Photo courtesy Lesley Barnes

On the day that marks a week since a new era of Sri Lankan politics dawned, the country that voted for a disciplined society is rapidly falling in-line. No gunmen are wrestling the unwilling dissenters to toe the line, though. There is no island-wide curfew; no social media block. Instead, self-policing is the rule of the day. The social conduct and expected behaviour ingrained during the 2010-2015 period appears to be muscle memory. Having been herded back – or wilfully walked back in – to the discipline hinted at during the Mahinda Rajapaksa era, our collective behaviour is rapidly reverting to self-policing. It’s like riding a bicycle.

The Panopticon

This idea of a self-policing society is nothing new. The 18th century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham created the concept of the panopticon, meaning “all-seeing”, as a blueprint for a prison. The basic structure of the panopticon was thus: a central tower surrounded by cells; a watchman occupies the central tower, keeping an eye on the prisoners; the tower is illuminated to such a degree that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells, but the occupants of the cells are not able to see the watchman. Later, the French philosopher Michel Foucault revisited the idea of the panopticon. He stipulated that the panopticon is a means of subjugating the citizens of a disciplined society. Its importance lay not in the industrious nature of labour use, but in the conditioning, it imposes on the occupants. There is asymmetrical surveillance, a condition where the occupants of the cells are seen, but they do not see; at least, they believe they are being seen. As a result of this asymmetrical surveillance, the inmates fear the eye of the watchman and discipline themselves; there is self-policing. Foucault would have been thrilled at the microcosmic panopticon we are now building.

A Disciplined Society

The newly appointed President to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka rode on a populist wave under the promise of creating a disciplined society. There were fears, not unfounded, that this discipline would be achieved through violent means, a throwback to the pre-2015 era. However, if the past week is any indication, our new President need not employ any overt means of establishing discipline. In addition to the journalists who have had to leave their public social media platforms due to individuals threatening their safety, and dissenting voices being told they have no space in the public forums, there is a strong self-censoring among the general public. From locking-down social media profiles to not getting into a heated debate with the tuk-tuk driver, we are in the process of disciplining our conduct. We are convinced that any voice of dissent will disappear without a trace; that there has not been any evidence to support this the past week remains irrelevant. If at all, it makes us all the more convinced that there is a watchman in the tower; whether there really is one or not is irrelevant.

This, however, is the beauty of the promised prosperity. The newly appointed regime need not be brutal, need not be violent; they could very well be in full support of dissenting voices – except, there would be none. The authorities need not assign a watchman to man the central tower. The existence of the tower and our collective memories of what once was is sufficient grounds for a disciplined society. For, disciplinary power is not like traditional power; it is not the obvious pomp, circumstance, or pageantry. Disciplinary power is invisible; it is internalised. It does not require the subjects to know or see who is wielding the power. In fact, the more invisible the authority is, better disciplined the society. On the other hand, the subjects of a disciplined society are completely visible at all times. The crux of being disciplined lies in being constantly watched, or believed that they are being constantly watched. This ultimately leads to an internalization of the regulations; discipline, when done right, becomes almost a way of life.

Therein lies the stark difference between what once was and what now is: one used brute force seeking the traditional notion of power; what we face today is more insidious in that it is invisible – it uses your own mind against you. If we are waiting for a public display of power as it was five years ago, it is highly possible it may never occur. True power lies not in fear, but in being able to re-wire the human psyche to adhere to your own agenda. Self-censoring and self-isolation are but the beginning of a process of conformity. As long as we keep to the panopticon mind-set, the newly elected President is likely to have no problem in delivering his promise of a disciplined society. There will be no destroying of enemies; the conformist society will take on the mantle of merely changing them.

Noori Estate

Although the policing of the society by society is nothing new, the violence reported from Noori Estate in Deraniyagala provides an apt preface for things to come. It stands out not merely due to the reason for violence, but also due to the way in which it was administered. According to reports, the individual has been warned prior to the election to vote for candidate X. Upon returning from the polling station, the suspects had accused the individual of not voting for X and assaulted him. Extending from that, the suspect had later visited the individual at his house and assaulted the individual’s family. This targeted violence that moves from threats to adhere to a particular code of conduct, and extended punishment not only to the supposed perpetrator but to their family as well is indicative of a society that has taken discipline unto itself. The assaults are concentrated on one individual and delivered in excess; it’s almost as if he’s being made an example of. Considering the reported fear among the Noori Estate families in the aftermath of this incident and their reluctance to vote, one could argue that the lesson has achieved its intended learning outcomes.

While these incidents are concerning enough, it is the lack of clear political involvement that is more concerning. Instances where the community takes law unto its own hands was becoming increasingly common in the past couple of years, especially with regard to violence against minorities. What we are likely to see in the aftermath of the Presidential Election is another manifestation of this. The general public taking to heart the call to do their duty for the nation, and taking to disciplining the neighbour. When you cannot trust your own neighbour, when you do not know if your friend will be another face in the mob demanding you conform, it is but natural for self-policing and self-censoring to happen. When done for long enough, we would have convinced ourselves that non-conformity is a crime; that a disciplined society is a conforming society; that to dissent is immoral and unethical.

It is easy to yearn for the disciplined society, one where that annoying motorbike rider does not cut across your lane, one where the Municipal Council collects garbage on time. Yet, what a disciplined society truly is, extends far beyond adherence to road rules or clean public places. Discipline is a type of power that derives from conformity. If dissenting voices are allowed to exist, it would do so within a structured, disciplined framework that is allowed to exist by the authority that it claims is oppressive. Although we see this more clearly under the current era, complete credit for it cannot be laid at the altar of Rajapaksa’s. Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga spoke of being a “benevolent dictator”; erstwhile Army Commander and unsuccessful President-hopeful Mahesh Senanayake commented to BBC that there has been “too much of freedom, too much of peace for the last 10 years”. As a people, we seem to yearn for someone to discipline us; we seem to have a strong distaste towards peace and democracy.

After all, our President did say that “the public voted for me after considering all of these factors.”, only to correctly note a while later “and the public accepted our way”.