Beyond echo chambers

It boils down to this. Three years into the yahapalanaya government, is our support of it now contingent on the fear of the Rajapaksa’s coming back into power? If that is the case, to what extent do we gloss over and excuse the trappings of power, and the failure of this President and Prime Minister, to actualise the promises they made before coming to power? To what degree to we posit the visible failure of reform on how difficult it is to reshape a political architecture founded on corruption, nepotism and violence, and the lack of genuine political leadership, courage or vision? To what degree does traditional civil society, which championed this President, now countenance what is three years in a record of a steady decline into parochialism, and an overpowering interest over political survival over the heady, selfless ideals noted in his first speech on January 9th, 2015? Connected to this, what degree does civil society, now connected via instant messaging, email or a call away from friends who are significant figures in the Wickremesinghe administration, countenance the catastrophic loss of credibility on account of the government’s inability to pursue those they promised would be held accountable? In conversations with the diverse group of individuals who entirely organically came together – without any external support or funding – in order to get rid of the former President late-2014, there is a palpable sense of frustration, anger, sadness and far more disturbingly, apathy. In an election now overtly made into a litmus test of the current government with the statements made by the former President last week, it is unclear if those in power realise that the narrow margin of electoral victory in both Parliamentary and Presidential elections over 2015 was largely pegged to a youth vote, amongst the 18-34 demographic. This is a group that isn’t voting for anyone. They vote against what they see. The vote that brought the President and Prime Minister to power wasn’t a vote for a political party or individual. It was a vote opposed to what they saw as elements in the political fabric they wanted to get rid of, change or reform. This is a demographic that doesn’t carry to their grave a political party affiliation or loyalty. They will shift their vote, they will not vote at all. To what degree does the government understand this, in their political machinations to retain power?

I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the promise of January 2015 (leave aside Christmas cheer around the corner). But the signs are now too obvious to ignore. We have a Minister of Media and Finance who is more vocal, courageous, open and principled than even our Prime Minister or certainly, President. We have a Foreign Minister who exists somewhere deep in the bowels of a Ministry that isn’t even making the inside pages of newsprint leave aside forging new strategic alliances with China – who we have to creatively embrace not always shun, India, who we cannot ever forget, the West, who hold the keys to our networking with a cosmopolitan future, and regional allies who remind us of our essential non-aligned past and present. We have other Ministers who now justify extra-legal censorship of online content just because it seemingly upsets the President, instead of the free and open domains for expression we were told we would enjoy. There are mothers of the disappeared quite literally dying in the North before seeing any justice, despite various public promises by the President. How he lives with that knowledge of letting down so badly and callously those who have suffered and lost so in war much is anyone’s guess. But political life goes on. And on the margins, now threatening to become a main act centre stage, are echoes of our violent past now in the guise of saviours – men who did good and great things. Men who defeated terrorism. Men who beautified our cities. Men above corruption, selfless, and visionary to boot. Men now capable of capturing a vote base that is upset with the non-delivery of promises by those in power.

And therein lies the rub. To what degree is our civil society championing the very ideals that projected this government into power? And if the default mode of public engagement today is a respectful deference, silence or worse, support without qualification – because to do anything different risks the ire of friends in government – what does it signal to those who look at civil society as a more critical voice, or platform? In trying to negotiate the optics of how government sees it, is civil society losing its credibility amongst those who were partial to its agenda late-2014? If then there was a clear, perhaps even coincidental overlapping of civil society interests and the interests of those who didn’t then overtly identify themselves as part of civil society to reject, reform and reboot a particular political culture and its chief proponents, the two have grown apart. Arguably, how it has negotiated the post-2015 politics had enabled it to work its way into the inner chambers of government – and this is not all bad. The President is cocooned, believing what he wants to believe because there is no one telling him anything that risks their privileged access to power. The only option is to access the Prime Minister, and with all the attendant risks, he alone has the intellect to comprehend what he is told, critically question and engage. But the bigger picture optics are awry. Civil society, President and Prime Minister operate in their own spheres of influence, and like bubbles, occasionally coalesce but exist entirely independent of each other. Seeing this, and without understanding the complexities of governance or coalition government, young voters are sick and tired of politics as usual, and the absence of any tangible reform at the pace it was promised. Without any coherent communications from government around why things that were promised aren’t done, or how they have tried but failed, conspiracy theories, gossip, rumour are the primary vectors through which voters now develop and cement their perceptions. The more emotive the message, the better the grip it has on the public imagination.

