20 October 2014

Did the European Court of Justice slip Mahinda a trump card?

Here’s the ‘word on the street’ or rather ‘word on the walls’ on Saturday October 18, 2014: ‘යුරෝපා සංගමය LTTE තහනම ඉවත් කරයිරනිල් යුරෝපයෙන් වැඩ අරඹයි’ (The EU lifts LTTE ban – Ranil embarks (on campaign) from Europe).’ 

It is a neat juxtaposition.  The first part is true in part.  The European Court of Justice (ECJ) annulled the EU regulations proscribing the LTTE but did so with an important rider, ‘on fundamentally procedural grounds’ with the decision ‘not implying any substantive assessment of the question of the classification of the LTTE as a terrorist group’.  The said measures annulled, moreover, will remain temporarily ‘to ensure effectiveness of any possible future freezing of funds’.  ‘Ban lifted’ is a fair claim but one which without details.  Furthermore, ECJ is not European Union (EU), after all the decision went against an EU body, the Council and Commission of the EU. 

The second part is pure conjecture.  There’s absolutely no evidence that Ranil did or said anything that could have moved the relevant judges.  Indeed, if that was the case it indicates considerable political and intellectual weight which makes his abysmal performance on all fronts here in Sri Lanka hard to understand.  What impact other less visible moves by the movers and shakers of this world had on this decision we do not know but it is certainly not profitable to indulge in conjecture about such machinations. 

Now it is true that Ranil and the UNP have always been the darlings of the West, in particular the USA.  It is also true that the USA and EU have been particularly pernicious in their dealings with Sri Lanka for reasons that have more to do with Sri Lanka having a leader who is not pliant enough to their liking.  These countries and their official and unofficial agents have been very cosy with big names in the UNP as well as those in the NGO sector that focus on human rights, good governance etc., again notorious for regime-hatred and for this and other reasons quite partial to the LTTE. 

So although it’s quite a stretch to link Ranil to the ECJ decision the line resonates well with entrenched perceptions about Ranil, the West and the LTTE.  What are these perceptions?  It has many parts.  There is the perception that only Mahinda Rajapaksa (with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of course) can preserve the hard won victory over the LTTE.  This has much to do with their role in that victory as the track record of the Ranil-led UNP.  The Ceasefire Agreement, the Millennium City betrayal, hobnobbing with federalists who spared no pains to undermine the military offensive against the LTTE etc. gives credence to this view. 

If victory is to be preserved, furthermore, it is perceived by many that the LTTE should remain a non-factor.  EU/USA salutation of lies spewed by pro-LTTE is also seen as something that does not help.  These countries have been comfortable in echoing the devolution demands of pro-LTTE and pro-Eelam elements which, in the post-Prabhakaran reduced-circumstances they find themselves in, take the form of exacting police and land powers. 

More than all of this is the terrible memory of LTTE-terror.  Any association with any process that indicates even an outside chance of an LTTE resurgence in even the mildest form can worry an electorate that has suffered three decades at the hands of terrorism.  It is a worry that the ruling party can and will play on.  All the more reason for Ranil, the UNP and the rest of the Opposition to make a clear break from the past ideologically and politically and make that break stick in the minds of the voter.

The fact is that one of the biggest mind-blocks for the floating voter is the UNP’s flirtation with federalism and federalists, widely seen as gentrified name boards for Separatism and Eelamists respectively.

People can and will ask, ‘how about the merger of the North and East, how about police powers and how about land powers?’  They will add, ‘Why should we believe them?’  They will think, ‘Their masters in the West will dictate the solution to them and it will be 13+/federal.’

Thus, even though ‘preservation of hard won victory’ is no license to be corrupt and dictatorial or justify giving the finger to ‘Law and Order,’ the perception of politicians in general as being opportunists and corrupt (the UNP was not a Party of Saints while in power and the JVP too has a bloody history) is enough to see ‘no difference’ or ‘insignificant difference’ with the regime.  Not enough to oust this other perception about ‘victory’. 

There’s only so much political fuel that ‘victory’ can make.  The ruling party has all but exhausted victory-credit.  The ECJ decision, the way it is read and marketed, and politically linking the UNP to the decision however amounts to a ‘reload’ of the victory credit card.  The UNP and its leader have to come out strong on the implications of the ECJ decision on prospects for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.  It will take some convincing of course to show that the decision is not as dark as it is or will be made out to be and that’s because of the UNP’s flirtation-history.

As things stand, no one can bet on anyone to do or not do anything.  Can we believe the Rajapaksas, one can ask.  What is the guarantee that the Rajapaksas will remove the 13th (if that’s what is ideal)?  The answer would be ‘We can have more faith in them than a Ranil-led UNP in this regard’.

Someone might say, ‘the Rajapaksas have tested the people’s patience, I think the rajapaksas have tested the people's patience, they insult the people, there’s anarchy, no law and order’ and add to that list of woes.  The tragedy is that such objections can and will be met with something like, ‘True, but not new to Sri Lanka – wasn’t great either under the UNP’.  That’s never excuse enough, but when picking between two bad apples, there are certain kinds of badness that gives out a foul odor – in this instance the greater perceived likelihood of an LTTE resurgence. 

What’s come out of Europe is a trump card.  It’s one that has been given to Mahinda Rajapaksa because he, more than Ranil, is seen as preserver of sovereignty, defender of territorial integrity, objector to federalism and crippler of separatists.

Dayan Jayatilleka recently wrote, ‘Defeating a war winning President against the backdrop of a growing economy would be a tall order in any society.’  Add this ‘EU Gift’ and it could be a no-contest unless Ranil and the UNP make a believable case for ‘changing of ways’.