Sri Lanka: Can Spice island turn into a bland nation?

Ancient Lanka: Open and engaged with the world - image courtesy

Ancient Lanka: Open and engaged with the world - image courtesy

I am neither a historian nor chef, but have a healthy interest in the subject areas of both. The two rarely come together, except when one goes in search of culinary history. I have just written an essay titled ‘Sri Lanka: Spice Island or Bland Nation?’ which blends the two in a social commentary highlighting a challenge we face as we rebuild our island nation after the war.

This is how the short version of the essay, published in Groundviews website, opens:

“Located strategically in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was a hub in the maritime silk and spice routes for millennia. It drew traders from the east and west for both business and pleasure. Notable among the attractions were spices, whose many aromas and flavours formed an integral part of the tropical paradise experience.

“The traditional Lankan curry contained up to 13 spices and herbs. Most plants were not native – cardamom came from South India, cloves from Indonesia and chilli all the way from the Americas. Cinnamon was Sri Lanka’s unique contribution to this delightful mix. The origins didn’t really matter: the islanders knew just how to mix the native and the foreign to achieve legendary results.

Groundviews “As Sri Lanka embarks on national integration after three decades of highly divisive war, it is worth recalling these aspects of its heritage. For the war not only devastated our economy and blighted the prospects of a generation; it also nurtured high levels of insecurity, insularity and mutual suspicion. In recent years, democratic dissent has become ‘unpatriotic’. Everything foreign is suspect – especially if from the west.

“Suddenly, the spice island is in danger of turning into a ‘bland’ nation with xenophobia the only condiment in use.”

Himal SouthasianThe longer version appears in Himal Southasian magazine, July 2009 issue.

Both versions of the essay end with an ardent plea for a return to pluralistic, cacophonic society we have been for much of our long and well-chronicled history.

“Throughout history, the spice island nurtured plurality without losing its identity or integrity. It withstood numerous invasions, colonialism and tsunamis. Sri Lanka is more resilient than many of its citizens think — and more vibrant and diverse than it appears at first glance. That’s the legacy of good geography and open frontiers.

“Let genes, ideas and spices flow freely again! We have nothing to lose – except our temporary blandness.”

Read my blog post on 29 May 2009: Living with diversity – Salad or soup, asks Mallika Sarabhai

Sri Lanka: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

Sri Lanka: Island of suspended dreams has a second chance...

This is one of my favourite images. Showing southern part of India and my native Sri Lanka, it was captured by one of the early US space missions, nearly four decades ago.

Much has happened on the tear-drop shaped island since this image was taken: among other things, we’ve been through a civil war that lasted a generation, and robbed the dreams of at least two generations. That war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

The Day After, on 19 May 2009, I wrote a 1,500-word essay titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace. The editor of Groundviews, Sri Lanka’s leading citizen journalism website, published it in full, and within minutes of my emailing the text to him.

I’m humbled and gratified that in the past few days, it has been widely read, commented on, quoted online and reproduced. Some have agreed with me; others have dismissed me as a naive dreamer. A writer cannot ask for more.

20 May 2009: (New York) reproduces the essay in full

24 May 2009: The Sunday Leader (Colombo) reprints the essay in full

I look back briefly on the brutal and tragic war – not in anger, but in great sadness. I then look forward in a wistful, dreamy mode. My premise was: “Now that the war is officially over, will this mark the beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too dreadful to consider.”

This is not exactly what I’ve been trained to do. As a science writer and film-maker, I gather and analyse information, which I try to present in logical, coherent and accessible ways. In recent years, I’ve also been writing op ed essays in areas where I have some competence and experience. In writing this essay, I consciously departed from all that. I’m neither political scientist nor activist to engage in ideological or technocratic discussions, which others have already started in earnest. I wrote this at an emotional level, looking back and looking forward.

But my training did come in handy in framing the timely and necessary questions. My chosen ‘author intro’ for this essay thus reads: “Writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been a dreamer for all his 43 years. He asks more questions than he can answer.”

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

We've doused the flames of war, but much more needs to be done...

If my views come across as naive or idealistic, I shall plead guilty as charged. My emotions this week are best described as cautiously optimistic, but as some readers on Groundviews pointed out in their comments, our high hopes have been betrayed before. But can we afford not to dream privately and publicly at this juncture? I don’t think so. We have suspended our dreams for too long, and it’s time to start dreaming again.

