Corridors of Power

I do not recall the exact moment, but I do remember a time when I was so frustrated with the Rajapaksa regime’s blatant disregard for the constitution that I wondered how best I could communicate a critique of power to even those who would vote for, and loved him. This was after the 18th Amendment, late 2010. I was interested in a way to engage with what I hated to see come about, in full knowledge, at the time, that those opposed to what Mahinda Rajapaksa did were in a minority. I had one relatively successful previous attempt which suggested when instead of presenting a contrasting opinion, which can be variously, violently and immediately dismissed, a way to debate the substance of a contentious issue is created, a rather different timbre of engagement ensues.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected into office for the second time and for his 65th birthday, there was for some unfathomable reason a Guinness World Record breaking attempt to make the largest kiribath.  Photos of the attempt are still easily discoverable online. Instead of merely calling out the former President on this colossal waste at what was the height of his popularity, WFP and UN figures for health and nutrition were used with statistics around thousands of IDPs languishing in camps at the time. Extrapolating from the ingredients the number of calories used, an attempt was made to demonstrate how the record-breaking kiribath could in fact have fed hundreds of families without basic food or nutrition, and for how long. The critique was data-driven from sources that could be independently verified. Instead of pitting disgust and outrage against adulation and adoration, the article resulted in comments that had those who said they voted for the former President say they were appalled at the meaningless waste around this attempt.

Could a similar effort be done around the concentration of power in the Executive after the 18th Amendment? I came up with an idea to flesh-out and clearly communicate the powers defined in a constitution – between citizens and the State, and also between the arms of government – using architecture. From palaces to churches, from mausoleums to entire cities, power – and more precisely, the nature of political authority – has gone on to define the architecture of a period, dynasty, regime, reign or Reich. I wanted to turn this on its head, using architecture to help explore and explain powers in a constitution that were, to the majority of citizens, abstract, complex words that didn’t really have any meaningful impact on their more existential concerns.

I approached two individuals, Asanga Welikala and Channa Daswatta, leading minds on constitutional theory and architecture respectively, with my idea. After Welikala’s initial research into over 40 years of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, Daswatta and I, for close upon a year, met regularly in his office and later on, with his staff as well, to flesh out through architectural drawings, models and schematics the powers, for example between the centre and periphery, or between the legislature and the executive, enshrined in the constitutions of 1972, 1978 and key amendments thereafter. At the time we started on the project, no one could foresee what transpired on 8th January 2015. After the election of Sirisena, the project also embraced discussions around and the subsequent passage of the 19th Amendment. Those leading the drafting of the new constitution, as well as those close to and advising the President spoke during the course of the week the exhibition was held in Colombo, late 2015.

Many, including those who openly identified themselves as supporters of the former regime came up and said that the marriage of constitutional theory and architecture allowed them to see anew the challenges around the centralisation of power, and other aspects of our present constitution, like Article 9, the 13th Amendment and the independence of the judiciary, in a new, critical light. They noted that the exhibition’s appeal was anchored to its interrogation of power, instead of just being a trenchant critique of a particular individual who held the office of Executive President. A severely vision impaired person came up and said, just by carefully touching four models on display, that at the end of it, he could grasp what I had tried to communicate around the unsustainable nature of power as it was configured after the 18th Amendment. Accompanied by his mother, a twelve-year-old, with whom I talked at length based on what he saw and was able to peer into, left with a greater appreciation of the maddening complexity of government. His mother told me later on that the exhibition gave him a perspective around the constitution they would have as parents never been able to give, and school would never have even imagined imparting.

I took ‘Corridors of Power’ to Jaffna, Kandy, Batticaloa and finally to Galle this year. There is a deep, widespread interest in constitutional rule, and by extension, what goes into and what is left out of the new constitution. Apathy and disinterest is easy to come by, but is largely on account of a mainstream media and indeed, a government that for whatever reason, hasn’t the imagination, interest or resources to engage citizens around constitution making outside of episodic stories and consultations. In Batticaloa, we were inundated with questions around power, privilege, periphery-centre relations, religion, identity and devolution. Students from the Eastern University were interested in creating a short skit based on the exhibition, in order to carry on and promote discussions around constitutional rule. In Jaffna, at the historic Public Library were the exhibition was held, groups had animated discussions around what they wanted the new constitution to reflect and represent, going well-beyond the 19th Amendment and indeed, the 13th Amendment as well. In Kandy, at the General Post Office auditorium, I engaged with LSSP members and leftists, who critiqued the constitutional evolution since 1972 from a working-class perspective. In Galle, groups that came said the exhibition helped them think through not just citizenship and the nature of the State, but also the configuration of authority and the delegation of power within their own, large organisations.

