It’s been a long year, or more precisely, feels like it. Yet at its end, 2018 also feels short – punctured by individuals, institutions, violent events, chance discoveries, demagogues and Democrats. One and a half months of pre-planned reading and research went out the window on the morning of 27th October. Not without strange symmetry, this year, for me, ended the way it began – in ways I could not have planned for or even anticipated.
In February, applying for a visa, I discovered by complete chance that I was technically under Police surveillance and on a watch-list since CHOGM, held five years ago. My great crime, I was told, had been to articulate opinions critical of the then government to international media. Writing at the time to these pages, I wondered how many more are, to date, under the same blanket surveillance, forgotten now but on file, with re-animation a command or click away. The experience was also a stark reminder of Sri Lanka’s deep or dark state, hyperactive even today in the war-torn regions and with documentation on, going back years, individuals who were inconvenient to the former government. The pervasiveness and scope of these intelligence operations against former, rehabilitated combatants and civilians deemed threats are unclear. Far from dying embers of an erstwhile Police state, these operations continue in stealth, unquestioned, unaccountable and unseen, even under the present government – a diurnal and nocturnal fact of life for those in the North, by order of magnitude more than it is ever felt or present in the South.
Almost coinciding with when I did get Police clearance for my visa, towards the end of February, the unprecedented violence in Digana further postponed my departure. Coming soon after the SLPP victory in the local government polls – itself a rude but necessary wake-up call for the government – the violence generated global interest on account of the role, reach and relevance of social media. Echoing the violence in Burma along the same lines, major social media companies were found entirely unprepared for and ignorant of local dynamics that used their technology to seed, sow and spread violence, hate and fear. At a time when Mark Zuckerberg was being questioned by Congress in the US, the nature of violent online content and its influence, if any, in instigating kinetic, physical violence was a white-hot topic in Sri Lanka – and not just on account of the President’s unilateral action to block social media at the height of the violence. Those debates continued throughout the year, sadly informed by ignorance and hysteria more than sober, evidence-based policymaking and writing.
A year ago this weekend, the local government poll campaigning had just started, and it was evident the President was already acting as a spoiler. In what at the time the clearest evidence that the coalition government was coming apart and in near total disarray, campaigning for the SLPP under the pohottuwa symbol was invariably and directly aided by the President’s vicious criticism of the Prime Minister and the UNP. The result on the 10th of February was not unexpected given what at the time was fatigue, in many quarters, with a government that was clearly crumbling, fumbling, bumbling and stumbling instead of simply doing what it had promised and received a mandate for. It is the result of the electoral result that was more damning, with the UNP promising much by way of internal party reform, only to end up with a risible and ridiculous restructuring. Every single data point collected on social media around individual politicians and political parties since starting doctoral research in April indicated, and very clearly, the government would not have easily survived another electoral test at the end of its term or a referendum, whichever came first. Content on and discussions around constitutional reform were statistically barely registered, reflected what in other mainstream media and discourse was also almost entirely absent by way of emphasis or interest. Jana Balaya, the march to Colombo organised by Namal Rajapaksa in September, though a failure judged by footfall and physical participation, nevertheless galvanised at the time, on social media and amongst a key demographic, the seething disconnect with searing discontent of government.
And yet, nothing this year compared to what the evening of the 26th October bore witness to. Of the reams already written on the constitutional coup, including through this column looking at social media at scale, country, constitution and context faced unprecedented change or challenge. We will never go back to how things were on the morning of the 26th. Enduring questions remain, but it is unclear who are – now that the crisis is over – champions of systemic reform. It isn’t the President, who is a national embarrassment, political liability and prone to what can only, sadly, be called lunacy. It isn’t Mr. Wickremesinghe, whose rightful position and place as Prime Minister was so staunchly defended by so many not because of personal affinity or partisan loyalty, but in principle and out of constitutional providence. After the crisis, however, the tsunami of goodwill and support that surged to the UNP is ebbing. This is mainly because – tragically true to form – Mr. Wickremesinghe is unable to connect with a pan-political, socially diverse, geographically spread, demographically young and spirited, democratic, reformist movement that deconstructs the UNP as he sees it, and others in the party, vying for his position, want to (re)create it. The best indication of this came by way of pushback to a tweet holding a large private TV and media network responsible for outright misinformation during the constitutional coup, in support of the Rajapaksas. The tweet, which didn’t reference any particular individual within the UNP, was very quickly responded to by Harsha de Silva and Sajith Premedasa, who were in turn widely ridiculed for defending and condoning what throughout November, by everyone in support of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s restitution as PM, flagged as indefensible, and downright criminal. So while the PM today talks about a black media mafia, senior members of his own party, including its deputy leader, defend and condone this very media and content that supported the President and the Rajapaksas. Finally, the architects and champions of systemic reform cannot be anyone in the SLPP.
