Connecting through communicating

In the week this column was penned, President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, in an interview published in the mainstream media, took to task the contents of the Bill gazetted to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) now before Parliament. Problem was, instead of clarifying or submitting a principled critique, interviewer and interviewee worked together to give the veneer of credibility to what in fact was a thinly veiled act of disinformation. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the day after, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the OMP to task as well and was given wide publicity in the mainstream print media. The day after that, a full page interview with Basil Rajapaksa ended with him saying human rights and the Right to Information are matters of concern only for the “upper strata of society”. When Namal Rajapaksa was arrested recently, the whole incident was live streamed over Facebook, a first in this country. Later on, the media reported Parliamentarian Dullas Alahapperuma noting that Namal Rajapaksa was teaching yoga to fellow inmates. Even whilst in prison, tweets from Namal’s popular and official account claimed the government was “making a mockery of the justice system”. In fact, every summons to the FCID is a field day for the media savvy Rajapaksas and more broadly, the joint opposition. Rarely a day passes without some sort of widely reported mindless palaver from the joint opposition, which, importantly, goes on to frame and define key issues, shape the perception of institutions, the support of vital processes and the public appreciation of individuals.

A distinct pattern emerges, and it needs to be identified and neutralised. The Rajapaksa regime literally employed dozens in the service of disinformation, especially leading up to a key Presidential or Parliamentary election. Leading advertising companies, paid millions and no doubt enticed by the prospect of millions more of State ad revenue, created compelling campaigns to support the then government, appealing to fear, parochialism, race, religion and patriotic duty. The Rajapaksas wield social media as few other politicians or even political parties do, and today it is with good reason. They need to be in the public discourse, and their currency or brand has turned from what used to be fear to one that is now, controversy. They cannot go silently into the night, not just because they may not want to, but also because to do so would be to invite an avalanche of investigations, inquiries and indictments, outside the popular imagination, that would eviscerate them as individuals, family and political grouping. The media blitz around arrests, the pronouncements around key accountability and reconciliation mechanisms, the statements around the discovery of weapons used by the LTTE or student unrest at Jaffna University – these are all part of a strategic, well managed and indeed, somehow still adequately funded campaign to keep the Rajapaksas alive through moving image, soundbite, photo ops and short, shareable, video.  You see a parallel to this by way of Trump’s command of the American media – they love to report him, and by reporting him, they help create and promote his image. And by promoting an image, you promote a brand of politics, which even when in opposition, has power in framing, defining and shaping issues of national importance.

The answer is not to create more social media accounts, put out more tweets or start live streaming the PM’s daily commute to work. They key to effective political communications is to prefigure the worst of what can be done and said, and pre-emptively act to neutralise negative consequences by producing, publishing and promoting content in support of an idea or issue. The joint opposition can say anything they want. A government has to respond and counter with facts, logic and reason. In a communicative space, the joint opposition and Rajapaksas have more power even today – they can be wildly creative and set the agenda with scant regard for facts, if only to distract the government to a point of paralysis by the need to respond to wild allegations that risk derailing the best laid plans. This requires a media strategy around constitutional reform, transitional justice and the on-going investigations into allegations of monumental corruption by the Rajapaksa to be supported by a strategic, responsive, multi-media, multi-lingual and demographically targeted communications campaign. It can be done. It must be done. But clearly not with the President or PM as champions. Both men, it appears to be the case, don’t really listen to anyone outside their closest circle at best. This is self-destructive. No technology and no amount of money spent on media campaigns will succeed unless the top tier political leadership appear to live what they preach. The litmus test is then convincing senior leadership in government today that strategic communications is inextricably entwined with electoral success – where effective media coverage is the primary currency on a bourse where political futures are traded.

It doesn’t however appear to be the case that those in power get this, which is strange. Take for example the PM’s frustrating and ultimately utterly damning defence of the former Central Bank governor, over many months. Or as was reported last week, the outrageous defence by the Leader of House MP Lakshman Kiriella of 45 consultants paid 65,000 rupees a month under the Ministry of Highways, noting that the government should care for those who ensured its victory in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. But most damaging of all, new luxury vehicles for MPs, passed at a time the country was reeling from the aftermath of devastating floods, an explosion in a military base which shocked the entire countryside around it and widespread opposition to VAT increase  You would think the yahapalanaya government’s primary motivation is to ensure the generation of pushback, wrath, opposition and ridicule!

This must change and soon. It must start with political leadership. A reboot requires the recognition of how debilitating and dispiriting it is to work within government structures to support key initiatives through effective communications, when bureaucracy, staffing, rules of engagement and authorisations are all designed to stifle, stymie and silence. In contrast, the White House’s Office of Communications, under Obama, was able to attract those from the private sector, with significant cuts in income, to work around and promote a core set of ideas and beliefs. Sadly, our government does not make us believe in what’s possible, or should be. Our government does not define or clarify matters of national importance. Our government doesn’t inspire. Our government doesn’t connect.