Beyond the exhibition, there is a clear thirst across Sri Lanka for on-going engagement on the kind of government, governance and constitution people would like to see. I don’t believe this engagement will stymie complex negotiations around the constitution. I do believe, strongly, that the lack of sustained public engagement will result in an exponentially harder sell of any new constitution. Ultimately, if a small exhibition in just five cities was able to animate so many who didn’t fully realise the importance of constitutionalism, imagine what government and indeed, mainstream media can and arguably should do on a broader, deeper scale.

This is not happening. So, ask yourselves this – who really benefits from ignorance and apathy?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 4 December 2016.

Stories from afar

In what was an unusual week by way of travel, I visited Jaffna, Hambantota and Kandy on work. Amongst other things, each journey and destination brought into sharp focus just how far removed a Colombo, and a Western Province centric news agenda is from the lives, livelihoods, opportunities and challenges faced by communities in these areas. It is one thing to occasionally read about these parts, and then too in the context of a politician’s high-profile visit, a riot, some unrest, violence, a ceremonious opening or enforced closure. It is quite another to visit these cities, and to also be attentive to the journey to them – for what one observes, and does not. Occasional visits do not an expert make, but they do offer at the very least a hint of what lies beyond the usual reportage, and indeed, popular imagination.

Take Hambantota. Wildlife Department officials, living in squalid official quarters and with the most basic of infrastructure, diligently oversee thousands of acres at risk of destruction on a scale that boggles the mind. The threat is two-fold. One, unsurprisingly, comes from entirely corrupt practices of giving private contractors and businesses rights to mine, dig or otherwise harvest the land. The other comes from the complete disconnect between line ministries. The Mahaweli Development Authority, the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Forest Department have no clear lines of communication, coordination and collaboration. This is entirely deliberate, and clearly political. The environmental destruction, in the name of development, occurring in and around Hambantota is in fact largely legal. But it is an open secret that the legality of permits granted under this and previous governments basically support industries and large scale farming that harms the environment and devastates the natural habitat for wildlife. Going well off the beaten path and into the least developed areas in Hambantota, the scale of environmental devastation is quite incredible, in the fullest sense of the word. The landscape, especially when viewed from a drone, resembles in some parts a mining town somewhere in Australia, with vast open pits and heavy machinery instead of a virgin forest present just a few years ago. There are entire hills which are being excavated for soil, leading to the creation of artificial lakes with steep slopes that are a death trap for animals and especially elephants.

And then there is Mattala Airport. Nothing of what you’ve read and heard about the place prepares you for what it really is – a rather beautiful, modern airport in the middle of nowhere, in what was just a few years ago, thick forest. Parts of the building resemble a post-apocalyptic movie set from Hollywood – with art deco sofas that are covered in fine dust, unused lounges, pristine toilets rarely if ever used, a completely empty tarmac and air-bridges going nowhere, sheltering soporific ground staff from the scorching sun. Centrally air-conditioned, with staff including janitorial services, the entire airport services around two to five passengers at most every day from two flights. It is bizarre.

There are other monstrosities. The Convention Centre, in the middle of nowhere. A modern hospital, construction in stasis, also in the middle of nowhere. A vast Botanical Garden, the upkeep of which requires more water daily than surrounding villages have to drink. All along the road to the airport are large plastic drums in front of houses, for drinking water, supplied regularly by the Municipal Council. That’s how unbelievably under-developed the region really is, in stark contrast to massive structures that no one can visit, goes to or wanted. Tellingly, even the most trenchant critiques that don’t venture beyond the vanity projects of the Rajapaksas fail to recognise the degree to which the environment, and wildlife, continue to be eviscerated. Also, while the media focusses on economic aspects around the lease of vast swathes of land in Hambantota to the Chinese, earmarked for development and purportedly a million jobs, there are hundreds of villagers who are already agitated around the potential loss of land they have tilled for generations. Collectively, they own thousands of acres. They are well organised, informed, well connected through mobile phones, aware of their legal rights, have recorded meticulously promises by politicians and other officials being allegedly reneged and extremely determined. Some of the first media reports in the coming weeks focussing on their plight will focus on how if unaddressed, or badly handled, these communities can be easily mobilised by charismatic political leadership (located not too far away), and with swelling numbers, result in a major upset for the current government’s plans and in the near future.

