Fuelling a crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 12 November 2017.

Advertisements

Framed

I was approached some months ago by staff of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) to help with a photography project. The idea was to celebrate seventy years of Sri Lanka’s independence by asking citizens to submit photos that, to them, framed hope and reconciliation. After sharing some ideas around the theme and related technical aspects, I forgot about the project until I was invited to be part of the jury that selected winning entries which would go on public display.

And that was when things started to get interesting.

ONUR received less than four hundred submissions. I didn’t see the call for the submission of photographs, but was assured that it went in all three languages in the mainstream print media as well as social media. The jury expected many more photos, especially since the call extended over some months. Aside from other reasons, the jury felt that when asked to capture hope and reconciliation, citizens don’t quite know how best to frame either. This was supported by the fact that most of the photos submitted captured, somewhat bizarrely given the clearly stated theme, random scenes from nature, domestic pets, birds and a whole range of wild flowers or indoor floral arrangements. The jury didn’t quite know what to do with these photos, or how to explain them. Did those who submitted them just do so in the hope they would be selected? Were they sent by mistake? Even as we dismissed them, we agreed there was something going on that, while beyond the scope of the project, was nevertheless interesting to flag – that when asked to capture either hope or reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka, few seemed to be driven by a political imagination. Photography and its dominant frames seemed to exist in a domain largely independent of socio-political, cultural, religious drivers and identity politics. There was no critique of, amongst other things, context or place, of dominant narratives or of space. Flowers, bees, landscape, sunsets, mountain mist, pets and even the odd bovine were worthy of capture perhaps because of some entirely personal interest. But the submission of this content to a public photo competition demonstrated little to no discernible critical reflection, by photographers who were also citizens, on their politics, privilege, position, identity or location. It truly was the oddest phenomenon. Were we wrong to expect anything more, or different?

After photos were shortlisted, including twelve winners, ONUR said that plans for the public display of the photos involved printing them at around the size of a large calendar, and showing them at a venue like JDA Perera Gallery or the Harold Peiris Gallery at the Lionel Wendt. However, I felt that instead of getting the public to come to see the photos, the photos should be placed in the midst of where the public already congregated. I came up with the idea of printing them in a very large format, and placing them across the walking and jogging paths around Independence Square in Colombo. A project like this had never been done before and to its credit, ONUR was very supportive of the idea. I agreed to help on a voluntary basis. Late stage curation isn’t ideal, but I wanted to use the opportunity to critique so much that held hostage meaningful reconciliation.

In 2017, Independence Square is an interesting location. On the Western flank, a very large Buddhist flag is hoisted and flies every day. A much smaller national flag is flown just behind the statue of D.S. Senanayake at the front or North of the monument. On the Eastern flank, a flagpole, of comparable height to the one of the West, is where the national flag should be present. But it’s absent, and can only be hoisted with the permission of the Navy. On the day of the exhibition and for its entire duration, we were told that the rope to hoist the national flag had frayed, which prevented it from being flown. A monument to celebrate the country’s independence is thus, visually and through the oversight of the military, associated with only a single religion. It is quite revealing that of the thousands who flock to the monument, no one asks why it is only a Buddhist flag, and not the national flag, that flies there.

Using my curatorial freedom and the seventy-six selected photos, I set out to more clearly highlight the violence of all this. Flanking the Buddhist flag, I placed images of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community – of two women, one in a hijab, engaged in manual labour, and in the other photo, another woman, also in a hijab, holding a Sri Lankan flag at what looked like a cricket match. On the other side of the flag pole, I placed an image of a book seller selling what appeared to be sermons of the Buddha on a street, and another image from Galle Face, showing a small Muslim boy eating an ice cream cone, amidst a sea of other people. Moving outwards in each direction, I placed images of children who were visibly from different ethnic and religious communities, an image of a Buddhist flag flying in front of a very well-known mosque in Colombo, Muslim men paying their last respects at the funeral of a venerable monk and other photos that when you stepped back, helped shape a more critical appreciation of the large Buddhist flag and its symbolism. Inside the monument, I deliberately placed images of Sri Lanka’s rich communal, religious and political diversity – reflecting upon our own tryst with destiny on the 4th of February 1948 and how much of the seventy years since have been mired in bloody violence. Each of the photos on the Eastern flank, all prize winners, resonated with the visible absence of the national flag. Back to the West, between the two large (dysfunctional) fountains, photos were placed along the walking path in the middle.

