Old wine

President Sirisena is clearly unhappy. When UPFA MP Kumara Welgama’s house was raided last week in search of two state-owned vehicles, President Sirisena said it was an “immature” act. Especially since of late, the President has taken some effort to demonstrate by example what political immaturity is, we have to take him at his word. This unhappiness is likely the result of being increasingly isolated in office, pressured on the one hand by voices from within the SLFP calling for electoral gain and partisan advancement, yet on the other being unable to do so given the nature of coalition politics as they stand, with the PM and UNP in charge of most affairs. This is then a question of competing visions. The PM and his political, socio-economic ideals, along with attendant constitutional reforms, is supported by a concert of civil society, bi-lateral, multi-lateral, domestic and foreign actors. The President is surrounded more by inward looking domestic gatekeepers and actors, more closely aligned to the security apparatus. The adulation and adoration enjoyed by the President, as a beacon of hope on the evening of 9th January 2015 at Independence Square, has now eroded into a Presidency searching for relevance and legacy. Sirisena feels alone.

Meanwhile, our PM was in Belgium making chocolate. That in the middle of Sri Lanka’s most serious political crisis since the 8th of January 2015, the PM’s media team saw it fit to release photographs of him in a kitchen playing with cocoa clearly indicates, amongst other things and not for the first time, an appalling media strategy of the UNP and a remarkable inability to read the public mood. Upon his return the PM assured us that the GSP Plus trade concessions from the EU would come on tap early next year. But tied to this, what the PM has not commented on is the draft Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), which comes soon after the current Minister of Justice strongly and unapologetically advocated for terrible amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code that had the Human Rights Commission, the Bar Association, several civil society organisations, leading columnists, journalists and ultimately the EU in Sri Lanka itself over Twitter, aghast or deeply concerned.

So while the President’s statements have generated the most attention and censure, the proposed CTA is far more outrageous. Even in draft form, it suggests the outlook of this government is not in fact very far removed from the Rajapaksa-regime’s dangerous fixation on national security, a siege mentality and the silencing of dissent. A brief test then, to support my point by flagging three paragraphs, spanning 37 years.

  1. The intention of causing harm to the unity, territorial integrity or sovereignty of Sri Lanka, or the peaceful coexistence of the people of Sri Lanka, by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, causes or intends to cause, the commission of acts of violence between different communities or racial or religious groups (is a terrorism related offence).
  2. Whoever, by the use of words spoken, written or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, intends to cause or attempts to instigate acts of violence, or to create religious, racial or communal disharmony, or feelings of ill-will or hostility, between communities or different racial or religious groups, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term exceeding two years.
  3. Any person who by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups has committed an offence… is on conviction liable to imprisonment of either description for a period not less than five years but not exceeding twenty years.

One of these excerpts is from the heinous Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, Section 2(1)(h). The other is from an amendment to the Penal Code proposed in December 2015, introduced also by this government ostensibly with a view to curtailing the rise of hate speech. The third is an excerpt from the leaked draft of the CTA, as published by mainstream media recently. Damningly, there is no discernible difference. It doesn’t require a degree in law to immediately understand why it is so deeply ironical, and indeed, both distressing and violent, that a government telling the world they are interested in human rights, is in fact, domestically rehashing, at every given opportunity, the same spirit and form of vile legislation that has been used to murder, torture, imprison unjustly, censor, silence and raise anxiety. The spirit, if not enduring form of the UNP around Black July 1983 clearly casts a long shadow, and is why it is jarring to read that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, unhesitatingly supports the restoration of GSP Plus to Sri Lanka.

Let’s ignore all this. When in 2013, the Rajapaksa regime tried to push through a ‘Code for Media Ethics’ prepared by the Media and Information Ministry, the pushback – domestic and international – was immediate and sustained. The ‘Ethics Code’ proposed at the time banned any publication that contained information which could ‘mislead the public’ or ‘promote anti-national attitudes’. The ban on content extended to “anything amounting to contempt of court’ as well as ‘materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature’ and, incredibly, ‘criticism that affects foreign relations’ – whatever that meant. The draft CTA’s clauses are much more worrying, and extend well beyond the media. And yet, the EU, US, UN and others, including sections of civil society still living in January 2015, have failed to condemn it.

Sadly, we do not really deserve any longer the praise we continue to so easily generate internationally. Course correction is possible and in the opposition to the CTA, may come about despite government. It is however important to recognise that the President’s statements and the fallout, coupled with the leaked CTA draft, set the new baseline to assess the state of democracy in Sri Lanka. Into this new equation we must also plug the UNP’s unwillingness to meaningfully investigate multi-billion rupee corruption scandals, which now result in defamation lawsuits against media for exposing the degree to which the rot has taken root.

And so the circus goes on.

