Emil Kanthan (EK), who was once described as an LTTE financier and had an Interpol Red Notice on him, is in the news again. He and another person have been removed from Sri Lanka’s list of proscribed persons and organizations, according to a gazette notification published by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Nobody expected EK to be delisted, and the MoD announcement has come as a surprise.

The UNP would definitely have made a song and dance about the de-proscription of EK if it had been in the Opposition, for it has accused him of queering the pitch for its presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the 2005 presidential election, by organizing an election boycott in the LTTE-controlled areas, and thereby helping Mahinda Rajapaksa become the President. The UNP took ten long years to make a comeback after its defeat in 2005, and does not seem to have forgotten that setback, much less forgiven the Rajapaksas.

There is no love lost between the SLPP politicians and their UNP counterparts; they have fought bitterly for decades either to retain or to regain power and wronged one another in the process. The former, while in power as members of the SLFP, launched numerous witch-hunts against the latter, especially during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency (2005-2015). The UNP took revenge after returning to power in 2015; it had some members of the Rajapaksa family and their associates arrested and prosecuted for corruption, but the cases against them have collapsed after the 2019 regime change.

The SLPP and the UNP remain together because they cannot afford to break ranks and fight at this juncture. Their uneasy truce, however, does not prevent them from trading disparaging remarks, and some of their utterances betray their antipathy towards one another, the latest being a veiled swipe that UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara took at the SLPP, at a media briefing.

Ranil Wickremesinghe would have become the President years ago if he had chosen to ‘kiss the soil’, said Bandara. The significance of this derisive remark may not have been lost on keen political observers. His reference was to a melodramatic patriotic gesture President Mahinda Rajapaksa made in 2009. Reflected in Bandara’s jibe is the top-rung UNPers’ contempt for the brand of patriotism espoused by the Rajapaksas, who used it to keep the UNP out of power for about a decade. The Rajapaksa government branded the UNP as a party of traitors, and likened its leader to Quisling.

To put Bandara’s aforesaid remark in perspective, it may be recalled that on the eve of the conclusion of the war against the LTTE in May 2009, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, upon his return from Jordan, where he attended a G-11 summit, created a media sensation by kissing the ground, at the BIA, after alighting from a SriLankan aircraft.

The practice of kissing the soil is not uncommon among political leaders and other dignitaries; it is a gesture of patriotism and reverence for one’s homeland. This practice can be seen during various ceremonies, arrivals, or departures of dignitaries, or as a spontaneous and emotional display of national pride. Mahinda, who is known to wear patriotism on his sleeve to rally the support of the nationalistic voters, made best use of it, on May 17, 2009, obviously with an eye to the presidential election he was planning to hold in January 2010 to make the most of the war victory.

Range Bandara, however, was careful not to refer to the delisting of EK or repeat the UNP’s claim that the Rajapaksas ruined Wickremesinghe’s chances of winning the presidency in 2005 with the help of EK and the LTTE. Ethnic minorities backed Wickremesinghe in the 2005 presidential contest, and it is claimed in some quarters that he would have secured the presidency if not for the poll boycott in the LTTE-controlled parts of the country. Rajapaksa scraped through the election by polling 4,887,152 votes (50.29%) as opposed to Wickremesinghe’s 4,706,366 votes (48.43%). There is however a counterview that the LTTE forced the Tamils not to vote at that election for a different reason; it did not recognize the Sri Lankan elections and ordered the poll boycott of its own volition in defiance of the writ of the Sri Lankan state. In December 2001, following the election of the UNP-led UNF government with Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister, the late LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham claimed at a media briefing in Kilinochchi that Prabhakaran was both the President and Prime Minister in the LTTE-held areas.

Those who do not subscribe to the UNP’s claim as regards the 2005 election boycott also argue that LTTE desired the defeat of Wickremesinghe in that presidential race because he had endeared himself to the international community, which was pressuring Prabhakaran to eschew violence; it did not mind Mahinda’s election because he was not considered a formidable threat to its separatist project.

The allegation that the Rajapaksas bribed the LTTE was first made by the UNP soon after the 2005 presidential election, and it gained renewed attention and relevance owing to Tiran Alles’ admission in 2010 that ahead of the 2005 presidential election, he had facilitated a meeting between EK and Basil Rajapaksa, who wanted to pay the LTTE to organize an election boycott in the areas under its control. He claimed that he had introduced EK to Basil in his office in Colombo, and later Basil had parted with Rs. 180 million in cash as an advance, and the balance was to be paid after the election. Subsequently, the then UNP-led Opposition claimed that the Reconstruction and Development Authority (RADA) had been formed to channel public funds to the LTTE. A few years after the 2005 presidential election Alles fell from grace, and his residence was attacked in January 2010.

Alles and EK were prosecuted for alleged misappropriation of RADA funds. In 2020, they were discharged by the Colombo High Court from the case involving criminal misappropriation of Rs. 124 mn from RADA.

It is a supreme irony that the Rajapaksas and their political opponents who accused them of having bribed the LTTE into helping defeat Wickremesinghe in the 2005 presidential election have joined forces and are savouring power together. The biggest beneficiary of the votes that Mahinda obtained by means of populist gimmicks such as kissing the soil, which the UNP derides, has been Wickremesinghe, who secured the coveted presidency with the help of the SLPP despite having lost the last general election. Wickremesinghe skipped three presidential elections after his defeat in 2005—in 2010, 2015 and 2019—but became the Prime Minister and President in quick succession without facing any popular elections! Alles, who claimed to have been privy to the alleged clandestine deal between the Rajapaksas and the LTTE in 2005, and used that allegation to discredit the Rajapaksa family, especially Mahinda, is now a powerful minister in the SLPP government; he is in charge of public security. EK is a free man. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, who led the Vanni war from the front and was instrumental in decimating the military arm of the LTTE, happened to sign the Gazette notification that announced the delisting of the former LTTE financier.

What we have witnessed on the political front in this country, especially during the past several months, exemplifies Lord Palmerston’s famous credo: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”