Ying and Yan

Mahinda Rajapaksa issued two press releases on the 3rd of December. One in Sinhala, the other in English. The press release was in response to the interim stay order issued by the Court of Appeal, basically putting Rajapaksa out of the job he was unconstitutionally appointed into and hasn’t to date demonstrated any capacity to retain, even illegally. The English version was, unsurprisingly, terse and succinct. However, when juxtaposed with the Sinhala version, immediately obvious, even visually, was the difference in length. The Sinhala press release was three paragraphs longer than the English version. In a rough capture of the significant differences first posted on Twitter, I noted that the strong emphasis on duty, patriotism and nationalism present in the Sinhala, was entirely absent in the English. Further, Rajapaksa deviously conflates partisan, parochial loyalty with civic responsibility, entwining citizenship with, essentially, mindless enslavement to his politics and party. The tone and expression employed also suggested Rajapaksa expected to be supported in his endeavours, or in other words, wanted blind allegiance independent of what he did, and how. Even if it meant violating the constitution.

The fact that the press release was never issued in Tamil is also its own story. To be fair by Rajapaksa, Tamil, much like the community, is an after-thought for mainstream political parties save for, ironically, the Tamil National Alliance, which regularly puts out its press releases in Sinhala. More interesting is the selective approach to Tamil translations and content. Soon after the coup, Namal Rajapaksa tweeted in Tamil noting that the issue of Tamil political prisoners would be looked into. That tweet was never translated into Sinhala and posted on his official Twitter account, despite repeated calls to do so. This was at the time both father and son were courting the TNA. Dog-whistle politics stoking up communalism is a forte of the SLPP, for whom the political binary of being with them or against them is never out of fashion. They and only they love Sri Lanka, in a manner they alone define. Anyone else, daring to stand against or even question this – as we know from how they governed for ten-years – courts violent pushback or worse. Online, a cult of personality hides an authoritarian bent, where especially since late November – when it was very obvious that the coup was failing on every front – everyone who stood up Mahinda Rajapaksa or members of the SLPP was painted as a terrorist and pro-LTTE. In addition to everyone from human rights NGOs, anyone who took part in a protest as well as anyone on social media holding Sirisena and Rajapaksa accountable, LTTE cadre ostensibly now include the two dramatists who refuse to acknowledge and shake hands with the SLPP MPs present on stage at the State Drama Festival Awards. The racist rhetoric of violent division and separatism isn’t just coming from pages and accounts the Rajapaksas can claim they have no influence over or control of. The racism is ingrained in and featured on official accounts, where the text and imagery both explicitly and implicitly hold Tamils to be, by nature, separatists and the TNA to be, by default, terrorists.

All this, in 2018. It’s like the war never ended, and the primary reasons for the war to start, not even remotely comprehended. In a race to the bottom, the one thing worse than and perhaps flowing from the disregard of and disdain for constitutionalism, is racism. It is not a light charge. If we limit ourselves to just the weeks after the 26th of October, there is one family that is most frequently and overtly associated with racism. The Rajapaksas. There is one party that most frequently uses racism. The SLPP. There is one individual around whom an entire constellation of accounts have mushroomed that are in spirit, visual content and expression, racist. That person is Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There is another constellation of pages anchored to Sinhala-Buddhist organisations or collectives, without exception deeply aligned to Mahinda Rajapaksa. They are all racist. There are card-carrying defenders of Mahinda, Gotabaya and Namal Rajapaksa on Twitter, who put out racist content. Official spokespersons of high-ranking SLPP politicians put out racist content. The dog-whistle politics of official communiques of Mahinda Rajapaksa stokes racism. The evidence is in the data, and it is both quantitatively and qualitatively, stark. The Rajapaksas are racist to the core, either by the silence around what others say, or by putting out content which exacerbates existing socio-political, communal and religions divisions.

It is all very depressing. Despite the significant power they wield to harness out better angels, the SLPP tragically and tellingly persists in promoting racism as a legitimate response to political difference, criticism or pushback. The result is that their impressionable following on social media see this heinous language and framing as entirely normal, and legitimate.

The coup, in a way, has forced us to confront many things civil society, government and the international community were acutely aware of and for some time, but didn’t want to address head on. For this, we must thank Sirisena. Instead of an entropy that entertains the luxury of plausible deniability or wilful ignorance, we have endured a rapid, inescapable descent into chaos that has clearly marked Maithripala Sirisena, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLPP, sections of the mainstream media, some countries, sections of the business community, high ranking members of the clergy, some members of the Bar Association and even sections of civil society as those who do not care about the rule of law, constitutionalism, due process, ethics or principles. This is a good thing, for we all know where each other stands.

