Broken promises (Original Title Island)
The car was under a tarpaulin that only covered half of it. It was a burnt out shell, mangled beyond easy recognition of model or make. This mess of twisted metal, fused plastic, congealed rubber and blackened shards of glass was deposited in front of the Police Station I had gone to pay a fine. I cannot now remember the offence I was charged with. I know I was called to the police station almost as an object of curiosity the other officers could also look at since I had refused to pay a bribe to get out of the hassle of going to Post Office and Police Station to recover my license.
I was in no rush, and clearly, they weren’t used to rushing, so in the middle of our conversation around the general state of politics, on a hunch, I asked what case the burnt car up front was associated with. They felt the need to bend over and almost whisper the name. Thajudeen. It was several years after his untimely death, but before January 2015. I returned once more to the Police Station several months after, this time to ask for some details related to some maddening bureaucratic red-tape. The tarp was gone. Grass and bracken had started to grow around the car, and an abandoned bird’s nest was in it. It was also beginning to decay and rust. Whatever use it had for forensics or even evidence was long gone, but clearly, the Police could neither dispose of it nor use it. I didn’t ask about the charred shell on that second visit. I didn’t need to. It was already part of the landscape around the station, invisible to those who worked in and came to it.
When the story of payments made to the Rajapaksa campaign emerged in the New York Times, and subsequently, US$ 150,000 given to the Pushpa Rajapaksa Foundation, the propaganda farms of the former first family went into high gear. Though revealing in its intensity and targets, it was a strategic error which they too realised, since the revelations brought to light investigations around the projects and payments that for years had languished. In the last quarter of 2017, your author was told by an individual with access to the highest echelons of power in the current government that all the evidence needed for a conviction in the Thajudeen murder case was with the IGP. Months later, we are no closer to any closure.
The Lasantha Wickremetunge murder case drags on, and the most significant violence to family and friends is no longer the fact that the investigation is going nowhere, but the occasional theatre by politicians and police in the media to suggest it is. Not a single one of the allegations noted in public in the first half of 2015 around corruption anchored to the Rajapaksas – from the money they had stashed to the commissions they had got, from the tenders they have given to broadcast and telecoms spectrum licensing, from development projects to defence deals – has come to any meaningful end, either through the exoneration of those accused, or their criminal indictment. I find myself, regrettably, siding with the Rajapaksas who today can simply dismiss new or renewed claims of engineering violence or corruption by just flagging the fact that no investigation into them has borne any fruit. The ‘deal deshapalanaya’, feared in 2015, is now cemented in the public imagination – a consociational compact that protects those in, with or aspiring to power as members of an elite, who squabble in public but in private, promise not to pursue each other since it is never clear or certain for how long the popular mandate is retained.
It is sickening.
As part of my on-going academic research, I now collect and analyse Facebook and Twitter data on a large scale, ranging in the millions of records per platform. My focus is not on cricket or entertainment. I look at a demographic between 18 to 34 and how they are first introduced to a particular subject or issue, what they go on to say, how information spreads, who spreads it, in what language, how and over what platform. The next three years of my life will be spent around the task of understanding better through observation and interrogation, anchored to local socio-political dynamics, the reasons underpinning anxiety, fear and anger over social media. Looking at just around three million tweets and approximately 110 million Facebook posts over the past year, one of the dominant leitmotifs is this deep disappointment with the government to bring about the change it said it would.
Right now, bringing up allegations against the Rajapaksas and using their time as a reminder of what we should never go back to actually backfires because it results in those who voted this government in asking why it has done so little around justice and accountability. And so, in a strange way, the allegations in the New York Times and the cheque for $150,000 actually help the Rajapaksas gain more credibility and popularity, because their story is the stronger more appealing one over the government’s already tired, incredible narratives.
This is a problem for governance. A lack of faith in government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where its ouster is perceived as inevitable the more it is unable to bridge the trust deficit. The Rajapaksas know this and are exploiting it. All they have to do is to personally support or engineer through a complex constellation of allies and anonymous accounts are episodic calamities that through physical means (rallies, demonstrations, strikes, breakdowns, disruptions) or virtual (spreading misinformation and disinformation) strengthen the perception of a country at the brink of collapse, going nowhere. Looking at the data alone, it is clear the government is unclear on strategy, doesn’t speak with a clear, shared vision, has many power centres, is utterly uncoordinated and unwaveringly unwieldy. This is highlighted and exploited over social media, where the chief demographic is made to see greater merit in authoritarianism over the trappings of democracy. It is real. It is working. And the most potent fuel is not from the JO, but from the government itself.
I don’t know what’s become of Thajudeen’s car. It’s a symbol of not just the travesty of justice in his case, but how political authority and power extends well beyond the term of a government. His killers are free; in public, engaging with politics; producing content on and for social media. The corrupt are free. The murderers are free. The dealers, contractors, brokers, mercenaries, fixers are all free. In a Parliamentary debate on the allegations surfaced by the New York Times, neither the Rajapaksa’s, for all their braggadocio, nor many in the UNP, for all moralising, were present. Evidently, only foreign media and journalists, and a handful in Sri Lanka care about holding those corrupt accountable. This hasn’t gone unnoticed on social media, where many feel it is better to have a government that does, instead of a government that just promises.
They may well have their chance to bring that about, soon.