A deeper state of mind

So he was glad the war was finished. But as for the notion of Eelam itself, “that will never be gone”, he said, looking suddenly intense, old and bitter. “But we can’t speak of it; we have not the power. Those that have the power can say. What can we say? We can’t say. But it will never be gone.”

Mr. Arayappan, quoted by Mark Whitaker in his essay featured in Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam and Daniel Bass

The convenience, or perhaps trappings of power, position and privilege often result in sanguine predictions for Sri Lanka’s post-war future. Last week, Cabinet approved the purchase of new fighter jets, apparently to replace the country’s ageing existing fleet. Following the approval given to the import of luxury SUVs for MPs, this is at a time when news reports suggest 95.4% of all government revenue is going towards debt repayment. And though incredible in the fullest sense of the word, fighter planes, creature comforts and cruise control clearly trump education, health and public utilities for our policymakers. There is clearly a rot at our core the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe democratic cred seeks to gloss over. It is a rot out of sight and out of mind for many, and conveniently so, in light of attention anchored to glistening computer renderings of urban spaces, the adulation of government by the international community and high-level engagements with bi-laterals and multi-laterals.

Arguably, a lot that is positive is taking place. The debate around the setting up of a permanent office to look into missing persons and enforced disappearances. The OMP bill, debated last week in Parliament, covers individuals who are missing (1) as a consequence of the conflict in the North and East, including soldiers who are missing in action; (2) in connection with political unrest or civil disturbances; and (3) from an enforced disappearance as defined by international law. This alone would never have been even remotely contemplated by the former regime. Earlier this year, a twenty member Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms, appointed by the PM held sittings across the country and came out with a substantive report. There is an Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. There is a Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms. There is currently a Consultation Task Force seeking public opinion across the country. These are all unprecedented moves. Though not always clear or coherent, there is open debate around the nature and constitution of investigative mechanisms around transitional justice, with the PM, President and other members of Parliament expressing views candidly, playing to respective constituencies. The Right to Information Act is now reality. Measures to give back land in the North are going on apace, as well as the demilitarisation of administrative structures through the appointment of civilians. We have a President who commands the respect and indeed, patience of the Tamil National Alliance. We have a PM who often now recognises in public what civil society under the Rajapaksa regime were called terrorists for advocating. Individually and collectively, the seemingly chaotic nature of pronouncements and policies aside, all this is generally positive and very welcome.

Revealingly though, there are however things we have not moved away from. The genuflection by every single political leader in front of a deeply conservative, risk-averse sangha primarily interested in maintaining the status quo. The near total lack of any introspection by the sangha of its own, and in particular the hate speech generation of the Bodu Bala Sena and its saffron-robed leaders. The revered status of ‘war heroes’, to the extent that any critical questioning on command responsibility around allegations of war crimes, or indeed, any wrongdoing, is still met with the greatest hostility. The conflation of separatism with the devolution of power from centre to periphery, and the enduring violent resistance of any kind of asymmetrical configuration for the North and East. The symbolic role of Buddhism in particular, and religion in general, in matters of the State. Proponents of reform calls for sequencing and patience – that just the ten years of democracy’s evisceration under the Rajapaksa regime will take time and effort to address, leave aside the legacy of decades of majoritarian policymaking post-independence. There is merit to this argument, and those of us not in government have the luxury of criticising inaction, without adequately appreciating the monumental difficulties of negotiating compromise amidst competing political interests.

And yet, this is where Mr. Arayappan’s sentiments, quoted by Mark Whitaker, comes into play. It speaks of a state of mind, real, not imagined. And mirroring the deep or dark state in the South – almost entirely invisible to average citizens yet omni-present and violently opposed to any radical restructuring of the state or the questioning of its agents – this state of mind if unaddressed will undermine every single thing the government says or does in the months and years to come. The violent deep state in the South is the result of incubation by successive governments for achieve partisan, parochial ends. The post-war imagination of Tamils is the result of alienation, wistfulness and desolation – the burden of grief in a landscape no longer reflecting the loss and trauma they carry within, the strain of a public persona that needs to engage with positive developments and a silent, inner voice that still yearns for recognition, respect and dignity. It is a condition of yearning too, for what the ‘boys’ stood for, even by those who lost the most to them. If the State is unable to capture the vacuum left behind by the defeat of the LTTE in mental spaces, and sees its victory and peace in primarily material or geo-spatial terms, we risk believing in the same fiction that disastrously drove the Rajapaksas in their pursuit of development-led reconciliation. Capturing hearts and minds is difficult, especially when successive governments and even Tamil political leaders have promised so much and yet delivered and done so little. And yet, it is essential.

