What the poll portends

Since results of last weekend’s local government election were released, Hindu kovils were vandalised in Mannar, Muslims were subject to violence in Veyangalla and Uguraspitiya and an ebullient Mahinda Rajapaksa has commanded the media gaze. Much to unpack here.

The election result itself is an indication of many things that were foretold and forewarned, and a re-run of the technocratic gaze that ultimately ousted the Wickremesinghe led UNF government back in the days of the ceasefire agreement. Lessons unlearnt then, remain unheeded now. The lack of any official press release from the PM or President after the election and the inability to even convene a press conference suggests the ferocity of the SLPP’s electoral sweep took even them by surprise. The former President on the other hand, ever the mediagenic genius, had no problem whatsoever commanding the headlines. While the UNP and SLFP descended into a kindergarten mode of you said, they said, he said, I’m never speaking to you ever again, here’s a toffee so be my friend style politics, and in full display of an already disgruntled and disgusted voting public, the SLPP’s media blitz was on par with its electoral performance – excellently executed, and for the most part, effective.

The mainstream media’s frothing fascination with every titbit of political gossip since last Sunday has been to the detriment of more sober reporting and reflections on the result and its aftermath. Lost in the melee of updates was reportage on the license some felt, as a result of the SLPP victory, to act violently against religious and ethnic minorities, with memories of guaranteed impunity. When this was flagged on Twitter, a barrage of insults and bitter invective followed by self-styled champions of the SLPP, reminiscent of the violence online that mirrored the awful censorship offline under the Rajapaksa regime. The fact that the SLPP swept the local government poll is not a surprising. This was the government’s election to lose, not the SLPP’s to win. What’s disturbing as a consequence are the immediate and distinct markers of extremism and violence, now pent up, that lie in wait within the SLPP’s constituent socio-political make-up, salivating at the chance to take and be in power again.

Revealingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s celebratory messages on Facebook, just after the result and during the week, are only in Sinhala and English. Tamil, even a hint of it, doesn’t feature. This speaks to a singular mindset unchanged in the three years since we last felt its megalomaniacal impulse. Tamils still continue to be marginal, at best, for the SLPP. And by extension, any democratic impulse to recognise and accommodate legitimate Tamil grievances is moot. This was evident in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement at the SLPP’s press conference. Pointing to a map of Sri Lanka and the wards the SLPP had won, Rajapaksa noted that even the territory of Eelam had reduced. This is a remarkable statement, even as a Freudian slip. For the former President, the North and East of Sri Lanka are still, predominantly, Eelam – or as a reflection of popular Southern imagination, partial to and under the influence of, to date, the violent separatism of the LTTE – militarily defeated nearly ten years ago. The former President continues to frame citizens in these areas as terrorists, violently separatist by nature. What is more interesting is the support he gets for this viewpoint. Over Twitter, Rajiva Wijesinha averred that the reason Rajapaksa declaring Eelam was reduced was because “the people [in these areas] supported a range of viewpoints including the SLPP, not just [a] UNP/TNA combine”. The defence is a curious one, even by Wijesinha’s standards. If the North and East vote for the TNA or UNP, they are justified in being called a territory of Eelam. By contrast, the argument goes, only if they vote in Rajapaksa or now the SLPP do they demonstrate they have eschewed violent separatism and are truly part of Sri Lanka.

This essentially racist mindset is not surprising to associate with the JO and SLPP. It is far more violent when one encounters it in the present government, and soon after last week’s electoral drubbing. No less than Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, a senior member of the UNP and close to the PM, believes that the party’s poor performance at the local government election was because the Sri Lankan anthem was sung in Tamil on Independence Day. News reports suggest that Marapana believes the Sinhala-Buddhist vote base of the UNP lost fifty-thousand votes every time the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung. How this precise figure was arrived at is anyone’s guess. Couple Marapana’s ridiculous assertion with Government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne’s view that 55% voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa and that the key take-away for him from the local government election was that the 8th January 2015 mandate was strengthened, and you find a government as I noted on Twitter that doesn’t know what they’ve lost, how they’ve lost or in fact, that they’ve lost.

Thus, it isn’t the potential resurgence authoritarianism and violence that is worrying – or what Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda calls a ‘democratic setback’ in the event the President and PM fail to agree on a reform agenda moving forward. It is the fact that the political huddle within the SLFP and UNP, to consolidate power, block the other party and stop the haemorrhaging of votes will in intent, focus and execution, match the SLPP’s huddle to consolidate electoral gains. Southern polity’s chief focus henceforth will be driven by a fear of losing more votes in the South, or the interest of recapturing what was lost. Even with the best of outcomes in the form of continued cohabitation and an extension of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the window of opportunity for meaningful reform is now comprehensively gone. It is unclear to what degree even incrementalism can succeed, given what will be a deep, enduring hesitation to promote anything radically different to the status quo that can be used or perceived to be ripe for exploitation by the SLPP to whip up angry opposition.

