debate around the nature and constitution of investigative mechanisms around transitional justice, with the PM, President and other members of Parliament expressing views candidly, playing to respective constituencies. The Right to Information Act is now reality. Measures to give back land in the North are going on apace, as well as the demilitarisation of administrative structures through the appointment of civilians. We have a President who commands the respect and indeed, patience of the Tamil National Alliance. We have a PM who often now recognises in public what civil society under the Rajapaksa regime were called terrorists for advocating. Individually and collectively, the seemingly chaotic nature of pronouncements and policies aside, all this is generally positive and very welcome.

Revealingly though, there are however things we have not moved away from. The genuflection by every single political leader in front of a deeply conservative, risk-averse sangha primarily interested in maintaining the status quo. The near total lack of any introspection by the sangha of its own, and in particular the hate speech generation of the Bodu Bala Sena and its saffron-robed leaders. The revered status of ‘war heroes’, to the extent that any critical questioning on command responsibility around allegations of war crimes, or indeed, any wrongdoing, is still met with the greatest hostility. The conflation of separatism with the devolution of power from centre to periphery, and the enduring violent resistance of any kind of asymmetrical configuration for the North and East. The symbolic role of Buddhism in particular, and religion in general, in matters of the State. Proponents of reform calls for sequencing and patience – that just the ten years of democracy’s evisceration under the Rajapaksa regime will take time and effort to address, leave aside the legacy of decades of majoritarian policymaking post-independence. There is merit to this argument, and those of us not in government have the luxury of criticising inaction, without adequately appreciating the monumental difficulties of negotiating compromise amidst competing political interests.

And yet, this is where Mr. Arayappan’s sentiments, quoted by Mark Whitaker, comes into play. It speaks of a state of mind, real, not imagined. And mirroring the deep or dark state in the South – almost entirely invisible to average citizens yet omni-present and violently opposed to any radical restructuring of the state or the questioning of its agents – this state of mind if unaddressed will undermine every single thing the government says or does in the months and years to come. The violent deep state in the South is the result of incubation by successive governments for achieve partisan, parochial ends. The post-war imagination of Tamils is the result of alienation, wistfulness and desolation – the burden of grief in a landscape no longer reflecting the loss and trauma they carry within, the strain of a public persona that needs to engage with positive developments and a silent, inner voice that still yearns for recognition, respect and dignity. It is a condition of yearning too, for what the ‘boys’ stood for, even by those who lost the most to them. If the State is unable to capture the vacuum left behind by the defeat of the LTTE in mental spaces, and sees its victory and peace in primarily material or geo-spatial terms, we risk believing in the same fiction that disastrously drove the Rajapaksas in their pursuit of development-led reconciliation. Capturing hearts and minds is difficult, especially when successive governments and even Tamil political leaders have promised so much and yet delivered and done so little. And yet, it is essential.

A dark state embedded deep in the South, no longer politically expedient, can be controlled and curtailed by executive directives, judicial oversight, security sector reform and the sunlight of public scrutiny. Addressing a state of mind that remains only cosmetically attached to post-war governance poses a much harder challenge. You can’t force anyone to believe something, and the more you try, the less inclined they will be. OMP, TJ, SCRM, CTF, ONUR, RTI remain empty acronyms to those who continue to feel outside the fabric of democracy. A political leadership insensitive to this – how people who have been most affected by war feel – risks believing a self-spun fiction entirely removed from ground realities.

Rude awakenings will invariably follow.

Digital memories

Two books I’ve read recently (Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten and When we are no more: How digital memory is shaping our future) deal with the significant challenges around memorialisation online. Take the humble photo album. I have inherited many from my family. I have however only ever created a handful. 1,771 albums anchored to 22,768 photos I’ve taken digitally, over the past decade, now reside on the cloud on Google Photos, and for free. These albums have been generated, in the main, automatically by machine intelligence. My photos are searchable by location, face, colour or entity. How Google does this is nothing short of magical.

And yet, when I went to Senkada recently to actually print some photos of my son and I taken this year, I felt a wave of nostalgia around those old photo albums, often moth-worn, that held memories equally dear to a generation that came before Flickr, Google and Facebook. Photos of my infancy are still vivid and clear, and the black and white photos capturing the marriage of my parents even more so. Fifty or sixty years hence, no one with any certainty can say if Google or Alphabet will be around. If they disappear, so do all my photos, emails, videos and writing.

