Why I am Against the Government’s Proposal to Criminalize “fake news” – and Why (I think) You Should be Too

Don’t get me wrong, disinformation1 can have profound consequences on our country, including our respect for democracy, diversity and human rights. Our own work at Hashtag Generation has documented2 how harmful narratives that have potential to skew public opinion and affect healthy debate circulate in online and offline spaces. The term “going viral” is based on the way that viruses spread and just like a virus that spreads across the body, false news can also self-replicate and reverberate across the body politic. There’s no disagreement on this. In fact, I agree with the state’s proposition that disinformation can have profound impacts on our country’s electoral and extra-electoral politics. For instance, it is now widely acknowledged that the Government’s forced cremation policy was based on discredited disinformation. While the policy has now been revoked, there has been no apology for, let alone an acknowledgement of the tremendous pain and hurt the policy caused many people, especially the Muslim community for almost a year. This is also why, in the past five years my colleagues and I have also spoken to thousands of Sri Lankans from all walks of life on consuming the content they come across, especially on social media platforms and instant messaging applications, more critically. Why then am I not (along with others)3 delighted at the prospect of the Sri Lankan state adopting a new law on disinformation? This short(ish) piece is my attempt to shed some light on this question. 

While many would feel the need to turn to the law to address any social ill, my suggestion is that the law (or more laws, as I will point out that certain sections of existing laws already cover types of disinformation) is not always a solution. In fact, sometimes it can be a problem. In Sri Lanka (as elsewhere) the law is not always a neutral tool. While the law is meant to make us feel safer, for some people, for example in Sri Lanka for queer people4 and sex workers5, the law (among other things) is what makes their lives increasingly difficult. 

Just like falsehood goes viral, the truth can also be stubbornly self-replicating. Tyrants and despots everywhere fear this stubborn quality of truth. This means that content that is seen as embarrassing or damaging to a government (including future governments) can be open to being labelled “fake news” and the disseminators on such content will be at risk of facing criminal sanction, including jail time. This could have profound impacts on the freedom of expression, media freedom and the civic space in the country. 

This is not just reactionary fear-mongering (not that there is anything “just” about fear-mongering). While sections in the law as it stands now already curtail the freedom of expression6 on different grounds including types of disinformation and hate speech; the way some of these provisions have been invoked by the police in the past7 provides some perspective on how a prospective “fake news law” may be deployed. 

Author Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested in April 2019 (when the previous “Good Governance” Government was in power) under the ICCPR Act and the Penal Code for a work of fiction that involves a story of sexual abuse taking place in a Buddhist temple. Sathkumara was detained for 130 days. He was eventually discharged8 earlier this year with no apology. Meanwhile, Abdul Raheem Masaheena9 was arrested under the ICCPR Act for wearing a dress with the design of a ship’s helm on allegations that it resembled the dharmachakra. Ramzy Razeek, a retired government officer, was reportedly arrested under the ICCPR Act and Computer Crimes Act for calling for an “ideological jihad” against anti-Muslim hate10. Naomi Michelle Coleman, a British citizen was arrested and subsequently deported under the Penal code for having a tattoo of Lord Buddha on her arm11. Later, the Supreme Court observed that there was no reasonable basis for the arrest. 

As I write, (today is the 12th of June 2021) Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent lawyer remains in custody under vague charges of “inciting communal disharmony”12. Furthermore, Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet and a teacher is being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for penning an anthology of poetry called Navarasam13.  

Meanwhile, during Covid-19 response, an individual was reportedly arrested for criticising the appointment of former MP Basil Rajapaksa as the head of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-1914. Similarly, an individual was arrested for using Facebook to criticise a Divisional Secretariat Officer for ‘injustices’ committed during the quarantine programme15. While I’ve reduced these to “cases” here to further my own argument, these are all human beings with fears, aspirations and loved one’s who worry about them. 

We shouldn’t forget that these developments in Sri Lanka are taking place within a global backdrop of states weaponizing the Covid-19 Pandemic in order to suppress freedom of expression.

Around the world, laws which were purportedly passed to “crack down on fake news” have led to similar consequences. For example, Singapore16, Malaysia17 and Russia18 have been accused of using their respective anti-fake news laws to further stifle free speech, especially criticism of the government. In Germany, the Association of Journalists has complained that social media companies are being too cautious and refuse to publish anything that could be interpreted under their own fake news law.

