A long watch

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

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

Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as told to Sunila Galappatti

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 22 May 2016

The failure of Panama Papers

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 15 May 2016

Kabul to Colombo

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

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

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

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

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

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 8 May 2016

The new, old gatekeepers

Two stories cropped up in the last week that merited disquiet, albeit in different ways. One local, the other international and both to do with the way we frame and consume news. The local story was a news report on a press briefing called by President Maithripala Sirisena for the heads and owners of leading mainstream media, print and electronic. The nature of the news report, in a leading daily English newspaper, basically reported on what the President had told the participants. There was no context. There was no framing. Based on the news report, not a single question was posed to the President to contest or backup, with credible evidence, the claims made openly. What he said, which in this case appeared to be a tirade against the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was basically reported unchallenged and almost verbatim.

On some social media fora on the web, I juxtaposed reportage of this engagement with the media with another from 2013, under the auspices of the then President. From the accompanying official photo to the tone of the reportage, the similarities are positively disturbing. Here too, the same newspaper reported completely unchallenged what the President and key ministers present at the briefing told the heads of mainstream media, around the time CHOGM was being planned in Sri Lanka. The hesitation to question openly, which at the time could have been put down to outright fear, is no excuse today, and yet, the same free pass is given to those in authority to deliver their version of reality without being challenged. A culture of supine genuflection in the face of power continues to largely define how media engages with those in authority. Reciprocally, those in authority continue to treat the mainstream media as vehicles of partisan propaganda, giving free press to subjective opinion, claims without any evidence, conspiracies without any basis in fact, plans without blueprints, accusations without substantiation and a parochial, party political agenda passing off as the national interest. Operating together, consumers are robbed of any opportunity to hold those in power accountable and over time, expect the media to just report on what happened, instead of asking why. A public that doesn’t expect answers to hard questions, and a media that isn’t interested in and doesn’t know how to ask them is an autocrat’s dream, whether they adorn a red satakaya or not.

The other story was around Facebook, and it’s earnings in the first quarter of 2016 alone. From the last quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of this year, Facebook added about the size of Sri Lanka’s population to its daily user base in the Asia-Pacific region alone. Globally, the platform’s monthly user base is now 1.65 billion, which for comparison is around 300 million more than China’s population. In 2013, Sri Lanka’s GDP was around 67 billion US dollars. In the first quarter of this year alone, Facebook’s revenue exceed 5 billion US dollars. The numbers are mind-boggling, but what’s more pertinent here is what the users do on Facebook. In addition to its main social media platform, Facebook as a company owns WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. Independent of each other, all of these almost ubiquitous apps and platforms have a user base at least in the hundreds of millions. All are growing apace. Facebook revealed that people around the world spend on average more than 50 minutes a day using Facebook, Instagram and Messenger alone. That’s indubitably far longer than any mainstream media consumer would spend engaging with content over terrestrial broadcast and print, perhaps combined. Current academic research suggests a decline in original content users are producing to share on Facebook, and an increase in sharing content (especially links and video) produced by others – big name media companies as well as entirely new purveyors of entertainment, specialising in niche productions and issues. Coupled with the almost totally opaque underlying algorithms that Facebook uses to channel content on to our newsfeeds, Facebook today is not just any other social media platform. It is the world’s (arguably) monopoly for news and information for hundreds of millions of people. It decides what is and what isn’t important to be consumed. This is why news media is clamouring to use the increasing range of tools Facebook provides to publish content – from live video streaming to articles that load instantaneously on smartphones. No longer is a blog, website, newspaper, TV or radio channel enough to reach the masses – if you’re not accessible on Facebook, or create content that is easily discoverable on or shared by it, you’re not reaching crucial audiences, irrespective of the newsworthiness of the content. This matters a lot. If we are often frustrated by what our own media owners and Editors hide from us, we should in theory be far more concerned about the unprecedented power of a single company, which isn’t even remotely bound to uphold media ethics and standards, that across so many continents today directly shapes how we see, read about and engage with local and global affairs.

Social media’s great promise was that in the aggregate, diverse opinions and viewpoints from consumers would contest the news agenda set by a select few. Coupled with the incredible proliferation of smartphones, it offered perspectives from places, people and processes mainstream media erased or ignored. So much in the mainstream media is engineered to appeal to as many as possible. Social media’s overt power is around how it can focus on an issue or process, no matter to how few it appealed to. Much of this promise and potential is founded on a usually uncontested assumption – that the average media consumer is really interested in learning more about the world they live in, and the majority of media producers in turn are interested in bearing witness to inconvenient truths. That may well be untrue.

