I was invited by Sri Lanka Unites to speak to a group of 25 students from 13 district at the Royal College auditorium today on the use of new and social media to strengthen social justice and democracy. I remain conflicted about SLU. On the one hand and prima facie, the failure of Beyond Borders in Sri Lanka to live up to its early potential and the absence of any other major youth movement on similar lines in Sri Lanka, SLU’s initiatives are commendable. On the other hand, their understanding of reconciliation glosses over deep-rooted and enduring systemic violence in Sri Lanka, linked to the political culture that is majoritarian and on many occasions, outright racist. To not acknowledge the incumbent government’s direct role in the erosion of democratic governance is to place reconciliation – as an idea and process – in a vacuum. This is not in any way to devalue the work SLU does, but to suggest that with a government that engineered the the 18th Amendment, partook in the monumental waste of food to celebrate the second term of a President, continue to force Tamils into submission, continue to treat them as somehow suspect, countenances violent attacks in broad daylight against Tamil MPs and supports a government whose senior ministers openly call the Tamil version of the national anthem a joke is really able to sustain any meaningful reconciliation is in my mind a stretch. The question is then how to foster reconciliation despite government, not with it. And this is where the potential of social and new media is most palpable.
I took up the invitation to speak because these students are our future. Sri Lanka’s education system – placing great emphasis on learning by rote and simple regurgitation – is an enemy of critical thinking, the basis of media literacy. Without media literacy, no amount of new media content production and dissemination alone with result in a stronger democracy. If only these students are inspired to continually – from every person and every media – ask ‘Why’, and based on the answers or silence in response, create their own media, I’ll be happy.