What can ‘ordinary citizens’ do? Name. Shame. Warmly welcome the opportunity, as the New York Times did with Trump’s fatuous threats of legal action, to take matters to court, where judicial proceedings will bring to light the full extent of nepotism, corruption, insider trading, favouritism and money trails. Remain vigilant. Remind those in power points from their election manifestos they may want to now forget. Speak out, in ways, on platforms and over media the government can no longer contain, control or censor. Continue to be proud of the 8th of January, knowing that citizens, not an army with weapons, brought about a change thought impossible. Refuse to live in the 8th of January, when so much continues to be so wrong. Remind those in government – they are our servants. They bend, to our will. And as the Royalists in government must surely know, one either learns this, or departs.

Failing greatly

In a recent interview on guest editing the most recent issue of US edition of Wired magazine, President Obama talks about a number of ideas related to science, technology, economics and politics. The incredible breadth and depth of the outgoing US President’s knowledge around what he is asked, without the input of any outsider or advisor, beggars belief. Reading the interview, freely available online on Wired’s website, prompted an observation and question I posed on social media: “…not for the first time, deeply saddened by the fact that Sri Lanka’s best thinkers are nowhere on our party political spectrum. How can we inspire the best in us, when those heading our country are routinely the worst amongst us?”

I had in mind statements made by both the President and PM in Sri Lanka over the course of last week. A quote attributed to the PM and published this week in the National Geographic magazine’s website unequivocally suggested that those missing in Sri Lanka today are in fact, dead. It is not the first time this year he has said precisely this, and in public. If he is so clear about the matter, it raises the question as to why the government established the Office of Missing Persons to inquire into the fate of the thousands who have gone missing during and after the war. Last week was also punctured by Sirisena Jnr and Snr going on rampages. While Jnr’s posse laid waste to a popular nightclub for an indeterminable reason, Snr went on frothing tirade against the FCID, CID and Bribery Commission, noting amongst other things that they were anchored to a political agenda and since it was he who appointed the officials in them, they should in turn keep him informed of all high profile cases. Lest we forget, leading Australian media earlier this year reported that Sirisena, in his avatar as a Cabinet Minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa, had requested kickbacks from Snowy Mountains Engineering Company (SMEC) officials around a multi-million-rupee contract to construct a damn, saying “that he needed to ‘prioritise’ certain payments to unnamed parties ‘since the signing of the contract would depend’ on it”. Unsurprisingly, denying the claims made in the report, President Sirisena ordered the Attorney-General to investigate the matter. No report on the investigation has been made public or tabled in Parliament to date.

An apocryphal story attributed to Churchill and a female socialite springs to mind. Churchill asks the woman to sleep with him for five million pounds. The woman in question readily agrees. Churchill then asks her to sleep with him for five pounds. The woman, aghast, asks Churchill “What kind of a woman do you think I am?”. Churchill retorts by saying “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price”. Despite the President’s tiresome, prosaic moralising, despite the establishment of the OMP and the on-going ‘victim-centric’ consultations around reconciliation supported by the PM, the essential nature of both men who lead our country is now distressingly clear. One cannot practice what he preaches. The other just cannot communicate. We have changed faces in power. The awful nature of power remains the same. We celebrate and focus on cosmetic change, when in fact, systemic change remains elusive and episodic at best. Even under ‘yahapalanaya’, citizens are perennially haggling with feckless men who hold their future hostage to personal whim, corruption, expedient politics or parochial interest, disguised as ‘national interest’. As journalist Shihar Aneez aptly said on Twitter, “a visionary government with very poor media strategy is worse than a government with better media strategy and lack of long term vision”.

What’s the broader context for what Aneez flags?

The President is under pressure and not just because of Daham. The PM is under pressure and not just because of the President’s recent comments. Champika Ranawaka and the JHU are becoming increasingly important strategic players, in for the long-haul and positioning themselves against for example the manic nationalism of the Gotabaya and those who venerate him. The JHU aren’t democrats. The veneer of their progressive politics today hides a darker shade of red, just a little under the surface. And yet they enjoy a distinct, enduring appeal from the private sector, business community and professionals. In the North, we now have a Chief Minister mirroring the worst traits of politicians in the South – merely amplifying for self-advancement and gain, without really meaningfully addressing, a deep-seated disquiet, unmet aspirations and dwindling hope. The deep, dark state, which gave birth to the BBS and its ilk, persists. We know post-Snowden in particular that in any country, the intelligence community exists independent of any real government oversight and scrutiny. Given what they have been witness to and part of, it is likely they have their own agenda in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy is a mess and my last column dealt with the fact that the majority of citizens don’t know what key reforms the government has undertaken, why, what will result from them or where they are presently at. The JO, Rajapaksa’s and their apparatchiks are not going quietly into the night.

It all seems hopeless, at least from outside. And yet, those in government may yet find a way to get us out of this mess.