The fun and games have already begun. The SLPP, perhaps privately embarrassed by the violence meted out by the party’s supporters and interested, temporarily, in not alienating a minority vote, now wants an investigation into the anti-Muslim communal riots in Aluthgama, from June 2014. It also distances itself from the BBS. The chutzpah of G.L. Peiris to want an investigation now into events Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, despite promises of redress and robust investigation at the time, didn’t deliver on, is perhaps lost on the majority of who voted for the SLPP. Memories are short, and the existential burden of living under a government that hasn’t delivered on its promises perhaps outweighs what was known and even reviled about the previous regime.

And that’s precisely the point. The SLPP won for the same reason Sirisena was elected to power three years ago. It was a vote in opposition to the incumbents – a score card on their inability to deliver what was expected or promised. It was much less a vote in support of a party or individual. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe 2015 mandate, in reality, was less about constitutional reform writ large or transitional justice. It was more about bringing to justice those who were corrupt, and visibly eschewing the political culture that defined the Rajapaksa regime. It was about the abolition of the Executive Presidency. In all these efforts, the present government has failed miserably. The SLPP won not because Mahinda Rajapaksa gained new fans. It won because the present government comprehensively lost many who believed in it and voted for it, three years ago, and offers nothing by way of a compelling vision anchored to ground realities. It is pathologically unable to communicate. If voters see no difference between government today and what they endured in the past, it is likely they will go with the known devil, instead of present day leaders who cannot even agree amongst themselves.

It matters little to me therefore about what the President and Prime Minister will say and do in the weeks ahead. The consolidation of power and its negotiation will be, whatever the end configuration, to the detriment of genuine reform, the Tamil national question, accountability, meaningful constitutional reform and justice. The jolt of fear around a Rajapaksa resurgence will most likely only result in pandering to the fears of Southern polity and society, instead of crafting public opinion and mature political leadership, that demonstrates by example what it is to not be racist, reductionist or retrogressive. My disappointment with the local government result is not that the SLPP won so much. It is that the government, three years into power, has won so little.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 18 March 2018.

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Slitting our future

Lost in the melee of throat-slitting last week were statements by the President and high-profile members of the UNP. At an election rally in Jaffna, the President is reported to have personally assured that no one who had been disappeared was kept in any secret location, camp or in the jungle. He had not mentioned a word about justice or holding those accountable for disappearances accountable. Separately, in an interview to a leading private TV station, the President averred that former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was removed from his position because he agreed to co-sponsor a resolution at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva proposing the inclusion of foreign judges in investigations around allegations of human rights violations including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Juxtapose this with what others are saying about us. In September last year, media reported that the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells, praised the progress made by Sri Lanka under the leadership of the President around democratic reforms and reconciliation. In October last year, Mark Field, UK Minister for Asia and the Pacific, welcomed the government’s commitment to reconciliation and strengthening democracy. Also in November, news media reported that reconciliation programmes under the President came in for special praise by visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In early January 2018, Japan’s Foreign Minister Tharo Kono reportedly pledged his government’s “fullest support for the development and reconciliation process of Sri Lanka”. In July 2017, state media noted that Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, had lauded efforts made by the President to strengthen reconciliation. Earlier that year, in April 2017, Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestag), Norbert Lammert in an official visit to the country noted that the President had taken effective steps to strengthen democracy and improve human rights and reconciliation. An official delegation of the European Union Parliament late last year, expressing concern that progress around reconciliation was slower than hoped, welcomed the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons. The only problem is that the OMP has yet to be constituted, and the chief stumbling block is the President.

It is entirely unclear where the well-springs of hope lie for those who remain sanguine about prospects for meaningful reconciliation, accountability and transitional justice in Sri Lanka. We have a President who now intervenes to overturn the suspension, pending inquiry, of a person whose actions in London reveal, in no uncertain terms, the mentality of the Sri Lankan Army. If this was what was threatened in broad daylight and the full glare of media in London, imagine how much worse it would have been in the scorching heat of Nandikadal, in 2009, far away from any media gaze save for trophy footage by aggressors. It is this President who says on national TV that he will not allow the electric chair to come to Sri Lanka, ignorant perhaps that as a non-signatory country to the Rome Statue, the International Criminal Court – which in the popular public imagination is equated with the electric chair – has no jurisdiction or power over us. The President’s populism reached a crescendo in the lead up to the local government election. This was to be expected, though perhaps not at the levels of shrill insanity and inanity on display. What is more concerning is the power dynamic within the coalition government moving forward, with a President so vehemently, visibly and volubly against principle tenets of accountability, reconciliation and transitional justice.

Clearly, contrary to the buoyant optimism of foreign diplomats and leaders, our political malaise runs deeper. Take the statements by senior UNP figures. Largely under-reported in the mainstream media at the time and indeed, to date, the significant violence around Colombo’s beautification under the former regime and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in particular is well-documented in reports anchored to the testimonies of tens of thousands displaced or relocated to living conditions by order of magnitude far worse that they experienced in the places there were originally residents of. More than most, UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva knows this.  But for whatever reason, this did not prevent him from unilaterally praising Gotabaya Rajapaksa in December last year for “his efforts in beautifying” Colombo. In a comparatively late awakening to what was by then a readymade populist platform, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene praised Brigadier Priyankara Fernando’s throat-slitting gesture as the right signal to give pro-LTTE diaspora. Not to be outshone, Navin Dissanayake, UNP MP and Minister of Plantation Industries said that the Brigadier enjoys diplomatic immunity for actions performed within the embassy premises. Previously, just after the President reversed the suspension, Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake stated that they would not be conducting an inquiry into the actions by the Brigadier, adding that “that it was not in any way or form a threat meant for the protesters”.

