The last election, and the next

The room was paid for, in cash, by someone else.  The hotel was chosen because of its location close to the HQ of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence in 2014. Well before election day on January 8th, full access to key websites was given to trusted individuals outside Sri Lanka, to post updates from where they were in the event of complete internet shutdown or pervasive social media block. New SIM cards were bought and a fax machine – because broadband blocks don’t apply to what can be typed out and sent out through other networks and means. Technical investments were made to strengthen key sites and accounts providing updates leading up to, on the day of and just after the election. Data packages from multiple ISPs were procured. In case one network failed or created friction around the production or promotion of critical updates, we could switch to another. A hotel room was converted into an operations hub, with traffic routed through the hotel’s Wi-Fi masked using a VPN. Encrypted messaging apps were used to coordinate movements and operations, as well as to push out updates, in the event key websites were blocked. Contingency plans in the event of a sudden raid were drawn up, to switch information and news operations off-site seamlessly.

Results on the night of the 8th stopped for hours on end. The risible explanation given to some TV stations that called up was that the Election Department’s FTP servers had failed. Something else was going on, and the count, as well as the final results, were being held up. Conversations around this time at Temple Trees, involving the armed forces, the Rajapaksas and other influential members of the regime, featured heavily in the news cycle in 2015. Some who were part of these discussions, a few weeks hence, had entirely forgotten what was covered and who was present. Those of us who didn’t sleep that night were on edge, as music videos, repetitive ads and movies played uninterrupted on channels that were supposed to be broadcasting an endless ticker of results and other updates from the count. TV anchors, at first, noted delays, with no explanation as to why. And then they just didn’t appear anymore.

The SMS news alert that Mahinda Rajapaksa had vacated Temple Trees came just before 6 am. It was just before day-break and the roads around Kollupitiya, close to Temple Trees, were deserted from the vantage of the hotel room window. No sooner than the alert was received, I drove out with a colleague to see what was going on around the area. The first thing we saw were commandoes, with almost robotic precision, getting into buses. We hadn’t noticed them coming and we didn’t know where they had been. We couldn’t quite figure out what they were doing lining the streets. We didn’t know where the buses were taking them.

The only other time I have seen commandos of this stature, sporting the garb and gear they did, was just outside the hotel Sarath Fonseka was garrisoned in on the night of a previous Presidential Election, on January 26th 2010. But that’s another story. Driving past Temple Trees on Galle Road on the morning of the 8th, we shot a photo of the sun rising from behind the closed, black gates that on Twitter, that day and the next, went viral. There was no sign of life from within the compound and for the first and last time in my life, no visible signs of any security personnel or armed guards either. In that general area, signs of daily life – the Dimo battas delivering the day’s newspapers, shop owners offering joss sticks to garlanded deities, the liberal and vigorous sprinkling of water infused with turmeric forcing mendicants to crawl out of makeshift beds on pavement and shopfront, the Abans street-sweepers and garbage collectors decked in orange – increased with rising sun. There were, however, no school children around. There were also no tourists. Galle Face green was, also for the first and last time of my life, without a single person on it. Stray dogs looked lost without humans to chase, be chased by or play with. The scenes in and around Galle Face and Kollupitiya that morning were surreal.

Throughout the 9th, a few of us kept expecting news of a Rajapaksa regime fuelled rebellion. News of the first open-air swearing in an Executive President was received with a mixture of concern and curiosity. What would it be like? What would the new President say? Was it safe? As hundreds flocked to Independence Square around half past six in the evening on the 9th, I feared the worst – a lone sniper, a grenade, a pistol or worse, a larger bomb, ending the new President’s life as soon as he ascended to office. Commandos, different to those we had seen in the morning, lined the area as the light faded. A friend, in late-stage pregnancy, had rushed to take a tuk-tuk to see the swearing in. Joggers and walkers, some foreign but most local, mixed with those who invaded the grounds. The mood was ebullient. Videos and photos of the swearing in capture a carnival of hope. Too many people crowded the area the President was being sworn in, and looked far more uncomfortable than we were. The tensest moments were when the new President arrived and the duration of his first speech, which was regularly interrupted by spontaneous cheer. The loudest cheer was at the moment, a few minutes in, the new President proclaimed he would be the last to hold the office.

And then he left, seemingly with all our adrenaline too. The effects of close upon 48 hours of sleeplessness, anxiety, fear and near-constant tension resulted in the relatively quick dissipation of the crowds once the ceremony was concluded. Everyone took selfies, photos and videos. At night that day was the first full realisation, beyond incredulity and residual fear, that a new chapter had dawned, and the Rajapaksa regime was over. No one expected it. No one.

In the campaign to elect the common candidate against the incumbent, an organic, extremely diverse collective of individuals, with no common politics or links save for an interest in facilitating the end of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency, came together to architect and action a guerrilla campaign using social media to counter the then government’s propaganda. It is now known that PM Modi’s social media guru was present in the country to help the Rajapaksas. We had only our own skills and networks. From talented graphic designers to data scientists, cartoonists to writers, this collective – which had no head, no organisational hierarchy and wasn’t headquartered in any physical location – took on spin, rumour, falsehood and propaganda manufactured by the regime and responded to it, blow for blow, fire with fire. With no access to any mainstream media, Facebook and WhatsApp were two primary tools in content dissemination, plus a handful of websites that ran critical content. From large billboards all over Colombo with grotesque images of LTTE atrocities and the capture of private media through fear and murder to the complete transformation of state media as propaganda arms, the Rajapaksa regime did what it could to thwart democratic process and electoral institutions.

It didn’t work. Which is to say, electoral outcomes, even with the best-laid plans, often tend to surprise pollsters and pundits alike. Arguably, elections are in Sri Lanka the closest one gets to an emotional pandemic, where heart rules over mind and tick or preference is made more by reflex, not reflection. But that’s not an excuse to stay at home and disengage. One can fear the outcome but still vote with hope. Please vote. We simply mustn’t go back to how things were, just a few years ago.


First published in The Sunday Island, 10 November 2019.

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