Perhaps there someone who has the trust of the President, to tell him especially after his pronouncements last week that he doesn’t need to lose face in order to be more conciliatory, if only out of pure self-interest, towards those who walk a different path and want what he doesn’t himself support? They can work out alternatives, negotiate space, create counter-narratives and with the support of (many) others who don’t want to see the return of the Rajapaksas, create a context where his sense of self-worth finds suitable anchor, and there is a working relationship that glosses over the need for frequent pronouncements on policy he will in fact have no real role in the shaping of. Likewise, for the PM – perhaps there someone who has his trust to suggest, urgently and unequivocally, that he has already lost the support of a general public which remains ignorant of his grand visions and plans? Spending millions of dollars for external spin doctors is a poor substitute for the lack of political will and leadership. Any crisis presents opportunities for advancement – can the PM be guided to grasp them, even if he himself can’t see the potential? Can the JHU’s shrink-wrapping of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism as glossy cosmopolitanism be nipped in the bud? Unlikely, though the next best thing that can be done today is to ascertain to what degree a possible Sirisena-Ranawaka or SLFP-JHU nexus in the future can be thwarted by a PM who plans for the non-return of the Rajapaksas in a way that begets support from unlikely quarters to support reform where necessary, including with the new constitution.

We don’t need our President and PM to like, much less love each other. But their leadership and this coalition, warts and all, is essential. Given a penchant for insensitivity and inanity, it is easy to pick on what each said or did and write them off, individually or together. And yet, our self-interest, to never again relive the Rajapaksa years, must motivate us to see beyond what they both are able to, and repeat, as much as and as often as we can, Kennedy’s aphorism that only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.


First published in The Sunday Island, 16 October 2016.

Chaotic pluralism

My conversations with individuals and institutions over the course of last week highlighted what a few in government and many more outside already know and fear. Since the 8th of January 2015, politics as usual has trumped the promise of a new political culture, captured best by the yahapalanaya brand. This was expected, though to see and live through it, is no less depressing. A friend succinctly flagged salient features of the challenge at a meeting held to trace the contours of what today is a promising, new, government led communications initiative. Those in power now trust more those they perceived to be loyal (either to self or party) more than those with skills and experience. Critical commentary, including that which holds the President, PM and the rest of government accountable to the promises they themselves made, is seen as unnecessary, inconvenient and as a sign of trouble. So instead of attending to or focusing on the short-comings flagged, attention is almost entirely devoted to deny, decry or destroy the messenger. Adding to this is a new and already complex constellation of party political appointees and personal favourites, acting as gatekeepers and firewalls to ideas, information and input that can from those without any interest in SUVs, the perks of office or foreign jaunts, strengthen governance.

The result is government in a cocoon and a debilitating metamorphosis of governance from promise to reality. Those in government are surrounded by outmoded, outdated thinking by those who favour self-advancement through genuflection. Rather than call their bluff, for vanity, partisan parochialism, fear or some misguided strategic interest, those in power continuously countenance the bad advice they receive from those they have appointed to positions of significant authority. The more powerful the office, the more isolating it is. This is why even with the best of intent, efforts around course-correction through for example better, more strategic media and communications planning will fail unless there is traction from the highest political offices in the country. This works to the Joint Opposition’s benefit, and those in government who are deeply conventional and conservative in their political outlook, resisting to the extent they can the absolutely vital upgrade to and reboot of our constitutional operating system.

What this means is that everything officially on the table – from transitional justice to constitutional reform and fragile negotiations over policymaking conducted sub rosa, is at risk. And yet, the art of the long view requires us to appreciate that individuals and institutions in power are, to varying degrees, hostage to the systemic nature of power. Political reform, beyond manifestos and in almost every single instance when in power, is deeply often combatively resisted. However, despite what appears to be a growing disenchantment with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration across the media landscape, I remain cautiously optimistic for several reasons.

The criticism against government, though increasing in volume, vectors and velocity, is still fuelled and framed by a fidelity towards yahapalanaya more than strident opposition towards President or PM. In other words, the criticism is not a call, yet, for changing government. And given that it is the JO and the Rajapaksa’s who want to reclaim power, any direct, open effort to regain authority will result in an immediate, sustained and entirely organic opposition that spans the digital to physical resistance. This is important, because this support for government isn’t engineered or controlled by government. The authors of a recent book called Political Turbulence call this ‘the turbulent world of chaotic pluralism’. What this means is that despite the characteristic and continuing incompetence from and in the present government, there is still a geographically, linguistically and ethno-politically diverse and distributed community who will, without seeking political reward or recognition, fight against a return to what was before the 8th of January 2015. The challenge around more fully leveraging this reservoir of conditional support is not that, by and large, this community has no desire to be openly associated with government. It is because the majority of those dealing with strategic communications and media in government still think of social media as a dark art, millennials with the greatest of disdain, online political organisation as entirely independent of real world political interactions, or social media as just having a Facebook page that one uploads photos of oneself at various opening ceremonies, cutting ribbons or carrying a hapless infant or child. Despite this, chaotic pluralism means the best ambassadors of government may often lie outside it.

The risk is that fatigue sets in. Incremental reform over the long term as a proposition for systemic change isn’t really appealing for the most politically vocal and active segment of our society. Their imagination is framed by minutes and weeks, not months and years. If those who feel, to whatever degree, they contributed to the Presidency and government we enjoy today are still without voice, and what they aspire to, voted in, hope for and support is precisely what government is not doing or undermining, what will immediately result is disengagement and disenchantment. Through this alone, the government loses a bulwark against political regression. Over time and unaddressed, the waves of criticism against government from this demographic can be hard to distinguish from the propaganda of the JO, even if the two camps remain, ideologically and motivationally, largely distinct.  These are ‘wicked problems’ – significant challenges that morph even as you study them, and change even as you find good enough responses. The government needs the best minds to address them, and not just from within party ranks.

