Right to Information: All hype with no bite?

Right to Information (RTI) legislation was unanimously passed in Sri Lanka’s Parliament last week without a vote. It sounds easy and inevitable when framed thus, but that one sentence masks decades of activism and advocacy to pass RTI to no avail, and strong pushback from government predominantly based around national security issues. It was unlikely that during war, Sri Lanka would have passed this legislation. Yet even today, seven years after the war ended, the default mode of operation for government is to hoard, retain, hide and obscure information. The law will invariably engineer great resistance at all levels of government and state administration. RTI is progressive because it places the onus on public institutions to respond to queries by the public, opening them up to a degree of legal scrutiny hitherto unprecedented. The law is disruptive precisely because of this. Decades of a culture of secrecy, of hoarding information, of not releasing information in the public interest is now turned on its head. Public institutions will have to proactively disclose information to the public, and also disclose when requested by the public. To do this, information officers will be appointed – and they will face the gargantuan task of dealing with requests from the public for information there may not even be official records around. Our bureaucracy is based on who knows whom, and what one knows about another. It is based on clientalism and nepotism, with systemic record keeping more to thwart and stifle genuine accountability, over any interest in efficiency and effectiveness. RTI turns this on its head too. Comprehensive records management now trumps favour, personal relations and convenient amnesia. And it is not just the hoarding of files in gunny bags in a dark basement. RTI emphasis that records must be kept in an easily and effectively retrievable manner that is systematic, without being hostage to the often mercurial and entirely subjective “filing systems” of individuals who happen to inhabit a particular office over a period of time.

Beyond all this is how RTI can strengthen and support civic media as well as investigative reporting. In a regular column to the newspapers, I wrote that RTI comes to Sri Lanka at a time when we are on the cusp of almost ubiquitous connectivity – from continued upgrades of existing telecommunications infrastructure to the advent of new technologies like Google Loon which promise high speed wireless connectivity from all corners of the country. I argued that the implementation of RTI in Sri Lanka needs to be digital and mobile first, enabling citizens to interact with and ask questions from government, using the provisions in the law, through their mobile phones, tablets and desktop browsers instead of resorting to paper, pen and post. It is here that I foresee the greatest challenges around RTI’s implementation, which I frame as a crisis of the imagination.

Used to being in the opposition, and stuck in survival mode, civil society now needs to use RTI to frame requests from government in support of their work. This means understanding the law, and using it, instead of fighting against unjust laws, which has largely defined the work of rights-based civil society advocacy and activism in Sri Lanka. The emergence of ‘solutions based journalism’ is a school of practice and thought that holds great promise for the practice of journalism under RTI, which is anchored to generating ideas to solve key issues, rather than just flag what’s going terribly wrong. The generation of new ideas and innovation, it stands to reason, can only gain from information around what decisions have been taken in the past and why, which is where RTI comes into play. Questions that interrogate structures, decisions, mechanisms, institutional history, purchases, the hiring and firing of individuals, the non-disclosure of interests and the under-utilisation of assets, the awarding of tenders to the selection of service providers, measuring key performance indicators around promises made and asking information that impacts the families of the disappeared – this is in the future all possible in Sri Lanka because of provisions in our RTI legislation.

At least, it is in theory. Information in the public domain does not automatically engender the political will to address official wrongdoing or maladministration. Oftentimes, information secured by RTI will require more requests to be made possibly from other public institutions, cross-verification, some translation and finally, contextualisation. Ordinary citizens may demand information, but government is not bound to provide the information in a manner that is easily comprehended. This is why it is so important to strengthen civil society and independent media to use RTI to transformation information to knowledge, and raw data into context. This is where journalists, including citizen journalists, step in. While RTI’s importance extend far beyond media and journalism, journalists and acts of journalism by citizens can showcase the power and potential of RTI to prise open official mechanisms. Accountability is not a given today, and will never be. Just like the decades of activism and advocacy, against the most determined adversity that was required before RTI was passed in Sri Lanka, the litmus test of legislation will be in its fullest implementation. Else, all this hype and hoopla would have been for nothing.

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First published in SAMSN Digital Hub

“Sinha-le”: Comment to media on implications

Was asked by a mainstream media newspaper to send in comments on the ‘Sinha-le’ phenomenon.

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“Sinha-le”, a campaign primarily promoted over social media both in Sri Lanka and abroad, can also be seen on stickers adoring three-wheelers and other vehicles.

