The right to communicate

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

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

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

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

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

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


First published in The Sunday Island, 19 June 2016

The trappings of office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First published in The Sunday Island, 12 June 2016.

‘Kaerakena Keliya’ and transitional justice

Kaerakena Keliya’, the Sinhala adaptation of ‘Travelling Circus’, a play first performed and produced by The Mind Adventures theatre company in 2009, went on stage last week. Directed by Tracy Holsinger, the play was a collaboration with the renowned Sinhala theatre group Janakaraliya and marked Holsinger’s entry into Sinhala theatre. Reviewing ‘Travelling Circus’ seven years ago, I had no hesitation calling it one of the best plays I had seen. Staging it at the time required conviction and courage in equal measure given context, when violence and victory were both fresh memories. The play openly contested victory, in the manner it was celebrated in the South at the time. It also flagged vital aspects of the enduring injustice, indignities, suffering and violence especially in the North of Sri Lanka, at the time these inconvenient truths were almost entirely forgotten in official speeches, celebrations, accounts and media.

Fast forward to 2016 and there is much that has changed, both around the play and the socio-political context in which Kaerakena Keliya was staged. In this third avatar of the play (the focus changed from the original when Mind Adventures toured India with the play in 2011) the translation into Sinhala critiques a country firmly post-war, yet still some distance away from post-conflict. The challenge now is around transitional justice mechanisms, unthinkable seven years ago. The thrust of the play accordingly is around reminding and re-enacting the conditions of (the final stage of the) war and what gave rise to it, to help engender conditions that prevent a return to violence. The play within the play flags for example horrible conditions in what is no longer a term or location many would recognise – an Internally Displaced Persons camp. Ethno-political identities and their role in often viciously defining the contours of conflict remain the play’s central focus. The characters are strong and finely drawn – in particular the cow and the boy who only speaks in numbers. The play makes no attempt to be didactic – those who know their history will recognise the significance of the numbers and years the boy mentions, especially in his final lines at the end of the production. Those who don’t won’t entirely lose the plot but it is hoped are suitably intrigued to read up on some of the years noted, to understand not just why they are mentioned in the play but the defining role events of that year had in our cartography of violence over decades.

Kaerakena Keliya offers multiple perspectives, not all equally valid or carefully thought out. It somewhat problematically points to an idyllic past where everyone was happy, and a country that over the tiniest of differences, slowly plunged into violent conflict. This is a simplistic and linear reading of history. The play shows, perhaps somewhat inelegantly, the formation of identity groups and violent ‘othering’. The violence and interplay of of caste and class however go entirely unquestioned – a surprising omission given Janakaraliya’s input into the production. The selection of the venue for Kaerakena Keliya was a strange one. The original was performed at Nuga Sevana, on the grounds of the Anglican Church in Colombo and under a sprawling tree, with snaking roots, gnarled roots and awning branches. A better setting and frame for the dramatic action of ‘Travelling Circus’ was hard to imagine. The Western Province Aesthetic Resort was a stark contrast to this. The atmospherics of Nuga Sevana, or indeed any open air venue, was entirely lost in the closed, more formal space. Audience just three rows from the front couldn’t see what was going on. There were no stage sets and the minimalist props, a hallmark of most Janakaraliya productions, looked quite desolate when framed by the traditional theatre setting. In trying to place the audience around the dramatic space, some of them were actually seated on stage, resulting in their own movement and responses jarring and intruding, not enhancing, the performative space. Given that media interviews by the Director promised to stage the play again at Nuga Sevana, there is perhaps a good reason for why the venue was changed. One hopes however that Kaerakena Keliya is never again performed indoors.

There is another point of serious concern. The director in a media interview published recently notes that the Sinhala script of Kaerakena Keliya, devised over months with Janakaraliya, will soon be translated into Tamil. Instead of going through, with a Tamil theatre group, the same arduous process as Holsinger did with Janakaraliya, the play as it is in, merely translated into Tamil, risks projecting what is predominantly a Southern gaze as the only valid critique. No matter how important this self-critical gaze is in the South, it has its limitations when performed elsewhere in the country. The visceral reality and complexity of violence and war, in all its permutations, fuses strict, theoretical demarcations between victim and perpetrator, suffering and the infliction of pain. The fluid dynamics around the perceptions of and participation in violence, in the most war ravaged regions, often contests, and escapes, a predominantly Sinhala or Southern gaze. No matter how well intentioned, the script of Kaerakena Keliya simply translated into Tamil risks the violence of contributing to misrepresentations, erasures and silences. Mirroring the engagement with Janakaraliya, a meaningful collaboration with Tamil thespians in developing the script, not just translating Sinhala to Tamil, is key. Glossing over this as somehow unimportant is to ironically re-enact in real life, systemic violence the play critiques through its script.

