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?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21 August 2016

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