There are as many kinds of dreamers as there are dreams. One of my favourite quotes comes from the British soldier and writer T E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame): “All men dream, but not equally…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace…

Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune

Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Tribune

In our troubled times, cartoonists often provide more than mere caricature and entertainment. War and peace are no laughing matters, and neither is the profound advice some cartoons offer us. As a product of our image-saturated, popular culture driven world, I derive part of my insights from cartoonist-philosophers whose economy of words is unbeatable.

I haven’t discovered exactly what provoked the American cartoonist Jeff MacNelly (1947 – 2000) to draw this brilliantly perceptive cartoon in May 1992. But the three-time Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Chicago Tribune (and creator of popular comic strip Shoe) has captured a sentiment that has characterised so many tensions and suspicions in his land and mine: us and them.

It’s at the root of so much conflict and grief, be it between Islam and the West, or Israel and Palestine, or Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Its entirely a matter of perception, largely a creation of our insecure and insular minds. Yet we argue, wage war and kill each other for the sake of this strong tribal perception.

In an op ed essay published on Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews today, titled Memories of War, Dreams of Peace, I asked:

“Can we as a nation finally stop glorifying the war and its weapons, and return to our cultural heritage of ahimsa? How do we turn the current opportunity for peace into something tangible and lasting, so that we don’t allow political violence and war ever again? Do we have what it takes to go beyond chest thumping and finger pointing, and begin to care and share? Would we eventually be able to liberate our minds from our deep-rooted tribalism that sees everything through the prism of us and them?”

Indeed, one of the first – and hardest – challenges as we try to unify Sri Lankans and rebuild our war-ravaged country is to get over this division.

Read the full essay: Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

Moving images blog, two years on: The journey continues…

Blogs put ME back into MEdia...

Blogs put ME back into MEdia...

The Moving Images blog completes two years today. So we pause briefly to look back – and forward.

I launched the blog with two posts from near-freezing Washington DC on 17 March 2007, while participating in the DC Environmental Film Festival. Both concerned my own offering to the festival: Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues, product of monthly filming with 8 survivor families in 4 countries for nearly one year after the Asian tsunami.

Since then, this blog’s own journey has continued: in 24 months, we have produced 342 posts in 134 categories and with 562 tags. These elicited a total of 622 comments from readers who came from all walks of life, and all parts of the world. To the end of 16 March 2009, I received a cumulative total of slightly over 246,900 page visits. I now average 500 – 600 visits a day.

I share my blogging journey with these readers who have enriched it in various ways. Some commented under their own names; others used pseudonyms. Some left email details; others none. A few have actually suggested stories that I later wrote up as blog posts. I don’t know most of my readers in person, and have only met them online. As this blog enters its 25th month, I thank them all. You’ve kept me going in a particularly tough time in the world…and in my personal life.

Moving Images wasn’t my first blog – in late 2006 I had started another blog called Communicating Majority World under the name ‘Lost Alien’, which I somehow didn’t sustain for more than a few weeks and a handful of posts. For reasons that I can no longer quite recall, the Lost Alien abandoned his original blog – and migrated over here!

When I started Moving Images, I was driven by a simple motive: to discuss and reflect on the many and varied topics and subjects that interest me professionally. In one way or another, these fall into the area of communicating science, development and environment to the non-specialist public. Because my work at TVE Asia Pacific involves using television and video for this purpose, there is a bias on moving images in many things I do.

But by design, this is not an official blog of TVE Asia Pacific, or any other organisation that I am associated with. In fact, I regularly express here views that I cannot say wearing any of these hats — because we live in a world where most people still react not just to the song, but also the singer (and can’t separate the two).

Are we there yet? No!

Are we there yet? No!

So this blog is unashamedly, intentionally self-centred: it puts ME back in Media. I make no apologies for speaking my mind on a variety of topics, and for returning to some issues that I’m passionate about.

After 22 years in journalism, broadcasting or communicating development, I find I have sufficient perspective in which to anchor my thoughts, and to express my views in a way, I hope, interests and engages readers. Like the ancient Greeks, I try to ask the right questions – even when I don’t always know or get the right answers. And I have more than a few stories to spice up the narrative.

I’m well aware of the inherent danger of combining writer-editor-publisher all in one: personal blogs don’t always operate under the usual checks and balances that we expect and presume in the more structured media outlets (whether they are in the mainstream or new media spheres). On more than one occasion, I’ve written impulsively – in frustration, anger or elation, and sometimes on the run. Thanks to the training in my news reporter days, I can still churn out readable prose fast. And only once in all these 24 months and 342 posts have I regretted rushing to publish (so, using my absolute discretion as the media tycoon of this blog, I pulled it down).

