South Africa mediation offers way out for Govt
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.
However, the flip side to this has been other developments in the recent days. Last Friday, the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development warned in a statement that “an attempt for resurgence of terrorism in Sri Lanka surfaced in general area Pallai in the Jaffna Peninsula calling for launching another phase of the LTTE struggle for a separate state.” The palm fringed Pallai area is located in the thin strip of landmass that connects the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland. It came in the wake of the Ministry issuing a prohibition order on 16 Tamil diaspora groups. These developments have seen Australia, now a close ally of Sri Lanka, the United States and the United Kingdom issue travel warnings to their citizens. They have taken note of the newly developing security situation. Some European countries are to follow suit. Anxiety among travel operators has led to concerned inquiries from their Sri Lankan counterparts. Overseas insurance companies, particularly in the maritime sector, are examining the need to revise levies based on the latest threat levels. There were fears in some UPFA quarters that it could affect Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) if would-be investors determine conditions in Sri Lanka are becoming unstable due to reported resurgence of terrorism.
Another incident in Hambantota on Thursday was also not good news for the Government. It came at a time when a United Nations team is about to be named to conduct an international investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights violations. A group of five United National Party (UNP) MPs visited Hambantota on a “fact finding tour” of the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and the Hambantota Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port. Pro-Government groups threatened and intimidated them. They forced the MPs to make a hasty retreat. The worst embarrassment for the UPFA Government came after Friday’s daily newspapers ran front page photographs of Hambantota’s ‘Lord Mayor’ Eraj Ravindra Fernando brandishing a pistol as mobs chased the UNP team away. All five MPs have said that the mayor gave chase to them with the pistol and they feared he would attack. However, their rushing away from the scene saved the situation for them.
In a comical twist to the episode, Fernando was to later claim that it was only a toy and he was trying to protect the UNP MPs. Strange enough, if it were true, ruling party politicians were using toy pistols to “maintain law and order” whilst the Police, whose legitimate task it is, stood helplessly. It only exacerbates concerns about the deteriorating law and order situation in the country. President Rajapaksa telephoned Mayor Fernando to admonish him in strong terms for attempting to place the blame on his son and parliamentarian, Namal. Fernando had claimed he rushed to the scene at the instance of the young Hambantota District politician to “protect the UNP MPs.” Namal also issued a public denial that he gave any such instructions.
The incident was a case of the Government shooting itself in the foot. The attempted attack on the MPs, that too by the Mayor brandishing a pistol, tended to give credibility to continuing allegations of human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Here again, not a violation on ordinary Sri Lankans but representatives elected to Parliament by the people. Had it not been for this incident, the event would have passed off as another Avurudu picnic by UNP parliamentarians taking a look at the airport and the seaport long after they have been constructed and had become operational even in a limited way.
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. (See box story on this page for a Q & A). 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.
Those at the highest levels of the UPFA say that at least astrologically, after January, next year, the time is most auspicious for President Rajapaksa to call a presidential election. They also say that a period in April, similarly, is equally auspicious for parliamentary elections. Like his predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, President Rajapaksa has also continued to insist that a presidential poll would be only at the end of a term. Such an assertion is usually made to lull the opposition into complacency. Hence, an announcement ahead of time will be no surprise. In such an event, the non-dependence on minority votes, a pointer that emerged at the Southern and Western Provincial Council polls, would make Rajapaksa campaign hard for the Sinhala vote. He would naturally have to ensure there is no erosion in that edifice through any deal for “peace and reconciliation” should there be one.
Already, measures are under way to further strengthen the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) machinery at the grassroots level. On the drawing boards are high pitched district level party conventions and a membership drive. In addition, the UPFA will also dovetail its promotional programmes. It is only after these measures are in place that the Uva Provincial Council elections are to be held.
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.
If South Africa has begun the latest initiative towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka, in Colombo, a senior Minister in the UPFA Government has called for Chinese expertise to manage State Owned Enterprises (SOE) in the country. Senior Minister for Human Resources, D.E.W. Gunasekera says he has already had successful discussions in this regard with Wu Jianhao, China’s Ambassador in Sri Lanka. As a result, he says, China has agreed to send a delegation from the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commissioner (SASAC) of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China to Sri Lanka. The idea is to explain the reforms undertaken by SOEs in China for “improved performance management and share their experience in the application of Balanced Scorecard and the Performance Contracting System whilst ascertaining current status of public enterprises in Sri Lanka with a view to extend their co-operation to improve performance of local public enterprises.”
