Missed opportunities

Sanjana Hattotuwa

I was around 25 when the ceasefire agreement by the United National Front government, with Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM, was freshly inked. Some of the most visible checkpoints in Colombo, for the first time in my life, were removed. I was part of a group of journalists who were the first to go up North on the newly re-opened A9, to meet with the LTTE; journalists in the North – including some of the first on the ground to use digital video and photography to document inconvenient truths – as well as activists in the region. Our minibus was regularly checked by young boys, facial hair just barely evident, cocking T-56s, and absolutely fascinated with the workings of the CD player. I remember the Omanthai checkpoints, the documentation, the lines, the questions and no-man’s land, overseen by the ICRC.

I remember the LTTE police and their outfits, the strict speed limits, their constitution for Eelam in printed form (a fascinating document to read) and in later years, the Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi, the famous bakery run by LTTE cadre who turned out the most amazing maalu paan. The structurally flawed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was entrusted with an impossible task, and we often met and talked with them around what didn’t make it to public reports. Up in Jaffna, where there was less than a handful of hotels to stay in, we booked rooms in a shelled out city, framed by topless Palmyrah trees and riddled with bullet holes of varying calibre, spread and depth, like a surreal lunar landscape, vertically presented.

I visited the North around sixteen to twenty times from 2002 to 2005. Each trip had regular stops, but each was also marked by incident or accident, some fortuitous, some not, all memorable. I remember speaking to suicide cadres, all women, with journalists from Nepal and other South Asian countries trying to grasp – unsuccessfully of course – what drove them to do what they did. The voices against the LTTE amongst Tamil journalists were present and growing, but fearful and suppressed. The merits of Tamil nationalism and the LTTE’s violent vision was conflated in public, and it was only in hushed tones and in corner of halls or even just outside our van that dissent, frustration, fear and anger against ‘the boys’ was expressed – often with an appeal for nuanced reporting that didn’t colour everyone with the same brush.

In the nearly 20 times I took the A9 to the North and travelled the length and breadth of the country during 2002 to 2005, the challenge for those who undertook the journey from the media was around how best to frame so many stories that were untold, and how hard it was to tell them. These were the stories behind the sensationalism, the headlines, the press releases, the public posturing and the political pronouncements. Many of them remain untold. Many could and should have been captured and told at the time.

Sadly, they were not.

Sixteen years is a long time, but there is one dominant impression that’s stuck with me. The UNF government wasn’t interested in or capable of communicating anything related to the ceasefire process in a coherent, coordinated and strategic manner. The peace dividend, as it was then framed and projected, was seen as a self-evident project or prize, for which the public across Sri Lanka would automatically be thankful for. This thinking also projected electoral gains and success into the future as a consequence of this belief that the public was with the government. The PM, ever the technocrat, much younger and perhaps more idealistic at the time, dealing with a President who was then very different to what she is, says and does in retirement today, was so deeply frustrating not because what he wanted to do didn’t make sense, or was unworthy of pursuing.

He was just not interested in public, political communication. From the Buddhist clergy to the JVP, from populist nationalism within Sri Lanka to the lunatic fringe in the diasporas from both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, spoilers had a field day in framing the agenda. What we heard, saw and experienced on the ground rarely made it to mainstream media aside from the entirely accidental, episodic or sporadic. What happened was inevitable – the partisan, parochial overtook compelling human interest stories, with the violations of and violence around the CFA overwhelming reportage. So much more could have been done by government to capture, frame and project more aspirations, fears, and even the root causes of anger, hurt, resentment and fear.

It just wasn’t.

If any of this is familiar to some, it is not because the country today is what it was then. Much has changed. And yet, it is because ironically, we again have a government which has lost the plot when it comes to political communication. Politically, there is a rise of networked power married to populism’s resurgence by appealing to personal frames of hope and anxiety in the South. There is now a young, important demographic that doesn’t vote based on some inherited, lifelong party political allegiance blind to everything else. In an age where the most compelling story wins hearts and minds, the government doesn’t even know how to tell one. The advent of social media brings the ability to measure through data, and with greater frequency and more granularity, what was during the CFA left to intuition and more traditional public or private polls.

Suffice to say that even a cursory study of data reveals that the JO is in a different league. None of this can be easily projected into electoral demise or success, but offer clear indications, especially around and after the results of the local government election in February, around what voters think, see and want. The government remains impervious to all this. Perhaps heartening for some, what the UNP does, promises or says barely registers as a blip across leading social media platforms, week after week, in the midst of content which by political design or entirely organically, is negative, angry, violent, anxious, fearful, oppositional, insular, xenophobic, suspicious, callously dismissive, impatient and deeply disillusioned.

The demise of the CFA was not monocausal. The demise of yahapalanaya is not because of a single person, party or process. But to me, what tragically links both is a person and a party so utterly convinced they have a grasp on affairs; they are blind to see they emphatically do not. The end to all this, I fear, is all too familiar, and indeed, near.

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