The campaign is essentially racist, mixing elements of violent xenophobia, Islamophobia, racial slurs and hate speech in what is promoted as a campaign signifying love for country and patriotic zeal. Perusing through a Facebook group, one of many others, established in support of the campaign, one encounters outrageous content of a nature the careful observer will immediately recognise as exactly what was promoted by similar pages, groups and sites aligned with the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Fringe lunacy has a place in a democracy, as precisely that. The danger under the previous government was that extremists, like the BBS, were allowed the space to thrive and operate in conditions of near total impunity. In comparison, the ‘Sinha-le’ movement is as yet nascent. Aside from inspiring one act of vandalism, it has yet to grow into the monstrosity that was the BBS and other chauvinistic forces aligned to it, especially online.

The enduring danger is that ‘Sinha-le’ and similar movements that crop up in the months ahead are black swan events – spontaneous mechanisms created to instigate communal unrest over a specific instance, individual or location, but go viral and develop a life of their own, ending up by spilling over into violence in the real world. Not unlike the appeal of the Islamic State (ISIL) through online social media, the racism, intolerance and violence of ‘Sinha-le’ is rendered invisible to its vocal proponents. The fans and followers create echo chambers, where radicalisation is fostered by the production, publication, dissemination and discussion of deeply racist material. Almost exclusively in Sinhala, this content passes under the radar of platforms like Facebook and policies in place against content that instigates communal violence, racism and hate speech.

The catch-22 is around how best to respond to ‘Sinha-le’. Also using social media and in Sinhala, the pushback has been very creative, sardonic, significant and widespread. It is unclear however the degree to which the more liberal, progressive and democratic voices are able to infiltrate the well-springs of the ‘Sinha-le’ movement, and engage with, to the extent possible, its proponents. Some propose strategic inaction – hoping these movements will die down after a period of time. The danger around this approach is that the opposite will happen, and by the time policymakers take note, adequate, timely responses are significantly more complex to generate.

As Sri Lanka embarks upon constitutional reform and other major projects this year, involving the whole of government and reshaping how we see our country, I expect ‘Sinha-le’ to be the first salvo in what will be many more movements, on similar lines, that attempt to deny, destroy and decry the essential diversity in our country. The litmus test will be around how we respond to extremism, and what measures can be proactively taken to combat the growth of these movements amongst young adults – the future leaders of Sri Lanka.

Books

Invited by Anukshi Jayasinghe to write for Ceylon Today’s Celebrity Bookcase section, these are five books I love and keep returning to.

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Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
A compelling novel based on the indentured labour from Japan, mostly young women, who came over to the West Coast of the United States. This is the horrible, exploitative and violent flip side of the glitzy American dream – of women beguiled into a better life outside Japan, only to face hard labour, rape and utter deracination of self-respect, yet ultimately embracing a foreign land and raising their own children. A moving read.

Can Asians Think? by Kishore Mahbubani
First read in 1999 as an undergraduate, a book I keep coming back to. Mahbubani is currently Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. It’s a collection of essays on Asian identity. Mahbubani’s clear prose champions a fusion of Western and Asian civilisations and calls for “retooling the social, political and philosophical dimensions” of our societies.

Harold Pinter – Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948 – 2005
I picked Pinter in Karachi in my first visit to the city in 2006, weeks after the bombing of the Marriot Hotel. We were advised to not wander away from our hotel. I did, and walked into a bookstore amidst the wails of sirens. It was an apt context and backdrop to a book that so incisively deals with, inter alia, violence, human dignity, human rights and war.

Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers by Shashi Tharoor
Recommended by a close friend who was at the time in Iraq, I picked up the book many moons ago at Barefoot and finished it before I left its garden café. Just as Riot is for me Shashi’s best fiction, this tome captures, at a time the author was a UN Under Secretary General, some of his best essays on topics as diverse as film, literacy, diplomacy, myth and above all, the power of the written word even in the most despondent circumstances.

Questions Without Answers: The World in Pictures by the Photographers of VII
Weighing over 1kg, this VII’s tome cannot be read reposing on a haansi-putuwa or bed. As noted on the publisher’s website, “what unites VII’s work is a sense that, in the act of communication at the very least, all is not lost; reparation is always possible; despair is never absolute”. From photographs that capture the visceral to the ephemeral, the outstandingly beautiful to the acutely painful, this book is impossible to ‘read’ in one go and is one of the best books on photography I own, and have perused.

