Technology and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Originally written for an up-coming edition of Saama Vimarshi (Peace Monitor) a publication in Sinhala by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), where I am a Senior Researcher.

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Every single available indicator suggests that well within the next 5 years, the number of registered SIM cards will exceed the total population of Sri Lanka. There are already over 18 million SIM registrations, in a country where there are just over 21 million people. Leaving aside the grey and second hand market, sales of new mobile phones over 2011 alone amounted to 22.4 billion rupees and around 5.4% out of 2.03 million mobiles sold were smartphones[1], which today have computing power and features that rival desktop PCs from a decade ago. With Central Bank approval, we have recently seen the introduction of mobile phone (cashless) payments. From countries in Africa to Afghanistan, mobile payments have revolutionised the manner in which those without bank accounts have engaged in commercial transactions. There are already many ways to pay utility bills, vote in your favourite singer on TV game shows, get job alerts, play games with friends, text message large groups, get updates from as well as publish to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, type in Tamil or Sinhala, download dozens of apps for various tasks and information sources, watch TV, listen to the radio, learn new lessons, get sports updates, find out first aid information, get stock market alerts as well as natural disaster alerts and warnings, use Skype, get inspirational quotes, health, dietary and fitness tips, religious and spiritual advice as well as what the stars portend on a daily basis delivered every morning via SMS.

The sheer range of services available on mobile phone networks is mind-boggling, albeit with one caveat. Not a single government line ministry or telecoms provider in Sri Lanka has, post-war, grasped the potential of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) writ large, and mobile telephony in particular, to strengthen and support reconciliation. The traditional emphasis on mobile payments, entertainment, personal social media and information services have resulted in a number of significant innovations that have made what is always on and in the palm or pocket of most citizens their first and sometimes only device for news, commerce and communication. The potential for leveraging these devices for reconciliation is yet to be realised.

It is likely that not a single other essay in this important issue of Saama Vimarshi touches on the potential of ICTs to be actively used for reconciliation.  The irony is that ICTs are central to robustly contesting competing ideas reconciliation, identity and accountability post-war, whether in village or city, amongst civil society or government, within the country or with the diaspora. Most often, the headlines report on how the freedom of expression is slowly but surely being curtailed and censored online, especially through blocking websites perceived to be in opposition to government. There is however a world of possibilities beyond websites alone to strengthen – through the generation of ideas and information, their dissemination and resulting debate – reconciliation far more meaningful than what the government is ostensibly interested in, and seeks to bring about.

On the one hand, ICTs are passive networks, invisible inroads that snake into our lives, and which we use for tasks we cannot even imagine anymore doing without the aid of a mobile, an email, the Internet or the web. From email to an SMS, from a call from anywhere in Sri Lanka to anywhere else in the country or the world, we don’t often recognise how integral ICTs are to our lives because we don’t stop to think how things done, said and exchanged as recently as 10 to 15 years ago. There is an instructive passage from the UTHR(J)’s report on Black July, anchored to how information networks at the time contributed to the anti-Tamil pogrom, quoting the country’s first Commissioner General of Essential Services, Deshamanya Bradman Weerakoon[2].

“Weerakoon himself pointed to the violence engulfing Colombo on Monday, Kandy on Tuesday, Badulla on Wednesday and Passara on Thursday, the delay roughly corresponding with distance from Colombo, and offered his own explanation. He associated it with news passed on by travellers, say someone going from Kandy to Badulla and instigating others, “See what the Sinhalese in Kandy did to the Tamils, where is our patriotism, are we not going to do our bit for our race?” He named army personnel as being among the agents in instigation of this kind, and cited the experience of his brother who was a planter near Passara. This planter was in the bazaar where he observed a convoy of army trucks that were parked. Otherwise, everything was normal and peaceful. He left the town, his vehicle climbing a hill. When he was some distance away, he heard gunshots and noise. Passara had erupted. As to the Welikade prison massacres, Weerakoon believes that spontaneous low-level incitement was the key factor. That is to say, rioting had begun in Borella, on Monday (25th) the area was on fire, and the news would have been conveyed to the prisoners who were a mere few hundred yards away, with a challenge to prove their patriotism to the Sinhalese cause.”

