Online dissent and the future of extremism in Sri Lanka

“… Thus while the government is trying to position Singapore as a Media Hub for the fast-growing new media technology and development, home grown talent often face harsh official harassment. Singapore’s netizens are moving to redefine the terms of the island state’s political discourse – whether the government welcome them or not”.

Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Media Report 2009

Kalinga’s sentiments are resonant in Sri Lanka as well, in this our official year of ICT and English. Over the course of 2009 alone, I have been informed of and visited over two dozen websites and web based social networking initiatives that highlight facets of the war and humanitarian concerns in Sri Lanka. They are all very well designed and most of them are compelling narratives that, at first, do not at all appear to be what they essentially are – partial narratives serving parochial ends. A select few are show signs of emerging as effective platforms for engaging the unlike-minded online. For example, a few readers may know Pissu Poona, an anonymous identity on Facebook – one of the world’s best known and most used online social networks – that has befriended nearly 200 individuals at the time of writing and regularly points to content on the web that critiques and analyses the Sri Lankan conflict. Pissu Poona is a site for some interesting debate and as a post which generated a lot of responses noted,

“just a reminder that this space is our space for debate and discussion. it is to challenge you (and me) to think about issues and perhaps question our own beliefs and prejudices. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our communities are polarized now more than ever and unless and until the dialogue is started again the mistrust and suspicion will continue to grow. Pissu Poona is an attempt to re-initiate the dialogue that war has cost us.”

On the other hand, as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke recently noted,

“Pro-Tiger Tamil students, mainly from Canadian campuses are walking from Toronto to Chicago in order to get on the Oprah Winfrey show. Now that’s a pretty neat gimmick. They have a well designed website. The Sinhala students who have the sophistication to pull something like this off are uninvolved in the struggle because they are alienated by the elements that tend to dominate equivalent networks, while those who are heavily involved in the “patriotic” struggle do not make the most Oprah-friendly material.”

Given that the peaceful negotiation of conflict and amplification of critical dissent on and through the web is an area of significant personal interest, I found Dayan’s encapsulation of the current growth spurt of web based pro-LTTE advocacy very interesting. Ironically however, for the pedestrian apparatchiks of the Rajapakse regime as much as the trade unionist fighting for her rights, the human rights defender, the traditional journalist and the Tamil nationalist vehemently opposed to the LTTE yet unequivocally committed to the equal treatment of all Tamil peoples – the web poses a real challenge.  Equally and for all of these types, the web is alien terrain. Its unfamiliarity breeds hubris, which in turn leads to the gross under estimation of the web’s potential for transforming polity and society, for better or worse.

Read the full article in my Sunday Leader column today.

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