That’s the yin, or the darkness. The yang, or light, comes from a historic opportunity to reboot our political culture and constitutional architecture. The Executive Presidency, along with its incumbent, must be disposed of. Pronouncements by Sirisena last week alone indicate that authoritarianism’s first and best refuge, is the office he now holds. It simply must go, and I would argue a mandate much broader and deeper than January 2015 now supports it. Violent, corrupt MPs must be named, shamed and shunned. Unprincipled, spineless MPs who switch party allegiance daily must be ridiculed, reviled and repulsed. Everyone who supported the coup long after it was abundantly clear that the President’s actions had no constitutional or legal basis, must never be forgotten and must also never be allowed to forget. All those who took up official positions under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s power grab, must be exposed. The set up and nature of all state media must be completely overhauled. Radio and TV licenses need to be reviewed and in some cases, revoked, with a transparent, accountable system for dealing with spectrum management established.

For years, if not decades, all of this has been half-heartedly tabled, promised, discussed and forgotten. If we are serious about non-recurrence, all this must be done, and soon. There is nothing more important. Nothing.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 December 2018.

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Hollow Men

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless

The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

There is a flipside to what hasbeen another extraordinary week. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s untouchable veneer assaviour has taken multiple blows. Maithripala Sirisena stands confirmed, as ofFriday night if not well before, a very small, mediocre man. And as with men ofhis diminutive stature, the over-compensation for what one lacks comes by wayof a vaulting ambition that drives one into, first, blindness, and very soon,to madness. That all this unfolded in three weeks, as opposed to a longer-termentrenchment after an electoral contest, can be a useful reminder of what theelectorate must vote against in the future, and concertedly fight against now.

President Sirisena needs to be removed from office. The office of the Executive President needs to be removed from our constitution. Both need to be done urgently and without qualm or question. MPs who attacked policemen, the Speaker, and did other unspeakably awful, violent things in the full glare of the media – both domestic and international – need to be arrested, charged for criminal acts, jailed or at the very least, debarred from entering Parliament. A Code of Conduct for MPs, adopted mid-April this year, allows citizens to lodge complaints against any MP. The process and procedure aren’t hard. Active citizenship requires, and a responsibility, holding those in power accountable for their actions. Citizens must lodge complaints, and in their hundreds. Foreign governments must look at targeted sanctions against individuals who are captured in photographs and videos throwing, of all things, hardbound copies of the constitution, weaponising chilli paste and powder, breaking chairs, pummelling other MPs, throwing dustbins, destroying public property, and quite literally, are enemies of democracy who are breaking the law. The instigator of this catastrophic, historically unprecedented chaos, the President, must be shunned and shamed at every possible international event, for as long as he is alive and especially while he retains powers he is manifestly incapable of directing towards democratic designs.

The propaganda of the SLPP, vastly aided by large private media corporations who in addition to state media, command and control millions of followers over social media, has followed a predictable pattern. It has amplified positive narratives, drowned out critical perspectives and entirely censored opinions that are inconvenient. The machinery on social media is akin to a hub and spoke – there are central accounts that spread disinformation, which spread to other accounts, that in turn amplify this content. A range of other accounts, loosely affiliated to these central nodes, produce content based on this original source material. Gossip on Facebook provides a useful distraction. Commanding the most eyeballs, by far, of any content production on Facebook alone, these sites show photos of babies, children, the Buddha, soldiers posing, nature, and funny memes that in the present context, by distraction, seeks to do two things. One, the normalisation of the coup – as something not even worth producing some gossip around. Two, key frames for followers to appreciate and accept militarisation, politics favourable to Mahinda Rajapaksa and the superiority of Sinhalese and Buddhism. Entirely unlike the overtly racist, extremist and Islamophobic pages I monitor, gossip sites do not engage in open slander or hate (even though the very often unmoderated comments in response to the content frequently incite hate and violence). The goal here is longer-term indoctrination, done in a far subtler manner – with entertainment, veneration, exclusion, partial framing, the frequency of posts, photo selection, street-smart vernacular expression, virality and visual appeal as core elements, among others.

To readers of this newspaper, this is not a world they would remotely be aware of leave aside comprehend. It is, however, an old recipe, done over digital means. The Russians called it ‘active measures’, and while at the time of the Cold War, this sophisticated output designed to deceive populations (as opposed to the intent of propaganda which is to convince people) was limited to radio, newspapers and subsequently, TV. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the new accelerants of disinformation, and you don’t need the Kremlin’s backing or support to launch active measures. Of course, it helps if you do. Letters from the Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Moscow leaked into the public domain, plus numerous visits to Russia by the Rajapaksa siblings offer, at the very least, interesting frames to better appreciate the grand design of what at first appears to be episodic and disconnected.

Think of it like ocean currents, which invisible to naked eye, shape the very nature of the sea. The SLPP is very good at the design of conversational currents, and that is a significant understatement. My doctoral research involves the study of content creation on social media at scale, looking at trends and patterns through the analysis of hundreds of thousands of individual pieces of content. Before the Supreme Court’s interim relief, the conversation was all about going to the courts if anyone wanted to contest Rajapaksa’s appointment. After interim relief was granted, the conversation pivoted to, amongst other anchors, a list of ten points – several of which actively targeted petitioners including Prof. Hoole as a Commissioner, projected and painted as partial or partisan. With Rajapaksa’s position in Parliament clearly hopeless, the shrill brigade started a campaign around voter suppression and the erosion of electoral democracy. After three dramatic dismissals of Rajapaksa’s legitimacy and the President’s lunacy, active measures are now anchored to obfuscating the constitutional legitimacy of Parliamentary proceedings and in particular, the Speaker. At every stage, there is design and premeditation. Hashtags are coordinated, and there is clear collaboration around the sharing of key messages, slogans and foci. Some vent. Others deny. Some push out counter-narratives. Others target key accounts of activists. Some flood by republishing. Others take the cue and publish, at scale, content that mirrors the original intent. Some of this is carefully structured and coordinated. Much of it follows its own logic, like the study of fluid dynamics of physics. All of it is toxic to democracy.