Aside from curatorial intent, the objective of the exercise was to get the public to engage with the photos. The very first who did and asked a lot of questions about the project and process were the janitorial and security staff of the monument itself, who would never in their lives set foot into JDA Perera Gallery or the Wendt. There were more people who congregated around and looked at the photos just as we were setting up than would have ever seen them had the venue been what ONUR had originally envisioned. It wasn’t just about numbers. Independence Square attracts school children from across the island, tourists, a random assortment of people from across the city who come to exercise, lovers, university students, the old and the young, and people clearly from various ethnic and religious communities. The photos captured the attention of all of them. Initially only planned to be held over two days, ONUR extended the exhibition till today – Sunday – because of public calls to keep it longer. On a very windy Friday – Poya Day – the frames kept falling over before we could anchor them more firmly with cement blocks. Each time they fell, someone from the surrounding area would go and put them up, without instruction and purely by their own volition. An organic sense of ownership around the content had developed.

The seventy-six photos vary in quality, framing, gaze and intent. Clearly, many of them don’t really resonate directly or obviously with the original call for photos on hope or reconciliation. But what they do show is a really diverse and ultimately, beautiful Sri Lanka – a country of different religions, communities, ethnic, socio-economic and political groups. Framed by the monument, the photos take a new life against contemporaneous discussions around the need for a new constitution, the violence of the BBS, the rise of extreme nationalism, the invisibility of militarisation and the politics of public spaces.

It is simplistic to assume that photography alone, and these photos in particular, are able to change hearts and minds. But there is something here worth exploring. Something about photos from across Sri Lanka, framed in a large format and placed in the midst of the public, fellow citizens are attracted to. Something that in a subtle but powerful way, contests the horribly exclusive, violent, divisive narratives that have overtaken dignity, decency and democracy in our seventy years of independence.

And that’s an idea worth pursuing.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 5 November 2017.

Killing the new constitution

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’ by Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, is a timely read to understand, in particular, the rise in popularity of Viyathmaga as a political idea, independent of however we appreciate its chief proponent and custodian, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A brief but engaging read published earlier this year, ‘On Tyranny’ highlights markers not just of individuals with authoritarian or fascist tendencies, but how they rise to power based on the initial silence, then tacit approval, and finally, outright support of society and polity. The book provides a vital frame to appreciate a speech by Maj. Gen. Kamal Gooneratne at a Viyathmaga meeting, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa present and separately, comments by Wimal Weerawamsa, also made last week.

Prof. Snyder’s words are anchored to the politics and individuals in the US, but they resonate far beyond, and arguably with even greater emphasis, for us here – who are no strangers to authoritarianism in the South, fascism in the North, the cult of the personality leading to the most heinous of violence, a war on terror leading to what Asanga Welikala called ‘the normalisation of the exception’ through draconian laws arbitrarily imposed, the suspension of rights, the evisceration of democratic institutions and the overall dismantling of democracy in the guise of patriotism, safety and economic development.

The book captures a disturbing case-study of what political theorist Hannah Arendt had earlier called ‘the banality of evil’. The example is around an experiment conducted in the 60s by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who wanted to explore if there was in German society an authoritarian tendency that allowed the Nazis to do what they did, and how they did it. He failed to get permission in Germany for the experiment, and thus did it in Yale University itself. The experiment asked a group of students to give what they thought were electric shocks to individuals in an experiment about learning. There was in fact no electric shock. Prof. Milgram had asked the group who would act as respondents to pretend they got a shock. Despite visible trauma and pain, leading to in some cases, feigned death, the students asked to administer the electric shock continued to do so, just because Prof. Milgram had asked them to do so. The students were complete strangers to each other, and had no grievance against each other. No student, upon leaving the experiment, had asked what the condition of the respondent was. As Prof. Snyder notes, “Milgram grasped that people are remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting. They are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority. ‘I found so much obedience,’ Milgram remembered, ‘that I hardly saw the need for taking the experiment to Germany.’

One of the shortest chapters in the book also holds a key lesson for Sri Lanka, on usurping democratic institutions for authoritarian or fascist goals. As Prof. Snyder avers, ‘Sometimes institutions are deprived of vitality and function, turned into a simulacrum of what they once were, so that they gird the new order rather than resisting it. This is what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung.’

