Photograph courtesy Sri Lanka Guardian
When Sanjana came up with an offer too tempting to pass, I accepted with the knowledge that rolling out the significant junctures of the past decade and reflecting them upon the future was going to be a daunting task because in my short life span lived so far; it definitely was the most significant decade in too many diverse ways.
The window seat view
Looking back at the past ten years my memory is vibrantly stuck on one key incident which took place in 2006 and I think it’s most appropriate to unroll the story from that point on. It was the year I finished school and soon after orchestrated by my mother against my will to intern at a private organization situated at the Piththala junction. The most important reminiscence I carry with me of my internship there was bearing eye witness to the attack on the most powerful bureaucrat of the Sri Lankan government back then, the Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapakse on 1st December and missing sharp nail injuries thanks to the shatter proof window I was sitting by. There’s much debate on who is responsible for the attack to date.
A country at war
Sri Lanka has been suffering with its ethnic conflict for over 3 decades and during Mahinda Rajapakse’s (MR) campaign for presidency there was no pledge to putting an end to the conflict by means of a bloody and brutal war. However the situation clearly took a turn in 2006 with Maavilaaru being a key juncture and the news for the next 3 years was full of heavy fighting, air strikes, shelling and displacement of people. The humanitarian disaster in the North was huge. The country was at war, and so was the conscience of the people of the South. The media with clear crafted guidance made sure that every person in the south felt it and supported it. And those to who went against this drill simply disappeared in white vans. Such persons who disappeared were automatically labeled traitors and anyone who spoke up and questioned such disappearances was labeled as NGO puppets or traitors. I think it was somewhere during this time I subscribed to Groundviews, one of the very few platforms if not the only that came out with critical content that really spoke out.
Api wenuwen api
More and more soldiers were recruited to the forces by a very emotionally driven campaign titled ‘Api Wenuwen Api’. Concept of ‘war hero’s’ was drilled into the minds of the people of the south. They who were making pledges and offerings to Buddhist temples every evening to protect those heroes that were at war, returned home to watch news and rejoice over the losses and casualties caused to the LTTE in the North. Everyone’s thinking was aligned involuntarily in one direction, direction of hate, revenge and sensationalized brutality.
Celebration of a nation
I remember very well the day it all came to an end in 2009. I walked into the cafeteria of my faculty at the University of Colombo and I saw a crowd of about 300 people staring into the tiny 12 inch TV which was playing a 10 second loop of the image of the dead leader of the LTTE, Prabhakaran. I’m not sure how to describe the feeling I had seeing this. The image was disturbing to begin with, but what was more unsettling was how everyone stared into the repetitive loop of a dead man’s head for almost an hour. This image was engraved in every Sri Lankan’s head that day never to be erased again. And streets of Colombo took life with firecrackers and pots of cooking ‘kiribath’ in celebration of this ‘victory’. The 3 decade long ethnic war came to an end, leaving behind a scarred country with people who were immune to violence and craving for intolerance.
The end of the war was demarcated as the ‘Vijayagrahanya’ (supreme victory) and this word echoed in our ears everyday along with the figure of the president which appeared in larger than life cutouts across the country. The presidency was soon converted to be a kingship. Songs of praise were sung for the savior of the nation. He was no longer H.E the president but Appachchi (supreme father) or Maha Raja (supreme king) and also very conveniently as claimed by a historian cum artist on television, a distant relative of Lord Buddha himself.
War crimes and Conspiracy Theories
Questions on war crimes and human rights violations emerged as a parallel discussion during this time and strong fear factors were still maintained by the government and its supporters in media of threats to national security. There were multifaceted elements of fear embedded in the minds of the people in the South that peace shall not prevail. Every question or concern on war crimes or human rights violations were framed as ‘international conspiracies’ which were brewing up to take back the supremacy of the Sinhala Buddhist nation looked at all Non-Governmental Organizations with distrust. The country aptly turned its back on the west and made best friends with the Chinese instead, no questions asked.
