College as it was then, and continues to be

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

An invitation from the Head Prefect to submit an article to the College Magazine is not one that can be refused easily or taken lightly. I last wrote to the magazine in the mid-90’s, before taking over as Editor. That’s before many who will read this were even born. Some of the technologies used in the magazine’s production then would be alien to those in charge of it today. I did the final version of an article on a typewriter, with freshly purchased ribbon so that the ink would be uniform and dark. I then shifted to WordPerfect, a programme and format that’s now entirely defunct. All the drafts were handwritten. The type-setting was done at the printers, which meant we had to meticulously go through proofs and mark on the margins everything that needed to be corrected, edited and adjusted.

The writing of, amongst others, leading public figures, lawyers, entrepreneurs, speakers, businessmen, activists and researchers today can be found in the pages of the College magazine at the time. The topics were diverse, ranging from science, technology, politics, literature and contemporary developments to more subject specific content or those based on personal experience. Satire was encouraged, and no one was spared. Allow me to recall one incident. In an article penned by me under a pseudonym, Coll Cops and even teachers at the time, loved or reviled, were taken apart by reference to Dryden’s poetry and the wider cannon of English literature. No real names were mentioned, but characteristic traits, phrases, mannerisms and behaviour served to identify the victims of an acerbic wit. A day after the magazine was out, the late Neville de Alwis, the Warden at the time, called me to his office. The Warden never once asked to see the final proof of a magazine before it went to print, but was invariably held accountable for its content. Knowing full well why he wanted to see me, I wanted to his office not without some dread. Magazine in hand, he inquired as to why I wrote what I did, because he had entertained complaints from the targets of my satire that they had been made fun of, and that too, in the College magazine, read by parents and old boys. I said it was essential to question those who taught us and were office bearers in school, because to obey authority without question ran against the very ethos of College. And that, I said, is what I thought makes a good Thomian. After a brief pause and another glance at the article, addressing me by my surname, Bakka (as Warden de Alwis was fondly or fearfully called at the time) cautioned me against riling the teachers and senior Prefects any further, but said he would stand by the piece. I never heard anything from him again on the issue, and I never knew what pushback he had to face from teachers and others around the content I had written and published. Even after this incident, he never once asked to see final proofs of the magazine before it went to print. Warden, and College – beyond just the brick and mortar of buildings, but the very spirit of our institution – instilled in us the belief that to truly learn, one needed to question. That one could be brutal with ideas and their contestation, but kind with people and their beliefs. That there was no one, and nothing, above questioning. And though none of us realised it at the time, to be entrusted with great responsibility at a young age was its own lesson – that once asked to be in charge of something, you took the blame and fall, but allowed others and College to take the credit for all that was good and great. Warden’s approach of entrusting students with responsibility, taking their side whenever they were not in the wrong, and non-interference in work, are lessons many of us have internalised and now define how we work.

College was the foundation of what we do, and who we are. And it was this light touch of guidance and freedom, or inspiration and education – beyond and often in spite of boring syllabi – that defined our time at S. Thomas’. This is also why it is so difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t gone to College why it is so fundamentally different to other schools – no less prestigious and staffed by those no less devoted to learning and education. College teaches life lessons without setting out to do so, and most of those lessons are learnt outside the classroom – in what we do, say and write in the fourteen years we spend in school.

I realise though things are different today. When I left College, the Computer Room still had Commodore 64’s, hooked up to individual TV screens. There was no broadband, and the cacophony of connecting to the Internet over dial-up was a dead giveaway that you were going to surf the web. Social media hadn’t been invented. There were no smartphones. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo or YouTube. There was no Android or iPhone. No WhatsApp or any other instant messaging service. CellTell sponsored live updates at the Roy-Tho in the mid-90’s, and I was in charge of calling in the scores after every over on Motorola that was the size of a small car battery and about as heavy.

The advent and ubiquitous availability of technology, many in College and outside it fear, dilutes our values and principles, diverts our attention, divests education to various virtual agents and damages the fabric of school, especially for sentimental old fools – nay, boys – who never fail to note that things were much better in their time. Is that true? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Boys in College who read this know better than their parents the trappings and distractions of social media. They also know how useful it can be, and how community, friendship, camaraderie and Thomian grit have virtual connections as strong, and as real, as the physical bonds in College. The current Warden, on Facebook, is a beacon of our essential values, to all those who follow his updates. The Head Prefect of College, who I’ve followed for a long time on Instagram, doesn’t appear to be in the least bit corrupted or distracted by his use of the photo sharing platform. We tend latch on to every single instance and story about the misuse or abuse of social media, but fail to recognise that these are the exceptions. Whether in a classroom and with books, in Chapel arguing with fellow debaters, in the College Hall during Current Affairs, at the library checking out books, in the playing field, swimming pool, scrum or pitch, at kumite or cricket, as fourth man or Number Eight, as Captain or coxswain, buying sweets from Kāti or playing carom at the Cop Shed, we learnt lessons in behaviour, civility, queuing up, sportsmanship, humility in victory, grace in defeat, respect without genuflection, freedom of thought, the courage to uphold our convictions, a fierce independence of spirit, the importance of meritocracy over anything else and the value of a liberal worldview. We were given space to fail, lose and make mistakes. We were told that the greatest lessons College had to impart was not from the syllabi we had to memorise and regurgitate at exams, but in how we treated one another. And all this both predates social media and is also present in them, by virtue of how the platforms of used by those in College. I wouldn’t worry too much about technology corrupting young minds – you know better!