A dark state embedded deep in the South, no longer politically expedient, can be controlled and curtailed by executive directives, judicial oversight, security sector reform and the sunlight of public scrutiny. Addressing a state of mind that remains only cosmetically attached to post-war governance poses a much harder challenge. You can’t force anyone to believe something, and the more you try, the less inclined they will be. OMP, TJ, SCRM, CTF, ONUR, RTI remain empty acronyms to those who continue to feel outside the fabric of democracy. A political leadership insensitive to this – how people who have been most affected by war feel – risks believing a self-spun fiction entirely removed from ground realities.

Rude awakenings will invariably follow.

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.


First published in SAMSN Digital Hub


The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

Maya Angelou

‘Sampur’, a new and compelling short documentary by filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam released last week, is now freely available online and over social media. The film deals with displacement. Seven years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, that so many in Sri Lanka can’t go back to their homes may come as a surprise to some readers. The documentary centres around internally displaced individuals from Sampur – a town located about thirty kilometres South-East of Trincomalee. The hellish conditions those displaced had to endure for over nine years was, in part, highlighted by the enervating heat we’ve endured for so many weeks across Sri Lanka. If from the relative comfort and security of our own homes we often complain about the withering weather, it is hard – even when their lives and living conditions are projected in high definition – to truly imagine the lives of entire families confined to small shelters, tin roofs over their heads, with no electricity or running water. The film showcased the struggle of seven individuals to return home. There are many more in similar conditions, also waiting to go back home.

The end of the war was a ripe moment for those displaced to return to their homes. This did not happen. Instead they spent years in IDP camps before returning to find their land still occupied, and were forced to live in temporary, makeshift housing. The opening up of the North and East to journalists provided new frames and opportunities to capture stories that for decades were marginal, or even violently erased. And yet, their stories are still not meaningfully documented or reported. The filmmaker highlighted another ironical development, post-war. During war, he noted, an intrepid filmmaker was able to capture footage from the North and East under the radar of the military and other officials. Since 2015, he noted that while filmmakers can move around freely, the military continued to block or ban the filming of tracts of land, festivals, or specific locations, despite official requests from government authorities to allow filming. So while Sri Lanka’s post-war “success story” continues to generate kudos from the international community, thousands continue to be traumatised by the presence of the military. This is not hyperbole. A character in ‘Sampur’ speaks of how humiliating it is to have to ask permission from the military weeks in advance to just visit a temple, only to be turned down with no reason given. Another says how scared she was of being shot by the military when returning to her own home. It’s just one line amongst many others that are equally poignant, and points to an enduring fear years after the end of war in Sri Lanka that can’t be laughed off or somehow wished away.

A rough analogy would be to have armed, resident and State-sponsored burglars in your home, who on a logic entirely distinct from and independent of you or your family, opened and closed the front door, oversaw what you did and said, used your home as they saw fit. Further, they also saw you you and your family as annoyingly occupying property that belonged to the State, even though it really is your own land to which you have a legal entitlement to.