Mind-bending stuff, this. There was photo doing the rounds of Brigadier Priyankara Fernando pointing a finger to the Sri Lankan flag pinned to his uniform. Whereas videos and photos of the throat-slitting went viral, this image captures more fully and accurately Sri Lanka today, three years into the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The two stripes of our flag – representing Tamils and Muslims – have always faced the Sinhala Lion’s kastane, or sword. In London, on the other side, the stripes confronted the pointed finger of Brigadier Fernando, soon after he had used it to symbolise a knife cutting the heads of Tamil protestors. And so there we have it. The first and enduring reaction to excesses by the Army is genuflection out of fear of losing votes. We have a President opposed to accountability, blocking the OMP and by extension, inimical to any meaningful reconciliation. We have members of the UNP who are no better. We have officials in our diplomatic missions whose mindless reactions are now the greatest fuel for the fund raising and propaganda efforts of the equally moronic pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora and allies. The dregs of society on both sides of the nationalist-patriotic spectrum, fuel each other’s frothing madness.

This is so sad. Men in uniform continue to, with total impunity and even abroad, act in a violent manner. We have an Army that says recorded evidence of violent, offensive behaviour by officials in a diplomatic mission does not remotely constitute anything that requires condemnation, leave aside punitive action. We have officials representing Sri Lanka who are oblivious to diplomacy, and worse, members of the military hand-picked by the government who are the worst imaginable ambassadors of our country. If Brigadier Fernando’s actions aren’t investigated, what hope is there for more robust investigations, as the President keeps promising us, into more serious allegations of violence? The response across the political spectrum and over social media in particular reveal a country very far from being reconciled with its past. It suggests that strategically, we are unable to effectively counter pro-LTTE provocations because internally and domestically, we continue to be wedded to racist, discriminatory mindsets which frame policy and fear progress. What is manifest overtly, is a rot that lies deep within. What is obvious now in London, is a cancer within the country that metastasized in 2009. What our politicians say and the public cheer on and vote in, is what holds us back and takes us into the past.

This is Sri Lanka today. A very different country to what the diplomats and foreign dignitaries talk about with high praise. Brigadier Fernando may have meant it differently, but what he did and how he was captured in London is in fact the future we face. Sri Lanka, led by the current government, is murdering its democratic potential. And voters are cheering this awful demise on, eyes wide open.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 February 2018.

Seventy Years

To belong to an island is to look outwards, understanding that the horizon is not simply a boundary between what is visible and what is invisible, what is known and unknown, but a challenge: to imagine, to yearn, to leave, to search, to return.

– Nicholas Laughlin in So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans

It took many years from the time it was requested, for it to be installed. Large, heavy and with a rotary dial, our family’s first phone was placed in my parent’s room. Before that, my sister and I walked around two hundred meters to use the only phone in our neighbourhood. It was placed in a shop that half-heartedly sold other things, almost as an excuse to to lure more people to use the phone. BBS in the 90s meant something very different to what the acronym is known for today, and I used to be a member. Later, I connected to the Internet over a modem at 28.8kbps, using Netscape.  I skipped tuition during my O/Ls to tinker with motherboards, and programme dBase III Plus. I assembled computers, and was amongst the first to try out Windows 95 when it was launched, with a pirated copy of course. There was little to no local content on the web at the time, and the web itself was new. There was no social media, and there were no smartphones. Neither had been invented. Our family bought the Island newspaper. We could only watch two State owned TV stations, and the first private TV based UHF broadcasts, only possible to be viewed with the purchase of a  new antenna, would be advertised around this time. Archchi still listened to ‘Muwanpalassa’ on AM radio. There were no FM stations, or private radio stations over any frequency. There was no broadband. I recall family visits to other homes, and reciprocally, many coming over to visit us. This occasional, an unplanned face to face interaction, was richly textured – the adults spoke at length, the children played or were utterly bored with each, and either way, didn’t dare interrupt.

This is a snapshot of the media and information landscape I grew up in, and until my first mobile phone in 2002, I inhabited. What I knew of contemporary Sri Lanka was mediated through this media. It’s all very different now. Already, the heady optimism around social media at the time of ‘Arab Spring’ has now given way to a new scepticism around whether with greater choice, comes a stronger democracy. It’s important though to locate the pace of progress of telecommunications in Sri Lanka as we reflect on seventy years of independence. In around a quarter of a century, we have gone from paper, frequency, brick and mortar based media to digital media. In any bus, while private radio blares through speakers, commuters remain glued to their screens. Our politics, as well as our appreciation of country, identity, and our place in the world, comes from a range of diverse voices, each one competing for authority, attention and peer recognition. When the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester came in 1948 to grant us independence, the televised coverage of their visit would never reach anyone in the then Ceylon for decades. Updates on Twitter on the visit of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, in 2018, generates responses in real time, many of them rightfully ridiculing the farcical genuflection of royalty we left behind in 1948. But what’s really changed?

