The successful efforts to prevent Mahinda Rajapaksa from speaking at the Commonwealth Economic Forum in London, were, I believe, ill-advised and wrong.
Firstly, I derive little pleasure from the public humiliation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is the second time he has faced a trenchant protests in England that have forced him to cancel very high profile public engagements. The gloating paraded by so many after successful activism and advocacy to cancel these engagements is, in fact, not anchored to any meaningful domestic sentiment or desire. In fact, the more the humiliation internationally, the more partisan mainstream media amplifies propaganda, in a country where media literacy is abysmal, to mislead citizens by way of stories that speak of Western conspiracies courageously overcome, a President riotously welcomed, and a trip that was a resounding success.
Secondly, not a single story I read of the protests, or TV broadcast I viewed on YouTube expressed any concern that the protests displayed the LTTE’s insignia. It is not as if the symbols and pro-Eelam slogans were hard to spot. To not decry this is, in effect, to accept without question the very thing the Rajapaksa regime is rightly often chastised over, which is to conflate the Tamil people with the LTTE, and an emphasis on Tamil nationalism anchored to legitimate grievances and aspirations, an absolute necessity post-war, with Eelam, which is militarily, geo-politically and ideationally doomed. Pro-Eelamist demonstrators who call attention to the Rajapaksa regime’s culpability in atrocious human rights abuses and possible war crimes are tellingly silent over the LTTE’s own wartime atrocities and war crimes allegations. The messengers undermine the message, and extremely partial reporting of British media on this score hasn’t gone unnoticed. Campaigns anchored to expanding the democratic space in Sri Lanka, and even leading human rights groups expressed pleasure at the effect of these protests. Yet this risks playing into government propaganda that the divide between what it is fond of calling the pro-LTTE rump in the West and international human rights organisations is largely porous, and indistinguishable. Clearly, this harms far more than helps local accountability.
Thirdly, it is argued that to provide more fora for representatives of the regime to speak at is to legitimise it, and what it has done, within the international community. There is merit to this worldview. However, Rajiva Wijesinha’s incredible gaffe when questioned by Dr. Manoharan at a recent debate on Sri Lanka conducted at the Frontline Club in London, now a matter of public record easily discoverable via Google, is an instructive counter-point. When given more space and opportunities to speak, any authoritarian regime trips over its own chutzpah. The more there is public engagement, particularly in international venues that challenge, rebut, probe and counter official statements, the harder it becomes for the regime to cook up lies and filibuster, which it can more easily do and get away with when isolated.
Finally, human rights organisations need to take note of technological advances that can exploit this trend, if it is, as I hope, encouraged. The more public content there is – planned propaganda as well as unpremeditated answers – the more one can exploit web based technologies to identify leitmotifs and even use temporal analytics to visualise and understand better how the submissions by the government change with time, language, context and audience. Cross-referencing and co-relating become less difficult, allowing politicians, activists, researchers and historians to identify and plot inconsistencies, inaccuracies, logical fallacies, factual untruths and contradictions. In sum, it becomes easier to hold government accountable using data driven methods and their own words, within and outside the country. This is qualitatively different to the language of activism and advocacy we see employed against government today.
Strip all this away. Our President deserves the right to speak especially since his government denies for so many, this same right. Enforced silence and humiliation are ruinous for all parties over the long-term. If we desire change, let us celebrate and secure that which the government opposes, and not become what it is. Media freedom and human rights activists fight for their right to write and speak. They cannot honestly support the silencing of a President.
And the thing is, to actually encourage his voice internationally can be infinitely more helpful for them domestically.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 10 June 2012.