In Sri Lanka what we see is a mainstream media that is by default deeply hesitant and unwilling to contest those in power. This is an ingrained culture, independent of the kind of political authority that governs the country. Globally, the concert of platforms and apps a single company controls determines, more than any other time in history, how billions perceive the world, their leaders, countries, communities and neighbours. The world is at the same time smaller, and more distant. We are a click away from empathy, yet a world away from questioning and insightful critique. We are at the same time sceptical of everything, yet believe much of what comes through our newsfeeds. Technology, ironically, has made political authority and media work more harmoniously to keep the news that matters the most away from us. We see more. We know less. We like more. But care less.

It’s an autocrat’s dream. And we are all co-architects of it.

##

First published in The Sunday Island, 1 May 2016.

Favouritism 2.0

The email, automatically generated by the professional social media network LinkedIn, asked me to congratulate a friend on a new position. Normally, I would have. On this occasion, though I chose to ignore LinkedIn’s recommended action, I couldn’t ignore the nature of the position or the context in which it was offered, and clearly, accepted. To fully understand what is inexcusably wrong with governance today, one needs to recall the not so distant past and those who flagged the favouritism and nepotism that ingloriously defined, the Rajapaksa regime. Let’s call what we see today Favouritism 2.0. What are some of its defining characteristics?

One, it is the new normal. Excused, cast aside, justified as necessary, compared to the past and perceived as much better, seen as a necessary evil or the inevitable inconvenience of coalition rule. What was heinous in the past, is silently countenanced today. The abandonment of principled opposition to favouritism runs parallel with the general disinterest in holding those in government accountable to the high standards, and highfalutin rhetoric, sold to the public in the lead up to the Presidential Election, as well as the General Election, last year. In essence, even though the government and the structure of governance we have today falls far short of what was promised – judged not by World Bank, IMF, Western, US-centric or NGO driven metrics, but by what the President, the Prime Minister and those in government themselves have said in public – the refrain is to compare and contrast with the recent past, and be content with the present.

Two, Favouritism 2.0 has a ready constituency. To understand this, one needs to understand the political culture of Sri Lanka. When in power, one takes all. When out of power, one has access to nothing. Power – i.e. State resources, public sector employment, transfers, advisory posts, ministerial powers, access and the power to deny access – is sought to advance largely partisan and parochial goals masked as somehow beneficial to a larger group. Those in power, seek to retain it through fear. Those out of power, perennially conspire to regain it, through favour. Once in power, past favours become a powerful currency – those who bankrolled a campaign or party, those who own influential media, those with the backing of industrialists, influential with certain sections of the diaspora, able to withstand predatory moves by the opposition to buy out allegiance for example find their perceived value to be much higher, by those in leadership positions, than those with the actual experience and talent to get things done in the national interest. This is precisely what we witnessed under the Rajapaksas. It is happening yet again, albeit with one significant difference. Since the baseline was so outrageously bad, and set by a regime abhorred by so many, the same culture that endures is largely excused and indeed accepted, noting that institutional change takes time. There is also the argument of sequencing – that it is more important now to push through the new constitution, and indeed, meaningful mechanisms to entrench transitional justice and reconciliation – than be caught up in principled opposition to appointments, transfers and promotions that are thinly disguised rewards for partisan loyalty.

