ICTs in post-war Sri Lanka

posted in Note by Producer

ICTs in post-war Sri Lanka

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

ICT in post war Sri Lanka explores the use of information and communication technologies by people living in the North and East. Over the last few years infrastructure and connectivity in the North and East have rapidly developed. While there is still no electricity in some parts of the North and East, billboards of all network service providers dot the landscape, internet cafes and mobile/computer repair shops are common in towns in both Provinces. This feature highlights unique use of ICTs in these areas by ordinary people rebuilding their lives after the 30 year war.

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

During the period of LTTE control, all outside communication from Puthukuduyiruppu was closely monitored by the LTTE. Now, four years after the end of the war Krishnapullai feels that his community is able to reconnect once more with the outside world. Being an isolated agricultural community that bore the brunt of the final battle, the people in Puthukuduyiruppu never really had much access to ICTs. However, the influx of development into the area created a need for knowledge and access to information and the conveniences that these services provide. Identifying this need, Krishnapullai started his small business – Eveready Printers. He took a loan from a state bank, raised the rest of the funds by pawning his wife’s jewelry and set up this Internet café and printing business which serves the Puthukuduyiruppu area. It is thriving but humble establishment that came from beginnings that were humbler still, but his objective was to provide the residents of Puthukuduyiruppu with access to ICT-enabled services. His small shop has fast become a one-stop shop where the people of his community can access the rest of the world.

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

People from the local area use Krishnapullai’s facilities for browsing and keeping in touch through Skype, Facebook and other social media, offering a 100 mbps internet connection able to connect up to 4 people at a time. They enjoy the ability to liaise with banking institutions, public services, and process visa applications through him for a fraction of the time and money than if they had to go to Colombo to access these services. He is essentially everyone’s PC. And at times, the marriage broker! Krishnapullai proudly related a story about how a man who lived in London was engaged to a girl in the village and he was able to facilitate connection between the pair via Skype and avoid an expensive month-long process of sending and receiving letters via the less than reliable postal service. He hopes to expand his business in the future in keeping with the needs that will arise from greater ICT usage in the area. Krishnapullai is keen to teach the community how to use this technology better and offer tutelage on desktop publishing, basic graphic design and computer maintenance.

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Batticaloa, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Women in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province played a crucial role in responding to the difficult circumstances that their families and communities had to endure during the conflict and the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami that destroyed their homes and livelihoods. While women were seen as the foundations of resilience in these households and communities, they rarely make the news that reaches these towns and villages. Their remarkable experiences are seldom reflected spoken of. Minmini News, a local SMS news service for women in Batticaloa, has begun bridging this gap. Masonry is a popular daily wage job in the country; however female masons are virtually unheard of. In a society where women are perceived at being able to only carry out soft work, Minmini shared news about a Yogaranha, female mason in Batticaloa. The news created curiosity among its subscribers with some writing back requesting for more information.

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Batticaloa, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

News published in the mainstream media is not merely re-sent through Minmini. Instead, they focus on news which will impact its readers such as stories of women empowering themselves with non-traditional jobs. Minmini staff search for news related to women in the district and believe that although the number of subscribers is small, the news sent through Minmini reaches a wider audience as subscribers share the message in their local communities. Unlike traditional SMS breaking news services, Minmini’s news is crowd-sourced – it receives information through its subscribers. Subscribers share stories with Minmini about women in the district in the hope that these would be shared through Minmini’s network. Information related to Samurdhi and other village development initiatives of the government are communicated through Minmini after verification from designated officials.

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Batticaloa, June 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

Anuratha is the coordinator for Minmini and has been there since its inception in 2010. She points out that taking news related to women’s empowerment and issues impacting women was the intention of for starting Minmini. Starting out with 30 subscribers out of which 10 were reporters, Minmini commenced a trial run for a period of one year in English and Tamil. The reporters were individuals who worked in women’s organisations. This provided Minmini with a steady stream of news to select and disseminate to its subscribers. Unlike the mainstream media, which banks on ‘breaking news’, Minmini was more traditional. Sometimes the news would not be sent out for weeks because the editors would suggest more research needed to be done. Minmini uses Frontline SMS, an open-source messaging system for communities to use mobile technology to promote positive social change. Minmini’s direct subscriber base has grown and today it stands at 168 while their news is shared by several others through forwarding of SMSs.

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Mullaitivu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Connectivity is brand new to the war-ravaged Mullaitivu District of North Eastern Sri Lanka. As the war ripped through the heart of this community, the residents collectively lost their homes, businesses, livestock and the lives of family members. This has had far reaching social implications. Education in Mullaitivu has only been offered in a staccato fashion as schools were forced to close down during times of violence. The Mullaitivu Maha Vidyalayam (MMV) was originally located closer to the sea and was badly damaged in the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. Since the ended of the armed conflict in 2009, development has come quickly to this fledgling community and is gradually having a positive impact on the lives of its residents. Being a historically isolated area, the residents of this region are predominantly used to a more rudimentary lifestyle. This is all changing. Rapid development has enveloped this community bringing with it roads, electricity and connectivity.