Do I see myself as a citizen journalist? Yes and no. I don’t report news, and only very occasionally write on latest developments (or breaking news, as it’s now called). I see myself more as a citizen commentator – the op ed equivalent in the new media domain. Yes, I do occasionally report from large conferences that I attend as a speaker or panelist. But I have found how demanding it is to blog from events while keeping up with everything that is going on.

Do I see myself as a Sri Lankan blogger? Not really. Scanning the 342 blog posts I’ve written, I can count only a two dozen that have an appreciable reference to Sri Lanka. This is not because I’m aloof or disengaged; I have simply set a framework for myself that goes well beyond the country of my residence and social/cultural anchor.

Another reason for this intentional lack of geographical focus is that besides this blog, I regularly write op ed essays for other online outlets like Groundviews, and MediaHelpingMedia, and print news magazines like Montage. I use these platforms for commenting on Sri Lankan issues that interest or concern me.

I find it a bit incongruous that we who use the new media tools of web 2.0 – which signify the end of old geography – must contain ourselves to geographical or cultural cocoons. Thus, while I sometimes join gatherings of bloggers based in Sri Lanka, and share concerns for freedom of expression, I have consciously avoided joining Kottu, the leading aggregator of Sri Lankan blogs.

gvo-logo-lgAnd I get more than a little miffed when the excellent aggregation service Global Voices constantly labels me as a Sri Lankan voice (with a map of Lanka to boot!) whenever they helpfully flag my blog posts for wider attention. I have privately discussed this with GV’s South Asia coordinator who says their current tagging and categorisation do not allow anything else. Is this an example a new media platforms being trapped in an old media mindset?

If you really must pin me down to some place, call me a South Asian (or, as my friends at Himal would like to write it, Southasian).

Do I see myself as a new media activist?
I’m not sure. I’m not a geek, and have no great knowledge or insights on the back-end technologies that make all this possible. My interest is in how the new media tools shapes societies, cultures and politics in emerging Asia. Those braver and smarter than me are actually innovating and improvising new media tools for social activism. I just watch — and occasionally blog to critically cheerlead them. Mine is definitely the easy part…

Mainstream media...and bloggers

Mainstream media...and bloggers

On this blog, I place a higher premium on still and moving images. Regular readers know my fondness for cartoons, which I avidly search for and collect on a wide range of topics. In fact, I believe cartoonists are the best social and cultural commentators of our times – they say so much with such economy of words!

Similarly, I try to embed relevant online videos that I can find. Sometimes it takes me longer to scan YouTube and other platforms than to write the accompanying text for a blog post. And I get frustrated when WordPress does not allow embedding from certain online platforms like EngageMedia, a new Asia-based service that we have recently started to collaborate with.

As I travel around in Asia and Europe, and move across the sometimes overlapping circles of development, media and communications technology, I keep meeting readers who read and follow this blog. Some have never commented on any post; a few have chosen to write emails to me on specific matters.

This means some of the conversations inspired by this blog happen bilaterally — for example, film festival organisers have written asking me for contacts of specific film-makers whose work I have reviewed. Students often write to me seeking additional information or my own views. Long lost friends or associates have revived contact after stumbling upon this blog. I have no illusions of being famous, but it’s nice to stay engaged.

My policy on visitors’ comments is clearly stated in my intro page: “This is a moderated blog where I approve/disapprove the publication of readers’ comments to individual posts. I do allow all reasonable comments left by readers — including those that radically disagree with my own views. The basic rules of my moderation: I don’t publish comments that are outright libelous of individuals, or are so explicitly self-promotional bordering on spam.

Only once in the short history of this blog have I been threatened by someone whose conduct I questioned in the public interest. In late 2007, I wrote a hard-hitting comment on how certain media organisations are exploiting concerns surrounding climate change to their institutional advantage. I was standing by to publish their response, for the institution I named claims to promote public discussion and debate. None came my way, although some peer pressure was used, unsuccessfully, to make me remove the blog post. In mid 2008, when our paths accidentally crossed in a European capital, the individual concerned confronted me. I gave him a patient hearing, and reiterated my offer to publish his response in full. He insisted on my deleting the post (gosh, it must have hit a raw nerve!). He ended our unpleasant encounter saying: “If you lived in my jurisdiction, I would have sued you!”