The play’s dénouement is important, or more accurately, the second and final dénouement. Kaerakena Keliya presents two endings, with the first deemed inadequate by the characters themselves. The final ending projects agency and asks the audience what they can do to ensure the non-return to cycles of violence. Quite brilliantly, the play essentially engages with the core tenets of transitional justice, without ever mentioning the term. The responses to the play – and I sincerely hope the director and Janakaraliya will encourage open discussion after each performance around the country – can ultimately feed into consultative mechanisms and structures, now active, to generate ideas from people far removed from Colombo-centric civil society’s projections, ideology and embrace, around reconciliation, reparations, institutional reform and truth commissions, plus the more controversial aspects around criminal prosecutions. The play offers no bias towards any of these pillars of transitional justice. Though focussing on the past, the Kaerakena Keliya does not dwell in it or seek to project into the future that which gave rise to violence over decades. The play’s identities are fluid, and the characters evolve. It is an invitation to pause, reflect and reform. For and in the South, the play is a vital tool in helping communities engage with the social and political transformation needed in order to meaningfully address the root causes of violent conflict. There will be no political solution to the Tamil national question, no new constitution, no accountability and no justice to those denied it the most without a sensitive, critical Southern constituency. The South holds the keys to either a more democratic, just, dignified future or the inevitable recurrence of bloody violence. Kaerakena Keliya is an invitation to choose which future we want.

We must do so wisely.

Roanu’s wrath

Disasters make pundits of many. And yet, when the next hazard hits, we often tend to deal with the significant challenges around the same, if not greater magnitude of a disaster. The process is cyclical, with no meaningful learning, or reform. Piecemeal approaches hold sway. Promises by politicians, emergency government funding and the largesse of foreign countries have traditionally helped Sri Lanka address disasters. The response to Cyclone Roanu showcased something different. It is too early, and perhaps even too naïve to expect any major upheaval in the way we plan for, respond to and recover from large-scale natural disasters. And yet, there were several significant features around the response to Roanu that bear merit flagging.

On 31 March 2012 around 5.30pm, Menik Farm, at the time still a large IDP camp, was hit by a cyclone. There was no severe weather warning issued by the Meteorological Department. A BBC Sandeshaya news report filed to the web around 11pm noted that around 2,000 inhabitants were affected by the cyclone, with around 200 shelters completely destroyed. The Disaster Management Centre actually pegged the number of those affected much higher, around 4,400. Later that year, after Cyclone Nilam battered Sri Lanka, the then Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said the Met Dept had acquired a technology called Doppler Radar to better predict this kind of extreme weather, and that it would be operational by the end of that year. And yet, in 2013, close to 50 fishermen lost their lives because the Met. Dept. still hadn’t got the equipment in working order. It gets worse. Around the Doppler Radar’s ignoble fate alone, a simple Google search is enough to reveal an obnoxious trail of institutional stasis, official apathy, death, destruction and years of sublime ignorance. The general trend is as follows. There is a hazard. It is detected by neighbouring countries or by NGOs like the Red Cross in Sri Lanka. Little to nothing is done by way of early warning. The hazard hits and quickly becomes a disaster. Many lives are lost. Damage estimates go up to the billions. The Met. Dept. claims it doesn’t have the technology to predict severe weather patterns. Promises to do better, and around Doppler Radar coming on line are made. The lack of operational budget and under-staffing are the usual excuses. Nothing is done. Flood, landslide, death, damage and repeat.