Minister Gunasekera has noted that Chinese companies have been listed in TOP 500 companies ranked by Forbes Magazine (a US based magazine) last year and SINOPEC, CNPC and State Grid-three-state owned enterprises (SOEs) in China have achieved fourth, fifth and seventh positions respectively among those World Class Companies. He directed “the Senior Minister’s Secretariat to ascertain success factors for achieving global standards by Chinese SOEs and the best practices pursued by those enterprises.”
Minister Gunasekera has disclosed that “a dialogue was established with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka (CCCSL) which is mainly composed of Chinese SOEs operating in Sri Lanka. They have expressed their willingness to meet their counterparts and relevant Government officials regularly for exchanging ideas and experience regarding enterprise management.”
Besides undertaking reforms, the senior Minister says, to improve the performance of public enterprises, the Government has to address two fold needs — revival of those defunct enterprises and expanding operational ones through replacement of obsolete machinery and introducing new technologies to enhance competitiveness. He has pointed out at a national workshop that Chinese SOEs operating globally had formed joint ventures with their local counterparts in other countries. They operate in stock markets for fund mobilisation to develop public enterprises with strategic partnerships. Therefore, he says, “it is essential to enter into bilateral cooperation initiatives with Chinese SOEs to address development needs of local counterparts for revival, reform and development.” Minister Gunasekera has recommended that designated teams of senior policy makers should undertake study tours of China and added that the Vice Minister of Human Resources and Social Security in Beijing has invited a Sri Lanka delegation in this regard.
The senior Minister has sought approval of the Government, among others, to:
Establish a National Steering Committee consisting of all stakeholders including representatives of public enterprises on reform and development of public enterprises.
To prepare and implement an action programme in collaboration with the People’s Republic of China for bilateral cooperation for both reform and development of operational public enterprises and revival of defunct public enterprises.
To obtain ten million rupees from the Treasury to the Senior Minister’s Secretariat for the coordination of all matters.
As is well known, even without assistance for reforming public enterprises, China has made enormous financial commitments for different projects, some of them unsolicited. Most of the projects in the latter category are located in the Hambantota District. Almost all such projects have come as loans which will have to be paid back at different periods of time. More Chinese projects are also in the pipeline.
In this backdrop, the coming weeks and months will have a mixed bag of issues for President Rajapaksa and his Government. He has to strike a balance between the latest South African peace initiative on the one hand and a UN investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights on the other. This is whilst gearing his ruling party machinery for another litmus test — the voter response at Uva Provincial Council elections.
That is at a time when some key issues affecting the public are spinning out of control. Main among them is the mounting cost of living, the rapidly deteriorating law-and-order situation and a breakdown in discipline as Thursday’s incidents in Hambantota revealed. A failure in course correction would only lead to more public discontent and less votes for the UPFA. Therein lies Rajapaksa’s dilemma.
TNA defends engagement with Government
Following is a Q & A with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan:
What was the purpose of your visit to South Africa?
We went there at the invitation of the Government. This was consequent to the discussions between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Jacob Zuma when the latter visited Sri Lanka. They held talks on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November last year for a South African initiative. President Zuma also met a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation headed by me.
What do you mean by a South African “initiative”? Could you elaborate?
I cannot say anything more. How it will develop only time will tell. It will of course depend on the Government and the TNA.
Would a South African dialogue go beyond a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, if at all, would be the last thing in the dialogue. It would be the final component.
What is the position of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in such a dialogue?
In discussing a political solution which has not happened in the past, what is happening now and what should happen in the future will also be discussed. The 13th Amendment is already there. The Government has made certain commitments. We would discuss everything.
They say the TNA by agreeing to a dialogue is helping the Government to overcome issues raised in Geneva. What is your response?
We have always been prepared to engage in a constructive dialogue. I would not like to ascribe motives to actions of others. We will not be taken for a ride.
There are reports of serious differences of opinion within TNA partners over engaging the Government at the present moment. Would you still go ahead?
They are entitled to their views. It does not matter. Eventually the party will act with a certain view. In that everyone will cooperate.
Would this pave the way for direct talks with the Government?
I cannot say anything now. It is the Government that called off the talks. It is responsible for that rupture.
Your Northern Province Chief Minister (C.V. Vigneswaran) recently hinted the TNA’s willingness for such talks. Is this an official view?
What he said was that the TNA would hold talks if it is on an acceptable agenda.
India’s has remained supportive of the TNA. What is its response to the South African initiative?
They are aware of all developments. I am sure the South African Government will keep India briefed. We have emphasised to the Pretoria Government the importance of India’s role. India has for a long time played that role. This will continue in the process.
What do you envisage would be an acceptable solution?
We have thus far not discerned a genuine willingness on the part of the Government to evolve an acceptable solution. If this is to be brought about, there needs to be a radical change in the Government’s thinking.