Seeding innovation

I watch Chef’s Table on Netflix not because I love to cook, but because the series focusses on how Michelin starred chefs from around the world came to be who they are. The series goes into what inspires them, how they marry disparate fields, geographies, ideas and ingredients to produce what they do. The series is ultimately about innovation. Ideas. How austerity, an inquiring mind, an indomitable spirit, faith in self and love shaped the lives of individuals whose kitchens and restaurants effortlessly command waiting lists that sometimes exceed over a year. In a similar vein, a recent documentary I saw on the fashion house Dior, focussed on the life and vision of its founder, Christian Dior. In breaking so sharply away from the austerity that coloured post-war France, and by using reams of cloth to adorn women, Dior created what Harper’s Bazaar called at the time a new look, creating a revolution in fashion and also, in how it was presented. Here to was an individual who was inspired by more than what surrounded him, and had a vision beyond the circumstances and context that coloured, and indeed, held hostage the present. How do we cultivate individuals like this? Innovation and invention are based on a healthy imagination, lateral thinking and critical appreciation. And yet, Sri Lanka’s education system is designed, from kindergarten to university, to actively seek and destroy all three.

How do we go from producing robots, who merely vote and wait, to citizens who interrogate and truly participate?

Recently, I asked some individuals to come up with ideas around how two key historic events, the anniversaries of which fall next year, could be presented in a way that was original, avoiding tired tropes and ideas that had been employed in the past. It proved near impossible for them to do this. Often invisibly and long after formal schooling, Sri Lanka’s education system and societal structures debilitate and stunt the mind. I have witnessed this at Colombo University, the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and other places I’ve taught over the years – where there is an almost complete inability by senior, often very experienced students to come up with a critical question, or any original commentary around a challenge posed. Tellingly, even some who have been to international schools, ostensibly free from outdated syllabi and outmoded pedagogy, continue to be hostage to received wisdom, uninterested in reading anything other than what is professionally required, absolutely necessary, required for career progression, or will be talked about at the next job interview.

There’s some hope. Saturday last week was almost entirely spent listening to young adults, between fifteen and twenty, from across Sri Lanka pitching ideas around social change, development, education and innovation as part of Ashoka Foundation’s newly established Youth Venture programme. The students came from Kandy, Colombo, Dehiowita, Puttalam, Matara and Negombo. What completely floored us as a group of three judges – who had to select those who would make it to the Ashoka programme which essentially developed their entrepreneurial skills to scale up their ideas – was the vision and original thinking that underpinned the submissions. From tackling clinical depression to teaching English language as a platform for inter-communal reconciliation at the village level, from clean and green energy ideas to food and electronic waste management, from their use of social media to mobilise supporters and volunteers to the manner in which in some cases, they had approached well-known corporate entities for logistics support and supply chain management, the students were uniformly able to present ideas that pushed the envelope around what many adults would have thought possible, or even desirable. It was utterly refreshing.

Almost all the students clearly came from austere economic circumstances. When probed as to how they started to think the way they did, many attributed it to an enabling, non-judgemental environment at home that didn’t scold, shame or censure failure. Others were clearly motivated by their teachers in school, or the science teacher in particular. Everyone had a safe space to experiment, fail, learn and try again. Everyone had champions – within the family and from outside – who believed in them and what they wanted to see, or achieve. One participant, an inventor who was barely a teenager and had won prizes at the national level for his creations, said that what drove him was not a search for answers, but a quest for meaningful questions! A pair of female twins, who had organised a shramadaana in their village to clean up a river, had somehow managed to bring together Police, teachers, elders, the Buddhist clergy and other children by sheer determination and spoke of how every rupee they had been given was budgeted and accounted for. Everyone talked about scaling up their ideas, inventions, innovation and work. Many were explicitly driven by a need to help others less fortunate. Fellow adjudicator Anushka Wijesinha, Chief Economist of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the head of its Economic Intelligence Unit, shared a deep concern that the older these students would get, the more they would risk their imagination frowned upon by institutional architectures or insipid individuals in authority. Towards the end of the day, the both of us encouraged them to keep failing, in order to keep learning, and to never give up an inquiring, inquisitive mind, no matter what.

This all matters because democracy requires innovation to sustain itself. Think of Ray Wijewardene. Harsha Subasinghe of CodeGen and Vega, the electric sports car he’s making. Shantha Lenadora’s pneumatic retractor which limits tissue damage in abdominal surgery. Many more recognised by the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission or prize winners of the annual ‘Ray Award’. In our country, we frown down on innovation, and the most we often manage is to reward really interesting inventions. But as University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant notes, being an innovator isn’t just about creating a product, service, or new technology. The world (and Sri Lanka) needs more entrepreneurs of ideas and institutions. This is what the students at the Ashoka programme demonstrated. And this is what is so starkly absent from other, older strata of society and polity.

