Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Suren Surendiran's blunder

Three's always a crowd
A little less than a week ago, I had a conversation with a die-hard regime loyalist. He was generous enough to accommodate my views, but made it clear to me that whatever faults this government may be having have been overshadowed by its unshakable popularity. I told him then and there that I would always beg to differ. That was one week back. Come this week, and the situation is different, for better or for worse. Still, I'm not so sure. And if recent events are anything to go by, I don't think I will be anytime soon.

The problem with the opposition isn't just that they seem to be ideologically divided over the common candidate. The problem is that certain sections within it are inadvertently boosting Rajapaksa's appeal. Choosing Maithripala Sirisena was spot on in hindsight, but hardly enough. There's talk going around town that he's in the pay of foreign forces (erroneous unless proven otherwise). It would be downright laughable at this stage to attribute such a thing to the likes of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and Sirisena's breakaway SLFP faction. Nonetheless, the oft-quoted view that "the regime's best friends are its enemies" still holds water, if only for the reason that certain die-hard regime-haters in the opposition are entrenching Rajapaksa's populism.

This is why I wasn't cheerful at seeing Al-Jazeera two days back. Inside Story is one of that news channel's more inclusive and incisive programs. The SLFP defection was its topic this week. On board the show were three guests: Rajiva Wijesinhe, Harsha de Silva, and Suren Surendiran. Wijesinhe, as expected, was fair and balanced, voicing the Liberal Party's view that while Rajapaksa himself isn't power-centered, those around him are piggybacking on and making a poster-boy out of him. Harsha de Silva, true to party colours, went on with a bombshell against the regime, pointing out hidden fault-lines in our economy. Again, fair and balanced.

Surendiran was a different matter. He's a spokesman for the Global Tamil Forum. That's part (and parcel) of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, which has time and time again asserted its virulently anti-regime, anti-Sri Lanka agenda. Hardly the sort of person to have on a show that tried to be fair and balanced. That's Al-Jazeera for you, I suppose. Still, I was willing to let him have his say.

Surendiran began by claiming that Wijesinhe was trying to shift the blame from Rajapaksa. That's not what Wijesinhe did. It's debatable as to what extent Mahinda Rajapaksa is aware of how he's being made use of by the infamous "Maharajaneni Club", but the truth is that Surendiran couldn't contain his anti-regime stance even with a person who called the panel with him in it "balanced". He ranted a little about "international pressure" and about how Rajapaksa called for a "snap" election to ward off a "damning report" (doctored) by the UNHCR. And all this to counter Wijesinhe's (partly true) claim that Rajapaksa is being handicapped by those around him.

Wijesinhe then took Surendiran to task. Admirably. He gave credit where it was due. He acknowledged that Rajapaksa did "achieve", especially with the elimination of terrorism. He added qualifiers to praise, admitting that the regime's "development drives" in the North were done without consulting civil society. He spoke succinctly, to the point, countering Surendiran's insinuations. Surendiran, true to form, countered this with wild allegations of human rights abuses committed during the final days of the war. These were quashed by Wijesinhe's (correct) view that it was "blanket charges" by the international community which polarised our society. He praised the LLRC, adding that it was a "great pity" that the government didn't go into that document's proposals.

This was just the start, however.

The Global Tamil Forum, as everyone will remember, was founded in 2010, significant because it was begun after the war ended. It has voiced an anti-Sri Lankan agenda frequently, and has called for Mahinda Rajapaksa to be sent for trial at the International Criminal Court. That's what Surendiran echoed here. Wijesinhe at once went defensive, observing that defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa to take him to the Hague would be like asking Sri Lankans whether their country would have been better with or without the LTTE. Harsha de Silva, in the meantime, tried not to fit in with either party, saying that while the country was and should be grateful for the end of the war, the government refuses to look beyond it to win peace.

This was Surendiran's big blunder. Hardly 24 hours passed before the state media caught his statements. Wrongly, and I should say unjustly, both Wijesinhe and de Silva were caught up. Both were portrayed as conspirators in the pay of foreign agency. This isn't true, but then again the state media never sees beyond black-or-white logic when it comes to the truth, does it? Inadvertently, Surendiran badmouthed the entire opposition, something not helped by the fact of the UNP's alleged hobnobbing with diaspora Tamil officials during their visit to the UK recently.

The opposition should distance itself from GTF immediately. It's commendable that Harsha de Silva and Sajith Premadasa bounced back allegations of "complicity" aimed at them. But this isn't enough. Surendiran was unable to veil the biggest goal he and his coolies are aiming at: persecution of Mahinda Rajapaksa by hook or crook. Wijesinhe gracefully argued with Surendiran, to the extent where it seemed as though he was defending Rajapaksa (he wasn't). But that still couldn't stop the damage. There's a reason for this, of course. Not too hard to find.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has become a father-figure among many of those who vote for him. If he's threatened with arrest by the Hague, that will rile his voters up. Even the bitterest opponent of his government (who support him personally) will vote for him if this threat surfaces. The problem is that it has. The opposition should note this. If it's about denting the government, it's about playing the game their way. Wooing voters from SLFP strongholds isn't going to work if the regime's propaganda machine is given carte blanche to put the "Mahinda in Hague" fear in their supporters' minds. Which is what it's doing.

Rajiva Wijesinhe's assessments were fair and succinct. So were Harsha de Silva's. It's ludicrous to claim that Inside Story was aimed against the regime (Al-Jazeera had invited Keheliya Rambukwella, who had declined). It's also ludicrous to claim that both Wijesinhe and de Silva were playing into foreign agency. They were not. No one who saw the show would have thought otherwise. But that's beside the point here. Unwittingly, the two of them played into Surendiran's agenda. The Global Tamil Forum isn't just anti-regime. Having joined a discussion with one of its key spokespersons isn't going to fare well for the opposition. Self-righteous, chest-thumping statements made in parliament aren't going to stop people from thinking "conspiracy" here. And the state media isn't going to help.

The truth therefore is that while the government's best friends may be its biggest haters, the opposition's biggest headache here has been Surendiren. He's given the perfect scapegoat for the regime to parade around, point fingers at, and even win a fourth term in the election with. That's probably the biggest headache the opposition can get right now. It's not only Surendiren who made the blunder, hence. It's those who sat with him and those who sit with them as well.