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Sunday, 10 January 2016

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A concentrated effort to: Deny and destroy diversity

Sinha-le, a campaign primarily promoted over social media both in Sri Lanka and abroad, can also be seen on stickers adorning three-wheelers and other vehicles. The campaign is essentially racist, mixing elements of violent xenophobia, Islamophobia, racial slurs and hate speech in what is promoted as a campaign signifying love for country and patriotic zeal.

Perusing through a Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/536506036516951/) group, one of many others, established in support of the campaign, one encounters outrageous content of a nature the careful observer will immediately recognise as exactly what was promoted by similar pages, groups and sites aligned with the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Fringe lunacy has a place in a democracy, as precisely that.

The danger under the previous government was that extremists, like the BBS, were allowed the space to thrive and operate in conditions of near total impunity. In comparison, the Sinha-le movement is as yet nascent. Aside from inspiring one act of vandalism, it has yet to grow into the monstrosity that was the BBS and other chauvinistic forces aligned to it, especially online. The enduring danger is that Sinha-le and similar movements that crop up in the months ahead are black swan events - spontaneous mechanisms created to instigate communal unrest over a specific instance, individual or location, but go viral and develop a life of their own, ending up by spilling over into violence in the real world. Not unlike the appeal of the Islamic State (ISIL) through online social media, the racism, intolerance and violence of Sinha-le is rendered invisible to its vocal proponents.

The fans and followers create echo chambers, where radicalisation is fostered by the production, publication, dissemination and discussion of deeply racist material. Almost exclusively in Sinhala, this content passes under the radar of platforms like Facebook and policies in place against content that instigates communal violence, racism and hate speech. The catch-22 is around how best to respond to Sinha-le.

Also using social media and in Sinhala, the pushback has been very creative, sardonic, significant and widespread. It is unclear however the degree to which the more liberal, progressive and democratic voices are able to infiltrate the well-springs of the Sinha-le movement, and engage with, to the extent possible, its proponents. Some propose strategic inaction - hoping these movements will die down after a period of time. The danger around this approach is that the opposite will happen, and by the time policymakers take note, adequate, timely responses are significantly more complex to generate. As Sri Lanka embarks upon constitutional reform and other major projects this year, involving the whole of government and reshaping how we see our country, I expect Sinha-le to be the first salvo in what will be many more movements, on similar lines, that attempt to deny, destroy and decry the essential diversity in our country. The litmus test will be around how we respond to extremism, and what measures can be proactively taken to combat the growth of these movements amongst young adults - the future leaders of Sri Lanka.

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