I don’t know what magic sauce needs to be conjured up in order to seed, sustain and scale the ideas we encountered in those children, and the hundreds if not thousands of others like them, who start young to dream big, and set goals to achieve the change they want to see. The status quo, our terribly corrupt, failing, conventional and conservative political, societal and educational architecture, wants them all to fail. To simply conform and supinely comply. To become subjects, actively debating, creating, working and living within strictly circumscribed limits – a spectrum of tolerance, couched as hard won freedoms, determined by those in power, in order to retain power. From strictly commercial domains to social change, from politics to the community level at villages, a shift is needed to value ideas. The Eightfold Path of the Buddha speaks often of what’s right- the right speech, right effort, right mindfulness. What’s right though isn’t what is accepted, or what’s already present. The children in front of us knew that, and projected into a world that is unjust, unclean, inequitable, unfair and dysfunctional, ideas that could make it better than before.

More than anything I have read or heard, just listening to these voices from across Sri Lanka gave some hope that despite how much the system tries to clamp down, the force of new ideas always shines. The challenge for us in positions of influence and authority is how to make the sporadic, systemic, the unusual, the norm and these children, our future leaders.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 20 August 2017.

Beyond a resignation

Sri Lanka has never had a Foreign Minster resign over allegations of corruption. But the once unthinkable happened last week. Many, including in government and from the ruling party, supported the resignation of the former Foreign Minister on the grounds that what is now in the public domain around his dealings with Arjun Aloysius, subject to a convenient partial amnesia, was deeply detrimental to government. Note that what’s flagged as embarrassing or wrong isn’t what was purportedly done, but rather, that it came to light. Power, and retaining it, trumps principle. Tellingly, even in his submission to Parliament, the former Foreign Minister offered no hint of contrition. Hubris and chutzpah rule, when shame and guilt should reign. What, if anything, has really changed?

The political theatre around the resignation masks other more disturbing developments. At the time of writing, the nominee to the now vacant post of Foreign Minister is an individual who is about as far removed from the avowed promise of yahapalanaya as one gets. In sum, we have one individual, tainted by allegations of corruption, out the door, replaced almost immediately by another who was forced to resign in 2015 from his Ministerial portfolio and was the erstwhile legal advisor to the Chairman of Avant Garde, Nissanka Senadhipathi. Frankly, ‘House of Cards’ couldn’t come up with a better plot twist.

Some have raised concerns around the nature and scope of the Commission of Inquiry into the bond issue, which isn’t part of the judiciary but acts with a vigour and verve that has many surprised, and asking the question as to why other investigations into allegations of corruption lack similar vitality. This is a fair question, since not a single investigation into the allegations of eye-watering corruption by members of the Rajapaksa regime have resulted in anything of consequence. The past fortnight alone showcases how when political will and partisan interest is behind a process, things happen, which by extension can only mean the lack of any discernible, meaningful progress in the investigations into high profile members of the Rajapaksa regime is a political decision as well. The question is who benefits, why, and at what cost.

One journalist tweeted that as a result of the eight thousand odd pages gleaned from the phone of Arjun Aloysius, several messages with initials, prima facie, implicating individuals in high political office were found. Some initials were pursued. Other initials were ignored. The bond issue involves individuals noted in the COPE report from last year, which itself saw high drama around finalisation and public release. These individuals are free to do and roam around as they see fit. Statements in Parliament around a new political culture of accountability ring hollow in this light. One response to this, tweeted by a senior government minister last week, is that those now in the Joint Opposition robbed more, killed more and abused power more. This is a false equivocation and one that the government must be unhesitatingly shamed for parading and promoting. The baseline for democracy isn’t what the Rajapaksa regime was or wasn’t, or what the JO today is or isn’t. Constitutional democracy, the rule of law as well as the early promise of yahapalanaya, as enshrined in the Presidential Manifesto of 2015, matter far more as baselines. Unsurprisingly, compared to the JO’s sordid record, anything that happens today is a miraculous advancement of democracy. But that’s a false baseline, established and promoted only to hide the growing stench and sins of the present government. The mere resignation of a Foreign Minister signifies nothing other than a political calculation around electoral loss and liability. No higher principle in operation here. The mere fact that the individual nominated to take up the office of Foreign Minister is someone roundly rejected by the people’s mandate in 2015 suggests that we will invariably see the re-emergence of the former Foreign Minister in some form or office a few years hence, when the present drama would have been forgotten. After all, this is a government that appointed this year the same individual in charge of Sri Lankan troops in Haiti accused of truly unspeakable child sexual abuse as the Army Chief of Staff. Clearly then, loyalty, kindship, friendship and corruption glue more than accountability.

The other key issue is around the constitution of the CoI. The establishment of it under Presidential fiat is problematic, because of its broad powers and the precedent it sets for a more authoritarian Executive, in the future, to use similar mechanisms to hound political opposition and quell dissent. A friend flagged valid concerns over the nature of the evidence collected – the manner in which witnesses were called, the degree to which the CoI had access to personal records carte blanche – including private content well beyond the scope of investigations – and the safeguards, or lack thereof, against this material from making it into the public domain. Even the former Foreign Minister has an inalienable right to privacy, and his enforced resignation from office, no matter how welcome, isn’t a presumption of guilt. Further, the CoI has no obligation to make its findings public. This is why it isn’t a replacement for judicial intervention in cases of corruption. The danger is that proceedings of the CoI and a single resignation alone is seen as some great victory against corruption, when in fact it’s utterly meaningless in the larger scheme of things. And to those who think the President is a doyen of incorruptible governance, a simple question – what happened to the inquiry, initiated by the AG’s Department, around allegations of corruption published in the Australian mainstream media last year, that involved requests for vast sums of money to be paid to the SLFP?