Civil society often blames government for this loss of public confidence. They also have to take some of the blame for it. 2015 brought to an end the oppositional nature of civil society and government, and it is clear that what’s needed now is a more nuanced, strategic approach to critical engagement without co-option, and a pragmatic realism around what can be done, independent of what was promised – incrementalism as a driving mantra in all domains, ranging from constitutional reform to foreign policy and economic development. But this overarching strategic foresight is largely lacking. In its place we have this interest in retaining access to those in power, seemingly at whatever cost, driven by the fear of what may happen if the old regime comes back into power. These twin dynamics fuel each other. The second is certainly a valid, existential concern for those who courageously stood up against the Rajapaksa’s violent, brutal, censorious authoritarian fiat. The first though is a fear that one gives into only to the detriment of a more principled approach to constant, critical review, and by extension, the vital support of those beyond just an echo chamber.

Silence is not an option. Even when our friends are in power.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 December 2017.

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Frontier issues

Or as a colleague from the United Nations recently quipped, more like front-door issues. The new UN Secretary General António Guterres is an engineer and academic. The second helps him understand complexity. The first makes him want to fix things. It’s a good combination. For the first time in many years, the UN is under-going a comprehensive, systemic reboot. It will take many years and will invariably frustrate even the best laid plans, but the optimism around revamping the institution is palpable. The thrust is twofold. One, to make the UN system better able to understand and respond to contemporary challenges. Two, to inject institutional agility to a degree that enables the UN system proactively deal with contours of conflict, instability and disparities in the years to come. Combined with this is a desire to better understand the opportunities that new technologies bring to the mandates of UN agencies and departments.

I’ve had this in mind over the past two weeks, which have been unusually hectic. Over the previous weekend, I moderated a discussion on the future of digital conversations in Sri Lanka, looking at how new technologies are changing the way society sees and organises itself, and as a consequence, the political fabric of the country. I spoke on a UNESCO organised panel on fighting impunity against journalists in Sri Lanka, which also flagged how digital surveillance impacts the freedom of expression. I have on three occasions and in very different fora, including with diplomats based in Colombo, dealt with the growing challenges faced by Maldivian activists and independent journalists in their country and the need to create virtual networks of solidarity and content sharing resilient enough to withstand infiltration, disruption or systemic corruption. I’ve meet with several leading agencies in the United Nations system in New York and Geneva, including individuals at the cutting-edge of thinking around issues like Big Data, artificial intelligence, business intelligence, predictive analytics, data visualisation, ethics, data governance, human rights, change management and future scenario development. In an hour-long interaction with the Build Peace Summit held in Bogota, Colombia over Skype video, I dealt with how new technologies and social media, including the so-called ‘fake news’ phenomenon, will deeply impact peace negotiations, especially in the future.

Two things are worth noting. It’s when you leave Sri Lanka that you realise what a small island we are, and how what we are so completely consumed by when in the country, pales into insignificance when travelling outside of it. On the other hand, what we have endured in Sri Lanka and continue to live with is also ahead of the curve in many domains. What the West now considers a threat to democracy and electoral processes – fake news – is the same propaganda on steroids that we have suffered under for many years, under successive governments. What we did around the creation of sophisticated and secure digital communications networks to combat violence, illiberal governance and authoritarian rule are now templates for others, around the world, to follow and learn from. The innovation as a consequence of necessity, the resilience as a consequence of adversity, the challenges as a consequence of corruption, systemic failure of government and bureaucratic dysfunctionality – these are all things we are used to and take in our stride. Our insights now have trans-national value and application.