Political accountability remains a good idea in Sri Lanka. So instead of relying on government, citizens after Cyclone Roanu took matters into their own hands. The success of these efforts suggests we no longer wait for government aid – we self-organise, and with greater efficiency and effectiveness than bureaucratic structures that aren’t as agile or responsive.  Technology in the hands of so many has democratised disaster response as well as hazard warning. For example, the Disaster Management Centre maintains a website that is outmoded and outdated, with information presented in a manner almost perversely engineered to be as useless as possible to first responders. Several, including myself, spent a week extricating from the data formats the DMC published actionable information to republish in formats and platforms really used by citizens on the ground who needed this information. Self-organised collectives sprung up around aid and disaster relief, from the very local to the regional and national. In a short span of time, web based templates to coordinate relief efforts were instantiated. Twitter and Facebook in particular became platforms for needs to be published, but also offers around aid to be publicised. Everything from dinghies to motorboats, from helicopters to taxis, from trucks and lorries to the free pickup and delivery of food items was promoted, liked, shared and promoted to millions. Ad hoc, needs or geography based instant messaging groups, over for example WhatsApp, allowed for the coordination of aid by members, as best as possible. One mobile service provider, for the first time, allowed customers to give money through a simple SMS (which the company tripled), the donation of customer loyalty points or through mobile cash payments. At the time of writing, 14.2 million rupees was donated directly by this one company’s subscriber base, which combined with the company’s own contributions, totalled 45.1 million rupees in aid. All this was in addition to efforts by mainstream media, leading businesses and a myriad of other ways through which aid was channelled to those who needed it the most. There was rapid innovation – taxi hailing app featuring helicopter and boat rescue services, based on geo-location and need. Leading e-commerce platforms raising millions in aid, by reaching out to their customers. Civic media platforms and a myriad of journalists and others on social media doing live updates that were more informative, location specific and up to date than any single government line ministry’s website.

There was anger too, and plenty of it. Not a single official weather or hazard warning from government was in Tamil. On one day, the DMC asked relief efforts to stop the delivery and production of packed, ready to eat meals, since they said food was going to waste. The very next day, there was an acute shortage of food. Coordination clearly wasn’t up to speed with evolving, localised demands. Key bloggers, who did the math and transparently so, vented that the flood relief was around just 3.4% of the value of new vehicles Parliament approved for MPs in April. A generation brought up with Facebook and rightfully impatient with archaic systems noted that official information systems were utterly useless. Others lamented that disaster management platforms like Sahana, home-grown and used globally, were ignored and marginalised within the country. Senior and seasoned journalists, covering the disaster, lamented that the revolting search for sensationalism resulted in the worst sort of disaster journalism imaginable, with reporters adding to the trauma of victims or posting images with scant regard for ethics.

There are lessons here. Social media is centre and forward in the mobilisation of aid and relief. Coordination is key, and the government must do much more on this score. If it doesn’t even know the vectors of information exchange, how can it engage, inform and interact with citizens in a timely, useful manner? An older generation will still have faith in wire and bank transfers. The ease by which aid was channelled by apps and services which already had customer credit card or bank account details, had their addresses stored or offered easy geo-location reminds us that reservoirs of goodwill and aid lie with those who simply will not resort to transactions anchored to paper based or brick and mortar infrastructure. Along with meeting the funding and human resources it needs, the Met. Dept. needs to be held criminally liable for inaction, and asked to explain every single death around hazards that have had sufficient warning. The DMC needs to urgently upgrade, or shutdown. The untenable reliance on antiquated infrastructure and old-thinking just adds to any disaster. Importantly, no technology can really help unless there is long-term planning around hazards, and community led disaster risk reduction mechanisms. Else, early warning just adds to trauma and chaos. Since the responses to floods, landslides and tsunamis are radically different, citizens at risk the most need to know what to do, where to go to, who to call around key hazards.

Roanu’s wrath was a wake-up call. Will yahapalanaya’s legacy mirror years of awful sloth leading to death and destruction, or will the last fortnight result in a turning point for our disaster prevention and management efforts?