A fairly high-ranking official now in government once told your author that he inherited an official body where the production and serving of every single cup of tea had someone skimming something, at some point of time, somewhere along the process. He said that if he were to root out corruption, it would necessarily involve the sacking of everyone presently employed. The challenge then becomes how much of corruption one countenances. This is murky terrain, but inescapable, because it is a fact of political life. Everyone is on the make, or is looking to create a deal that results in personal or partisan profit. Loyalty is bought. Clearly, mainstream media and journalists aren’t immune from the seduction of corruption, as is evident in public proceedings from the CoI that reveal a well-known Sunday newspaper to be funded by the same person the former Foreign Minister forgot he was on flights to Singapore with. The rot is everywhere, including in the private sector, which never loses an opportunity to grease the palms of those in power for greater security around returns on investments.

In speaking with youth, I don’t know any more how to inspire the hope and confidence in them that the political system, as it stands, can work for them. Making them believe in advancement through merit only seems to set themselves up to failure, anger, apathy and possibly even violence. We need to name and shame. Continuously. And it needs to start at the top, because it is a political culture supported by and for the benefit of a few, that gives life to corrupt practices by so many. The elephant in the room (no pun intended) is whether the stability of this government is important in order to prevent the rise of and return to power of the previous regime, which suggests a greater patience with corruption today, as somehow a necessary evil to ward off a greater one in the wings. Don’t buy into this. Corruption needs to be flagged without fear or favour. It is wrong no matter who does it, and if in flagging what’s wrong today, it is the JO that benefits, then so be it, because their odious rank includes those who did far worse. A great purge of putrid politicians needs to be engineered and sustained, through media and discourse at multiple levels that holds up honesty as a virtue and value. Youth see this, and are impatient with those who promise much, but change nothing. Today’s anger is a result of promises around yahapalanaya and how far removed the government is from them. Spin isn’t going to cut it. A mere resignation isn’t going to cut it. Heads must roll. Governments must fall. Democracy must win.

Kathmandu revisited

In Kathmandu this week after over ten years, I was struck by how much worse the city looks and feels from what I recall when I visited last. Google Maps is deceiving. The mushrooming of cafes with interesting names, pubs, restaurants and gastro-bars in various districts along with a wide-range of hotels suggests, on the face of it, a bustling, well-planned and cosmopolitan metropolis. The number of apartments alone suggests a much higher density of population in the city than when I was here last, along with the vertical additions to older structures making some of the buildings bizarre Lego creations – with the rather beautiful red brick and clay forming the foundation of what are comparably grotesque mortar and steel additions on top, finished off with an assorted array of water tanks, of varying colour and size. The roads of Google Maps snake their way in intricate patterns across the city. The citizen-generated OpenStreetMap platform is even more detailed, offering a birds eye view of a city, its myriad of alleys and a valley writ large that offers a lesson in the complexity of urban planning, or the telling lack thereof. At street level, in a vehicle or on foot, the cartographic appeal of urban complexity on a map soon becomes life threatening. Many routes through Yala in a 4WD would be, by order of magnitude and without exaggeration, smoother and better than navigating some of the main roads in Kathmandu – all of which seem dug up at almost every junction and turn, only to be summarily abandoned. There is a fine dust which permeates and covers everything – a mixture of earth, sand and cement. After occasional or overnight rain and the resulting mud baked in the hot sun, the dust becomes worse. All this makes for a beautiful, Promethean haze at sunset, especially when framed with the old temples and courtyards of comparable hue, but is in fact about as unhealthy as it gets. I couldn’t quite figure out if the fresh meat on sale in road-side abattoirs were better off and preserved for a fine coating of dust, or whether one somehow and over time developed a natural immunity for the level of pollution here, in all that is consumed, touched, breathed in, or drunk. A veritable spaghetti of power, cable TV and telecommunications lines weigh down poles that hold up all three, like black and grey octopi shadowing every junction and street. To see the Himalayas in the distance at sunrise, after an overnight shower and before the pollution wakes up, is still quite magical.

Kathmandu as a city though, for the most part, is hell.

It wasn’t like this when I came in April 2003 for the first time, before full-blown democracy and during monarchy. I came before there was a single traffic light in the city, when man, machine, monk and every sacred bovine meandering and interaction took place around its own logic, and often sedate pace. There were no ATMs. No place took credit cards. The best place to exchange currency was at the airport. Dial-up internet was slow at best. There was no roaming available, even if you could afford at the time the astronomical rates for SMS and calls. The airport looked like a large red-bricked house retrofitted with a hastily constructed control tower, and a long stretch of unused road re-commissioned as a runway. You walked quite a distance from the plane to the terminal. Incredibly, all this remains relatively unchanged even today. The myriad of places I stayed in and walked around on the many occasions I came to Nepal during Sri Lanka’s ceasefire agreement, in the early years of this century, the earthquake in 2015 has wiped out. I felt tempted to go to these areas and see what they looked like now, but opted to instead go through my old photos – why replace or risk what is fondly recalled to what I may recoil from or react badly to today.