Three, and perhaps the hardest of all, Favouritism 2.0 involves close friends and erstwhile colleagues. It was, in hindsight, easy to criticise the Rajapaksa regime – towards the end of 2014 in particular, they were increasingly a parody of themselves. It is much harder, for those in civil society today, who suffered the brunt of violence under the Rajapaksa, to be critical of colleagues and friends in government and the various constellations of structures in support of reconciliation, accountability, justice and reform. There are foreign trips no for no good reason. There are consultations, to plan for consultations – and the planning takes more time and effort than the actual consulting part. There is a crisis of imagination – many bemoan what can’t be done for a plethora of reasons, all valid no doubt, but few address what can and should be done, even with limited resources and manoeuvrability. Institutional memory has gone with regime change, and new entrants have an agenda with little consideration for what was done in the past. Not all of what the Rajapaksas did and stood for was heinous or completely wrong. And yet, the political maturity and confidence to discern what can and cannot, from the past, be strengthened is hostage to partisan imperatives to completely erase the past and start everything anew. Ironical, considering the imperatives of transitional justice championed by the government itself. Some in charge today are those we have in past years met socially and exchanged strategies to build resilience. They are journalists who opposed nepotism. They are activists who opposed corruption. They are individuals who abhorred kleptocracy and championed transparency, accountability and principled politics. What was a small yet vocal minority then, is now scattered – and many now in positions of authority within government. While there is great merit to an argument that suggests these individuals are vital to institutional change from within, it is nevertheless problematic when they mirror what in the past would have been immediately framed and condemned as wrong. Perhaps it’s just me, looking in from the outside, unable to come to terms with, or comprehend, the maddening bureaucracy and the realities of working for government.

Favouritism 2.0 is seen as somehow more benign. In contrast to what we endured in the past, the same culture encouraged today is justified by sometimes flagging the nature and credentials of the individuals who go on to accept, without any real merit, positions of authority. She or he is one of us (‘ape minissu’), and this makes it ok. Those who submit this argument tend to forget that it was the same one offered by the Rajapaksas. The nature of an individual or group doesn’t erase the violence of favouritism and nepotism. A nicer demeanour or person unjustly placed in a position of authority makes for a good poster, yet continues the same evisceration of institutions that the Rajapaksas almost perfected. A friend in a position of power now means a favour or appointment is a call, email or instant message away. And yet, to indulge in such acts is to erase the distinction between yahapalanaya’s ideals, and the Rajapaksa’s sordid legacy. Clearly, perhaps with the best of intentions, individuals who should know better are accepting positions they are not entitled to hold, or see no harm in occupying. The new fiction is that, collectively, those in government today are of a calibre distinct from the past, and that even if the institutional nepotism and favouritism continues, it is not to the detriment of the country. This is a spurious argument.

Ironically perhaps, the hardest thing under yahapalanaya will be, at the risk of losing close friendships, to stand up to what continues to be so wrong. It was hard, for different reasons, under the Rajapaksas to call out nepotism and favouritism. It is no less vital today.

###

First published in The Sunday Island,  24 April 2016

Openly hidden

I teach social media verification, and recalled during a class I am teaching this week some of the content that came my way in the first half of 2009. The media landscape in general, and social media in particular, wasn’t then what it is now. Self-censorship was the norm, and high. Mainstream media, out of fear of violence or forcibly through the strict control of advertising revenue, accepted and published the government’s propaganda without question. Social media was still a novelty – Facebook and Twitter seven years ago weren’t platforms known or used to the extent they are today. Flickr and YouTube were used for photos and videos respectively, and were the primary platforms to feature various accounts from Nandikadal and elsewhere were the war was reaching its bloody end, including from ostensibly first-person perspectives. I remember clearly one Flickr account, belonging to an organisation connected to the LTTE based in the United Kingdom, which published photos that claimed to be from 2009, but were in fact taken previously, during what was also a mass exodus due to heightened violence. The scenes were gut-wrenching – destitute women and children who were walking skeletons, macabre injuries and the hardest of all, awful wounds on children and infants. As any indication of hostilities in the early part of 2009 though, they were not just useless – they were also entirely misleading and often deliberately so. While the LTTE and its international proxies put out (by 2009’s standards) a tsunami of video and photographic updates, the Sri Lankan government relied on its near total control of mainstream media and a few embedded journalists reporting the Army’s script. Whereas the Army and government were interested in a domestic media consumer, the LTTE’s media was clearly aimed at the international community and sections of the diaspora. Much of this content published in the public domain is now almost impossible to find, but clearly, helped corner the Sri Lankan government soon after May 9th2009, by downplaying or literally erasing the LTTE’s own atrocities and highlighting shelling and bombing by the Army. Reciprocally, by attempting to control the narrative through its own brutish censorship, the government ultimately lost control of it entirely and the plot to boot. The Army’s own propaganda – often hilariously badly produced – served only to increase scepticism. Each side became a parody of the other.

