A harbour of discontent

An article published in the New York Times generates a sobering frame of accountability and corruption in Sri Lanka today. After publication in print and online, the article generated extremely high readership, sharing and other stories, referencing the original. The role, reach and relevance of the New York Times was buttressed considerably since 2016 by domestic pushback in the US from quarters in Washington DC chagrined by the paper’s unwavering and unflattering scrutiny of policy, pronouncement and politics. The manner in which the story spread in Sri Lanka was revealing, though this brief summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance and variance present in the capture and contestation of the original story, especially over social media.

The immediate and expected response from the Rajapaksa camp was to deny and decry vehemently. This initial enfilade was followed by various pronouncements over social media promising a more robust official response, which however didn’t appear for days. In the meanwhile, the former Central Bank Governor released content in response to the article, which was picked up and distributed by the Rajapaksa camp as evidence of the story’s false premises, and bias. The official response, badly formatted and without spell-checking in English, was perhaps first drafted in Sinhala. Stylistically, the English version was clearly the product of many authors. By the time the Rajapaksa’s produced an official response, the original article had gone viral. At the same time and over social media, an unprecedented cacophony of trolls – accounts with fake photos and names, activated after a long period of being dormant, or freshly created – started to attack in particular the journalist from the New York Times and those she had worked with in Sri Lanka. Personal attacks produced by close associates of the Rajapaksa camp over social media helped these trolls, in two ways. One, by the production of content that tried to name and shame the journalists involved in the story as having hidden agendas, partial to or somehow architected by the UNP. Two, by the support they extended to more vicious commentary of trolls by the act of actively liking their content on Twitter – a process which cannot be automated or accidentally occur. These trolls, in a frenzy of activity, let loose a barrage of verbal abuse against those partial to the merits of the story. Many of the worst comments were explicitly liked by prominent, official, personally curated accounts of the Rajapaksa camp, signifying that they were partial to not just the pushback, but the expression used and the violence engineered. On TV, politicians from the Joint Opposition held up photos of those involved in the story and said that the entire article was rehashing content first published in the Daily News newspaper, some years ago. After the official response from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office, the former President, those close to him and the troll army all noted how they would sue the New York Times. Many, your author included, roundly welcomed this move, as a way in which facts and documents pertinent to the article would be through court proceedings, be made public.

The public and private pressure – not all of which is in the public domain – directed at those who worked on the story was so bad, and happened at such an accelerated pace, the New York Times issued an unprecedented public warning noting that any issue the former President had with the substance of the article should only be taken up with the newspaper, and not by threats of violence or retribution. This warning was echoed by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Foreign Correspondents Association of Sri Lanka, as well as other domestic and international media freedom groups. The shrill threats of suing the newspaper died down. Late last week, Rajapaksa regime acolytes over social media, giving their ‘personal’ opinion, noted that it would be a waste of money and that it was far more useful to go after the conspirators in Sri Lanka who fueled the story. Meanwhile, in response to a complaint lodged by a government MP, the CID was reported to have launched an investigation into the allegations noted in the New York Times article. The only problem here was that the New York Times highlighted in some detail content it claimed was sourced from on-going investigations into the Hambantota Port deal and campaign financing around it. On social media, your author and others flagged the sheer absurdity, truly comedic if not for how tragic a picture it painted of governance in 2018, of the CID investigating an on-going investigation purportedly conducted by the CID itself!

The farce only got worse (or better?) towards the end of the week. The Media Secretary to the former President spun the original article as somehow linked to a statement by John Kerry made in 2016 which had helped the UNP government come to power, and that the New York Times, ideologically partial to or part of Obama-Clinton liberalism, opposed the incumbent US President as well as China, which in turn was why in concert with senior figures in government, who with local collaborators embedded in the mainstream media, conspired to produce the article – all with a view to discrediting Mahinda Rajapaksa!

Your author has lived through and heard a lot of conspiracy theories since 2002. This one though – by sheer force of imagination – was in a different league.