I came to interact with Nepali journalists and civil society on the role and relevance of media in a ceasefire process. Sri Lanka’s great lesson to the world at the time was around how a ceasefire could be a foundation for a just, positive peace, which was more than the absence of armed conflict. This was before smartphones and social media had been invented. The workshops we had in Nepal were under the banner of ‘conflict conscious news management techniques’, focussing on framing, intent and what in later years was embraced in the practice of data journalism – anchoring stories to verified information and visualising trends over time, instead of being first to report unverified rumour and always focussing on events. My presentations and discussion points from fourteen years ago flag a serious conflict of interest – with Norway as mediator and as also head of the monitoring mission – and what even then were clear signs of deep structural flaws in the ceasefire process, including the intransigence of the LTTE and a growing disconnect between the mood of the people and a technocratic government, which risked the entire structural reform agenda. The affable spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) at the time accompanied us, as a counterpoint to this critique. A comprehensive knowledge of spoken Hindi at the time allowed me direct interactions with some leading figures from the Maoist movement we met in closed door meetings held in secret, and also many journalists from outside Kathmandu. We flew around in Buddha Air flights, which true to their name, offered hair-raising, stomach churning journeys that were never more than a few seconds away from the possibility of rebirth on mountainside. Social polling on the lines of what had conducted in Sri Lanka was unheard of in the country at the time, and so much of the interest was also around how civil society and media could embrace data around public mood and sentiment in their work.

So much of this is relevant even today, and ironically, for both countries. In Nepal, political stasis and large-scale corruption is clearly reflected in the state of urban decay alone – unfinished infrastructure, a lack of standards in construction, unplanned buildings, a lack of regulatory oversight leading to physical and digital congestion. In Sri Lanka, we have today the same Prime Minister as I talked about in the context of the ceasefire agreement fourteen years ago. The tendency of the present government, as it was during the CFA, is to largely ignore public sentiment once in power. Social media and smartphones are framing inconvenient narratives the governments of Nepal and Sri Lanka cannot wish away. Spoilers and extremists are using these new vectors to reach and influence younger voters. Back then as well as today, economic considerations trump interest in political reform – hunger and hopelessness fuel a growing discontent that manifests itself through apathy and violence, ripe for opportunists to exploit.

Back then, the verdant hills of Godavari, a short distance from but a world apart from Kathmandu provided the frame for our first discussions with civil society and journalists in Nepal. We came to this country to share lessons of a high-level political and military project we weren’t the architects of, had little meaningful access or insight into and were fearful would come undone – which it did. I came to Kathmandu this week with humbling lessons of how much we had gone and done wrong. The last King of Nepal once tried to isolate the country, by shutting off the Internet, literally. He’s gone. The country endures. We thought the awful Rajapaksa regime wouldn’t end. We were wrong. A healthy defiance and resilience binds the people of Nepal and Sri Lanka, and why for me, coming here will always be so interesting.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 6 August 2017.

Rebooting the news

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, flags a fundamental issue in our attention economy. As the window to the world is increasingly framed by the screen size of a smartphone, makers of apps – Instagram, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and makers of games like Candy Crush Saga – have to find ways to grab and hold the attention of users. On-screen notifications, that appear even when the phone is locked, alert users to breaking news alerts, game upgrades, likes, shares, comments, posts, new videos, direct messages and reminders – all designed to increase the engagement with an app. Each app finds a new way to control attention – and often, this is in the form of gamification, which rewards the users of an app who consistently check it, instead of users who only periodically check for updates. Add all this time checking up on apps, and the point made by Harris is a simple one – you lose focus on what’s important, and you gradually lose the ability to interact meaningfully with one’s immediate physical surroundings. The more hilarious manifestation of this is the plethora of videos online where people engrossed in their smartphones walk straight into glass doors, poles, other pedestrians, fall into manholes or trip over and fall ignominiously. The hidden side to the attention economy is that these apps mediate what we know of the world, how we engage with it, and deeply influences what we consider important and meaningful. Through Facebook alone, a company struggling to meaningfully deal with the volume of content its users create, over two billion people a day are served with content entirely hostage to opaque, and when made public, deeply problematic algorithms that are designed with the sole purpose of increasing advertising revenue.

Before these colossal online social networks and the ubiquity of smartphones, the primary means through which the majority access and engage with web based content, politics, propaganda and persuasion worked very differently. News was slow, and breaking news was over radio or through special segments that interrupted the regular programming on TV. A newspaper provided insight into what was newsworthy but also, for the majority of readers, genuinely new to them. Now a newspaper, if read at all in print, is skimmed to get to the news one already knows through social media or SMS alerts, for any useful bits of information that soundbites, short snippets and partial updates didn’t deliver. And while the focus is on fake news – its generation, dissemination and power to influence citizens – the news itself isn’t what it was just a few years ago. Our windows into the world have shifted the way we are alerted, consume, engage with and respond to news. This has a bearing on politics.