From idiom and expression to platform and medium, what is a sophisticated, scathing wit especially in Sinhala through popular culture increasingly berates those in government. This means that a key demographic still cares, and gives a damn. This means they are observant, follow government policy with interest and are still partial to the promise of yahapalanaya in contrast to what was voted out of power. This means that with skill and significant investments in time, there is a community that creates content which regularly goes viral, lampooning those in power for not doing what they promised. Surely, these are signs of a healthy democracy unimaginable just two or three years ago? What we see today in Sri Lanka is that the most textured discussions on politics is often led by those outside political parties. It is a discussion that is rich, varied and multi-polar, anchored to not just one entity, location or language. It cannot be censored and through a variety of mediums encourages those who were never before part of these dialogues to participate, freely, through like, comment, selfie, hashtag, video, soundbite, emoticon, filter, livestream or instant message, aside from the consumption of traditional mainstream media.

This is arguably very new for government in Sri Lanka and stands in stark contrast to the Rajapaksa’s rule through violence, fear and anxiety. Must we carry their entrails into the future? The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration continues to enjoy the confidence of many, and yet still see principled criticism with fear, discomfort and disdain. A few interested in governance beyond SUVs and have the ear of the President and PM need to tell them, gently but firmly and repeatedly, that to lose the organic support they enjoy today, in person, through party and over digital domains, would be the first step in losing what is an important legacy they can write together.

And that would be such a pity.


First published in The Sunday Island, 2 October 2016.

The President at the UN

The version of the English speech released by the PMD this article is based on has now been replaced. The original version, accessed via Google Cache, can be downloaded from here. The current version can be accessed here


The speech by President Sirisena to the 71st Session of the United Nations in New York last week was rather strange. Reading the official version in English released by the President’s Media Division, I wondered if it was just a synopsis or a bad translation. Turned out to be the latter. The speech in Sinhala, clearly the original version, flows better and is less disjointed. Either out of incompetence or as a deliberate strategy, there are revealing divergences of emphasis between each version of the speech. In Sinhala, there is a clear stress on the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Sri Lanka that prefaces the President’s take on reconciliation. A bias towards the home-grown and endogenous underpins the entire speech, from political ideology and a focus on social democracy to all political reform. This is in line with the President’s political outlook. In July this year, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister had to both hastily and rather unconvincingly clarify that the President’s submission opposing foreign judges in any accountability mechanism as part of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process was a ‘personal opinion’. These tensions are glossed over in the official English version of the speech, which simply states “The government is totally committed to reconciliation process to establish lasting peace”.

To be fair, I would really hate to be the official translator of the President’s speeches in Sinhala to English, or any other language. President Sirisena’s Sinhala is strong, rich, nuanced and incisive. Meticulously-crafted around cadence and content, a diplomatic and at times even outwardly benevolent expression masks what is a brutally clear message around domestic and foreign policy issues very often at odds with the rest of government, the Foreign Minister’s pronouncements and independent of their personal relationship, the political outlook of the PM. The challenge is how to then appreciate the import of a speech by the President, in the complex, shifting political terrain of a coalition government. The speech at the UN last week is a case in point. In Sinhala, it is both a proud refutation of invasive foreign involvement (as perceived by the President), and at the same time, a recognition of and a humble plea for the international community’s support in Sri Lanka’s post-war reform and development. In English, though the speech reads very badly, it is clearly without the emphasis around Sri Lanka’s resistance towards international mechanisms around accountability, inextricably entwined in our tryst with reconciliation. Also in English, there is an emphasis on ‘modern technology’ to ‘arm a new generation with knowledge’. In Sinhala, the repeated focus is on an enlightened country, forging its place on a world arena by force of its learning, outlook and intellect. There is no comparable emphasis on technology, perhaps because in Sinhala, the President is often more backward looking – regularly harking back to archaic history and Sinhala ancients, even as he calls for progress and patience. This tension between translation in English and original in Sinhala reflects what is a growing problem in governance around competing parochialisms. Political appointees of the President perceive political appointees of the PM as their enemies, and independent of any direct order or edict, block, manoeuvre and curry favour with scant regard for actual policy development, implementation or reform. This results in scenarios very far removed from the roseate picture of Sri Lanka painted at the UN. From the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to the actual execution of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), things are going awry – with those in charge incredibly inexperienced, badly selected, without any official anchor or struggling against the constant, occasionally vicious pushback from those appointed by a competing political authority.