If anything, the media landscape has over the past seven years become even more complex. What was once published in the public domain, is now distributed over Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, popular instant messaging apps for smartphones and tablets. This makes it close to impossible to monitor the production and dissemination of content that may in fact be entirely false and designed only to inflame tensions. Hate speech resides openly in Sinhala on Facebook, mocking attempts by Facebook itself to address the growth of content that violently targets individuals and communities. The grand strategy of elections now embraces social media as vectors to influence hearts and emotions, minds be damned. Policies no longer play any discernibly important role in elections, as we are guided more by what we feel about a candidate or party.

Media shapes what we feel by framing what we hear, see or read. What’s different from seven years ago is that today’s propaganda is ephemeral (in say the case of Snapchat, an app that deletes content after a certain time), hidden in the open (in the case of mobile chat apps) and is quickly spread over a dizzying spectrum of media (animated images over Twitter called GIFs, short video clips, compelling infographics, immersive maps, and increasingly, interactive 3D content).

In light of these developments, I am often asked the question as to whether another Nandikadal could occur today, or years into the future, given the ubiquity of eye-witness technology. My response is to observe Syria – possibly one of, if not the most recorded violent conflict over social media. We have thousands of hours of video, possibly millions of photographs, tweets, Facebook posts, articles on the web. And yet, the violence continues. Clearly then, social media’s ubiquity is no guarantee against war. This is partly because of social media’s very success. Cricket. Entertainment. Inspirational quotes. Coffee and food. Holiday destinations. Dogs and pets. Outfits. Families and selfies. This is usually my newsfeed on desktop and mobile. Increasing choice has led to increased isolation, and our awareness of and engagement with the world is now largely determined by a new, transnational, unaccountable yet extremely powerful censor – the algorithms that govern social media timelines. What we like and share, in turn determines what we see and know. If we don’t know what to ask, or haven’t the curiosity (and courage) to go where we are uncomfortable, what we see and understand as the world is largely determined by what we believe in, and our own socio-economic circumstances.

What this splintering has done is to make it almost impossible for government to truly control a narrative. Attempting to really control media production around an offensive similar to Nandikadal today would be to face with challenges that didn’t exist in 2009 – from cinematic quality cameras on drones to devices like the Narrative Camera which take photos continuously in very high resolution of whatever it is facing, and can subsequently be uploaded online, indexed by location or date and time. All this is ripe for the worst sort of propaganda as well – just look at ISIL and their slick, well produced recruitment videos. And there is also the matter of algorithmic news selection. Today’s censors are in fact far more powerful than the Rajapaksa’s ever were, and their greatest success lies in how they are perceived, at best, or being benign agents of content delivery, or occasionally, regime change. This is Facebook. This is Twitter. This is Google. Readers of this newspaper may come from a demographic that sees these platforms as purely the domain of their children or grand-children, and yet, their influence radiates far beyond those that just use them on a daily basis. Anger or alienate, somehow, any one or more of these giants, and you will cease to exist even though you may have a web address that is public, a story worth telling and content worth sharing.

Social media verification for me, from 2009, was guided by a yearning to go to the heart of a story, by either verifying as true content presented to me, or by proving it false. But it’s not about technology really. I believe media – civic, social, electronic and print – should shape how we engage with what matters the most to our present and future, instead of just pandering only to what sells, generates the most likes, retweets or views. A disturbing paradox of vastly increased choice and incredibly diminished media literacy defines our social media age. I am struggling to teach how best to overcome what surely will be a landscape where wars do happen, just not with our knowledge – or interest. There is no guarantee of success.

###

First published in The Sunday Island, 17 April 2016.

Home

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

Maya Angelou

‘Sampur’, a new and compelling short documentary by filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam released last week, is now freely available online and over social media. The film deals with displacement. Seven years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, that so many in Sri Lanka can’t go back to their homes may come as a surprise to some readers. The documentary centres around internally displaced individuals from Sampur – a town located about thirty kilometres South-East of Trincomalee. The hellish conditions those displaced had to endure for over nine years was, in part, highlighted by the enervating heat we’ve endured for so many weeks across Sri Lanka. If from the relative comfort and security of our own homes we often complain about the withering weather, it is hard – even when their lives and living conditions are projected in high definition – to truly imagine the lives of entire families confined to small shelters, tin roofs over their heads, with no electricity or running water. The film showcased the struggle of seven individuals to return home. There are many more in similar conditions, also waiting to go back home.