For its part, the UNP – seemingly unaware of any on-going investigation by the CID and dealing with a political nuclear winter after MP Vijayakala’s pro-LTTE statement, distanced itself from allegations in the article that it was forced to hand over the port to the Chinese. In doing so, astute observers noted that the PM was no different to the former President in denying allegations in the article which were politically inconvenient, without any robust material evidence or public debate. Meanwhile, China also unsurprisingly denounced the article as fabrication and fiction. The pro-Rajapaksa troll and tripe army, activated shortly after the article went live, focused their attention more towards those in Sri Lanka, instead of a global media giant that clearly couldn’t be dragged into their snake pit. From at first a frothing Hydra-headed monster, the pushback – online and through more traditional means, morphed into a sharper, more strategic, ominous spear intentionally aimed increasingly at those in Sri Lanka, in tandem with the Rajapaksa camp’s shift in focus to go after – legally or by other means – those they perceived to be behind the article.

It is unlikely the lead author of the New York Times expected any of this. The theatre of the absurd surrounding the publication of the article holds some humbling lessons. Journalists, freelancers and fixers in Sri Lanka tasked with helping international media institutions cover in-depth stories now know the fate that will befall them if and when they cross a line in the sand that raises the ire of those in power or seeking to regain it. It is a chilling effect that will impact quality, probative, investigative journalism. The current government will not deliver on promises to hold the Rajapaksas accountable for corruption. The Rajapaksas have much to hide, going by the raw nerve that was touched and the telling dynamics of the responses to the article. China has much to hide, going by what it has said and importantly, what it has not said. It takes the New York Times to bring to public attention investigations that are so dormant, the CID itself seems to be unaware of them. It takes an international newspaper to focus, however short-lived, public debate on issues our President, our Prime Minister, the government, and domestic media should be leading the scrutiny around.

The New York Times article may have set out to flesh-out Mahinda Rajapaksa’s corruption. What it has inadvertently achieved is to flag the current government’s inability and unwillingness to hold the former President answerable. Clearly, accountability is just a word that features in campaign manifestos.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 8 July 2018.

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Apples and oranges

“If Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes to power it’s not due his own merits but due to the great betrayal and incompetence of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. My so called influence has no bearing.”

Departing US Ambassador Atul Keshap was in the news last week, associated with comments around Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his bid for Presidency. The substance of whatever this senior diplomat said is not what I am interested in, and in any case, has been unsurprisingly denied by those he met with. It is Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an idea, and Viyathmaga – his political project – as a platform. In recent weeks I have written about my own fears of the man, and the surveillance I was unknowingly subject to for years as a consequence of running afoul of the Rajapaksa regime. Many others have expressed similar sentiments in the media, and some with much greater insight into the man and his militant machinery. It is however his political project I am more interested in, independent of his individual identity and past.

Viyathmaga’s vision and mission, which I’ve read many times, is compelling. In spirit and tone, if not in substance and thrust, it is impossible to be opposed to it because it captures in essence the same vision for the country as the Sirisena manifesto did late 2014. Respecting difference, the value of meritocracy and a democratic credo are all anchored to personal frames of action and spirituality – a slight (calculated) shift from the Sirisena manifesto embracing what animated people in 2015 and plugging it for 2020. It is necessarily silent on everything else, because populism is essentially that – a thin ideology, that in its projection of authenticity opportunistically embraces other cultures, ideas, processes and people in the pursuit of its own goals. Gotabaya Rajapaksa plays an old game, but with some new tricks.

In 2011, Prof. Andrew Wilson coined the term ‘political technologist’, capturing through an examination of Putin’s Russia how through the adroit manipulation of media, including social media, authoritarian power can be strengthened and sustained. The model of containment and control is an interesting one. The use of physical violence ranging from murder and torture to abduction and intimidation is strategic and almost mathematically methodical – aimed at a few, always with plausible deniability. At the same time, the regime gives the public through entertainment unfettered access to a plethora of competing, often confusing content to debate endlessly and be distracted by. The real concerns over governance and democracy are thus limited to a select few, either geographically contained or weakly linked, who cannot gain any real traction for their work amidst an enduring tsunami of likes and shares. Even if episodically able to attract attention, the sheer volume of misinformation and disinformation can very quickly, and relatively easily, drown out critical content.

China’s model – simplistically and often projected as blanket censorship of anything politically inconvenient – we know is anything but. A dissertation by Margaret Earling Roberts called this fascinating framework a mix of fear, friction and flooding. Fear, the most obvious, to control the production and spread of inconvenient truths. Friction, being processes by which through delays in loading times, challenges around access, the requirement to register, or see some unrelated content beforehand (think of all those annoying ads before a YouTube video starts to play, but for much longer and with no real option to skip) critical commentary isn’t censored – it’s just made harder to access. Genius stroke, because human nature is geared to consume the content of least resistance. Finally, flooding, which not unlike Putin’s Russia, gives the public what they want and like the most – entertainment.

