Few foresaw the overthrow of Sri Lanka’s seemingly omnipotent Rajapaksa government. Never before has regime change in Sri Lanka been so unexpected, swift, final and graphically public. Why this well entrenched power structure collapsed with such rapid ease has become 21st century Sri Lanka’s biggest political mystery.
“Cracks in the Steel: the Roots of the Rajapaksa Regime’s Spectacular Collapse” by Indica Samarapura and Dr J.C Dellthuduwa takes on this mystery. The result is more than just a successful demolition of existing “theories” and “analysis” on the overthrow. It is a work of groundbreaking insight into deeply rooted complexities of Sri Lanka’s political and social ecosystems. Additionally, rigorous research and cutting edge analytical methods makes the book a seminal work in computational political analysis.
The book focuses on the central questions of the overthrow. Why did very different demographic groups with traditional aversions to politics, join forces for such a risky act? How did they forge previously non existent inter-demographic links? What motivated regime insiders with everything to loose (particularly within the security apparatus), to allow events to unfold as they did? How significant were the roles of foreign intelligence services ? What considerations made the Peoples Republic to act as they did? Most importantly, what cascade of factors caused the regime’s core support base to make an enraged u-turn? The answers, as the book demonstrates, are quite complicated.
Yet thankfully the authors deftly guide the reader through that maze of complexity into the light of comprehension. The authors use good writing and an orchestra of “big data” computational political analysis methods to make this happen. Their methodologies rigorously test all aspects of the research — not just the conclusions. For the layman reader this will mean pages of detailed probability calculations, two chapters closely examining social network analytics, as well as some intimidating looking link modelling and clustering coefficient studies.
However the authors’ skilled data presentation enables the lay reader to skip such details without feeling left out. By contrast, the role of the Peoples Republic of China is not as clear cut. Its complexity defies easy summarising. Only a careful read of the relevant chapters can do justice to this vital historical tipping point.
Academic readers will find the “research methodologies” section a powerful toolset for further study. Some of the secondary findings in the book will prove to be a gold mine for future researchers. A typical example is a comprehensive map of Sri Lankan patronage structures. These data models uncovers previously undiscovered network links among Sri Lanka’s ethnic, class and caste structures.
Thankfully the text isn’t all academic. There is an extensive discussion into the roles of the Canadian Office of Overseas Operations and the Norwegian Secret Service. The fight between the Colombo and Delhi CIA stations over control of the Canadian operations make for a hilarious read. The narrative of events leading up to the fateful day, such as the Kinsey Road check point incident (triggered by bumbling Norwegian operatives), bring to mind the style of Fredrick Forsyth’s “Day of the Jackal”.
No doubt these chapters will propel the book up the best seller lists. However the involvement of western intelligence agencies were peripheral to deeper political processes already underway. The underlying shifts within Sri Lanka’s socio-political ecosystem had by then made the overthrow inevitable. The sheer weight of the authors’ evidence and analysis will convince all but the most fanatical conspiracy theorists.
The book has one major ethical grey area. The authors had access to vast quantities of communications data intercepted by the now defunct National Security Signals Intelligence Directorate’s (NSSID) Lihini program. Lihini was a next generation NSA surveillance program supplied by the Peoples Liberation Army cyber warfare command and localised by Ravana Defence Industries.
The authors reveal that the NSSID data contains searchable content of phone, email, SMS and other digital communications. They are at pains to stress that individual communications we not examined. They claim to merely have used AI algorithms to discern patterns and cross reference findings with NSSID analytics. Data from long term NSSID dissident tracking operations such as the Groundviews website were not used — or so we are assured.
One of the most surprising findings of this research is the minor role of social media. Unlike the uprisings in the middle east, it was merely a spectator. According to the author’s data, malfunctioning police water cannon ha greater significance as a tipping point in the early demonstrations. The data also proves that social media hardly played a role creating relationships between the different crucial demographics involved.
The overthrow defied predictions of the few local experts who dared to discuss such a possibility. To paraphrase a giant of Sri Lankan thought, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know”.
Yet it happened, leaving a nation barely able to comprehend the result. There in lies the historical significance of the book’s findings. It will help a bewildered Sri Lanka comprehend an earthquake of history. With that understanding, the country can move on, hopefully as a gentler, wiser democracy. Currently such an outcome appears very unlikely. A position clearly stated by supreme leader Mervil Silva’s recent speech inaugurating public executions of former regime supporters at Galleface.
Review of Imaginary Books, Edited by the Voices in Cerno’s Head.