Repeatedly, the question is asked, why? What is in this unholy babel for Mahinda Rajapaksa? He, his son in Parliament, the President, leading members of the SLPP and supporters of the coup are all now indelibly marked by the international community. Domestically, many won’t realise the diplomatic censure and opprobrium, including on Friday after the violence in Parliament, the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa have brought upon themselves. These will have economic, political and diplomatic consequences. Despite all their efforts, even on social media, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s actions are being severely criticised not by those who have always hated him, but by self-declarations of those who respected or voted for him. This gives a glimmer of hope. As I noted on Twitter on Friday, despite the millions of US dollars offered as bribes, the near total media control and censorship, the historically unprecedented violence and intimidation in Parliament, veiled and open threats in public by those from and partial to the SLPP, the proroguing of Parliament and the hostile take-over of all key government departments and ministries, the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa still haven’t established the legitimacy of their actions and appointments.

Sri Lanka’s democracy is alive, but not well. Another tense week on life-support, punctured by the temerity of hollow men, seems inevitable.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 18 November 2018.

New beginnings

A significant disadvantage of being in a country several hours ahead in time is that I wake up to news from the final hours of the day in Sri Lanka. On the 26th of October, I woke up to news of the President swearing in Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. On the 10th of November, I woke up to the news that Parliament had been dissolved. If not already evident for long-time readers of this column, I consider the first and most treacherous act to be a debilitating blow to our democracy, the results of which polity, society and Sri Lanka’s economy have been reeling from over the past fortnight. The second exponentially compounds the problems and extends the chaos. Sri Lanka, based on the actions of the President, no longer holds true to its official name as a Democratic Socialist Republic. We have left democracy behind, and jettisoned it along with our constitution. We are no longer a republic, because the people have been divested of their power and elected representatives denied their opportunity to reflect the people’s will – one way or the other. Given the revelations around the eye-watering sums of money offered to MPs to join the ranks of Mahinda Rajapaksa, neither are we remotely socialist nor are we heading towards communism. These are governance frameworks that love or hate, are defined by established theories of power, politics and economics. There is some order, even in the madness. Sri Lanka today is just pure madness. It is an unmitigated, unprecedented constitutional crisis, unimaginable just three weeks ago.

To be very clear, I consider the present state of the country far worse than the context of 2014’s presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa, at his worst, introduced the 18th Amendment through parliament – of course, making a mockery of proceedings and informed debate in the chamber, but still, in retrospect, without doing away with the constitution altogether. Maithripala Sirisena considers the constitution entirely optional to what he wants to do, see or bring about. This makes him, incredibly, more illiberal and undemocratic than the President he replaced. That really takes some doing. At stake is, in fact, more than every single democratic gain and every single law, institution, process, body, commission and structure set up since 2015. At stake is the very democratic fabric of the country,

Not that readers of this newspaper would necessarily know. Brutishly taking over the newsrooms and newspapers of State media was considered action to shape the public imagination, by deforming news, deflecting critical opinion, denying access to alternatives perspectives and decrying political opponents. It was also signalling to private media to stem or stop critical perspectives. Both are working, and very well. We are back to the authoritarian’s rulebook.

A case in point is the coverage, or lack thereof, afforded to the speeches made at Ven. Maduluwe Sobitha’s Memorial last week. Speaker after speaker, including the very architects of the political movement that saw the incumbent President emerge as the common candidate to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014, vehemently decried his actions. Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda’s deeply intense, insightful and incisive keynote in Sinhala, lasting around 40 minutes, was widely shared and referred to over social media. And yet, there was almost no coverage in print or electronic media. And even on social media, very influential accounts controlled by mainstream media on Facebook and Twitter simply didn’t give the speech or event the coverage it deserved. Amplify this across a broader spectrum. Well over a hundred statements, messages or updates from the international community – India, the UN, Commonwealth, EU, British, American and Australian governments included – transnational civil society including Nobel laureates, internationally renowned jurists, Sri Lankan constitutional experts including Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne who was entrusted with drafting the new constitution, leading academics from abroad and universities in Sri Lanka, artists, activists, citizens who have gathered every single day in Colombo and many more have since the 26th strongly and on solid principled, legal ground, condemned the President’s actions. Very little, if at all, has made it to print or broadcast. It is clear this almost complete capture of the mainstream media will be further entrenched in the weeks to come.