It is customary for an article of this nature, by an old-Thomian and former Editor to boot to offer words of advice to those in College today. I have absolutely nothing of the sort to offer. I know nothing of your lives, and how you live them. Your choices are your own, and you will reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of what you do, in College, outside it, and when you have left it. Sri Lanka today offers one great lesson – that you can cheat, lie, kill, insult, rape, plot and force your way to positions of wealth and power. The very values held sacred at S. Thomas’ are those jettisoned the first in the pursuit of fame and fortune. You can opt to do the same. You may also opt to do something different. All the Thomians who have remained my close friends are those who have taken the less travelled road. There are gifted lawyers who instead of commercial law, focus on human rights or constitutional reform. There are photographers, who are highly paid for their commercial work, but whose heart is in social activism and the capture of injustice or environmental devastation. There are those who have embraced their sexuality, and knowing they are gay, bisexual or transgender, now help others deal with the incredible cruelty meted out by an intolerant society against those who fail to somehow conform. There are award winning thespians, who help others through acting to discover their full potential. There are those who have braved death threats to stay on Sri Lanka and create institutions that have in turn attracted other Thomians to its fold, to strengthen our democracy.

Arguably, other schools also have illustrious alumni. So, what makes an old boy of College any different? There is an apocryphal story of how a Royalist would walk down a road, thinking he owns it, and how a Thomian would walk down one, not caring who did. The essential irreverence in College, which is its own tradition, is what makes you exceptional, and also, well suited to take on challenges across a myriad of disciplines. More than anything else, what would concern me the most about College would be if the careful mix of irreverence and respect was upset by either by annoying progressives who feel there was little need for tradition, or conversely, by mawkish conservatives who feel there is nothing to be gained by embracing modernity. More than the Warden and teachers, you are responsible for maintaining this careful balance. It’s what you do that defines College – how you present yourself and behave at mall or match, just as much as what you write at an exam. It’s about taking pride in being a Thomian, but not allowing that to gloss over what is wrong in College, and with College. It’s about speaking out and stepping up, no matter who or what age you are. Importantly, it is about how we treat others who aren’t Thomians – including girls and women. How we see, talk to and treat them – friend or foe – defines us. And the worst we can be is to be to those who, for whatever reason, hate us, what they are and seek to do to us.

What more can or should I say? It’s easy to romanticise our time in College, and tellingly, this almost often is articulated in a manner that places us in a superior position to other boys schools. Saying we are better than others doesn’t make it so. What we do matters. How we speak matters. What we believe in matters. How we deal with difference and adversity, matters. How and who we choose to love matters. Me telling you this may not matter. But you understanding the value of it for yourself, does matter. And that’s what, for me, College does. It doesn’t care a toss about who you are or where you came from. It treats with equal contempt and love, everyone. Everyone has a fair go at everything. With over fifty extra-curricular activities, societies and clubs, it’s not just cricket, rugger and exams that define College life. It’s a Christian school, but it’s not a Christian faith that defines it. It’s an exclusive, private school many who rant against it secretly wish they went to, but mindless elitism isn’t what is taught inside it. We grew up fighting with, fiercely loyal to, loving or hating our classmates or teammates not because they were Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, rich or poor. We saw them, and they saw us, only as Thomians.

That’s something rare, which you will only more fully realise when you leave both this magazine and College behind. We see the world differently to others, because College is a wonderful, verdant space – in my time, before my time as well as now – that doesn’t differentiate or treat students based on their identity, faith or last name. What results, for those who imbibe the prodigious opportunities for learning and growth in College, is a rare breed – a cosmopolitan, liberal gentleman.

Be proud you are one of them.

Esto Perpetua!


Published in the S. Thomas’ College magazine, Term 1-3, 2017, Vol CXL Nos 1-3


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


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.


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.


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.


First published in The Sunday Island, 7 January 2018.

The 15%

“I think to not be optimistic is just about the most privileged thing you can be. If you can be pessimistic, you are basically deciding that there’s no hope for a whole group of people who can’t afford to think that way.”

Ophelia Dahl, quoted in The New Yorker’s World Changers list, 18-25 December 2017 issue

As the patina of three years colours yahapalanaya, 2017 too comes to an end. Comprehensive reform initiatives, done best and easily in the first half of a new government, will now be conducted in some shape and form over 2018. It is unclear now what measure of success they will enjoy.

The new year begins with an electoral litmus test, and does not let up. The former regime has already and openly called it a measure of confidence in the current government. Out of 15.7 million eligible voters, as much as 700,000 will vote for the first time. This is the same number the Elections Department said were first time voters in January 2010. In January 2015, the number of those who voted for the first time was reportedly 955,990. Accordingly, in early 2018, around 15% of the total electorate will be between 18-34, who in turn are first to fifth time voters.

