I don’t want to go back to war. I don’t want Sri Lanka to go back to war. My fear is that most of what we are doing today, and who we are, will drive us back to one. One thousand days after the last war ended, what gave rise to it is still largely unaddressed. Tamils remain, for most of us, an inconvenient adjunct – recipients of our largesse, never welcome to aspire for more. The LLRC’s final report is already being dismissed and ridiculed in public fora. The President’s address on Independence Day, which could have been based on the LLRC’s recommendations, did not even once refer to the report. As far as I know, not even the chapter with the recommendations – which even if the substance of the report, the constitution of the Commission and its mandate are contested, make for vital reading and reflection – have been translated into Tamil or Sinhala. One of the most important documents in post-war Sri Lanka, coming not out of a foreign hand, but from Presidential appointment, thus remains unknown and alien to the majority in Sri Lanka. All this and more suggests reconciliation in Sri Lanka will be, most often, in spite of government and driven by small acts of defiance and innovation.
For years I have written about how information and communications technologies, called ICTs for short, can help bear witness to violence during war, and help create a richer, more perspectival historical record. In the hands of ordinary citizens, a simple SMS or an image from a camera phone was a powerful way of documenting what would otherwise have been hidden, or forcefully erased. The first images of the hellish conditions in Menik Farm, published online at a time when voices in government said there was nothing wrong with ground conditions, were captured on a mobile phone camera. ICTs can help strengthen governance and reconciliation post-war as well.
I was asked in late 2011 what, if I could design and create any one product or service, it would be and why? I observed that the ubiquity of SMS on mobile phones wasn’t yet fully utilised in feedback loops that strengthen governance and basic service delivery. I said that State and privately managed places of public interaction (e.g. a service counter, a government office, a website, an information kiosk) can prominently display an SMS number (with telco buy-in, this could be a short-code and free to send a message to) that people are encouraged to provide, on a scale of 1-5, a rating of how they felt after their transaction or inquiry was completed. This crowd-sourced information could feed into databases that are also open to the public via the web, providing geo-spatial and temporal visualisations of how citizens in our country feel about service delivery and governance. Based on this data, a programme of incentives can be created (using game techniques) to enhance the service delivery of key sectors that are comparably weak or poor, and also provide citizens with the feeling that their feedback is actually worth giving. Using geo-fencing (a way of capturing or isolating feedback from a particular area), more sophisticated applications can, in real time or over time, alert public officials and the general public to growing discontent, giving early warning against violence or spill over effects like a rise in petty crime, gender based violence and graft.
This is just one idea. There are many. Ideas are only as limited as we have people interested in a form and content of reconciliation more than what government says it is, and should be. ICTs today, with or without the support of government and telcos, already provide innumerable tools and platforms to give voice to what we can do, say and disseminate to make connections vital to a peace more than just the absence of war. As catharsis or an expression of hope, it matters less whether we agree with all that’s published so long as content is produced, by as many as possible, using text, photos, audio and video. It doesn’t take much, and the reward is more than some local or international award or prize. It is to help expand the space for ideas that can address what is so wrong and violent in Sri Lanka, and celebrate what’s right and good.
Subversive ideas. Bad ideas. Good ideas. And a few great ideas.
Published in The Nation, 12 February 2012.