I need to recalibrate and rethink this column. These are unprecedented times, in a context where the retaining or capturing power has lives at stake. Prof. Uyangoda’s repeated warning around the possibility of violence to emerge as a consequence of the current political instability is real, present and growing. Our winner takes all, zero-sum political culture, evident in all its clawing, repulsive horror since the 26th, joins a hyper-partisan polity and society. Anything can be a spark, whether engineered or inadvertent.  And everyone is on edge. Sirisena cannot turn back. Rajapaksa is caught in a bind, and has no option but go with what Sirisena started. Wickremesinghe is, rightfully and as the legitimate PM, not backing down. And yet, merely saying this is enough to set off an enfilade of comments by those hell-bent to equate those of us interested in constitutional supremacy with those who vote for a political party or politician. It’s truly an awful, toxic time to be a public commentator!

This weekend is too early to opine where this will all go or how it will be resolved. It is, however, a good place to start reflecting on how we all have, and will always have, democratic agency as citizens. To so clearly cede it to those who are clearly unprincipled, untrustworthy politicians, as we have done for so long, at elections, requires a rethink. Entirely independent party political love, loathing or indifference, an overriding interest in retaining Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials must guide our considered engagement, reflection and action. On social media, the urgency and importance of this message is much greater, amongst a key electoral demographic that is rent asunder by partisan opinions and other communal, religious, language, identity and economic fault lines. But elections seen as scorecards around tenure can shift perspectives to reflect on what was really done, instead of what is promised. The course correction even from 2015’s Presidential election is clear and significant. We must not ask voters, anymore, to believe in a saviour. There are none. As Bertolt Brecht warned us, pity the country that needs heroes.

While those in power are battling for survival or supremacy, citizens – as custodians of democracy, invigilators of governance and as an engaged, questioning, informed body – must consider the long-term implications of the present moment. We must and may differ, on who can and should deliver the good life. How economics should be managed. What our foreign policy alignments should be. Whether fuel pricing formulae are sensible or risible. But the negotiation of differences must be pegged to democratic norms. What I hope, though through awful circumstances, is that this pivotal moment brings about a greater, fuller understanding of what it is to be a citizen. And how important it is, flowing from this, that we have an absolute, unwavering commitment to constitutional governance. Our ignorance, partisan loyalty or blind faith in personalities is what politicians count on, seed and harvest to get away with what they do. What is happening in Sri Lanka is a travesty. Pushing back with every sinew is an expression of citizenship. Ceding to it risks its repetition and entrenchment, meaning that anyone, at any time, for any reason, can do anything as Executive President. Clearly, this wretched office needs to go, but the start of a renewed democratic struggle is not by trying to change the world. It must start within, and with ourselves.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 November 2018.

The demographic divide

Aside from enduring popularity with most dogs (cats being entirely inscrutable), I do very well in two demographics – those between 2 and 10 and those over 65.

Children find me, as I often see them, infinitely interesting. I am an adult who in their company becomes a child – making funny noises and faces, tickling, happy to go on all fours in an instant, wholly and utterly oblivious to context or company in our interactions. Those slightly older, as I re-discovered this week hanging out with five from the same family, are entirely surprised to find an adult who is as excited as they are about something they’ve just read, heard or seen. They remind me of what I was like at their age. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother reading to me, Muwanpalassa playing softly on the AM radio, something from Wettasinghe or Munidasa. More than anything else from childhood, I remember lovingly reading dozens of Ladybird books passed on from my sister, the Childcraft anthology that took up an entire rack, the vicarious participation in many adventures on Kirrin Island, and Blyton’s other classics including the Folk of the Faraway Tree and Just William. In fact, my love of dogs I can peg to how much I wanted to have a dog like Timmy – loyal, loving and intelligent. Looking back, I recognise this was also a need, satiated only through reading at the time, for a companion. A best friend. I naturally connect with children who are curious, independent and offer an opinion based on something they’ve read or overheard their parents talk about. This week, while a two-year-old grappled with the challenge of eating chips with just six teeth, I engaged his four siblings – two girls and two boys. We talked about the mental acuity of dinosaurs and whether in fact sauropods and stegosaurs had two brains. We talked about the exciting life of sea creatures, including the dissection of a shark that had washed ashore, shown on TV. We spoke about palaeontology, and why one sibling wanted to be an astronaut, while the other wanted to be an astrophysicist. Salient points were debated over an indeterminable drink that would have immediately killed a diabetic. There are things kids hate – condescension, lecturing, hectoring and bluffing. They are smart and value more the admission of ignorance – which gives them the chance to explain what they are referring to or talking about – than an empty claim of knowledge or expertise. They are born storytellers, so no matter how important a point one has, if it isn’t packaged and presented the right way, one simply doesn’t find a receptive audience. This often leads to the entirely erroneous belief that kids aren’t interested in what you have to say, or the lessons one seeks to impart. Children read and engage with an open mind and thus come to conclusions that initially appear naïve, but can be profoundly insightful. As any pre-school or Montessori teacher will attest, they are a tough audience to capture the attention of, but if one wins their confidence, is rewarded with a love and trust that doesn’t dissipate easily. Some aspects here resonate with the dynamics of those much older, and how they interact with each other online.