Travel to these regions supports certain assumptions and questions others. For example, in addition to mainstream media, Facebook is already a trusted, well used vector of news and information by those in even remote areas, who all have a smartphone. They are now all deeply worried about data charges, supporting an assertion of mine that the phenomenal increase in taxes for mobile and broadband data is in effect a direct form of censorship, curtailing the ability of citizens to interact with each other, and their government. The tax hike impacts far more those outside of urban centres than those living in them. Not all of government is corrupt – from officials in the Wildlife Department to those at the Provincial level administration – there is visionary, strong, tech-savvy leadership deeply embedded to local communities and organic solutions to local issues. They are very alone, constantly subject to political pressure from higher echelons of power that rob them of agency, authority and ultimately, entirely dulls all initiative. Aside from the media-genic exposes, arrests and drama around the FCID, there is systemic corruption at all levels of government, the scale and scope of which lies well beyond the awareness of the general public fed on a largely commercial media diet, even though locally, villagers and public official know full well who is doing what, where and under whose protection.  But local stories never make it to national news. The narrative of development is being sold, used and abused to fit what are entirely parochial interests. What’s under-reported, or not at all, is the impact it has on people, local communities, livelihoods, the environment and wildlife, beyond just mega-development projects and massive infrastructure.

It is possible even without a public service media culture or institutions to highlight these stories. A modern smartphone combined with a drone is all one needs to effectively capture compelling visuals and sounds to support the plethora of stories from people beyond well-travelled paths and locations. There is a direct link between giving voice to the aspirations and frustrations of communities, and prospects around everything else the government wants to do over the next year, including most importantly around constitutional reform. One ignores these stories from the vast heartlands of what to many is the periphery, and the people who tell and are in them, at their own peril.

Just ask Hillary Clinton.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 27 November 2016.

Harnessing connectivity

I’m in Myanmar for a week. I’ve come here two or three times a year since 2014. On my first visit, the best connection to the Internet in Yangon was at the Shangri-La near Sule Pagoda, and that too for an exorbitant price. The State telecoms company held the monopoly on SIM cards, which on the black market cost a great deal. And yet, even then, many young people I saw around the city sported Samsung smartphones. I didn’t know what they used it for – calls were expensive, the connectivity was spotty, data was prohibitively expensive and even 3G services didn’t really exist. Maybe it was a status symbol. My understanding is that at the time, content – from videos and photos to reading material – was pre-loaded on to these phones by agents and shops customers went to top-up their accounts. Smartphones at the time were essentially treated as one would a Kindle, Walkman or portable DVD player – with no connection, literally, to the Internet and web. It’s a different country now. One obvious change is in the usage of smartphones – now leveraged to interact over Facebook, stream YouTube videos and converse over instant messaging apps. Another is in the ubiquity of smartphones, which no longer are just in the hands of millennials. Everyone has one. It is hard to communicate the pace of change around connectivity – from being off-grid, to an era of hyper-growth now resulting in millions creating, consuming and exchanging content creating on, and primarily for, mobile devices.

The growth offers much by way of economic, political and social opportunities. It also comes with significant challenges around the timbre, quality and sources of content. The parallels with post-war Sri Lanka are striking here. The rise of dangerous and hate speech over the Internet closely follows the trend of mobile phone adoption and growth in data services. Inflammatory, abusive content, as well as more sophisticated, insidious propaganda, aimed at more long-term mind-set change amongst a young, politically active demographic, is evident. Vectors for the rapid spread of hate and false news are the very apps and platforms millions now rely on to get information on their country, politics and society. What in the US is only after the election of Trump as President-Elect a source of much handwringing was evident both in Myanmar and Sri Lanka for some years – how Facebook as a platform, by default and even before completely algorithmic, human oversight free news feed curation, actually aids the spread of content that often puts at risk communal harmony. And while arguably changes can in theory be made to how Facebook treats and features content, no technical means are there to curate, verify and refute on demand content exchanged through instant messaging apps like Viber, Line or WhatsApp.