Which brings me to the UN Secretary General’s interest in what he terms ‘frontier issues’ – things that will define the operational context for the UN in the years to come, as both threats and opportunities. Artificial Intelligence features heavily in these discussions and at first glance, isn’t all that relevant in Sri Lanka. But take how 18-34-year olds in our country engage with the world and consume news and information. Anyone with a Google or Facebook account linked to their smartphone now can automatically get context-aware, location-sensitive, individually tailored messages in a timely manner – ranging from reminders to travel times, incorporating traffic congestion. AI already helps power rapid fire responses to emails and instant messages, based on their actual content. We all inhabit invisible cocoons that are generated by algorithms that now monitor and track our every mouse-click, glance and thumb press and swipe. Almost every aspect of our lives – actively generated or passively captured – now generates raw data, which is aggregated, commodified and sold to bidders which include governments. That can and does lead to more effective and efficient governance. It can also contribute directly to a degree of authoritarianism that binds those under it to a surveillance so pervasive, even opting out by disconnecting completely from everything would mark them out as miscreants. In a short span of time, what we see as photos, what we hear as sound, and what we consume as moving visuals can and will all be digitally manipulated in real time, in a manner indistinguishable to the human eye and comprehension. Imagine this future, with the sophisticated misinformation campaigns already conducted over social media in Sri Lanka using newsfeeds and social media accounts to mobilise a young demographic to rally, vote or violently react against something. And yet, there is rich opportunity here as well, to use the same algorithms to strengthen, secure and sustain dignity, diversity and democracy. The question is whether government and civil society are aware of what these opportunities are, and how to leverage them.

What binds the new UN Secretary General’s vision for a revamped UN with the discussions I’ve had with so many is, in the main, a global as well as local trust deficit around institutions, which are failing citizens. The resulting void is filled by commercial entities and solutions that often make us products, stripping us of basic rights even as we enjoy the convenience of technologies that respond to the way we live, think and work. There is no easy technocratic solution to what is essentially a growing democratic deficit, even in peacetime. Disenchantment with and distrust of political institutions continues even under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Promises made in international fora, the 2025 economic vision, the technocratic bias – these only appeal to and stick mostly with those who are already benefitting from an architecture that alienates the vulnerable, the traditional farmer, the soldier, the ex-combatant, pockets of extreme poverty in the South, and entire communities in the North. How can AI help governments comprehend what they aren’t plugged into or cognisant of? How can citizen generated data like mobile reloads help us understand the impact of socio-economic policies? What impact does misinformation have on socio-economic progress, if left unchecked and allowed to grow amongst a population who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction? What investments are those who seek power making in the domain of social media that allows them to influence first time voters in ways they cannot easily identify as partisan propaganda? How are we protecting the privacy of citizens, even as we embrace the potential of enabling them with ID cards that allow them easier access to basic goods and services?

Small countries like Sri Lanka are a hotbed of conversations, tensions, faultlines as well as innovation, opportunities, ideas and experience that allow us to see beyond the obvious, including in envisioning the future. Maybe that’s where the UN also needs to start – to recognise that the frontier issues already identified are already old hat for many around the world, and that to truly reform, the UN needs to actively listen to those outside its usual concentric circles of advisors.

The Global South writ large has much to offer in this regard. Will the UN listen?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 10 December 2017.

Bad faith or bad weather?

At the time of writing this column, eleven have died because of a storm that hit Sri Lanka. Five are missing. Over sixty-one thousand people across the island are affected by the disaster. Images of the devastation are all over the news, including over updates on social media pushed out from the Sri Lanka Red Cross. In this context, worth recalling in some detail a news report published in the mainstream media in English quoting Met Department Director and “Forecaster” Anusha Warnasooriya.

Warnasooriya dismissed the storm system as one that would merely travel over Sri Lanka on its way to India. Warning people not to panic over “foreign reports” which according to her are “unreliable”, she went on to say that “the build-up of a storm could be identified early and the Met Department would know if there was such a threat”. Sri Lanka’s Met Dept, despite regional and global evidence to the contrary, had in under a day before a major storm hit Sri Lanka, no indication around its severity. It issued no public warning. It did nothing.