First published in The Sunday Island, 29 May 2016

A long watch

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 12.16.56 AM.png

“I didn’t want to die so I had to live. I wanted to live. I wanted to leave”

Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as told to Sunila Galappatti

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka is an unusual book for an avid reader on Sri Lanka’s conflict, or perhaps any violent, protracted war. Weiss, Harrison, Pratap, Balasingham, Tenduf-La and more recently Subramanian and Mohan have all written books on Sri Lanka’s war. From Amirthanayagam’s poetry to Munaweera’s beautifully evocative prose, I’ve read more books than I can fully remember or count on our conflict – from varied perspectives, embracing different genres, separating fact from fiction or sometimes combining both. None comes close to Galappatti’s recounting of Commodore Boyagoda’s story. Though I read it cover to cover recently, the appreciation of content and prose took time. It is, stylistically, an easy read. The lucid prose, the distillation of conversations held over many years, makes for a compelling page-turner, but then so is any decent airport fiction. This is emphatically not airport fiction. A Long Watch is something else, and to describe it risks the appropriation of Commodore Boyagoda’s incredible story to fit what loosely put would be a liberal-democratic perspective of war and a federalist approach to conflict transformation. And therein lies the rub. The disservice to both Galappatti and Boyagoda in simply framing this book in a way that makes it partial to how civil society has critiqued the conflict, and projected durable solutions to it, is that it is so much more. The Commodore’s story is a profoundly moving, humane one. But here again lies another danger. It is possible to read the story from the lens of the Stockholm Syndrome, rendering the brutality of war and the parties to it, of which my generation was almost born convinced, toothless and a mere stylistic backdrop to what is an exclusive, and by extension, extraordinary take on being a prisoner of war. It is in navigating this terrain that Boyagoda and Galappatti have done something quite remarkable – to present a story of an individual in a manner that confronts us with an inconvenient truth. There is a deep humanity in our worst enemies, and there is life, happiness, trust and even joy, enmeshed even in the worst cycles of violence.

A Long Watch begins, unsurprisingly, with Commodore Boyagoda’s entry into the Navy and the reasons that contributed to the decision. It is not surprising to find anecdotes of shipman’s life. It is however refreshing to see, throughout the book, Boyagoda’s keen observations and wit on a range of things, like for example, the difference between a Colombo crow and a Kandy crow, his poignant yet revealing brushstrokes of the capital city in the 70s and the LTTE’s take on cricket during the ’96 World Cup. Boyagoda’s self-deprecating honesty throughout is refreshing: “At the time we thought it was a superb coincidence that we were all Sinhala Buddhists. We had that majority feeling”. The change in outlook, independent of and indeed, predating his capture by the LTTE, is evident by the end of the book. From the early life in the Navy dealing with smuggling to the transformation of the service into what it is today, the book offers remarkable insights around life at sea, and indeed, on land. For example, I found it particularly interesting to discover the reason why sailors salute with palms inward, and read about Boyagoda’s assistance towards Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pada yatra in the early 90’s against enforced disappearances by the then UNP government, now deeply ironic. The book is sprinkled with these random insights and personal asides, adding authenticity and breaking, to great effect, what could have otherwise easily been a somewhat monotonous, linear retelling of a singular life story. From the escalation of violence in the North to Boyagoda’s actions during the bheeshana yugaya the book speaks overwhelmingly of loss – not just of lives, but of ways of interacting, travel, communal relations and trust – the ephemera of ordinary life eviscerated by war, to be missed sorely only by those who knew what life was before an all consuming violence.

“Perhaps when you are ordered to destroy things, you develop an instinct to spoil everything”. The most controversial aspects of the book for the defence establishment in Sri Lanka come from passages that deal with the Navy’s and indeed Army’s violence against the Tamil, civilian population. The same sick mentality that gave rise to ‘yudde saha sudde’ by the Army especially in Karainagar, and the ‘barbecue ekak daanawa’ by the Navy are, over time, what gave rise to the the despicable acts towards the end of the war and by Sri Lanka’s armed forces. On the other hand, Boyagoda also flags, as clearly and indeed at greater length, the degree to which others protected the dignity of those in their care and caught in conflict, and measures taken to maintain trust and respect in trying circumstances, in the rare understanding that no military victory could ever ensure a lasting peace if hearts and minds were lost.