How we see ourselves and our country are today inextricably entwined with the style, tone, substance and selection of media consumed personally, targeted individually, shared widely amongst friends, but not consumed beyond the like-minded. In our seventieth year of independence, we are, like so many countries, splintering as a society from within, our attention colonised by social media’s addictive power. Looking back, when growing up, mainstream media had this strange communal glue – all the subscribers of one newspaper, more or less thought of the world and country in the same way, allowing for disagreement to take place with the subscribers of another newspaper, face to face or through the ballot. Today we see our country differently, depending on what we have accounts on, who we choose to follow, which platforms we engage on, what media we see and for how long, what we decide to share and thereby validate amongst friends and how we choose to capture what we experience, with documenting through image now more important in many instances than savouring the place, person or experience. This is not a world my grandparents would remotely recognise.

But there is no point hand-wringing about a simpler or better past. Our media and information landscape is by way of technical architecture and original content, better than it was a quarter century ago, and a world apart from what it was just a few years ago. The democratisation of media, the affordability of access and the rich engagement over many languages – Tamil, English, Sinhala, Sin-glish, emoticons, memes, stories, stickers – renders and reveals many countries, all jostling with each other for attention – sometimes violently clashing, and most other times, existing independent of each other to serve those who subscribe. What we so desperately lack today is not freedom from the British Empire, but independence from puny imaginations – an island-mentality that first and often only sees as a threat anything and anyone from outside, and anyone different from within. We drag down, including viciously over social media, those who dare to be something better than we can be, or are contrary to how we think everyone should be. Even in digital spheres, we remain pre-modern. We continuously blame on the British what we have ourselves failed to engineer, and ignore the growing danger of social media in a country were many cannot and do not question what they consume.

But this is all known, and I do not want to end with petty pessimism, a luxury of a few who can afford to be thus. The tryst of our own democratic destiny, Nehruvian or not, is inextricably entwined the media and information we consume. We are what we choose to engage with. I look at the hate and ignorance so evident all around us, and despair at how such a verdant island can be infected with such small-minded people. But every time I think this, I also recognise the value and potential of media today to open hearts and minds. To emancipate. To nourish and in our country, create active citizenship. To embrace as Nicholas Laughlin notes, the potential of being a country greater than we are, and what we think we can be.

Our independence isn’t at Galle Face. It is on this page, and if online, in every thumb or key-press. In choosing to engage, share, like, comment or forward, we promote a vision of our country in our own mould. That mould needs to be re-cast. We have independent from a coloniser, but we remain colonised in our outlook. That’s on us, not the British. We may today engage with seventy years of independence digitally, but do so with a socio-political mentality that pre-dates even 1948. Unless we can address this anachronism of self-perception and imagination, we will continue as a country to be cosmetically modern, but catastrophically colonised by our own demons.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 4 February 2018.

New agents of democratic decay

This column is based on a path-breaking investigative article authored by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and I, published on Groundviews. See Namal Rajapaksa, bots and trolls: New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka

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There is a certain cadence and poetry to all sustained online interaction. Whatever the timbre and tenor of the exchange and whatever the platform – email, instant messaging, tweets, tags or comments – individuals online or social media accounts orbit around or at the centre of conversations that ebb and flow based on content. If you publish something online, many will respond. Those responses generate other responses, and sometimes, in platforms entirely distinct from the original location the content was featured on, or uploaded to. The author may choose to respond in return, creating another ripple effect. And so on. Mediums may change, and the mode of expression. But when in control of a platform or account, over time, you get to know what kinds of content generate what types of responses, and indeed, from which quarters. Those who read this column in print and are not on social media may find all this quite strange. Though hard to explain to someone not familiar with how social media works, online conversations very closely mirror real world group interactions – friends have their own linguistic shortcuts to access shared memories and experiences, close friends have nicknames for each other, what’s acceptable within a family isn’t the same with those outside it, strangers take some time to be embraced by a group and learn its social dynamics, some in the group respond more than others based on topic and context, others like to engage no matter what the issue, some listen more than they speak, others speak before comprehension, some are loud, others quiet, some prefer public disagreement, others choose to take you to a side and say how they feel.

I manage a web platform in Sri Lanka known to host controversial content, that bears witness to vital issues in the public interest. As a result, the platform is a lightning rod for the pushback authors get for what they opine online. In addition, the platform itself produces its own content and actively engages over social media – to a degree by order of magnitude greater than any other mainstream media in the country – around socio-political, economic and rights-based issues, undergirding our democratic fabric. This is often a thankless task. The bitter invective against authors and the platform, over eleven years, has taken different expressive forms. Late last year, something very different started to happen. Like group dynamics in real life, when a stranger says something in what is a known conversational space, that voice stands out as new – whatever they say, and however they express themselves. Several voices started to direct bitter invective over Twitter to content the platform featured, and also opinion against the former government in general, and Namal Rajapaksa in particular.