Those over 65 I also generally get on rather well with. Just this week, I was invited with two other colleagues to speak to the local community on the core tenets of my doctoral research, which deals with social media, data science and peacebuilding, post-war. To put this in context, New Zealand is the second most peaceful country in the world. Conflict, as reported in the Otago Daily Times, the leading provincial newspaper, is generally around the mysterious disappearance of cows, or last week, a duck that had been shot in the back, reportedly leading those in that community to feel unsafe. Given the average age of the audience, and since over supper before our presentations, many lovingly recalled memories of travel in a country called Ceylon, I wondered if my research and the context I was conducting it in would resonate at all.

I knew that with this demographic, it helps to frame things in ways they can empathise with through decades of experience. Recognising the verdant beauty of New Zealand, I projected my research as one not different to gardening, with the study of content and conversations online similar to the bloom or blossoming of flowers, sometimes stunted by weeds and parasites. I likened to the frequent consumption of fast food, and its effect on health and the human body, what is a media diet on social media amongst millennials in Sri Lanka predominantly anchored to gossip. I explained how conversations morphed and merged online by showing an animation of bubbles, noting that their form, shape, texture and ephemeral nature reflected many of the dynamics seen in the study of content generation, spread and engagement online. Going by the engagement after I spoke and an email of appreciation sent to the Faculty the next day, my effort at connecting with this audience seems to have paid off. Many – about as far removed in every imaginable way from the landscape of my research – grasped why I did what I did, and around what. And that’s really all one can hope for.

Strategic and creative communication, as I see it, is what connects my interactions with these two demographics. The ages in between are too often engaged in, entrapped by or enraptured through the hubris of ignorance, paraded and promoted with almost militant fervour – choosing the gluttony of social media banality or niche fiction over more foundational and critical writing on politics and society. Those who are young I connect with over books, stories, ideas and videos I recall once being excited about as well, and now engaged with through interactive means that weren’t even dreamed of, much less invented, when I was their age. Those who are much older I connect with by speaking to what their lives have been – what they have loved to do, want to see more of, are nostalgic over, choose to spend their time on, or want to see their grandchildren become. With the younger demographic, there is a certain give and take – I listen, but also shape and influence, through my responses, how they engage with what we talk about. With those much older, whose minds, opinions and habits are far less malleable, I choose to anchor what I do and like to see, to their self-interest. Sometimes it is by asking them to recall the heady impulses of childhood and youth. At other times, it is by appealing to legacy or succession, and what – in a very personal way – they would like to leave behind, who they would like to take over and how they would like to be remembered.

After a long period of anxiety, I am increasingly at peace with the fact that for the demographic in between these two groups, I find no easy or sustained traction, interest, acceptance or entry. To compete for attention amongst this demographic – the more I study the dynamics, drivers and domains of content and conversations on social media – is a Sisyphean endeavour. A universe of content sparkles with ever greater intensity on newsfeeds, apps and platforms. While I am able to help others package their advocacy, activism and politics in a way that stands the best chance of engagement on or over these social media constellations, I now personally gravitate towards spending more time with those who can reflect back on a full life or those, much younger, who look at life with unbridled optimism, trust and love. This, coupled with slow reading and dogs, is increasingly a safe refuge from a world, the more I study, the less I understand.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21 October 2018.

Identity and belonging

Sixteen years ago, I met a child soldier. He had a T-56 and was cocky. The A9 had opened up a few months ago, and taking it to Jaffna with a group of journalists, we encountered a checkpoint manned by the LTTE, past Omanthai. The children at the checkpoint, with guns strung around their torso loosely, were in the LTTE’s signature fatigue. Hostile and demanding, they curtly instructed our driver to provide the documentation to enter the area, which at the time the LTTE provided. One clambered into the driver’s seat as I sat in the passenger seat, knowing that if they wanted to be difficult, we would be stuck here for a while. I smiled. He didn’t. He looked around slowly, T-56 placed on the dashboard. Our Toyota Hiace van had at the time a rarity – an in-dash CD player. Looking at it quizzically, he gestured to me authoritatively to explain what it was. I forget what I ended up playing, but I remember the soldier immediately giving way to the child beneath, as he smiled broadly at the music and still beaming, gestured excitedly to his smaller and probably even younger comrades to come listen. They assembled outside the driver’s door, all smiling ear to ear and pushing each other to see how the music was being generated. He played around with the controls, skipping tracks, replaying songs after a few seconds, ejecting the CD, looking at it as if it was an alien creation and then inserting it again into the player, gasping and recoiling a bit as it was sucked in automatically. This was repeated. Clearly, it was the first time he had encountered a CD and CD player in his life. And like any kid with a new toy, the player interested him far more than the sound it produced. I can’t remember his face anymore. But I remember his eyes, his smile and of all things, his gun – the scratches, marks and dents on it and the ammunition clip. I can’t remember what we did on that particular trip, but still vividly recall him and his friends, at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. I also recall the complete silence in the van as we drove away. We were all lost for words.