The events leading to his capture are quickly dealt with, taking us to the core of the book – life as a prisoner of war under the LTTE for eight long years. Stripped of command responsibility and the trappings of rank, Boyagoda’s inner struggle with captivity is masked by interactions with his captors. Through him, we see them and in a light that will immediately rile many who have endured much worse in captivity, or at the hands of the LTTE. Boyagoda makes no excuses – this is his story, and not some grand tale of braggadocio or bravado against insurmountable odds. Boyagoda’s story is to live, somehow, hour to hour, stretching into days, months and years. From cricket and cooking to chains and confinement, this is war from a POW’s perspective. Brutal violence is never far away – from the cries of men tortured to the indignity suffered. Boyagoda’s story however is around survival, and how through eight years, he interacted with those from the LTTE who were in fact also prisoners of war, seeking escape but unable to do so.

Boyagoda’s reintegration into society, upon his release from captivity, frames the last part of the book, and for me is the most compelling part. From tasks like using a toilet at home to how he interacted with family, from attempts to use him as a political prop to the struggle to clear his name, from the cacophony of inaccurate media reports to the pin drop silence from the Navy around what he endured, the dramatic shift from captivity to freedom places Boyagoda, at first, in new prisons of isolation, frustration and loneliness. How he overcomes them is remarkable.

Where does Boyagoda end and Galappatti begin? The decisions around inclusion necessarily embrace exclusion – is Galappatti’s book the same as Boyagoda’s story? We may never know, and it is frankly, an unnecessary exploration. We have here a book that connects hearts and minds and not through some sickeningly melodramatic palaver. Boyagoda’s tone is disciplined, moderate and principled. Galappatti’s presentation is with a light touch, profoundly sensitive and deeply authentic. Boyagoda notes that his “story began and ended in two completely different countries” and that caught between the two, he didn’t know his way. A Long Watch may help him find his way, but it helps us more as an essential book around a war that remains cloaked in myth, propaganda and fear. Boyagoda’s significant courage in retelling his story thus must surely be matched by our own, to not ever revisit what gave rise to our war. He offers some humble advice in this regard. We can do far worse than listen with an open mind and heart.


First published in The Sunday Island, 22 May 2016

The failure of Panama Papers

The public release of a big tranche of documents last week, called the ‘Panama Papers’, made the headlines in Sri Lanka, but for all the wrong reasons. Called the largest leak in history, an anonymous source released around eleven and a half million documents, spanning decades, from the Panama based law-firm Mossack Fonseca. At around five times the volume of data as an average computer’s total hard drive capacity, the leaked content was far too large to handle for one media institution to grasp. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which led the analysis of the content, worked with members, who are journalists, from around the world. ICIJ pulled off something quite rare – a concerted global effort, involving dozens of individuals and institutions, over many months, to bring to light the sordid details of dealings with Mossack Fonseca. Importantly, being part of the law firm’s clientele isn’t illegal and not everyone identified thus far has a violent past, or laundered money to hide. The list of names, now in the public domain, has however highlighted the role of firms like Mossack Fonseca and their dealings with individuals who have been involved in, as noted in ICIJ’s website, bribery, arms deals, tax evasion, financial fraud and drug trafficking. In other words, the firm was the go to place for the world’s worst criminals to hide their money.

The release last week saw twenty-two names linked to Sri Lanka in their dealing with Mossack Fonseca. Eighteen of these individuals are Sri Lankan, four foreign and possibly domiciled here. Unsurprisingly, this kindled the interest of mainstream media, at least for around a day. The coverage, interest and responses showcase a critical flaw in ICIJ’s approach to Panama Papers- the Sri Lankan media’s inability to deal with this kind of investigative journalism and the lack of political will to investigate meaningfully Sri Lankans named thus far as the ignoble law-firm’s clients.

In a frenzy to be fast and first, much of the mainstream media reported that sixty-five Sri Lankans were named as part of the Panama Papers documents released by the ICIJ last week. In their injudicious haste, journalists had conflated the names of Sri Lankans implicated in maintaining offshore accounts by the ICIJ in 2013, with the documents released last week. The ICIJ makes it very clear on their database which names are linked to which tranche of documents. The older information is linked to Portcullis Trustnet (now Portcullis) and Commonwealth Trust Limited, two offshore service providers highlighted as part of ICIJ’s 2013 Offshore Leaks exposé. The majority of mainstream media – in Sinhala, Tamil and English, over print and broadcast – completely missed this guidance. If our country demonstrably doesn’t have journalists with basic skills to comprehend what is a remarkably simple database by the ICIJ, who have done all of the hard work, it begs the question as to what role they can and should play in holding the individuals named in Panama Leaks to the scrutiny of the public, regulators and government. Merely telling consumer who is in the document isn’t enough. We need to know why.

