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Pros and Cons of South African TRC initiative in Sri Lanka: A long way to go

Zuma and Rajapaksha ( Photo:SA Govt)
South Africa mediation offers way out for Govt - Sunday Times Political Editor
Whilst Sri Lankans were observing the National New Year last week, the Government of South African President Jacob Zuma set in motion a broad initiative towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka. It came when Pretoria’s special envoy Cyril Ramaphosa, widely regarded as a future President, took the first step of holding talks with a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). He will arrive in Sri Lanka to continue the dialogue with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other UPFA leaders late next month or in early June.

An early visit to Colombo had to be put off. This is in view of elections to South Africa’s National Assembly (Parliament), Provincial and Municipal councils on May 7. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), which now holds a two thirds majority in Parliament, is billed to be the winner though President Zuma is facing widespread corruption allegations. He is accused of spending US$ 23 million in state funds to upgrade his private house, among other amenities, with a swimming pool and a pen for cattle. If the voter turnout for ANC drops below 60 per cent, some commentators in South Africa say, the party would remove Zuma from the leadership.
It was Zuma who named the 62-year-old Matamela Ramaphosa, a one-time General Secretary of the ANC as special envoy. He told the South African Parliament on February 13 that following Sri Lanka Government’s request to bring about “peace and reconciliation, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been appointed as South Africa’s Special Envoy.” Now the ANC’s deputy leader, widely respected Ramaphosa was in 2007 in the TIME 100, an annual list of 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral examples are transforming the world, according to the international news magazine.
The timing of the South African initiative, even if it ends inconclusively like similar failed peace initiatives of the past, is a bonanza for the UPFA Government. That exercise itself is an answer to a main element in last month’s US-sponsored resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As mandated in the resolution, the Government would expect the new Human Rights Commissioner, yet to be named, to inform the Council in the oral update at its September sessions that the process of reconciliation was now under way with the help of South Africa. This is notwithstanding Colombo’s decision to reject the resolution and not cooperate in any way when the international investigation begins. That is not to say that UPFA leaders are taking issues related to the upcoming investigation lightly. Several diplomatic measures to deal with the situation through indirect means are under way.
Contacts have been made with some governments in this regard. It is in addition to moves to allow third parties to plead the Government’s case. This is whilst the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva is now busy formulating the terms of reference for such a probe. That together with the composition of the investigation team, whose nomenclature is yet to be defined, is to be formally announced any time next month. Ahead of this, diplomats in Geneva say, Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay is to meet UN Secretary General Bank Ki-moon. It will also be officially communicated to the Government through Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission in Geneva.
A popular misconception of the South African initiative is the belief that it centred on the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission TRC), a subject which both Presidents Rajapaksa and Zuma discussed last November in Colombo. “A TRC would be the last thing. It would be the final component,” TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told the Sunday Times.  All matters which could pave the way for “peace and reconciliation” in Sri Lanka are to be on the negotiating table. This means, South Africa becomes the third country to make an attempt at “peace and reconciliation.” The other two earlier were India and Norway, both countries that brokered ceasefires with separatist Tiger guerrillas to usher in talks for reconciliation. This time, however, no ceasefire is necessary since the guerrillas were militarily defeated almost five years ago. However, this does not mean the South African initiative has not drawn fire.
Partners in the UPFA Government and also in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) hold different views. “We do not welcome this initiative. A fuller investigation of all matters should be made,” Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) told the Sunday Times. He charged that groups like the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and the British Tamil Forum (BTF) had created the impression that the so-called armed struggle in Sri Lanka by Tamil groups was similar to the one waged by those in the African National Congress. “We fought against separation. In South Africa, they fought against apartheid,” he said. It is only recently that the South African Government has obtained “our side of the story.” He said there should also be a probe on what he called Indian intervention. More than 66,000 people disappeared between 1979 and 1989. “These aspects should have also been probed by the so-called international investigation,” he added.
TNA’s fiery hardline Provincial Councillor Ananthi Shashitharan was angry that South Africa did not vote in favour of the US-backed resolution. She told the Sunday Times, “When the international community has taken the initiative to bring pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to resolve the issue without any delay, why has the TNA gone to South Africa? This is the question posed to me by our voters. During my recent visit to Geneva, I met three South African Government representatives who wanted me to visit their country. I told them they have let us down at the final voting by abstaining. I told them they should support the cause of the Tamils for me to consider the invitation. However since it was a party decision to visit South Africa I could not intervene to stop their visit’.
Northern Provincial Councillor M.K. Sivajilingam also belongs to a group that is opposed. He told the Sunday Times, “The Western countries have shown some interest in resolving our issues. Why has the TNA rushed to South Africa? It was the Sri Lankan Government that initially invited South Africa. Therefore it seems that the TNA is playing to the tune of the Government.”

Other than the circumstantial value for the UPFA Government, the South African initiative, if they are serious enough, would come as a very important challenge. It has to determine the future of the now virtually defunct Parliamentary Select Committee tasked to formulate a new political package to address Tamil grievances. Such a package, the terms of reference of the PSC, made clear, could even replace provisions in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Be that as it may, India which abstained from voting at last month’s Human Rights Council sessions reiterated that the Government should fully implement the 13th Amendment and go beyond it. All this only means that the South Africa special envoy would have to tread cautiously to identify common ground before a formula for a formal dialogue is evolved. That is no easy task and would be time consuming. And that is what is in the UPFA Government’s favour in the light of the upcoming Human Rights Council’s international investigation.
Even temporarily, if the South African initiative is a best case scenario for the UPFA Government, many an obstacle remains to be cleared. The worst could come when the process, which would no doubt be long drawn, gets under way and some of the core issues come into focus. An insight into how that would play out emerged from talks the TNA delegation held with Ramaphosa. Besides Sampanthan who led the team, others were Suresh Premachandran, Selvan Adaikalanathan and M.A. Sumanthiran. They were in Pretoria from April 10 to 12. The delegation also met International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoama Mashabane and her deputy, Ebrahim Ebrahim.
The South African initiative, Sampanthan said, “must be constructive, holistic and provide comprehensive support to the resolution of the national question. We would extend our fullest support to such an initiative.” During the lengthy discourse with Ramaphosa, he said the TNA discussed the “root cause” of the conflict, “the compulsive need for a reasonable and acceptable political solution as a foundation for genuine reconciliation.” He said they stressed the “need to address accountability and ascertain the truth as a pre-requisite to reconciliation.” This, he pointed out, was with the “need to terminate and reverse the aggressive action by the Government and the Armed Forces particularly in relation to land so far as to change the demographic composition of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.” Other matters included linguistic and cultural identities of those areas. “We are unreservedly committed to the evolution of a political solution within a united undivided Sri Lanka,” he added.

From the political column of The Sunday Times

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