I have for some years maintained that rapid growth in digital content produced and exchanged amongst a population can actually exacerbate existing socio-political tensions and faultlines, if there is no parallel increase in media literacy. Again, long before Trump and a ‘post-factual’ US, study after study demonstrated that content over social media was treated with a higher degree of trust, and shared more as a consequence, no matter what the actual veracity of information. In other words, those who for example had a healthy scepticism of State media, and the propaganda often promoted on it, would not apply the same degree of scepticism to news and information that was featured on their social media news feeds, especially if re-tweeted, liked or somehow visibly endorsed by a friend, fan or follower.

This is both disturbing and difficult terrain for policymakers. Interrogating the non-implementation of laws in Sri Lanka to deal with hate speech, in physical and digital domains, has taken a backseat to calls made by those in government to bring about legislation against hate speech. For the best of intent, this can lead to the worst of outcomes. Illiberal governments and powerful individuals (in the future) can rather conveniently avail themselves of expedient definitions of hate speech to fit a parochial agenda aimed at silencing inconvenient truths, expressed in public, which risk personal profit, votes or political office. On the other hand, Myanmar today presents a media landscape that cannot be wished away – where the pull and embrace of social media content overwhelms critical engagement. Racists and extremists know this, and produce content that appeals to the emotions and heart, while government and civil society too, far too often, only ever produce content that engages the mind and intellect. Emotions win. Technology helps hate. But can it also help combat it?

This is an on-going debate, and also an emerging field of practice. While here, I had a brief engagement with journalists and civil society around the verification of content on social media. This mirrors what a few of us initially, and now a growing tribe, have done in Sri Lanka. During Aluthgama’s riots, leading up to both elections last year, around the presentation of the budget, in response to comments by politicians, comments in the Hansard, the diatribes of robed thugs, the content of press releases, key reports, when those linked to or part of the Rajapaksa regime try to reinvent history and themselves, content in the public domain has been scrutinised, verified, corrected and debunked. What is still missing is a parity of critical analysis – the majority consume content without questioning, a few who do question find it difficult to spread counter-analysis and fact-checked content with the same appeal, reach and speed.

There is however no going back – without or without the aid of Silicon Valley, the tools activists, extremists and governments will use to shape public opinion will often be the same. This presents an unprecedented opportunity, for those in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and elsewhere too to unleash their imagination – bots on Facebook Messenger that, linked to local variants of Snopes.com, can fact check and stop rumour. WhatsApp hotlines for crisis management and response. Proactive SMS messages that when targeted by location, community or issue, can help decrease tension. Initiatives like Panzagar here in Myanmar, PeaceTXT in Kenya, the Digital News Initiative in Europe (supported by Google) supporting innovation that can be adopted for and adapted in Asia showcase just how much can be done. My enduring fear is that in the US post-Obama, in a Myanmar more interested in censoring information from Rakhine and in a Sri Lanka where violent monks and frothing racists find ready audiences over social media, the negative impact of connectivity and misleading content will always colour public debate and appreciation of the Internet. And then we have protectionism and paternalism from government, fuelled by concerned parents, clergy or self-appointed custodians of culture influencing law making that in turn only ever ensures, whatever the intended outcome, the worst voices endure online.

Myanmar’s digital future and its democratic potential are inextricably entwined. Same goes for Sri Lanka. I hope our countries find a way to harness the potential of increased connectivity, beyond just parading numbers of those who are connected.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 20 November 2016.