There are, quite simply, one of two options moving forward. The governance must change or the Government must change.


First published in The Sunday Island, 24 July 2016.

Archiving the future

Not without the greatest irony, sometime last week, the website of the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons disappeared. Some years ago, the official website of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also disappeared without trace. The then government said the content of the site had folded into the Presidential Secretariat site. This was untrue, since the original site’s record of public testimonies across the island were completely lost. In 2014, there were in fact two distinct websites around the National Action Plan of the LLRC. There is no official trace of them now on the web. Soon after the Presidential election in January 2015, Presidential Secretariat’s website was revamped, and summarily lost all content around and links to the former President’s speeches and submissions, since 2005. The Tharunyata Hetak website, headed by Namal Rajapaksa, is no more. There is no official record of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) website, from the time of the Ceasefire Agreement, containing a vital historical record of government and LTTE relations, internal politics and diplomacy. Around the same time, the then United National Front (UNF) government released the ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ macro-economic framework as a neo-liberal blueprint for the country’s future development. There is no official trace of that now. Particularly during the CFA, but also for a few years after it, the website of the erstwhile Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) housed invaluable documentation around the negotiations, ceasefire violations, the various rounds of peace talks from Sattahip onwards and official statements from the Sri Lankan government, Norway, the donor co-chairs and others. That site is also now gone. Around 2008, the then government launched a multi-billion-rupee programme called Eastern Revival (Nagenahira Navodaya) to kick start the economy in the East of Sri Lanka. It had an official website with all the details around the projects, and how much of money would be spent on what. There is no record of the site now. The website of the Commission of Inquiry is gone. The website of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) is gone. The website of the infamous Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) is gone.

The failure to archive these sites is indicative of an enduring problem around the inability and unwillingness to consider content online as a vital historical record. Add to this, in the case of the Presidential Secretariat website after the election of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the inability to see the site as a vital national resource, and instead curate it as a partisan platform. This myopia invariably led to the erasure of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mentions and content. The resulting colossal loss to the country’s historical record goes completely unacknowledged. It may even be celebrated by some, as helpful in blotting out the Rajapaksa’s from history. And yet, each of these websites contained, for students, historians, politicians, biographers, political scientists, researchers and curators, content that simply could not be found elsewhere. There is no physical record of the material on these sites, which captured processes, updates around incidents and the output from official structures that were hotly debated in Parliament, contested on the streets, generated mainstream media responses, shaped domestic politics, informed economic policy, determined military responses and guided international diplomacy. In fact, a conversation a few years ago with Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe, the head of Sri Lanka’s National Archives, had her lament that they barely got the funding to maintain and expand the existing (physical) archives, and had no capacity whatsoever to gear up to archive content online and in the national interest.

This is not just a significant problem with government. In 2010, the Women and Media Collective (WMC), a pioneering feminist organisation, celebrated a quarter century of advocacy and activism by holding an exhibition of their output at the Lionel Wendt. The output, from the silk-screen posters to the type-written letters to President J.R. Jayawardene in the 1980s was in effect a history of media development in Sri Lanka. All this irreplaceable content, I was appalled to learn at the time, was stored in a trunk in someone’s bedroom. Mainstream media in Sri Lanka once every few years upgrade their websites, yet when they do, usually break all existing links to content from previous years. Some don’t even have searchable archives.

The absolutely appalling approach to the management of records and archives will invariably undermine the implementation of Right to Information legislation. Government and public authorities may at first seem to be withholding information or showing a bias towards non-disclosure, when in fact they may not have the tools, man-power, know-how or searchable archives to access the requested information. Government will learn that there is no point in simply storing files or information. If it cannot be found, it does not exist.

There is another dimension to all this, and linked to my column last Sunday. Consultations around reconciliation post-war will invariably deal with memory, and contested historical records. It sounds counter-intuitive, but memory is in fact more about the future than it is about the past. If we lose access to content around what happened in the past and why, we lose the ability to create the future we want and risk repeating history. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speeches, the statements by Sarath Fonseka during the war, the interviews with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the edicts on the MCNS website against media, the records of ceasefire violations by the LTTE and the statements by the Norwegian negotiators at the time, the Oslo Declaration in 2002, the propaganda of the Sri Lanka Army during the war and after it, the research output of SCOPP, the statements from the COI around the significant problems around the process at the time – these and so much more constitute a vital historical record that Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose. Simply put, the more we create official structures that primarily and sometimes only ever produce content digitally, the less we can afford to ignore the preservation of this content for posterity.