This is Sampur in a nutshell. The absurdity of it all is in fact what so many endure, with no recourse to the law, no savings to start anew elsewhere, and in fact, no desire to leave their homes. The indignity is what is most disturbing. Long after you’ve forgotten what was said by someone, you remember how you felt. Successive governments have promised equality and freedom for Tamils. Few have made them feel at home. The excuse for what is essentially systemic racism on multiple levels can no longer be that political change takes time. It’s really quite basic – allowing someone to go back to their homes in lands privately owned and occupied by generations, cultivate their land, sleep without fear of being shot at. Being spoken to in a language they can communicate in. Being treated with dignity, or at the very least, with nothing more than the same rudeness and maddening inefficiency that all of us face when dealing with government. There are various theories about winning hearts and minds as integral to a just and lasting peace. Intellectual exercises around power sharing, electoral reform and transitional justice have no traction with displaced people eking out a living. Symbolic gestures matter perhaps far more? The restoration of a title deed. Even a simple hut in one’s own land, constructed by oneself, contrary to the government’s recent attempts at resettlement with recipients having no say over the type of house with little or no room for modification according to individual needs. Symbolic gestures can over time, and in the aggregate, invariably strengthen more complex institutional, constitutional and political reform agendas. No matter what genius guides a top-level political reform process, if communities and individuals like those depicted in ‘Sampur’ continue to live the way they have since 2006, we risk more violent conflict – and there is no sugar-coating this.

This would be such a tragedy, for all of us.

This is why ‘Sampur’ as a film, Sampur as a location, and Sampur as a frame of reference cuts across party political, communal, ethnic, economic and other identity markers. The film will be broadcast on TV and will hopefully resonate amongst those in other parts of the country who have also been displaced, or forcefully evicted. Those in Colombo need not look as far East as Trincomalee – the relatively invisible yet sustained evisceration of entire neighbourhoods and inter-ethnic, inter-religious communities who have lived together for decades, under the ‘beautification’ drive of the previous government and the megapolis plans of the present government, strongly mirrors the violence of those featured in the film. And while we may debate the scale and scope of the violence, the point of ‘Sampur’ is that we never lose sight of an essential, shared humanity.

This Sunday it’s very likely that you have this newspaper in your hands, or are reading this article on your palm or desktop, at home. Whatever form home takes and wherever it is, you are the custodian of a small piece of Earth’s crust to open out to others, to grow trees or bonsai, to build or break down, sell or rent out, walk in and out whenever you please and with whoever you please. To sing in the shower, or hog the loo. To run away from, or return gratefully to. To show off to others, or just admire privately. To party or rest. Pause to think about everything home means to you and your family. Where you are now. Where you grew up. Is it really too much to ask the same freedom, the same contentment, security and dignity for everyone in our country – especially for those who have lost so much?

The new old media

Growing up close to the Ratmalana airport during the 80’s, the noise from the pressurisation of large turbo-prop planes pierced the air at night and into the early hours of the morning. It was a sound we got used to. The other sound was of sirens, from ambulances. Endless streams of wailing sirens followed a few minutes after we heard a plane land. The ambulances didn’t stop. But after a while, the sirens did. Every morning, after one of these convoys of ambulances ruptured the night, the media – my father used to buy a government owned newspaper at the time – heralded some great victory for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Casualties, and ultimate defeat were on the side of the LTTE. Advances, and imminent victory, were on the side of the Sri Lankan military. And so the fiction went on – headlines in the media suggesting a narrative violently countered by the bodies of the dead and grievously injured airlifted from the North of the country to Ratmalana almost every night.

My distrust of media – electronic, print, mainstream, even new and social – is anchored to these nights, and the content published the day after. Over three decades later, the foundations of what gave life to blatant lies in the media remain firm and indeed, even more entrenched. New and social media on the web, and through our mobiles, do two things – they democratise narratives, allowing the discriminated, marginal or weak to take centre-stage. Two, for little to no expense or effort, the consumer can potentially go to a plethora of sources in order to find out more, determine the veracity of, counter or confirm a story. Has this helped media literacy? The jury’s out on this score, and what’s evident already is that access to greater choice, or the opportunities to interrogate more what one consumes, hasn’t translated into better journalism.

Readers of this newspaper may not fall into a demographic that takes for granted ‘news’ in the form of an infinitely scrolling section featuring video, text, photos and audio, conflating the private and personal with the public and official, on a single social media network. And yet many of my readers, at least in print, may have subscribed to one or two SMS news services. Others may get articles via email, sent by family, friends or colleagues. A few may still buy more than one newspaper – one State, one Private – in order to get a ‘balanced’ view. Rarer still are the readers who will go to a public library in order to read newsprint. Much has changed in three decades in the generation and consumption of news. Much remains unchanged.