You have here, before the Internet, the web, the mobile phone, the fax or SMS, an interesting phenomenon of ethnic violence spreading at the speed of vehicular traffic and travel. It’s a fundamentally different world today, where a message from one corner of Sri Lanka can, literally at the speed of light, reach another, leading to what many believe is a world today where localised ethnic violence in one place can result, very quickly, a pogrom hundreds or thousands of miles away.  While true and humbling, this is unnecessarily dystopic. The same technologies that allow for the transmission of violence and hate are those that can be, and are leveraged for peacebuilding and reconciliation. The power of ICTs lies in content and use – how we actively engineer what we do and use so unthinkingly to share petty stories and banal entertainment to support, by design and execution, inconvenient truths, hidden narratives, intra-ethnic conversations, inter-ethnic ideas exchange and progressive communal discourse. The shift proposed and indeed, necessary, is from the mobile phone, for example, being a passive instrument of communication to an active agent of change, a central node in macro, meso and micro level initiatives to strengthen reconciliation through greater access to information, ideas, alternatives and communication.

Doing this will require two key factors – one, a more fertile imagination from civil society to embrace the potential of ICTs in reconciliation, and two, the buy-in from telcos to support civil society initiatives through communications subsidies, sponsorship or preferential service level agreements. It is quite possible that the former will have to forge forward without the support of the latter, given corporate sector aversion to any sort of association with civil society initiatives that critique governance and government. A few examples of how this can be engineered will suffice for the purposes of this short paper.

The growth of the Sri Lankan meme on the web offers one cogent example of how the intersection of graphic design, digital photography, Photoshop, the Internet, culture and idiom can create conversations that weren’t possible even a decade ago. And while prima facie the Sri Lankan meme may appear too irreverent, farcical or even childish to be of any real value for reconciliation, a closer study suggest otherwise, and moreover, that the meme can access (young, web savvy, intelligent) consumers that most civil society initiatives can’t reach. As I noted recently, “[Memes] are irreverent cultural constructs that once created generate a life of their own, poking fun at stereotypes, individuals, brands, institutions, political parties, fashion and even the sacred terrain of Sri Lankan cricket. Most are as funny as they are incisive. This is not infantile graffiti – it is considered design.”[3] Sri Lanka still largely lacks – a few notable exceptions aside – a cartoonist like the gifted South African Jonathan Shapiro, who though the cartoon character Zapiro published in the mainstream press provided incisive critiques of reconciliation during the country’s transition from apartheid in the mid-90s. The power of cartoons in reconciliation is woefully underutilised in post-war Sri Lanka across print and web media, and also because it doesn’t take high levels of political or media literacy to understand a good drawing and what it seeks to communicate.

On the web, platforms like Google Moderator remain unknown to many in civil society. The Centre for Policy Alternatives used it to generated and rank ideas about democracy in post-war Sri Lanka, and the Institute for Policy Studies a few months ago used it to generate ideas of how to combat rising youth unemployment and social inequity. The quality responses surprised even those at IPS. There is no reason why platforms like Google Moderate cannot be used, in Tamil and Sinhala, to generate fresh thinking and debates on reconciliation. This idea is called crowd-sourcing – harvesting from and taking back to civil society ideas, alternatives, narratives and documentation that collectively and in the aggregate, is often qualitatively better than what is usually produced by a closed group of experts. There are other web platforms that can aid in this curatorial aspect of reconciliation.  Pinterest[4] is one. Storify[5] and Bundlr[6] are two others. Timeline JS[7], a visually stunning and completely free web visualisation platform was recently used by the International Crisis Group to demonstrate the failure of reconciliation in Sri Lanka three years after the end of war[8].  None of these platforms are pegged to English – content can as easily be curated in Tamil or Sinhala, through text, audio, video or photos.