What the mainstream media now denies, social media delivers. But this also means playing nice with Silicon Valley. A video bearing witness to a horrific human rights violation or a vicious event can run afoul of guidelines on the uploading or distribution of violent material. This often penalises more the organisations that seek to bear witness to human rights abuse and serves the agenda of the perpetrators, who don’t want eyeballs on what they do. Facebook’s algorithm means that in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, gossip and entertainment are prioritised over news and information that have an implication on governance and democracy. Hard news and complex issues are always sacrificed for gag reels, cute cats, animated GIFs and inspirational quotes. The average consumer of social media is both glued to their screens and supremely ill-informed. As far back as 1998, Linda Stone, a researcher at Microsoft called this ‘continuous partial attention’ – the process of paying simultaneous attention to a number of sources of incoming information, but at a superficial level. Most of us are plugged into Twitter, Facebook, and various instant messaging apps, but unable to focus on what’s really important. Our attention deficit lends itself during elections to campaigns by political parties to generate votes or denigrate opponents by marketing tricks. And thus, we have short clips that go viral, infectious memes and taunting tweets. The substantive content in a manifesto remains locked away, in full public view. Arguably, this status quo is fine for those with and in power, including technology companies. If profit is the driver of software development, anything that undermines it – like a more conscientious design to make users engage with content and each other more meaningfully, will simply not fly.

This is what Harris flags. A few years ago, well before Trump, Eli Pariser warned us of this same thing and in a TED talk proposed a radical idea. He asked why social media couldn’t filter content by relevance, importance, on how uncomfortable it made a user, on how much the user wanted to be challenged in their beliefs or by the engagement with other or different points of view. What the US political landscape makes very clear is that Pariser’s belief in the ability of individuals to use these filters, even if available, may be misplaced. For example, those who support Trump and the current Republican administration in the US live in a self-referential reality, where only what conforms and is convenient matters – the rest is, for them, fake news. Fixing this problem, which plagues so many countries, isn’t going to be easy – partly because it is the news industry as it stands today that created voter polarisation, a disturbing and divisive foundation that social media has taken to new heights.

Arguably, the readers of this column are generally from a generation that isn’t hostage to or indeed, even conversant with social media. But what’s first or only online is increasingly driving official policymaking. It’s now on social media that important announcements are made, even here in Sri Lanka. A Twitter Q&A with a former President of Sri Lanka, just last week, resulted in key news stories published in the mainstream media. Clearly then, the footprint of social media extends far beyond just those connected to or enslaved to it. Without media literacy, or more broadly, information literacy, what matters the most in our politics and democratic fabric will continue to be subsumed by what is the most entertaining, or slick propaganda. The underlying causes of war which endure, on-going discrimination, gender violence, drivers of self-harm and suicide, endemic corruption and macroeconomic data are all worth framing, probing, exploring and engaging with. Stories about government officials who are responsive and honest, policemen who really help, development projects that benefit citizens, teachers who break the mould and inspire are also worthy of our attention. The news as it stands today denies citizens this depth, dimension and detail. From the online to print and broadcast, the news needs a reboot. Harris and Pariser lead globally.

Who will take the mantle locally?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 30 July 2017.

The invisible violence

The visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, Ben Emmerson was extensively covered in the mainstream media after a damning end of mission statement delivered in Colombo. The Special Rapporteur’s full report on his mission to Sri Lanka will be tabled in Geneva at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council sittings in March 2018. The statement went into some detail around on-going torture in Sri Lanka. Emmerson flagged “… extremely brutal methods of torture, including beatings with sticks, the use of stress positions, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, the pulling out of fingernails, the insertion of needles beneath the fingernails, the use of various forms of water torture, the suspension of individuals for several hours by their thumbs, and the mutilation of genitals’. The pushback against the UN and the Special Rapporteur in particular, from influential sections of government and other quarters was expected, almost immediate and unsurprisingly given more publicity than the concerns articulated in the original statement. Already forgotten by those who now vociferously deny and decry these allegations is the seventeen-page report to the UN’s Committee Against Torture in November 2016, prepared not by any NGO or arm of the UN, but by Sri Lanka’s own Human Rights Commission. In case its credentials are also questioned, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was established by an Act of Parliament in 1996. This report also clearly flags the systemic use of torture and notes that ‘common methods…include, undressing the person and assaulting using the hand, foot, poles, wires, belts and iron bars, beating with poles on the soles of the feet, denial of water following beating, forcing the person to do degrading acts, trampling and kicking, applying chilli juice to eyes, face and genitals, hanging the person by the hands and rotating/and or beating on the soles of the feet, crushing the person’s nails and handcuffing the person for hours to a window or cell bar’.

All this in the land of the Buddha, over two years into the yahapalanaya government. One would expect as a consequence a thorough domestic investigation into these allegations, and corrective measures taken to abolish all inhuman and degrading practices. On the contrary, the immediate and to date only response from the President to the statement by Emmerson was to inquire as to how he got access to LTTE detainees. This is the same President, lest we forget, who was seen in public in July 2016 as part of a demonstration organized by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka against all forms of torture on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Sagala Rathnayaka, the Minister of Law and Order, was also present on this occasion. Photos of the demonstration show the President and the Minister sporting caps with ‘Stop Torture’ emblazoned, in all three languages. The optics then and the response now reveal a divide between what is overtly supported and in reality countenanced, between what is politically expedient and realistically doable given the pressure to maintain the status quo by the military, and inherently violent deep or dark state architectures.