Warnasooriya’s last public Facebook update is from July this year, where she is interviewed by a TV channel on the Meteorological Department’s ability to forecast adverse weather. There are some incredible claims made in the course of a short interview. Referring to Doppler Radar technology, which Sri Lanka does not yet have, she claims that even with it, weather forecasts can only be done two hours in advance. She is asked what measures the Meteorological Department has taken to warn the public around sudden low-pressure systems and the resulting bad weather patterns. Warnasooriya stresses that the public has understood that her Department has made advances in how the public is engaged with and warned. Noting the dangers of false warning, she avers that the Department is able to warn the public no sooner than they are around seventy to eighty percent certain of an impending bad weather. Asked as to how she sees the technical or technological capacity and competence of the Department in relation to other countries, Warnasooriya notes that more than this, the problem lies in where Sri Lanka is situated, and due to the fact that the country “stores a lot of energy”, whatever that means. There is a fascination with numerical weather prediction, to what in the interview seems to be the repeated dismissal of technologies like Doppler Radar.

The numerical forecasting she speaks of, that the Meteorological Department in Sri Lanka seems to be married to, isn’t your average Excel spreadsheet running on a normal PC. Currently the world’s most powerful supercomputer – actually an array of three running in tandem – dedicated to weather analysis resides in Met Office in the United Kingdom. As the website of the Met Office notes, the computational power is mind-boggling – fourteen thousand trillion arithmetic operations per second or more than two million calculations per second for every man, woman and child on planet Earth. The supercomputer also has twenty-four petabytes of storage for saving data, which to put into perspective is enough to store over 100 years’ worth of high definition (Blu-ray) movies.

Warnasooriya’s misplaced patriotism and love for home-grown numerical weather prediction, one doubts very much, is founded on even a fraction of this computation power required to do any sort of accurate forecasting. And therein lies the rub. Sri Lanka’s Met Dept operates with near total impunity. Year and year, even as preventable deaths pile up, even as public anger over any sort of adequate warning grows, its officials claim they are doing a good job and contrary to all discernible evidence, assure us they provide the best possible information in a timely manner. The reality isn’t hard to find, and not just in the death and destruction around us today. The last update on the Met Dept.’s Twitter feed is, at the time of writing, from five days ago. It is an automated update from a service that tracks how many followed and unfollowed the account. The last actual weather update is from 17th April. Every single tweet since is an automated tweet that bears no relation whatsoever to the purpose of the Met Dept, and its account on social media.

There is an enduring disaster in Sri Lanka. And it is our public weather forecasting system writ large. Earlier in the year, agencies, departments and line ministries engaged blamed each other for the lack of warning around catastrophic flooding that devastated large parts of the country and our farming output, for the second year in a row. From an incompetent, inconsiderate Minister of Disaster Management who doesn’t even rush back to the country when abroad and after a major disaster hits, to the farcical nature of updates from the Disaster Management Centre, official channels are at best terrible. At least over social media, which now informs many more than just those who have a Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp account, the Sri Lanka Red Cross, renowned journalists and climate change experts like Amantha Perera and even individuals like Gopiharan Perinpam, whose day job is at Sri Lanka Customs, provide trusted, timely and informative updates in the lead up to and during a disaster. It is a remarkable, revealing role reversal, where official information channels and authorities are the least trusted, most hated and the last to update, whereas citizens over social media are the first to inform others with trusted, reliable information sourced from recognised, respected international and regional weather reports which use the latest satellite imagery, forecasting models and weather updates.

Warnasooriya’s comments last week hint also hint at a larger malaise the bedevils our progress – misplaced patriotism. Weather knows no geographic or political boundary. Nature has no respect whatsoever for man-made borders and sovereignty. In suggesting that Sri Lanka should be inherently sceptical of forecasts issued by foreign agencies and trusted sources outside the country, the Met Dept suggests a modus operandi that is manifestly absurd if not downright tragic – that weather alerts and forecasting can only be done within Sri Lanka, and by Sri Lankans, if they are to be truly believed and reliable. Every single smartphone sold in Sri Lanka today has baked into its operating system weather forecasting better than what the Met Dept in Sri Lanka provides, the DMC alerts the public on, the Ministry of Disaster Management is capable of embracing and the Minister is possibly even remotely aware of.