Power and new middle class
Nepotism, corruption and thuggery was completely normalized in the eyes of the masses with the President making public statements on persons who were red handed in corruption as ‘ape kenek’ (one of us). The legislative, executive and judiciary were no longer independent of each other but were under the direct influence of a single hand or rather a single family. Along with these changing values portrayed by state and injected to its people with daily doses of patriotism and nationalism, a new middle class emerged through into the power structures. They were the closest to those in power, holding important decisions or making the most profitable business deals.
Beautified and distressed Colombo
It was during this time where all walls came down in Colombo. Once a scruffy, dodgy and disorganized city now put in proper order and glammed up by the Urban Development Authority which was taken under the Ministry of Defense. Heroes of war no longer held guns but mamoties and worked on redoing colonial buildings, parks and paving the city. One couldn’t help but notice that most roads were paved many times over, with different stones each time. Colombo transformed to be an attractive city with the slum settlements and small box boutique vendors uprooted from their inhabitations and many new add on’s like shopping complexes, fancy cafes and jogging tracks coming into place. People now shopped, dined out, jogged and cycled day and night. At the outset, it all looked great. A clean city and happy people. But the moment a jogger stepped out of track to feel the grass, a whistle would blow from some corner as a warning to keep off the grass. The moment a couple talked or walked holding hands in a park they’d be warned or chased out for indecent behavior. One layer down there was this lurking feeling of being watched and being heard. There was military presence not only in the North but also here in the South. It felt as if every move of our lives was being monitored by invisible surveillance cameras in every nook and corner and no one dared to ask questions or make criticisms. In the meantime the media never carried a single story or draw a single cartoon of the Secretary of Defense, no one dared.
Patriot or traitor
Another significant and noteworthy change was the film industry along with other forms of art which took shape to felicitate and celebrate the sacred kingship and promote war and the ‘victory’ obtained. There was a clear guideline which made you a patriot or a traitor of the country and that was your outspoken undying loyalty to the ‘king’. The emergence of the concept of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was clearly visible during this time and acted as a filler of space to the lives of the majority of the country who was bored without all the action brought about by war.
There was also this hype created around Sri Lanka being a Sinhala Buddhist nation and the role of the Tamil people being the ‘other’ in the eyes of the Sinhalese was relocated over to the Muslims. It was as if the majority of the country could not count its existence as important without an enemy on the other side. Formation of many cult extremist groups took place that was fighting to craft a stronger identity for the Sinhala Buddhists, as if it was nonexistent or was inadequate. Buddhist priests were no longer heard quoting the Dhammapada and speaking of meththa but were rebelling against the minorities fighting for the lost rights of the Sinhalese Buddhists. A new cult of Buddhism emerged which took over the news, the roads and the people, demonstrating violence, aggression and intolerance in complete contrast to buddha’s teachings.
It was during this time in 2014 with anti-Muslim riots taking up in South of Sri Lanka incited by ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ the new fighters for the sustenance of the Sinhalese Buddhists as they claimed themselves to be, nudged the free thinking anti racists to wake up and speak up against such acts of vandalism.
Common hope and good governance
With such a vibrant canvas in the background, the change that took place on 8th January 2015 was clearly unforeseen. Things were crafted in a way where the country was set on a journey of having one king and maybe an ‘heir’ to the ‘throne’ after many years ideally from the same family. The concept of a common candidate shook the country with surprise and brought together very many likeminded individuals who wanted to see change and oppression stopped. After the longest time the Sri Lankan civil society was not in fear or vulnerable to act, advocate and lobby for a better tomorrow. Journalists who couldn’t return to the country were working tirelessly through news blogs delivering uncensored information. Social media tools like facebook and twitter took a new form of life.