There is some hope. In the case of every single website above save for the original LLRC site, I have since 2008, in my own time and using my own resources, archived the content to the fullest extent possible. ‘Sites at Risk’ was a personal initiative started in 2008 to archive websites that were at risk of being shut down, hacked into, blocked or because their editors or curators could be killed or tortured, suffer long periods of downtime. I also digitised most of the output by WMC over 25 years, which is also now on the cloud for safekeeping. Citizen archivists in Sri Lanka have gone on to document LLRC submissions, personal narratives of those affected by the war and also digitise historical and cultural material in Tamil in the North. And yet, in Pakistan, they have gone much further, with the pioneering Citizens Archive of Pakistan operating as a repository of the country’s cultural heritage and oral storytelling tradition. Here in Sri Lanka, we casually spend hundreds of millions on luxury SUVs for MPs, ignoring that Dr. Wettasinghe has to fight tooth and nail just to slightly increase funding to our National Archives.

Our priorities are clearly out of whack.


First published in The Sunday Island, 17 July 2016.

Cosmetic consultations?

Ten years ago I set up a civic media initiative on the web called Groundviews. Since then, the majority of the content the initiative has published and produced online can be framed as ‘victim centric’ – stories and perspectives around inconvenient truths mainstream media, throughout the war and even after it, could not or would not cover. Perhaps on account on this, Groundviews received an invitation to make a submission to the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) last week. As noted in the invitation, the CTF, appointed by the Prime Minister on the 26th of January 2016, is tasked with consulting members of the public on the processes and mechanisms for reconciliation in Sri Lanka to seek truth and justice, ensure accountability for human rights violations and provide measures for redress. We were asked for our opinion on an Office of Missing Persons, a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission, a Judicial Mechanism with a Special Counsel and an Office of Reparations. And that’s where the challenges started.

The invitation came with a short document that explained briefly what the process was about. However, it did not flesh out any of the four mechanisms. This was a problem. Our independent media and civil society is used to critical commentary around and opposition to government, under duress. There is now, for the first time after a very long time an opportunity, in a context of relative safety and security, to engage with mechanisms that will undergird Sri Lanka’s tryst with post-war reconciliation. We are asked to give input into how they should be constituted, what they should do and what they should be looking at. The challenge now in engaging with CTF’s invitation is to pivot to a solutions orientation, imagining ways through which the violence in the past, and structural violence that persists, can be addressed going into the future. This is much harder than it first sounds. Media personnel, arguably responsible for creating this vital discourse amongst citizens, themselves had little to no idea of the four mechanisms. Some, even after reading CTF’s invitation, hadn’t really thought through how the media could play a role in any of them. Revealingly, many said their engagement often had to be through professional associations, since large media institutions were largely averse to staff having critical, robust political engagements with the substance of these mechanisms in particular, and the contours of reconciliation in general.

Another problem was around awareness. The sectoral consultation was open to the public, and yet not a single member of the public, or the media, was present to observe or report on the proceedings and submissions. The Editors Guild, which had been invited, did not even bother sending a representative. The Sri Lanka Press Institute, which had been invited to make a submission, attended briefly yet left without engaging in any way. Widely perceived as two of the most important apex institutions representing mainstream media, for whatever reason, demonstrated a telling inability and unwillingness to participate in the design of reconciliation mechanisms. This in turn reveals a great deal about those who train, oversee, lead or own mainstream media in Sri Lanka, and their interest in shaping the public consciousness around these vital issues.

Linked to this and throughout the day, conversations around the consultation focussed on the lack of greater public awareness and engagement. It is somewhat unclear why this is the case, given the ostensible interest in these consultations by the PM and government. The CTF’s own guiding principles clearly notes that “consultations will be preceded by a public awareness and information campaign on the purpose and objective of the consultation process”. This simply has not happened. To date, the Facebook page and Twitter accounts of the CTF, the only means through which they have engaged with the public, are not even mentioned on the website of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM). It is unclear why this is the case if the main intent is to generate widespread public awareness around the process of consultations that in turn, results in substantive input and submissions. In significant contrast to the work of the Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms over the first half of the year, there have been no advertisements or concerted media campaigns around the consultations. Unsurprisingly then, for the vast majority of citizens, it is as if the CTF simply does not exist. This is a pity. When asked by the CTF as to how their visibility could improve, Groundviews submitted a detailed submission that was in effect a strategic media and communications blueprint. It is however unclear to what degree, if at all, the CTF is able to engage with what was recommended.

These concerns aside, our primary submission was process oriented, noting how a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission and an Office of Reparations in particular, but also all the four mechanisms in general could benefit by acknowledging that media and communications are inextricably entwined with their central mandate, as has been the case in other post-war countries. Our submission, which is in the public domain, was also anchored to and build upon the contours and forms of debate online by a demographic between 18 to 34. In all this, the elephant in the room – no pun intended – was the unwillingness of government to acknowledge the importance of engaging the public through a comprehensive, multimedia, trilingual communications framework in support of reconciliation and over the long-term.