Given the relations with Putin and Xi Jinping, and looking at the media output of the JO in general, it would not be unrealistic to think that the some of the advice around regaining power is linked to how technology can be leveraged to channel popular discontent to parochial ends. But while this is conjecture, the data around the JO campaigns and content on social media suggests they are leveraging – consciously or purely by coincidence – dynamics of what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells calls the ‘network society’. When I made a brief presentation of this to some senior policymakers and politicians late last year, anchored to a paper on technology and referenda, the response was revealing. A few minutes devoted to concern, surprise and praise for new thinking around older challenges. The rest of the discussion was around how the existing, ageing, unrepresentative, illiberal, corrupt, failing, frustrating and futile party political architecture could address the risks outlined around authoritarianism’s propensity to weaponise democratic affordances.

In other words, no one in the room got it. The campaigns of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa get it.

Suffice to say that it is possible to see through data in the public domain, how Viyathmaga and Namal Rajapaksa’s media output fare, in relation to what the government through its leaders or constituent political parties put out. By almost any yardstick, the engagement with content generated by the JO today across all social media is by order of magnitude consistently greater, wider and deeper than anything, anyone from government has produced at any time since 2015.

Quite frankly, the interesting study here is not so much how far ahead of government the JO is, but what the data suggests are strategic differences in the political vision and campaigns of Namal and his Uncle. One, aiming to cultivate adulation, admiration and adoration for harvesting a decade or two hence. The other, networking with high net worth, influential individuals, framing, projecting and producing content with a more immediate, tangible political goal. The two networks are fluid and overlap, but also in demographics, reach and engagement, diverge. The real contest, as other political analysts have hinted at, is not so much what comes after yahapalanaya, but what comes after what will most likely replace it.

Always up-front with what I feel and think around those I like, I wrote a while ago to someone who spoke at one of Gotabaya’s events. Part of the response I received, quoted above, tells its own story. The Rajapaksa’s offer a vision that, ironically, appeals most now to those who voted in this government in 2015. Unmet promises fobbed off by those in power, indignity, insensitivity, enduring economic hardship, existentialist fears around faith, future and identity and more, from all parts of the country, have now metastasised into active, sustained and importantly, entirely organic engagement with criticism of government, framed by the JO, involving millions.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, the response isn’t technological in the main.

Those who feel marginalised, unheard, disappointed, disconnected and anxious need to see, hear and importantly feel they have a way to communicate their grievances. This requires regular, physical contact and consultation. Not Facebook updates about Vision 2025. Photos on social media soon after 10th February revealed that the SLPP had a booklet distributed amongst its elected officials across all the LG bodies around how to work towards 2020. I haven’t seen what is in it, but the intent is clear. It is unclear what if anything the government has by way of a similar, bottom-up, strategic, comprehensive and cohesive vision that connects it with the people.

Instead, we have those in government who can’t even grasp the disconnect, and worse, honestly believe it can be solved by what has been done before.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 June 2018.

The question not asked

The collision of the comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 into Jupiter in July 1994 was at a time when there was no social media, broadband or smartphones. The significant of the event to the scientific community, and anyone interested in astronomy or cosmology, was that it was the first extra-terrestrial collision in our solar system to be closely observed and monitored. News of the collision and the resulting scientific observations came to Sri Lanka relatively late, only through the mainstream print media. I followed it with great interest and was subsequently asked to speak about it in school at a session called Current Affairs, held every Wednesday for all A/L students. It was my first public speech, and was the ticket to English debating, writing for and then ending up editing the College magazine. But the reason I spoke about astronomy – a subject that to many in the audience was entirely esoteric and provided an excellent excuse to whisper amongst themselves or at the time, or delve into salacious print produced by and for schoolboys – was the selfish projection of a childhood interest to gaze at the stars, and how they got there. The excitement of explaining trajectory and terrain, of observations through telescope and implications for us, was not shared amongst the audience. And to date, our education system anchored to rote and regurgitation strips away almost all the joy out of scientific knowledge and discovery, requiring students to memorize compound, composition or table over the cultivation of an inquiring mind. I did horribly in all my science classes, scoring poorly, but I read voraciously everything my father bought for me on science, which included a subscription to National Geographic, science and space encyclopedia’s and science fiction novels.