Trumped

On the 9th of November, Donald Trump became President elect of the United States. 27 years ago to the day, the Berlin Wall, which far more than just a daunting physical structure, was a symbol of division and oppression, came down. Today, incredibly, another one, dividing Mexico and the US is a real and disturbing prospect. A tectonic shift in American politics has taken place, more significant than the election of a black American as President eight years ago. But rubble for some is also a renaissance for others. President Trump will do less damage, domestically and internationally, than what is feared he will unleash, simply because stultifying American bureaucracy makes no distinction when thwarting the vaulting ambition of the best and worst in politics. Because we are in uncharted political terrain, President Trump will also be far worse than what we can ever imagine today. From tone and expression to soft power and hard diplomacy, Trump and those around him will be a pronounced, sharp change from the incumbent, changing perceptions towards the US more fundamentally than Bush Jnr and his disastrous years at the White House.

And yet, in the echo chambers of our social media angst that Eli Pariser called ‘filter bubbles’, we continue to be disconnected from movements and conversations that only in hindsight become evident as those which could have foretold the electoral outcome. I offer no great insight into what happened in the US or why. Amidst all the uncertainty, what we can be assured of is a tsunami of political opinion that dissects what happened last week and why. All of Wednesday and most of Thursday was spent reading the post-election opinions published on, amongst other places, Nate Silver’s blog and site, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Twitter streams of journalists from around the world and the algorithmically filtered stream of consciousness that is my Facebook feed. There is a lot of fear, profound disappointment and not an insignificant amount of anger, shame and hopelessness. And yet, none of the euphoria of those who voted in Trump was registered. Renowned American comedian Stephen Colbert, on the Late Show programme broadcast on election night flagged this phenomenon through research conducted by PEW, noting how much, and how deep, the partisan divide runs in the US today. One party and its supporters are positively petrified of the other party’s policies and supporters, which directly translates into little to nothing by way of common ground, shared goals, civic identity and civil engagement. Even as news from Hong Kong last week flagged a more positive role of social media in the electoral process, the shift from human to entirely machine curation of news feeds on Facebook – a direct consequence of the US Presidential election – is symbolic of a media landscape that, simultaneously, is increasing the frequency of content one is partial to, blocking the access to content one is not partial to and masking content that one may well be partial to and interested in, simply because it is published or produced by, features the voice of or is liked by someone from a different partisan political mooring. Obama flagged this disturbing trend in the last days of the campaign. As Max Read writing in NY Mag’s select/all notes, “Facebook has seemed both uninterested in and incapable of even acknowledging that it has become the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history”.

It is a problem in the US. It is a problem here in Sri Lanka.

I have often maintained that the US Presidential race is the least representative of elections. The election of one person to the White House impacts, often in a direct way, the lives of billions outside the US, who obviously don’t have a say in who is elected. Obama over two terms was a President millions around the world looked up to and even loved. Trump will be a President millions within the US will look up to with hope. The cosmopolitanism of Obama, rendering and furthering US interests through an internationalism forged through hard diplomacy and soft power anchored to sheer charisma, grace, family and faith, held him in good stead outside the US. And yet, his domestic policies and their perception, we now know, didn’t endear himself or his party to many who, to use a phrase borrowed from the British political scientist Rob Ford, feel like strangers in their own country. Trump represents an America that we forgot about when the adulation and adoration of a First Family so easily glossed over, and for many years, the necessary scrutiny of a government’s policymaking and its impact on domestic constituencies. Obama was the exception, the international darling and distraction. Trump is, beyond himself, a symbol of an enduring reality that has festered for eight years and is now in our face, in the open, unrepentant, angry. Chris Arnade, writing a remarkably prescient article in the Guardian early this month, notes how much and how deep Trump’s (for us, violent, populist, divisive) rhetoric resonated with so many who remained, at best, on the margins of commentary, scrutiny and conversations that dominated the media landscape, and no doubt, the democratic party’s electoral strategy. By design or accident, Trump’s campaign managed to effectively marry disenfranchised, hopeless, poor white Americans and well as those of colour, with his and his party’s natural appeal amongst wealthy, white Americans.

There is however another perspective worth flagging – how those between 18 to 25 cast their vote. A widely shared map of US, rendered after tallying the votes in almost all the states, is overwhelmingly blue. This tells us that the new US President does not and tellingly, perhaps cannot connect to those new to politics and who voted for the first time. We cannot even begin to fathom how these demographic, geographic and ideological tensions will play out domestically.

Interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, the campaign and eventual result also divided Sri Lankans. An inward looking, less intrusive, right-wing government led by Trump will bring with it a foreign policy that will no doubt appeal to even the present Sri Lankan government as it struggles to meet commitments around transitional justice. Many who wanted Clinton as President, well beyond those who broke over a thousand coconuts to invoke the blessings of the gods, projected onto her the continuation of Obama’s foreign policy, which would have resulted in comparably far greater scrutiny around our rights record and international commitments. But with Trump ultimately triumphing, we will be left alone in the human rights sphere. It remains to be seen how without US led pressure, such as it existed and manifest itself in Geneva, Washington and beyond, our government will remain as vested in fulfilling its commitments around, amongst other things, the UN resolution.

A man who, proudly, stands apart from the very ideals the US is founded upon is now its leader. He will change the institutions, culture, timbre and expression of government, the perception of the US internationally, and the relationship with the UN and other allies. This is just the start.

We are in for a ride. Buckle up, and batten down the hatches!

Amateur hour

“Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than what we deserve.”

George Bernard Shaw

Coherence, coordination, consistency, communication. This government demonstrates none of it. Since coming into power, we are told two things. One, that the benchmark for judging governance today are the years between 2005 and 2015, under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Two, that the mess created in these ten years will take time to redress and recover from. This mantra is repeated by those in government at various fora – at press conferences, public gatherings, in official statements and speeches. Citizens are supposed to blindly believe and be patient. But what the government really seeks is our silence and complicity around what is now, rather clearly, a systemic breakdown in policymaking. This is serious, and impacts everything from transitional justice to investor confidence in the country.

“I was born with certain privileges and they are enshrined in the constitution. Having them honoured is not a matter for praise. It’s a question of prerogative… I will neither be co-opted nor enlisted to campaign or make excuses for this or any government. I acknowledge the advances and the positive developments–but from a position of entitlement, not indebtedness.” That’s award-winning journalist Namini Wijedasa taking to Facebook recently to express her frustration. The post went viral, suggesting that it resonated widely. And yet, the pushback against how much the government is doing wrong is muted. There is the memory of what it was like that tempers criticism – no one wants a return to what was. After the end of the war in 2009, the then government repeatedly told us to be grateful, and to never forget what Rajapaksas did for, or ‘gifted’ to, the country. There is a strange parallel at play with the general attitude towards and perception of yahapalanaya today, where an enduring relief around (the incredibly peaceful) regime change in early 2015 muffles criticism around how badly, how often and how much, this government is failing in basic governance.

This is partly the nature of coalition politics in general, and this government in particular with an infuriatingly complex constellation of power centres, each competing daily for visibility, legitimacy and favour. But aside from the friction between the President and PM, is the catastrophic failure of coherent communication and policymaking is also from within each camp. Take for example the participation of foreign judges in a judicial mechanism around accountability, based on a resolution at the United Nations that the present government co-sponsored. In September 2015, the PM said that the office of a special counsel, which will investigate major violations, “will certainly have the help of not only Sri Lankan but also Commonwealth and foreign judges and lawyers.” President Sirisena has repeatedly come out against the participation of foreign judges. In July this year, media reports noted that Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that “no final decision had been taken and that everything will depend on the outcome of an on-going consultation process”. After meeting with the President and Prime Minister in February this year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted that in relation to a credible mechanism in line with the UN resolution, “the President and the Prime Minister state[d] their firm conviction”. In June this year, the TNA’s Sumanthiran said that the Sri Lankan government “cannot backtrack” on implementing the UN resolution, responding to the mixed messages from the President, PM, FM and others.

