Dissent online

“… Thus while the government is trying to position Singapore as a Media Hub for the fast-growing new media technology and development, home grown talent often face harsh official harassment. Singapore’s netizens are moving to redefine the terms of the island state’s political discourse – whether the government welcome them or not”.

Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Media Report 2009

Kalinga’s sentiments are resonant in Sri Lanka as well, in this our official year of ICT and English. Over the course of 2009 alone, I have been informed of and visited over two dozen websites and web based social networking initiatives that highlight facets of the war and humanitarian concerns in Sri Lanka. They are all very well designed and most of them are compelling narratives that, at first, do not at all appear to be what they essentially are – partial narratives serving parochial ends. A select few are show signs of emerging as effective platforms for engaging the unlike-minded online. For example, a few readers may know Pissu Poona, an anonymous identity on Facebook – one of the world’s best known and most used online social networks – that has befriended nearly 200 individuals at the time of writing and regularly points to content on the web that critiques and analyses the Sri Lankan conflict. Pissu Poona is a site for some interesting debate and as a post which generated a lot of responses noted,

“just a reminder that this space is our space for debate and discussion. it is to challenge you (and me) to think about issues and perhaps question our own beliefs and prejudices. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our communities are polarized now more than ever and unless and until the dialogue is started again the mistrust and suspicion will continue to grow. Pissu Poona is an attempt to re-initiate the dialogue that war has cost us.”

On the other hand, as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke recently noted,


“Pro-Tiger Tamil students, mainly from Canadian campuses are walking from Toronto to Chicago in order to get on the Oprah Winfrey show. Now that’s a pretty neat gimmick. They have a well designed website. The Sinhala students who have the sophistication to pull something like this off are uninvolved in the struggle because they are alienated by the elements that tend to dominate equivalent networks, while those who are heavily involved in the “patriotic” struggle do not make the most Oprah-friendly material.”

Given that the peaceful negotiation of conflict and amplification of critical dissent on and through the web is an area of significant personal interest, I found Dayan’s encapsulation of the current growth spurt of web based pro-LTTE advocacy very interesting. Ironically however, for the pedestrian apparatchiks of the Rajapakse regime as much as the trade unionist fighting for her rights, the human rights defender, the traditional journalist and the Tamil nationalist vehemently opposed to the LTTE yet unequivocally committed to the equal treatment of all Tamil peoples – the web poses a real challenge. Equally and for all of these types, the web is alien terrain. Its unfamiliarity breeds hubris, which in turn leads to the gross under estimation of the web’s potential for transforming polity and society, for better or worse.

The diaspora – particularly Tamil but also Sinhala – has long known this. Evidence is found in how today, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) captures global eyeballs on the situation in the Vanni today through YouTube and Flickr. From the superbly designed Tamils Against Genocide website and well crafted interventions in the Genocide Intervention Network, to engaging, well-edited videos on YouTube of young North American students explaining why they are fasting in protest of the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni, recent pro-LTTE online narratives through text, audio, video and photography captivates attention on a hidden war. Understanding how this growing base of online opinion increasingly foments global and local action is important.

I believe that the LTTE is far from ideologically decimated because its violent, exclusive and illiberal definition of Tamil nationalism struggle will exist and evolve quite easily, in its most virulent form, on the web and Internet. Importantly, a new wave of pro-LTTE content will be designed, deployed and sustained in the West for and amongst the fourth and fifth generation Tamil diaspora. These Canadian, Australian, American, French, Swiss, Indian Tamil youth will leverage tools, techniques and services on the web and Internet that for example worked very well for Obama in his Presidential campaign to highlight, with great sophistication and finesse, aspects of a war they find convenient, such as the egregious human rights abuses by the State. How they will evolve and what they will transform into in the future is an open debate. Some initiatives may greatly aid, through new funding and propaganda networks, the resurgence of secessionist armed conflict in Sri Lanka especially in a context where we know that the Rajapakse regime to date demonstrates little or no capacity to meaningfully address legitimate Tamil grievances. Other web initiatives may fizzle out over time in a post-LTTE / ‘post-war’ scenario if Tamil aspirations are seen to be accommodated, or as their instigators move on in life. There is however a parallel challenge to the emergence and influence of these pro-LTTE websites. Unsurprisingly, it comes in the form of its mirror image – intemperate Sinhala Buddhist nationalism online. This fringe lunacy through the frequency and extent of violent expression dominates many web fora, comprehensively firewalling progressive discussions and fresh thinking on critical issues. This is on the one hand a global phenomenon and challenge. Renowned New York Times technology columnist David Pogue noted around three years ago that,

The real shame, though, is that the kneejerk “everyone else is an idiot” tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs. But instead of finding common ground, we’re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.

On the other hand, the problem of creating and sustaining progressive dialogues and dissent particularly under a repressive regime is a pressing challenge, and for not just ‘Sinhala students’ as Amb. Jayatilleke points out. Our challenge is to respond to two markedly similar strains of delusion and deception – one by the LTTE and its supporters, the other by the Rajapakse regime and its supporters.

A post-LTTE Sri Lanka that does not address that which gave rise to violent secessionist movements is an octane boost for that which fuels LTTE propaganda online. A post-LTTE context that, as fully expected, clamps down on dissent will severely undermine the ability to respond to this pro-LTTE propaganda. When voices of critical dissent, vital to democracy, are branded terrorists, abducted, killed, tortured, incarcerated and forced into silence through fear, a hidden cost with accrues. Murdering dissent permanently erases those best able to envision, create, sustain and promote spaces for progressive debate in a post-LTTE Sri Lanka – in the real world and online. Combined, these spaces and initiatives would be the best counter for LTTE propaganda. Sadly though, the Rajapakse regime in its infinite ignorance seeks to kill and maim many of these visionaries who are today equally opposed to the violence by the State and the LTTE.

For the student of online activism contributing to real world change, this will be an interesting case study. Online activism and information online we already know substantially galvanises international and domestic opinion. Knowing this, the LTTE’s remnants in Sri Lanka, its supporters in the diaspora and Tamils whose sudden and heightened identity consciousness has demanded acts as extreme as self-immolation will use the web and Internet as a means to promote and sustain propaganda on State violence, leading to powerful transnational lobby groups, funding and critical eyeballs on the Sri Lankan government. Equally blinkered and far less effective will be the Rajapakse regime’s understanding of and response to such online strategies. It will see the heightened online activism by pro-LTTE diaspora as a passing fad, that it can control much in the same way it has contained the International Community, India, donors, the UN and local NGOs. It will place those who are critical of the regime in the same mould as pro-LTTE supporters, a facile excuse even today used to harm and silence them.

Lost in this madness will be voices who recognize and speak out that the LTTE itself, in a slow genocide of its own peoples over three decades, killed more Tamils than those who have been lost since January 2009 (the cause of all recent agitation). Lost too will be voices such as the Editor of this newspaper, who fearlessly and repeatedly noted that the Rajapakse regime’s success in fighting the LTTE came at great cost – that the regime today is the LTTE incarnate.

Pissu Poona and some other select bloggers in Sri Lanka – in Tamil as well as Sinhala and English – are creating, at great risk and cost to self, family and friends engaging online spaces that may in the future expand as sites which include a range of voices contesting violent extremism in all forms. These spaces will feature vital debates on issues of identity, governance and celebrate a Sri Lanka so much more than the violence it is hostage to. How they can be supported and how dissent, free expression and a free media is the best defence against what will be the inevitable resurgence of violent secessionism in the future should be the regime’s top priority.

I doubt it is, or ever will be.

Published in Sunday Leader, 29 March 2009.

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