And therein lies the rub – in digitally producing and almost unthinkingly storing so much, we assume that memories online and in the cloud are indelible and eternal. We assume that having near perfect recall, on demand, is better than forgetting or losing information. We seek to remember more and more, by producing more and more. There’s no reason for any economy or careful framing in photography, when burst mode or a hundred different perspectives afforded by everyone present all can be uploaded, for free, in close to real time if need be. So much of remembering used to be linked to the joy of discovery or co-discovery around physical artefacts – going through an album, perusing a library or listening to someone recount a story. And yet for a generation that produces as much as we do, we actually don’t remember much.  With machine intelligence doing most of the indexing, we ironically know how to access memory more than we are interested in remembering anything. Facebook and Google know this, which is why they have features that remind us what happened several years ago on a particular day. All this is the new norm, and shows no signs of slowing down.

How does one connect this to the politics of memorialisation post-war? An earlier column has dealt with the alarming level of information decay in Sri Lanka. We are losing information even around contemporary history at a rate hitherto unprecedented. Contrary to popular belief, the more we rely digital means to store information, the more ephemeral memory will be. But the more interesting challenge is around how one seeks to remember, and whether decay (or in other words, forgetting) is essential to forgiving and reconciliation. Catharsis, or the relief by telling one’s story as victim or even perpetrator as part of a truth and reconciliation process, can be liberating in and of itself, without any judicial oversight, prosecution or redress. But if in retelling, the intent is to leave the past behind by acknowledging events, what does it mean for everyone concerned to now have a digital record of these events, untethered to whoever originally produced it, that can be accessed on Google, seen on YouTube, critiqued on Facebook or promoted over Twitter? How can society move forward, if our digital records capture the worst of us and the most violent we have been to each other, and moreover, over time, if the context around what was captured is also lost? Does easy access risk repetition? These are old questions, but they come alive with new challenges in a digital age. It all boils down to this – it is not so much the volume of information, even around inconvenient truths, that matter. It is the extent to which they are accessible – or in a word, discoverable.

Discoverability has implications for accountability. The murder of Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son, Balachandran, captured in 2009 wasn’t discoverable until it was featured as part of a documentary by a British TV channel in 2013. Trophy images and videos, eye witness testimony, whistleblowing and other content documenting violence which have sporadically surfaced since the end of war, invariably reside in greater detail and volume in private online accounts of soldiers, politicians, diplomats, aid-workers, journalists and other officials. When, how and if they make it into the public domain will inform mechanisms around accountability in Sri Lanka. This is why it is critical for mechanisms around accountability to invest heavily in digital forensics and secure online storage.

On the other hand, discoverability has implications for reconciliation. Controversially perhaps in the context of war, forgetting is part of our human condition. Human memory is contested, and is something not set in stone. We remember only what we are conditioned to observe, and then too, depending on trauma and other factors, in ways that may be entirely distinct from how others will recall the same incident or process. Digital archives offer a more permanent record, but add little to context. We see the photos of Balachandran, first eating chocolate and then with bullet wounds to his upper torso, but are unable from these images alone to understand a chain of events leading to his murder. Until 2013, this incident was known to a few present around the boy. After the documentary, there is a wider discussion around the photos and the serious implications it has.  When the photos were published, the level of outrage and interest has significantly died down just three years hence. What then have they really achieved? No doubt, the Consultation Task Force (CTF), currently going around the country soliciting opinions from the general public around four key mechanisms will have to confront harrowing stories that mirror these photos. We are told that save for confidential submissions, all other submissions will be placed in the public domain. Will these accounts, in their original form and outside the framing of the CTF’s final report, hurt and harm or really help heal? Who makes the call and on what basis?

A generation ago, albums could have been looted and destroyed. Survivors, save for those who listened to them, had no way of communicating what they went through or witnessed. Stories were lost. Justice aside, the arc of history also usually bent towards those who wrote history as they saw fit. Today, it’s more confusing. Violence has more witnesses than ever before. It is unclear however to what degree this helps reconciliation. Images of a 12-year-old with bullet wounds is a mouse click away. But the UNP’s violence against suspected JVP members from the late 80s remains shrouded. We know about the LTTE’s suicide bombers by way of dismembered bodies and macabre images of decapitated heads. We know less about the perpetrators of violence against women, in some of Colombo’s most beautiful neighbourhoods. The digital is subjective and selective. It is biased, and by nature, ephemeral. How and to what degree Sri Lanka embraces collective, digital memories of violence, both past and present, will shape how we engineer policies around redress and reconciliation.