A Royal – Thomian Family

A Royal – Thomian Family
Sanjana Hattotuwa

“A cricketing fiesta such as this is my idea of nirvana”
Into the passionate Soul of sub-continental cricket, Emma Levine

The setting: Big matches are as unique as they are similar. There is cricket of course, but no a big match is defined by the game itself. It is a far larger spectacle, a seething mass of humanity bursting with life threatening with every delivery to spill over the edges of the stadium, a heady, adrenalin driven and testosterone filled carnevale.

But I digress. I’m not writing about any big-match, but the veritable The Royal – Thomian, which at over 126 years old is a manic festival of cricket that is the second oldest uninterrupted test encounter in the world.

Imagine the heady intoxication of music, alcohol and greasy Chinese rolls. Imagine the coveted chilled beer, making its way from mouth to mouth, a sip of nectar. At first anyway – those at the end of the food chain got a mix of froth, a few dregs of malt, and a whole lot of saliva. Not that it mattered at the time. The empty bottle could always be thrown at the head of a particularly annoying opponent, or better still, a College Prefect attempting to bring order to what is perfect chaos. Imagine the colour, the sound, the sight, the smell all mixed into one hedonism that lay to waste the larger hurdles of term end exams, parental desires for prefectships and the favouritism of teachers. This was happy dust, the fanfare of the bands, stolen souvenirs to cackle at the caricatures of players in the field, ribald jests on the (alleged) secret (and not so secret) homosexual desires friends, players and teachers even, intoxicated brains conjuring up lyrical baila, waxing forth arguments in verse as to why to learn or to depart is quite a silly idea.

The cricket: Sadly, I can’t remember much of it. Apart from the players, the scoreboard and the Coach, it’s questionable whether anyone remembers in detail the details of the game, even those in the Mustangs tent. Of course, there were the not infrequent pitch invasions to volubly protest against a particularly damning decision against College. The umpiring in question that needed to be strongly denounced from the middle of the pitch was alerted by those several times removed from the actual protestors. These original informants often saw multiples of everything, under the influence of a motley array of alcohol, and were thus increasingly ignored as the match progressed. Pitch invasions were always accompanied by the strongest reprimands by the Prefects and stern warnings of dire consequences to one’s own balls if the act was ever attempted again. And though the pitch invasions continued history does not record whether the Prefects actually carried out their threats.

There was, to those genuinely interested, very good cricket. Some of the finest innings in cricket’s history are writ by the signature strokes of willow against leather over the past century at the Royal – Thomian. This was serious cricket and the firmament of so many dreams of making it to the national team and thereon to international fame. What one does remember slightly better are the boundaries – when the entire stadium would erupt is a riot that Tharoor would find hard to describe. Cheering, well jeering – loud, riotous and increasingly hoarse – were not really aimed to animate anything in the playing field, but at the far more noble enterprise of conscientiously challenging the “other” school’s faith, flag, virility and sexuality (or lack thereof). Getting drunk at the mere whiff of arrack was part of the foundation for lyrical arguments amplified by the ever present, alcohol fuelled and untiring papara bands.

The “boys”: The Royal – Thomian is primarily about boys (including those disguised as older and wiser men). The general melee of a Royal – Thomian in our day would guarantee two things. More booze. More chaos. More riotous dancing. And then more booze. So I lied, that’s more than two – but in those days, we never kept count of anything during the Big Match. With fists flying at no one and everyone, the pitch was not the only place to crack balls. There were fights over girlfriends. There were fights over the last dregs of coconut nectar. There were fights over lyrics, deemed heretical by those who sang no better and on no less heretical topics. There were, however, never fights over religion or ethnicity. These mattered little, and the only boundaries that matters were those that raised the score. And while there were fights over territory, these were not linked to traditional homelands. Anyone was a potential fucking-sperm-dog, arse(hole), mother-fucker, shit(e) or son of a harlot (or a heady combination of any of the above). Deeply confusing to an outsider, these seemingly derogatory terms were used with great affection amongst close friends and with bitter invective against those from the “other” College. Sure, there was caricature of ethnicity and religion, but never with mal-intent or militant animosity. Friendship crossed many boundaries that would in later years define who we were and were not. Arrack was a great leveller, and in our stupor, what was said in verse was replied to in verse (through vaada baila sessions that were sheer genius). That anyone could be insulted, and could insult in turn, created an atmosphere of strange equanimity, where everyone was united by that elixir of life and nectar of under-age alcoholism – Mendis Special.