And therein lies the rub. The CTF has absolutely no mandate around implementation. Recall that the LLRC’s final report is now largely forgotten. More recently, the PRC’s final report – a distillation of thousands of verbal and written submissions –  never really got any meaningful coverage or traction. In light of this, it is unclear how and to what degree the CTF’s final report will be embraced by government. This raises the more important question around legitimacy of the process itself. If the CTF itself struggles to fulfil its mandate because of the stifling structural frameworks of governance it is hostage to, how can we expect that any recommendations from it, in line with what the public and victims want to see, can and will be implemented by government? Media personnel who appeared in front of the CTF said that their views on specific mechanisms were also framed largely by the simplistic reporting of issues through partisan perspectives. What hope then for a media that engages, raises informed critiques and informs consumers around these four mechanisms? If the CTF is so unknown today, what hope really is there for its final report and points therein informing policymaking and indeed, beyond government, shaping public discourse?

Those within CTF may be convinced they have embarked upon a process vital to shaping the contours of reconciliation moving forward, but the bitter truth may well be that all these consultative exercises of the present government are largely cosmetic, and hostage to more parochial and partisan machinations in the minds of a few. On this score, I would love to be proved wrong, but the tragic history of public consultations suggests the odds are in my favour.


First published  in The Sunday Island, 10 July 2016.

The Right to Information

On the day the Right to Information Bill was taken up for debate in Parliament last week, I found myself seated next to a 5th Grader from Urubokka Maha Vidyalaya in the public gallery. At the time, our vantage point afforded a view of no more than ten MPs. Two were visibly asleep, comfortably reclined on their seats, even as the merits of RTI was being debated on the floor. During the course of the day, I witnessed shouting, screaming, the trading of insults and crass disruptions to submissions. The degree of ignorance around what is debated is, in the fullest sense of the word, incredible. Lies are paraded as truth, facts are clearly optional to the debate. Small wonder that the elected occupants of this madhouse don’t want the proceedings to be broadcast live. I wondered what Urubokka’s student and child thought of all this, as well as the other school groups that came in during the course of the day. Will he remember that it was something called RTI which was being debated, or will he remember more the shouting? RTI’s full impact on governance would only be realised at around the time he becomes a young adult. And yet, Parliament’s predominant impression on all those present that day was of an institution incapable of civility, decorum, informed debate, enlightening interest or principled opposition. What then is RTI’s future in Sri Lanka?

Unanimously passed without a vote in Parliament last week, RTI is at the same time as progressive as it is disruptive. The law will invariably engineer great resistance at all levels of government and State administration. RTI is progressive because it places the onus on public institutions to respond to queries by the public, opening them up to a degree of legal scrutiny hitherto unprecedented. The law is disruptive precisely because of this. Decades of a culture of secrecy, of hoarding information, of not releasing information in the public interest is now turned on its head. Public institutions will have to proactively disclose information to the public, and also disclose when requested. To do this, information officers will be appointed – and they will face the gargantuan task of dealing with requests from the public for information there may not even be official records around. Our bureaucracy is based on who knows whom, and what one knows about another. It is based on clientalism and nepotism, with systemic record keeping more to thwart and stifle genuine accountability, over any interest in efficiency and effectiveness. RTI turns this on its head too. Comprehensive records management now trumps favour, personal relations and convenient amnesia. And it is not just the hoarding of files in gunny bags in a dark basement. RTI emphasis that records must be kept in an easily and effectively retrievable manner that is systematic, without being hostage to the often mercurial and entirely subjective “filing systems” of individuals who happen to inhabit a particular office over a period of time.

RTI is hugely disruptive, and this is the challenge around implementation. It will bring about the most comprehensive reboot of governance in Sri Lanka ever attempted – changing the very fabric of our public institutions. The law will bring about a seismic systemic shift – from institutions that are self-serving and inward looking, to those that fear public scrutiny of their affairs, to a degree that cannot under RTI be discouraged or over the long term, resisted. Better records management means the transformation of physical records to digital, the retraining of individuals, the appointment of a new cadre better able to manage back-office operations and eventually, early retirement for those who will be unable to cope with demands for accountability and transparency. Since it is so hard to fire a person in the State sector even if they are terrible at their job, RTI will slowly weed out those unable or unwilling to share information in the public interest by naming and shaming them. Corruption will become harder, since stronger, more detailed record keeping means that even a coterie of corrupt can no longer comprehensively hide their tracks.

It is in and around the implementation of RTI that activists who have championed it for decades will find the greatest challenges lurk. It is entirely unclear how committed the government really is to RTI. For starters, there is no budgetary allocation for the implementation of RTI. The first order of the day will be to request from government the funding needed to start the implementation of RTI, but this too is a challenge – since no one has costed the exercise. A staggered implementation seems likely, with a few select institutions and ministries at the national level leading the way and others following suit. But even for this limited implementation as a first phase, the cost is likely to run into tens of millions of rupees at the very least. Staff need to be recruited or re-assigned, with training. Systems will need to be completely overhauled. Mechanisms to deal with requests will need to be mapped and tested. New offices will need to be created and oversight procedures fleshed out.

