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Systemic change

by Sanjana Hattotuwa

If it ain’t broke, fix it. This clearly goes against conventional wisdom. Yet hacking the system is something anyone can and should do. It is vital to democracy. You don’t need to be Snowden, Assange or Manning. You don’t need to take the mad risks Wael Ghonim or Sombat Boonngamonanong undertook willingly. We can all do it. And we must, because if we don’t, history will likely repeat itself. And in Sri Lanka this means reliving a bloody past best memorialised, not relived.

It is a significant challenge that is under-appreciated. When today many of us confronted with what is clearly wrong, we are mostly pre-conditioned to somehow rationalise it, because bearing witness and speaking out offers little reward. This is why racism, discrimination, hate speech, corruption and violence persist. We are silent, even in the face of the inexcusable injustice because of a number of reasons - profit, social status, geographic location, party political office, gender, class, caste, fear or out of self-interest. Yet express this openly, and few will agree. Everyone wants to be seen as a democrat, yet few are. Breaking down existing systems will require a hard reboot, to use an analogy from computing. There is however, even amongst the erstwhile regime change mind-set, resistance to complete reset. The systems are essentially convenient and expedient, just not the people who inhabited them from 2005 – 2015. The opposition against the Rajapaksas was tellingly not really an opposition against a corrosive, despicable political culture. Most of what was so wrong under the Rajapaksa regime can be openly seen today. Just not to the same degree, or led by the same individuals, expressed in the same way or done in a similar fashion. The principled opposition to all this though is muted.

A culture and system that offers what is essentially the good life to politicians, no matter how partial we are to them, is simply not a democracy. How do we hack the system to give the President and PM a hard time, not because we dislike them but because that is what is needed? A good starting point is to understand political office, in our country, that exists largely to control, censor, curtail and contain. Our political system demands conformity, not change, and values deference over dissidence. Idealism is frowned upon. Because no one really trusts anyone else, the gatekeepers – folks with the most power - are those who broker introductions and are able to secure an audience. Allegiance wins over competence – loyalty to an individual or party is what matters, not merit, critical thinking or the courage to admit failure. Friends and colleagues now inhabiting various tiers of government, as well as others, close to various figures who wield great power, all say the same thing. The system is completely broken. You would think that this would galvanise action to fix it. But no. What old friend and colleague Asanga Welikala, referring to Sri Lanka’s State of Emergency called the ‘normalisation of the exception’, runs so deep, change is only seen as necessary when out of power, and in the interest of gaining it. Otherwise things are generally peachy.

Hacking this require, in the first instance, to stand up to what’s wrong. It takes just a photo; a short video clip; a tweet; a Facebook post; something up on Instagram or a comment on a news media site; a voice recording. To wit, the argument isn’t that technology is a panacea that suddenly makes risk-averse citizen into guard dogs of dignity, decency and democracy. Growing up in violence is to invariably grow used to it. And yet, the suggestion is that if we are able to inspire and encourage enough people, over time, to capture enough instances of where politics and governance fail us, we then have the evidence – suitably captured, studied, verified and presented – to galvanise many others to follow suit. You don’t change the political architecture by merely replacing leaders. You change it by re-engineering how society observes and responds, and how the actions of a few can be engineered to snowball into the aspirations of many. This is a long-term process, and independent of (though arguably sometimes entwined with) regime change.

Obviously, hacking yahapalanaya isn’t going to be popular. The brand still has power. The immediate pushback will be to not mess around with something, warts and all, that is far better than what was endured previously. So many now in government are friends, and those who put their lives on the line leading up to January 8 last year. A natural affinity creates a dangerous barrier to more open, principled critique. The argument will be that change takes time; that things can’t be rushed. I would argue however to be impatient with everyone and everything, all the time. The trick though is not just to complain about inaction or elephantine reform. It is to do something about it. We need more whistle-blowers, and programmes, freely accessible, that educate citizens on how to release information in the public interest and at the same time, manage risk around violent pushback. From a computing standpoint, we need data crunchers, visual analysts – the cross-disciplinary roles that should under-gird advocacy and activism today.

We need those who make and importantly, break stuff by taking apart what exists. This doesn’t always take great technical skill. The person who asks for a reason, the person who refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer; the person who wants more details around a decision. The person who raises a question with local government. The person who refuses to move aside for a blaring convoy of SUVs. The person who walks on the grass near Parliament. Encourages children to gently touch the glass tank full of fish at Diyata Uyana. Paints some subversive graffiti on beautified Colombo’s whitewashed walls. Refuses to stand up when a politician walks in. All small acts of defiance. Vandalism may not be vigilance, but if a more chaotic, less pristine, edgier city is one that is able to better resist mindless conformity, I’d take it.

None of this is entirely radical or new. Most of what I’ve noted here is already happening, despite government. Yahapalanaya may well end up being, over time, a Rajapaksa regime in sheep-skin, but citizens are speaking out. Without going back to white-vans and grease-yakas, the government cannot effectively control how it is scrutinised, resisted, questioned or opposed. The thing about freedom is that it is contagious and can lay waste to even the best laid plans to control a narrative to only fit what’s convenient, to a few. This government showed us that. It would do well to not forget it.


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