It is easy to ridicule the President for a response in 2017 that is the polar opposite of what he stood for, literally, in 2016. But the nature and spectrum of official responses and reactions suggests that whenever the yahapalanaya government is held up to the same scrutiny as the previous government, it employs a tone of false equivocation – flagging the West and its failings as greater, or flagging the Rajapaksa regime’s human rights violations as more outrageous. The hypocrisy then isn’t so much with those who employ a critical gaze on Sri Lanka coming from the West or the UN, but the inability of the present government to countenance a degree of scrutiny largely if not wholly brought upon by the promises made by it to gain political authority and office. What is never really said, but implicitly suggested is that things like on-going torture are somehow more acceptable in a political context that is comparably more accountable and less violent than the previous regime. The benchmark then is not what is right or should be, but the worst of what we once were. It is akin to say celebrating a light, passing shower in a desert – nothing at all has really changed, but the slight dampness that’s short-lived is somehow projected as something that is refreshingly different to the norm, and indicative of a more verdant future.

We thus have a government that is adept at peddling the illusory, hostage to political and military realities that endure long after the end of the war, instead of a more principled political will anchored to accountability. No longer riding a wave of public support and approaching the twilight phase of its full term in office, the government’s willingness and ability to foster meaningful reform will diminish.

So, the window for systemic reform is over.

What the government has now embraced as its political strategy is akin to what’s known as A/B testing in website development. Through this method, two versions of the same website are shown to those who visit. The visitors aren’t told what version they are looking at or engaging with. Depending on how effective one design is over the other, judged by how visitors respond to it, the final version of the site is deployed. Similarly, the government tells the international community, domestic constituencies, the sangha, military, the opposition, donors and others what they want to hear, all in parallel but not in concert. Hence, the obvious lack of any logical coherence from government on a range of key issues. Each party responds to what is told to them. This approach works to keep the patience of the international community from running out, the sangha at bay, the military happy, the donors interested, the opposition engaged and the voters distracted.  What is engineered is a way through which though only the basic minimum is done around reform, it is projected as a great achievement. The general result is tokenism at its core, just with nice icing on it.

What then and what now?

Progressives embedded in government will want to pressure those higher-up even they cannot influence by way of popular demonstrations in support of the January 2015 mandate. Civil society will be encouraged to lead the reform agenda, initially championed by government. The danger here is that through outsourcing, and ironically, the greater the success at highlighting the initial yahapalanaya promise, the more it stands the risk of being perceived as an agenda or set of initiatives alien to government, funded by change-agents perceived to be from the West, and the usual corrosive rhetoric that follows. The lack of political will from within government isn’t something that can be located outside of it, in civil society. Corrective measures are known. It is the political will that’s missing, or more accurately, the once pulsating promise of meaningful reform.

This isn’t just academic. The details reproduced above on the kind of torture detainees and prisoners undergo was deliberate. It forces readers to confront what is happening today, perhaps even right now, while you read this column. It is awful. It is violent. It is ugly. And it is allowed to continue. Even as a card-carrying Theravada Buddhist country, we seem to have confused and conflated ahiňsā – a cardinal precept of the dhamma, with hiňsā as an acceptable norm of governance. This harks back to what Hannah Arendt called the banality of violence. Torture in Sri Lanka is invisible. To highlight it is the crime, not the torture itself.

One reason why, so many years after war, we remain steeped in violence.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 23 July 2017.

Hacking the referendum

The government, despite strong opposition led by senior monk Anamaduwe Dhammadassi Thero, said last week that it will nevertheless continue to pursue the constitutional reform process, which will be put to a referendum. This comes after PM Wickremesinghe was reported in the media the week before saying the task of the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee (CASC) will be to draft the new constitution in such a manner that will not require a public referendum. Adding to this confusion, data in the public domain over two years from Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests quite simply that if a referendum is held in the near future, the socio-political context is such that it is very difficult to see how a Yes vote would win. Given that a referendum is really an electoral litmus test of governance, entirely independent of the questions asked, the government is not on a winning wicket. Less well understood is another danger – in line with what is now a disturbing trend in other countries, including the West. But first, some data.

According to the official 2012 census, 23.2% of Sri Lanka’s population is between 20 – 34. In a survey around media consumption and perceptions in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, conducted late 2015 by Social Indicator, 42.2% of those polled said that it was necessary for Government Ministers to use social media to communicate with the public. Those between 18-34 wanted to see regular updates from the Ministry or Minister. 61.5% said that after they came across interesting content online, they went on to share and create awareness amongst friends and family. This last point is important, because it clearly suggests the importance of digitally produced content, online, having an impact on a far larger number of citizens than those directly connected to social media apps, the web and Internet. Data gleaned from the Elections Department suggests there were seven hundred thousand first time voters in January 2010 out of fourteen million in total. There were nine hundred and fifty-five thousand nine hundred and ninety first time voters in January 2015 out of over fifteen million in total. The total 18-34 vote bank of first to fourth time voters was over two million by mid-2017. This is around 13.3% of all registered voters. Indubitably, social media – through smartphones, Facebook in particular and increasingly on private groups over popular instant messaging apps – is the primary vector through which this demographic gets their news and information.

If and when the constitutional referendum is held, and any national or local election in the future, content engaged with over social media by a young demographic, including first time voters, will in large part determine the outcome. There is research from the US and the UK which looks into social media as a quantitative indicator of political behaviour, noting that heightened engagement does in fact translate into votes. Research done at the Colombo University suggests that students who directly work for politicians and act as co-ordinators (opinion leaders) between the politician and university undergraduates have been able to influence first time voters. The research goes on to note that social media acts as a multiplier effect, widening the reach of what (younger) politicians have to say by placing partisan content in peer groups.