Picture a central tower in a prison with a guard19. The prisoners can’t see the tower themselves so they won’t know whether they are being watched at any given time or not. The result is that they internalize the surveillance so much that they modify their behaviour as if they were being watched all the time because of the unverifiable potentiality that they just might be. The power of such a “disciplinary gaze” lies in the fact that it controls our behaviour even when it is not actually turned on us. 

Whenever governments get involved in policing expression – even for seemingly well-intended reasons – there is always a lack of trust in the process. Particularly, in contexts like Sri Lanka, where the law has been used as a tool to stifle free expression and the “mainstream”20 press is often hyper-partisan. 

If one really wants to “crack down on fake news”, my suggestion is to go back to school. In schools across Sri Lanka, children are learning the evolution of computing from large mainframe computers and are acquiring skills like using the MS Office Packages as part of their ICT curricula. While this is all important, we need to provide our children (and adults) with critical media literacy skills. Furthermore, the state should also work towards healing the deep seated divisions and social fault lines among communities in Sri Lanka. These are the biggest drivers of rumour and conspiracy that permeate in our society. Contemporaneously, we need to support and strengthen independent fact-checking and investigative journalism initiatives as well as citizen-led initiatives that generate behaviourally-informed counter and alternative messages to online hate speech and disinformation, not stifle them. Finally, we also need to keep demanding that the giant social media companies enforce the Community Standards they have already committed to upholding globally. In these testing times, we should strive towards creating the kind of world we want to collectively inhabit. For some of us, “in the world we want, everybody fits. The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit.”

Senel Wanniarachchi 

  1.  While there are important discussions to be had on what constitutes disinformation and what the term really means, I will not engage with these in this short piece. For some important analysis on this, please see Gehan Gunathilake (2021) https://groundviews.org/2021/05/26/criminalising-disinformation-neither-the-time-nor-the-place/ 
  2. See https://hashtaggeneration.org/publications/ 
  3. See statements issued by the Free Media Movement https://ifex.org/sri-lanka-free-media-movement-said-fake-news-bill-could-undermine-freedom-of-expression/, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka https://economynext.com/police-could-misuse-fake-news-allegations-to-stifle-free-speech-sri-lanka-bar-association-82932/ 
  4. See Sections 365 and 365A of Sri Lanka’s Penal Code. 1885. Available at http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/research/srilanka/statutes/Penal_Code.pdf
  5. See Sri Lanka’s Vagrants Ordinance. 1842. Available at http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/research/srilanka/statutes/Vagrants_Ordinance.pdf  and Brothels Ordinance. 1889. Available at https://www.lawnet.gov.lk/brothels-3/
  6. These include the The Constitution, The Penal Code, Parliament (Powers and Privileges) Act, No. 21 of 1953, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, No. 56 of 2007, Police Ordinance (Chapter 53), Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 48 of 1979, Public Security Ordinance No. 25 of 1947 , Official Secrets Act, No. 32 of 1955, Obscene Publications Ordinance, No. 4 of 1927, Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, No. 34 of 2005, Computer Crimes Act, No. 24 of 2007, Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003, Information and Communication Technology Act, No. 27 of 2003 and Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act (SLTA), No. 25 of 1991 and the Bail Act , No. 30 of 1997.
  7. These cases, among others were compiled by Verite Research and Democracy reporting International in the Report Regulating Social Media in Sri Lanka: Formal and Alternative Mechanisms. See presentation of findings https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=910244689780435&ref=watch_permalink
  8. See https://economynext.com/shakthika-sathkumara-discharged-days-ahead-of-unhrc-sessions-78661/
  9. See https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/03/sri-lanka-muslims-face-threats-attacks
  10. See https://groundviews.org/2020/05/12/ramzy-razeek-an-extraordinary-struggle-for-an-ordinary-life-of-service-upended-by-an-arrest/
  11. See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27107857
  12. See https://www.srilankacampaign.org/a-year-on-hejaaz-hizbullah-still-imprisoned/
  13. See https://ifex.org/sri-lanka-groups-call-for-release-of-poet-ahnaf-jazeem-detained-for-a-year-without-charge/
  14. See https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/04/09/medi-a09.html
  15. Ibid
  16. See https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/13/singapore-fake-news-law-curtails-speech
  17. See https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/13/malaysia-revoke-fake-news-ordinance
  18. See https://ipi.media/new-fake-news-law-stifles-independent-reporting-in-russia-on-covid-19/
  19. See https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-panopticon-what-is-the-panopticon-effect/#:~:text=The%20panopticon%20is%20a%20disciplinary,not%20they%20are%20being%20watched.
  20. I used mainstream within inverted commas here, because internet based media have also become “mainstream” in many ways, while print and electronic media outlets have also created substantial digital footprints blurring this binary.
  21. See https://schoolsforchiapas.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Fourth-Declaration-of-the-Lacandona-Jungle-.pdf

Covid-19 —on Politics and Poetics, Words and Worlds

Pandemic comes from the Greek word pandemos. Demos means the population and pan means everyone. A pandemic is when disease (dis-ease) spreads across large populations and geographies.