This folds into what is a fatal flaw with ICIJ’s approach to dealing with the documents, which is to assume the integrity and competency of journalists who are its members. This is deeply questionable in Sri Lanka. All of the material released thus far in the public domain is a fraction of what ICIJ members have access to, and for months. The information in the public domain is redacted – no disclosure of bank accounts, email exchanges or financial transactions contained in the original documents. ICIJ members have full access to this information. And yet, for whatever reason, the Sri Lankan media is yet to explore or highlight in detail, with names and hard data, evidence of financial impropriety by clients of Mossack Fonseca who are Sri Lankan. This isn’t a country devoid of data scientists, financial analysts and investigative journalists of international calibre. A young team at a leading software company developed this year a way to visualise in real time all mentions of the two leading Presidential candidates in the US across social media, dealing with hundreds of millions of records in close to real time. The same technical architectures can be used to analyse the Panama Papers data. The country’s blossoming, multi-lingual civic media space alone features many path-breaking individuals with integrity who combine skill, insight, imagination and compelling output to flag stories just two years ago would never have seen the light of day. The Minister of Finance is getting such a hard time today because we have perspicacious economists who call the bluff of government, demystify numbers and say it as it is. And yet, ICIJ’s members in Sri Lanka work in total isolation, hoarding information yet clearly unable to meaningful report or work on it, unwilling to seek help and sceptical of any and all collaboration. The result is an outrageous bottle-neck. Whereas in Iceland for example, an engaged media and informed general public were able to get rid of their Prime Minister, implicated in the Panama Papers, in Sri Lanka we don’t even know the full details of those named to date. The real violence here is in a media culture that acts as officious gate-keeper, empowering individuals with an ossified mind-set who are such an ill-fit for journalism as it should be, and the public deserve.

There is also the question of political will. Sri Lankans can legally engage in offshore operations and open offshore accounts, but unsurprisingly have to declare such dealings to the Inland Revenue Department and the relevant authorities at the Central Bank. Over 40 individuals were identified by the ICIJ’s ‘Offshore Leaks’ documents in 2013. Not a single one has faced any media scrutiny save for one public official who, after being incorrectly linked to Panama Papers, resigned from his post as Advisor to a powerful MP. This goes to show that memory is both fickle and short, and due diligence around the appointment of public officials clearly optional. However, it may well be that 2013’s list of names will now face much greater scrutiny than under the Rajapaksa regime, along with the names linked to Panama Papers. As other columnists in the media have noted however, action by the government to meaningfully address corruption remains a good idea. The President openly shares photo opportunities with those accused of kidnapping and shares the stage with odious individuals from the Rajapaksa regime. Updates from the FICD and CIABOC have migrated in the public imagination from news to entertainment, with high-profile appearances followed by complete stasis. The train wreck of governance under the former regime, involving leading industrialists, hoteliers and corporations has gone unquestioned. It is likely, through sordid new deals, these same individuals are now the best friends of, and supporting financially, the current government.

The power of Panama Papers lies not in the millions of documents themselves, but in how they are used to inform and investigate. The ICIJ’s website features so many compelling articles around how the documents have held famous actors, prominent politicians and even heads of State accountable for their financial transactions and involvement in offshore accounts. Here in Sri Lanka, we are still struggling to get the number of Sri Lankans mentioned in Panama Papers right.


First published in The Sunday Island, 15 May 2016

Kabul to Colombo

After the end of the war and under the Rajapaksa regime, a few of us stridently opposed the integration of the military to backstop entirely civilian affairs – like hotel management and heli-tour operations. Some years ago, just after the Colombo Racecourse shopping precinct was opened and before the Good Market’s weekend throngs, I walked into what was then a curious beast – high-end lifestyle shops selling expensive electronics, clothes and lingerie, with no one in them or even window shopping. A lone, young soldier stood by, and in casual conversation with me, said (in Sinhala) that though their sweat had helped make the place, they, for generations, could never afford to buy anything from it. There was a mixture of wistfulness and anger in what he said, and not knowing how to respond, I smiled, bowed my head and walked away.