There has never been a denial or rebuttal from this person or his institution on the substantive points in my blog post. But I was repeatedly told that my candid remarks are ‘not helpful’. Perhaps. But anyone who remotely believes in ‘illuminating debate’ would have engaged me on this blog, or theirs, or in a neutral forum (plenty exist).

Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation

Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation

Encouragingly, many others have done just that. This includes the reader who thinks I have an axe to grind with the BBC (I don’t, but I’m also not a fan of the ageing Auntie), and a few who feel I’ve been unkind to the fledgling global newscaster Al Jazeera English.

Then there are those who assume that I hate state-owned, so-called public broadcasters (again, I don’t, although I question their conduct more rigorously because they are public-funded). In fact, I have sung praise of Burmese TV as a model public broadcaster, and maintained excellent relations with NHK and other public broadcasters in Asia. I’m regularly invited as a speaker or panelist at gatherings of mainstream broadcasters – where I express pretty much the same views as I do on this blog.

Some think I’m too harsh on the United Nations, especially UNICEF. Again, I’m a great believer and supporter of the UN’s ideals, but never hesitate to critique the public communication policies and practices of individual UN agencies. I like to think that the United Nations is bigger (and deeper) than the inflated egos of its senior officials. In fact, middle level officials and experts working in various UN agencies have privately commended me for keeping the spotlight on their agencies. During the two years of this blog, I have worked closely with UN-OCHA, UNEP and UNAIDS, and they have been pluralistic enough to engage me in the greater public interest.

I believe that it’s not just the UN, but the entire development sector, that needs to get its act together when it comes to communicating policies, practices and choices. Having occasionally (and luckily, only briefly) forayed into the charmed development circles, I realise how detached from reality, self-referential and inward looking many development professionals and their institutions are. Communication is often no more than self-promotional publicity for overambitious agency heads. I have watched how the sector has struggled to adjust to the new realities in media and communications technology. Sometimes I have ridiculed their worse attempts on this blog; more often than not, I have quietly worked with them in small groups or bilateral meetings trying to build their capacity to do things better with greater focus and impact.

I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!

I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!

Precisely because I have access to various policy, development and research circles in Asia while (or despite?) being a blogger critiquing the same players, I exercise caution in quoting people or citing examples. Some meetings I attend discuss matters too sensitive for immediate publication; others operate on the Chatham House rule (generic points may be communicated, but without attribution). As a journalist, I’ve been trained to clarify what is on the record and what isn’t; in sourcing content for this blog, I follow the same principles.

Every writer, editor and publisher has her own agenda. Mine is fairly easy to discern, for example from the recurrent themes on this blog. These include: * humanising development communication (going beyond mere facts, figures, analysis and jargon); * demystifying and debunking self-serving development myths (for example, about community radio, or rural poverty); * practising what we preach (broadcasters addressing their own carbon emissions); * evolving more inclusive copyright policies (poverty and climate change as copyright free zones); and * engaging in simple, clear and effective communicating of science and technology in society.

For those who occasionally look for a hidden agenda, my only advice is: get a life. I write this blog for fun. I don’t set out to kick anyone – although I often get a kick out of receiving online or offline feedback.

And that’s my wish for the coming months and years: while I work hard to earn some honest bucks else where, may I continue to derive my kicks here. And if some of you also get a mental kick out of reading or commenting on this blog, that’s my bonus.

Since I remain open-minded and eager for new knowledge, my views on some topics and issues keep evolving over time. Although it’s tempting to go back and edit some of my earlier blog posts in the light of new knowledge or understanding, I refrain from doing so. And if that sometimes presents (minor) inconsistencies, I can only quote Walt Whitman in my defence:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Beyond Babu SAARC: Liberating airwaves for South Asians

“Watching the current SAARC jamboree unfold over television news, my young daughter asked why none of the officials were smiling. The SAARC Secretary General, Dr. Sheel Khant Sharma, was always scowling. Others didn’t have smiles on their faces either, even insincere ones. They all looked stressed out, wearing glum, miserable faces.

“I could only hazard a guess. Perhaps the assorted babus have too much to worry about, as they get through their very serious and grim business of fostering regional cooperation. On the other hand, after all these years of endless meetings and declarations, they might have forgotten the simple joys of smiling and enjoying each other’s company.”

With these words I open my latest op ed essay, just published on the Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews.