Leave aside the issue of judges. Say that it is so contentious, that the very negotiation of it requires as a matter of expedient optics or political strategy the PM and President to play around with and test various ideas in the public domain before committing the government to a certain path or mechanism. Take the issue of VAT. In July, the President directly intervened in a VAT increase that was widely unpopular, and introduced almost ad hoc without any public engagement or coherent communication. The Supreme Court got into the act as well, suspending the VAT increase. The Prime Minister said the interim order would not have any adverse impact on government revenue generation. In July, Ravi Karunanayake, the country’s Finance Minister, said that the VAT increase is a temporary measure and that it will be reduced by next year. According to him, the increase was needed to pay back the loans obtained by the previous government. The fiasco continues. In October it was reported that Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Minister Harin Fernando called on the Finance Minister to remove taxes on the purchase of smartphones. But as Dr. Rohan Samarajiva flagged in the media last week, the government has in fact increased the overall tax burden by an astonishing 80% for voice and 160% for data, and worse, goes on to pull wool over people eyes by spinning fiction around this exorbitant increase. Lest we forget, this was a conversation within government – not NGOs, the IMF or World Bank, a foreign government or private consultancy telling government what to do. That the Finance Ministry is unable or unwilling to listen to evidence based proposals of other sections of government suggests, overwhelmingly, that this government’s macroeconomic policies are made on the whims of a few individuals at best, who use the excuse of debt burden or loan repayment as a vehicle to mask their own parochial, corrupt interests.

The utterly inchoate nature of policymaking making has many other examples. In February last year Chairman of the Vehicle Importers Association of Sri Lanka said that “a powerful minister in the government” had promised to reduce taxes hybrid vehicles. By November, taxes had been increased on all vehicles, including hybrids and all electric vehicles. In May this year, the Finance Minister, again revising the tax structure, said that “new car taxes were aimed at discouraging imports until the road network improved.” At the same time, and perhaps because the road network is so bad, the government gifted itself luxury SUVs – tax exempt of course. In April this year, the IMF agreed to give us a $1.5bn bailout loan to avert a balance of payments crisis. And yet, showcasing the priority for government next to SUVs, in August media reported that the government was interested in buying, seven years after the end of the war and with no significant domestic terrorist threat even remotely in sight, around eight fighter planes, each with a tab of around twenty million US dollars.

It goes on and on and on. What the government says today, is not what the government does tomorrow. What the President says today is not what the Prime Minister agrees to do tomorrow, and vice versa. The Minister for one portfolio, openly critiques the policies of another Minister’s portfolio. The Foreign Minister promises internationally what has little to no traction domestically, and the Finance Minister enacts policies that defy all reason and logic, all the while ignoring systemic, serious issues with tax thresholds, government expenditure and revenue generation. We have a Minister for telecoms who sees a digital future, and a government that taxes the very basis of this future out of existence.

We have merely exchanged authoritarian rule and centralised corruption for what is an enduring democratic deficit, just by another name. How far and fast yahapalanaya has fallen. Our silence only strengthens the rot.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 6 November 2016.

Educating the educators

“In the coming years, India can thrive because of its young. Or it can implode. Or both. There’s little time left.”

The End of Karma, Somini Sengupta

Sengupta, the New Delhi bureau chief of the New York Times from 2005 to 2009, places education in India centre and forward in how the country will deal with challenges around democracy and development. Her book deals with characters from across India and often at the margins of society. Varsha, from Gurgaon and Anupam, from Patna are two of the book’s best drawn portraits, with each of their lives anchored to education. Sengupta’s meticulous research in these two chapters clearly highlights what is a seriously dysfunctional education system – from primary to tertiary – and far removed from the ‘India Shining’ narrative that would have most believe everything was fine.

I had Varsha and Anupam’s stories in mind as I listened to three persuasive presentations by Sunil Hettiarachchi, Secretary at the Ministry of Education, Murtaza Esufally, a Director at Hemas and Dr. Jithangi Wanigasinghe, Consultant Paediatric Neurologist from the College of Paediatricians. The presentations were made at, of all places, a meeting of business persons and industry leaders I found myself invited to by a senior editor, with whom I was at a meeting recently brainstorming ways to strengthen innovation, entrepreneurship through new and old media.