The impunity around all of this is its own story – there appears to be no real interest in learning from mistakes or meaningful reform. Human resources around, for example, the basic translation of the few alerts that do make it out into Tamil, are almost wholly absent. But they abound in civil society, where a combination of technology, skills and information dissemination are now supplanting the role of official agencies. And that’s possibly where investment needs to occur – towards developing, in a country like Sri Lanka, citizen-driven, citizen-centric, technologically underpinned, public weather alerting models that leverage over twenty-one million SIM cards and coast to coast connectivity to disseminate reliable, fact-based warnings in a timely manner. If this strikes one as far-fetched or absurd, just think about the millions of dollars, year after year, from domestic budgets and foreign financing, that goes into propping up government agencies that openly say they can only predict weather two hours in advance.

The choice surely is clear, even if our weather is not.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 3 December 2017.

Feet of clay

Planning the online operations of an islandwide election monitoring body isn’t an easy affair at the best of times. Making matters more complex was the political context leading up to the Presidential Election on 8th January 2015. Fears of disruption on multiple levels, rigging and takeover of monitoring operations meant redundancy had to be planned from scratch. A hotel room was paid for in cash for three days to mirror the online information gathering and dissemination operations around the election in case the main office was raided, forcibly shut down or network connectivity blocked. Trusted friends were asked to become administrators of key websites and social media accounts, in case those in charge in Sri Lanka were arrested, detained or worse. Multiple network connections were maintained, from dongles and phones to the hotel’s own internet access over a proxy, in order to mask traffic and reduce suspicion. A WhatsApp group was created, that had at its peak on election day well over three hundred local and foreign journalists, activists, diplomats and others. Regular updates were posted, and the platform was chosen because it was that much harder to block or disrupt. My life was at the time was spent mostly in virtual conversations around pushback to the Rajapaksa regime’s information operations and propaganda, as well as information security operations for a major election monitoring body and a concert of other actors monitoring and responding to political developments. From around the 7th morning to the evening of the 9th, many of could count at most in single digits the hours we slept. It was, by far, the most stressful time at work. Requests from various media organisations after the election result was announced went unanswered, or for those journalists I was close to, politely declined. It was just too exhausting, and the relief once the final result was announced, was completely overwhelming.

As so many of us wearily trudged at first, and then as we saw others, with quicker pace and a lightness of step, ran towards Independence Square on the evening of the 9th to witness the first public swearing in of a President, some of us expected a large bomb, an RPG or a sniper to bring the proceedings to a violent end. The election of the new President was that unexpected and incredible. As counting stopped for hours on end in the early hours that same day, many feared the worst. A factual record of what transpired at Temple Trees we may never find out, but from various accounts in the public domain, the result wasn’t one that was guaranteed, expected or easy to engineer. How close we were to a different result wasn’t at the time Sirisena was sworn in, known to anyone save perhaps for those on the podium itself. We were just relieved. Going back to photos and videos taken that evening, the crowd, the atmosphere, the relief, the joy is all palpable. And a few minutes into his first speech, when the new President said in no uncertain terms he did not want to stand ever again for election as President, the cheers from the crowd underscored what was a key electoral pledge – abolishing the Executive Presidency as it stood then. In Sirisena, even the most cynical amongst us – knowing full well the hope would wane, and the man would disappoint – saw the promise of a new, exciting socio-political compact. The violence, fear and anxiety had ended, and in this one man – President Sirisena – we saw the prospect of a country post-war that could finally go about winning peace. I went back to hotel room, dismantled the global architecture setup for monitoring operations, shut down, checked out, went home and slept for close upon a day. Sirisena was in power. His worst would be better than the Rajapaksa’s best. Things would be ok.

