Murals as masks

If a key political actor or set of allied actors wanted to secure more power, all the while appearing not to be interested in it, how could one go about it? Lessons of 2018 suggest that unconstitutional means don’t secure public support, or at the very least, risk generating swathes of support for political opponents through valid claims of authoritarian overreach. Rigging an election is increasingly hard to get away with through traditional, physical means of ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation or manipulating the count. If and when done, these acts in their aggregate are recorded, shared and blemish the electoral outcome, again creating enduring doubts around legitimacy that can hound those in power. Sri Lanka’s extremely manual and labour intensive electoral processes is a powerful defence against digital manipulation of results, through more automated or digital voting architectures. Killing political opponents cannot be ruled out but is risky in a context where a botched operation, telegenic survivor or charismatic next of kin can lead to the exposure, embarrassment of military or political architects. Propaganda, from the State or government praising itself, after decades of the worst sort, has limited traction amongst first, second or third time voters since 2015, numbering in the millions. If the avowed aim of a political actor is to varying degrees pegged to technocracy, self-effacement and meritocracy, regime entrenchment and the masking of more brutish, base authoritarian tendencies becomes even harder – nepotism shows, violence is easily captured and shared, renewed large-scale corruption risks public censure, rewarding the same old faces results in pushback from core constituencies whose anger, alienation or apathy can be difficult to tackle in the aggregate. If in tandem, the attempt is to visually and in practice distinguish the new government and presidency from those closely related who have held significant political authority in the past, the same tactics as yesteryear cannot be employed. Capturing political authority, regime entrenchment and authoritarianism projected to be perceived as benign or benevolent requires a very different kind of political communications strategy, where the co-architects of democratic decay are voters themselves.

What would that look like?

In a note penned last week to help civil society think through significant risks around misinformation, new vectors of propaganda & the weaponisation of social media at scale in the months and years ahead, I flagged a compelling new pincer movement favouring majoritarian narratives, authoritarian creep and populist entrenchment in the guise of more efficient and effective governance. And it starts with murals and the beautification of Sri Lanka.

No sane citizen would be opposed to the idea or goal of a cleaner, greener country. And that’s the point. Beautification as a political aesthetic is near impossible to counter since opposition to it can easily and enduringly be dismissed. The opposite of beauty is ugliness. No one wants an uglier or dirtier country. Beautification in the past occurred under the heavy-handed aegis of government. Murals herald a more nuanced version of it. The government now celebrates what is ostensibly a youth-led, citizen movement to tear down old posters, clean up walls and paint them. In just under a fortnight, this new trend, projected and promoted as a movement engulfing the entire country, started as random posts on social media capturing newly drawn art in indeterminable places. Soon after, influential accounts belonging to popular singers and those associated with a particular candidate at the recently concluded presidential election campaign amplified these sporadic posts, celebrating them and framing them as evidence of a country reborn, or renewed. Electronic media then produced video segments, broadcast during prime time news. These videos, along with the posts of the influential accounts, resulted in what appeared at first blush to be an organic explosion in murals and public art across Sri Lanka. The President himself, on 2nd December, posted a video on this phenomenon on his official Facebook page. At the time of writing, this video has generated 189,000 views, 25,000 reactions, 1,500 comments and 7,000 shares on Facebook. These are, unsurprisingly, very high numbers which beget even greater engagement across platforms, media and geographies.

A deeper dive into this celebration of public art and murals provides more telling insights into intent. The murals are all, in as much as can be determined from the posts capturing them, in the South. They are predominantly anchored to framing army personnel, frames from the end of the war, lions, the Buddhist flag or Sinhala-Buddhist motifs. The controversial brigadier once stationed at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London, who symbolically wanted to cut the throats of Tamils protesting in front of it, features heavily in the murals. Lions with blooming manes and soldiers as heroes dominate the photos of the murals shared on social media. Curiously, given their ubiquity on three-wheelers, Che and Bob Marley aren’t up on any of the walls. Another set of images captured individuals putting up political posters, ostensibly from the JVP. On Facebook and Twitter, the pushback was violent, immediate and sustained. Those putting up the posters, and the party that the posters framed, were seen as enemies of a more beautiful Sri Lanka by contributing to what is now projected as visual pollution arising from pasting posters calling for political mobilisation against the government. The space, thus, for opposing politics, policies and practices is shrinking not just in the media and figuratively, but literally. If murals adorn all walls, the public themselves begin to see posters that defile public art as unworthy of attention and deserving the strongest condemnation. The substance and framing of what’s in the poster goes unheeded. The poster itself is the enemy. Even more telling was the reaction to a BBC video critiquing the subject selection of the posters. In it, a recognised psychologist noted that renewed, large and public frames of war and militarisation could harm the mental development of children. The violent, venomous responses to the BBC and its local correspondent, a Muslim, openly incited hate and harm for what was seen as an affront to an organic, citizen-led drive to beautify the country and celebrate those who brought peace. The groups celebrating the purported diversity in the murals and those painting them were precisely those who violently lashed out against anyone who chose to question them and saved the worst hate for those who weren’t Sinhala-Buddhist.

If this engineered authenticity is one half of the pincer, the other is a surveillance blanket covering Sri Lanka allowing those in power to determine, with great precision, who says what, to whom, where, why and how. Even if some argue much of this surveillance will be directed inward, to monitor those in or close to government, it still provides a panopticon effect, where the fear of being watched or monitored automatically and drastically reduces interest in dissent, including its promotion. If surveillance serves to silence, the new propaganda around beautification is the first salvo of a longer-term and larger strategic operation to engineer the unquestioned acceptance and normalisation of majoritarianism. The voters become willing agents of the State, enraptured by what is overtly present, oblivious to what is missing or the importance of political dissent captured in posters advertising a rally, play, movement, gathering, film or lecture. The social and political engineering at play now is an attempt to drastically shrink the space for critique and the coordination of dissent by overlaying walls with murals the public themselves become custodians of. And the police, now entrusted with beautification, will also be soon tasked with the protection of this public art. The remaining space, digital in nature, will be taken care of by surveillance and resulting anxieties.

The essential template captured here, anchored to the total capture of public imagination and through it, political power, is an entirely new, powerful and dangerous one. It builds on the past. In December 2006, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a leading advertising agency in Colombo to draw a mural on a wall that was pockmarked with shrapnel from the assassination attempt on the then defence secretary’s life. That man is now President, and it is unsurprising to see murals as a centrepiece of his political playbook. The erasure of Northern geography, realities, peoples and identities from beautification’s popular frames suggest communal faultlines rendered so disturbingly through the electoral results map of the recently concluded Presidential Election continue to widen and deepen.

What these murals mask is more than what they reveal. But to scratch under their surface or overlay them with dissent risks violent pushback from citizens themselves, and not high political office. And that’s the ultimate success and goal of this chilling project. To use us, against us.


First published in The Sunday Island, 8 December 2019.


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