The “girls”: Unmistakably and unashamedly, the Royal – Thomian is a male dominated affair. Females who attend are overwhelmingly the love interest du jour of male spectators, or their sisters, cousins and their friends. They presence is tolerated more than welcomed, though they indubitably added to the colour and gaiety of the event. They are huge fans of cricket and of each College, not infrequently as much as or even more so than their male lovers or brothers. Some are disdainful of the prods, pokes and pinches to boob and butt as they mingle their way through a throng of testosterone. Others accept the inevitability of such actions and move ever closer to the boundary, to callously divide attention of those behind between action on the pitch and their own lithe movements to the sounds of baila. Lyrical and ageless stories of cupping the insatiable Mary beside the flowing waters of the Mahaweli River and then encountering Mary’s mother and the ensuing drama, as well as Surangani’s travails with fish continue unabated, and were often given more colour by the subtle (and not so subtle) variations added in by females present. Braving catcalls, they walk around the boundary, waving College flags as staunchly as their male counterparts and often, with more aplomb and confidence – for history proves that not a single female has been entreated by an empty beer bottle to shut-up and get lost (as is the fate of many men who try the same feats) in over a century. In short, reluctant though they might be to admit it openly, they have fun.

Family: Surely, the Royal – Thomian deserves consideration as a venerable family that has not only endured two World Wars, but had for generations (re)kindled bonds of friendship and brought together far-flung members to celebrate a common interest in inebriation and cricket (not necessarily in that order).

Given the nature of other articles in this issue however, and from what the reader may gather from the bacchanalia described above, the Royal – Thomian may at first seem an impossible fit into a traditional definition of family, as a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household. But the lens of parenthood or progeny doesn’t necessarily define a family. Built on a common bond to the alma mater and loyal and strong allegiance to the College colours, it is not uncommon to find 3 generations of bucolic and irreverent old boys each enjoy the game in their own inimitable way. They come from afar to be together, to share memories of their time in College – De Saram, Buck, Stone, Wood and Copplestone exchanging ribald stories from when they too heard the belfry toll. For who have left College, there is a sense of nostalgia at a Big Match, a yearning for simpler times of misspent youth, when larger conflict could be forgotten in the afterglow of a day at the Big Match. Family, however defined, brings a security, a certainty, comfort and solace. It is a safe space, a place to escape, to retreat, to truly be oneself sans the heavy adornment of social responsibility, political office or officialdom, to be silly, to laugh, to cry, to love and be loved. Though not all these will be articulated verbally, look through the boisterous ruckus and you’ll find it in abundance. For here, flagrant paternalism and chauvinism exist cheek-in-jowl with a deep respect for the presence of females, to the extent that their honour, if in question, would give rise to all manner of aerobatic and acrobatic feats from which the “knight” would often be rescued by the “maiden in distress”. Men rescued by women, women fighting women, brothers fighting for their sisters, sisters fighting for their brothers, fathers, sons, mothers, lovers, grandfathers and more, all engaged in a ritualistic dance to the strains of a kaffringa, the Royal-Thomian brings with it a sense of strange togetherness – that the chaos has its own logic, the cricket its own pace, the spectators their own music, the females their signature cadence, the males their own rhythm. It is an equal music, a concert of diversity, which for 3 days in the ides of March makes the rest of the world fade away. The Royal – Thomian isn’t many things and never, hopefully, will be. It isn’t politically correct. It isn’t gender sensitive. It doesn’t respect privacy and social boundaries or norms, and has little patience with introverts. It doesn’t welcome outsiders, but should they find themselves thrust in the middle of the ruckus, it embraces them openly and warmly. It is thus a contradiction with its internal logic and modes of operation that cannot be easily explained; only loved. Hard to define it may be, but for the thousands who throng each year to worship an indefinable, indefatigable, destructively exuberant Kali we love and are part of, the Royal – Thomian is family – and ironically, sometimes much more than the dysfunctional social groups we grew up in.

And the strains of Mary’s mother resound once again in the echo chambers of heart and memory…

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Rain

There is something about the rain that emboldens us to think more charitably about the world around us.

Something in the footfall of hasty droplets that reminds us of our childhood, of the siestas looking upwards at branches and green leaves bend with the fecundity of a monsoon, of the smell of rain upon gravel, grass and sun parched earth, of the overcast skies that compelled us into bed and into the arms of a spine that held within its arms words that transported us to far away lands.