The web can also help in memorialising. The Documentation Centre of Cambodia[9] is an independent Cambodian research institute that uses a range of real world and web based projects to document, share, collectively remember and account for the heinous violence during the Khmer Rouge rule. It’s model can be used by civil society as well as (however unlikely) progressive sections of government to supplement the findings and recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in the years ahead. Sri Lanka already has some rare but good examples of public service programming on terrestrial television. Though it’s high cost can be an impediment, given that it reaches millions, TV programmes modelled on the lines of Videoletters[10], a powerful series from the former Yugoslavia. As the website notes,

“Documentary makers Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek took their cameras through former Yugoslavia. They filmed people that had the courage to submit videos of themselves to find the people they lost contact with during the war. For 20 broken relationships they transported videoletters back and forth over the borders of nationality, race, religion, fear and shame. The videoletters are not only touching, but give hope and inspiration. They make you want to help, to do something.”

And if not terrestrial TV, can short documentaries featuring citizen-generated content be edited professionally for web and mobile consumption? YouTube’s compelling social media experiment, Life in a Day[11], offers inspiration on this score – civil society can easily spin-off from this to create compelling short form videos in Sinhala, Tamil and English that showcase just how different ordinary life is in various parts of the country, and through dialogue, co-realise the reasons for why this is the case? The same can be done with radio as well, with La Benevolencija Mbariza programming from Burundi[12], for example, broadcasting,

“radio soaps, discussions and educational programmes, in combination with grass roots activities that provide citizens in vulnerable societies with knowledge on how to recognise and resist manipulation to violence and how to heal trauma, encouraging them to be active bystanders against incitement and violence.”

There are already compelling Sri Lankan examples, aside from those the Centre for Policy Alternatives itself has championed through Groundviews[13], Vikalpa[14], Moving Images[15], iBooks on bearing witness[16], audio podcasts[17], engaging short form video for the web[18], incisive photography[19] and literary forms online[20]. Kannan Arunasalam’s i.am project[21] is unique in Sri Lanka, looking at individuals across the country and their views on identity, ethnicity and religion. The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) has for many years maintained a unique resource – a Peace and Conflict Analysis Timeline[22], an initiative that is “a participatory initiative to help those with an interest in the Sri Lankan conflict gain a deeper understanding of the conflict’s roots, manifestation and trajectory and to promote discussion around events, themes and experiences of peace and conflict related events.”

There are significant and enduring challenges. Many would immediately point to the fact that few Sri Lankans use the Internet. While true today, this cannot be an excuse for not envisioning initiatives that compel citizens, along with mainstream media consumption, to go to the web and the Internet to generate information and ideas of their own, and engage with those others have shared. Incentives to do so can come from models of gamification (rewards schemes, street cred through points, social recognition through badges or markers), simple financial support and prizes or innovative combinations of both. New models of civic media – both online and in print –  can be created, but NGOs need to realise that engagement with civil society means that they too are participants in the discussion, and cannot always turn away or censor scrutiny over their own policies and practices regarding, inter alia, reconciliation.

Let’s just take the LLRC’s recommendations, which are today in limbo. It is a matter of public record that the LLRC, when active, was supported in its documentation more by civil society than by government[23]. Rather than continually bemoan what government isn’t doing, new media and ICTs offer ample opportunities for civil society to think about what can and should be done, despite government and indeed, despite corporate sector apathy. The central challenge is not what can be done and how – the technology is ubiquitous and examples, numerous. Civil society itself needs to unshackle itself from old, tired thinking.

Reconciliation will come, but only for those who imagine it.


[2] Sri Lanka’s Black July, Chapter 9, UTHR(J) , http://www.uthr.org/Book/CHA09.htm

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