The final minutes of Maj. Gen. Kamal Gooneratne’s speech at Viyathmaga needs to be appreciated in light of Migram’s experiment and Arendt’s observation. Maj. Gen. Gooneratne wants many things to happen to those who support a new constitution for Sri Lanka. He wants them dead, because he proposes they are in fact traitors. He normalises death to traitors as something natural, and inevitable. He wants a return to the height of the JVP’s violence in the late 80’s in order to create the context to deal with those who support a new constitution. His desire to punish traitors extends post-mortem. Mirroring the humiliation the JVP meted out to its political opponents even after being murdered, he wants those who were in favour of a new constitution to not even be given a proper burial. He doesn’t want Buddhist priests to bless them or to even visit their homes. All this is said in a matter of fact way, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa and many other luminaries present, front-row. To this day, Viyathmaga as a movement and idea associates itself completely with these sentiments.

Perhaps not to be outdone, MP Weerawamsa proposed that Parliament should be bombed if members do not object to the new constitution. It is a pincer movement. Maj. Gen. Kamal Gooneratne creates the conditions, supported by the regard, respect for and recognition of Gotabaya Rajapaksa amongst professionals in the country, a violent rebellion against political reform that the JO has no other means to defeat democratically. It is a careful construct of emotion and fear, a post-truth concoction intended to escalate calls for, and then justify, violence. Weerawamsa seeks to erode public trust and confidence in a democratic institution – Parliament – complementing Viyathmaga’s larger goal as setting itself up as, including primarily those in it, the selfless saviours of a country destroying itself over what by then will be projected as an entirely unnecessary, divisive construct – the new constitution.

Vigilance is called for, and vigour in a spectrum of responses that nips in the bud a political project that will, no matter how incredible it seems today, risk everything good and great about a democratic Sri Lanka. Online and over social media, Weerawamsa and Maj. Gen. Gooneratne were called many things. Whatever our responses are, name-calling and projecting them as fringe lunacy isn’t going to work. It will make them stronger. It will make Viyathmaga stronger. Everybody loves an underdog. We are right in being appalled but wrong in projecting our anger at a specific set of individuals and use against them, the same language and violence they seek to unleash on us. Lest we forget, when Maj. Gen. Gooneratne called for traitors to be killed, the audience present clapped loudly. When he called for the humiliation of those who were murdered, even after death, the audience clapped loudly. Weerawamsa says what he does, and will get away with it, because the language of inflicting violence against political rivals, and those who are different, in any way, is now mainstream. Even war, by those who lead it, is seen as a last resort, not a first response. In Sri Lanka, this is now inverted, and calls for the public to turn violent so frequent and banal, we gloss over it.

In Rwanda, just before the genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) normalised violence against and the murder of friends, neighbours, partners, colleagues and random strangers. In the US today, the incumbent President’s words during his election campaign and after taking office have strengthened neo-Nazis, amongst others. What is said, is often the frame through which we see and engage with the world. If words by influential individuals and political movements incite hatred and violence, the invisible victim is a contest of ideas.

This ultimately isn’t about a new constitution, and whether one supports or opposes it. It is about the freedom to articulate an idea or thought that contests popular wisdom or the mainstream. It is about the ability to contest a construct by those in power, by those who aren’t from the same camp. It is about the kind of Sri Lanka we want. Viyathmaga’s political project is to weed out, violently, everything and everyone who it thinks is inconvenient. The end – a prosperous country albeit in fear and conformist – is a Faustian bargain Gotabaya and his ilk propose as desirable. He has many who support him. For them, by virtue of nothing other than seeking a new political order and its fullest expression through a new constitution, we are fit to be tortured and killed.

Let’s all reflect on that, and how this sentiment today will play out over 2018 and beyond.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 29 October 2017.

Benevolent dictators

Almost exactly seven years ago, a Jayatissa from Nugegoda, writing to The Island, had this to say of the then President. “Now here is a man, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who made use of the post of Executive President and his iron will to completely eliminate Prabhakaran and his cohorts and bring peace to this war-torn country after 30 long years. Already he has started several mega development projects and resettled 90% of the displaced Tamils… Now what the country needs is a ruler like Lee Quan Yu of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia. I dare say that M.R. will not be second to both of them. So why did we hesitate to give such a man to contest for a third or fourth term because he has already shown by his actions so far that he is determined to develop the country. You can be rest assured that even if he chooses to be a dictator he will be a benevolent dictator.”

The sentiment around a ‘benevolent dictator’ runs deeper than just Jayatissa’s open adoration for and adulation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Some historical accounts suggest J.R. Jayawardene’s intent in creating the office of the Executive President was to define a political role that could push through policies and actions that would otherwise be held up in messy politics, partisan struggles and intra-party divides. Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge, with a historic margin of victory, came to office promising to be a benevolent dictator. Many still look at Premadasa’s time in office with nostalgia, as a man who got things done. The fascination with making Sri Lanka a Singapore also stems from the hero-worship of Lee Kuan Yew. Two months ago, Colonel Kithsiri Ekanayake led a delegation of military officers from Sri Lanka to Rwanda on a post-genocide study tour. During the tour, Col. Ekanayake is reported to have openly appreciated the leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his efforts to develop the country.

