Is South Africa involved in Sri Lanka to facilitate a political settlement to the ethnic problem or isn’t it? As it grapples with trying to showcase an internal credible process internationally and reining in its angry political allies at home, the Rajapaksa Government can’t seem to decide
Jacob Zuma, South African President, appointed a special envoy to oversee the African nation’s conflict resolution and reconciliation initiatives in two post-war societies earlier this year. In civil war struck South Sudan, Zuma’s appointee and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has his work cut out for him. But in Sri Lanka, where for five years a relative peace has reigned, the road to reconciliation seems equally laden with challenges.
This past week, as it opened the doors to the first third party facilitation of a political settlement to the island’s long-standing ethnic question post-war, the Government of Sri Lanka behaved like it was hiding a dirty little secret. On the one hand, the veil of secrecy regarding the reasons for Ramaphosa’s visit had everything to do with its internal crises, with coalition allies like Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF and the hardline JHU strongly opposing third party involvement in the evolution of a long-term power sharing deal with the Tamil minority. But it was also the desire of the South African Special Envoy that the matters and modus operandi under discussion remain in the private sphere until agreement can be reached on how the process to restart the discussion on devolution issues can go forward.
South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a man strongly tipped to be the country’s next President, arrived in Sri Lanka for visit that lasted just over 24 hours on Monday afternoon.
The African National Congress (ANC) is striving to build his international profile in the run up to the 2019 presidential poll and Ramaphosa’s engagement in South Sudan and Sri Lanka will be important milestones in the road to the presidency. After President Zuma decided to take a break following parliamentary and provincial elections held in May, Ramaphosa has effectively become his co-pilot in all matters of governance, chairing cabinet meetings and delivering speeches on his behalf.
A quiet visit
The Government decided therefore to afford the South African Envoy almost all the honours due to a visiting head of state. Ramaphosa was received at the Bandaranaike International Airport by Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva, who led a delegation to South Africa in February this year. Hours after his visit on Monday afternoon, a large Government delegation led by Minister of External Affairs G.L. Peiris met with the South African Envoy at the Gregory Room of the Taj Samudra where the South African delegation was staying during its visit.
The delegation included Minister De Silva, Deputy Minister Faiszer Mustapha, Monitoring MP of the Ministry of External Affairs Sajin Vaas Gunewardane, Arun Thambimuttu and Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem. Many of them had been part of the De Silva delegation that travelled to South Africa earlier this year.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa hosted Ramaphosa for dinner on Monday night at Temple Trees. Just before dinner, the pair held discussions that the President’s Office later refused to comment on, saying the talks were ‘private’.
A glance at the State-run newspapers and broadcasters over the two days spanning Ramaphosa’s visit will reveal how desperately the Government wished to keep the nature of his visit under wraps domestically. The phenomenon was not unique to the Sinhala language press, which caters to the Government’s core support base that largely opposes political concessions to the Tamil people post-war. President Rajapaksa’s usually hyper-engaged Twitter account remained strangely silent on the Ramaphosa meetings, while the English language State press restricted itself to a pre-dinner photo of the South African Envoy with the President and a similar picture with Minister Peiris prior to his departure on Tuesday.
Ramaphosa, the tourist
Stage-setting for downplaying the Ramaphosa visit was performed at last week’s Cabinet press briefing, when Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella announced that there was ‘no agenda’ for the South African Envoy’s visit. Rambukwella’s dismissive tone and his insistence that the discussions would be nothing out of the ordinary caused one foreign correspondent at the media conference to quip, “so is Cyril Ramaphosa coming here as a tourist?”
The term ‘tourist’ would be used by Housing Minister Weerawansa to describe the South African Envoy during a special press briefing convened on Monday (7), and no member of the ruling coalition attempted to correct him. Weerawansa’s party has made its opposition to the South African initiative known in a 12-point ultimatum issued to the Government recently.
But despite the optical illusions the State has tried to create, to the astute citizen or the keen political observer, the intentions of the Cyril Ramaphosa visit were crystal clear. During his visit, the South African Envoy met President Rajapaksa, a broadly representative Government delegation and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The other major stakeholders involved in lengthy discussions with the visiting Deputy President were the Tamil National Alliance – the country’s largest Tamil party – and the Northern Province Chief Minister, Justice C.V. Wigneswaran. During his trip to Jaffna to meet with the Chief Minister, Ramaphosa also held talks with the Northern Province Governor, Maj. Gen. (Rtd.) G.A. Chandrasiri and Security Forces Commander Udaya Perera.