Perhaps all this goes back to those old photo albums – there when you need them, but otherwise dormant. There to be engaged with alone or with others, but never intruding otherwise to somehow shape the present. Maybe we sometimes need to forget first, and then learn how to discover in order to best remember?


First published in The Sunday Island, 7 August 2016.

Media warnings

A fresh warning to media critical of the government by the Prime Minister deserves our attention and comment. The latest warning isn’t the first issued against the mainstream media by the PM. A few months ago, speaking at a function held to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, the PM was reported to have said that “the greatest threat to media freedom is… from within the media. Not from anyone else.” There is, sadly, significant merit to this argument. Under the Rajapaksa regime, a lot of attention was centred around threats to media and journalists. Less attention was paid around standards and ethics. With the dramatic change in political context, media can now more openly and frequently criticise government including over matters that were entirely out of bounds from 2005 to early 2015. Ironically then, in addition to a wider scope and on occasion, depth of content, only possible without the pall of violence against the media, the general lack of any discernible ethics and professional standards in reporting is now starkly evident. Sexism, gossip, homophobia, articles replete with just one source or anonymous sources, hearsay and the downright bizarre regularly feature in mainstream media. It is sickening to read, awful to watch and annoying to listen to. And this is, tragically, the general state of media in Sri Lanka, with a few exceptions by way of columnists, editors and journalists.

On the other hand, it is clear the PM’s statements against the media are problematic. They may stem from a genuine frustration with unprofessional reporting. However, in choosing to highlight the issue in the way he did, the PM focussed attention on himself and his expression, instead of real problems. A cardinal mistake, especially for a politician. The PM expressly named two newspapers. It is unclear why these two were singled out. A column published in one by a well-known pro-Rajapaksa or perhaps more importantly, anti-Ranil writer may have irked the PM. The cause for the other newspaper to be mentioned isn’t entirely clear, and perhaps never will be. Columnists present opinion not as fact, but as subjective perspectives for wider consideration, in the hope that both the support in favour of our arguments as well as principled opposition to them fuels the kind of informed debate vital to a healthy democracy. To wit, the same newspaper criticised by the PM also publishes other columnists critical of government, but are closer to the senior political leadership of the UNP. Arguably though, this is kosher. To criticise a newspaper for carrying a column critical of government is no better than tactics employed by the Rajapaksas, back in the day, to instil fear and self-censorship amongst independent media and stifle critical dissent. Opposing this is both urgent and necessary. The submission that these statements against media are deeply harmful, run completely counter to and put into question the spirit of governance promised under yahapalanaya must also be taken seriously, including by the international community which now so resolutely highlights our democratic cred. However, the condemnation of the PM’s statements by those who were silent during or benefitted from the Rajapaksa regime is clearly hypocritical at best. The former Cabinet Minister of External Affairs, the former Director of International Media and Head of Digital Media at Sri Lanka President’s Office, and some journalists have come out strongly against the PM’s statement. At a time when Sri Lanka was scraping the very bottom of every single global media freedom index year after year, when dissent was violently clamped down on and meaningful debate all but stifled, these same individuals had no problem supporting the Rajapaksa regime and were silent about the threats, abductions, torture and outright murder of journalists and media workers. And when the former President’s son criticises media freedom today on Twitter, he conveniently forgets what his father and family did to eviscerate the freedom of expression for ten years across electronic, print and web media. So while the PM’s statement cannot be condoned, some – including from the media itself – who vociferously condemn it should be reminded that the space for criticism wasn’t one afforded by the Rajapaksas to their political opponents.