There is a common thread behind all this. Sri Lankans love to see results, and don’t often care how the results are achieved. The significant militarisation post-war, especially in the North and East, was not just roundly justified by government, it was widely accepted by the South as the best possible way to get things done, also in order to maintain law and order in areas ravaged by war. The construction of shopping precincts in Colombo, as well as other commercial and public infrastructure using Army labour was seen as putting to good use soldiers who would otherwise have idled in barracks. Further, the tangible results, often in a resplendent white facade, were seen as proof that development works best, in Sri Lanka, under a strict command and control regime. In sum, the best sort of development and governance is seen to be better through or under a regimental system controlled by an all-powerful visionary acting in the best interests of the country, than through inept, corrupt civilian and public administration. Gotabaya Rajapaksa knows this, and his political campaign, supported by some of the best advertising and marketing firms in Sri Lanka, is set to capitalise on this widespread public sentiment.

The problem with the model is not so much what can or has been achieved under it, but how the results are brought about. The end justifies the means. As long as there is tangible, material or perceived evidence that resources channelled into a project were utilised in a meaningful manner, the public generally don’t care what violence was employed or threatened in order to achieve the result. Singapore’s economic model and society, Rwanda’s post-genocide rule under Kagame, Premadasa’s development and ‘Gam Udawa’ projects, the reign of CBK and the post-war policies of the Rajapaksa regime in particular, for those close to, involved with, seeking entry into or supportive of those in power, appear deeply desirable and democratic. In reality, though to varying degrees, their authoritarian diktat, the systematic undermining of democratic institutions, the denial of dissent and outright demagoguery, all of these individuals were, or still are in fact the opposite of democratic.

In fact, even that’s not the problem. It’s the support they get from vast swathes of the population to do as they see fit, because of populist rhetoric that slowly but systematically undermines public trust in and support of public administration and civil authorities. The problems in the public sector, instead of being addressed, are weaponised to support the authoritarian bent of those who seek power and control. The emotive electoral submission is one that is geared to build trust in an individual, or set of individuals, who have projected as having proven abilities to get the job done, over government officials, civil servants and others who are hostage to bureaucracy, graft and systemic inefficiencies. It’s a powerful argument. Though invariably anecdotal, in conversations with a wide-range of individuals from across the South of Sri Lanka, the nostalgia is now around a country where despite astronomic corruption, which is acknowledged and condemned, “things happened”. Roads were built. Garbage was collected. Bridges were built. Cities were cleaner, and greener. Parks were maintained. Jobs were given. The private sector was happy. Now, with multiple power centres and the devolution not of political authority, but of corruption, citizens feel yahapalanaya is stagnating, and that for the best of intent, those in power will not be able to deliver the kind of material, kinetic development and existential, economic relief, citizens need.

And so, the fiction of the benevolent dictator will rise again, and gain new currency over 2018. This fiction holds great appeal for the young, professional, urban class, who under the Rajapaksa’s enjoyed, amongst other things, the benefits of a clean, green city without a shred of concern for the violence meted out to the thousands who were evicted, lost everything, and are now living in horrendous conditions. The furore against the destruction of the Colombo Swimming Club pool earlier this year flagged this disconnect quite clearly, where patrons of the exclusive club were absolutely appalled by what had happened to their pool, but unmoved by and blithely unaware of what, for years, had been taking place around them in the city, and in a much more violent manner. A woman, man or coterie that is able to sell the fiction that under them, things will be different – more ordered, less messy, more transparent, less time-consuming, more responsive, less corrupt, more results-oriented, less inefficient – will gain public support the more those in power today are unable to meaningfully strengthen governance, communicate clearly what measures are being taken to strengthen civil administration, and why systemic reform is so tough.

Between Jayawardene, Premedasa, Wijetunge, Kumaratunge, Rajapaksa and now Sirisena, the country has oscillated between times of overt, clear authoritarianism and, at least on the face of it or to begin with, trust in a more democratic form of government. Each swing of the pendulum brings with it the almost total erasure of what came before, and so, after each swing also comes, with time, nostalgia for how things were in the past. We are never happy with the present, or seeking to address, looking ahead, what ails us today. We perennially relive the past, and are best comforted too by promises, no matter how fatuous, to bring the past back to life. 2015’s twilight is 2020’s dawn. Many benevolent dictators lie in waiting.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 22 October 2017.