The Chief Ministerial delegation that met Ramaphosa and his team at the Tilco Hotel in Jaffna engaged in frank discussions with the South African Envoy. The Northern Provincial Council Ministers for Education and Health and its Legal Advisor accompanied Wigneswaran to the meeting.
When the TNA chose the former Supreme Court Justice as its Chief Minister candidate, it may have been with this kind of meeting in mind. The learned and eloquent Chief Minister has become the focal point for nearly every high-level diplomat visiting the country with an interest in reconciliation.
Ramaphosa’s talks with Wigneswaran were lengthy, and began at the beginning. Wigneswaran traced the history of the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka, recalling that the feeling of being Ceylonese above everything else had been prevalent in his younger days during British rule and for a few brief years after independence. The South African Envoy had shared his own country’s experience in the post-Apartheid era, explaining that a sense of being South African was instilled into the many language, race, religious and colour groups that constitute the rainbow nation.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran also asked the visiting Deputy President to clarify whether the South Africa efforts were to be complementary to the UN probe, the resolutions in Geneva and New Delhi’s separate initiatives to achieve a political settlement in Sri Lanka. Ramaphosa assured the Chief Minister that the South African exercise would be aimed at complementing these processes.
Development vs. Rights
Wigneswaran also informed the South African Envoy that the biggest problem facing the Tamil people in the north and east was the militarisation of the two provinces. “This is the same Army that bombed, shot, terrorised and fought the war in the north. 150,000 soldiers were still in the areas of the offensives even five years since the war ended. The Army is still involved in all aspects of civilian life,” the Northern Chief Minister told the visiting South African delegation in Jaffna.
Ramaphosa put a question to the Chief Minister about whether it was not a fact that the Government had developed infrastructure in the former conflict zone with carpeted roads and greater connectivity. The Chief Minister responded that the roads had been a boon, but in fact they had helped the south more than the north.
“They helped the Army to keep quick and effective control over the area. They helped the southerners initially to make a triumphal entry into their areas of capture. They helped the southerners to make a quick buck by exploiting the local markets by taking away products at very cheap rates and selling them at tremendous profits. The construction of roads gave employment to the southerners, not to the locals. Even today granite, sand and fish are transported quickly from the north to the south thanks to these roads,” he told the South African Deputy President.
Reinforcing his argument, Wigneswaran argued that the people had voted overwhelmingly in support of the TNA despite the Government’s superior election machinery, the might of the Army and the sudden doling out of Government jobs and the mega infrastructural projects carried out in the region. The former Supreme Court Justice said over 70% of northern registered voters had voted in the September 2013 poll, despite intimidation by the armed forces. “Why? Despite the infrastructural development? The reason was because development never really touched the people,” he explained.
Wigneswaran revealed that a few miles right or left of the A9 highway there were roads that had remained in disrepair for 40 years. “The psycho-social needs of our people post-war have not been addressed. Livelihood support has not been sufficient for the war-affected,” the Chief Minister explained, outlining the major issues still facing the people of the north, five years after the war ended. He also explained to the South African Deputy President how the Government and its Northern Governor were clipping the elected Council’s wings and hindering effective governance by his administration.
It was a stinging narrative, juxtaposed against the Government’s own claims about its post-war successes. To the visiting South African delegation, the meeting with Wigneswaran would have exposed the continuance of the conflict five years after the war ended and duelling post-war narratives that prevail in the north and south of the island.
President Rajapaksa, during his meeting with the Deputy President of South Africa, was to push hard once more for the TNA to join the Parliamentary Select Committee process. Yet, from the outset, the South Africans, like many other members of the international community, have remained unconvinced that the PSC was the appropriate multilateral forum to address the question of political devolution and long-term reconciliation.
At the heart of it, Ramaphosa’s visit to Sri Lanka this week was aimed at restarting stalled negotiations between the two main stakeholders of the devolution process – the Government of Sri Lanka and the TNA. It is Pretoria’s hope that it can obtain the concurrence of both the Government and the Tamil Party to be a third party presence in their negotiations towards reaching a political settlement to resolve the ethnic question.
Talks between the Rajapaksa administration and the TNA ended in a deadlock in 2012, and prospects for their recommencement have been bleak since. The unobtrusive presence of a trusted country like South Africa, which enjoys the confidence of both the Government and the TNA, could both witness the process and assist to remove roadblocks in the discussions if negotiations get underway. At least, that is the ANC’s hope. The TNA has already expressed willingness to participate in a process facilitated or observed by a South African delegation. The Government has decided it wants time to mull over the proposal.