Over ten years, I have regularly lectured at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, various universities in Europe and the US and am at present a visiting lecturer at the Faculty of English, University of Colombo. With every single new cohort I’ve taught in Sri Lanka, I’ve had to begin by asking them to close their notebooks, put down their pens and engage with me as I speak. There have been more than a few occasions when I’ve stood in somewhat stunned silence as students – mid-career journalists, those at Masters level, industry professionals, servicemen and women from the armed forces and school teachers, amongst others – have struggled to formulate a single coherent, critical question based on what I had just said in class. It is a remarkable stunting of critical thinking, fuelled by a primary, secondary and tertiary education system (and pedagogy) that teaches best to learn by rote and regurgitate mindlessly at an exam in pursuit of the highest possible marks. This stands in stark contrast to the quality of students in European and US universities I’ve taught at, with whom the lecture is more an exploratory conversation based on lateral, critical thinking. A lecture in these Universities is a point of departure for a deep dive into the topic being discussed. In Sri Lanka, a class lecture is often an end point, the mere dumping of one person’s understanding and framing of a topic on to a passive, silent class. It is little more than a podcast, delivered in person by a human.

The presentations by Hettiarachchi, Esufally and Wanigasinghe were collectively interesting because in calling for deep, systemic and urgent reform, they all challenged the education system as it presently stands. Individually, there were revealing differences in what each person chose to stress. Though Hettiarachchi didn’t focus on it, one of the slides showcasing official Ministry of Education data flagged a significant increase in what parents invested in tuition, over the past couple of years – comparatively far more than, for example, what they spent on school supplies, and indeed, school fees. This isn’t entirely surprising – in Nugegoda, where I lived for around seven years, there is now a new bus stop adjacent to the location of a multi-storied tuition centre, that in one go conducts lessons for hundreds of students spread over multiple floors through a PA system so loud it allowed me, and others in the vicinity, to listen into some of the finer details of A/L Chemistry and Accounts on a Sunday morning. Tuition is an industry, and a lucrative one at that. And even when I was in school, over 20 years ago, there were cases where teachers were reprimanded for teaching in their private tuition class what they were supposed to impart to students in school. It is unclear what the Ministry of Education is doing, by way of revising syllabi and improving pedagogy, to stem this growth of an industry that is deeply detrimental to the mental health and development of youth and children.

Wanigasinghe’s presentation focussed on aspects Hettiarachchi did not even briefly broach – on the importance of play time within the school timetable, the value of reading – beyond textbooks, the stress on child and parent by the massive amounts of homework, the psychological effects caused by the stress around exams and things you don’t often think about, including the sheer weight of a school bag, which is a physical burden on children. She also focussed far more on pedagogy, noting that how subjects were taught mattered just as much as what subjects were taught. Listening to her was depressing, especially as a parent. And though she invoked laughter by the sheer absurdity of some of what is taught in schools as part of the official curriculum, the lesson was a simple one – the numbers the Ministry worked with and showcased were almost entirely disconnected from the nature, quality and delivery of education, which is basically, the pits. She also made another point – that politicians and bureaucrats, with scant regard for continuity and progress from what was already achieved, often changed and with no real basis policies around education, impacting adversely years of advocacy around and measures towards vital reform. This was underscored by other speakers as well, and raised the question around how in a country like Sri Lanka, meaningful, sustainable education reform would actually take root given the fact that every new Minister, in every government, brought in changes that rarely take into consideration what was done and achieved in the past. Esufally, speaking last focussed on the deep disconnect between what industry, the private sector in particular and increasingly, even government required by way of skills and knowledge, and what kind of citizen Sri Lanka’s education system was actually producing.

Curiously, no one spoke about need to incorporate into the syllabus, or classrooms in general, issues like bullying, including cyber-bullying, age appropriate HIV, sexual and reproductive health, relationship, sexuality and gender awareness. These are still issues and areas we don’t want to talk about openly and by not doing so, we are exposing children and youth, especially girls, to a world of negative body and self-image, violence, grief, hurt and harm that is normalised.

When often asked what I teach and how, I say that whatever I lecture on in Sri Lanka, I have to frequently start by teaching my students how to learn. In doing so, I have to help them unlearn what is already ingrained by years, if not decades, of the worst sort of education. This has in the past angered others in the same institution, department or faculty, who think that changing their pedagogy adds unnecessary work, in addition to having to deal with students who question them openly, often leading to very quickly ascertaining the limits of their teacher’s own grasp of the subject. It’s heartening however that a few at the Ministry, others affiliated to or giving input to it and those in private industry are giving serious thought to rebooting an education system that has for too long, simply produced supine subjects instead of informed, engaged citizens.

We need to get this right.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 30 October 2016.

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.