Things are out of control and often times, we feel powerless. Solastalgia (solace + nostalgia) is the feeling of distress associated with environmental change, like how I feel homesick even though all I’ve been at is home. Corona is Latin for crown. From Sri Lanka to America, democratically elected leaders are acting like crown-wearing monarchs as they exploit the pandemic to tighten their grip over democratic institutions.

The more anxious we feel, the more we long for security. The military is deployed to make us feel safe and the soldiers, as they do, have come armed with their military metaphors. They are in the frontline of their war against Covid and they intend to combat their invisible enemy.

Virus comes from the Latin word for poison. There’s a deluge of information coming at us from all directions and it’s overwhelming. The WHO has referred to the disinformation that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as an infodemic. The term going viral is based on the way that viruses spread. Like a virus spreads across the body; rumour and conspiracy have permeated across the body politic. In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, conspiracy theories are scapegoating Muslims and other minorities for being bioterrorists that manufactured the virus and the vectors that cause its spread. The propaganda machine continues to create spectacles and scapegoats. Lines between patriots and traitors are delineated. Conspiracy is derived from the Latin word conspirare which means to breathe together (what can be more sinister than a group of people standing in a circle, holding a private meeting?).

The more complexity and confusion there is, the more we look for easy answers. Lies are simple. They give us simple patterns of cause and effect.

Muslims and others are denied burials for their dead, contrary to WHO guidelines. Necropolitics is the politics of life and death that decide who may live and who must die. For some (bodies), even mourning the dead has become an act of resistance.

One of the central emotional responses during a pandemic is fear. This kind of fear can un(mask) our basest qualities and lay the groundwork for violence. HIV was designated the gay cancer. The Bubonic plague led to the murder of Catalans, clerics and homeless people, and instigated pogroms against Jews. We know that right-wing extremists including the Nazis won a greater share of the votes in parts of Germany that suffered larger numbers of flu deaths in 1918.

Trauma is the Greek word for wound.

There’s emphasis on going home, staying home, being safe but home is not a safe place to be for every(body). Victim comes from the Latin word for a sacrificial animal. Some (bodies) have to be sacrificed for the “greater good”.

We are constantly asked to stay alert. Alert comes from the Italian phrase “to the watchtower” — like a panapticon designed to allow a single guard to watch all of the prisoners, without the prisoners being able to actually verify whether they are being watched at any given moment. Even when they are not being watched, they are still disciplined.

Words can shape the world and be shaped by the world. May we continue to find the words to stand up to power and to radically care for one another. May we find the words we need to recreate and reorganize our world(s).

Senel Wanniarachchi

Resisting Empire in the Age of Facebook

Originally published on the LSE Human Rights Blog 

Across India, one of the world’s ‘fastest growing economies’, humans from certain Dalit castes work as ‘manual scavengers’ that rummage through and clean other ‘high’ caste people’s dry toilets and carry their human waste. The men often clean the sewers and septic tanks while the women transport the human waste for disposal by carrying piles of excreta in cane baskets. It is estimated that over 600 such sewer workers die every year by inhaling poisonous gases. The figure is more than ten times the number of Indian soldiers who get killed each year.

In stark contrast, the internet is often held as a ‘modern’ hierarchy-less virtual space of limitless possibilities where ‘pre-modern’ categories such as caste, race and gender do not exist. I want to trouble this assumption and explore how the production, maintenance and ‘optimization’ of new media technologies that make some populations thrive and live a fantasy of a ‘post-human’ internet is often constructed through the invisibilization of the bodies and the labour, including the labour of death of (re)colonized others in ‘far away lands’.