Open for example a leading daily newspaper owned by one of the largest media groups in Sri Lanka. On most days, on the front page and continued within, there is a column dedicated to gossip. There is no effort to disguise this – the very title of the section makes it clear the content featured in it is as far removed from journalism as bulto toffee (remember those?) from an After Eight mint chocolate. This bears repeating – in our daily news media staple, idle-talk, unconfirmed stories, sexist bunk, unverified incidents from unnamed sources, the personal lives of individuals punctured with insinuations, innuendo and inanity – find their way on to a front page. Often, this content is published with scabrous graphics. We pay to read gossip. It gets worse. The media itself reports, without a hint of irony, various government schemes to help journalists purchase laptops, broadband connections, cars or motorcycles. To my knowledge, not a single journalist who has been the recipient of or benefitted from these easy payment and gift schemes has self-disclosed what they received. Some would argue that the majority of individuals who have benefited from these schemes are in fact worthy of supporting – journalism they will point out, isn’t a profession that is well paid or regarded in this country. And yet, the non-disclosure is deeply problematic. There is a clear conflict of interest, and an understandable barrier against independent reporting, if a journalist indebted to government is asked to critically examine governance. During Aluthgama’s communal riots – the worst Sri Lanka had seen in many years – official mainstream media output from both Private and State media chose to ignore the violence. This is excused by some who point out the awful political context at the time. Yet, how can we understand the hesitation to take on a leading multi-national soft-drink corporation after it polluted Colombo’s drinking water supply? Why is it that heads of mainstream media, summoned to the Prime Minister’s or President’s office, fail to disclose what was discussed?

In early January 2015, a leading media rights group – the Free Media Movement – approached a candidate standing for the Presidential election to uphold a five-point agenda on media pluralism. Maithripala Siresena was that candidate. As President, the change promised is more symbolic than systemic. Outmoded, outdated institutional structures and cultures remain intact across the media.

And so it continues. Instead of media that engages, helps imagine, sees laterally, visualises complexity, discloses, with reasons, its location on the political spectrum, innovates and really inspires, we pay for unadulterated gossip, atrocious design, poor writing, bad journalism and advertorials. Journalism as a start-up, married to civic media models – encouraging young, raw talent to write or produce what they want through digital tools, finding space for them to be featured in the mainstream – offers a way forward from the suffocating banality of the mainstream. In Sinhala, Tamil and English, creative productions and writing is blossoming. Careful curation and aggregation can help expand audiences. Digital tools are democratising the production of compelling stories. Old media is investing heavily in new technologies. Young voices are going back to long-form journalism, which is seeing a global revival. Data driven journalism is not just for economists anymore.

It is harder to hide ambulances at night carrying the dead and injured today, than it was in the 80’s. Much remains to be done.  It’s our media now. Let’s write its future together.


Published in The Sunday Island, 17 January 2016.

Wicked Problems

“We cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking we used in creating them.”

Albert Einstein

A few readers may be familiar with the term ‘wicked problem’. Though tempting to assume it is, this is not a reference to the Rajapaksa family’s fetid legacy in governance. The man who coined the term, Horst Rittel, was an urban planner and designer, who found traditional planning methods inadequate for the complex problems he encountered.

A wicked problem is best understood as a very complex, multi-dimensional challenge – difficult to grasp, always in flux and onerous to solve. Rittel identified key characteristics of a wicked problem, which may sound annoyingly counter-intuitive to some readers who may be experts in their subject domains. Bear with me.