This new diatribe riddled discursive context resulted in a concerted exploration as to who these new voices were, not because of what they were saying – the platform has endured far worse in very violent times – but because from over a decade of daily online interaction from morning to night, there appeared to be something not quite right with these accounts. Looking closely, they were all publishing content that highlighted exhaustively and almost exclusively content first published, or promoted by Namal Rajapaksa. Anyone who questioned him or his family, were attacked. The accounts all followed almost the same group of popular news outlets, cricketers and film stars, randomly retweeting generic content, but swarming in on accounts that were critical of the former regime. The accounts were under Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala names, suggesting, on the face of it, ethnic diversity. Closer examination proved that all the accounts, their profile images to the names under which they were registered, were fake. This was a troll army – a group of individuals, each in control of one or many social media accounts, who act in a coordinated fashion to amplify specific content. A troll army serves to give the impression that an individual, institution, political party or ideology has wide recognition, engagement and appeal. It also serves to drown out critical commentary and content. Together, this dual-role of being censorious by drowning out, and a bully by crowding out dissident or critical voices serves to, over time and often invisibly, skew public debate online and directly impacts perceptions, which often go on to influence real world decisions, such as the exercise of franchise, the support of government, the acceptance of an idea or the outcome of a referendum.

But the issue was that Namal Rajapaksa could plausibly deny he had anything to do with this troll army, and there was no way to prove otherwise, without access to all of his communications, over many years. But since this phenomenon was so new, attention was then drawn to Namal Rajapaksa’s own Twitter account. Wimal Weerawamsa in 2014 was roundly ridiculed when most of his followers on Facebook, numbering in the thousands, were discovered to be located in Turkey. Clearly, he had purchased these followers, in order to make it appear he was more popular than he really was, and to date, is. Namal Rajapaksa’s Twitter account demonstrated similar characteristics, where over 2017 in particular, an astronomic growth in the number of followers didn’t correspond with or correlate to anything in his personal or public life and appearances in the media. In other words, the growth wasn’t organic. It was engineered. Having downloaded the entire public archive of Namal Rajapaksa’s Twitter account from its inception, I invited friend and critically acclaimed author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne to help out with the data analysis. Yudhanjaya is particularly skilled at this, and deals with on a daily basis the analysis of extremely large datasets in order to discern trends and patterns. What we discovered was a highly predictable daily increase of followers on Namal Rajapaksa’s account, technically called bots. Whereas a troll is human, a bot is an automated agent that looks like a human-created account, but is in fact an algorithmic creation. A bot can be controlled, or be programmed in a such a way that once it detects certain phrases, activity in certain accounts, detects certain hashtags (descriptive words used on social media, prefaced by the pound or hash sign), or identifies certain names, it either alerts someone, goes and publishes material that seeks to decry and debunk critical commentary, attacks the author, spams the account or platform with content coming from a thousand different sources simultaneously or amplifies, a hundred thousand times, content that is partisan. Not unlike a troll army, the net effect is to drown out inconvenient truths, and shape public discourse. One key difference is one of scale. A botnet, as a collection of bots is called, can number in the hundreds of thousands, whereas it is difficult to sustain a human-powered troll army of that magnitude. Together, a troll army and botnet can effectively wipe out entire narratives, if they choose to do so. More perniciously and strategically, especially over a longer period of time, bots can reshape public perception to fit the agenda of those who command these new agents of democratic decay.

Even if you’ve never engaged on social media, opened a Twitter or Facebook account and have no desire to do so either, this matters to you, and all of us, for at least two key reasons – both evidence based and data driven. In a public poll conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives late-2015, and published in early 2016, the footprint of content published in social media was found to be much larger than those who directly consumed it. This was because once seen online, and engaged with digitally, many said they went on to tell family, friends and colleagues – who weren’t online or connected to social media – the substance of what they had seen and responded to. This suggests online content, through a relatively young, political active demographic almost umbilically connected to it today, can influence the opinions of those who aren’t on social media. The numbers in Sri Lanka suggest those between 18 to 34, most active on social media, are around 15% of the total eligible number of voters. Secondly, the experience with key elections and referendums US, UK, France, Germany, Colombia and other countries suggests that the weaponisation of social media is a real threat. The integrity of electoral processes and the very fabric of democracy is at risk through vectors few in Sri Lanka’s government and civil society can even begin to understand.

We now have in Sri Lanka incontrovertible evidence around significant investments into how social media has already been leveraged to amplify a voice, attack those who criticise it in public, drown out inconvenient narratives and at the time of writing, have hundreds of thousands of bots on tap to use as the account holder sees fit. This sounds like science fiction. It is not. It is real. It is here. It is now a part of our public discourse. The implications to private, public and political life need to be openly discussed. The sooner, the better.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 28 January 2018.

A diluted President

Never a sober week in Sri Lanka.

With a coalition government now at the level of the PM having to instruct his party to not publicly attack the President, the prognosis for political cohabitation is bleak. A shared interest in keeping the old regime out of power will continue to animate how the President and PM interact. How this interest translates into political machinations is up for contestation. The President – used to cold calculations and indeed, betrayal, is unsure of his role and relevance beyond 2020 especially after a slap in the face from the Supreme Court. He will use his charisma and political acumen to secure for himself and those close to him deals, including by overtures in private to the old regime, that will ensure, at the basic minimum, security, safety and some creature comforts in office beyond his present term in office. The PM’s approach of playing everyone against each other will contest these deals, and may even occasionally complement them, if it involves a configuration beneficial for his and the UNP’s interest in retaining a controlling hand in the country’s political future. In all this, what’s certain is that the old regime will continue to publicly decry and privately engage with anyone from government who in their opinion – and these calculations are always in flux – can secure the best possible path for one of theirs to come into power, and for persecutions to be kept at bay.