The issue here is much larger than the PM’s statement. As cartoonist Awantha Artigala depicted last week by way of naming two crabs politics and media, both walk a crooked line in Sri Lanka. Mindful of this, how should media respond to the PM’s warning? By continuing to critique the government? Or fearful of reprimand and covert reprisal, cower and cover-up? This goes to the heart of the relationship between a media hostage to political patronage and markets, and a political culture that sees, even today, State media as platforms for propaganda, and all media enjoying a space for critical commentary defined, with deliberate imprecision, by government. It is unclear when and how one over steps boundaries, and when one does, a media institution can be brought to its knees by quite simply controlling ad revenue. Conversely, we are, all of us, consumers of the lowest common denominator of public interest – gossip, very often lascivious, thinly veiled as journalism, adorning our front pages in full colour, framed on TV and aired on FM. Though there is the infrequent rant, this is beneficial to politicians – the occasional warning only serves to remind media where the lines are, and who needs to be pampered in order to carve out greater revenue.

The proposed legislation around a National Press Commission to monitor print and electronic media, on the face of it, offers a way forward. But since it now comes from a government headed by a PM who openly threatens media, the Commission, for the best of intent, may be perceived as a Trojan horse to contain, censor or control media and accordingly resisted. Alternatively, in seeking to reign in unprofessional media, the government may create an institutional architecture and discretionary authority ripe for abuse by a less democratic set of individuals who gain power.

Ultimately, I hope the newspapers mentioned by the PM continue to take him to task, and publish columnists he, I and others will not agree with or even hate. We once tested and stood against the intolerance of a brutish regime. It is now time to test the tolerance of the present government. Inconvenient truths require professional media. The litmus test for government will be in how it deals with and differentiates media that is deeply critical, yet ethical versus media that is unprofessional and clearly intent on disruption and demagoguery. One thing though is clear. The PM should not be making any pronouncements on this important matter any time soon.


First published in The Sunday Island, 31 July 2016.

Connecting through communicating

In the week this column was penned, President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, in an interview published in the mainstream media, took to task the contents of the Bill gazetted to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) now before Parliament. Problem was, instead of clarifying or submitting a principled critique, interviewer and interviewee worked together to give the veneer of credibility to what in fact was a thinly veiled act of disinformation. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the day after, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the OMP to task as well and was given wide publicity in the mainstream print media. The day after that, a full page interview with Basil Rajapaksa ended with him saying human rights and the Right to Information are matters of concern only for the “upper strata of society”. When Namal Rajapaksa was arrested recently, the whole incident was live streamed over Facebook, a first in this country. Later on, the media reported Parliamentarian Dullas Alahapperuma noting that Namal Rajapaksa was teaching yoga to fellow inmates. Even whilst in prison, tweets from Namal’s popular and official account claimed the government was “making a mockery of the justice system”. In fact, every summons to the FCID is a field day for the media savvy Rajapaksas and more broadly, the joint opposition. Rarely a day passes without some sort of widely reported mindless palaver from the joint opposition, which, importantly, goes on to frame and define key issues, shape the perception of institutions, the support of vital processes and the public appreciation of individuals.

A distinct pattern emerges, and it needs to be identified and neutralised. The Rajapaksa regime literally employed dozens in the service of disinformation, especially leading up to a key Presidential or Parliamentary election. Leading advertising companies, paid millions and no doubt enticed by the prospect of millions more of State ad revenue, created compelling campaigns to support the then government, appealing to fear, parochialism, race, religion and patriotic duty. The Rajapaksas wield social media as few other politicians or even political parties do, and today it is with good reason. They need to be in the public discourse, and their currency or brand has turned from what used to be fear to one that is now, controversy. They cannot go silently into the night, not just because they may not want to, but also because to do so would be to invite an avalanche of investigations, inquiries and indictments, outside the popular imagination, that would eviscerate them as individuals, family and political grouping. The media blitz around arrests, the pronouncements around key accountability and reconciliation mechanisms, the statements around the discovery of weapons used by the LTTE or student unrest at Jaffna University – these are all part of a strategic, well managed and indeed, somehow still adequately funded campaign to keep the Rajapaksas alive through moving image, soundbite, photo ops and short, shareable, video.  You see a parallel to this by way of Trump’s command of the American media – they love to report him, and by reporting him, they help create and promote his image. And by promoting an image, you promote a brand of politics, which even when in opposition, has power in framing, defining and shaping issues of national importance.