Amongst a myriad of other strong undercurrents, the President vs. PM, FM vs. President, MP vs. MP, Government vs. JO, Sirisena vs. Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka vs. Kamal Gunaratne is stymieing progress, and at an increasing pace. Key political actors know this – hence even in the President’s speech at the UN in Sinhala, the repeated call for patience from the international community and indeed, also aimed at a more domestic audience. The problem here is around the management of expectations. Those who voted in the President, and in August last year, voted in this government, are of the ‘new generation’ the President referred to. It is a generation impatient with delays, inconsiderate of the significant challenges around systemic reform and informed by thumb-swipes on palm held devices, participate through thumbs-up icons and shift political loyalties through keypress before ballot. The President’s reference to the importance of ‘authentic thinkings (sic) and visions’ is unlikely to appeal to and address a generation that by default is less interested in high-flown Sinhala than it is in yahapalanaya’s delivery of promises around jobs, economic prosperity, equal opportunity, access to markets and greater freedom of expression and association. Now that’s not happening, and the unrest is growing. And this disconnect between what the President says, does and inspires is worrying. Take for instance his appointment of Nimal Bopage as Secretary to the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms & Mass Media. One of the first things Bopage did was to issue an edict to all the media saying they could face consequences if they used the term ‘joint opposition’. More recently, he went on record saying that the broadcast of ‘Homeland’ on state television was harmful to children and culture. The President’s response to Enrique’s concert are well-known. A lorry driver who filmed the President’s helicopter landing with his mobile phone was recently arrested. Let that sink in. Is this the behaviour of a confident government really in tune with the new generation, modern technology and is as forward looking as it often claims to be? Is this how we are going to ascend to the world stage?

The UN provides a forum for global leaders to place their country on a map. There is limited time, and the speeches are as much about posturing for domestic constituencies as they are about alignments with one or the other power blocs in the international community. This is why the differences in emphasis between the translation and original matter regarding the President’s speech. The English, dry, banal even, is limp, allowing it to be used to pushed whatever opportunistic agenda, liaison, agreement or negotiation the government or President wants for whatever reason. The Sinhala is more revealing, suggesting more clearly the parameters of engagement, the sources of legitimacy and the underpinnings of policy. For all his modernity when read in English especially when compared to his predecessor, President Sirisena remains essentially politically conservative and conventional in outlook when critically examined in Sinhala.

The UN last week deserved a better translation. In fact, so do we.


First published in The Sunday Island, 25 September 2016.

Whither the new constitution?

“Sri Lanka could be the first country to get views expressed on social media (to contribute to) drafting a new constitution. We want to seek the view and opinions of young people. Participate in this process.”

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, January 2016

The PM’s assertion earlier this year provides a good frame to appreciate journalist Dharisha Bastians’ tweets on what Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, one of those leading the drafting of Sri Lanka’s new constitution, had noted at a presentation held at the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) recently. Several interesting points are recorded. Dr. Wickramaratne notes that the constitution being drafted is the best under the circumstances (emphasis mine). A constitution that seeks and obtains the consent of the people through plebiscite, has according to him, the best chance of being a lasting one. Noting that compromise is essential and that the new constitution needs to be rights-based, Dr. Wickramaratne avers that though parts of the constitution drafting process will not be made public for fear of adversely affecting internal negotiations, a new constitution cannot be drafted in secret forever and that public debate and involvement is important.

While appreciating the gargantuan difficulty of drafting a constitution in what is a divisive, parochial and generally awful political culture in Sri Lanka, Dr. Wickramaratne’s assertions at ONUR require urgent and more careful consideration. For political parties, a referendum is a single-issue process, unlike an election campaign, which is anchored to multiple issues competing for interest and space. This can be both positive and negative. The single issue campaign is more easily managed. It lends itself to the creation of compelling soundbites, taglines and advertising, allowing for a multi-media, multi-lingual campaign to be centred around a key idea, phrase or question. On the other hand, the single-question agenda allows for a lot of misinformation and propaganda to take seed. A Yes or No campaign may resort to a partial reading of facts, spurious polling and data, and seek to push through in a referendum what may never get popular support in an election campaign. Given the political stakes usually involved in a referendum, both the Yes and No camps are often forced to dilute complex options and issues into short, neatly packaged media that stands the highest chance of going viral – or in other words, being distributed amongst the widest spectrum of audiences within electorates that are splintered by media consumption patterns and other determinants, including language, age, geographic location and identity

In light of this, what’s sorely lacking in Sri Lanka today is an official communications plan to positively and in a progressive manner engage the public around tenets of the new constitution. While Dr. Wickramaratne and others drafting the constitution may think such a plan is entirely distinct from hard negotiations around substance, it is in fact central to the process of drafting and ultimate legitimacy. The absence of such a plan risks everything that is negotiated behind closed doors. The problem is that our political leadership, and those involved in the process, perhaps out of ignorance but more likely driven by partisan, parochial interests, don’t see it this way. And the few who do, without the backing of political leadership, remain silent. Dr. Wickramaratne’s assertion that the constitution will be the best under the circumstances seeks to instil confidence, but is instead a warning. Though educated guesses can be made, we are not explicitly told what the trying circumstances are. Without context, we are in effect told to trust Dr. Wickramaratne and a few others (almost all men) to draft the best possible constitution. While it is in no way a reflection of his own sincerity and indefatigable efforts over decades towards constitutional reform, Dr. Wickramaratne ignores what endures as a significant, and indeed, growing trust deficit between citizens and government. This government is no different to those in the past – with the gap between promise and delivery widening after coming into office. Yahapalanaya’s sheen is long gone, and its promise of radical reform, largely dimmed. To fully trust then a small group of individuals, negotiating in secret, making compromises on our behalf without our knowledge or consent, acting largely on the interests of political parties only interested in retaining as much power as they can, to meaningfully re-engineer our social and political compact with the State is, in the fullest sense of the word, incredible.