The social imaginary that drove colonialism was based on the logic that knowledge emerged in West, and was extended to ‘the rest’ through the generosity of its violent imperial reach. It was believed that the colonized black and brown slaves needed the ‘civilizing project’ of colonialism and as such, colonialism was an inevitable righteous and pious endeavour. Almost all dominant institutions, including the scientific industrial complex, were mobilized to justify this truth claim. Meanwhile, colonial extraction continued to provide the resources that stimulated the Industrial Revolution. Some goods, including various technologies that were produced using the resources extracted off the colonies, were sold back to the colonized subjects, creating vicious cycles of dependency that exist to this day.

Many technology companies that emerge in the West often offshore the labour required for the production and maintenance of their technologies to ‘sweatshops’ in the global South. This is legitimized by invoking a neoliberal logic of ‘optimization’ as the ‘porno-tropics’ provide these companies with ample cheap (often female) labour with ‘nimble fingers and passive personalities’. This gendered, racialized and often orientalized labour is supplemented with the weak politico-legal infrastructures that exist in these countries which are struggling to lift their citizens out of poverty and a myriad of other social issues, some of which themselves are legacies of colonialism. Above all, as Lisa Nakamura says, in her work, Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture, what many corporations find most attractive about this labour, is it’s disposability, in that ‘they could be laid off at any time’ while ‘their employers could close plants and reopen them in’ the ‘cheapest place possible’.

Shedding light on the labour of indigenous Navajo Women who produced circuits at a Fairchild factory at the Navajo reserve, Nakamura says, ‘some must labour invisibly for others of us to feel, if not actually be, free and empowered through technology use’. She argues that ‘when we look at the history of digital devices, it is quite clear that the burden of digital media’s device production is borne disproportionately by the women of colour who make them’. She suggests that seeing into the histories of these technologies, ‘both machinic and human, is absolutely necessary for us to understand how digital labour is configured today’. However, the labour of these ‘women of colour is almost never associated with electronic manufacture or the digital revolution’.

‘Fairchild was regarded as a pioneer because of its willingness to take risks and to venture onto foreign shores in search of cheap labour … It was such histories of offshoring that helped to launch the PC revolution, which begot the commercial Internet, which begot everything else’.

Furthermore, ‘in Fairchild’s promotional materials and in journalistic accounts’, Navajo workers were always orientalized to be ‘possessing innate racial and cultural traits that could be enhanced or rehabilitated to produce chips accurately, quickly, and painlessly’. Like manual scavenging, chip manufacturing, too ‘is a notoriously dirty business, and workers at Fairchild and other semiconductor manufacturers were falling victim to pollution-related disease’. ‘Ultimately, the Navajo nation failed to benefit economically as much as it had expected from the plant and was left to deal with the detritus and its long-term consequences’.

As with production, there has also been an exponential growth in the offshoring of the labour of maintenance of different technologies to countries in the global South and the same politics and violences embedded in these technologies’ materiality as in the case of the circuits produced by the Navajo women, are also (dis)embodied in their ‘virtuality’. Jacob Breslaw in Moderating the ‘Worst of Humanity’: Sexuality, Witnessing, and the Digital Life of Coloniality points out how ‘an estimated 100,000 people are employed worldwide to engage in the labour of digital content moderation’. This ‘army’ of invisibilized labourers ‘scavenge’ through 500 hours of Youtube video footage, 450,000 tweets, and 2.5 million Facebook posts produced on the internet every minute and ‘scrub’ social media of violent, ‘offensive’, ‘obscene’ and even traumatic content. This is what Adrian Chen calls social media’s ‘Grandma Problem’ — ensuring that your grandmother who has recently joined Facebook never has to see any of the ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ images or videos that are being circulated on the platform. These could range from child pornography to violent beheading videos of the Islamic State. However, these content moderators often based in the global South, engage in the affective labour of viewing this content so that your grandmother does not have to. Their labour is invisibilized in order to ensure that the average social media user is able to live the fantasy of utilizing the affordances of a ‘safe’, ‘respectable’ and ‘post-human’ internet where you click a report button and content is taken down. Daniel Wry exposes that suicide rates, among those engaging in this affective labour of content moderation is extremely high, so much so that among the staff ‘almost everyone knows about a case where someone committed suicide because of the work’.

This offshoring of ‘digital waste’ produced by the former colonizers for the witnessing of the (re)colonized is also justified within an exploitative logic of optimization as ‘content moderators in the Philippines often make in a day what some US-based moderators will make in an hour’. The choices of India and the Philippines are also not accidental and have very much to do with both countries’ violent colonial histories. Its colonial past has been invoked in the selection of the Philippines ‘as the country was a former American colony and has maintained close cultural ties to the United States, which content moderation companies say helps Filipinos determine what Americans find offensive’. Meanwhile, the dominance of the English language-based programming languages has led to the concentration of programming jobs in former British colonies such as India.

