FROM POLITICAL PARTIES TO SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
Posted on December 7th, 2009

Speech made by Milinda Moragoda, Minister of Justice and Law Reform at the Inaugural Sessions held by the AIDS Foundation of Sri Lanka, on 7 December, 2009

I would like to thank Dr. Palitha Abeykoon and the Board of Management of the Aids Foundation of Lanka for inviting me to be present at this occasion.

The initiative to find a cure for AIDS, to the shame of almost every government in the world, was led by ordinary people, civil society, the private sector and the media. The fight against AIDS typifies the way the world is changing and how people are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, as governments are seen to be inept at reacting quickly to crises. The movement to find a cure for AIDS demonstrates that civil society movements around the world have, and are taking the lead in solving some of the most pressing global challenges.

Twenty years ago the mobile telephone was still in its infancy. Though it had moved from being a very large battery with a handset on the top to something a bit smaller, it was still owned mostly by members of the elite and big business. Twenty years later, the mobile phone has become much more affordable and almost indispensible. It has enabled the spread of telephone networks even in remote places where traditional wired telephones did not exist earlier due to high infrastructure costs.

As you are aware, in Sri Lanka, the growth of mobile telephone connections has been exponential. This has freed people. They are no longer bound to their homes or offices; they can connect to friends, family, and colleagues almost anywhere they are.

This has also opened up new and more efficient business opportunities for ordinary people. Wherever you go in Sri Lanka, you see farmers, bus drivers, tour guides, and office workers using this technology to conduct their business and maintain their personal networks.

The development of the internet, too, has greatly impacted all of our lives and continues to dramatically transform the way we live as it evolves. However, in 1988, a little more than twenty years ago, the internet, was still a cumbersome system, used by mostly academics in the scientific community and the defence establishment. Known as Web 1.0, at the beginning, it was in many senses an electronic storage place for information, with limited interactivity. However, with the invention of more user-friendly interfaces and other features, its uses and users multiplied. We soon had email, the World Wide Web, web browsers like Yahoo and Google. Soon, Web 2.0 was born. If Web 1.0 was like a big worldwide library, then Web 2.0 was like adding a worldwide community centre to the library. Web 2.0 gave rise to blogs, video-sharing, social networking and shopping sites, and on-line newspapers. Today, it is estimated that the internet has 1.67 billion regular users worldwide.

Initially, people used the web primarily as a tool to easily access all sorts of information. Eventually though, many found that it was an effective platform to reach out to others who shared similar interests and ideas. Geography was no longer a limitation. The advent of the World Wide Web, and web browsers such as Google and Yahoo in the 1990s, has spawned an era of unlimited reach to people, knowledge and information, and has resulted in the spread of information becoming almost instantaneous. The concept of virtual communities bringing together many different interest groups has now emerged. Geographical proximity is no longer the limiting criteria for organizing social movements. The advent of on-line chat, online videoconferencing and internet telephony such as Skype, which enables users to call other users over the internet at no charge, has made the world seem much smaller and expanded our horizons. There are so many possibilities to connect not only with friends, families and associates but also with the wider world via messaging or emails ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” by mobile telephony or computer ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” to network, exchange opinions and share information, or come together for a cause. The development of social media such as blogs and Facebook are two other developments of a phenomenon that cannot be stopped, that has changed the way in which we work, live, play, think and organize. It has changed the way we perceive the world and communities. Blogs can now be easily set-up with user-friendly software and the proliferation of blogs on every subject attests to this fact. In turn, businesses have discovered that blogs are often more effective at getting the word out about a new product than traditional forms of advertising. This is because, blogs bring together people of similar interests and values and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-word of mouthƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ recommendations carry more credibility. Physical borders have been rendered almost meaningless and cannot keep out new ideas. Today we can socialize online, shop online, trade online and share information online. Given the fact that millions of Sri Lankans live abroad, around the globe, we as a country too are benefitting from all of these new technologies.

The technology, known as Twitter was only the next logical application taking social networks and instant and widespread connectivity to a whole new level. This technology allows users to send short text messages (known as ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-tweetsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚) to large groups of people and to follow the tweets of other users either on the internet or on mobile phones. Though some still dismiss Twitter as a passing fad, recently in Iran, it tellingly helped protestors bypass government censors to organize street demonstrations, while cellphones brought video footage of the events to the rest of the world.