First, you can’t understand a wicked problem until you’ve developed a solution – different perspectives, from different people, lead to a problem that isn’t ever precisely defined, making it impossible to see what can work as a solution until one is actually tried. There is no one solution to a wicked problem, and there is no perfect solution. Wicked problems can most often be best addressed by solutions that are good enough, given the circumstances and context. There is no right or wrong solution – they can be better, on one side of a scale, or not good enough, on the other. How a particular solution is viewed depends on, amongst other things, gender, age, subjective bias, interests, location and identity – different people will see a solution’s relative merits differently. Every wicked problem is new. Reducing urban congestion by allowing access to odd and even number plates into the city on alternating days may work in Delhi, but around the same challenge, may not work in Colombo, where more efficient public transport could be a better solution. There could be similarities in wicked problems, but the solutions are rooted in specific cultures and contexts. Solutions to wicked problems may result in the multiplication of other wicked problems, largely through unintended consequences and likely over the long-term. This is often a Catch-22 situation – you can’t address a wicked problem without trying solutions, but each solution tried brings with it the risk of more wicked problems and indeed, the burden of having to underwrite solutions which may not be as effective as first imagined. For government, this essentially means experimenting with public coffers, not something to be taken lightly in light of future electoral prospects. Finally, and perhaps the hardest to entertain, is that wicked problems may in fact have, at present, bad or no solutions, and that better solutions only come about as a result of new advances in R&D, out-of-the-box thinking, iterative design, sandboxing, incubation or some other process through which non-traditional problem solving approaches are tried and tested. This last point underscores the need to come up with imaginative, creative solutions, going outside traditional wisdom, the usual echo chamber of experts and ossified theory.

How can an appreciation of wicked problems be used to strengthen government and governance post-Rajapaksa? Under the Rajapaksa regime, it can be argued that wicked problems were seen and addressed as tame problems – challenges to which pre-defined solutions were retro-fitted, with scant regard for consequences. Highways, ports and airports, at eye-watering costs to the public, built without any discernible logic or justification, are key examples in this regard. The Rajapaksa’s are now gone. The challenges – all of them wicked – endure.

How do we develop cities and urban centres to accommodate projected population inflows? How do we encourage the use of non-polluting, zero or low emission vehicles and at the same time reduce urban congestion? How can our infrastructure accommodate the growth of industry and commerce? How can a new constitution capture the aspirations of all our peoples? How can youth unemployment be tackled? How can the government tackle graft and reduce transactional corruption? How can tertiary education be revamped? How can militarisation in the North and East in particular be reduced? How can strict lane enforcement on roads work with traffic congestion, poor signage and bottleneck junctions? How can greater awareness around the significant health risks of cigarette smoking be raised, given the ten-fold increase in revenue from cigarettes and tobacco excise taxes between 1990 and 2012? How can State media be transformed into public service media? What are the implications of first year school entrance for those who have been evicted under the beautification projects in Colombo? How can the inheritance of wicked problems like the Colombo Port City, Lotus Tower and Mattala Airport be best addressed?

Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, in comparison to the previous regime, may be outwardly more consultative, there is no discernible evidence those in power today, their associates and the architecture of governance is better able to address these problems. Einstein’s quote captures this succinctly – the same systems, thinking and indeed, individuals that gave rise to the problems we face today, cannot realistically be entrusted with solving them.

What needs to be done? The Australian Government’s public policy guidance around wicked problems, published in 2007, offers some insights. Three key strategies are championed – authoritative strategies, that “give the problem to some group (or an individual), who take on the problem-solving process while others agree to abide by its decisions”. Secondly, competitive strategies, that pit stakeholders against each other, usually with a prize anchored to greater power or influence. Thirdly, and stated as the most effective, collaborative strategies, that get disparate groups working together towards a common interest.

How to nurture a mind-set in government, and our public life, better able to embrace wicked problems is, no surprise here, itself a wicked problem. Shouldn’t we start at primary school, teaching our children the value of questioning everything? Shouldn’t our media impart the value of critical reflection over mindless repetition? Should our tertiary education devalue rote learning and instead nurture creative thinking? These are the essential ingredients of collective intelligence – seeking solutions to entrenched problems by opening it up to the wider public. Think of it like a Wikipedia approach to governance – we all contribute to something in order to make it better, and government becomes a platform for informed debate, as opposed to a mindless driver of anachronistic, parochial or downright disastrous solutions.