The disconnect at the time between the vividly illustrated books at home, and their engaging style of writing, and the boring, turgid prose plus awful monochromatic illustrations in the government textbooks, coupled with soporific teachers more interested in marks than co-inquiry, could not be starker. It is only now, when I see my son studying what he does, and how, that I am very wistful of my own time in school where more engaging syllabi and pedagogy may have driven me to a life and vocation very different to what I pursue today. But that early love for science hasn’t diminished and is why whenever I go to a new city, one of the first stops are the science and natural history museums.

There is a global and local movement for the strengthening of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in secondary and tertiary education, especially for girls. So-called STEM subjects are the foundation for jobs that are the most sought after and highly paid today, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, ranging from machine learning, predictive analytics, big data harvesting, data visualization, specialized or generalized artificial intelligence and cutting-edge socio-economic analyses. On the other hand, I have always been an ardent proponent of the arts and humanities, noting that all the greatest scientists throughout history have had a deep appreciation for, love of and critical engagement with music, literature and the visual arts. Perhaps a well-rounded individual needs both, for I find too many in Sri Lanka who are clearly very good at scientific inquiry completely uninterested in the arts, and conversely, many actors, writers and activists entirely dismissive of exciting scientific discoveries that while completely removed from the realm of their work and output, locates us as humans amidst our built and natural environment, our visible universe and so much we cannot yet relate to, see or have the language to comprehend.

This year, I started a subscription to New Scientist. For years, whenever I have been thoroughly depressed with partisan politics, parliament and politicians, I have taken refuge in the Scientific American, NASA or National Geographic for two reasons. One, every encounter with this content is a vital reminder of how little I know and understand of anything, of both our insignificance as individuals and profound significance as a species. And linked to this, every visit is a vital reminder of how bigger the world is, when often it seems to be solely framed by the monumental ignorance of those we elect to political office in Sri Lanka. In school, I read Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, Niven and obviously, Frank Herbert (introduced to many later through the superb Dune computer games). Through them I found new worlds, and a taste for mental exploration. This is not something we still teach in school, and the only reason I am this strange way today is because of my father’s indulgence, at a time I know now he could ill afford it, to buy me whatever book I wanted and asked for.

This is why I nearly cried when I first peeked into the library at Parliament, many years ago. It is a wonderful space – vast, well-stocked, carefully curated, brightly lit, climate controlled and, tellingly, completely empty. I have been told only, quite literally, a handful of MPs use it. But we should not blame them. It is our education system, that teaches us to constantly look down and drill into memory, when we should be looking up and learning more about finding answers, that is the root of this proud, publicly paraded nescience. Our schools punish creativity identified only as distraction, and our teachers, tired, underpaid and under-appreciated, have little to give their students by way of kindling their minds, instead of filling their books.

Science, including science fiction, reading far beyond subject matter, day-dreaming, spending time in library in sections entirely unrelated to interests, wandering through a science museum, reading up on the stars or the effects of light on zooplankton, the search for and study of exo-planets, the jaw-dropping beauty of Hubble’s imagery of the farthest regions of space, listening to Hawking (and what was an acerbic humor), or downloading an app to place and pin the constellations above you, looking at a new moon or getting lost in documentaries like ‘The Last Man on the Moon’, recently released by the BBC are pleasures children – and indeed, adults – must be told to be unashamed about, and rewarded for. Some readers may think these are pursuits only upper echelons of society can manage. They are wrong. Science is all around us. Its negotiation constitutes our daily life, the very core of our being and everything we do. To engage with science and indeed, be captivated by science fiction, is just to question our environment, our lives, and our choices.

Fundamentally, I have come through science, reading and inquiry to a question we do not ask, and aren’t taught to ask. A question that is not just at the heart of scientific inquiry, it is the very essence of active citizenship. To ask it – and keep asking it – is deeply frowned upon and violently opposed, because there are no simple, easy answers, no quick soundbites possible in response. The question is powerful because it unravels and unmasks what is held or projected as true, and posits instead a creative uncertainty, viable options or possible alternatives – anathema to politicians interested only in voters who can’t give them a hard time.

The question is a simple one, in fact, a single word.

Why.

Always and forever, ask why.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 May 2018.