All this doesn’t take genius to figure out – it is playing right in front of us. Particularly disheartening is that at the height of optimism in early 2015 – no matter with what cynicism and derision one can look back at that time now – the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination was seen as the best possible chance for a new country. One that left behind the politics of self-aggrandisement, the cult of personality, corruption, wanton waste, violence, apathy and nepotism. The vote in January and again in August over 2015 was not a vote for those now in government as much as it was a vote against what was a culture, polity and society many wanted to move away from, and see real change around. The pace of reform given the complexity of government would always and by far respectively take longer and be more difficult than at first imagined. This was a problem, but the bigger one was that the government hasn’t since being elected to office connected with those who elected them as to why what was promised hasn’t happened, and why promises made repeatedly on a number of issues, just haven’t been kept.

Last week witnessed a lot of debate around a gazette that allowed women the same rights as men. Many sought to justify or decry the gazette on the basis of statistics around how many women in Sri Lanka consumed alcohol and whether there was any discernible increase in this consumption in recent years. That’s missing the point. A constitutional right around equality is precisely that. It isn’t pegged to any statistical determinant around its validity or application. If it was somehow proven to be the case that only a single woman in the country consumed alcohol, and wanted to purchase it, the law needs to be such that she is able to do so, without harm, hate or hindrance. The best way men can use their political office to ensure the rights of and as some would paternalistically argue, the protection of women, is to allow women to take control of their own lives, and with as much fallibility as grown, adult men, take their own decisions around their lives, bodies, health and future.

But I digress. In all this, what is of relevance to this column is the behaviour of the President. His public stature in 2015 was one of selflessness, courage and indeed, greatness – a man who on the evening of 9th January 2015 when taking oaths as President, we were hoarse cheering on, all the while expecting to be killed by a loyalist from the old regime. In one of his first addresses to the country, he thanked, indirectly, those who had voted for the first time and the role of social media, in being elected to office. Here was a man a lot of us didn’t openly campaign for, but wanted in office, because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.

That man, that promise, that optimism is gone. Kaput. Looking back, it is unclear whether that man ever really existed, or was instead a projection of our own desperation pegged to an individual who till then, to be either loved or reviled, wasn’t known for anything significant. And that’s precisely why he was a prime candidate to contest Mahinda Rajapaksa – Sirisena didn’t display at the time a vaulting ambition to seek or retain the kind of absolute power he was elected into. That is no longer the case. Power has made the President into a very small man. Antics in Cabinet – purported nature calls aside – suggest a petulant, prissy child, reminding us of an old joke where after much crying and whining, an individual who refuses to go to school is reminded by his mother that he must in fact go, because he is an adult and in fact the Principal. We now have a President who is feverishly shaping a new currency as the saviour of all that is good and great about a languid, but if provoked, violently assertive Sinhala Buddhist conservatism in politics and social outlook.

Therein lies the rub.

It’s not about the gazette around giving women the freedom to purchase alcohol. It is not about the commission on the bond issue. It is not about the other commissions the President will appoint in the future, the drama in Cabinet meetings, or the perorations in public meetings. President Sirisena’s vision has contracted, even as his power increased. It is a common ailment, where one’s legacy sought to be secured through family succession and political entrenchment. The President’s early interest in women’s undergarments and now their ability to buy alcohol, seeks to gloss over the fact that he is now a common liar to so many women in the North, who are still waiting for news of those who disappeared he promised he would secure but never has. The President’s tiresome preaching in public about anti-corruption doesn’t take into account that Lanka E News remains blocked in Sri Lanka for running very serious allegations around his own complicity in dubious contracts to procure a Russian warship. Ironically, confirmation around the greatest validation of concerns expressed on a website not even remotely known for its professional journalism was in the actions of those close to the President to block it, and the total silence from the Presidential Secretariat around unconstitutional, extra-judicial actions. We have now a President who cannot countenance public criticism, and has to hide behind ludicrous assertions of the Cabinet Spokesperson. We have a President who isn’t Presidential anymore. Or more accurately, a President who is increasingly motivated to remain as such, and deviously anchor, even project, what is a personal thirst for power in various pious submissions that it is in fact the public who want to keep him in office.

This is a problem. The President has become a populist. He is now a common, small man, far removed from the elder statesman figure of 2015. He is now just another politician, with the usual trappings. The more the banal bluster, the more he secures his position as an impediment and anti-thesis to all he represented, stood for and commanded on the steps of Independence Square on 9th January 2015.

And that is our loss, more than it will ever be his.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 21 January 2018.

Discrimination in 2018

It’s the little things that matter the most.