Anti-people, Pro-Babu SAARC in Colombo

Anti-people, Pro-Babu SAARC in Colombo

The essay is my personal response to the meetings of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, taking place in my home city of Colombo this week. Assorted babus (a derogatory South Asian term for pompous officials) from all over South Asia have invaded the city, displacing its people and severely disrupting normal life and work.

And all for what? So that the unsmiling babus can congratulate each other on how little they have accomplished since the last such gathering in New Delhi in April 2007!

As I note in my essay: Make no mistake: SAARC is a good idea hijacked by unimaginative and pompous, unsmiling babus of South Asia and run to the ground. The self-congratulatory rhetoric of the inter-governmental merry-go-round is once again deafening us as the 15th SAARC takes place in Colombo. In reality, SAARC at 23 has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). There isn’t, in fact, much to smile about.

The SAARC Sec Gen is always scowling, with never a smile on his face...

The SAARC Sec Gen is always scowling, with never a smile on his face...

I go on to note:
The proof of the SAARC pudding is not in over-hyped Summits or crusty declarations, but in the free flow of people, ideas, creativity and culture across the political boundaries jealously guarded by governments and their militaries. Most SAARC initiatives miserably fail this test. Typical of this arrested development is the SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, SAVE.

The rest of my essay is a critique of SAVE, and how it has failed to foster greater regional understanding among the people of South Asia through the airwaves. This is because SAVE brought together only the state-owned radio and television stations of South Asia which are no more than propaganda organs for ruling parties and/or militaries that are running our countries.

I go on to cheer the recent initiative called TV South Asia, a collaboration involving 5 private TV broadcasters in South Asia. Without any of the pomposity of SAVE or SAARC, TV South Asia is quietly doing what SAVE has failed for nearly a quarter of a century.

The essay builds on my 6 July 2008 blog post TV South Asia: Nothing official about it, yipee!

Read my full op ed essay on Groundviews

More unsmiling SAARC babus - they certainly dont speak for me!

More unsmiling SAARC babus - they certainly don't speak for me!

Never a smile on their faces!

Foreign secretaries of SAARC: Never a smile on their faces!

All images courtesy Daily News, Sri Lanka

Mobile phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile Phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

This is the title of my latest op ed essay, published this week on Groundviews, the leading citizen journalism website in Sri Lanka.

In this, I try to place in a social and cultural context a series of discriminatory laws, regulations and taxes that my native Sri Lanka has introduced – or threatened – in the past few months all aimed at mobile phones, and only mobiles.

This, despite the fact that the proliferation of mobiles has brought telecom services within reach of millions of Sri Lankans in the past decade, helping raise the country’s overall tele-density (mobiles+fixed phones) to 54 telephones per 100 population. With over 11 million SIMs issued, mobiles today outnumber fixed phones by three to one.

In my essay, I cite specific examples, and ask the crucial questions:

Why is this already licensed and regulated technology often targeted for ‘special treatment’ by different arms of government?

Where is this wide-spread suspicion and hostility towards mobiles coming from?

I argue that it is rear-guard action by the traditional elite and bureaucracy who’d rather not allow such digital empowerment to spread. And this has historical parallels.

Here’s the crux of it:

“There is a numerically small (but influential) privileged class that resents information and communication access becoming universal. They might talk glibly in public on using ICTs for social development or poverty reduction. But back inside the corridors of power, they make policies and regulations to undermine the very utility of these tools. This is no accident.

“The mobile phone is the biggest social leveller in Sri Lankan society since the trouser became ubiquitous (initially for men, and belatedly for women). Our elders can probably recall various arguments heard 30 or 40 years ago on who should be allowed to wear the western garb: it was okay for the educated and/or wealthy mahattayas, but not for the rest. Absurd and hilarious as these debates might seem today, they were taken very seriously at the time.

“Make no mistake: the mobile is the trouser of our times –- and thus becomes the lightning rod for class tensions, petty jealousies and accumulated frustrations of an elite that sees the last vestiges of control slipping away.

Read the full essay on Groundviews

Relevant to this discussion is a short film that TVE Asia Pacific produced for LIRNEasia in late 2007, summarising the findings of the latter’s large sample survey on tele-use at the bottom of the pyramid in five emerging markets (which included Sri Lanka).

TVEAP News, Nov 2007: Film highlights telephone revolution in Asia’s emerging markets

Watch the film online:

Teleuse@BOP – Part 1 of 2

Teleuse@BOP – Part 2 of 2

Photo courtesy TVE Asia Pacific