There is also the challenge around sequencing. Dr. Wickramaratne seems to believe that it is only at a referendum that citizens can vote in, or opt to reject, a new constitution. This is constitution as end-product, not as on-going conversation or as a document co-authored with the trust of citizens it will enshrine the aspirations of. Constitution as end-product, projected only at a referendum to a public which has, to date, close to zero appreciation of content, risks many things. For starters, the terrain of contestation is likely to be defined by the ever-charismatic Mahinda Rajapaksa, his family and the JO more generally. If the government allows (and sadly, all indications suggest it will) the old guard to first and strongly define how the new constitution is perceived, proponents of it, even as they fervently combat fantastic claims made by the Rajapaksa’s and allied groups, risk amplifying the very assertions that will cement a negative opinion.

And here we run into the tension, also noted by Dr. Wickramaratne, between private negotiations and public scrutiny, between necessary compromise only possible between political elites, and a broader, deeper discussion with citizens around contentious issues. Engaging the public over some of the most contentious issues is counter-intuitive for those involved in complex negotiations – the risk is perceived to be too great. The risk however of being too secretive are greater. Especially in an age of virtually untraceable leaks, parties out of frustration or self-interest can dump entire conversations and blueprints online, which can strengthen their position or ensure that no one else gets what they wanted. Positional bargaining often succeeds best when done in secret, where power dynamics operate independently of constituency awareness or endorsement. Political leaders can say their constituencies want or will never accept something, without ever having to prove this. Opening up the process can help democratise the making a constitution, before it is finalised. It is impossible to design a constitution that equally and adequately responds to twenty-one million citizens. It is however entirely possible to create strategic, coherent and islandwide structures to engage citizens in talking about a new constitution, with the emphasis being on participation and dialogue, assuring everyone who has an opinion that they can voice it, in a free and fair manner. This takes time, effort and money. And yet, the government is in a rush, isn’t putting half the effort it should, and gifts itself luxury SUVs. To hell then with any meaningful process of public consultations around the new constitution.

What now can be done? A political communications campaign leading up to the referendum needs to be simple, smart and strategic – not confusing total spend for influence, not ignoring the power and reach of traditional media when emphasising new media, proactively capturing space, innovatively responding to rumour and propaganda, agile in intent, appealing to the heart and at the same time, anchoring key messages to facts. Will this be done by government? I suspect not. The problem is not Dr. Wickramaratne. It is the obduracy of those he answers to.


First published in The Sunday Island, 18 September 2016

Peace and technology

On Saturday, I gave a short presentation in Zurich on some ideas and challenges related to peacebuilding, a term used and abused a great deal. In Sri Lanka, peacebuilding is for most immediately associated with an industry of actors engaged in conflict resolution or transformation initiatives – locally, regionally or nationally. It’s an association that’s problematic, since for many years –not entirely without merit but often with vindictive, parochial or partisan intent that goes far beyond constructive criticism –  media and mainstream politics have badgered civil society individuals and collectives engaged in this pursuit. On the face of it, searching for and strengthening peace, not unlike a cure for cancer, isn’t something that can be publicly or vehemently opposed. But opposition it does generate, and does so by how peace is defined, communicated and defended. In 2007, I published a column in a mainstream newspaper that clearly noted my opposition to the war, and the despotic, illiberal government of the day. The response, as expected, was deeply divided – readers loved it or hated it, and there was little middle ground. Therein lies the challenge of peacebuilding writ large – it is easy to convince those who are already sold on the idea, but much harder, if not downright impossible to engage those who believe in a war as a means to an end, or the idea that the end (a sort of peace) justifies the means.

My interest in all this goes back to my Masters in University where I studied technology and conflict resolution, but also predates it, when as an undergraduate student in Delhi in the late 90’s, I witnessed the opening up on India’s economy and with it, the advent of the Internet and computing. Back then, I enjoyed better connectivity in Ratmalana than in Delhi. As various computing qualifications (son, who knows AutoCAD or daughter, who knows WordPerfect and Dbase III Plus) found their way into marriage proposals published in the newspapers, I wondered – what impact would technology have on social and political relations, in India and more broadly, in South Asia? This was a time of extremely heightened tensions between India and Pakistan on account of Kashmir, and I wondered what impact communications in the hands of citizens, instead of just propaganda promoted by governments, would have on violent conflict. This was before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and every single thing taken for granted on social media today. It was before in fact the term social media was ever defined or used, and when the only mobile phones around were in fact mobile gyms for strong men. It was when email was basically Yahoo! with around 2Mb per account, before Gmail, when seeking out A/S/L on ICQ was still a thing and MSN Messenger was ‘new’. It was at a time when a wonderful cacophony of noise and blinking lights prefaced connecting to the Internet, and indeed, a year before Google was incorporated as a company. I wondered then, as I continue to do now, what impact would technology have for peacebuilding, and by extension, how would it be used to promote, justify and indeed, hide the cost of war?

