The long arc of Nandikadal: New media bearing witness

Cross-posted from my personal blog, and published as my regular column in the print edition of The Nation, on 9 September 2012.

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Recent events in Tamil Nadu demonstrate the risk inherent in what most suggest is the Rajapaksa regime’s LLRC gambit – to drag on a process of enfeebled accountability and reductive reconciliation until the sections of the international community interested in independent, international investigations into allegations of war crimes lose interest, shift focus or both. A little time coupled with support from the Beijing consensus, they believe, would clear them of their deeds.

Activists Beyond Borders by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink was published 14 years ago, long before the telegenics of recent social and political upheaval in the MENA countries. It is referenced in a new publication by the United States Institute of Peace on how new media (Internet communications, web based social media and mobile content), though it may not immediately change the dynamics on the ground within a country, may actually shore up longer term support for political reform and indeed, regime change, from outside. As New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring by USIP flags, Keck and Sikkink argue that “boomerang effects,” in which activists in one country can create political momentum in another country to put pressure on their own home government, may make it more costly for the leadership of the country under duress to violently suppress protests

For example, it’s very unlikely that though the Rajapaksa regime shot and killed an FTZ worker during the suppression of violent protests last year – and adroitly navigated the resulting public outcry – it will use live ammunition against a protest march by FUTA. The movement has, quite remarkably, quickly embraced web based social media. FUTA’s Facebook Group Page has, at the time of writing, nearly 11,000 members. Any physical harm against FUTA will be documented, discussed and disseminated, in addition to and independent of mainstream media, opening a world of grief within the country and from beyond that the government will not be able to control, contain or easily censor.

Conscious of the shrinking space to kill, abduct, maim, threaten and censor – as it did with wanton excess and completely impunity during war time – the regime will embrace more overtly conciliatory tactics, buying and biding time with domestic and international critics. The greater negotiation here will not be between the regime and activists, but between key individuals within the regime, who need each other to survive, but will oppose each other’s responses to post-war Sri Lanka’s growing public discourse. This regime on regime contest will be interesting. From memes to cartoons, tweets to blogs, video to websites, op-eds to documentaries, Facebook groups to new books, there are new damned spots that can’t be easily washed away, much as the regime would like to. Thus far, the government’s responses are liberal servings from the Authoritarianism 1.0 recipe book. Censor, block and rekindle ancient laws to stifle free expression. Abduct and torture a few, surveil many more.

Yet this is not stopping the dissent.

This presents an opportunity, but not for facile regime change in the near term. There are growing opportunities for the strategic weakening of the regime’s stranglehold of the public imagination. These must be seized. USIP’s report suggests very clearly that new media is absolutely no guarantee of any immediate or sustained political and systemic change. This puts paid to what for example the UNP loudly proclaimed, in 2011, would be the inevitable trickle down of social activism from Tahrir Square to Lipton Circus. What is does imply is that not unlike the reported travel of our Foreign Minister to London over the FCO’s new travel warnings on Sri Lanka, the more the regime tries to suppress inconvenient narratives, the more the international community will be reminded of its deeds – the inescapable paradox of a regime seeking to erase inconvenient domestic narratives, yet only succeeding in bringing into sharp focus what it has erased, internationally. There’s no winning this war through the Nandikadal rulebook. This is a new information domain, what Julian Assange has called an age of radical transparency, where you cannot hide what you’ve done to erase and censor, even if the targets of censorship were successfully shut down or forcibly shut up.

The corrosive impact and illogic of Tamil Nadu’s imprudent politicians warrants no repetition. Yet it’s a humbling reminder to our government that it simply can’t control how the world sees and remembers Sri Lanka, no matter how much Conde Nast features our more cosmopolitan side.

There is no forgetting the inconvenient, and Nandikadal’s boomerang, thrown early 2009, will return.

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