Nearly three years on, Sirisena’s worst is in fact better than what would have been Mahinda Rajapaksa’s third term under the eighteenth amendment. But a terrible, low baseline isn’t really any measure for the success of his Presidency. The cracks in Sirisena’s public persona appeared soon after he was elected to office, but they are now more blatant and visible. From a towering beacon of hope, our President has become a small, insecure, thin-skinned, petty political figure, influenced by the worst amongst us, impervious to a better legacy and higher ideals, incapable of self-criticism and honest reflection, unable or unwilling to keep promises and clearly interested in another term as Executive President, by suggesting through prevarication it is what the party or people want. From what his manifesto promised would be done in one hundred days, three years on, the President’s key crusades are now against, incorrectly as it turns out, the high sugar content in chocolate milk drinks. A website with critical commentary against him remains blocked without any legal basis, ironically giving credence to all manner of conspiracy theories and downgrading Sri Lanka’s media freedom rankings. Investigations by the AG’s Department, ordered by the President himself into allegations of high-level corruption that include him when he was a Minister under the Rajapaksa regime, are now completely forgotten. The great national icon and President of Sri Lanka has yet to issue any statement on the violence in Gintota. The President’s daughter ghost-writes a book on him, calling him the nation’s father. A Presidential Commission in the issue of Central Bank bonds is now associated with disturbing over-reach, media leaks and controversy around surveillance – the very things associated with the Rajapaksa regime we thought we had seen an end to in January 2015. Truly cringe-worthy, banal, regressive stuff, at a time when political leadership is needed the most.

And yet, criticism is hushed and limited. Warts and all, we are assured that he remains deeply committed to issues like missing persons, constitutional reform to the extent possible, a political settlement to the Tamil national question, and weeding out corruption. But elsewhere and amongst the general public, the discontent is palpable. President Sirisena came into office not because voters liked the UNP or him. He came into office because many didn’t want Mahinda Rajapaksa for a third term. The margin of victory was slim – at the peak of his popularity, President Sirisena divided the electorate. Today, instead of a desire for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa – a spent political force – there is a twin-pronged attack on democratic stability. One, apathy – the disengagement with electoral politics in particular because of the non-delivery of promises. Two, a nostalgic desire to bring back efficient and effective government instead of one that so clearly cannot keep even Colombo clean. The nostalgia around the second masks what is essentially a drive towards militarisation. The first trend, clearly highlighted by the marked decrease in voter registration in Colombo alone, risks the capture of a young, impressionable, angry demographic by extreme, violent nationalism and electoral outcomes, through sophisticated social engineering cum propaganda, that favours a return of those from or associated with the old regime.

It’s not a good recipe leading up to 2020. President Sirisena has himself to blame. Or perhaps we should be kinder, and blame the political architecture as it stands today, which eviscerates, decade after decade, the country’s most optimistic, hopeful moments into a slow yet steady decay. Repeatedly asked what I can do to animate first-time voters in 2020, I honestly don’t know what to say. Without political leadership, and clear vision, nothing anyone else can do will generate interest in political reform. President Sirisena, for me and so many others, was a beacon of hope. He is today a ghost of what he once presented himself to be. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for Sri Lanka too – a country whose innate greatness always lies in a future never truly captured or realised, but tantalisingly visible, and at times, even within our reach.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 26 November 2017.

Burying history

Over four years ago, I wrote an article on mass graves in Sri Lanka that could be seen using Google Earth imagery, serving as a solitary, virtual witness to what happened on the ground. The article focussed in and around Nandikadal – the sliver of land where the war came to an end in 2009. At the time, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had published a report, unsurprisingly vehemently contested by the Ministry of Defence, highlighting both the level of shelling and through image analysis, where it likely originated from. My interest in the report focussed on very specific geographic locations that had been very clearly identified as mass graves, and how these areas had changed over the following years. As I noted at the time of writing, “three years after the end of the war, the mounds of earth for each grave have disappeared and there is scrub vegetation dotting the site. Without reference imagery from the past, it is impossible to determine that this is a grave site for hundreds looking at the imagery from 2011 alone”. There is another dimension I chose to focus on. In the years after the end of the war in 2009, war tourism reached its peak. Thousands from the South and other parts of the country went to the North – many for the first time. As these domestic tourists on sight-seeing trips captured selfies and other photos of the deleterious debris of war, they were on occasion walking, running or dancing very near, and possibly on top of, mass graves. Again, as I noted, “The imagery from Google Earth is a unique and sombre reminder of war’s human toll… Five, ten, fifteen years hence, with new development in these areas and the clearing up of war debris, it is unclear what will become of these grave sites and skeletal remains. They are already erased from the public conscience”.

All this is in the North, largely out of sight, out of mind for many in the South.