The end of the war was a ripe moment for those displaced to return to their homes. This did not happen. Instead they spent years in IDP camps before returning to find their land still occupied, and were forced to live in temporary, makeshift housing. The opening up of the North and East to journalists provided new frames and opportunities to capture stories that for decades were marginal, or even violently erased. And yet, their stories are still not meaningfully documented or reported. The filmmaker highlighted another ironical development, post-war. During war, he noted, an intrepid filmmaker was able to capture footage from the North and East under the radar of the military and other officials. Since 2015, he noted that while filmmakers can move around freely, the military continued to block or ban the filming of tracts of land, festivals, or specific locations, despite official requests from government authorities to allow filming. So while Sri Lanka’s post-war “success story” continues to generate kudos from the international community, thousands continue to be traumatised by the presence of the military. This is not hyperbole. A character in ‘Sampur’ speaks of how humiliating it is to have to ask permission from the military weeks in advance to just visit a temple, only to be turned down with no reason given. Another says how scared she was of being shot by the military when returning to her own home. It’s just one line amongst many others that are equally poignant, and points to an enduring fear years after the end of war in Sri Lanka that can’t be laughed off or somehow wished away.

A rough analogy would be to have armed, resident and State-sponsored burglars in your home, who on a logic entirely distinct from and independent of you or your family, opened and closed the front door, oversaw what you did and said, used your home as they saw fit. Further, they also saw you you and your family as annoyingly occupying property that belonged to the State, even though it really is your own land to which you have a legal entitlement to.

This is Sampur in a nutshell. The absurdity of it all is in fact what so many endure, with no recourse to the law, no savings to start anew elsewhere, and in fact, no desire to leave their homes. The indignity is what is most disturbing. Long after you’ve forgotten what was said by someone, you remember how you felt. Successive governments have promised equality and freedom for Tamils. Few have made them feel at home. The excuse for what is essentially systemic racism on multiple levels can no longer be that political change takes time. It’s really quite basic – allowing someone to go back to their homes in lands privately owned and occupied by generations, cultivate their land, sleep without fear of being shot at. Being spoken to in a language they can communicate in. Being treated with dignity, or at the very least, with nothing more than the same rudeness and maddening inefficiency that all of us face when dealing with government. There are various theories about winning hearts and minds as integral to a just and lasting peace. Intellectual exercises around power sharing, electoral reform and transitional justice have no traction with displaced people eking out a living. Symbolic gestures matter perhaps far more? The restoration of a title deed. Even a simple hut in one’s own land, constructed by oneself, contrary to the government’s recent attempts at resettlement with recipients having no say over the type of house with little or no room for modification according to individual needs. Symbolic gestures can over time, and in the aggregate, invariably strengthen more complex institutional, constitutional and political reform agendas. No matter what genius guides a top-level political reform process, if communities and individuals like those depicted in ‘Sampur’ continue to live the way they have since 2006, we risk more violent conflict – and there is no sugar-coating this.

This would be such a tragedy, for all of us.

This is why ‘Sampur’ as a film, Sampur as a location, and Sampur as a frame of reference cuts across party political, communal, ethnic, economic and other identity markers. The film will be broadcast on TV and will hopefully resonate amongst those in other parts of the country who have also been displaced, or forcefully evicted. Those in Colombo need not look as far East as Trincomalee – the relatively invisible yet sustained evisceration of entire neighbourhoods and inter-ethnic, inter-religious communities who have lived together for decades, under the ‘beautification’ drive of the previous government and the megapolis plans of the present government, strongly mirrors the violence of those featured in the film. And while we may debate the scale and scope of the violence, the point of ‘Sampur’ is that we never lose sight of an essential, shared humanity.

This Sunday it’s very likely that you have this newspaper in your hands, or are reading this article on your palm or desktop, at home. Whatever form home takes and wherever it is, you are the custodian of a small piece of Earth’s crust to open out to others, to grow trees or bonsai, to build or break down, sell or rent out, walk in and out whenever you please and with whoever you please. To sing in the shower, or hog the loo. To run away from, or return gratefully to. To show off to others, or just admire privately. To party or rest. Pause to think about everything home means to you and your family. Where you are now. Where you grew up. Is it really too much to ask the same freedom, the same contentment, security and dignity for everyone in our country – especially for those who have lost so much?