There is so much of what I saw, heard and experienced during the ceasefire agreement from 2002 to 2005 worth writing about someday. But the memory of a child soldier in the middle of the Vanni sprang to mind reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest, titled Identity. Fukuyama’s tome is at times unwieldy and unfocused, but in the main, is a fascinating exploration around the dynamics of identity and dignity in political systems, and the challenge of their accommodation and expression in a liberal democracy in particular. Fukuyama’s central thesis is that populism’s rise and appeal at present is because of the indignity suffered by those in society who are rendered invisible by the dominant narratives undergirding the politics, practices and policies of the government. Akin to the points made by JD Vance in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, Fukuyama suggests that the politics of the left has lost its way, focussing on ever smaller issues anchored to specific communities, giving way to right-wing politics that uses identity politics, including by appropriating the language of marginalisation and outrage, to appeal to ever greater numbers. Fukuyama focussed on the deterioration of liberal democracies in the West, but his critique of polarisation in political dialogue, lack of robust critique, the rise of emotion over reason, short-term fixes instead of long-term reform holds true even in Sri Lanka. Refreshingly, Fukuyama doesn’t posit any of this to social media. Towards the end of the book, he says that as much as social media is clearly responsible for exacerbating existing social, political and communal divides and thus contributing to violence, it also holds the key to greater cohesion, stronger democracy and better governance.

How to link this to the memory of a child soldier? I recall, to this day, driving away from that checkpoint looking at those children with guns disappear in the dust. I wondered then, as I do now, the conditions of a lived experience which contributed to, over time, a violent, armed movement to secure identity and dignity – constructs that a majoritarian, exclusive, and deeply discriminatory state had never afforded Tamils and other communities. 2015’s shift from authoritarianism to a government more open to criticism and less inclined to resort to violence against detractors hasn’t resulted in a stronger democracy. We are often told by the current government that we do not have to fear white vans, that the PM is subject to vicious and often unfair criticism, that the President considers he is the subject of awful media reportage, and that the inchoate nature of government is actually a feature of a more democratic form of governance. All of this is in the absence of constitutional reform to address issues around identity and dignity that were drivers of violent conflict. More concretely, mothers of the disappeared are callously ignored by the President, who last week in the UN went on to deliver a speech that was as supremely misguided as it was detrimental to any meaningful reconciliation. But it is not just about the North and East, or Tamils. Fukuyama makes the point that poverty-stricken whites from the Rust Belt feel particularly marginalised, because they have no one to champion the lived experience they endure, and risk being called petty or privileged for flagging issues around economic injustice, disenfranchisement, debilitating debt, poor education, health issues, the lack of any social safety net, hopelessness and marginalisation they too face acutely, daily and without respite or relief. The electoral outcome, as Fukuyama notes in countries without a firm sense of an overarching national identity, is the rise of populism that fine-tunes into discontent across geography, uniting disparate groups who suffer the indignity of poverty and the discrimination of an insensitive government.

I remembered a child soldier from over sixteen years ago, unlikely to be alive today, because that single, brief encounter encapsulated beyond anything I can pen the sheer horror of war, and why its meaningful resolution can never be achieved by military, political or communal dominance. If belonging and dignity are, as Fukuyama strongly suggests, central to a stable democracy, Sri Lanka is very far from it. If fear or anxiety is what continues to unite the greatest number amongst us, and if pride in a supra-national identity eludes us, I do not believe we are very far from renewed violence. A child with a gun manning a checkpoint in Sri Lanka is not something I want ever to see or encounter again.

I just fear I might.

First published in The Sunday Island, 30 September 2018.

Silicon Valley

My first trip to San Francisco many years ago, for an academic conference held at Stanford University, offered the chance to imbibe the culture and context that had given rise to so much of the technology that we now take for granted in our daily lives. I cannot remember much of what we talked about at the conference, but remember every detail of the campus and environs. At every possible opportunity, skipping even the customary official dinner, I skipped out of the venue and hotel to take a cab and go to the city. Some lessons were learnt quickly. Distance, mirroring what we know in Colombo, means nothing in relation to how fast you will get from point A to B. Traffic jams are epic, and bumper to bumper traffic more the norm than the exception. I once left the venue well in time for what I thought would be a quick sortie to an Apple Store, that mecca of glass, wood, aluminium and consumerism. I arrived in time for a solitary dinner at a nearby restaurant.

In the times I’ve been to the West coast of the US since I’ve been progressively less excited about the allure of the destination as the North Pole of entrepreneurship and venture capital. I’ve been more interested in individual meetings with some brilliant minds, and far less enamoured by the surroundings, which now resemble, South of SFO – the only airport I know of with a yoga room – slices of towering concrete and gleaming glass cakes, cut in various sizes and shapes, stacked upon and close to each other. The copacetic weather remains a wonderful feature of the region. The increasingly anaemic imagination and experience of those who reside and work here for leading technology companies tempers, however, any optimism or belief that they alone can understand the world’s problems, much less attempt to solve them. A report published in the media suggests that the area is losing its appeal because of sky-rocketing rent and living expenses, evident on even the most cursory visit to the city. The wealth gap is violently obvious. The homeless are everywhere, drugged out, passed out or walking the streets in an opiate haze. In the evening, store fronts for designer clothes, niche electronics, high-end furniture, designer labels and other magnets for easy credit purchases become shelters for men and women with nothing – no future, no money, no credit, no job and no hope. A block gentrified by the renovation or repurposing of an old warehouse, factory, printing press or building, suddenly becomes unaffordable for low-income residents around it, in turn leading to a ring of poverty that embraces a centre of affluence and wealth-generation of a select few.