Fuelling a crisis

Long queues of vehicles snaking around petrol stations was a familiar site last week. Two other developments, with attention on the petrol crisis, went relatively unnoticed. One, an announcement by the Prime Minister that there will be an online opinion poll on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. News reports quoting sources from the Prime Minister’s office noted that “opinion of the public would be sought through web comments and postings on Facebook pages”. The other development was the inaccessibility of the Lanka E News website on Wednesday. All major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) seem to have blocked the website, which by Thursday was only accessible by using a proxy.

The petrol crisis seems to be the result of a perfect storm of mishaps and coincidence. A ship from Lanka IOC was turned away due to impurities in the oil. A ship bringing supplies for Ceylon Petroleum Corporation – CEYPETCO – was delayed. The Sapugaskanda refinery developed technical issues. Some computer systems failed. Just-in-time delivery demands that reserves are minimised in order for the tanks to have enough storage for incoming oil shipments, failing which oil tankers would incur heavy demurrage when docked at or moored around Colombo Port. When the recent shipments were either rejected or delayed, relevant government officials had worked out supply chain logistics in order to use the reserve supplies in Sri Lanka to meet projected demand, based on existing data for an average week. However, an SMS and subsequent social media outing of the shortage of supplies led, very quickly, to high demand, putting paid to all the calculations by officials around the supply of fuel until the next shipments arrived and were cleared. Meeting sustained peak demand would have depleted all remaining supplies of oil. Officials were forced to ration the supply of petrol, leading to shortages around the country, queues extending for over one-kilometre, angry, tired drivers, a confused, panicking public and the spread of rumour, further fuelling the crisis.

The insight into the petrol crisis noted above was gleaned from the ‘Saaraprabhaa Gira’ programme broadcast on SLBC’s Commercial Service’s on the morning of the 8th. The programme featured Secretary at CEYPETCO, Upali Marasinghe, who in response to probing questions channelling public fears and anger, responded in a lucid, calm and informative manner. Though commendable for going on air, it was the first clear messaging from government around the petrol shortage and the reasons for it nearly a week into the crisis. Two days prior, Arjuna Ranatunga, the Minister of Petroleum Resources Development, issued a convoluted Press Release in horrible, broken English that explained nothing and blamed everyone else other than CEYPETCO. Neither the President nor the PM saw it fit to directly address the public, or to go meet them as they queued – sometimes for over ten hours – just to get some fuel. There was no SMS from government, no social media outreach, no mainstream media interview or statement. The PM noted on the 7th in Parliament that he and the President had already discussed getting another shipment of Petrol from India with Indian High Commissioner. This was confirmed the next day. However, as flagged by well-known journalist Amantha Perera on Twitter, reaching out in desperation to the Indian PM for help in dealing with the crisis ran counter to Ranatunga’s Press Release, which placed the blame squarely on Lanka IOC. In the meanwhile, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka kept telling the media there was a mafia in Sri Lanka’s power and energy sector which needed to be investigated. This added to public anger and concern around the perceived inability of a government in power to deal with something as basic as adequate fuel supplies.

The chaos surrounding crisis and public communications over just the past week is instructive when attempting to determine how the government will go about an online poll on the Interim Report of the Constitutional Assembly. The analogy that springs to mind is to ask someone who clearly cannot cook, and is a disaster in the kitchen, to make a gourmet meal. The PM first talked about social media in the constitutional reform process as far back as January 2016. Absolutely nothing happened since, until last week’s pronouncement that something – we do not know what or how – will be done to energise the public to give online feedback around a process and report they know little to nothing about. Survey after survey clearly shows the government has done nothing to educate the public on constitutional reform. An ill-informed public will unsurprisingly provide negative, anxious feedback in the main, ironically feeding into the JO’s masterplan of disruption and fear mongering. In other words, this has all the signs of a disastrous attempt at technocratic governance, a tragic hallmark of the UNP, instead of using technology to engage, educate, empathise and energise.

And this brings us to the blocking of the Lanka E News website, a day before the budget was presented in Parliament. The website is well-known as nothing more than a platform for the production and exchange of gossip. That is precisely why it is frequented by so many, and not for the website’s journalistic prowess, integrity or the preponderance of accurate, verified stories. And yet, possibly on account of a series of articles targeting President Sirisena, the government has now blocked access to the site across all major ISPs in the country. There is no court order or judicial process that governed this action. Nearly three years into the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe yahapalanaya government, this action showcases a lot that’s remained unchanged, and indeed, profits those in power. ISPs are fearful of government. The government, as only it sees fit, blocks access to content. The courts are side-stepped and rendered optional at best. There is no oversight of or insight into executive fiat. It embarrasses no one more than the government itself. It gives credence to and fuels even greater interest in what Lanka E News has published. This one censorious action will sadly place Sri Lanka, once again, on the radar of international media and web monitoring frameworks, risking rankings that have steadily improved since January 2015. It is a short-sighted, ill-informed, self-defeating action that reaffirms opposition to any sort of social media governance the government is partial to.

