Image via The Latest
Any pioneering venture that stays the course requires commendation and acknowledgment. Therefore when invited by Sanjana, founder curator, to pen a few lines on Groundviews’ 10th Anniversary, I saw it as an opportunity to highlight a unique achievement, realised in a most difficult decade of Sri Lankan history. It is the labour of love and sheer dedication and commitment that has seen to fruition an idea, to some extent ahead of its time.
I have been a contributor to Groundviews over the years, albeit not as regularly as I would have liked to, but always did so under a pseudonym which only Sanjana knew. Therefore today, when I write under my own name I feel as though I am emerging out of a cave. Not coming from an elite background and not having the right connections, I was compelled to hide my identity. That I had to do so is reflective of those dangerous times. Outraged by the climate of impunity that prevailed, these articles took on the highest and most powerful at the time.
There were few outlets during that time to vent one’s anger and defiance and Groundviews provided that platform. This was a time when journalists were abducted and murdered in broad daylight, and the brutal assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge in a high security zone, was an exceptional instance of the arrogance of power. Civil liberties were suspended in the interest of security, which inevitably led to innocent people being gruesomely killed for reasons other than security, as in the case of Prageeth Eknaligoda, the journalist and Wasim Thajudeen, the ruggerite. The country became the playground of the despotic, where the sons of the powerful could have their night races in the city and even around the sacred city of the Temple Tooth. If one browses through Groundviews’ archives during the period of 2006-2014, one could read the articles of many authors venting their rage and protest at the lawlessness that prevailed and what they saw as the slide towards nepotistic, dynastically oriented, dictatorial rule.
Therefore as we celebrate the 10th year of Groundviews it will be interesting to ask the question whether this pioneering Citizen’s Journal initiative has contributed towards any discernible social impact, i.e. a change of a longer lasting and transformative nature. An immediate answer would be yes, but that wouldn’t satisfy the social scientist, who would want empirical validation of the affirmation. This would therefore require examining the impacts, looking for proximate causes and ultimate causes for the change and seeing how Groundviews could be accommodated in that attribution gap.
Looking back for evidence of impact
The first task in this exercise would be to look back over the past 10 years and see what it is that one could discern as impact! In order to do this I would like to take a subjective positionality that all social processes are in a state of constant flux and that a certain kind of social “Brownian motion” occurring at key moments in a given social process, interacting with one another can give rise to momentous change in the system. It is such a change that we could term as an impact. These key moments, diagrammatically expressed clock wise would be: 1) Discourse /Language 2) Beliefs/Value/Desires 3) Institutions/rituals 4) Material Practices 4) Social Relations 5) Power. This brings us back to the key moment of Discourse/Language that tempts one to assume a causal circularity in social processes. David Harvey, the author of this diagrammatic representation, does not wish it to be seen as such, but rather as a dialectical process of internal relations. There are times though, the mills of time grind so slowly that even these moments appear as crystallised states or “permanences” as he calls them. This happens when these crystallised moments reinforce each other into a gridlock of the whole system, rendering it impermeable and impervious to change. But history has shown us otherwise. We have examples of theocracies, monarchies, dictatorships, authoritarian regimes being brought down, not always to something better, and even if not, a reconfiguring of the system and a renewal of hope. This is true for Sri Lanka too, though I would like to shift the 10 year period by a few months, to November 2005, to exemplify the argument and evaluate Groundviews’ role. (The 17 year rule of the UNP would also have equally epitomised the argument with newspapers like Ravaya and Yukthiya being the counterpart of Groundviews in an era where social media was yet to arrive.)
I would like to start in November 2005, because it was when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected as President for his first term. The war was raging at the time, the economy was in the dumps, Sinhala Buddhist hegemony was on the rise and Sinhala Nationalism was fast gaining ascendance, juxtaposed to the nationalistic and fascistic tendencies of the LTTE under Prabhakaran, each feeding off the other’s extremist ideology. Both sides were braying for war and beating war drums in a frenzy. A fatigued international community, by now frustrated by negotiating with an intransigent LTTE, had decided to step back, realising that theirs was a failed project. Rajapaksa, goaded by nationalistic forces, saw his opportunity and took the battle to the LTTE. War replaced the discourse of power sharing and devolution. Patriotism and protecting race and religion became the dominant belief and value system. Institutions and rituals became dominated by a war and military mindset. The otherwise forgotten youth from the rural hinterland became the “ranviruwa”. He (there was a strong emphasis on masculinity) was feted everywhere he went, he was sought after for marriage, and when he died, bus stands were erected in his name with a picture or painting of him in fatigues armed with an AK 47, in a shooting posture. This was true of the LTTE too, manifest in glorified cemeteries for their war dead.
Groundviews, which began almost a year later in November 2006, began its role of providing a counter narrative to the war narrative peddled by the government and the LTTE. It provided the space for debate and discourse and was very often one of a few voices in this alternate discourse.