We are what we consume

Conversations over the past week, in person and over social media, were anchored to a bizarre news report published in a leading daily newspaper on the purported private life of a woman who had visited a doctor. This is putting is politely and mildly. The actual news report was deeply sexist and replete with lascivious gossip and unsubstantiated allegations. It beggared belief that an Editor of any serious newspaper thought it fit to print and newsworthy. Ethics Eye, a media watchdog anchored to Verité Research, regularly publishes evidence based research and analysis around how print media in Sri Lanka publish content with scant regard for ethics, professional standards or robust editorial oversight. A diplomat your author met last week put this down to the nearly three decades of war, and near evisceration of independent and professional media standards in the country, in the North under the LTTE as well as in the South, under successive governments. This assertion was contested. Eight years after the end of the war, and two years after President Sirisena was elected to office, media standards continue to be what they are because of a cancer within the media itself. And yet to speak of this, to write about this, or openly admit to this, is anathema.

Therein lies the rub, because we are essentially what we consume. Morgan Spurlock’s critically acclaimed 2004 documentary ‘Super Size Me’ was a remarkable study in how the consumption of fast food led to a dramatic, visible decline of the filmmaker’s health, including, importantly, his psychological well-being. A constant craving for food, never fully satiated, led to obesity, high cholesterol and a dulled cognitive capacity, in just a few weeks. There is a parallel, not often drawn, around the consumption of sensationalist media, which parades the worst gossip and entertainment at best as serious news reporting, and citizenship. How we engage with polity and society is framed by what we know. If these media frames are constantly focussing or based on the banal, the unsubstantiated, the mainstream, the majoritarian, the male gaze or the dominant, our worldview over time becomes invariably prejudiced as well – to the extent that we will fight tooth and nail to deny it, and decry anyone who calls us biased. A critical deterioration happens without us knowing it.

Last week, I visualised all the updates from a major English language based SMS news alerts provider from July 2015 to October 2017. This came to around forty-seven thousand words, or a ninety-six page, single-spaced document. I stripped away the common phrases like the name of the service provider, prefixes and suffixes. The visualisation was in the form of a word cloud, which based on frequency, determines the size of a word. The higher the number of times a word has been used, the larger the typeface. Conversely, the least frequently used words appear smaller. I placed the visualisation in the public domain for others to also study and offered some preliminary thoughts around how, on the face of it, I interpreted the visualisation. Cricket (scores and updates), corruption and crime feature heavily. The Rajapaksa’s also continue to be in the media gaze – and my point was that all publicity, is for them, good publicity. Mainstream politics dominates, and that too, news around only political developments at a national level. What was absent from the visualisation was as important as what was present. There is little to no emphasis whatsoever on human interest stories, constitutional reform, transitional justice and reconciliation. The updates are extremely Colombo-centric, and what is important for or happening in the South, East and North are entirely absent. I asked on Facebook that with a (media) diet like this, what sort of citizenry and mind-set mainstream media creates.

Civic media – media platforms that exist independent of mainstream media and run by individuals or civil society institutions, almost exclusively online and over social media – have blossomed post-war in particular, but don’t yet reach a critical mass.  While these platforms and what they produce or present influence a younger demographic, newspapers still command a larger footprint and additionally, are also now consumed over respective mobile apps and social media accounts. It matters then what they frame, and how they frame it. If in 2018 Sri Lanka is heading into a referendum over a new constitution, it matters than a leading SMS news provider has almost zero coverage of the key issues. If the country is reeling from the rise of fascist monks, it matters that the media doesn’t cover stories around diversity, the non-violence negotiation of difference, and inter-religious relations that have existed for centuries. If the dominant social and political discourse is around race relations and notions of racial superiority or purity, it matters that the mainstream media hasn’t focussed on how, as author and renowned architect Sunela Jayawardene in her book ‘the Line of Lanka’ avers is the emergence of ‘today’s pristine Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher’ from ‘the marriages of Rakusa and Naga, Yaka and Aryan, Veddah and Chola, Pandyans, Arabs and Greeks, Malays, Dutch, Portuguese, English and Persians’. If the South is to understand the enduring existential challenges of those in the North post-war, it matters that the media never really covers the daily lives and struggles of citizens in the Jaffna Peninsula and around it. If we are to comprehend and act upon the extent to which this year’s drought has impacted farmers and agriculture, and how this in turn impacts the entire country’s economy, the mainstream media’s inability and unwillingness to frame a long-drawn out, catastrophic environmental disaster is particularly revealing. If reporting on reconciliation is only ever anchored to the rare instance the President or Prime Minister mentions it as a lofty goal of government in a speech, we will never know the plight of hundreds of mothers and others who are literally begging the State to give any information around the whereabouts of loved ones who have disappeared. If women are only framed as sexualised objects, and mental health is only ever reported as sensationalised suicide covered in horrific, gory detail, consumers will invariably react and respond in ways that perpetuate what gives life to and normalises gender based violence and self-harm.

