Moment to movement

In Myanmar over this week, I worked with some key civil society organisations from Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere around issues eerily similar to what Sri Lanka has faced, and continues to endure, around hate speech, governance, rights and democracy. Both Sri Lanka and Myanmar suffer from, although to varying degrees, an inability to grow vital democratic moments – like for example a historic election – into meaningful reformist movements aimed at changing the culture of institutions. This is arguably very hard.

Mobilisation around and for an election is fundamentally different from generating and sustaining interest in the power structures and culture that governs institutions. Culture and power are often personality driven, ingrained deeply and often invisible and unquestioned even to those who negotiate it.  The maddening minutiae of government bureaucracy is a hard sell for long-term engagement. Clarifying how whole of government works (or not as is often the case) is much harder than the rhetoric promising reform and change leading up to an election. The same technology that is today pivotal in any campaign can turn quickly into a cacophony of competing interests. Even with the best of intentions, the co-option of critical civil society voices into official government structures often rids them of the liberty to express personal opinion. While change agents are necessary to manoeuvre within the monsters our public institutions have become, friends inside government can serve to stifle vital constructive criticism – from something as simple as not wanting to hurt the feelings of a colleague or friend – that in turn and over time, risks contributing to failed promises and only cosmetic reform of the status quo.

The harm in all of this is very real, even if it not immediately or openly appreciated. The heady hope and optimism around the election of President Sirisena in early 2015 is now long gone. Around the Parliamentary election in August last year, the Damoclean prospect of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ilk re-capturing an overbearing influence over Parliament galvanised support, organically and from varied groups, around campaigns to strengthen and continue with January 2015’s promise of change. And yet, what we witness almost every week are examples of an abrasive, arrogant political culture that endures, nay thrives, even after the Rajapaksa’s are gone. The mechanisms around public consultation are, as they stand today textbook examples of how to not craft the systematic capture of history in the making. From the Public Representations Committee on the new constitution to the Task Force around the design of reconciliation mechanisms, public submissions are encouraged by Government, but with no real official support to the extent needed. Documenting for posterity, opening up channels to appeal to and engage with first and second time voters, capturing opinions and ideas from the public domain, responding to credible public survey based markers of opportunities and risks, crafting effective outreach strategies, having public fora in easily accessible places – the lack of these and so much more stymie genuine engagement. Systemic change comes by kindling the public imagination. This hasn’t happened beyond two key elections last year. With all this and more comes apathy, amongst the very demographic that voted in those in government today and the President. This is dangerous, because it raises the bar exponentially for political engagement around the promise of reform and change in the future, allowing for illiberal, violent, corrupt and authoritarian practices to continue for longer. If citizens don’t believe systems can change, if they aren’t educated around how difficult it is for institutional cultures to transform, if the government doesn’t clarify continuously what exactly it is doing around reform and openly discuss why some efforts, as they will, fail, citizens will over time believe that all politicians, and all governments, are pretty much the same.

There is some hope.

At the workshop in Yangon this week, from LGBTQ activists to those working on opening up Parliamentary proceedings, from those interested in helping the displaced and disenfranchised to others who wanted to take action against violence against women, the demographic was overwhelmingly young and indeed, from the remotest reaches of the country. Some of them will be imprisoned or risk incarceration of worse. Others will migrate or move on to more lucrative professions. A mad or committed few however will continue to do what they have done. And that’s all it takes. Over the week, I talked about engineering tipping points – how, even against seemingly insurmountable odds, through the amplification of critical dissent through means that are today impossible to completely censor, control or contain, social change – beyond regime change – can be augmented and in some cases even accelerated. From 100 day trackers last year to the protest at Independence Square last week, from the government’s ignoble backtracking over the bizarre media website registration edict to the open anger around the Minister of Education’s perception of AIDS, from the strident criticism of the President and Prime Minister over so many issues and incidents to the freedom of cartoonists to lampoon whoever they want – these are indicators of, for Sri Lanka, a new resilience and impatience governance that doesn’t work, and government that doesn’t deliver.

Were key historic moments in Myanmar and Sri Lanka over 2015 translated into wider, deeper and longer-term reform movements? Arguably not, in the main. Coalitions, networks and collectives mobilised around the 8th of January and 17th of August last year in Sri Lanka, mobilised largely around reform and change, have dissolved. Similar collectives around the 8th of November in Myanmar are already enervated. Those in Yangon are already talking about how difficult it will be to change public institutions. On so many fronts, Yangon is much more disadvantaged than Colombo. And yet, those here are innovating with much less than what we in Sri Lanka enjoy, and often go on to complain about. Should this not make us all the more committed towards reforming what we have inherited, and what clearly only works for a few?

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First published in The Sunday Island on 13 March 2016.

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