This is a demographic bulge with significant electoral consequences. From the way they get news and information to how they trust and perceive content, traditional politics, politicians and political propaganda will need to embrace a significant shift in voter engagement. This in turn will entail investments in different ways – from the fielding of younger candidates to the use of pop stars and television idols in campaigns, and importantly, brand new ways of influencing this specific demographic using social media. This will include the dissemination of carefully and compellingly guised misinformation, campaigns anchored to fear, falsehood, fraternity or more generally, by promoting puerile patriotism. Investments will include ‘troll armies’ – large numbers of geographically dispersed individuals paid by a political party or candidate to promote an idea, individual, party or process by amplifying a set of voices, and violently attacking any and all opposition, critical questioning or alternatives posed online. Coupled with this, investments will also be technical and automated, ensuring that followers of key social media accounts are inflated and also engineered to give the impression around the mass appeal of an idea, by creating an echo chamber of seemingly diverse sounding individuals – with Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala names, both male and female – thereby securing the legitimate attention and buy-in of young, impressionable voters.

It is unclear to what degree, if any, traditional electoral architects in political parties, leave aside the Department of Elections, are embracing these dangers – and for some, verdant opportunities – into their electioneering and election monitoring, respectively. The risk is simple to outline, though much harder to address. Sri Lanka has a very high literacy rate. It also has a very poor media and information literacy. Especially as the distribution of content over social media grows and takes root, a generation conditioned with a pedagogy in school and university that overwhelmingly teaches only rote learning, does not know how to critically question or analyse what they consume. The result is a vote base quick to judge and temper, who act and only later, if at all, think. Rumour, misinformation and more sophisticated electoral campaigns – using, amongst other means, a method called psycho-metric targeting – exploits this media and information literacy deficit for parochial gain, ensuring support for and belief in the most incredible of claims to the detriment of a campaign based on sober reflection, principled opposition, facts, civil engagement or any honest assessment. The risk here is real, present and growing. There are individuals and political parties in our country who are already, silently but effectively exploiting the general ignorance in this area and the near total lack of any oversight, laws or regulations. They are going after the hearts and minds of 15% of the electorate who will, if 2015’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections were anything to go by, be decisive in who gains power, and loses it – next year and beyond.

Combatting all this requires optimism. Painting only doom and gloom does a disservice to the aspirations of young, first time voters and their worldview. The 15% of the electorate that is the battle-ground of political contestation during elections is also the country’s best hope of achieving our democratic potential. There are innovators and entrepreneurs here, creating new ventures that serve global markets. There are social change makers, guided more by what can be done through cooperation and collaboration, a marked difference from more established civil society organisations which compete, viciously, for donor funding. An impatience with governance as it stands, and the embracing of pervasive, affordable new technologies brings with it the potential of socio-political and indeed, economic reform to which this generation alone holds almost all the keys to. From smartphone apps that do real-time tracking of garbage disposal trucks in the East to timely updates of trains better than what any official source is even close to providing, from citizen monitoring and early warning of adverse weather conditions to mobile platforms that track and assist in addressing gender based violence, there are a growing number of interesting needs-based, citizen generated initiatives that entirely by-pass government to provide vital services, brings into government new thinking that’s long-overdue, or by openly shaming the incompetence of public officials, forces government to upgrade their own skills, services and support structures.

Given the performance of government over the past three years, it is clear that public communication isn’t high on the agenda. This is a big problem. A recent and characteristically vague promise by the PM around a social media referendum, whatever that meant and perhaps thankfully, hasn’t seen the light of day. Every day we are told sections of polity and society are with one or the other political grouping. There is a lot of lecturing or posturing, and not a whole lot of engagement.

There is no meaningful capture of what really the 15% of the electorate over 2018 actually do, who they are, what they want and aspire to be, who their role models are, what they want out of politics and politicians, and how they would like to see governance frameworks that aid their work, goals and life choices. This impacts political analysis as well, because the pessimism we project over Sri Lanka’s democratic fabric over 2018 is based on, largely speaking, an ignorance of what nearly 2.4 million voters think, perceive or believe in. Strategically, they are now thought of in utilitarian terms around how, either misguided or falsely animated, they are useful pawns in parochial politics. The spectrum of responses to this must embrace a more attentive, responsive engagement to highlight what makes this demographic tick – not just with a view to using them for various political ends, but as a way of celebrating what even with the greatest of hostility, difficulty, bias, corruption and bureaucratic bungling, these young people have achieved in a wide range of fields and disciplines.

In them, entirely independent of who is in power and in government, lies the longer-term resilience of Sri Lanka – an enduring hope around incremental change and progress which requires the cultivation of minds, innovation and trust beyond electoral contests. Our better angels are not with any political force or party. They are in the 15% everyone in power covets. Arguably, this 15% needs its own representation. Its own leadership. Its own voice. They are a new bloc. They are a paradigm shift.

2015 was a harbinger of this shift. 2018 will see the cementing of it. Both as curse and blessing, we live in interesting times!

Beyond echo chambers

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

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

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

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

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


First published in The Sunday Island, 17 December 2017.