Yet as recently as May this year, skeletal remains were uncovered by heavy earth digging machinery in a construction site in Colombo. That site is today the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, ceremoniously opened by President Maithripala Sirisena last week. The site had apparently been used by the British as a cemetery and until 2012, was also the headquarters of Sri Lanka’s Army. News reports in May indicated that after a Magisterial inquiry, Police investigations were underway. Not a single update or word on the human remains found on the site has been published in the mainstream media since. It’s almost as if this story itself, like the bones beneath, was better buried. As I noted on Twitter, “Quite remarkable how a 5-star hotel opened by the President, on site where human skeletal remains were found & the location of former Army HQ, generates not a single critical reference or question in media on ascertaining origin, date or fate of the buried”. Leading journalists from the domestic and international press present at the opening of the hotel with the President lost no time posting selfies on Facebook of themselves enjoying a free lunch at the hotel. Not a single article or question before, on or after the occasion even remotely referenced the skeletons discovered under the foundations of the Shangri-La Hotel.

The phenomenon of mass graves in Sri Lanka isn’t new or anchored just to the end of the war. A simple Google search for the uninitiated will suffice. Sri Lanka is dotted with known mass graves all over, dating back to the time of terror in the late 80’s. There is even a story around the discovery of a mass grave by a family as they were clearing out their garden. Brick and mortar establish above ground visual, tactile facts that over time, mask inconvenient, hidden truths buried underneath. In 2011, the new headquarters for the 51 Division of the Sri Lankan Army, in Kopay was unveiled amidst, as the Army’s website notes, “religious rites and rituals”.  What’s tellingly not noted on the Army’s website but reported by the BBC at the time was that the new headquarters is built on top of an LTTE gravesite of around two thousand bodies and about twice as many memorial stones, razed to the ground after the war.

Architecture and construction is used here, and indeed, elsewhere, in the service of completely erasing what otherwise would have been very challenging to countenance by way of memorialising the dead who once fought against the Army. Trevor Grant’s book, ‘Sri Lanka’s Secrets: How the Rajapaksa Regime Gets Away with Murder’, expands this point and notes that ‘the desecration of graves continued around the North and East of the country after the war, with at least twenty-five Tamil war cemeteries, containing about 20,400 graves, [were] deliberately bulldozed by the Sri Lankan army’. In February 2014, the International Crimes Evidence Project published a report that citing eye-witness testimony alleged ‘systematic destruction of civilian mass burial sites in the post-conflict period’. The report went on to note that the ‘allegations are very serious and there is an urgent need for further investigation to determine their veracity’. To date, there is no information in the public domain around even a sham investigation by the State, under successive governments, into these disturbing claims.

What to many is commonly associated as a phenomenon that is prevalent in the North, or is anchored to the UNP-JVP’s time of terror in the late 80s, also now colours the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Renowned artist Jagath Weerasinghe, lamenting the destruction of ‘The Shrine of Innocents’ – a memorial for the lives lost between 1998-1991 in the South of Sri Lanka – to make way for what is now Diyatha Uyana and the original location of The Good Market, cogently captures Sri Lanka’s inability to really remember the horror of mass killings. “We murdered thousands of innocent people for political reasons in this country; and then we built a memorial for them, and then we ‘murdered’ the memorial too. A society bent on amnesia, and blinded by the chimera of consumerism needs no memorial to remember victims of its recent history; it only needs monuments for rulers, kings, politicians, heroes and vulgar consumerism.”

As journalist and psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, ‘societies can be sunk by the weight of buried ugliness’. The very foundations of Colombo’s beautification and Sri Lanka’s development writ large is a violence the magnitude of which isn’t taught in school, isn’t recorded in history, isn’t memorialised in any way, isn’t respected or treated with dignity or empathy, isn’t subject to robust criminal investigation and isn’t really important or urgent, to anyone in power. Truly countenancing the macabre nature and horror of what lies beneath gleaming tower, luxury hotel or Army camp is an existential challenge many deeply fear and thus, unsurprisingly, create, believe in and vehemently promote any fiction to avoid.

It is a fiction that gravely risks the country revisiting the horrors of the past.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 19 November 2017.

Fuelling a crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in The Sunday Island, 12 November 2017.

Framed

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

And that was when things started to get interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s an idea worth pursuing.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 5 November 2017.