During the height of such activity leading to the election, I remember MR cynically stating ‘how can facebook win an election?’ and the impossible happened. Sri Lanka outvoted the king and elected a President again. A statement made by the people of the country which was loud and clear, that they had enough and wanted to live free of fear, oppression and corruption. However, the good governance regime even after 365 days after its existence failed to catch up and live up to its own expectations and of the people who voted them in. It’s now clear to see that re-enforcing boundaries on many things which were breached by the previous regime is easier said than done. Especially when you create a mammoth cabinet out of the same people who were fan faring the wrong doings and mal practices before, all for the sake of protecting a party.
Leaving the political disheartening’s aside, dramatic as it may sound the air around us became easier to breathe and words spoken felt lighter with this conversion. People became more outspoken and critical of what took place around them. There was clear change in the interactions on social media and people were not afraid anymore to speak their minds and even the silent majority who were shying away during the height of intense digital activism leading to 8th January were now rebels on facebook.
No longer did an ordinary person just log into find a timeline full of photographs of someone’s family, cat or dog but instead logged into a platform full of content. Outburst of pages, groups and blogs creating discussions, memes and posts on topics of culture, religion and everything else they pleased. Public debates were alive and kicking online and everyone who was not involved was simply insignificant and nonexistent. People who were once afraid to even mention names of those in power weren’t afraid anymore to create and share content that directly criticized them and even criticized the wrong doings of the new government. Protests like ‘occupy the square’ which was digitally lobbied and physically executed and critical memes and posts coming out questioning acts of the current President and Prime Minister are good examples of how people weren’t scared to question the authorities anymore. The change in the liberty any ordinary person took to think, speak and act was clear.
This shift also gave rise to the extremist groups reflecting strong nationalist sentiments to widespread their arrogance. Behind real people operating on honest intensions were also groups who were planted in by different agendas whose job was to create content, hype trends, troll and attack all alternative ideologies. There were many instances of personally targeted social media attacks on activists and liberal thinkers who promoted cohesion and questioned extremism. Comments coming out of the nationalist extremists on such posts were full of absolute hate and even filth. This digital war is still active and unlike two years ago every random citizen is deeply involved in fighting their corner to support which ever ideology they stand for.
Best and the worst
A clear merger of classes in the field of arts and culture also became evident after 2015. Many collaborative events stemmed out and came alive in full force which consisted and catered to cross cutting segments of the society. The best and most significant thing is that this was all a natural phenomenon which emerged out of all parts of communities and was not artificially triggered by any of the organizations that were mandated to do it. While such organizations both state driven and non- governmental still went on doing their workshops and activities around cohesion and diversity, and the youth went ahead and set their own trail ablaze in form of meet ups and gigs which grew to be massive points of merger and collaboration for all sorts of diverse groups. This unification is a historical one. Bridging the gap between different class, racial and language structures of the small but deviated society of Sri Lanka taking form naturally is a critical change in going forward.
At the current day we are left with two main challenges. Breaking away from the trends of corruption and absolute power executed during the major part of the last decade and steering the country towards systematic change. This of course is easier said than done especially with the previous regime having demonstrated in a grand waltz of how it was possible to get away with anything, a path now aptly followed by some in power. The next and most important challenge is clear to see on social media on a daily basis via the clash between the extreme nationalists and liberal thinkers. The strongly emerging nationalist sentiment is not only a trend in Sri Lanka but also clearly reflected across the world through Brexit and Trump’s victory as President of the United States of America. Pulling the plug of agenda driven extremist trends in Sri Lanka and steering the conscience of the masses to a middle ground where people are tolerant and empathetic towards the other is going to be a long and tiring walk. This is an overwhelmingly complex task than it needs to be with many invisible and intangible political and power driven dynamics being at play, tilted towards extremism.
Sri Lanka’s weakness always used by and for the favor of those in power has been its diversity and hybridity. Even after being at war for 3 decades and experiencing the futile devastation it caused, it still remains exposed, sensitive and vulnerable to the channels of hate and chauvinism. Sri Lankans are driven to protect an invisible and non existent purity of whichever race, religion, group in society they belong to and this bubble of illusory pristinity needs to break in order for us to achieve anything in future.