New Year. Old problems. Those who have taken a medium or long haul flight in recent years know the feeling. You are promised hundreds of channels of the best entertainment, more than enough to last the length of the flight. In reality, the films and shows are those you have seen before, the music isn’t to your taste and the quality of either isn’t very good. It is the illusion of choice, forcing you to watch reruns because there’s no other option, or switch off and sleep. Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics also, periodically, offers the promise of meaningful change and renewal, but in fact only ever offers dramatic re-enactments of a tired script with the same actors, made up badly to look differently. Some in fact, just play themselves. One is reminded of a quote from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel ‘The Leopard’, where a character – an Italian aristocrat – notes that “If we want things to stay the way they are, things will have to change”.
Weeks after Mr. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister again, despite evidence in the public domain, those responsible for the coup – from President downwards – go about their lies and lives with impunity. Individuals appointed during the coup to key positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Information Department and other Ministries, continue in their service. Ambassadors who supported the coup, actively and openly, continue to hold their posting. Members of Parliament responsible for unprecedented, wanton violence on the floor of the house and the destruction of public property, have not yet been held accountable. Individuals who convinced the President that his actions were constitutional, as noted by the President himself, haven’t been identified and dealt with. The President is on record requesting that those appointed to state media during the coup, including ITN, Rupavahini and Lake House, aren’t removed from their positions. The Minister has complied.
2019 starts with the constitutional coup’s enduring success, which is to place in positions of commanding authority – around both domestic policy and foreign relations – individuals who are deeply illiberal, undemocratic, and loyal to President above principle, professionalism, constitution or country. They will undermine, actively work against, stall and reverse progressive measures brought about by the government and work towards political anchors and goals partial to the former administration, including its domestic and international allies. But what does the Prime Minister have to say about all this? One doesn’t know, because he hasn’t said anything. And therein lies the rub. Many, who were spontaneously animated and agitated to strengthen democracy in October, find the ominously silent yet definite entrenchment of the coup’s dynamics disturbing. I am one of them.
There is another reason for my disquiet, after what is more widely recognized as the end of the constitutional coup mid-December. What was anecdotally shared and intuitively grasped by those on Twitter during the coup was the fact that the content sounded and looked markedly different to what it was usually, before the coup. Twitter in Sri Lanka plays a vital role in the now well-established media ecosystem through its ability to shape conversations, accentuate attention and drive traffic towards certain place, product, pole, person or party. And as with all social media, its influence extends beyond just those connected to it and engaging on it. From May to December last year, I collected around 332,000 tweets in the public domain, anchored to two of the most used hashtags in the country. Likewise, I collected just over 181,000 tweets from last week of October to the beginning of December, covering the timespan of the coup and as a historic moment.
Keeping in mind the theory of six degrees of separation, I was surprised to learn that over the months I had data for in 2018, those using Twitter captured by my research net were separated by just under four degrees. During the coup however, there is statistical evidence to prove that the use and users on Twitter grew. In the collection anchored to the coup, the average connection between users was just over five degrees. This indicates an increase of those on Twitter – numerically as well as by way of diversity – in a very short span of time. This significant growth was the result of dormant users coming back on to the platform, as well as new users using the platform to produce and distribute content, including personal frames of anxiety, resistance and hope. Research over November alone indicated clearly that Twitter, as well as Facebook, were dominated not by content supporting the coup and the President’s actions, but by pushback. In other words, those most volubly against the President and Rajapaksa, were those who were not card-carrying supporters of the UNP or Mr. Wickremesinghe.
The data-driven evidence for this over Twitter alone is significant, because the rapid expansion in those active is a proxy indicator for the support and goodwill that the UNP and Mr. Wickremesinghe organically attracted. Though users didn’t increase in much the same way, on Facebook, there was an exponential increase in the production of content and engagement with it. Given the entrenchment of the coup’s destructive and disturbing dynamics, it is unclear how as this year progresses, those who came out to the streets in November and December 2018 – many for the first time in their lives – and produced content over social media, will react to what is already evident as another lost opportunity for meaningful democratic reform and change.
This is more significant than the slow erosion of support for the January 2015 configuration. There is a constituency that is clearly anti-Rajapaksa but not pro-Wickremesinghe, that is opposed to authoritarianism as much as it is opposed to the UNP’s nepotism and corruption. This new constituency doesn’t act according to established norms of a party cadre, because they are fluid and flexible in partisan affiliation – assured in what they don’t want to see, and guided more by what they would like to bring about no matter who is in power.
This is not something traditional political parties know how to deal with, much less even recognize. While not an exact science, the anger this constituency will feel toward a government they fought hard to protect because of democratic and constitutional principles, acting now against this very spirit, will invariably have an electoral consequence. The degree and depth of this initially virtual discontent and its subsequent expression through franchise runs the spectrum of non-participation (believing nothing changes) through to voting in the known evil, given that multiple chances given to hope and change went to waste.
Post-coup, the most significant difference between Sirisena and Rajapaksa is the spelling of their surnames. Everything else is interchangeable. It goes to show that democracy in Sri Lanka this year faces a challenge unseen even prior to 2015’s Presidential preference and mandate. A President who acts in concert with a former President he was once a sworn enemy of. A Prime Minister does not act to safeguard and strengthen the overwhelming democratic mandate he received just over a month ago. A constituency that clearly cares more about democracy and constitutionalism than those in government. And the prospect of elections where the greatest distinction projected by competing voices is really the smallest of difference.
It is customary to begin a new year with hope. But if holding on to hope requires the jettison of stark realities, I will choose to brace myself around what is to come, instead of being surprised later this year around dynamics evident just after the coup. The only constant in our politics, evidently, is change that changes nothing.