On the other hand, public awareness will need to be raised around the law and its potential to hold government accountable. It is unclear the degree to which mainstream media realise the potential and value of RTI. A government struggling to meet the demands of RTI will unlikely also champion vociferously about its merits, which then places the onus on civil society to animate citizenry to use the law. RTI comes to Sri Lanka at a time when we are on the cusp of almost ubiquitous connectivity – from continued upgrades of existing telecommunications infrastructure to the advent of new technologies like Google Loon which promise high speed wireless connectivity from all corners of the country. This means that the implementation of RTI in Sri Lanka needs to be digital and mobile first, enabling citizens to interact with and ask questions from government, using the provisions in the law, through their mobile phones, tablets and desktop browsers instead of resorting to paper, pen and post. The technology is there. The larger challenge will be around the mind-set of public officials.

There is already evidence how RTI requests lodged in India have helped Sri Lankans learn more about the secretive nature of the controversial coal power plant project in Sampur. Even without full disclosure by the Government of India, there is enough information as a consequence of repeated RTI requests that proves the Sampur project is a hugely problematic venture. And therein also lies a lesson – information in the public domain does not automatically engender the political will to address official wrongdoing or maladministration. Oftentimes, information secured by RTI will require more requests to be made possibly from other public institutions, cross-verification, some translation and finally, contextualisation. Ordinary citizens may demand information, but government is not bound to provide the information in a manner that is easily comprehended. This is why it is so important to strengthen civil society and independent media to use RTI to transformation information to knowledge, and raw data into context.

Urubokka’s children, present on the day RTI was passed, may not know what it was like in Sri Lanka before RTI. They may grow up with a government far more open than we could ever imagine or bring about without and before RTI legislation. The success of the law depends on many factors, but one thing is evident. It is too important to leave to somnambulist, offensive, ignorant lawmakers in Parliament. Rather than suffer, in the future, the wrath of the children who today visit Parliament, imaginative, forward-thinking, strategic and politically bold decisions around RTI must be taken, with the support of champions in government, to implement what to my mind, is historic a turning point in Sri Lanka’s architecture of governance.


First published in The Sunday Island on 3 July 2016

Listening to discontent

“What has he done for Sinhala-Buddhists? From the time he was elected, much of what he has done has been for Tamils and the North. Then look at the Muslims Sir, they are now all over, doing what they want. On the one hand there is Sampanthan, he is respectable. But is the President doing anything to stop terrorism from rising again? I now think the Rajapaksas were better – at least you knew what they were. Today Sir, we don’t know who is telling the truth.”

“Sir, do you really think the Ministers wanted the new cars? I can’t believe it. I just can’t. Here I am driving every day to feed my family. This nice car? It’s not mine. You are going comfortably to a destination, but Sir, this is my A/C prison. Yes, I earn enough, but with the new government I thought I would be happier. I thought we would be happier. We were, but just for a short time. I now just drive, Sir.” 

“Sanjana, I know we need to do better and to engage the public more. I have brought this up so many times. But what can I do if no one listens?”

Conversations with those one encounters must never be generalised. And yet, they offer some insights into the public imagination and pulse, beyond the echo chambers of our friends, colleagues and even those we consider radical or different. What is it about this Government that makes them so unwilling and unable to speak with, and listen to the public? Those who were in some way associated with the Ceasefire Agreement, and the UNF government of the day, will recall this familiar obduracy. It is anchored to a core belief that echoes the legendary Steve Jobs of Apple, and his disdain for market research. Jobs believed that customers didn’t know what they want. The government today believes citizens don’t know what they want. It is elitism of the worst sort, where instead of leveraging class, caste and power to engage and to the extent possible, convert, we have instead a few who believe they alone have the solutions to what ails the country. That they alone can garner the buy-in from political elites to support their solutions. And finally, by doing this, that the people will invariably follow.

What may have worked for Apple does not work for government. The court of public opinion can be devastating for a company, erasing profitability and viability in a matter of a few years, or less. Look at Nokia, or even Apple’s struggle with innovation and retaining market share today. In a similar vein, negative public opinion obviously erodes confidence in government. But it has a more long-lasting effect and a more dangerous one. A Government wins or loses public confidence by marketing ideas, and the delivery of promises. An idea badly communicated, yet vital to our democratic progress, risks public ire and opposition. Take federalism, the dreaded f-word in politics. Or in the recent past, the perception of human rights. As a political idea around the configuration of the State, or framed as the protection of basic human decency and dignity (and importantly, in line with core tenets of the dhamma), both find traction even amongst those who would violently decry embracing federalism as an organising principle of any future Constitution, and by those who think of human rights as a Western, neo-liberal agenda to name and shame those in the previous government, or imprison “war heroes”.  It follows that communicating what something is, is as important as clearly indicating what something is not.