‘The dominance of English, combined with the overwhelming U.S. predominance in portal sites and the dominance of northern telecommunications companies, all combined with the concentration of capital within the North, makes these enlightened bridging solutions attempts to solidify, rather than reduce, electronic disparities.’ – Wendy Chun

Many technology companies such as Facebook, make their moderators sign strict nondisclosure agreements, barring them from talking even to other employees of the same outsourcing firm about their work. While Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg makes speeches at the United Nations about ‘harnessing the power of the internet’ as an enabler of human rights promoting his platform as a champion of the freedom of expression, his company, has threatened to punish its (offshored) labourers with a penalty of €10,000 if they violate the terms of these agreements and speak about their work.

Coloniality was and still continues to be, central to the construction of technology as both a driver of ‘optimization’ and also a site that needs to be perpetually optimized in the name of ideals of ‘growth’ and ‘progress’. The politics and violences embedded in these technologies show us that such a paradigm of ‘progress’ which makes some populations thrive and live ‘comfortable’ and ‘efficient’ lives; rests over the invisibilization of the bodies, labour and even the deaths of others. Those like the Dalit sewage workers, the Navajo women at the Fairchild factory and the Filipino Facebook content moderators, on whose invisiblized labour, this process of ‘optimization’ is built on, are disqualified from our imaginaries and narratives of technological progress and optimization. ‘Looking closer to the metal’ reveals that there are human beings ‘in far away lands’ who engage in labour with real-life consequences including threats to life and health. The labour of their deaths too, is figured aside and invisibilized so the rest of us can continue to live our ‘optimized’ lives. Achille Mbeme coined the term necropolitics to discuss the politics of death that decide which populations should die so the others, could live, or in this case, which populations should die, so that others could live their most ‘optimal’ lives. In order to resist this neoliberal capitalist fantasy of optimization we need to transform our (re)colonial dependences to radical interdependences. It is imperative that such transformations are built on the lived realities of those people on whose labour, these fantasies have been built on. As Chun phrased, digital media after all, is ‘more than screen-deep’.

Senel Wanniarachchi

Finders Keepers: On Sex, Tara the Buddhist Deity at the British Museum and Brownness in the Colonies

“Your victory

Was so complete

Some among you

Thought to keep

A record of

Our little lives

The clothes we wore

Our spoons, our knives”

 —Lenard Cohen, Nevermind


I am at the entrance to the British Museum and the path separates into two. I take the path which appears to be less crowded and a guard interrupts me saying this entrance is for ‘members only’. I apologize, take the other and stand in a queue for several minutes. I pass through barricades that separate the members from ‘the other’ which leads me to a checkpoint. It’s my turn to have my bag checked and suddenly I’m conscious of my brownness. Soon, I find myself facing the British Museum. The building’s personality is intimidating and reeks of power. As I walk in, I am reminded that the history of this building and this city is intrinsically entrenched to my own and that of my ancestors and I am reminded of my place in the world and its hierarchies. As I walk in, I see a sign that reads ‘The British Museum —  collecting the world’.


Soon, I am lost in the midst of glorious looted treasures – the mummies of Egypt, Samurai armour from ancient Japan and a Moai statue from the Easter Islands. Even the biggest cynic cannot deny that the museum is a grotesquely impressive custodian of memory, preserving people’s fears, broken dreams and fantasies; like a tragic yet magical cemetery. French art theorist André Malraux once noted, that ‘a museum has always been an artificial concept, a wrenching of objects not into context but out of it’. However, there is very much a context to the British Museum — it’s an institutional legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, slavery and genocide.


I collect a headphone, the piece of technology that would guide me across the museum. Odd euphemisms are used to refer to how the artefacts were ‘acquired’ —‘governed South Asia’, not ‘colonized’, protectorate not colony, ‘suppressing unrest’, not mass killing. Soon, I am drawn to the Museum’s long South Asian Gallery where I see Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction dancing on a circle of fire, Saraswati the goddess of knowledge and a shadow puppet of Mahatma Gandhi. I feel a strange sense of solidarity with these inanimate artefacts. At the end of the gallery, I find the infamous Tara,  standing tall atop a plinth gazing at me. Tara is a Buddhist and Hindu mother goddess of mercy and generous compassion. Her bronze statue plated in gold was stolen from Sri Lanka’s Kandyan Kingdom when the British colonized the island in 1815. Tara’s upper body is completely naked with a sarong draped around her hip concealing her body waist down. Her right hand is in the gesture known as varadamudra – of granting a wish.