Responses to my column in 2007 revealed the extent to which media and communications were in Sri Lanka, already inextricably entwined with the promotion of war. With the fascism of the LTTE and the authoritarianism of government working in tandem, albeit towards very different ends, disinformation campaigns, propaganda and the open, uncontested promotion of incredible claims had already consumed the average citizens through their daily media diet. Lies, repeated for long enough, become indistinguishable from the truth. Through control, censorship and containment – often through violence – reality was constructed, and those who believed in either the narrative of the LTTE or the government could not engage with any conflicting viewpoint or critical questioning. Though we enjoy a very different socio-political context today and even sans the LTTE, the challenge around creating, communicating and sustaining a just peace remains. Why else would there be such hostility around the setting up on the Office for Missing Persons? Why else would there be such violence around the term accountability, even before it is fleshed out? Why else do so many in Sri Lanka remain ignorant of what happened in Nandikadal? Why else are Southern ‘heroes’ so markedly different then and alien to those in the North? Despotic governments, and non-state actors like ISIS are today the most agile, powerful agents in shaping news and information to suit their ends. I’ve witnessed what was the early promise of and potential for emancipation, and architectures of direct, or more responsive democracy, usurped by partisan political interests and increasingly by commercial profit. Only last week, the Editor of one of Norway’s oldest and best known newspapers said he feared Facebook, for the absolute control it had in deleting and blocking content first published in print.  To even talk about the potential of technology for peacebuilding requires a sober assessment of just how much it has failed, and indeed, contributed towards the normalisation of violence, the justification of wars and in Sri Lanka, the premeditated erasure of an inconvenient, recent past.

I continue to have hope. The headlines, news feeds and updates overwhelmingly focus on what’s wrong or going very wrong. There is much that is being done right, in Sri Lanka and beyond. Despite all the violent pushback online and vicious trolling, GLBTIQ communities, women, identity groups that are for whatever reason on the margins of society and politics, adolescent aspirations, small social movements, individuals who bear witness, conversations around race and privilege, information leaks in the public interest, real time updates from locations where no mainstream media has ever been to or will, perspectives that are unusual, voices not usually heard – all this and more is possible now, without permission or cost, for even the illiterate, because of technology. From the information scarcity of just a few years ago we now have a crisis of choice when dealing with a news glut, and peace as a result, engaged with today, is a contested, complex virtual construct as much as it is something that we seek to establish in the real world.

It’s an interesting time to work in this domain. I find myself often at the intersection of politics, media, social change, memorialisation and civic media, all the while trying to imagine (new, innovative, sustainable) ways to connect technology to strengthen, organically, what are essentially fragile conversations, connections or communications.  I am often angered and frustrated by what I have to deal with, but the work is never uninteresting. And while I keep abreast with technology as much as, if not more than I keep abreast with political developments, what drives me is an interest in rights, ethics and dignity. The first requires me to fight for the voice of those I disagree vehemently with in online and other fora.  The second checks my own privilege, and encourages me to engage and reflect in a manner that is hard on ideas, yet gentle on interlocutors. The third is what for me technology, in the domain of peacebuilding, can bring about, to those who have often suffered the most from systemic discrimination. Who knows what the next five or ten years will bring by way of technologies that will shape us. For over fourteen years, I have been driven by an interest in helping the work and ideas of better, far brighter minds in politics, advocacy, activism and academia take root, often in contexts extremely adverse to what is being discussed or proposed. There is no recipe for success here, no panacea. But in technology is the power to transform the worst of our nature.

That interests and inspires me.


First published in The Sunday Island, 11 September 2016.

Flipside of smart cities

My column last week touched on the extremely problematic Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Sri Lanka and a well-known Chinese telecommunications company, known to have sold sophisticated surveillance equipment to the Rajapaksa regime. Despite disturbing recent revelations in the mainstream media that have gone unquestioned in Parliament, a high-profile visit by Sri Lanka’s PM to the company’s Shenzhen headquarters resulted in an MoU that invited the company, inter alia, “to participate in ICT planning and infrastructure construction for Smart Colombo”.