And so here we are. A fuel crisis impacting millions that the government’s arrogance didn’t find necessary to proactively address in a coherent, coordinated, empathetic manner. The vague promise of online engagement over the new constitution that in the manner it is presented, and given the demonstrable (in)competence of government, is bound to fail and worse, strengthen the JO’s machinations to derail everything. A gossip website suddenly blocked without any due process, that highlights, amongst other things, how insecure and thin-skinned the incumbent President is.

All this isn’t the best news heading into a year that for better or worse, will define Sri Lanka’s socio-political contours for decades to come.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 12 November 2017.

Reimagining a city

‘City Game’ is a participatory exercise in urban planning developed by the Bangalore based think-tank ‘Fields of View’. Using whatever material available to represent structures, locations and spaces, participants are encouraged to build a city that they would like to live in and interact with. The exercise is engaging on many levels. A traditional workshop model would usually entail detailed presentations followed by little time for meaningful discussion, especially around a topic as multi-layered as urban development. The ‘City Game’ provided a framework for each participant to contribute what they thought was a meaningful construct towards an ideal city, and for others to contest or complement what was placed through other structures they felt necessary, or by engaging others in a discussion around the meaning, implications, placement or the politics of choices made.

The ideal city our group came up with had a port and beach, suburbs, a central business district, airport, waste management plant, schools, bars, public wifi, solar and hydro-power generation, parks, hospitals, clinics, a university and other features. Part of the city was on mountainous terrain, serviced by a cable car. Most of the city was imagined to be at a lower altitude, tapering down towards the seaside. The initial placement of a Town Hall organically grew into a single city centre, with a constellation of neighbourhoods and other administrative, commercial, residential, recreational and educational spaces around it. The central business district around halfway into the simulation got a hotel and a monorail service that linked it to the city centre and suburbs. The beach area was negotiated away from the port, by at least two participants who had a vested interest in its placement near a suburb they had contributed to the creation of. Others made places of religious worship into multi-faith centres, and cemeteries into crematoriums. The inclusion of Police was thought of very late into the simulation, with participants focussing more on supermarkets, accessibility of government services, public transport and parks. Interestingly, to my mind, the simulation ended before participants got around to creating city parking, a train station or bus depot.

The game, through what was created as well as what was avoided, reflected what a city often is and should be, at least, for the participants who took part in the exercise. Fields of View, which has done over one hundred similar simulations around the world, had a number of interesting insights to share with the group. In Europe, for example, consultation and planning amongst the group preceded any kind of actual construction or placement of objects. In South Asia, we were told that conversations were usually around what was placed first, and only then around its location, nature, purpose or selection. A rare exception we were told was a group from the Sri Lankan Administrative Service (SLAS), who had started with substantive discussions around the kind of city they had wanted to create before anything was placed on the floor. Another notable feature of the SLAS group’s city had been a lot of trees and green spaces.

Aside from the city we ended up with, which many of us said would be very close to one we would love to live in, the conversation at the end of the construction phase of the simulation was illuminating. Everyone brought into the imagined space their experiences, bias, frames of perception, notions of justice and visions of the good life. The game is obviously more interesting the more diverse the group of participants are, but even among the like-minded, interesting tensions emerged around choices. A participant who wanted a place of religious worship found that others in the group wanted a more secular city, changing the building into, ultimately, a multi-faith centre. Many felt the construction of a hydro-power station was unnecessary given the city’s investment in solar – with one participant flagging Elon Musk’s path-breaking very high-capacity battery technology in South Australia as a marker of what cities in the future, and future cities, would invest in. What we left with was a greater appreciation around just how much urban spaces and their development should be a conversation more than a product, place or process dumped on inhabitants with little to no consultation. A city is and can be many things. Depending on one’s gender, politics, experience, age and so many other identity markers, a city is an organism negotiated through a spectrum ranging from ease to discomfort. The simulation was a useful tool in bringing these assumptions centre and forward in discussions around how what was created could actually serve the inhabitants who would go on to live in a particular neighbourhood, area or suburb. Conversely, as Fields of View also reminded us, so much of what we want to see in our ideal city is an extension of what we enjoy in our own neighbourhood or community. The projection of the familiar is the default mode of imagining what an ideal space for everyone must look like, downplaying what others may think or feel. Needless to say, this leads to conflict, the management and productive negotiation of which is absolutely central to urban development.