The current government is supremely bad at both. We must ask why.

It could be that both our President and Prime Minister are stubborn men. Both are political animals, with decades of experience in realpolitik. The President is more charismatic, the Prime Minister, more cosmopolitan and visionary. The Venn intersection of both men contains a mutual interest in keeping the Rajapaksas at bay, consolidating power over the long term, managing the expectations of yahapalanaya and the need to keep a motley coalition together by the glue of incentives, which include for example luxury vehicles. The systemic breakdown of governance in Sri Lanka cannot be fixed. We call for a reboot, but fail to realise that this will require many who hold public office today to be fired. This cannot be done, and the trap of replacing completely the old regime with new figures was realised by the Americans in Iraq much too late. It is a recipe for instability. The equation for political authority then becomes one centred around at least three axes – how to retain power and at the same time, manage the expectations around yahapalanaya, how to capture public confidence around mechanisms promised in international fora around accountability, and how to best generate support for a new Constitution, with the resulting radical restructuring of the State. At the heart of all this, strategic communication. When to say something. When to be silent. When to opine, and when to let Ministers dig their own graves. When to intervene publicly and when to allow the public to forget over time what may have incensed them at some point. What we have instead of a coherent strategy is, by and large, silence. And it is in this silence that spoilers, rumour and gossip reign. This helps no one, save for those who wish to regain what they lost on the 8th of January 2015.

The quotes above come from the owner of a medium sized garage in Battaramulla, an Uber driver and someone from government. The first speaks to what is symptomatic of the deep seated ‘Othering’ of a Sinhala-Buddhist State, interested primarily in the protection of ‘apey’ – whether it is country, religion, person or party. Those who are not us, should not get more benefits than us. Political office should primarily protect, and be seen to protect, the South. Any appreciation of addressing the challenges in the North only results from appearing to address, or actually addressing, issues in the South. The second quote speaks volumes about how public opinion once supportive of yahapalanaya has diminished. This is extremely disturbing, because apathy and disillusionment with political figures and the non-delivery of promises invariably translates into a distancing from robust political engagement, which only fuels a greater democratic deficit.  The third quote is from someone who has, to use a term from peacebuilding theory, an ‘insider-partial’ perspective, which is to say, someone in government trying to change it from within. The frustration is real. The resistance to change, equally real. And so we come back to our initial query – why doesn’t the government communicate better?

I increasingly believe it is because they aren’t interested. We must ask why. Three quotes don’t indicate a national trend and cannot be projected as sentiments echoed by a larger community. They are anecdotal. They can and should be contested. But indubitably, these voices are growing – in government, on the streets and across the country. No consociational or elitist framework of power, inadequately rooted in the public consciousness, stands a chance of enduring over the long-term.

Communication is key to reform. And it begins with listening.


First published in The Sunday Island, 26 June 2016

The right to communicate

Ten years ago, a leading private telecommunications company cut off all call and data services for hundreds of thousands of families in the North and East. There was no big outcry. There was no judicial order or review of the suspension of these services. It just happened.

Mobile telephony and data services were introduced to the North after the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002. On my first visit to Jaffna on the A9 in early 2002, singed and mostly topless Palmyra trees dotted the landscape. By my last visit in 2006, before war broke out again, red and white towers with their large transponders stood out in sharp contrast to the flat plains and colours of the landscape. At the time, surveys conducted in the region suggested that the customers in the area generated some of the highest revenue for the mobile companies, spending around 12% of their monthly income on telecommunications. In early 2007, the State telecoms provider blocked telephony and data services over its network, despite the fact that upon inquiry, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) was unaware of any directive to this effect. On all these documented occasions, it was possibly the Ministry of Defence that ordered the disruption. The companies simply carried out extra-legal orders, knowing they had the backing of the State. Well before the Snowden revelations, throughout the final stages of the war and even for years after 2009, pervasive and invasive electronic surveillance on specific individuals, institutions and geographic areas continued without any judicial or Parliamentary oversight. A few of us raised concerns, wrote to media and issued press releases. We were either perceived to be helping the LTTE and shouted at, or more politely, just ignored. The pursuit of tackling terrorism required the suspension of civil liberties. The private sector in Sri Lanka were more than willing to go along with the government’s arbitrary orders so long as they saw a return of investment in the long-term and retained a foothold in key markets, including government tenders.