Arguably, companies are interested in profit, and governments are often good customers. Why the present government continues to deal with – without any due diligence or scrutiny of past business practices –the same enterprises that had a direct role in seeking to undermine the democratic fabric in Sri Lanka is what is more outrageous. Clearly, money is at stake and with more zeroes than can be easily comprehended. As clearly, politics and optics are at play – an early, expedient distancing from China during elections, now facing near complete reversal in light of dire macro-economic circumstances, which the US for all its visiting warships, aircraft and diplomats, can’t provide an alternative to. Effusive tweets from State Department don’t FDI make. With projects like the much touted Google Loon lost somewhere in the stratospheric promises our politicians and their apparatchiks make, the Government needs high-profile technical partners with appropriate technology solutions to undergird its vision for the Western Province make-over, including the Port City project. Transactional diplomacy with Chinese companies is thus a no-brainer for a government already hostage to the Chinese government through monumental debt. And so we will be saddled with network infrastructure, from China, of indeterminable quality and standards, from the very companies that sought to undermine our civil liberties, and without any safeguards around data integrity or privacy integrated into systems that will impact all our lives, no matter what we do, or where we live.

This matters because what appears to be a really technical or technological challenge, best debated by experts, is really something that will impact – in a very real way – our lives in and entry to cities, and well-beyond. There has been much written about smart cities – about the millions of dollars of saving accrued per annum on account of more efficient and effective service delivery, more streamlined governance and the icing on the cake, local government that is more responsive and citizen centric. These buzzwords find their way into advertorials, press releases, academic papers and even official government policies. This is the promise. What is the reality? The underlying infrastructure around a smart city is digital. What that means is that our negotiation of city life – from travel and transport to a myriad of transactions – will be mediated through services linked to personal identity. How a digital personal identity is created and managed is up for grabs – it could be through a smart-chip, a social security single number or by the conversion of current laminated, hand-written NIC to an electronic version (e-NIC). A smart city is also about the aggregation of what are now disparate systems. For example, a bus pass linked to a debit card, which in turn is linked to a mobile phone based payment system, that can be topped up online or through a telco with one’s identity verified by a unique e-NIC number. Smart cities are about other things as well – traffic light and driving lane management that is dynamically adjusted on the volume of traffic, and historical data around traffic flows in a particular area. Real time updates on public transportation. Simple, single portal based access for citizens to engage with government services. Dashboards that showcase report card based feedback on things like garbage disposal. Free parking around a city that shows up in real time on a mobile. Hospitals and accredited doctors who securely share medical records.

What the smart city promises, ultimately, is a better quality of life. Underlying this, and often unquestioned, is what one has to give up in order to enjoy la dolce vita. And here we must consider a 17-year old’s successful attempts to hack our President’s website. The connection is a simple one. A smart city is actually anchored to giving up some privacy in return for mostly the promise, and hopefully, also the delivery of material and mental well-being. Identity management – what each citizen does, who they are, where they are, what they need and various other transactional records from transport to tax, need a high degree of security to manage and oversee. Else, simply put, everything from impersonations to crime, extortion, blackmail, data loss and surveillance stand a chance of increasing exponentially if records aren’t securely managed. And importantly, the risk to records is not just from juvenile or criminal elements of society. It is from within government itself. If our intelligence services have ready access to the back-end data around a smart city with scant or weak judicial oversight, or worse, through gateways we may not even know exist, foreign powers gain access to sensitive information that even in the aggregate can yield insights into social, political and economic trends, our civil liberties are compromised in very real and dangerous ways. And even if you resist by non-registration or compliance, you are still at risk – just as much cybercrime today directly impacts even those who bank in person and using real money.

Which brings us back to the now infamous 17-year old. The JO wants to give him a job as an IT consultant, perhaps one of the better ideas they’ve had since it resonates with many others who question more than the young gentleman’s actions, the ineptitude of those in charge of security around official web properties. And while this teenager was caught and is in custody, there has not been a single line of reporting and no official response from government around how or to what degree officials in charge of network security for the President’s Office have been held accountable for what was clearly a grossly over-paid hack job. This isn’t the first time official government websites have been hacked. A simple Google search brings up at least one serious disruption or deletion of a high-profile official government website every year, for the past several years. And this is just what’s reported in the media – the cover-up of many more incidents, perhaps far more serious, is more than likely.

So it takes a 17-year old hacker to bring to light the serious concerns around not just over an MoU with a Chinese company, but around the government’s e-NIC project and its entire vision for a digital Sri Lanka. A glittering promise is what’s sold, and it is a compelling fiction. Citizens willingly buy into it. Telcos see profit. Governments see control. Cities see positive returns on investments. Private enterprise sees more consumers. Largely hidden though are serious concerns around the commercialisation of essential services, the nature of command and control architectures, access to information even under RTI, information management practices by public agencies and above all, oversight mechanisms. Smart cities, especially where there is or has recently been a huge democratic deficit, run the risk of turning inquiring citizens to obedient consumers, where dangerous new inequalities – between say those who can afford to secure their privacy vs. those who cannot – are created even as older class differentiations are torn down.

All of this is to not say that smart cities aren’t needed here, or indeed, long overdue. But we must ask how with successive governments so inept at digital security, and the present government in bed with Chinese companies which have had no qualms undermining our civil liberties, a smart city can actually protect the dignity, liberty and freedom of all those who subscribe to and live in it, and indeed, all those outside, in the margins, risking death through deletion.


First published in The Sunday Island, 4 September 2016.