All this of course is not new. Though urgent and desirable, what’s also entirely unlikely is that the mainstream media culture will undergo any significant transformation. From mercenary owners to conservative men at the helm, from political patronage to a reliance on advertising, from a lack of training to poor pay, from sexism in the newsroom to more generally, consumers who don’t really demand better, the mainstream media culture is rotten to the core. We will continue to complain about the state Sri Lanka is in and how much better she can be, but never really pause to think about the role of mainstream media in supporting our better angels, and a more democratic future. Unsurprisingly then, despite all our frequent mutter, reform will invariably stutter.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 15 October 2017.

Art in and as activism

The Wendt, the National Art Gallery, Sapumal Foundation, Barefoot, JDA Perera, Red Dot, Theertha and other spaces associated with the visual and performance arts today didn’t exist or were entirely alien to me growing up, in the 80s and early 90s. Colombo at the time was a city of checkpoints, high-walls, barbed-wire and armed, stentorian sentries. In addition, a lower middle-class family couldn’t afford an engagement with the arts. My parents, who meticulously planned our outings during the day especially during the UNP-JVP ‘bheeshana yugaya’ and when violence in the North strongly suggested retaliatory attacks in the city by way of suicide bombings, never prioritised the arts or visiting the few places at the time one could engage with cultural traditions and practice. There were more pressing existential priorities – not always being together in case one them was killed, leaving Akka and I orphaned. Stocking up on food, in case curfew was suddenly imposed. Keeping the petrol tank always full, and never undertaking journeys without a time by which one would be home, before dusk. In all the family trips to Colombo around thirty years ago, I remember the architectural scars of July 1983 and at the time, more recent kinetic scars of suicide bombing shrapnel, enmeshing and dotting the city. The anxiety was palpable, and the fear, real. I do not know what it was like for the higher echelons of society, but for us, the necessary performance of mundane, daily rituals – around school, groceries, work, housework, visits to relatives, visits by relatives – was the lens and vector through which society writ large was engaged with. Though it wasn’t evident at the time and there was no choice in the matter, it was a very limited frame, in every way imaginable. Art simply didn’t enter it, especially for a lower-middle class family.

My first acrylic encounter and artistic framing of Sri Lanka (and its systemic violence) was through the now renowned T. Shanaathanan’s art in Delhi, India. I was doing my Bachelors. He was also a student, doing his MFA. Shanaathanan continues to define, for me, an artistic endeavour that bears witness to inconvenient truths which is intellectually engaging, never sterile, continuously refined and inclusive. By this I mean the production of art that is geared not at collectors, the wealthy or merely to adorn an otherwise empty space on a wall that matches the room décor – but art that informs, illuminates and ultimately, is a call for engagement. Art that subverts. As quoted in Open Magazine after I saw Shanaathanan’s ‘Cabinet of Resistance’ at the Kochi-Muziris Art Biennale earlier this year, “By presenting the lives of others through this work, [he] is able to transport us, through index cards, into the banality of violence, in all its forms— beyond the enfilade of a battlefield, to the domestic; beyond the headline-grabbing deaths, to loss so painful it can only ever be told as parable; away from the communal to the deeply personal.”

The singer-songwriter M.I.A. (Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam) has an interesting art book based on her music, and what inspires it. M.I.A. is more popular outside of Sri Lankan than in the country, where her considerable talent in music isn’t recognised by local radio stations, perhaps because of controversies surrounding her equally considerable ignorance in domestic politics outside of histrionic soundbites. But the book – in the psychedelic and shocking in the signature style of M.I.A – is a compelling, unusual visual story of resistance, violence and ultimately, the systemic nature of racism in Sri Lanka, which for most is so invisible, it is vehemently contested when surfaced.