It beckons us to remember a time of innocence, a time before the warts that coloured our worldview became evident amidst the wrinkles of wisdom we collect as we grow up.

I am most unproductive in the rain.

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Sri Lankan Peace?!

“One of the most persistent ambiguities that we face is that everybody talks about peace as a goal. However, it does not take sharpest-eyed sophistication to discern that while everbody talks about peace, peace has become practically nobodys’ business among the power-wielders. Many men cry Peace! Peace! but they refuse to do the things that make for peace.”

Martin Luther King,Jr.

Typing this in as news of renewed fighting, the first in the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka between factions within the LTTE, reach my ears. They’ve now declared a ceasefire – a magnanimous gesture indeed, somewhat dwarfed though by the idiocy that is behind the fighting. A monolithic hegemon brings grief upon itself – the LTTE, unable to accomodate change, diversity or plurality, counters with the one action it knows best – violence aimed at abject submission.

Jars somewhat with the work I’ve been doing all morning in drawing up a proposal to help set up a Peace Secretariat for the Muslims.

Walking down the street mid-afternoon, warmed by a lzy sun battling a cool breeze, it is easy to forget to the chaos back home and the hopelessness that every bullet fuels. I am perhaps more angry at those the ‘experts’ are domiciled here – who, from their vantage of leather backed armchairs or with arms akimbo, will proclaim that Sri Lanka is a country devoid of hope.

Plus ce change, plus ce la meme chose?

I was recently told by a Professor of mine that as peace builders, our primary goal is to construct hope. I would imagine that this would be a trifle difficult if you are more versed in ‘Footy’ rules than the dynamics on the ground in Sri Lanka, though of course, that doesn’t stop the Aunties and Uncles here coming up with very imaginative conspiracy theories.

Don’t see any easy path for peace in Sri Lanka – though through violent meanderings and setbacks, I do believe that in the years to come, through many lost opportunities, there is still a semblance of a promised land that for many of us is the one hope which keeps us going.

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A Very Short Story – Random notes taken by a mobile keyboard

A Very Short Story – Random notes taken by a mobile keyboard

It is the taste that gnaws you first. The taste of loveless sex. The mechanistic, greasy aftertaste of a meaningless meeting. To mate. The prostitution of a wonderful thing.

The emptiness. The disgust of skin on skin with a foul smelling stranger who has just sucked your cock. How even the strongest of brushing can’t take away the memories of the taste. Of the writhing supin body as it entered you. The frustration of an unfulfilled desire to have the one person you actually want to make love to only in an imagined presence. The want to push the blame on her. he waste of money. So easy it would be then.

The goose bumps of disgust. The cold shiver – of an anonymity broken. The yearning for an irreverence that does away with public face. Too young – a conservative at heart.

This is my last. The opprobrium of myself is too much to bear. Silly, but perversely necessary. The feelings of inadequacy, the glances, the looks, th gestures towards an alien, will have to be managed another way. Somehow. Not this. Again.

Feeling cheated. This Mephistophelean bargain of an insatiable desire. The words which clamour within which cannot be told aloud. Thoughts which have no words. The layers of self repugnance. Of thoughts yet to bear, in the light of day, the lacerating truth, which will inevitably be shafted into a corner. The lesson that is hoped has been leant. The tired acknowledgement that this is not good.

She was ugly. Drunk. Stiff. Why? Is it the money? She knew my countrymen – the added burden of a stereotype. Of being a nobody is a generalisation of somebodies. The ejaculation – truncated by the robotic nature of the movement. The log beneath.

The constant drone of voices I love from back home. Of voices I want. Now. To prevent this descent into a hell I must not plunge into.

Have half descended.

This hole. This moral uprightness of somebody in the public and another in the private. This Janus duality.

Of her back home. Petite. My love.

I need her. I miss her. Even now, it is in every sinew of my body. That I can’t live without her. Disgust of the preset weighted against the hope of the future.

Hope. That is all I have.

I hate myself.

Hope. That is all I want.

I need her. This instant. To cherish, to hold, to breathe, to touch, to feel, to sense, to connect. All of her.

This is a half moon night. Back home, they would say that anything begun now would bea fruit.

Waning moons are bad. Perhaps the Full Moon is too.

This is madness.

I love her. I. love. her.

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