An effort by South Africa to facilitate negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) received renewed public interest this month following the visit there by the TNA leadership to meet with Special Envoy, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was appointed earlier this year by President Zuma to facilitate, what is described as the first of the five pillar programme – ‘talks about talks’.
The TNA delegation was led by TNA leader R. Sampanthan and including parliamentarians MA Sumanthiran, Selvam Adaikalanathan and Suresh Premachandran.
Arriving in Johannesburg on April 9, they were welcomed by a familiar face, the South African High Commissioner for Colombo, Geoff Doidge, before meeting over the next three days with Mr. Ramaphosa and several officials from the South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) including the Minister of DIRCO, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, and the Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim at his residence.
The Sri Lankan government has been noticeably silent on the South African role, and on talks with the TNA, but the high profile of the MPs visit has drawn intense interest, especially as the TNA has since remained tight-lipped over details of their discussions. A press conference to be held on Saturday in Jaffna to elaborate on the visit was cancelled at the last minute.
“It was a very preliminary meeting, we just explained about our past experience in dialogue with Sri Lankan government,” Mr Premachandran, spokesperson of the TNA, told Tamil Guardian two days after the delegation’s return.
“He listened [to] whatever we said, it was a long discussion,” Mr. Premachandran said of the meeting with Mr. Ramaphosa on April 11.
Mr. Sumanthiran, confirming the TNA’s meeting with DIRCO officials, was upbeat about President Zuma’s appointment of a special envoy which he described as an escalation of South Africa’s involvement.
“The South African initiative has been there for more than two years, but has moved to another plane now with the appointment of the special envoy,” Mr Sumanthiran said in an email to Tamil Guardian.
“This was our first meeting with him and it is too premature to comment in detail at this stage,” he added.
TNA meets with Ministry of DIRCO officials (Minister of DIRCO, Ms. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane centre)
Pausing for the South African elections next month, the initiative will resume in late May or late June, when Mr. Ramaphosa, who is the Vice President of the African National Congress (ANC), is to travel to Sri Lanka and visit the North-East.
“He will be going to Jaffna, Batticaloa and Vanni, meeting with the people, and the government, and maybe the President and others,” Mr. Premachandran explained.
Describing Mr Ramaphosa as “an important, good person”, TNA parliamentarian Mavai Senathirajah, who was unable to join the delegation to South Africa due to personal commitments, told Tamil Guardian he was hopeful regarding the envoy’s appointment.
“We shouldn’t rush, we should listen to what they [South Africa] are saying and we have to then decide,” he said, adding that he had not spoken directly with his colleagues since their return, as he was in Jaffna.
Long running effort
A key role in facilitating the South African government’s involvement has been played by a South Africa-based dialogue promotion group, ‘In Transformation Initiative’ (ITI), established by four prominent figures involved in the transition from Apartheid, including the then National Party Government’s chief negotiator, Roelf Meyer, ANC figures, Mohammed Bhabha and Ebrahim Ebrahim (also DIRCO’s deputy minister) and Ivor Jenkins, who played a decisive role within civil society organisations.
Explaining ITI’s role to Tamil Guardian this week, Mr. Jenkins also described the appointment of Mr. Ramaphosa as an “up-scaling” of South Africa’s role.
“It is important to note that the groundwork that was laid by ITI during the last four years in particular in terms of promoting a process of dialogue towards a political solution for Sri Lanka between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil community,” Mr. Jenkins said.
“[This effort] has now resulted in and overtaken by the up-scaling of South Africa’s possible role in Sri Lanka by the appointment of a special envoy,” he said.
Asked what his organisation saw as the goals of the TNA’s visit to South Africa, he said: “The purpose of TNA delegation visit to South Africa was in response to the invitation by President Zuma for the TNA to visit South Africa and to submit proposals on how South Africa can assist in the Sri Lankan process to find a lasting political solution.”
“It was expected of the TNA that they will make a submission on their thinking,” he said.
TNA in meeting with Special Envoy Cyril Ramaphosa
Another goal was “to meet with the Special Envoy to brief him on the outcome of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) process and what implications this has for the Government of Sri Lanka as well as for the Tamil community [and] to appraise him on their views of the current political situation in Sri Lanka and on their opinion regarding options for a permanent political settlement,” Mr. Jenkins added.