Google in Sri Lanka now defaults to Sinhala. Whenever you access a Google Form, the interface by default is in Sinhala. Whenever you use Google Maps, road, place and now even names of famous buildings, are rendered in Sinhala. Search for Chunnakam, close to Jaffna, and Google Maps translates the place name, in Sinhala, to ‘Hunugama’ – wrong on so many levels. There is no Tamil place marker either. Jaffna gets a Sinhala label as ‘Yapanaya’, but no Tamil place name, whereas Nallur, just a stone’s throw away, does feature a Tamil place name. Enter a destination – even in Colombo – on to Google Maps. See the driving instructions to get there. From where I live to get to a location in Colombo, for example, the instructions are often a bizarre mix of English and Sinhala – one road I am asked to go on is in English, and the instruction to turn to another is rendered completely in Sinhala. Users on social media who aren’t fluent in reading Sinhala script have expressed their frustration as to why this is the case, with no option to change language.

There appears to be no discernible reason or pattern behind what is a systemic discrimination across Google apps, services and platforms to give primacy to Sinhala, and with no option for the end user to switch to English or Tamil. And it’s not that Google is unable to accurately render Tamil and non-English scripts – just across the Palk Strait, in Tamil Nadu, all place names are in English and Tamil. Just North of this, in Bengaluru, the place names are in English and Kannada. Further up, in Hyderabad, it’s in English and Telegu and above that, in English and Hindi. Someone at Google in India has taken the time and effort to render information in the language spoken the most in a region, as well as English. In Sri Lanka on the other hand, the language on Google Maps now defaults to only Sinhala and English across the island, with comparably just a few locations in the North and East available in Tamil.

But it’s not just Google. As a Microsoft user, whenever a code is requested via my mobile to access one its key services – called two-factor authentication – the accompanying instructions sent with the code over SMS is delivered exclusively in Sinhala, not even in English.

It goes to prove that Google and Microsoft in Sri Lanka are engaged in systemic and sustained discrimination against Tamils and the Tamil language in Sri Lanka, across a range of their key products and services. That there isn’t really any pushback against or greater awareness around this suggests the normalisation of language and ethnic discrimination in Sri Lanka –prejudice is so ingrained, it is invisible, accepted and excused as a minor inconvenience, since the majority are just fine with the way things are.

The problem is compounded when government itself, in 2018, promotes Sinhala only. A case in point – a new website by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) set up for the local government elections, called ‘Nidahas Yugayak’. The website was ceremoniously launched by President Sirisena last week in a ceremony to open a ‘Free Media Centre’, which in the official news report is flagged as the propaganda arm of the party. A revealing conflation between free media and propaganda exposes the underlying, deeply problematic mentality of government. But I digress. The first paragraph on the home page of the new website notes that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951 was started by Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim individuals as a party that treated everyone with respect and did not discriminate against race. The new UPFA website is the official campaign platform for local government elections that will be held across the country this year. The website is exclusively in Sinhala. There is not a single word or section on it in English or Tamil. All featured videos are in Sinhala. All the related social media accounts are in Sinhala. All the President’s speeches are in Sinhala.

Lest we forget, we have a government with numerous even competing line ministries, agencies and departments that deal in national integration and reconciliation. Late last year, Cabinet approval was granted to put up a television studio in the Northern Province to host a television channel to promote reconciliation. The President himself has repeatedly come out in favour of reconciliation in local and international fora. All this makes it much more outrageous that what the President and government says and promises is so far removed from what it actually does and really is.

But where is the outrage? Social media is largely silent about the discrimination against the Tamil language and Tamil peoples by Google and Microsoft. The Southern electorate, to whom all of Sri Lanka is, in the main, a geographic and imagined projection of what the South is for them, don’t even recognise the violence of a Sinhala-only website. Post-war ethnic and language discrimination is thriving, present at the highest levels of government and even in the corporate domain, so often projected and celebrated as being the engine of growth of a more equitable, prosperous and just future.

Where do you start to flag and fight this?

By naming and shaming. Google and Microsoft need to do better. Companies that have clear public policies against discrimination are enacting Sinhala-only policies across a range of key products and services. This needs to be condemned, ceased and corrected. President Sirisena and his party should be hounded by journalists as to why in 2018 they see fit to have a website and all of its content only in Sinhala. The heinous legacy of 1956 mustn’t be countenanced in 2018. To fight against it, language and ethnic discrimination needs to be rendered visible and arguably in a manner that is focussed on and raises the empathy of those in the South around those who cannot read, speak or understand Sinhala. From bad weather alerts and emergency evacuation warnings to vital announcements in government offices, from officials at immigration and emigration counters to invitations and cards sent out by government ministries, from the language of the courts to what the Police use when taking down a statement, the Sinhala-only policy that prevails in practice is a daily, stark reminder of how far post-war Sri Lanka has to go to even begin to address, leave aside completely erase, ethno-lingual discrimination.

Instead of promoting the worst practices, Google and Microsoft should be at the forefront of what can and should be done to address discrimination, with the vast technologies they command used as Rosetta Stones for seamless language translation and transition. But above all, our leading politicians should walk the talk. A Sinhala-only UPFA website that literally celebrates a President who is made out to be a ‘conservative, wholesome, true, agrarian Sinhala Buddhist’ suggests the maddeningly parochial, insular, majoritarian mind-set that got us into a 30-year-old war is still alive. That’s disturbing, if the keys to our democratic potential lie not with racial superiority, but with equality and non-discrimination.