In the Valley again last week, I had a moment where the normalisation of the sheer excess in corporate, consumer and civic culture was brought home. Thirsty, I went to a sprawling fridge in search of a bottle water. I was immediately paralysed by choice. There were about a dozen flavours of water, with someone within earshot complaining that everyone always took the watermelon flavour and that management should do something about that. There were carbonated drinks, sugar-free and vegan beverages. Every possible variety and brand of fizzy drinks was on offer. Freshly squeezed juice was also there, seemingly arranged by colour. The green section, which had kale in its list of ingredients and visually the most unappealing, was also the emptiest. There was ionised water, spring water, and bottles of various sizes. All for free, of course. I think I stood there, unable to move, for a while, confronted by how one fridge provided a window into how cocooned lives here were from a world beyond their climate controlled, automated offices, in San Francisco alone, leave aside sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

I can also see why all this is so appealing. Speaking to employees of a company, I learnt that stock, health and employee fringe benefits were extremely generous, in return for slaving away for hours fixing the mistakes of others. The ubiquity of Teslas, including the new Model 3, provides insight into the altruism of the wealthy, where being environmentally friendly involves an electric car and disposable straws in a world of rampant consumerism. It’s easy to donate to and be passionately driven by a cause far away through iTunes, and not be too concerned with or even see the awful poverty next door or just outside. Suburban life is comfortable and importantly, without any dramatic change brought about by disruptions to supply chains, politics, unions, logistics or weather. There is a comfortable, even luxurious routine, and with Lyft and Uber, the out-sourcing of a commute to a personal chauffeur, allowing even more time to engage with and lament about the rest of the world, ignoring what’s just outside the window. The appeal and allure will endure. I walked in a park – replete with large trees, bush, decks, terraces, jogging tracks and the odd juice bar – that was built entirely on the roofs of buildings that were all part of just one tech company. The urban architecture that serves the staff of all the companies extends from the appealing brick and mortar structures, which are architectural masterpieces in the main, to the invisible yet ubiquitous mesh of apps, services and platforms that through flick, swipe or click, brings the world to you. Anything can be delivered. Everything can be ordered. Anything can be booked. Nothing needs to be truly recalled, because everyone is reminded about everything through a concert of pings, pop-ups, vibrations or alerts. It’s at best a symphony of silicon, a marvel of human engineering. At its worst, it is an artificial intelligence – meant pejoratively – where deep, even purportedly spiritual connections with the world, justice, ethics and rights is very quickly revealed as, at best, passing fad, boredom with work, or attributes to take on in order to appear to be more interesting in a sea of quotidian banality.  

So much of how we see, learn about and engage with the world around us, is through the technology Silicon Valley provides us, so ubiquitous, it is invisible and unquestioned. They control the secret sauce that tweaks our sense of well-being. Their algorithms power what is prioritised. The platforms capture and curate the content we create and choose to share. They provide the plumbing for our information landscape and are responsible for the filtration of what we consume, over what, when, how and to what degree. They frame our engagement and restrict the flows of information. Much of this stems from a genuine interest in leaving a legacy of having done something right, good or just. Especially in recent years, I’ve met many in this region who haven’t yet found the language, to express to themselves or to others, a growing guilt that is the consequence of purely pursuing profit over principles. Personal intent, however, glosses corporate responsibility and accountability. There is a patina of violence, and now, genocide, that covers everyone and everything in the Valley. I do not know how and to what degree it will change corporate culture, but hope it eventually results in a course-correction long overdue.

Written first for The Sunday Island, 23 September 2018.

Flying Nuts

The President expressing his disdain over the quality of nuts offered on Sri Lankan airlines this week brought back memories of my first flight. I was 20 years old, and it was 21 years ago.

Undergraduate study in Delhi beckoned, but I was more excited about something else. Listening to my parents and my elder sister speak of flying growing up, and reading copiously on the dynamics and science of flight ever since I can remember, I was far more excited about the passage to Delhi by, than what I would be doing there as a student. My father, upon leaving the house, retreated mostly to silent prayer and meditations. Mom said she wanted an aisle seat, a preference arising from easy access to the loo. I chose to sit next to the window, and couldn’t care less for profound prayer or painless passage. A window seat remains to this day my preferred choice. All I did on the flight to Delhi was look out the window, disappointed that the seat parallel to the wing offered little by way of a line of sight to the ground. However, I saw for the first time the sky from 40,000 feet the air. A gradual gradation of fiery hues, an almost cloud sky and an indistinguishable horizon marked only by the rays of the setting sun escaping, giving way to the blackest of black, dotted occasionally by stars. It was magical. I craned and contorted to see, hear and take in everything – the various hydraulic noises, the whine of the engines as they powered up, the waving ailerons as the pilot did pre-flight checks, the blinking cabin lights before it went dark, the pressurisation, the sound of the air-conditioning kicking in, the unintelligible announcements over a tinny loudspeaker heralding the progression on to runway, and finally, take-off. I loved the sensation of being pushed back into the seat and the slight turbulence as the plane took off, which in hindsight would have been terrifying for my father.