On similar lines, it’s easy to flag and find the more popular and visible acts of resistance and activism through art. It’s harder to appreciate the smaller acts of artistic resistance – street and performance art, mural, graffiti, symbols and signs in public spaces. Godwin Constantine’s 1994 performance ‘Broken Palmyra’, Haththotuwegama’s street theatre, the creative scripts and performances during the ‘Bheeshana Yugaya’, as documented by Ranjini Obeysekara, which foresaw violent Police intervention at the end of a play to break up performance and audience, and wrote this into plot and action – are markers of a rich tradition of resistance in the performance spaces and theatrical traditions of Sri Lanka. Post-war and since 2009, through the Colombo Dance Platform, Colomboscope and smaller platforms facilitated by Theertha, performance as resistance and reflection has seen an up-surge, dealing with complex yet urgent social, political, economic and cultural issues mainstream artists, with a more commercial bent, have shied away from.

Today, Facebook memes often constitute individual acts of resistance, and collectively flag a burgeoning critical review of politics that is born digital. From cartoon and satire to animated GIFs and short videos, the rise of social media has spurned new forms, techniques of and platforms for art that offer new engagement dynamics. The subjects of critique find they can no longer capture, contain, censor or kill art, and its producers, easily. Ridicule, revulsion, recognition or respect now has digital form, and established artists like Anoma Wijewardene have been in recent years experimenting with locating their output at the intersection of where the real and the virtual meet, or collide. But the rise of digital platforms has also led to new artists – from photographers on Instagram to illustrators and cartoonists on Behance, from videographers on Vimeo to music productions on SoundCloud, a rich diversity of art also embraces creative forms of resistance, in new spaces online.

And therein lies the challenge – how to inspire, going forward, art that is political, and yet appeals to more than those already tuned into the politics of the frame, space or performance. Gallerists and curators will have a key role in this, imagining first new frames that artists are invited to inhabit, collaborate within and ultimately, redefine. But there is a role for us too – as those who see and support the arts. We can and must be resistant to what is often a lazy, ill-conceived and intellectually vacuous presentations and output that of late overwhelms well-known and much visited art platforms. The most compelling art may best spring from austerity, but also flourishes in a tradition where it is robustly contested – where the conversation around art is not about price or proof of purchase, but about the ideas presented.

Ultimately, it is not about the art and artist. It is about us, and what kind of society and world we would like to see in concrete form, which sometimes is most powerfully and first glimpsed through the abstract, ephemeral frames art affords.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 8th October 2017.

The global and the local

My work outside of Sri Lanka is influenced deeply by what I do in the country, and reciprocally, what I do beyond our borders informs how I respond to challenges within it. Over the past three weeks, the intensity of travel and work prevented me from submitting a column. In part, it was because of how far away I was the country. To a larger degree though, it was because I was involved in shaping projects that responded to the same kind of socio-political dynamics we endure, and fight against, in Sri Lanka.

In Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia in Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia, a region to which I’ve travelled twice this year, the socio-political dynamics are uncannily similar to Sri Lanka. The transitional justice agenda, post-genocide and post-war, is at varying stages. In some countries, memorialisation – both as a political construct and resulting urban architectural features – forgets the manner in which atrocities were committed by troops and state sponsored militia, and instead focusses on the loss of life as a consequence of enemy offensives and actions. In other countries, there is no memorialisation – a conscious decision to forget, and move on. The economic disparity, coupled with enduring effects of war – youth under-employment, unemployment, urban poverty – results in society that is on edge, unable to move forward, unwilling to face the past, splintering from within. On the other hand, every country in this region sees a high use of smartphones and the relatively cheap availability of broadband. So, while unemployment is sky rocketing, youth reload data (with money taken or borrowed from parents and grandparents) to engage with each other, and what they understand as politics, mediated through thumb and palm, in parks, alleyways, sofas, souks, beds, buses, souks and other places. You can see the disconnect from public and family life, and the immersion in an alternative reality governed by the algorithms of a news feed, the narcissism of likes, and the on-demand anonymity of online engagement. Youth here feel connected, but almost exclusively inhabit, online and over social media, bubbles – peers, friends, colleagues and others who are echo chambers, reinforcing group-think, focussing on gossip and entertainment, and through these vectors, mainstream politics. This is fertile terrain for the subversion and corruption of impressionable minds by everyone from populist politicians, right-wing Christian clergy, conspiracy theorists and mullahs who are in fact thinly veiled militants. Unsurprisingly then, one finds rumour, misinformation, disinformation (essentially, propaganda and gossip to varying degrees wrapped as serious news and content) colouring the worldview, engagement and emotions of a young demographic.