Another example showing the effectiveness of Twitter as a tool for social mobilization is the case in the UK of Carter Ruck and Trafigura. Trafigura is a multinational oil trading company which is alleged to have dumped chemical waste in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. Many local people were reported to have become sick from this dumping and the company subsequently paid the Ivorian government money to clean up the waste whilst denying liability.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK subsequently covered the story. On 12th October 2009, Carter Ruck the legal firm acting for Trafigura attempted to prevent the Guardian from covering a parliamentary question by a Labour Member of Parliament by what is known as a super injunction. Within hours over 45,000 text messages ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” or ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-tweetsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ as they are known ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” flooded the Twitter network, condemning Carter Ruck and Trafigura. The super injunction was removed. Thus this internet-organized outcry was able to influence the outcome of an event in the virtual rather than a physical realm. These two examples show the power of social networks.

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Web 2.0, as the current form of the internet is referred to, is changing the face of the media too, making it more interactive. Today if you read an online Sri Lanka newspaper, you will find that you are often given the opportunity to leave a comment at the end of articles. Sometimes these comments that often develop into discussions, are often just as interesting as the article.

You can also access a plethora of online webcasts on a range of subjects. The popular website You Tube makes it easy for people to upload their own videos on the site for free and provides means for feedback and comments to be exchanged between users. One can find webcasts on any topic, and many of the latest current topics and issues and even news shows and interviews can be watched. It is an effective tool to reach out to others. I myself, have linked webcasts of my activities and speeches from my website onto You Tube.

You might ask what all this has to do with the fight against HIV AIDS. Because technology has changed the way we communicate and because of that it has changed the way we work together, live and play. Media, local NGOs, the business community and our youth are clicked into these technologies in the most innovative ways.

The past twenty years has seen a change in the balance of power. During the Cold War years of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, governments controlled the access and channels of information. However, the new technologies make this almost impossible to do anymore. Today information (and sadly, disinformation) somehow finds its way out. People have instant access to information unlike before. They now have better tools to communicate, organize and protest. They can make their voices heard more effectively. In short, politicians are no longer the masters; the people are becoming the masters of the politicians ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” the way it should be within democracies. Quite simply knowledge is power.

There is one important proviso that needs to be highlighed. With the instantaneity of the dissemination of information, the anonymity and proliferation of sources, that the internet has made possible, there is also a serious downside ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” the possible manipulation of information or the creation of misinformation or false information for destructive ends. This places a larger responsibility on citizens to not unquestioningly accept all that they read and to exercise their judgment wisely.

The internet and technology have transformed every sphere of human activity including politics, political campaigns and government. I am sure that you all have seen this beginning to take place in Sri Lanka as well. For the reasons outlined above, I believe that in the future, social movements will play a central role in the conduct of politics and governance. I believe that effective social movements can serve the people better than the old-fashioned, cumbersome and hierarchical structures of the traditional political party. Social movements in the internet age are more participatory in nature, and thus better reflect the concerns and interests of the people. They give more control to citizens and the ability to play a direct role in governance.

Youth today are driven by passion for issues they believe in and follow their own stars. They are empowered and emboldened by the new technologies widely available, and their horizons are wider. They are impatient. They have little interest in holding office within ossified party structures and have little time to attend routine party meetings, unless they feel strongly about a cause. Sadly, things have come to a state where they do not see politics as having any relevance to their lives. This is an international phenomenon. I am sure some of you may realize this when you speak with your own children.

This is why I am convinced that social movements that reflect the interests of the people will either gradually displace old-fashioned and cumbersome hierarchical party organisations, or serve as a catalyst to cause them to rethink the way they operate. I believe that the role of the politician, too, will also change to meet this new reality. In many cases social movements in the internet age can help bring about change more effectively than government. Civil society will have to step forward to play a larger role ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” which is what democracy is really all about. Just imagine what will happen when people have power over their own lives instead of having to rely solely on politicians to get anything done.

This is what happened with the fight against AIDS. Whilst politicians argued about whether AIDS was a genuine problem beyond a narrow community, people were dying and the epidemic spread. Sometimes governments provided information which was poorly conceived. Sometimes well-intentioned programmes were not rooted in the cultures or the societies they were serving. Many programmes were doomed to fail and the real battle was entered into only when local people, those most affected started to take action themselves.

