The patina of politics


by Sanjana Hattotuwa


Another year ends. Two years ago, around the same time, the violent uncertainty of what January 8 would bring led to muted celebrations around Christmas and New Year. The anxiety and fear that overwhelmingly coloured this time is already largely forgotten. Much hand-wringing will ensue around 2016, from the cultural icons who died over the course of the year to racists and murderers elected to political office. This too shall pass, when 2017 proves to be a comparably better year, or far worse. Although strictly from a monarchist viewpoint, the framing of 1992 as ‘annus horribilis’ by Queen Elizabeth II is now relegated to the periphery of history and largely forgotten by even those who closely follow the Royals. Likewise, what moves us to celebrate or lament 2016 will also, sooner than we realise, be forgotten. There are however some deep ironies about how we end this year.

There is nothing that comes out of Syria today, that is any different to what far less bore witness to in the first half of 2009 in Sri Lanka. It’s tragi-comic to see how so many in Sri Lanka now lament the fate of so many children, women and men in Syria, yet were supportive of or tellingly silent around the violence just a few hundred kilometres away, in their own country, seven years ago. Even as we mourn, so visibly, the loss of George Michael and David Bowie, we remain overwhelmingly homophobic in Sri Lanka, with legislation in the statue books that criminalises same sex relations. Early November, on Facebook alone, lamentation around the election of Trump as the next President of the US in Sri Lanka reached a crescendo. Cut from the same racist mould, Trump is no different to Mahinda Rajapaksa. And yet, the outcry of disdain over the Rajapaksa regime and what it actually did never reached the levels it did for Trump, thousands of miles away, and what he for now has only promised to do.

The phenomenon of false news, and especially, the role of online social media in spreading misinformation has gripped the world after the US elections and the infamous Brexit referendum in the UK. These are online phenomena pro-democracy activists and civil rights groups have been dealing with for many years in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world, with the State as the primary producer of campaigns, which go viral on social media, targeting a religion, community or traits attributed to a particular group, area or race. What was a policy of outright violence against critics and journalists during the war, in Sri Lanka, turned into a more nuanced, far more effective policy of censorship and control of media post-war. We have lived, and arguably thrived in a post-factual society for years before it dawned on sections of American polity and society that the news they consumed wasn’t really anchored to any discernible fact.

From technology companies in Silicon Valley to journalism schools around the world, there is now clear focus on verification. During the awful anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama, and as far back as 2014, a few of us spent sleepless nights debunking what at the time were vitriolic, incendiary stories, pegged to photos from Myanmar, around how Muslims were being burnt and attacked. From 2009 onwards, with content around the war, demonstrations around the country, key stories including promotional videos by government, official press releases, policy statements at the UN and other domestic fora, civic media and civil society crunched numbers, verified figures, did research, cross-referenced articles and provided insight, information and context to stories that were otherwise, at best, only partially true. All this was done without the help of a single Silicon Valley company, who are all, after the US elections, only now scrambling to algorithmically and also through renewed human curation combat the flow of incredibly harmful misinformation over their platforms.

Domestically, a leitmotif throughout the year was to compare and contrast the present government with the Rajapaksa regime. This will continue over 2017. There was much to condemn. The President’s son ran amok, with total impunity. Serious allegations of corruption involving the President, before he took office and reported widely in Australian media, have been conveniently forgotten. Media doesn’t (dare) ask, the President’s Office doesn’t say. The UNP has sought to cushion those directly responsible for bond scams and basically sold vast swathes of Sri Lanka back to China. The government has embraced pistol toting brutes, feted the violence of a Navy Commander against media, failed to make any meaningful headway whatsoever into allegations of colossal corruption by the previous regime, actively engages and visibly promotes the most rabidly racist monks, sends torturers to sessions of the UN in Geneva against the State-sponsored use of torture, countenances the drafting of laws to replace the heinous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that are in effect far worse and undermines investigations into corruption by forcing the resignation of key officials. In addition, the President’s comments resulted in murder suspects from the armed forces, in remand custody, being let off while hundreds of others, detained under the PTA, continue to languish in prison. Clearly, much is wrong under yahapalanaya and in principle, if not in the scale, scope and reach of the rot, no difference to the Rajapaksas.

And yet, so much has also changed. For starters, many take the government to task in the mainstream media without fear of violent pushback. There is, on paper at least, Right to Information legislation and an Office on Missing Persons. Though using the Rajapaksas as a baseline is in many ways wrong, Sri Lanka today is a qualitatively different place to what it was just two years ago. The art of the long view requires us, in fairness to the better angels of the President, Prime Minister and those in Parliament truly interested in meaningful reform, to acknowledge that it is nigh impossible to completely reboot, and over a single term of government, what is a systemic failure of politics cultivated over decades. This is not to gloss over, or somehow excuse what is so wrong at present. It is to recognise the complexity of reform, and how what is a long-term, complex, deeply political process will never match expectations set through an election manifesto, or the pace at which civil society demands change.

The next year will require us to hold the government accountable around the delivery of its key promises – at a time when the constitutional reform agenda is already losing steam and terribly mired in confusion. Concurrently, it requires those outside government to come up with creative alternatives to help those inside it negotiate and navigate the reform agenda whilst saving face, recognising for example that some public positions and pronouncements are geared towards the generation of public opinion, which in turn can be referenced and useful in pushing through that which is resisted internally. In all this, the risks of co-option will endure, and while being generally supportive of government, the challenge of maintaining a critical distance will persist.

Let’s call this the patina of our politics – how year after year, often despite government, democracy is tenaciously fought for and somehow persists. Whether we agree or are part of it, this constant struggle leaves on all our lives and our country an indelible mark that frames whatever spin the government of the day tries to sell. And that goes for the rest of the world too, where no matter how monumental a change next year brings – also in many ways we cannot yet imagine – the struggle for justice, rights, decency and democracy will continue, in various forms, as it always has.

And must.

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