As a counterpoint, a conference organised by the Junior Chamber International in Kuching, Malaysia offered a chance to interact with several hundred participants – all working in private industry – from over one hundred countries, and under the age of forty. Speaking at and facilitating two workshops, several leitmotifs emerged. Those with economic means are worried about the unresponsive nature of mainstream politics in their respective countries. Counter-intuitively, this critique goes deeper than the nature of government. It wasn’t just the participants from countries with a known democratic deficit who complained that, as they saw it, mainstream politics didn’t reflect to any meaningful degree or sustained manner, their hopes and aspirations. Young professionals from the West – from mature democracies – also complained that government was increasingly alienating them. This manifested itself through a very low interest in franchise (“nothing really changes”) to anger (“we bring in the money, they waste it with corruption and bureaucracy”). Participants from around the world found in common that the language they spoke – of innovation, an interest in changing the status quo, new ways of working, new kinds of jobs and value creation, an interest in migrant and mobile working, travel, a low interest in savings when young, but a healthy interest in financial independence – where opportunities and challenges governments, and business as usual, simply didn’t embrace.

In Myanmar, I was working with several civil society organisations from across the country when the violence that has now gripped global headlines first broke out. Snippets, competing narratives and the first images of the violence in the Rakhine came by way of WhatsApp messages and Facebook Messenger, followed by email. This was several days before serious mainstream media coverage of the issue in the country. It took much longer for the world to react to what was going on. This information ecosystem is ripe for disinformation and rumour, which when engineered and disseminated broadly, serves to do two things primarily – get people to react to information that is clearly intended to incite hatred and violence against another religion or community, or devalue the veracity of information over these channels in general. The first is what most choose to focus on. The second is more pernicious, because very often, those who suffer the brunt of violence only have the phones they carry around with them to document the violence. When this valuable footage that bears witness to atrocities on the ground is also mistrusted, it serves to undermine the urgency of a political and whole of government response to quell the violence, and empathy. Similar tactics were employed in Sri Lanka three years ago, when interestingly, old images of Rohingya from the Rakhine were distributed over instant messaging platforms and Twitter purporting to be from Aluthgama, taken during the anti-Muslim riots.

Most recently in San Francisco, I led some conversations around opportunities and challenges around the use of technology in humanitarian aid, and more generally, in the strengthening of human rights. Leitmotifs that emerged were interesting. The existing world order – including international humanitarian law which governs war – currently has no clue, capacity or competency to deal with threats that are the result of targeted offensives launched against critical infrastructure and vulnerable populations over the Internet. These are not embryonic or emergent. The field of offensive cyber-operations, and reciprocally, cyber-defence, is already mature even though governing norms, legal frameworks and definitions simply haven’t kept up with the heady pace of technological change. It’s now possible for a just a few dollars to slow down or crash a friend’s PC whilst playing a tournament online or for a very different order of strategic advantage, disrupt or seriously harm an entire country’s banking, medical services or power grid. In Sri Lanka, the very same authorities who can’t even secure the President’s website from successful hacking attempts of a teenager are those that promise us benefits of an electronic national identity card system, where biometric and personal data, to a very invasive degree, will be stored online. It is a ticking time-bomb that, entirely independent of the known malevolence of our government, can hold entire swathes of the population hostage and render them, almost instantaneously, destitute, through identity theft of an order we haven’t seen, aren’t prepared for and simply won’t know what to do when it happens.

All this suggest a couple of things, globally evident and locally relevant. The aspirations of the young need to be reflected in government. Government itself needs to be younger, more responsive and more innovative. Propaganda is pervasive, and it is often more effective than verified news at shaping the public narrative and official responses. Vital witness testimony, despite the promise of the internet to give everyone a voice, remains hidden, especially from mainstream media. Extremism online is a problem, and use the same platforms to spread fear, violence and harm as hundreds of millions use to document and discuss their cappuccino’s perfect froth. This makes technology companies in Silicon Valley – often more powerful than individual governments – important intermediaries in every country their products and services are present in, when combatting propaganda, disinformation and the rapid spread of hate. The primary vectors of news and information for youth is now social media, over a smartphone. Refugees and IDPs need and go in search of information and Internet access as much as water and food. Existing international covenants around the rules of war need to be revised to embrace cyber-terrorism.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to any of these challenges. Whereas warts and all, conversations across multiple continents and countries on these issues is anchored to strategic engagement, reform and planning, government officials, politicians and policymakers in Sri Lanka remain set in their ways, largely unwilling and seemingly unable to change. We all stand to lose.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 1 October 2017