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Sri Lanka: Ramaphosa visit: What’s really happening?

Cyril Ramaphosa
Editorial, The Sunday Times
The visit of the Acting President of South African is shrouded in mystery; and the more the Government tries to explain the visit, the more curious it gets.  They say that foreign experts usually rush in to find out and then leave just as quickly before they are found out. Foreign correspondents who come to the ‘Third World’ with pre-conceived notions are nick-named ‘Running Johns’ — or ‘Running Janes’ as the case may be. What can one say then about the visiting South African Acting President Cyril Ramaphosa?

The Sri Lankan Government was coy with what he was doing here. The Minister of External Affairs was at pains to say Ramaphosa was neither a ‘mediator’ nor a ‘facilitator’. The Minister said what Ramaphosa was not, not what he was, except to say he was here ‘for an exchange of views’. We may ask, what views?
 The Minister also put a gag order on the South African High Commissioner in Colombo preventing him from speaking about the visit. What was there to hide if it was merely to exchange views? It appears that the entire episode is being down-played by the Government. Even the official statement made in Parliament in response to a query from the Opposition did not reveal much.
What the Sri Lankan Government is straining to do is not to give the impression that the South African Acting President is interfering in the internal affairs of this country, and that his visit here was just a routine non-controversial one. It is ironic, however, that while the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) investigations team is being labelled as intrusive, the South African VIP’s visit is not.
No doubt there is a difference in the two, but the Government must come clean with the objectives of the South African dignitary’s visit. The South Africans themselves seem to want to downplay the importance of the visit and thereby deflect the hype by saying their main purpose was to see their national cricketers wallop the locals. But in Jaffna, Mr. Ramaphosa has told the Northern Chief Minister that the South African initiative was to complement the Geneva UNHRC agenda on Sri Lanka and the Indian process aimed at pushing for further devolution.
The common belief, however, is that Mr. Ramaphosa’s assignment is to kick-start stalled talks between the Government and the Tamil National Alliance, or to cajole the TNA to attend the Parliamentary Select Committee meetings on the subject of devolution. But will a new ‘salesman’ selling the same product succeed?
 The Government arguably sees this with the twin objective of fending off Indian pressure to implement the 13th Amendment “and more” as promised to them by the President on the one hand, and to buy time with the international community, to give the impression that it has taken its demands for greater autonomy to the minority Tamils in the North seriously – at least till the next election.
What is unfortunate, to say the least, is that after 66 years of political Independence, Sri Lanka has to look to a relatively new nation to solve its domestic problems. What is even more unfortunate is that given the opportunity to right several wrongs, and get back on track, through the recommendations of the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission), the political will to do so was absent and the opportunity squandered. This has put the country in the plight it is in now.
 To expect the South African initiative to save the day for the Government is to expect too much. The South Africans are heavily influenced by the Tamil lobby in that country. We saw glimpses of this from one individual – the outgoing UNHRC chief. Additionally, the South Africans have it in their psyche that the minorities are being oppressed. This apparently stems from their experience during the apartheid era.
It is not that one must not seek outside assistance to solve what has become chronic domestic problems. In today’s globalised world, this is not uncommon or unusual. Sri Lanka is surely independent enough to open its windows to outside experiences without being blown away by the wind. If the South African initiative is the bridge between the TNA and the Government, so be it.
However, what is in question is the Government’s credibility. This question arises after it was discovered that despite the Government-sponsored brouhaha at home and the vituperative attacks on the Darusman (UNSG’s) Report as an interference in the country’s internal affairs, the same Government sent a delegation secretly to New York to meet Darusman and company to argue Sri Lanka’s case.
The question therefore is; what is the South African Acting President’s real brief. The President is reported to have told the visiting VIP that he expects to solve the political question in Sri Lanka with continued assistance from India’s new Government and that he was confident the northern issues can be settled as well. He, however, said he was open to ideas from countries with similar experiences. But why then is the Government unable to make its position clear to the people.

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