Yahapalanaya promised a reboot in governance. It would be a pity if the change was merely cosmetic, instead of systemic.


Published in The Sunday Island newspaper on 20 December 2015.

Curator’s note | Corridors of power: Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy



What is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

My struggle through curation has always been to explore the inconvenient and marginal through new or alternative ways of observing. Through visual art, theatre, sculpture, music, photography, literature, video and information visualisations, I have creatively leveraged unusual pairings and strange juxtapositions to shift complacency and apathy to critical reflection and engagement.

‘Corridors of power’ is my most ambitious curatorial attempt yet.

When, years ago, I studied the process through which South Africa negotiated the transition out of apartheid rule – which involved a paradigm shift in their constitutional frameworks – I registered the use of a wide range of media at the time (before the days of social media, smartphones and the Internet as we know it today) to critically support debates amongst civil society that were as rooted in locale as they were widespread over geography. It occurred to me – with all the technological tools and platforms in use by so many today, why are constitutional reform and related debates still so alien to and removed from society in Sri Lanka – a country seven times smaller in size than South Africa, with far less identity groups and just three instead of eleven official languages?

Connected to this was an interest in the constitution as an enabling (or in the case of Sri Lanka, enervating) idea. The process through which the heinous 18th Amendment came to pass was deeply instructive in how through the manipulation of discursive spaces, the spread of misinformation, the shrill drowning out voices of caution and reason and in a context of fear, with mainstream media controlled by partisan and market driven interests, expedient parochialism was seen as somehow benevolent and necessary.

Two years after the 18th Amendment, my first attempt to interrogate the constitution through architecture was in 2012 with ‘Mediated’ – an exhibition that focussed on research driven art – and was anchored to the depicting the power-sharing in pre-British Sri Lanka as a viable model for devolution of power, post-war. The output was a collaboration between architect Sunela Jayawardene and Asanga Welikala, a constitutional lawyer and close friend from the halcyon days of S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. My second attempt was in 2013, and involved Sunela agin. As part of the ‘30 Years Ago’ exhibition, a triptych by her portrayed key developments and individuals three decades after the events of ‘Black July’, using Google Maps imagery on Jaffna, Colombo and elsewhere as the base layer.

Though compelling and critically acclaimed in their own right, I yearned for a more finely matched interrogation of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture. Architecture is for me a dark art – making small spaces seem larger than they are, harnessing the chiaroscuro within a building to influence the mood of inhabitants, enabling access to spaces, barring access to others, creating secret pathways, chambers and shortcuts purposefully or inadvertently, giving the illusion of openness, when in fact inhabitants are boxed in, or conversely, freeing up a claustrophobic space with just slivers of open sky.

If architects were the gods of spaces they created, I wondered, could the same be said of those who drafted our constitution?

A constitution is essentially a blueprint of power relations. Architecture – drawing, rendering and modelling – provides a blueprint of spatial relationships. This exhibition is not a study in how and to what degree (State or authoritarian) power influences the design of edifices. It is rather an attempt to use the visual and spatial expression of architecture to visually depict as well as deconstruct loci of power as enshrined in our constitution.

What, I imagined, would a corridor that connected a central hall to a room far in the periphery look like? How many people could fit into these corridors? What would the President’s room look like? Would it be large and grandiose with thick walls and few windows? How would someone access the Supreme Court? What would Parliament look like? What would the rooms and offices within it be like – porous walls that allowed conversations from adjacent spaces to seep in, a catacomb of doors, some mysteriously locked, to access what was otherwise a stone’s throw away? How large would the main halls be, and how cramped would be the periphery’s accommodation?

Approaching Asanga again, I invited him to capture in writing what he thought were crucial stages in Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. I then approached Channa Daswatta. Asanga’s research became the site, and I, his client. Regular face to face interactions with Channa in his office, lasting hours, and the exchange of ideas with Asanga led to this exhibition. It is the riveting accomplishment, through Asanga’s and Channa’s genius, of a vision I have harboured for years.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the futility of even more amendments to a constitution that since conception 1978 was deeply flawed. It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, “the centre cannot hold”. Through errors thrown up by the architectural programme Autodesk Revit, significant flaws of our present constitution are clearly flagged. The models will collapse over time. The drawings are increasingly grotesque.