I remembered this encounter in Kabul last week, where I’ve been for the past fortnight teaching. Home, Sri Lanka, is another world away here. However, reading Dharisha Bastian’s compelling commentary on the deep state in Sri Lanka brought to sharper focus the role of a politico-military apparatus in governance, here and at home. In Kabul, the military is everywhere. Though coalition forces are vastly reduced from what the numbers once were, it is difficult to imagine this country’s political future independent of what the military establishment want to see as desirable outcomes in their self-interest. Highly sophisticated surveillance blimps, run by the US military visible from whichever part of the city you are in, monitor communications and movements of the city’s inhabitants. Many staff of development agencies and the expatriates of some Western Embassies cannot even leave the compound they are in, which makes for bizarre scenarios. For example, the monitoring of projects and programmes through Skype video, by staff based in the same city, who cannot attend in person these events. Or taking a helicopter to the airport, not on account of the distance, but because of travel restrictions by road. There is a monstrosity called a B6 here, which is a usually a recent model Toyota Land Cruiser in outward appearance, but completely re-engineered, from engine to shock absorbers, to accommodate a highly strengthened passenger monocoque, thick, bullet proof windows and steel-lined doors. Security for occupants come at a cost to others on the road, since the mentality of most B6 drivers is to ram into and literally bulldoze other traffic out of their path, akin to most SUV drivers in and around Colombo. Many expat staff, on the rare occasion they venture out into the streets of Kabul, can only ever travel in a B6 and never step out on to the road, visit a local mall, eat at a local restaurant, walk in a park, shop in a local farmer’s market, or interact in any meaningful way, with the life, livelihoods and inhabitants of a city and country they have ostensibly come to help develop. The military is everywhere, from the sky to the political fabric, from how the lives of citizens are shaped, to the way they see the UN and other developmental agencies operate.

And despite all this and more, there is really little to no real security. Hope is rare commodity. Just around a fortnight ago Kabul witnessed a horrific suicide bombing that all the invasive and almost ubiquitous surveillance couldn’t prevent – leading to not entirely unbelievable conspiracy theories around just how much political will there actually is to act upon intelligence reports. Engineered fear and constructed chaos is familiar to those in Sri Lanka who have monitored and fought against militarisation. Even after the war, the invasive and often offensive role of the military in the North and East is a fact of life for many inhabitants. The resentment, anxiety, fear and anger against men in Kevlar sporting guns endures in our country’s war torn regions, and is even more present here in Kabul, where the utterly corrosive geo-politics and superpower interests almost guarantee the continuation of violent conflict for decades more.

All this made me reflect what I was doing here, and what if any difference I could make. In the two years I have come to Kabul at least once a year, telecoms infrastructure has improved dramatically. Since my last visit six months ago, I was told by those even from far flung districts and provinces that they now enjoyed 3G connectivity, and proudly showed me their Samsung smartphones. Facebook is by far the largest and most popular social media network, which flourishes despite high illiteracy rates. In fact, Facebook is perhaps Kabul’s most frequented news and information service. A point I made at a presentation to a large gathering around the strategic use of new media for advocacy and activism was that the influx of donor funding had stunted the imagination of those involved in projects and programmes, who sometimes tended to believe that funding would never wane. This mirrors the mentality of many in Sri Lanka’s civil society. Instead of creative disruption and innovation, what I often saw was a lazy copying or continuation of things done a certain way, just because they were always done that way. The level of systemic corruption is incredible, ironically in large part driven by the imposition of impossible administrative guidelines and outdated, outmoded metrics of project assessment local entities just don’t have the capacity to honestly manage, or respond to. Many here, as they are in Sri Lanka, only ever think about the next project cycle and are horribly reliant on donor funding.

Here in Kabul and in parts of Sri Lanka, the challenge is how to foster sustainable change and security in spite of an overbearing politico-military complex. The military operates on obedience and discipline. Change cares little for established authority. Fund a military complex or invest in the creative disruption of civil society. One way depends on reaping the efficiencies of command and control. The other on cocking a snook at any oppressive, established authority. The future of both countries will depend on how they balance this equation.


First published in The Sunday Island, 8 May 2016