My own contributions focussed on bike lanes, the Internet of Things (IoT) and its application in urban development as well as clean energy based urban transportation networks. A participant who wanted the city’s inhabitants to easily access administrative services wanted to place government offices around the city, including in low-income areas. My submission was that even today, the smartphone – cutting across socio-economic groups and other identity markers – was central to keeping in touch, as well as alerting and informing others. Any city in Sri Lanka today, leave aside the future or the ideal, needs to invest more in ways that administrative services are rendered accessible over smartphone and tablets, including through voice-driven services like 1919 for those who were relatively illiterate. My point was that the development of these always-on, on-demand, multi-lingual and multi-media services would militate against the need for brick and mortar administrative structures dotted across a city. Public wifi, following cities like New York, Bangkok and more recently, London, would allow anyone, anywhere to access, at the very least, all official and administrative services and beyond that, private news, information, communication and entertainment options. One benefit of this could be the diffusion of commercial, office space, allowing a culture of co-working and home-based telecommuting to take the place of a physical commute to work every day, contributing in turn to a less congestion on roads and public transport systems. Mobile charging points dotted across a city could enable shared electric vehicles to take the place of individual vehicles when coming into and driving within the city. Dedicated bike routes, coupled with bike share and pay-per-use hire programmes, could encourage those with a short commute to work to avoid personal and public transportation and instead, just cycle into and around the city.

All this aside, a quick scan of social and mainstream media in just the past year surfaces a wealth of conversations around how, for example, Colombo’s urban development can take place, instead of what actually is taking root, broadly supported on aesthetic grounds, largely unquestioned, often deeply violent and generally accepted as inevitable in the way it is presented. Just like the ideas generated at the simulation today, there are also ideas in the public domain around how things can and should be done better. The disconnect seems to, as it is in other domains, be more with the disinterest of local and national authorities to listen to and consult citizens, than the paucity of ideas, innovation or interest. City Game offers no concrete solution to this. However, the possible democratisation of the game – played with as many communities and in as many spaces as possible, with a robust capture of the output and discussions, would for the conscientious urban planner or policymaker offer insights that can make our urban spaces work and feel better, for everyone.

One risks disappointment to hope that this will be the case, instead of what today is a process that alienates, evicts and disempowers, all in the name of visual beauty, cleanliness, efficiency and social progress.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 July 2017.

The new constitution that may never be

Gramsci spoke of the pessimism of intellect and the optimism of will. How does this relate to Sri Lanka today? The deafening silence around the process of constitution making, justified by key architects as inevitable in order for progress around tenacious issues to be made, indicates to all but the most delusional the reform process has little to no traction in the public imagination. This is a problem. Basic intelligence suggests a process as vexed as writing a new constitution, without public traction or debate, dumped by government elites for approval just before a referendum risks confusion at best and opposition or rejection at worst. And yet, Sri Lanka really needs a new constitution. If the constitution expresses the will of the people, it needs to be one that guides us away from the structures of power and identity that led to what we are still hostage to – a violent, racist State, largely unable as a first step to even recognise the degree to which it excludes and discriminates. The optimism of will, when embodied in a constitution, is what can guarantee to the extent possible a better future for all citizens, independent of what government, Executive or Prime Minister are, say and do.

Disturbingly though, things are not going well. And that is an understatement.

An islandwide poll conducted by Social Indicator, the polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (to which I am attached as a Senior Researcher) on perceptions around and attitudes towards the new constitution makes for very depressing reading. The official topline report will be released to the public this week. Some of the key findings bear mention.