Politics in Sri Lanka has gone digital, moving away from rally, newspaper ad, manifesto, radio or TV spot to hyper-local, demographically targeted, visually engaging, constantly updated, self-promoting content over social media, embracing sound, audio, video, photography and professional marketing skills outsourced to teams of skilled individuals who post on behalf of the leading influencers. Not a single account from the incumbent government springs to mind as a key example. The best of what is now an established set of vectors to influence votes comes from the JO writ large and in particular, individuals like MP Namal Rajapaksa.

And therein lies the rub.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to election violence and vote rigging through voter intimidation, disenfranchisement, ballot stuffing or somehow tampering the electoral registry. For a chilling few hours starting around 2am the morning of 9th January 2015, all election results froze. Desperate calls were made to ascertain why and the worry grew that dangerous measures were being contemplated in order to rig the result of an election which, as it turned out, had the largest turnout ever in a Presidential election. We may never know what really happened, but details of meetings held at this time at Temple Trees, involving highly placed members of the armed forces, Police and the then government are in the public domain. The partial amnesia of those who attended these meetings to recall who else was in the room also reveals the sensitive nature of what must have been contemplated. What however your author didn’t buy, despite a range of conspiracy theories, was the wholesale hacking of the vote counting system and network infrastructure. If as suggested, the tampering was done at the point of data entry by systematically manipulating figures, the high turnout coupled with what endures as an extremely laborious, manual system of sorting, counting and tabulation well before electronic data entry, was its own best safeguard. No doctored result would gain public legitimacy precisely because Sri Lanka’s voting architecture is so maddeningly archaic and labour intensive.

What can more easily happen today is the targeting of individual voters in a young demographic – who are influential and reciprocally, easily influenced. Information and media literacy remains, amongst this group and more widely, very poor in Sri Lanka. We do not critically engage with what we consume, and instead believe, spread, act on and respond to content that passes very poor or low subjective tests of credibility. As we discovered through our social polling in the Western Province (and reflected more globally) the Facebook News Feed is seen as a more trustworthy source of news and information entirely independent of source and veracity, simply because it is perceived as coming from friends and thereby having, unconsciously, a higher degree of trustworthiness. The voter is the new target of hacking. A new discipline called psychometrics is taking root around elections, that targets individuals or key socio-economic, geo-located, language, religious and ethnic groups with content geared to nudge them, over time, into positions that then act as proxies to an agenda set by others in power, or desirous of it. The sophistication of all this is quite remarkable, and is almost impossible to detect using traditional media monitoring techniques. What’s increasingly evident is that one of the aims of spoilers – those who want the status quo to continue and are inclined towards a No vote at our constitutional referendum – is to muddy the waters by getting citizens to disbelieve everything, become vehemently cynical and approach the promise of reform with apathy. This electoral disengagement means that the votes which are in fact counted are around the rejection of an idea or question, rather than the support of reform.

This level of demographic targeting, increasingly possible even in a small country like Sri Lanka along with more conventional means of propaganda, circumnavigates the labour intensive electoral system and the problems therein of mass scale vote rigging. What could in the past be achieved by more traditional means of violence and intimidation can now, on a daily basis, be engineered by carefully crafting media content that spreads over social media, shifting, over time, entire groups against or for ideas, exploiting what endures as an information and media literacy deficit. Put another way, the explosive growth of social media is in fact a risk for progressive, democratic forces, because it provides easy, cost effective vectors through which spoilers can now influence and reach key demographic groups, who don’t go to political rallies, have multiple, liquid affiliations with mainstream politics, aren’t card carrying party political members and don’t engage with mainstream media through broadcast and newsprint. However, what is a risk is also an opportunity. Much can be recommended in this regard, but it all starts with the one thing that is lacking to date – political leadership and will. The vacuum of doubt created by silence and the confusion created by inchoate official communication needlessly helps those intent on holding back our democratic progress and potential. It’s easy to demonize technology when traditional party-political architectures are far removed from the aspirations and hopes of young voters in particular. The truth is far older than a fascination with social media.

Reform requires political will. And that is precisely what we don’t see much of in Sri Lanka today.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 July 2017.

A hidden design

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats

Last week I wrote and warned against a creeping saffronisation of mainstream politics and the tacit embrace of what the Bodu Bala Sena and its head, Gnanasara Thero stand for, by the sangha writ large. There has been pushback. Several senior monks have publicly disassociated themselves from the Asgiriya Chapter’s explosive statement, providing a rare but telling insight into what is a complex and enduring power-play between and within each nikaya. Strongly worded statements by civil society have been published, admonishing government for not acting against the incitement to violence by the BBS, and the hatred it spouts. Like a kindergarten bully, the BBS acts with impunity on the playground of politics and society, but when occasionally caught and placed in a corner, projects to the public a face that suggest it has been unfairly accused and punished. The cycle continues.