Think about it for a moment. We are told today, with straight faces, that propaganda and media coverage on the SLPP membership taken by Mahinda and Namal Rajapaksa was in fact, not really leaving the SLFP. We are told that the coup was really an attempt at creating a caretaker government, when not a single conversation, or any content around the time of the President’s unconstitutional action late October, referenced this. In fact, the campaign pegged to a vote only came about as a result of the interim relief by the Court of Appeal, mid-November. We are then told that the vote would determine the legitimacy of parliament at a time when parliament had been elected, legitimately, and had constitutionally determined that Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLPP, three times over, didn’t command a majority. Thus, the very people who wanted a vote, essentially ridiculed franchise. This too, with a straight face. The first reactions to the Supreme Court ruling, on social media, are no longer present. That’s because Namal Rajapaksa and others from or partial to the SLPP were all in contempt of court with immediate reactions that questioned or ridiculed the judgement and portrayed the bench as individuals executing an agenda architected by the usual evil nexus of foreign powers, NGOs and a liberal elite. Populism, the SLPP’s brand, was mixed with blatant racism, which continues.
Imagine 2018 as a political uterus, giving birth to dynamics that challenge what endures as 2015’s democratic moment. The President’s affaire du cœur with the Rajapaksas, now openly conducted, continues apace and with impunity too. No indication yet, or in the near future, that he and those he conspired with will face any accountability. Large, influential sections of the mainstream media clearly contribute to our democratic deficit, including but not limited to state media which twice in as many months as completely reversed the tone and timbre of reporting to reflect whoever is in power. The UNP’s current and future leadership offer no demonstrable grasp of the support they, for the moment, enjoy and stand to, again, lose. Riven by internal conflict, the patriarch of the SLPP and paterfamilias of Rajapaksas will struggle to create a path for filial succession, clearly now easily beguiled by those in his party who see this one weakness as a way to control him, and execute their own designs. The TNA will also struggle, ironically precisely because of the central role they played in defeating the President’s shenanigans. The JVP, enjoying a surge of popular support, will in the near to medium term electoral landscape, play a role more influential than existing data suggests they were able to engineer late 2014, leading up to the Presidential election. All of this, and much more, is happening at once, merging, morphing, coalescing and violently repelling. Nothing is certain.
And therein lies the rub. Without urgent, bold action, the UNP stands to lose far more than the President or the SLPP. The technical nature of the coup and its devastating, disturbing dynamics will invariably lose ground, over time, to emotive, populist arguments that propose deeply illiberal ideas, through different means and channels. And the economic fallout of the coup, ironically, will over the medium term aid the SLPP and the President, because it will be the UNP that bears the brunt of the fallout, in global market and financial conditions that simply will not support easy recovery. But the greatest threat to government comes from those who stood up over November against the coup. Apathetic, frustrated, angry and disconnected, in and through the coup, they found, almost overnight, a calling and voice. It is clear the democratic dividend fought for, will simply not materialise. What happens then is an open question, that through franchise, will be answered next year.
But instead of course-correction, we have political amnesia, and what was just last month the prancing support of civil society, is now a galloping retreat from what so many protesting wanted to see, beyond the same old men, in the same old positions, doing the same old things.
First published in The Sunday Island, 30th December 2018.