At the museum, almost everyone passing by stops to take a look at Tara. A young white couple stands adjacent to me. The young man whispers something in his female companion’s ear. They both giggle. I’m inclined to assume it was a joke laden with some sexual innuendo. Many aren’t aware of Tara’s genealogy or her divinity. Many wouldn’t care. She fulfills an exoticized oriental fantasy. The audio explains that Tara was ‘given’ to Robert Brownrigg, the third Governor of Ceylon (as the British referred to Sri Lanka) who ‘donated’ it to the museum ‘perhaps finding her voluptuous form rather out of place in his English country home’. However, Tara was considered to be too obscene and perverse to be exhibited to the public. Her exposed bronze breasts too big, her waist too narrow and her hips too curvaceous for the respectability of the white gaze. As such, she was locked up in a discreet storeroom, aptly named ‘the Secretum’ for nearly thirty years. The Museum was mandated to create the Secretum, colloquially known as ‘the porn room’, through the 1857 Obscene Publications Act which gave the state power to destroy material it deemed offensive and obscene.


Here was a Sri Lankan mother Goddess worshipped by her devotees, stolen and taken by force to a foreign land where she is treated as some pornographic knick-knack only to be locked up in a storeroom along with phallic antiquities and European erotica that display orgies, bestiality and whatever else was deemed too indignant for the holy white gaze. Only adult white male specialists of ‘mature years and sound morals’ who constituted the very apex of the social hierarchy had access to enter the ‘Secretum’ for their pathologizing intellectual gaze. These scholars probably used Tara to enrich their knowledge system of ‘scientific’ racism that drove colonialism — the libidinous, ‘out of control’ non-humans were vice-indulgent and so were their vain gods. For the natives in the ‘Orient’, she represented mercy and compassion. The brown devotees who wanted to escape the illusion and suffering of the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth of samsara would stare into her bronze eyes and meditate. This would have perplexed the white missionary slave masters for whom she represented a sinful profanity. How could a naked woman be a God? A God so religiously venerated that even the most powerful of men would kneel before her image, join their palms and pray? They were convinced that these queer emasculated leaders weren’t capable of governing their lands and people and as such, colonialism was not only justified but also inevitable.

For their white gaze, Tara wasn’t any woman, she was pornographic. How could one meditate while watching porn? For the Asians, the sensual and the spiritual were always interconnected and interdependent, perpetually producing and reproducing each other. In Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, sexual yoga is treated as a form of meditation. However, the British, who failed to comprehend this hypersexualized dichotomy, concurred that the effeminate natives needed the white masters to civilize, not just them, but their Gods. As the missionaries ‘civilized’ the brown Buddhists, they inadvertently ‘civilized’ their Buddhism, and a new kind of rehabilitated Buddhism emerged– a Protestant Buddhism.

The language of conquest was taxonomically allegorized by gender and sexuality. The manly and bold Europe penetrates the effeminate ‘orient’ with exotic landscapes and strange non-humans who worshipped licentious naked Gods. Attempting to meditate looking into Tara’s bronze eyes, I was reminded of what Sri Lanka would have once been, before the island and its inhabitants were marked by colonialism. For the white colonial masters, the island was full of sin and vice. Like Tara, the brown Asians audaciously exposed their bodies in the tropical sun with only a ‘small bit of cord round the loins from which hung a piece of cloth … covering their natural nakedness’. Polyandry was customary as men had ‘but one wife; but a woman often had two husbands’. ‘The sin of sodomy’ was ‘so prevalent’ and with the absence of binarized performances of gender, the colonial masters often found themselves looking at the brown natives under tropical palm trees in confusion wondering ‘men or women?… these males are so perfectly beautiful that one’s gaze can be fooled’.