He was referring to the UN investigation into Sri Lanka’s wartime mass atrocities mandated by the UN Human Rights Council in its March session.
Mr Subry Govender of the South Africa based ‘Solidarity Group for Peace and Justice in Sri Lanka’, which hosted the TNA delegation in Durban on the final day of their visit, and liaised with the South African government on its dialogue initiative, described his impression of the visit thus:
“Firstly the South African government wanted to obtain the co-operation and support of the TNA for its fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka after May 7 and to get the TNA’s views about a negotiated political settlement [and] secondly, the TNA, for its part, wanted to gain the support of the South African Government for a political solution where Tamils would be treated as equal citizens alongside the majority Sinhala people in a united and democratic Sri Lanka.”
Hope and scepticism
Expressing hope about next steps and potential for “a discussion or talks that will lead to an acceptable political solution for all, as well as one that will lay the foundations for true reconciliation and democracy,” Mr. Jenkins, ITI’s director, reiterated his organisation’s commitment “in all this [to] continue to play a supportive role if and where called upon”.
“He [Mr. Ramaphosa] will in good time visit Sri Lanka and meet all players and stakeholder concerned to, together with those he meets, carve out a possible process that could be embarked on, if agreed, where an open dialogue can take place about the future of the country,” he said.
However, with the Sri Lankan military’s activities in the Tamil areas intensifying to levels unprecedented since the end of the armed conflict, there is much scepticism about the prospects of talks and the sincerity of the Sri Lankan government.
Acknowledging the deteriorating conditions in the North-East, Mr. Premachandran said that the TNA delegation had impressed this upon the South African government officials.
“We told all these things and we told the South African government [about the] present situation in the North East specifically, [regarding] militarisation, Sinhala settlements, political prisoners issues, and such like,” he said.
Reiterating his comments before the TNA visit regarding the primacy of restoring normalcy in the Tamil areas, he said:
“Before we discuss about any dialogue there must be a conducive atmosphere. The people should be with us. When arrests are going on it will be very difficult.”
Much of the intensified military activity in recent weeks, including large-scale cordon-and-search operations and dozens of arrests, has been in the Vanni, where Mr. Adaikalanathan, also part of the TNA delegation, is an MP. Attempts to contact him for this article were unsuccessful.
Soldier stands watch in Jaffna. Photograph Transtamils
Mr. K. Guruparan, a representative of the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) told Tamil Guardian:
“The government of Sri Lanka should first take steps to normalise situation in the North-East, [we] can’t be talking to the government of Sri Lanka when there are arrests and round up operations continuing, wartime restrictions being imposed again, etc.”
The TNA should insist on the demand in its manifesto for the Northern Provincial Council elections, in which the party won a majority of seats, for troop levels to be reduced to pre-war levels, he said.
“There have to be pre-conditions on the Tamil side. We cannot be allowed to be taken for a ride again,” he said.
Mr. V. Ravi Kumar, the General Secretary of the British Tamils Forum (BTF) was equally sceptical of the Sri Lankan government’s intentions.
“The latest move on so-called dialogue is yet another ploy by the Rajapaksa regime to deflect mounting pressures from the international community,” he said.
He pointed to the Sri Lankan government’s categorical rejection of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on March 27 which mandated an international investigation into war-time mass atrocities, as well as calling on Colombo to undertake a range of steps towards reconciliation and also demilitarisation.
Mr. Ravi said this rejection, as well as Sri Lanka’s recent ban on fifteen Tamil diaspora organisations, and the deteriorating human rights situation in the North-East, which he termed as structural genocide, were “clear pointers that Sri Lankan state is not ready to undertake any meaningful negotiation leading to permanent peace.”
Dr. Elias Jeyarajah of campaign group USTPAC (US Tamil Political Action Council) said the Sri Lankan government’s claims of interest in dialogue were intended “to divert the UN investigation and buy more time to complete demographic re-engineering of traditional Tamil areas.”
“Clearly, the government of Sri Lanka is not genuine in its attitude to find a political solution, and the talks about talks is just another diversionary tactic,” he said.
Calling on South Africa to take steps to create “a conducive environment where talks can take place,” he emphasised demilitarisation, a freeze on state sponsored Sinhala settlement construction, the release of political prisoners and full cooperation with the UN investigation.
