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South Africa can Play a Useful Role of Engagement with the Government and TNA


By Jayadeva Uyangoda

If we were to count on the repeated denials issued by the Ministry of External Affairs during recent weeks, there would be no South African mediation effort in Sri Lanka to bring about a political settlement to the ethnic conflict.
The official statements however suggest that the Sri Lankan government has responded with some caution to the suggestion made by the South African delegation, in the words of the External Affairs Ministry, “to render all assistance to Sri Lanka, drawing upon their own experience and insights” in finding a “durable solution.”

If mediation is not the third-party role that the South Africans can conceivably play in Sri Lanka, what can they actually do by means of peace diplomacy?

Looking at the current context of Sri Lankan politics, one can make the following preliminary points: (a) South Africa would be more acceptable to the Sri Lankan government to play a ‘third party’ role than any country which has previously gotten involved in Sri Lanka’s conflict; (b) If at all, South Africa’s ‘third party role’ would be an exceedingly minimalist one. Words such as ‘mediation,’ ‘facilitation,’ ‘devolution,’ and ‘thirteenth amendment’ would be suspended from the vocabulary of engagement. Such innocuous formulations as “providing assistance” or “helping the parties,” reflects the language acceptable to the government leaders.

What minimalist, and yet productive, role is there for South Africa to play in Sri Lanka, in the form of ‘providing assistance’?

In the current conjuncture of Sri Lanka’s politics, assisting both the government and the TNA to review their present stance of positional bargaining and to return to the negotiation table would be a huge contribution a ‘third’ party’ can make. Their return to dialogue is necessary, because the positional polarization between the UPFA government and the TNA has prevented the activation of the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). Even if the TNA joins the PSC, all indications are that the two sides will enter into a zero-sum fight and discover only deep differences and points of discord, not joint solutions that can be shared. Thus, returning to dialogue after revising the commitment to positional bargaining is the best thing the two sides should be persuaded to accomplish in the short-run.

Revival of the engagement between the government and the TNA is absolutely necessary for political normalization in Sri Lanka at present. However, the two sides have demonstrated for more than a year now that they cannot resume the political dialogue on their own. Some outsider has to guide them to the negotiation table. In a way, this is history repeating itself. The inability of the domestic protagonists to do what they should be doing voluntarily opens up space for outsiders to step in. India and Norway in the past. And now South Africa. Hopefully, the South Africans are aware of the danger of allowing the history of third party engagement in Sri Lanka to repeat itself as a tragedy.

The stalled dialogue between the government and the TNA is the inevitable outcome of positional polarization along two visions, development or devolution. The UPFA government’s approach to post-civil war peace-building and national integration is to accelerate rapid infrastructure and economic development in the North and East. The key assumption is the belief that the trickle-down effect of development will make devolution redundant in Tamil and Muslim societies. In contrast, the TNAs position is ‘devolution first.’ In TNA’s view, Tamil people live not by nice roads and new bridges alone; they need dignity, devolution and political rights as well. Thus, the unresolved debate between the UPFA government and TNA revolves around the following question: What should take precedence in post-civil war rebuilding – development or devolution? Polarized and left to themselves, neither the government nor the TNA seems to be able to move away from their singular and partisan positions.

This is exactly where the South Africans can play a useful role of engagement with the government and the TNA. When viewed dispassionately, development and devolution should not constitute mutually exclusive agendas.

Meanwhile, the pressure that the Western governments are reported to have brought on the Sri Lankan government and the TNA to arrive at an early political settlement is both premature and counter-productive. There are certain specificities in the Sri Lankan context that defy the possibility of an early post-war compromise. They need to be acknowledged and addressed by those external actors who wish well for Sri Lanka and volunteer to burn their fingers as well. They are indeed extraordinary problems.

The first and foremost among the Sri Lankan specificities is that the civil war did not come to an end in the form of a negotiated settlement. It ended in the aftermath of a major failed attempt at a negotiated settlement through international mediation/facilitation. A failed mediated peace process led to the ending of civil war through war and war alone, and in turn in the form of a unilateral military victory to the state. It eroded the legitimacy of the very idea of mediation. In fact, the specific way in which the civil war ended in Sri Lanka continues to define and shape the fundamentals of the post-civil war political process.