The answer is not to create more social media accounts, put out more tweets or start live streaming the PM’s daily commute to work. They key to effective political communications is to prefigure the worst of what can be done and said, and pre-emptively act to neutralise negative consequences by producing, publishing and promoting content in support of an idea or issue. The joint opposition can say anything they want. A government has to respond and counter with facts, logic and reason. In a communicative space, the joint opposition and Rajapaksas have more power even today – they can be wildly creative and set the agenda with scant regard for facts, if only to distract the government to a point of paralysis by the need to respond to wild allegations that risk derailing the best laid plans. This requires a media strategy around constitutional reform, transitional justice and the on-going investigations into allegations of monumental corruption by the Rajapaksa to be supported by a strategic, responsive, multi-media, multi-lingual and demographically targeted communications campaign. It can be done. It must be done. But clearly not with the President or PM as champions. Both men, it appears to be the case, don’t really listen to anyone outside their closest circle at best. This is self-destructive. No technology and no amount of money spent on media campaigns will succeed unless the top tier political leadership appear to live what they preach. The litmus test is then convincing senior leadership in government today that strategic communications is inextricably entwined with electoral success – where effective media coverage is the primary currency on a bourse where political futures are traded.

It doesn’t however appear to be the case that those in power get this, which is strange. Take for example the PM’s frustrating and ultimately utterly damning defence of the former Central Bank governor, over many months. Or as was reported last week, the outrageous defence by the Leader of House MP Lakshman Kiriella of 45 consultants paid 65,000 rupees a month under the Ministry of Highways, noting that the government should care for those who ensured its victory in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. But most damaging of all, new luxury vehicles for MPs, passed at a time the country was reeling from the aftermath of devastating floods, an explosion in a military base which shocked the entire countryside around it and widespread opposition to VAT increase  You would think the yahapalanaya government’s primary motivation is to ensure the generation of pushback, wrath, opposition and ridicule!

This must change and soon. It must start with political leadership. A reboot requires the recognition of how debilitating and dispiriting it is to work within government structures to support key initiatives through effective communications, when bureaucracy, staffing, rules of engagement and authorisations are all designed to stifle, stymie and silence. In contrast, the White House’s Office of Communications, under Obama, was able to attract those from the private sector, with significant cuts in income, to work around and promote a core set of ideas and beliefs. Sadly, our government does not make us believe in what’s possible, or should be. Our government does not define or clarify matters of national importance. Our government doesn’t inspire. Our government doesn’t connect.

There are, quite simply, one of two options moving forward. The governance must change or the Government must change.


First published in The Sunday Island, 24 July 2016.

Archiving the future

Not without the greatest irony, sometime last week, the website of the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons disappeared. Some years ago, the official website of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also disappeared without trace. The then government said the content of the site had folded into the Presidential Secretariat site. This was untrue, since the original site’s record of public testimonies across the island were completely lost. In 2014, there were in fact two distinct websites around the National Action Plan of the LLRC. There is no official trace of them now on the web. Soon after the Presidential election in January 2015, Presidential Secretariat’s website was revamped, and summarily lost all content around and links to the former President’s speeches and submissions, since 2005. The Tharunyata Hetak website, headed by Namal Rajapaksa, is no more. There is no official record of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) website, from the time of the Ceasefire Agreement, containing a vital historical record of government and LTTE relations, internal politics and diplomacy. Around the same time, the then United National Front (UNF) government released the ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ macro-economic framework as a neo-liberal blueprint for the country’s future development. There is no official trace of that now. Particularly during the CFA, but also for a few years after it, the website of the erstwhile Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) housed invaluable documentation around the negotiations, ceasefire violations, the various rounds of peace talks from Sattahip onwards and official statements from the Sri Lankan government, Norway, the donor co-chairs and others. That site is also now gone. Around 2008, the then government launched a multi-billion-rupee programme called Eastern Revival (Nagenahira Navodaya) to kick start the economy in the East of Sri Lanka. It had an official website with all the details around the projects, and how much of money would be spent on what. There is no record of the site now. The website of the Commission of Inquiry is gone. The website of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) is gone. The website of the infamous Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) is gone.

The failure to archive these sites is indicative of an enduring problem around the inability and unwillingness to consider content online as a vital historical record. Add to this, in the case of the Presidential Secretariat website after the election of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the inability to see the site as a vital national resource, and instead curate it as a partisan platform. This myopia invariably led to the erasure of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mentions and content. The resulting colossal loss to the country’s historical record goes completely unacknowledged. It may even be celebrated by some, as helpful in blotting out the Rajapaksa’s from history. And yet, each of these websites contained, for students, historians, politicians, biographers, political scientists, researchers and curators, content that simply could not be found elsewhere. There is no physical record of the material on these sites, which captured processes, updates around incidents and the output from official structures that were hotly debated in Parliament, contested on the streets, generated mainstream media responses, shaped domestic politics, informed economic policy, determined military responses and guided international diplomacy. In fact, a conversation a few years ago with Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe, the head of Sri Lanka’s National Archives, had her lament that they barely got the funding to maintain and expand the existing (physical) archives, and had no capacity whatsoever to gear up to archive content online and in the national interest.