Director of the US-based rights group PEARL, Tasha Manoranjan, reiterated concerns over the Sri Lankan government’s intentions, stating it was “clearly being disingenuous about these talks”, pointing to the recent intensification of repression in the North-East.
“They are hoping that if they wave the red herring of a political solution with South Africa involvement, they can divert attention from the open war they are conducting against Tamils in the homeland,” Ms. Manoranjan, a lawyer, said.
Stressing the need for the issue of de-militarisation to be raised during the ‘talks about talks’, Mr. Pregasen Padayachee, executive member of ‘Solidarity Group for Peace and Justice in Sri Lanka’, said: “Certainly we would like to see the demilitarisation to start so that the Sri Lankan government can show their sincerity.”
“How sincere are those talks going to be if the demilitarisation is not taking effect?” he asked, speaking to Tamil Guardian on Friday, just before he was to meet with Mr. Ramaphosa.
“Certainly it’s a matter we must raise, and we will raise it with our [South African] government, we would be very interested to see how [they] will deal with it.”
Scepticism around the South African initiative to promote dialogue existed long before the TNA’s recent visit and the Sri Lankan military’s escalation in violence, however.
In particular, Sri Lanka’s alluding late last year to a South African style ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ was widely seen both in Sri Lanka and internationally as an effort to undermine and disrupt the growing momentum towards the international investigation into Sri Lanka’s wartime atrocities approved by the UN Human Rights Council in March.
“I think at the outset there [was] a certain amount of confusion between certain organisations and people, with regards to South Africa attempts to introduce the TRC,” acknowledged Mr. Padayachee.
He said the idea of a TRC was not proposed by South Africa to Sri Lanka, but “rather the Sri Lankan government implored the South African government in this regard.”
“Our [South African] government did not intimate any TRC suggestions to the Sri Lankan government, [and] the indication from our government is that the TRC model that we implemented here would not work in Sri Lanka,” he added.
Much of the scepticism about a South African facilitated dialogue stems from suspicions this too is intended to undermine the UN investigation and international pressure over accountability.
“The Sri Lankan state wishes to use the alleviation of oppression to extract concessions, amounting to pardoning it from committing the most serious mass crimes,” the main Tamil opposition party in the North-East, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) general secretary, S Kajendran told Tamil Guardian.
A senior diaspora activist, whose organisation was amongst those lobbying in support of an international investigation during the UNHRC deliberations in March, said this view was shared by several governments.
For example, the US and UK missions were “not at all happy” about South African attempts to start dialogue amidst the international push for accountability, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the discussions.
South Africa abstained on the UNHRC vote on the resolution mandating an international inquiry. South African diplomats had privately told Tamil delegates in the days before the vote that Johannesburg wished to remain ‘neutral’ in view of facilitating potential talks.
UN Human Rights Council passes resolution mandating international inquiry in Sri Lanka, South Africa abstains.
Photograph Tamil Guardian
Asked about the impact on the South African initiative of the UNHRC’s mandating of an international investigation, ITI Director Mr. Jenkins highlighted it having resulting in two “dramatically different reactions and views”.
“[The Sri Lankan] government obviously sees it as an irritating un-necessity and the Tamil community put high hopes on it that it will bring solutions to their problems,” he said. “It therefore is not an intervention that will promote dialogue but does push both side in separate directions.”
“But,” he emphasised, “the purpose of the international investigation is not to promote dialogue, but to seek accountability.”
Commenting on the argument the UNHRC resolution had created divisions in Sri Lanka, one also made often by the Sri Lankan government, TCSF’s Guruparan cited the response of the US Ambassador to Colombo that “those divisions existed long before any UN resolutions.”
“The international independent investigation and the resolution are a consequence of, and relate to, the longstanding division in the country – they are not its cause.”
Stressing the gravity of the crimes committed against the Tamil people, citing genocide and crimes against humanity, TNPF’s Kajendran reiterated the need for “international criminal justice processes that result in criminal prosecutions.”
However, Mr. Jenkins emphasised South Africa’s message was that lasting peace ultimately needed all sides of a conflict to “sit down and talk”.
“If a peace process focuses only on accountability – which often seems to be the case in many abused communities, and understandingly so – there is a perception that it will automatically translate or result in a political solution. [But] once you have found all the devils and thrown them in jail, you still have not solved your problem.”