In 2008 when Lasantha Wickrematunge was gunned down in broad daylight, Groundviews stood firm in its condemnation of this cowardly and dastardly murder and provided a platform for people to express their anger, outrage and grief and to even mobilise to protest against it.
As the white van abductions intensified, the killing of journalists, activists and even politicians, continued with impunity, Groundviews continued its commentary on these matters.
In 2009 when the war reached its culmination and hundreds of thousands were trapped in Puthukkudiyiruppu, it was the many contributors to Groundviews that gave us a glimpse of the horror ending of the war.
In 2010, riding on the back of a war victory, saw Rajapaksa winning a second term as President. Using a language of triumphalism and an ideology of ethno-nationalism, he consolidated power and began an infrastructure development drive which became mired in sleaze and corruption. He built a personality cult around him, naming everything from schools, playgrounds and pavilions, after him and together with his brothers controlled almost 70% of the national budget. With every passing year his rule was becoming more and more authoritarian, and as is always the case with such regimes, he began to bolster the military on the one hand and seek the support of Sinhala Buddhist extremism on the other. His brother the defense secretary saw to it that both these aims were fulfilled. Rajapaksa was also embarking on a dynastic project by grooming his eldest son as part of a long term succession plan. Nepotism was rife in everything he did and the waste of public funds on the desires of his family saw no limits. A natural corollary of such behavior is the cronyism that emerges and as a result every sector of society from the economy to politics, from art and culture to religion and sports, was politicised and corrupted. Overdetermined by security considerations, a gradual militarisation was taking place and a culture of surveillance orchestrated by his brother, the then Defense Secretary, showed signs of a deep state emerging leading the way for a possible capture of the state.
By the end of 2014 an air of invincibility surrounded the president and his family; his political and business cronies fawned upon him sycophantically inculcating in him a sense of all-powerfulness and with it, a false sense of security. The language and discourse of power was one of monarchic and divine proportions. An actor and famous figure from the field of entertainment saw him as an incarnation of the Buddha. The moments of change discussed earlier were all in a gridlock of permanence and change did not seem possible. The power that emanated from the presidency, was able to control the discourse and language which in turn influenced belief systems, values and desires. Institutions and rituals were influenced by these values, beliefs and desires. People in their day to day life were rendered cult worshippers, their judgment suspended. Astrology and occult practices replaced science based thinking.
Once again Rajapaksa saw the opportunity and prodded by his family, his hangers-on and his astrologer, decided to exercise a prerogative to call for presidential elections one year ahead of time. While the rest is history, it also reveals that seeming permanance in social processes may not be so after all. It is here that the social equivalent of the Browning motion comes into play, and I would like to say that the work of Groundviews over the 10 years that coincided with the Rajapaksa’s two terms, were undoubtedly a part of that Browning motion that gave rise to a groundswell of public discontent. It is this assemblage of hundreds and thousands of such social actions that became a sling shot that was able to bring down a political Goliath.
Can Groundviews take credit for this social movement for change? I would say yes. By pioneering the concept of the citizen’s journal, Groundviews throughout its 10 years of existence, was instrumental in relentlessly highlighting the misdemeanors of the government, directly helped build that groundswell of discontent towards the government. It provided the stimulus for a plethora of article contributors, representing different sections of civil society ranging from professionals, activists, academics and the thousands of ordinary citizens who not only commented on these articles but also countered the myriad of vituperative commentators, some of who were paid trolls.
I would see that as evidence of impact, attribution gaps not withstanding!
Does the picture today provide further evidence?
We are now at the end of 2016. The new government completed its first year in office in August and in a month’s time the incumbent President will have completed 2 years of his presidential term.
In a recent present conference the Minster of Information mentioned that compared to 14 journalists being killed ,many abducted, a few disappeared, several assaulted and injured, and others seeking asylum under the previous regime, under this regime there has not been a single case of a journalist being harassed. This is true to a great extent and one could say that freedom of speech, despite occasional growls from ruling politicians, has been restored in the country. The print and electronic media coming under the purview of the state has been allowed to function with a relative degree of independence, further strengthening the idea of media freedom.
The establishment of the Constitutional Council has in turn allowed for greater independence in the appointment and functioning of the Presidential Commissions. Hence with the reconstitution of the Police Commission, the Elections Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Bribery Commission and with the passing of a RTI Bill, the stage has been set for the implementation of a regime of good governance.
Steps toward constitutional reform have been instituted and the process is well underway and is expected to be debated in parliament soon.
The establishment of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) under Chandrika Bandaranaike, a former President and the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) instituted by the Prime Minister under which a Task Force for Reconciliation was set up, are noteworthy initiatives towards building peace and reconciliation, though one is eager to see tangible results emanating from these processes.