Arguably, the likes of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anarchists, those who believe in and fight for ISIS, xenophobes, racists and bigots are a feature of a healthy democracy, precisely because they are on the fringe. At the margins of society and politics, shunned by mainstream media, opinion, policymaking and politicians, these grotesque groups and their frenetic followers exist only as a reminder of what a society, politics and country should never be, or aspire to follow. Though a full study is impossible to cover in a single column, there are two key reasons why in a developed democracy these groups don’t grow and infect a country writ large with their psychosis – one, the institutional fabric of governance, including the rule of law, is strong and applies to everyone without fear or favour. This provides citizens with a variety of options for the good life no matter who they are, what they do or where they live, within a democratic space – a prospect far more appealing than subscribing to the ideals of, and a sense of belonging that comes from being part of a smaller group. Secondly, more advanced democracies have institutional frameworks and a strong civil society that stem the growth of radical extremism and fascism. Rechts gegen Rechts (Nazis against Nazis), an initiative against right-wing extremism in Germany is a key example, where residents and local businesses of villages and towns that suffer neo-Nazi demonstrations and marches, give ten euros for every meter participants in the rallies advanced to a group called EXIT-Germany, which supports those who wanted to leave fascist, right-wing groups. The idea was that the more neo-Nazis marched, the more funding would be raised to undermine their very existence. Like drops oil in a body of water, extremist groups in more developed democracies find meaning in their existence but within a very circumscribed space.

Content featuring or published by French journalist Nicolas Hénin on ISIS also offers another perspective on the likes of the BBS. Hénin, held hostage by ISIS for ten months, in an article penned in The Guardian newspaper late 2015 notes that the likes of ISIS are drawn to ugliness on social media, and “heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia”. He notes that central to the world view of ISIS is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and that finding supporting evidence is what they are geared towards. He ends the article with a key, strategic idea, noting that what they expect is bombing, but what they really fear is unity. In a video interview with the Independent, Hénin goes on to note that “the winner of [the war against ISIS] will not be the party that has the newest, the most expensive or the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to win over people”.

It is with these points in mind that the developments last week give further cause for disquiet. The argument is often made the government and President came to power because the minorities voted for them. While electorally accurate, neither President nor government openly embrace this fact because they perceive it will somehow reduce their appeal amongst the majority community in the South. What you find as a consequence is a government with an ostrich mentality in the face of growing fascism, intolerance and violence – that hopes it will all go away if silence is maintained and its gaze averted. This author believes the situation is in fact much worse – that instead of or in parallel to strategic disengagement, there is also tacit support of what is essentially the agenda of the BBS, voices through individuals who are proxies to those higher up in power. Over the course of just one week, we have heard the kind of rhetoric from the present government that stripped of context, could be mistakenly yet easily identified as being produced under the Rajapakse regime – a political order many of us thought we had overturned and left-behind, for all the obvious reasons, in January 2015. NGOs are yet again to blame for everything that is going wrong in the country. This isn’t new – the same voices that rail against NGOs today earlier this year noted that the Consultations Task Force – that architected one of the most comprehensive consultations around transitional justice in any post-war context and appointed by the Prime Minister – was also not to be trusted because it consisted of individuals from NGOs. Individuals from civil society who state facts, which are openly in the public domain, are now forced into exile and hiding. Individuals who spout conspiracy theories, appear shoulder to shoulder with the BBS, who repeatedly call people lunatics and mad for being opposed to violent extremism, who say all temples are beyond the control or remit of government, are allowed to speak and act with impunity.

There is a dangerous design weaved into what is seemingly chaos and a lack of coordination. Just like Trump’s manic tweets, inflammatory statements by powerful voices in government generate a lot of short-term attention and opposition, but a larger design around majoritarianism’s creep seems to be going unnoticed. In February 2015, at the height of the euphoria around yahapalanaya and its promise, one of the first decisions of the incumbent President was to appoint Rakitha Rajapakshe, the son Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, as Media Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. And while the Cabinet of Ministers and the Prime Minister spoke against intolerance and the rise of extremism, the President has remained largely silent. In the company of MP Rajapakshe, the President last December railed against social media for maligning judges. MP Rajapakshe in Parliament last month launched a diatribe against UN Special Rapporteur Monica Pinto’s report on Sri Lanka, which reflecting the current state of affairs, was far from rosy. The President last week placed the blame on Facebook and social media as impediments in building national unity and reconciliation, forgetting perhaps that not unlike the time of his own Presidential campaign, one of the only open and free spaces available for civil society to actually strengthen both is social media, and Facebook in particular. A terrible tag-team, this, but a telling one at that.

The government, if it is really serious about reconciliation, national unity and suchlike, needs to win people over. Right now, it’s not. Coupled with an economy in a mess, it is haemorrhaging public support. What one arm says, another disavows. What one person says, another undoes. What one person promises, the actions of another undermine. What ONUR wants, the Minister of Justice undermines. What the Prime Minister says, isn’t what the President echoes. What the Foreign Ministry promises the international community, isn’t what is actually delivered or given life to on the ground. What the BBS wants, however, is what is being slowly but surely mainstreamed. Note the silence of Gnanasara Thero, after his both defiant and prescient last words outside court. A larger community of sangha and politicians, from within government, partial to the concerns of the BBS, powerful and predatory, are making their presence felt. President Lincoln said that a test of a man’s character was gaining power. The narrative when the President and this government were desirous of power is markedly different to the narratives they give life to when in power. Which is stronger and which endures remains to be seen, but with heavy heart, I wouldn’t bet against saffron.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 2 July 2017.