The audio in my ear whispers that Tara was perhaps buried in soil for protection from invaders causing the scars across her face and body. The image of Tara’s body traumatized by scars reminds me how Sri Lanka continues to be marked by colonialism. In order to please our colonial masters, we learnt to regulate ourselves and each other and to be ashamed of our brown bodies and conceal them in shame. The same temples that were home to female deities like Tara, now deny women access as they ‘sinfully’ menstruate ‘dirty’ blood. We memorized the masters’ language and started sharing their obsession with hierarchies such as heteronormativity, patriarchy and capitalism. We now perform their binarized gender roles for them better than the masters themselves. Our militarized nationalisms treated the minorities within our own communities the way our slave masters treated us. We appropriated their monogamous marital family as the primary site of surveillance of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. Our state institutionalized colonialism in all its arms, from the military to politics and education to tame its populations and massify them into these moulds, using biopower to regulate every raised eyebrow, every condescending giggle and every embarrassed look. Our legal infrastructure is a residue of colonialism, not one based on Buddhist or Hindu jurisprudence. Our Obscene Publications Act is much like the one which mandated the creation of the Secretum. Our penal code criminalizes homosexuality and the Vagrants Ordinance criminalizes sex work. These laws were mobilized to punish deviance and most of us abided through ‘self-governance’ in fear of the carceral state. The post-colonial monolithic Sri Lankan state metamorphosed itself in order to please the masters’ understandings of chastity, virility, domesticity, and respectability and we ‘emulate and simulate’ these ‘moral codes’ as if they are our own culture. A new post-colonial brownness was recreated to be in a perpetual struggle to achieve whiteness both physically & ontologically.


The audio tells me that the precious gems that decorated Tara’s hair are now missing. Colonization robbed us not only of our gems but our soil, our air, our sexuality, our language, our culture and our gods. We complied in order to please our colonial masters and to show to them that we are respectable and are capable of governing ourselves. Today, the same master looks back at us and says we are too illiberal, unenlightened and conservative, our masculinity too toxic, our femininity too servile and our culture and religion too backward, for practising these very things we appropriated from them. ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. When will we admit that this purity is a performance? That we are erotic? That we were the original ‘free the nipple’? That some amongst us are queer? That some of our ancestors were sex workers?

Museums construct certain ‘narratives’ of history, and the British Museum’s narrativization is one of a history as written by the victors, of the ‘executioner having the last word’. Representations of colonialism as adventurous expeditions to ‘collect the world’ erase the struggle of the natives and reproduce orientalist fantasies. We need to reclaim these stories, our brownness and our erotic which is our power.


However, unmoved and unaffected, Tara stands tall as a silent yet deeply political act of resistance and a reminder of a pre-colonial past where a naked woman was a goddess who brought the most powerful of kings, priests and generals in ‘the Orient’ to their knees. There have been several requests from Sri Lanka calling for the return of Tara and other artefacts. Looking into her eyes, I am unsure if Tara should to be brought back to Sri Lanka. Colonialism has erased something so intrinsic about the island that I am no longer sure if she is even welcome. The audio in my ear concludes voyeuristically, ‘before you move on, admire her from every side’. I look at Tara’s left hand, the varadamudra, and say a prayer for my beautiful country.

Senel Wanniarachchi

I got into a fight with Iraj

I got into a fight with Iraj.

On Twitter.

Over Enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.  Anti-climatic, I know.


I must admit, growing up, I often found myself listening to Iraj’s music . We sang his songs from the back of the leyland bus during school trips and found ourselves rather miserably break-dancing to his music with other kids at annual “parties” we had in school when the academic year ended!


So when I found myself in the middle of a Twitter feud with him, it was rather …. well awkward.

Of course celebrities, like the rest of us, are entitled to their political views but it turns out, Iraj genuinely believes that the primary solution to crimes taking place across the nation is enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and is religiously advocating for the authorities to restart the notorious white van abductions.


Not only does our beloved pop star believe that disappearances should be enforced on criminals, but also those with different forms of dissent. What does he invoke to justify this… “patriotism”, of course.



(I was just playing along for fun to be honest! I don’t have a position on LTTE leaders being given high posts in the government. On the one hand, if they’re responsible for war crimes and such (which they are), they need to be held into account with any others in government who have similar accusations, on the other hand it’s also positive that people who felt the need to take arms against the state enter a democratic process.)

Due to decades of armed conflict, two youth insurrections, a tsunami and years of political instability, Sri Lanka has thousands of “missing people”. According to one UN report from the 1990’s, after Iraq, Sri Lanka has the most number of disappeared people in the world.

White van’s were used as a political tactic to abduct critics and dissidents of the then Rajapaksa government from their homes or off the streets.


Those abducted were never seen again. Most victims are believed to have been tortured and killed. White van’s without number plates became a symbol of terror and impunity. The LTTE also used abductions as a tactic of war on those in the military as well as civilians. There are also some reports that such abductions continue under the Yahapalana government.