Contrary to what the President, Prime Minister and the whole of government may believe, a quarter of Sri Lankans have no clue that a constitutional reform process is taking place at present. 34.1% know a reform process is taking place, but have no idea about the details or where the process is currently at. The twenty-member Public Representations Committee (PRC), appointed by the PM, held public sittings in all districts of the island earlier this year. Just the written representations to the PRC numbered in the thousands. And yet, echoing concerns made at the time around publicity and awareness raising, the Social Indicator poll brings out that over 70% of Sri Lankans hadn’t heard of the PRC or its activities. It gets worse. A staggering 76.8% hadn’t heard of the Constitutional Assembly, which held its first sitting on the 5th of April 2016 in the Parliament Chamber. Even amongst those who had heard of it, there was no awareness around what it was doing. Unsurprisingly, nearly 60% of Sri Lankans said that the Government hadn’t been successful in communicating the constitutional reform process – such as its importance or progress – to citizens.

Fundamentally, this means that the majority of Sri Lankans today don’t know about the constitution making process, haven’t heard about the PRC much less its final report and are clueless, even if they have a vague idea of what’s going on in government regarding the reform process, around key outcomes and output. There is simply no other way to interpret the data. It is a slow onset catastrophe. The public or political communications aspect is worth flagging. Television remains the single most important vector for news and information, with private channels consumed more than state owned media. This isn’t surprising. What however the data also confirms is, I would argue, an irreversible, growing trend around the importance of Facebook in particular and Internet based sources in general as vectors of news and information. 15.7% from the Southern Province and 11.1% from the Eastern Province said that Facebook is one of their main news sources while 29.5% from the Northern Province and 15.8% from Sabaragamuwa said that emails from friends or family is a main news source for them. Pegged to an earlier social poll conducted in the Western Province by Social Indicator late-2015, what this suggests is that there is increasing opportunity to engage directly a demographic between 18 – 34 through social, web and mobile media and, importantly, that investments in engaging this demographic can in fact also influence an older age group, because of the nature of sharing and forwarding content. Given this data, the tragedy is in the fact that the government is doing nothing at all around an opportunity to proactively define the contours of the new constitution amongst those whose votes placed the President and this government in power.

Flowing from last week’s column, reservoirs of goodwill still run wide and deep for this government. The majority of Sri Lankans believe it is good that the two main political parties have come together in a National Unity Government and also think the two parties should remain together. The challenge is leveraging this enduring appeal to address what can only be politely put as a deeply conservative socio-political outlook by Sinhalese, and the South. Take for instance Article 2 of the present constitution which marks the country as a unitary state. 77.7% of Sinhalese want to retain the phrase ‘unitary state’. Only 14.3% of Tamils, 18.1% of Up-Country Tamils and 28.8% of Muslims concur. There are clear, perhaps growing ethnic divides which are very likely to be the contours of constitutional contestation in the near future. On the question of giving Buddhism a special place in the Constitution, 77% of Sinhalese strongly agree. 73.3% of Tamils strongly disagree. Almost 90% of Tamils and Muslims strongly agree that the new constitution should give all religions equal status. Yet, less than 64% of Sinhalese concur.

There are other interesting insights. 49.3% of Sri Lankan said that for them, a unitary state means one united, indivisible country. The realisation of precisely this is independent of labels given to the architecture of power and its precise configuration between or within centre and periphery. But labels matter, to some more than others. The Sinhalese (55.7%) want labels – they want the new constitution to be identified with markers like ‘unitary state’. Just 15.2% of Tamils, 11.9% of Up-Country Tamils and 22.2% of Muslims concur. Minorities in Sri Lanka want meaningful, systemic reform no matter what the label is. The majority community can’t see beyond what specific arrangements are called. This is a playground for spoilers in the South.

The final section of the report is anchored to the Provincial Council system and its future. One figure stands out, given the current tensions in the North and within the NPC. 69.2% of Tamils believe powers of the Provincial Councils should be increased. Just 37.8% of Sinhalese concur. Support is highest in the Northern (77.8%) Province. In comparison, only 29.5% in the Southern Province agree.

Should we be pessimistic about the potential for change or optimistic around what may happen, despite government? Damningly, there is clearly no real political leadership to what is ostensibly a priority for government. Will publication of this data inspire, even at the 11th hour, action, vision and direction? Gramsci wrote what he did from prison. We are in a prison too, called the ’77 constitution.

Time for a historic jail-break.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 October 2016.

Shape South Asia 2016 & ‘Corridors of Power’

I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

The first video went into the background of the exhibition.

The second was anchored to the 3D renderings of each of the models.

My note on the concept, research and evolution of the project can be read below.

Asanga Welikala’s background research into and overview of the project can be read below.

Channa Daswatte’s take on the project can be read below.