Prima facie there appears to be a reduction in the corruption level except for occasional rumblings that members of the current government too were indulging in corrupt practices, the Central Bank Bond scandal being the biggest of them all.
Following the appointment of the new Chief Justice, in accordance with accepted judicial practice and convention, and the seeming smooth functioning of the justice system, one could say that the independence of the judiciary has been established and the rule of law upheld.
I would see all of these too as further evidence of impact, again attribution gaps not withstanding!
Another side to the picture and future trends
This sadly is only one side of the picture. Change should not be mistaken for revolutionary transformation. The latter is only possible when there is genuine change at the systemic level. The electoral change that took place on January 8th 2015 and consolidated with the General Elections that followed on 13th August 2015, did usher in a spate of impactful changes mentioned above.
At the same time one saw politicians who lost at elections being reappointed through the national list, which seriously compromised good governance principles. In addition some appointments to heads of institutions e.g. the Central Bank Governor were questionable to say the least and subsequent events like the Bond scam further eroded the credentials of the government. Recent speeches of the president sent mixed messages about good governance, amounting to reneging on the promise to treat everyone as equal before the law and bring all wrongdoers to justice. Some powerful members of the cabinet are continuing to protect crooks of the previous regime. The Avante Garde case is a glaring example. That there is still interference with the law enforcement process was very evident in the recent case of the IGP’s telephone conversation with a mystery caller who he referred to as ‘Sir’ and spoke of not arresting a ‘Nilame’ who had been indicted of wrong doing. The attempt by the Prime Minister and the leader of the house trying to cover it up is disgusting. The statement by the latter that it must have been a class teacher of the IGP insults the intelligence of law abiding citizens.
The resolution of the national question is still in abeyance and devolution still remains on the back burner. The military still maintains a large presence in the north and continues to occupy private land, large extents of which are yet to be returned to the dispossessed northern populations. Attempts at reconciliation are thwarted by extremist views and actions on both sides, but one has to understand the asymmetry in the equation and more has to be done by the government to remedy the wrongs of the past.
A faltering economy
There appears to be a lack of vision for the economy, which has become stagnant. Fiscal management reeks of incompetency and the economy is floundering due to general mismanagement. The heaping of taxes on people, while distributing largesse to the political class does not sit well with the public. The massive development projects such as the megapolis project are viewed with skepticism, as they are not geared to the needs of the poor but could end up in asset bubbles that could lead to crises in the future, as witnessed in other parts of the world.
A global perspective
2016 has been a year of tumultuous events – Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, the emergence of the far right in France, in Austria, and many parts of Europe on a deeply conservative, anti-globalisation platform, does not bode well for the future. The anti-immigrant stance linked to a general build of anti-Islamic sentiment is not a healthy sign. They are becoming the new target of hate and prejudice. That there are similar sentiments among extremist nationalist forces in Sri Lanka, is no secret.
Donald Trump’s intolerant views and a possible isolationist policy adopted by him might embolden extremist forces to ride their luck. There is even talk that the former Defence Secretary is biding his time to present himself as a candidate along the same lines of a Donald Trump and as a messiah to Sinhala Buddhist extremists in the country, as Trump was for the white supremacists of America. He could win.
The current unity government is definitely not one of genuine good governance etc. They came in to power using a scandal platform magnified by the use of electronic and social media. Many of them, whether of the UNP or the SLFP are of the same political milieu and represent the same social class.
As an eminent social research friend of mine reminded me recently, Yahapalanaya should be seen as a reincarnation of Dharmishta Samajaya coined by the UNP under JR Jayewardene in 1977.
It is clear that much has to be done if we are to protect this democratic space that has been prised out of the clutch of undemocratic forces, who like hyenas have only receded a few feet, baring their drooling canines, waiting to pounce. They will use these very same democratic institutions only to later undermine them with impunity as they had done before.
All those progressive forces that rallied to get rid of them have to realise that the struggle for democracy and good governance should not be confined to electoral processes that lead to victory at the polls. It is important that we remain politically vigilant and active at all times to sustain the hard won victory of the people to usher in change.
Therefore this requires vigilance on the part of those who stand for good government that works in the interest of the people. A genuine political opposition is needed that is able to lay bare the schemes of those in power to bring back corrupt practices and political deviousness and at the same time expose the game plans of a vile Joint Opposition that has only the singular aim of regaining power by hook or by crook. It is here that, as in the past Groundviews has to continue providing that online platform for presenting a counter narrative that serves as an alternative discourse that prevents derailment of democratic social processes into crystallised “permanences”.
This article is my bouquet to Groundviews on their 10th Anniversary and brickbats, if any, will have to wait for another time and another occasion! While wishing, in conclusion, that this pioneering venture of an online citizen’s journal grows from strength to strength in its role of mobilising debate and critical social thinking and analysis in the fight for social justice, democracy and good governance, I do look forward to continuing to write to it, under my own name, and not have to seek refuge in a cave of pseudonymity.