Families fall apart as there is no closure for relatives and loved ones who are unsure if the victim will ever return. Many still find it difficult even to access benefits which would be available in the event of a death of a family member as they cannot prove the death of their loved one. The chilling effect, however, is not just on the victim and the family, many people resort to self-censorship due to fear.

Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was a prominent anti-disappearance activist during and in the aftermath of the 1987 – 1989 JVP led Marxist insurrection and the then UNP Government’s crackdown on the same where thousands of young people who were members of the JVP or suspected of being such were abducted from villages across Sri Lanka’s South. Many weren’t seen again. The Paada Yaathra which Rajapaksha organized with his then colleague Mangala Samaraweera, which both Iraj and I are too young to remember, travelled from Colombo to Kataragama in the island’s South bringing attention to these disappearances. Rajapaksa also travelled to the UN Office in Geneva to lobby Diplomats at the then UN Human Rights Commission on the issue of disappearances in Sri Lanka. The UNP then accused him waging an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka. Sounds familiar?

Iraj and others believe that crime rates in Sri Lanka are on the rise. While this is not hard to believe; it’s far from being true. Because of the exponential expansion of information communication technologies which have shaped how we consume news, we are exposed to a lot more information than we traditionally have and seeing news reports of crime scenes on SMS news alerts, Facebook, Twitter and prime-time news bulletins can make anyone believe that crimes in Sri Lanka are on an upward trend. However, if one compares the grave crimes in police reports in 2017 (35,978) to the same statistic in 2014 (50,962) the number of crimes has substantially reduced. If you go back to 2006 it’s as high as 61,196. Almost double as it is now. All this information is publicly available in the Sri Lanka Police website.  


Iraj, and others who believe disappearances are the most practical method of dealing with crimes and dissent find them utilitarian —have the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is of course, until, you or someone you care about, face a similar situation.


For me (and others), its flabbergasting that, in 2018, a celebrity can publicly advocate for enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings. It’s a crime under Sri Lankan law and international law and advocating for the same should also be a crime. The government has set up at Office of Missing Persons investigate into disappearances as part of the process they call post-conflict transitional justice and when people with substantial social influence like Iraj speak out against it, it could harm these processes which many are already sceptical about.


It’s equally disappointing that there aren’t many mainstream celebrities with the kind of reach that Iraj has, who use their art, influence and social capital to speak up against enforced disappearances and on the pain anguish of the families and the loved one’s of the disappeared and their right to know the truth, to hold those responsible into account and access reparations.


Senel Wanniarachchi

The ‘Thambi’ Boy Who Paints the Temple

Twenty-four years ago, Osman Saldin was born in Grandpass, Colombo. His parents and all his relatives were practising Muslims. Osman’s father’s job was painting temples. Osman grew up watching his father draw intricate patterns of Buddhist imagery and scenes from various Jataka tales on walls and ceilings of Buddhist temples around the island. Later, Osman learnt that like his father, his grandfather and generations of ancestors had earned their livelihood in this way.

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He says it won’t happen again

This is a story I’ve been meaning to tell for a while now.

While the story itself is set in the recent past, there is a bit of a backstory that encapsulates the series of events that led to it.

September 2009 —home

It was a Thursday and my father had just returned home from work. That night at the dinner table he tells us about the new boy who started work at his office. ‘He is a smart chap, committed to work and very respectful. What more could one expect?’

His name is Sahan.

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For Adhil

(Opening remarks made at the Adhil Bakeer Markar Foundation’s Inaugural Youth Dialogue on the Role of Youth in Shaping Multicultural Societies )


A very good morning everyone. On behalf of the Adhil Bakeer Markar Foundation, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to welcome you all to the Foundation’s inaugural event: this Youth Dialogue with His Excellency Prof. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Former Prime Minister of Turkey, who will speak to us about something extremely important to us and something that our dear friend Adhil cared so much about– the Role of Youth in Shaping Multicultural Societies.

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How Elitism In Access To Education Is Failing Our Young People

Originally published on the Sunday Leader

The Budget for the fiscal year of 2017 has been presented before the Sri Lankan Parliament. Once capital carrying costs are deducted from last year’s allocation, there has only been a marginal increase in the allocation for education. While some noteworthy steps such as increasing the student intake to universities, the provision of student loans and scholarships to top graduates, steps to uproot ragging and incentivise students to pursue technical and vocational education have been taken, I believe that the policymakers of the country could use some introspection on the inequalities in the education system at the school level.

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