Sri Lanka’s smart patriots also supported another dumb idea –, with technology and support at the time from the private sector. The website, which miraculously still partly survives as a testimony to the Orwellian conditions we were all subject to, is almost a parody of itself. On the homepage, the privacy of the data submitted to the website is guaranteed by none other than the Ministry of Defence itself, which is akin to entrusting the crocodile that’s about to eat you with the safekeeping of one’s wallet. At the peak of operations, Gotabaya Rajapaksa even had a bus that went around generating registrations on this site. No judicial review. No Parliamentary debate or approval. No information around what the data was used for, by whom, over what time and for what purposes. Without a hint of irony, a leading Sunday newspaper in 2012, reporting on the registrations to the site, noted that “professional and polite police officers manning state-of-the-art mobile registration units keep tabs on who you are and what you’re up to”.

A new report by David Kaye, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression will not be read by the majority of Sri Lankans. It is however a vital report for study, in that it robustly examines the role and relevance of private corporations in securing the freedom of expression. This matters, even if you are not on or a fan of social media. Emails, text messages and even voice calls now entirely rely on the same infrastructure as that which millions of others use to surf the web, check their Facebook profiles and upload photos to Instagram. Private corporations like telecoms providers have an incredible wealth of data around their customers and those they interact with. This is called meta-data – information around what you do, and who you are in touch with. This data alone, over time, can reveal travel patterns, spending and reading habits, religious, sexual and political preferences, plus details around networks of friends and contacts. Concerns around surveillance in Sri Lanka persist even under yahapalanaya. The decisions around the significant investments considered by the State to covertly conduct surveillance operations remains in the dark. All telecoms companies were partial to the edicts of the Ministry of Defence. The UN Special Rapporteur calls them out on this and suggests corporations that don’t act to protect the rights of customers are in effect, supporting violations of human rights by way of omission. Under the Rajapaksas, the uncritical, supine and adulatory support of and association with the government suggested something much darker – that for profit, gain or preferential access, corporations would willingly hand over customer data, disrupt services, conduct surveillance operations outsourced to them, provide technical assistance around covert monitoring operations and look closely at all traffic on their networks to lock into communications within certain networks, deemed inconvenient. In fact, the Special Rapporteur’s report notes a global trend around the use of technology to undermine rights and indiscriminately surveil populations. Sadly, even under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, clientalism and favouritism trumps privacy, adherence to judicial norms and international human rights and other legal obligations of companies. What this means is that if you own a telephone or any device that regularly connects to the internet and is used to communicate with others, your telecoms company can use it to find details of your private life without any oversight or consent and pass on this information to the government.

Ten years ago, those most affected by the disruption of telecoms services were out of sight, and largely out of mind. They were not us, they were far away, and frankly, who knew who was and wasn’t a terrorist? The excuses to justify surveillance and the blanket disruption of communications were many, and all anchored to terrorism or national security considerations. Today we complain vociferously around connectivity that fails to match up to advertised speeds, poor cell reception and coverage or the high taxes on data. It is however still rare to find companies being held accountable for what they do with the data on customers they collect, often for what’s called ‘business intelligence’ – the way a company can leverage its customer base to generate more profit. Business intelligence platforms though are often turnkey surveillance investments, and telecoms companies in Sri Lanka have an atrocious track record of securing rights, especially those of the most vulnerable. The UN makes it very clear – companies have a duty of care towards customers, and moreover, legal obligations, when dealing with governments and their requests.

The risk of focussing on digital issues is that it remains a domain of great mystery and little importance, especially for an older, less web-savvy generation. What’s often forgotten is that the laws that govern interactions over the Internet have an immediate, deep and enduring impact on everyone. It impacts how and what we say to each other. It impacts how we seek to change a government. It impacts how we seek to release information into the public domain about wrongdoing and corruption. It impacts our work, travel, relationships and legacy. Even under yahapalanaya, there is a clear interest in maintaining the structures of surveillance in a country that is post-war, but not post-fear. This must be resisted. Arguably, private corporations like telcos may also need customers to help them fight intrusive, extra-legal requests for information. This isn’t about aiding or abetting terrorism or undermining national security. Mass surveillance is incontestably incompatible with the good life promised under the present government. It is not just the State that needs to be reminded of this. All telecoms and internet service providers also do.


First published in The Sunday Island, 19 June 2016

The trappings of office

An investigation will be conducted on the import of super luxury motor vehicles, racing cars and motor cycles and action will be taken to recover pertinent taxes. Voters have short, or more accurately, selective memories. The first sentence is from the English version of the then Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto, released late December 2014. On the 9th of January 2015, standing with a euphoric, even incredulous crowd at 6.30 in the evening to see him sworn in was our Obama moment – the audacity and triumph of hope, against all odds, to overthrow without bloodshed a regime that had over ten years eviscerated our public resources, self-worth, identity, dignity and democracy. And yet, well over a year into the President’s tenure, there are no investigations into the import of super luxury vehicles by the former regime. Perversely, what we instead have is a government that seeks to spend over 1 billion in vehicles for MPs.