Air travel over twenty years ago was glamorous if you sat near the cockpit. Further behind, in Economy Class, it was far worse than a long-distance bus. The legroom was terrible. The food was awful. The service was terrible. There was no TV at the back of the seats. No charging ports. Meals were vegetarian or non-vegetarian but tasted so bad, it may have been the same food with just different labelling. All  this was before smartphones, wi-fi and social media, when the now quaint habit of reading something printed on paper was the preferred means of spending time on board. The flight took over three hours. The story upon landing and the trip into Delhi – involving a steering wheel that came off in the hand of the driver, a van in a ditch, luggage of others with us that had dropped somewhere on the road and spending a sweltering night on the terrace of a house, would require a separate column or perhaps several. But the afterglow of the passage to Delhi, and its sheer magic for someone who had never experienced flight before lingered on. I used to look forward so much to my annual return home for the holidays, not so much for what I knew awaited me back home, but the experience of flight.

Before the devastating attack by the LTTE in 2001, and the resulting security that added to the hassle and theatre of getting into the airport, Katunayake resembled a village market. Easy to get into, poorly marked displays and signage, congregations of people for no discernible reason in various locations, mountains of suitcases, a pervasive and general state of confusion, idle officials who were also the most vociferous, an embryonic at best concept of lines to check in and all manner of arguments. In short, it was a confusing, surreal place, that operated on the unique and indescribable tropical logic of movement – the endless flow of people towards the general direction of counters, immigration and boarding gates. My father’s meticulous preparation spared us from the chaos around the area where the embarkation cards had to be filled. I cannot recall what we did in the airport once the formalities of checking in were over, but distinctly remember wandering around with my mother in search of a functioning toilet for women. There was nothing to do – no lounge we could pay and get access into. The airport itself was much smaller than what it is today – no air-bridges, no coffee shops or Pizza Hut, and a duty-free I recall recoiling from because of horrible lacquered wooden elephants, puppets, demon faces and of all things, brass lamps on display. The passage to the aeroplane, perhaps to give Sri Lankans one last experience of home, was on a crowded, derelict bus, where the operating principle around safety seemed to be that the more people you packed in, the more they would all be protected in case of an accident. I remember holding on to my mother because she couldn’t find anything to hold on to as we lurched our way to the plane.

I still have my tickets from that first flight. This was before the age of stubs. The original ticket had multiple copies of travel details, much like a chequebook. What the passenger was left with was the last page. The carbon copy is all in red, with relevant information meticulously handwritten. What appears to be blue and red coloured hieroglyphs mark seat number and the passage through various checkpoints. There was no automation anywhere – no e-tickets, no online check-in, no mobile passes. Ink, rubber stamp and paper marked one’s passage, from the counter, checkpoint and country.

Much obviously has changed. Much, however, remains the same. Our airport remains a terrible place for anyone not travelling in Business Class. I have resorted to tweeting to MPs responsible for tourism and aviation, capturing photos of what in 2017 deplorable conditions were like in the waiting areas of the airport. Immigration officials are most often absent. When present, they are morose, rude and inefficient. Luggage services are from the 80’s, and on one occasion, part of the carousel came off and lodged itself in between the suitcases. There is no convenient, comfortable and coherent public transport infrastructure that connects our international airport with the city, or beyond. The single highway to and from the airport has a chokepoint in Kelaniya so bad that one often spends more time in traffic to go home, than a short-flight from any neighbouring country. Staff at the airport are uniformly rude or vary their helpfulness based on how one is dressed. The announcements are often only in Sinhala and English. Migrant workers are treated horribly. Chinese comes before Tamil in some displays. The waiting areas are chaotic. The public toilets are hellish. People are still packed into buses to go to aircraft. The waiting areas on the ground floor are unchanged from the time I took my first flight two decades ago. And besides all this, our national carrier is an egregious embarrassment – with eye-watering losses, mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and every imaginable managerial incompetence rewarded by ever greater misuse of public money.

The President’s concern over the quality of nuts served on board is misplaced. There are more significant problems that would be far more obvious to him and those in power if they used the airport as millions of others do – instead of being whisked to and from it as VIPs. I absolutely love flying to this day, but with equal passion, hate flying into or out of Sri Lanka. The best part of coming back or flying out, if during the day, is seeing our country’s wonderful, verdant beauty from the air. Everything else is diabolical. There are more important things than nuts those in government can turn their attention to if they really wanted to improve our national airline and international airport, as the first and last impressions of Sri Lanka.

The best part about home shouldn’t be the joy that comes from leaving it behind.

First published in The Sunday Island, 16 September 2018.