This is not just a significant problem with government. In 2010, the Women and Media Collective (WMC), a pioneering feminist organisation, celebrated a quarter century of advocacy and activism by holding an exhibition of their output at the Lionel Wendt. The output, from the silk-screen posters to the type-written letters to President J.R. Jayawardene in the 1980s was in effect a history of media development in Sri Lanka. All this irreplaceable content, I was appalled to learn at the time, was stored in a trunk in someone’s bedroom. Mainstream media in Sri Lanka once every few years upgrade their websites, yet when they do, usually break all existing links to content from previous years. Some don’t even have searchable archives.

The absolutely appalling approach to the management of records and archives will invariably undermine the implementation of Right to Information legislation. Government and public authorities may at first seem to be withholding information or showing a bias towards non-disclosure, when in fact they may not have the tools, man-power, know-how or searchable archives to access the requested information. Government will learn that there is no point in simply storing files or information. If it cannot be found, it does not exist.

There is another dimension to all this, and linked to my column last Sunday. Consultations around reconciliation post-war will invariably deal with memory, and contested historical records. It sounds counter-intuitive, but memory is in fact more about the future than it is about the past. If we lose access to content around what happened in the past and why, we lose the ability to create the future we want and risk repeating history. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speeches, the statements by Sarath Fonseka during the war, the interviews with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the edicts on the MCNS website against media, the records of ceasefire violations by the LTTE and the statements by the Norwegian negotiators at the time, the Oslo Declaration in 2002, the propaganda of the Sri Lanka Army during the war and after it, the research output of SCOPP, the statements from the COI around the significant problems around the process at the time – these and so much more constitute a vital historical record that Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose. Simply put, the more we create official structures that primarily and sometimes only ever produce content digitally, the less we can afford to ignore the preservation of this content for posterity.

There is some hope. In the case of every single website above save for the original LLRC site, I have since 2008, in my own time and using my own resources, archived the content to the fullest extent possible. ‘Sites at Risk’ was a personal initiative started in 2008 to archive websites that were at risk of being shut down, hacked into, blocked or because their editors or curators could be killed or tortured, suffer long periods of downtime. I also digitised most of the output by WMC over 25 years, which is also now on the cloud for safekeeping. Citizen archivists in Sri Lanka have gone on to document LLRC submissions, personal narratives of those affected by the war and also digitise historical and cultural material in Tamil in the North. And yet, in Pakistan, they have gone much further, with the pioneering Citizens Archive of Pakistan operating as a repository of the country’s cultural heritage and oral storytelling tradition. Here in Sri Lanka, we casually spend hundreds of millions on luxury SUVs for MPs, ignoring that Dr. Wettasinghe has to fight tooth and nail just to slightly increase funding to our National Archives.

Our priorities are clearly out of whack.


First published in The Sunday Island, 17 July 2016.

Cosmetic consultations?

Ten years ago I set up a civic media initiative on the web called Groundviews. Since then, the majority of the content the initiative has published and produced online can be framed as ‘victim centric’ – stories and perspectives around inconvenient truths mainstream media, throughout the war and even after it, could not or would not cover. Perhaps on account on this, Groundviews received an invitation to make a submission to the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) last week. As noted in the invitation, the CTF, appointed by the Prime Minister on the 26th of January 2016, is tasked with consulting members of the public on the processes and mechanisms for reconciliation in Sri Lanka to seek truth and justice, ensure accountability for human rights violations and provide measures for redress. We were asked for our opinion on an Office of Missing Persons, a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission, a Judicial Mechanism with a Special Counsel and an Office of Reparations. And that’s where the challenges started.