Let’s not mince words. This is evil. It is morally reprehensible and ethically indefensible. These were descriptive words closely associated with the Rajapaksa regime. It is disturbing the degree to which they apply, already, to the present government and how far removed governance is from the yahapalanaya that was promised. The justifications for the colossal expenditure on cars is worth flagging, as set forth by Joint Cabinet Spokesmen Ministers Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Gayantha Karunatileka and Deputy Minister Karunaratne Paranawithana last week in statements to mainstream media. It was noted that Ministers and Deputy Ministers needed super luxury vehicles to travel to their electorate, various functions and ceremonies round the country. It was also noted that unlike Ministers needed to “travel hundreds of kilometres and [needed] a comfortable vehicle for that”. Minister Rajitha Senaratne is reported to have said that politicians have to use ‘four wheel vehicles’ while they are required to visit rural areas due to the bad quality of the roads.

What we have here is a clear statement of the Government’s priorities. Instead of uplifting the road conditions across the island, which necessarily entails infrastructure development as well as significant improvements to public transport networks, over one billion rupees is spent on SUVs and other luxury vehicles so that MPs can, in the rare instance they actually do, visit their electorates in comfort. The sheer violence of this statement perhaps escapes the good Minister, especially in light of the fact that hundreds of thousands suffer the ignominy of Sri Lanka’s wretched public transport every single day. The hypocrisy is stark, the questions, many. Ministers who represent us, should not really be subject to what we suffer. Some MPs, like Sarath Fonseka, get a vehicle for 70 million, while others like Harin Fernando and Tharanath Basnaka are both allotted a little over 90 million. Why and on what basis? What added 4WD capability or luxury is needed by Sarath Fonseka that justifies tens of millions more for a vehicle? Recall that just a few weeks ago, the government was asking for two billion dollars in aid to help with flood relief. Remarkably, a government too poor to provide relief to its citizens finds itself rich enough to rewards its MPs with new luxury vehicles.

But let’s park incredulity for a moment take this fiction as fact. Say MPs do go to their electorates often, and that these regions can only be accessed by good 4WD vehicles. Say, at the risk of insulting Toyota, that a four to five-year-old Prado or Land Cruiser is somehow now incapable of traversing these roads. Why does every MP need their own SUV? A government that elsewhere is committed to innovation and invention should surely be looking at basic services like a car pool or Uber for MPs? Not all MPs go to their electorates at the same time, and even if there is peak demand, the cost of renting in the short-term is surely much cheaper than buying a vehicle? Why don’t MPs ride-share? We have the well-known website encouraging it for some months with ordinary citizens – invite them to help out with the travel needs of MPs using the existing car pools in government?  India’s Lok Sabha has a shuttle service for MPs to come to Parliament – why not a similar service here? Less congestion, less fuel, less expenditure on SUVs, less environmental impact, better coordination and far stronger oversight and accountability over transport expenditure. What’s not to like or champion?

The evil here – and I use the word consciously – is that those defending these expenditures in particular, and so much more the government is doing wrong or is silent around, know what they are saying is untrue. It is only now we hear of high-ranking policemen, politicians, public officials and others recanting what they swore was true under the Rajapaksa regime. The change promised under yahapalanaya, and explicitly mentioned in its manifesto, hasn’t come about. The violence here is in disenchanting the millions who voted in this government, who may now think that there is little difference between those from the previous regime, and the present government. And while such a simplistic reading isn’t entirely true, perceptions matter – and the dominant public perception around government today is that it continues much of what it came into power promising to end or change.

Dear Hon. President and Hon. Prime Minister – we brought this government into power. We are its custodians. Treat us as citizens, not supine subjects. The model, make and registration of my (fifteen-year-old) car are a keystroke away for your security detail. Tell them that I am not moving for you, your flashing lights, your outriders or your convoys of MPs. You ply the roads I helped build and maintain. You expend fuel I pay for. You ride in vehicles paid for in debt we have to beg the IMF and borrow more to pay back. That debt burden is mine too. You ask me to move aside out of fear of being run over, or violently thrust aside by Defenders driven by those who have never served individuals who need to adhere to road rules or the right of way. It shows. You hold me up in traffic so you can move around in luxury. Your MPs embody the values you sought to change – and every single tinted SUV they go in is a marker of your government’s failure to reboot a wasteful, violent political structure.

MPs, as logic would have it, are there to serve the public. And yet, in Sri Lanka, the opposite is true. Once elected, political authority and the trappings of office soon make even the humblest aspirant into an untouchable demi-god. Remember this though. The chutzpah of air conditioned cocoons, tinted glasses and traction control may only serve to get you to a destination, sooner than you realise, that the Rajapaksa’s now inhabit after ten years of ostentatious indulgence. Spend away, but know that no vehicle you purchase will be able to out run the anger amongst the public you raise. Is wasting one billion really worth the opportunity to change this country for the better, and the fruition of yahapalanaya’s true promise?


First published in The Sunday Island, 12 June 2016.