Today in Africa there are many local NGOs that carry out educational programmes about AIDS, many that support AIDS sufferers and many more who look after the orphans created by the AIDS epidemic. These are run by ordinary people, members of civil society who took action when they saw that government was slow to act. They took power into their own hands to battle this crisis. The WHO, the UN system and several international non-governmental organizations played a vital role as well. New NGOs such as the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, too understand this change in the world where civil society can play a big role in effecting change.

That degree of empowerment is what I hope will happen increasingly in Sri Lanka. Ordinary people who have concerns or interests should not wait for government to act, they should unite themselves, organize and network to find solutions. They now have the communications tools to come together in like-minded groups and to act in a united manner. They have the power to change things by acting collectively. Without the shackles of old-fashioned politics, social movements can bring people together, regardless of political affiliation. What will matter is the need of the moment, the cause that is being espoused.

Obviously, government cannot be completely dispensed with. Society requires political leaders to provide a vision for their country, to formulate policy, to ensure that justice and equity prevail, and to bring in legislation and regulation. The difference in the future will be that the people will have a bigger say, and will more directly set the agenda. They will help ensure that politicians do what they are intended to do ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” to govern wisely and to solve the problems of society.

In Sri Lanka, after over thirty years of conflict and the dawn of peace, the hunger for this transformation is evident. In any country and in times of uncertainty, it is easy for extremists to come to the fore. Unfortunately in this new global age where the old institutions are in transition and new powers are on the rise, polarization seems to be the order of the day in many countries. For a time extremists may drive the political agenda, but history shows that the pendulum always swings back. Ultimately these destructive forces will always be defeated by the common-sense and decency of ordinary citizens, who want to live their lives in peace and prosperity.

In May of this year, we saw the defeat of one form of extremism. One that brought misery, poverty, division and grief to our country. It is clear that people now want to move forward and not be held back by the inertia and parochialism of the past. The time has come for us to turn away from confrontation, division and finger-pointing, and move towards becoming a more compassionate and open society where the needs of the people are at forefront of the national agenda.

In conclusion, the very concept of the Party is itself becoming irrelevant. Across the whole world parties are losing members. People are no longer slavishly joining parties because they believe in a particular political programme. Instead they are making up their own minds and taking action, much as the AIDS movement has done. In future people will vote for the candidate who serves their best interests. They will decide for themselves what they want and vote not for the party, but the person best qualified to deliver results.

In the United States, whilst there are two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, it is at election time, particular causes or issues come to the fore and each side presents their views. At the 2009 presidential election, Barack Obama espoused the strongest case and won. In much of Western Europe, the environmental party known as the Green Party which has gained some ground, is less a party than a group of citizens who are united around the cause of environmentalism. In the UK, at the last European elections, a record number of parties put forward a slate of candidates. Although many called themselves parties, many of these are centred around a specific issue or philosophy. The most notable of these is probably the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which seeks to take the UK out of the European Union.

Increasingly we shall see a change in politics. In ancient times the state of Athens introduced a system of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-direct democracyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ in which every person was able to vote on the issues that concerned them. With the increase in the size of countries and populations this became unviable. But one day soon I envisage that the internet which has transformed our lives so much already, will enable us to reach a more perfect democracy. One in which citizens will be more directly empowered and will be able to play a larger role and contribute more directly to governance.

In our own way, we should be driving towards this goal. We should encourage the growth of online forums, where ordinary people are given the chance to have their say on issues of concern. Eventually, we should see online voting so that people will be able to vote free of intimidation and corrupt practices. This is not a pipe dream. It is already happening. As you know, in India the use of electronic machines for voting is now the norm. This is also the case in Brazil. In Estonia every citizen has access to the internet and some voting now takes place online. Meanwhile, many Northern European countries ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” countries that match us in population size ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” lead the way in moving towards e-government.

So the opportunity is there, but it requires each one of us to think differently. We must stop thinking that we donƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢t have a choice, to start finding out the facts for ourselves and to start voting for our futures rather than our short term interests. We must stop solely relying on politicians to find solutions and understand that we all share responsibility in bringing about change to make our society better. As with the AIDS movement, all it requires is for ordinary people to get up, take power into their own hands and make it happen.

Thank you.

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