The invitation came with a short document that explained briefly what the process was about. However, it did not flesh out any of the four mechanisms. This was a problem. Our independent media and civil society is used to critical commentary around and opposition to government, under duress. There is now, for the first time after a very long time an opportunity, in a context of relative safety and security, to engage with mechanisms that will undergird Sri Lanka’s tryst with post-war reconciliation. We are asked to give input into how they should be constituted, what they should do and what they should be looking at. The challenge now in engaging with CTF’s invitation is to pivot to a solutions orientation, imagining ways through which the violence in the past, and structural violence that persists, can be addressed going into the future. This is much harder than it first sounds. Media personnel, arguably responsible for creating this vital discourse amongst citizens, themselves had little to no idea of the four mechanisms. Some, even after reading CTF’s invitation, hadn’t really thought through how the media could play a role in any of them. Revealingly, many said their engagement often had to be through professional associations, since large media institutions were largely averse to staff having critical, robust political engagements with the substance of these mechanisms in particular, and the contours of reconciliation in general.

Another problem was around awareness. The sectoral consultation was open to the public, and yet not a single member of the public, or the media, was present to observe or report on the proceedings and submissions. The Editors Guild, which had been invited, did not even bother sending a representative. The Sri Lanka Press Institute, which had been invited to make a submission, attended briefly yet left without engaging in any way. Widely perceived as two of the most important apex institutions representing mainstream media, for whatever reason, demonstrated a telling inability and unwillingness to participate in the design of reconciliation mechanisms. This in turn reveals a great deal about those who train, oversee, lead or own mainstream media in Sri Lanka, and their interest in shaping the public consciousness around these vital issues.

Linked to this and throughout the day, conversations around the consultation focussed on the lack of greater public awareness and engagement. It is somewhat unclear why this is the case, given the ostensible interest in these consultations by the PM and government. The CTF’s own guiding principles clearly notes that “consultations will be preceded by a public awareness and information campaign on the purpose and objective of the consultation process”. This simply has not happened. To date, the Facebook page and Twitter accounts of the CTF, the only means through which they have engaged with the public, are not even mentioned on the website of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM). It is unclear why this is the case if the main intent is to generate widespread public awareness around the process of consultations that in turn, results in substantive input and submissions. In significant contrast to the work of the Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms over the first half of the year, there have been no advertisements or concerted media campaigns around the consultations. Unsurprisingly then, for the vast majority of citizens, it is as if the CTF simply does not exist. This is a pity. When asked by the CTF as to how their visibility could improve, Groundviews submitted a detailed submission that was in effect a strategic media and communications blueprint. It is however unclear to what degree, if at all, the CTF is able to engage with what was recommended.

These concerns aside, our primary submission was process oriented, noting how a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission and an Office of Reparations in particular, but also all the four mechanisms in general could benefit by acknowledging that media and communications are inextricably entwined with their central mandate, as has been the case in other post-war countries. Our submission, which is in the public domain, was also anchored to and build upon the contours and forms of debate online by a demographic between 18 to 34. In all this, the elephant in the room – no pun intended – was the unwillingness of government to acknowledge the importance of engaging the public through a comprehensive, multimedia, trilingual communications framework in support of reconciliation and over the long-term.

And therein lies the rub. The CTF has absolutely no mandate around implementation. Recall that the LLRC’s final report is now largely forgotten. More recently, the PRC’s final report – a distillation of thousands of verbal and written submissions –  never really got any meaningful coverage or traction. In light of this, it is unclear how and to what degree the CTF’s final report will be embraced by government. This raises the more important question around legitimacy of the process itself. If the CTF itself struggles to fulfil its mandate because of the stifling structural frameworks of governance it is hostage to, how can we expect that any recommendations from it, in line with what the public and victims want to see, can and will be implemented by government? Media personnel who appeared in front of the CTF said that their views on specific mechanisms were also framed largely by the simplistic reporting of issues through partisan perspectives. What hope then for a media that engages, raises informed critiques and informs consumers around these four mechanisms? If the CTF is so unknown today, what hope really is there for its final report and points therein informing policymaking and indeed, beyond government, shaping public discourse?

Those within CTF may be convinced they have embarked upon a process vital to shaping the contours of reconciliation moving forward, but the bitter truth may well be that all these consultative exercises of the present government are largely cosmetic, and hostage to more parochial and partisan machinations in the minds of a few. On this score, I would love to be proved wrong, but the tragic history of public consultations suggests the odds are in my favour.


First published  in The Sunday Island, 10 July 2016.