The South African initiative was set in motion during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November 2013 that unfolded in the shadows of a flawed impeachment of the Sri Lankan Chief Justice, ongoing human rights abuses and growing calls for an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the final stages of the war. The Government of Sri Lanka anticipated high attendance from heads of government from the Commonwealth member states, the measure of success of any CHOGM. As a result of boycotts and 11th-hour cancellations, the reality was that it would be recorded as one of the most poorly attended summits in the recent past.
The presence of South African President Jacob Zuma therefore was a major success story for the Rajapaksa Administration. Zuma was the perfect counterpoint to British Prime Minister David Cameron whose grandstanding and ultimatums at the Colombo CHOGM had humiliated the Government and clouded the colour and pageantry with threats of an international inquiry four months later.
Zuma was offering the Rajapaksa administration an exit strategy. Publicly, the South African President was promising to assist Sri Lanka with its difficult reconciliation process and expressing confidence in a domestic process to address lingering post-war issues between communities in the island.
Suddenly, set against the increasingly real prospect of an intrusive international inquiry, was a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on restorative rather than punitive justice within the domestic sphere. South Africa won the world’s admiration for delivering justice and reconciliation that united rather than divided communities post-conflict and Colombo was confident that the African nation’s credibility would help the rest of the international community to get onboard.
But if sections of the Rajapaksa Government were placing their hopes on the TRC process to ward off an international inquiry at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, that proved to be a false dawn. Interest in the South African initiative has been waning ever since. Upon their return from South Africa in February, members of the Government delegation hinted at this diminishing interest, when they told reporters that there were more differences than commonalities in the Sri Lankan and South African experiences.
For four months since, the Rajapaksa regime has engaged in doing nothing more than gently kicking the can down the road. Along the way, it has faced several challenges. Firstly, it must grapple with its own fundamental lack of will to offer political devolution to the Tamil people because in its worldview, the conflict ended when Velupillai Prabhakaran perished on the banks of the Nandikadal Lagoon. It must also contend with stringent opposition from its hardline allies, the JHU and the NFF which view the South African moves as an intrusive attempt to deliver politically to the Tamil people what the LTTE could not achieve through violent means.
In reality these two problems are two sides of the same coin. In the uppermost echelons of the Rajapaksa regime, it is the positions of the hardline constituent allies that resonate most strongly. Opposition from these two parties, therefore, is easily exploited and can be used as a convenient excuse for delaying any process to restart talks with the TNA.
Yet, for all the desire to dismiss the South African process or keep it in the shadows, one thing continues to stay the regime’s hand. Rejection of the South African offer of assistance, because it is given in a strong spirit of goodwill between Governments, would demonstrate to the world that Sri Lanka is not only incapable of putting a domestic reconciliation process in place to address the roots of its ethnic conflict, but that it has absolutely no interest in doing so. This could prove a dangerous revelation at a time when the international community is already breathing down the regime’s neck on the question of human rights and accountability.
Far too often has this regime dismissed recommendations and solutions offered by commissions and processes it has set up of its own accord. To turn away from the South African facilitation would seal the Rajapaksa Government’s fate internationally and open the door even wider for intrusive global action to ensure accountability and reconciliation. It will erode the credibility of the regime’s bilateral and multilateral claims that it is genuinely pursuing a political solution post-war. That is the unspoken power South Africa holds over the Rajapaksa Government in Colombo.
High stakes game
Neither President Zuma nor his envoys are particularly interested in having their role in the Sri Lankan reconciliation process labelled. It is content with keeping the process quiet and assisting it along, if it will ensure that the Government is comfortable enough to engage in these ‘talks about talks’. If it risks political embarrassment at home, Pretoria knows the Rajapaksa administration will back away in a hurry.
All South Africa will demand from Sri Lanka therefore is credibility and honest engagement in the process. It will not abide disingenuous conduct or allegations of meddling – even from a Government it strongly considers a friend. Sharing South Africa’s post-Apartheid reconciliation and truth-seeking process around the world is an integral part of the Nelson Mandela legacy that the African National Congress strives to keep alive. It is a process therefore that it will not engage in frivolously for very long, without some measure of progress.
Pretoria has nothing to lose from walking away from the Sri Lankan process. Colombo, on the other hand, stands to lose it all. But this administration has a tragic history of throwing it all away in high stake games in which it is, almost always, ultimately bested.
Whether this time will be different remains to be seen. (Daily FT)