Second, the government, which won the war, is not likely to share with the TNA, which the government treats as an ally of the LTTE, the right to define the post-war political process of the country. The TNA’s demand for enhanced devolution through a scheme of ‘Thirteenth Amendment Plus’ is obviously seen by the government as an attempt to shape the post-civil war political trajectory in Sri Lanka, by bringing back, through the back door of negotiations, the LTTE agenda. A shared role for the UPFA government and the TNA to jointly chart Sri Lanka’s political future does not seem to be in the realm of possibilities in Sri Lanka at present.

Third, the government and the TNA seem to be talking to each other in two languages which do not facilitate much constructive communication between them. The UPFA government’s language of development is not meant to talk to the TNA. It is a language designed by the government to talk to itself, to the donor community and to Tamil citizens over the TNA. Similarly, the TNA’s language of self-determination, North-East merger, Thirteenth Amendment Plus, and devolution is not well-comprehended among the government ranks. It is a language through which the TNA talks to the Tamil diaspora and the Tamil community of the North and East, not even to the Muslims there. It is not surprising that the meetings between the government and TNA delegations got stalled. Why should they continue to meet when they speak two different languages that only fly over each other’s heads?

Fourth, there is a huge political mistrust between the UPFA government and the TNA. When the TNA insists on devolution, North-East merger, and self-determination rights, the government reacts with considerable measure of impatience and anger. It is because the government thinks that the TNA is trying to get by peaceful means and by mobilizing external political support, what the LTTE failed to achieve by means of a protracted armed rebellion. Similarly, when the government insists that the TNA should join the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) process, the TNA reacts with utmost suspicion.

The TNA thinks that the government has a hidden agenda of deception and procrastination through the PSC process. Thus, the TNA calls for what one may call ‘political guarantees’ before going to the PSC, in the form of a joint agreement between the two sides as a pre-condition for the success of the PSC process. The government thinks that such a pre-PSC agreement with the TNA will severely restrict its space for manoeuvre at the PSC. Similarly, the government has been careful not to accord the TNA, even by default, the status of the principal, or sole, representative of the Tamil community.

Fifth, working out a political solution to the ethnic conflict even without the LTTE seems to be as complex as it was during the civil war. A brief survey of the political ground situation evolved after the civil war ended in Sri Lanka shows the following:

(a) The UPFA government appears to think that devolution was a project born out of, and relevant to, the specific conditions as defined by the LTTE’s secessionist insurgency, existed prior to May 2009. Devolution, in this reading, was the alternative to secession. When the LTTE’s secessionist threat is militarily defeated, the fundamental political conditions that made devolution relevant have been radically altered. Therefore, the government seems to think that the TNA’s, and the international community’s, insistence on devolution has no contemporary political basis of any significance. It is merely a slogan from a by-gone past.

(b). The TNA’s self-understanding is that it represents the soul of a ‘vanquished’ ethnic minority community whereas the UPFA government often shows that it has the moral and political right to represent the pride, and even prejudices, of a victor. Can the ‘victor’ and the ‘vanquished’ meet face-to-face and chart out a joint, shared political future for the country? What we have seen so far in Sri Lanka is that it is not easy at all.

(c). The government and the TNA are at present caught up in a trap made up of one-upmanship, proclivity towards zero-sum thinking, and desire for hard bargaining. It would be productive for both sides to get out of this vicious trap, but they don’t seem to have realized the need for it. Somebody watching them needs to tell them in no uncertain terms that getting out of this trap is a joint project, and not a unilateral exercise.

When we reflect on the above list of challenges, only an unreformable idealist can imagine an early breakthrough towards a political compromise in Sri Lanka. However, recognizing this difficulty should not make one a cynic, or a defeatist. It should lead us to explore new pathways. This is where the present South African initiative in Sri Lanka, before it meets the proverbial failure, needs to be conceptualized cautiously..

The best that the South Africans, inspired by the leadership of Nelson Mandela, can do in Sri Lanka is to prepare all sides, to enable and empower the victor and the vanquished alike, the UPFA government and the TNA, to meet in dialogue, and talk with each other in a shared language that can communicate, and chart out an inclusive political future for Sri Lanka that can be shared by all communities– Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Up-country Tamil – not just the Sinhalese and Tamil alone.

It should be a forum of dialogue in which no party looks at itself as either the victor or the vanquished, but moral equals. This calls for forging of a moral template in all-party talks in Sri Lanka for post-civil war peace-building, reconciliation, and nation-building.

Only the South Africa of Nelson Mandela can even attempt at such an endeavour in Sri Lanka. Let’s hope that the South Africans will ‘assist’ the parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka to realize the value of dialogue even it may not produce immediate political results and partisan outcomes.

(The writer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo)

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