The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of our constitutional vision.

All this, we countenanced. All this, we could have opposed. All this, we voted in, defended or were silent about.

‘Corridors of power’, as with all my exhibitions previously, is an invitation to reflect on what we have been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future. Spaces to meet, reflect and react need expansion. The checks and balances of power need firmer foundations. Centripetal tendencies in design must be eschewed in favour of centrifugal development. We need open spaces instead of closed sites, grass to walk and play on instead of just to admire. Easy access to key locations. Light, more than shadow and shade too, where needed.

In sum, we need to be the architects of the change we want to see. It is the essence of citizenship. It is what gives life to a constitution worth having. Worth knowing.

Worth defending.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 4 September 2015

Curators Note | Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future

Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future’ – an exhibition featuring Sri Lankan art and work from the Artraker “Art of Peace” series, theatre and public discussions – was an attempt to interrogate how we see the past in order to envision a better future.

Full programme here.

Facebook event page has all the updates.

Podcasts of all the panels and keynote addresses here.


If and when asked, many would say they are interested in finding the truth. Truth seeking, whether through faith, a political process, debate, research, investigation, introspection or whatever other means, is not on the face of it a process many will oppose. And yet, counter-intuitively, few are really interested in truth. Asking questions that seek to contest what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the ‘single narrative’ risks upsetting partial and partisan history, beliefs and powerful myths ingrained in a group, community or nation. Accordingly, there are ‘truths’ we hold on to, knowing they are untrue. There are ‘truths’ we believe in because we haven’t questioned enough, and don’t know how to. There are other ‘truths’ that even just to question marks one out as a traitor or a terrorist supporter, and out of fear and fatigue, we just allow the lie to take flight.

And therein lies the rub. Largely as a result of an education system and pedagogy in Sri Lanka anchored to rote learning and mindless regurgitation, many of us do not have the capacity to critically question what we are told or consume. As a result, the worst lies and distortions are blithely accepted, indeed even vehemently championed. The inclination to question is seen as deeply subversive – an entirely unnecessary aberration, best quashed quickly. The willing suspension of disbelief, a phrase from Coleridge, becomes the socio-political norm, with truth seeking as a fringe lunacy that only seeks to open wounds, memories and histories best left untouched or at the margins.

Post-war Sri Lanka is defined by an enduring struggle between memory and moving on, between recalling the inconvenient and violent erasure, between those who seek to probe and those who want to cover up. Working at the intersection of politics, art, theatre, media, technology, memory and subjectivity to create a space for reflection, ‘Watch this space’ looks at a country in transition, where a just peace remains elusive and the space(s) to remember the inconvenient – the ‘Other’ – still results in hostility and violent pushback. The art frames conversations in response to violence and the conversations allow perspectives on the art that would otherwise not have been generated or acknowledged. The emotive, complex, divisive, challenging issues the art responds to, is framed by or is a product of are what discussants, speakers, actors and panellists will robustly interrogate over a week. The questions are provocative, the art will unsettle and the theatre will jar with what many consider the truth. This is deliberate.

No greater truth was ever arrived at by sloth or servility. ‘Watch this space’ is an invitation to ask questions. Rude questions. Hard questions. It is an invitation to reflect, a space to not just passively hear, but actively listen and respond. It is platform that brings perspectives on violent conflict from outside of Sri Lanka and juxtaposes this art with work located and produced in the country. I am indebted to Saskia Fernando for first introducing me to Artraker and their amazing collection. I am deeply thankful to all the speakers and the Floating Space theatre company for respectively agreeing to speak and perform at the exhibition. The curation of this exhibition benefitted hugely from the intellect, experience, courage and insight of those who are associated with it. I can only hope the selection and pairing of speakers on the panels, the keynotes, original theatre, art and resulting discussions will help us all question more, and more deeply, what kind of country we really want Sri Lanka to be post-war.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 30 July 2015