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Mullaitivu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

For most us, the Internet is only as new as the last time we checked our Facebook page or read the news. We depend on it for a great many things in our lives. This connectivity is something that we have conditioned ourselves to not be without and often find it handicapping to be without access to email, social media, and of course, Google. For the people of the Mullaitivu, however, the world that the Internet brings to their homes and schools is only 12 months old.

Many of the children in this area between the ages of 11 and 19 attend Mullaitivu Maha Vidyalayam (MMV). This school was gifted to the community by the Cathal Ryan Foundation of Ireland and is a multi-faith, co-educational facility that is dedicated to fostering respect and understanding between ethnicities, religions and genders. MMV offers its students and teachers empowerment and independence in their studies and teaching through their Information Communication Technology program. A full service computer lab populated by 10 computer terminals with 100mbps connection to the internet via ADSL as well as via Mobile Broadband connectivity.

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Mullaitivu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

The students have only had access to the internet for just a year now. But despite this, the students seem to be taking to these new opportunities with gusto and generally view it as a tool to increase their knowledge and add to their educational pursuits. The students speak of new opportunities to further their learning beyond the classroom. Utilisation of tools like Google and YouTube has enabled them to learn independently. Classroom sessions serve as precursors to knowledge that they seek out on their own time using the resources that they are now connected to via the internet. Past papers, encyclopedic resources as well as visual video resources for artistic pursuits are now at their fingertips. Students and teachers choreograph dances, learn new games and other activities after watching videos on YouTube and this has resulted in the school even winning a few awards at competitions.

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Mullaitivu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Priyanka, a Year 12 student from neighbouring Kallaipadu is studying in the Advanced Level Maths stream and currently has a head buried deep in chemistry, physics and mathematics as well as a specialised ICT course. She said that she hoped to become “a network engineer” some day. The advent of connectivity has brought the world closer to Priyanka. In the past the already challenging task of preparing for exams was made even more difficult due to not being access up to date information. Having to rely solely on increasingly redundant books and newspapers that had the tendency to go missing meant that at the end of her searches she may still have information that was not pertinent to the task. Whereas now with the access she has through the ICT facilities at MMV she has the ability to ensure that she is adequately prepared for examinations by being able to access past papers in addition to other relevant resources. She is able to access sites specific to her study in Tamil making her experience easier, and websites that must be accessed in English can also be translated into Tamil using translation services online. Priyanka’s life at the moment is consumed by study and this reflects the content that she accesses online. All of it is predominantly news and information based websites that enable her to prepare for the daunting task of her Advanced Level Exams. When she does have free time she keeps in touch with friends and family members in India and as far off as France where her cousin lives, using Skype and the Facebook.

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Mullaitivu, June 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Kunanan is an Ordinary Level student and says he has his sights set on “being an electrical engineer”, but is already dabbling in basic HTML coding and website design. He appears to be a typical 15 year old, ready to take on the world and curious about everything in his own quiet way. Kunanan views this access as a type of intellectual independence. He realises that access to the Internet is really access to the world where he can call upon the knowledge of people everywhere to assist him on his pursuits. Through this he has found that he has had the opportunity to advance his learning and reflects fondly on the realisation that the computer monitor in the ICT lab at MMV is a window onto the world. Furthermore, while he has always had an idea to become an Electrical Engineer he has historically seen this as a pipe dream and knew that the more realistic likelihood is that he would have had to settle into an agricultural lifestyle in his native area. Connectivity has brought with it the promise of fresh possibility and opportunity and Kunanan now feels like his dreams are within reach.

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Jaffna, July 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Since the advent of digital imaging and easy access to compact video capture devices, more and more people are using the medium of film with which to express themselves through art and thrash out the questions that they are faced with in their lives and the lives of people around them. Raj Sivaraj, in Sri Lanka’s Northern city of Jaffna, has a heady mix of passion, empathy, creativity and a need to tell a story. Although he spends Monday to Friday working for the District Secretariat in nearby Killinochchi, his 9 to 5 is far from his passion. He is an avid filmmaker, writer, and director. Armed with his Nikon D90 and a group of friends that serve as his cast and crew, Raj writes poignant stories about the life and times of Northern Sri Lanka. Within his frame he deals with the issues that he encounters in his day-to-day life. It is his empathy that makes him a good writer, his ability to walk in the shoes of those that form his inspiration. Whether it is a woman being inappropriately touched in public by uncouth men, or the dichotomy between rich and poor in the war-torn district.

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Jaffna, July 2013. Photograph by Seshanka Samarajiwa

Raj’s passion led him across the Palk Strait to South India where he sstudied Visual Communication at the SRM Arts & Science College in Chennai. He returned with a desire to create films that spoke of the socio-political situation in his hometown and formed around him a group of old friends with similar passion and conviction. With very little support and very little exposure people like Raj face the question – “how will people see my work?” For the answer, Raj and his peers have turned to the internet. YouTube has provided the platform with which Raj can take his work to a wider audience. If YouTube is his theatre, then Facebook is his box-office and together these platforms are helping take his unique work global.