New beginnings, old challenges

As the credit and bank statements roll in, come January, the revelry of late December gives way to sober reflection and serious resolutions. This extends to politics. The final reports, handed over to the President, by commissions appointed to look into Central Bank bonds and corruption garnered, rightfully, the most media and public attention last week. The reports are not yet in the public domain, but the President made a hard-hitting and widely-reported statement based on their findings. At the same time, a Facebook post that went viral on social media identified the current President himself, and not Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the person who brought or wanted back in mainstream politics, nominated, promoted or officially rewarded a terrible array of brutes, underworld kingpins, drug dealers and murderers. They are all named. Given the seriousness of the allegations, the incumbent President – perennially preachy in nature – ought to have made a statement on this as well. To date, however, silence.

To have entrenched within official systems and voted into power, those responsible for its flagrant abuse, has many attendant problems, including obviously significant challenges around meaningful, sustainable political reform, justice and accountability domestically, no matter what is promised in international fora. We focus feverishly around individuals and individual cases of corruption. The mainstream media, primarily because of the partisan bias of owners and fearful of losing out on advertising revenue, doesn’t contextualise or analyse what is a culture of nepotism, corruption and violence that extends deep into the leadership of the current government. The result is a lot of reporting around a small number of cases, sporadically, with the illusion, rather compelling, that attention results in action. Particularly given the electoral tests over 2018, starting in February, the two commission reports, not unlike the many, equally if not more damning COPE reports previously, will be the subject of campaign propaganda and weaponised to suit parochial agendas. Any meaningful prosecution based on judicial review and due process will be kept at bay, because those named and implicated in these recent reports are vital nodes in the fluid equations that project and predict partisan electoral advantage. This is, in effect, a re-run of a familiar, tired script, albeit in the new cinema of yahapalanaya.

If everything imaginable counter to democracy is a hallmark of our mainstream politics and its consociational foundations, holding it at bay at best is arguably only possible with those who are corrupt, or violent, to a degree acceptable to the majority in the South. The litmus test on the 10th of February will be around this acceptability, and to what degree the UNP and SLFP, together and individually, will be held accountable for what they promised. The choice here for us is, put bluntly or simply, whether we are partial to those currently in power who have delivered little of what was promised but are generally tolerant of and supportive of democracy, or a return to favour of those who were in power previously, and the more effective, efficient delivery of promises based on foundations of violence many in fact were fine with, in the South, as long as visible markers of development were present, the cost of living managed and they somehow benefitted. Democracy in Sri Lanka is a contest of perception. It is less about the actual exercise of constitutional rule. The current government suffers from a congenital inability to communicate coherently. This is not something the worst elements of the previous government suffer from. With a President now more interested in his physical security and political survival post-2020, the centrifugal interests that gathered everyone together late 2014 in a thirst to gain power has given way to the centripetal tendencies of coalition politics and a quest to retain power. And while political theorists will mull over the electoral implications of all this, the 700,000 first time voters in February, coupled with millions of others between 18 to 34 who are young, ambitious and really fed up with politics as it is, are those that propaganda, rumour and misinformation will target the most in ways that are publicly visible as well as individually targeted. Either through the ballot or by staying away from it in apathy, both of which are electoral strategies, the political map of Sri Lanka over 2018 will be redrawn in ways that, because we haven’t studied more robustly the impact and reach of social media, many will be surprised by.

This is not all doom and gloom. The telos of electoral uncertainty over 2018 is often and only projected as a return to power by elements voted out in January 2015. The problem with this argument is outlined above – individuals who embody the violence and corruption of the previous regime, if not the very architects of it, are already in government – many with the support of no less than the President. So yahapalanaya is more about keeping in check, to the extent possible, the worst tendencies and excesses of politicians, their family members and apparatchiks, instead of the heady rhetoric of systemic reform it initially promised. Better those in government are honest about this and admit to how hard reform really is when in power – it may actually win them more votes.

The greater danger than a return of, simplistically put, the Rajapaksa regime, is the real and perceived erosion of public support around constitutional reform and accountability, not necessarily in that order. Those partial to the status quo don’t need Gotabaya Rajapaksa to come back into power to derail efforts to bring about a new constitution, so urgently needed, or efforts to keep alive what may well be multi-generational process to hold those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable for their actions. The old regime as well as individuals in the present government just need to seed doubt, anxiety and fear – relatively easily engineered with saffron robe donned brutes on demand, protests that turn violent and online hate – to keep meaningful reform at bay and give those at the helm of government an excuse to pause, and even falsely project an essential timidity as a government sensitive to the wishes of the electorate.

Asked if he is optimistic, the Leader of the Opposition, in an interview published in The Hindu newspaper last week, said he isn’t pessimistic. The captures so well, in what is said and left unsaid, Sri Lanka’s tryst with democratic reform over 2018 and beyond. At risk of insulting Mr. Sampanthan, our elder statesman, one wish for the new year could be to live a life as long and richly textured as he has, and yet not be witness to as many broken promises. We all know what needs to be done and without delay. One risks disappointment to hope that the new year brings with it better angels to secure a democratic, prosperous and just future for us all, across the political and social spectrum.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 7 January 2018.