“I am saying ‘determine your future together and then sorting out the past will be much more sensible and just’. Accountability and reconciliation cannot replace dialogue towards a political solution, those are parts of a political solution.”
Mr. Kajendran however said, “political solution and accountability are not ‘either or’ issues, reconciliation is something that is greater than a mere political solution [and] for reconciliation to take place, full accountability is indispensable along with a political solution.”
“There is no question of bargaining or bartering here,” Mr. Guruparan also said. “The government of Sri Lanka need to be told this and the South Africans have to accept it.”
Marginalising diaspora’s role
Mr. Ramaphosa is scheduled to hold talks with several Tamil diaspora organisations, following his visit to Sri Lanka, in what Tamil sources close to the South African government said reflected its belief that the diaspora must be a key player in the process of negotiating a political solution.
However, the Sri Lankan government’s proscription as terrorists of 15 diaspora organisations, and over 400 individuals days after the UNHRC resolution and a week before the TNA delegation’s scheduled visit to South Africa, has been repeatedly cited as evidencing Colombo’s insincerity in seeking a political solution to Tamil grievances.
“Such steps clearly demonstrates the government’s complete lack of commitment to finding a lasting and sustainable political solution,” the TNPF’s Kajendran said, describing the diaspora as a “significant and indispensable section of the Tamil nation” and pointing to its extensive financial support for family and humanitarian work in the homeland.
Six mainstream Tamil diaspora organisations were originally scheduled to join the TNA during its recent visit but this was later cancelled, a senior diaspora activist told Tamil Guardian.
Although speaking on condition of anonymity, he declined to elaborate on the reasons for the cancellation.
Amongst the leading groups banned by Sri Lanka is the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) which has been heavily involved with the South African initiative since its inception. GTF officials were not available to comment for this article.
British Prime Minister meets with Tamil diaspora groups ahead of visit to Sri Lanka for CHOGM, November 2013
Responding to Sri Lanka’s proscriptions soon after these were announced, a British government spokesman told Tamil Guardian: “the UK government has good relations with a wide range of NGOs and civil society organisations with an interest in Sri Lanka including the Global Tamil Forum and British Tamils Forum both of whom publicly state that they work through democratic means.”
“The UK will continue to engage with organisations focused on achieving a lasting and equitable peace in Sri Lanka through non-violent means,” he added.
USTPAC’s Dr. Jeyarajah called on the South African government to use its role in the process to ensure that the government of Sri Lanka rescinds the proscription.
“Unlike in Sri Lanka, the Tamil diaspora operates in a democratic space, and is an essential asset to ensure any outcome is enduring,” he said.
He also urged the TNA to “officially air their views on the Government of Sri Lanka proscriptions”.
PEARL director Manoranjan warned the TNA against helping the government with its attempt to divide the Tamil nation.
“The TNA is happy to have diaspora support in the form of funding, but fails to recognize the diaspora as an equal partner in negotiating a solution for the Tamil people- this is a very short-sighted approach.”
“The diaspora has long campaigned for free expression and free exercise of Tamil aspirations – something that the 6th Amendment prohibits in Sri Lanka,” she pointed out.
Drawing on his own experiences under the Apartheid regime, Mr. Padayachee criticised the Sri Lankan proscriptions, and said: “we are not surprised, we have seen the issue of proscription during the Apartheid government [and] we would like to test the sincerity of the government in this regard”
“This is just a tactic that the Sri Lankan government is using, personally I think they would have to remove the proscription before any talks,” he said.
Stating that their organisation had raised the issue with the South African government, and that it would be doing so again with the Special Envoy, Mr. Padayachee said: “no talks about talks can start with the proscription in place, it must be removed before any further any mediation can take place.”
The next public moment in the South African initiative is Mr. Ramphosa’s visit to Sri Lanka next month. Amid the expressions of scepticism the TNA’s Mr. Senathirajah urged patience, saying of the South African effort: “We shouldn’t dismiss them straight away as they are hoping to help us.”
His colleague, Mr. Premachandran, pointed to the outcome of the Special Envoy’s visit as the barometer of progress determining any future direction.
“My opinion is, it is totally dependent on their [South African] visit here, after that only there will be talks about talks [where] South Africa will be facilitators,” he said.
However, he added, “personally I am having my own doubts about the [Sri Lankan] government’s attitude.” (Tamil Guardian)