Awaiting Conflict Transformation Within The Year
By Jehan Perera
Five years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka remains a post-war society that has yet to make the transition to a post-conflict society. The political resolution of the conflict is difficult due to the ethnic and identity-based nature of the conflict which generates extreme insecurities on all sides. While the violence has ceased, the political roots of the conflict that gave rise to war remain to be addressed.
There continues to be extreme political polarization between the government and the opposition, including the ethnic minority parties. Most noticeable is the absence of political dialogue between the government and the opposition, particularly the TNA, regarding a political solution that would address the roots of the ethnic conflict. However, there now appears to be signs of a change.
It seems increasingly likely that South Africa will be playing the key role in facilitating Sri Lanka’s transition from war to post-war healing and a political solution.
South African President Jacob Zuma told the South African Parliament in February this year that at the request of the Sri Lanka Government he was appointing Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s Special Envoy to bring about peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The special envoy is expected to visit Sri Lanka in June this year. It is clear that the South African government is taking its peace building role very seriously. The role that South Africa will be playing in Sri Lanka was explained to all levels of the ruling party at the ANC’s annual convention last month.
In his first public comments on his role, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, also Deputy President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), said , “We are truly honoured to be chosen amongst many countries to go and make this type of contribution to the people of Sri Lanka,” he said. “We have a wonderful story to tell, and it is this wonderful story that the Sri Lankans see.” He also said, “As South Africans we do not impose any solution on anyone around the world. All we ever do is to share our own experience and tell them how, through negotiation, through compromise, through giving and taking, we were able to defeat the monster of Apartheid.” He added, “We think we can share those experiences, and of course in the end, it is up to the people of Sri Lanka to find their own peace.”
South Africa is a society that takes consultation and dialogue very seriously. Its own peace process and post-apartheid political process has been marked by a determination to obtain the consensus of as many parties as possible. The South African government’s intervention in Sri Lanka is proving to be no different.
It is getting the consensus within its own polity prior to entering Sri Lanka as a facilitator. President Zuma recently explained his country’s support to Sri Lanka at the annual convention of the ANC, where national and local members of the ruling party were present. In addition, it has been engaging in dialogue with the two parties that are essential to any process of reconciliation within Sri Lanka. Both the Sri Lankan government and the TNA have sent delegations to South Africa to meet with members of both the South African government and its ruling party, the ANC, as a precursor to Special Envoy Ramaphosa’s visit in June.
The evident interest of the Sri Lankan government to pursue South African assistance in these circumstances is significant. It suggests that the government is serious about a political reform process that leads to conflict transformation. The two most important aspects of the conflict transformation process will be to find a political solution that is acceptable to both the government and the opposition parties, particularly the ethnic minority parties, and also to find an answer to the problems of accountability that arose in the context of the three decade long war. Success in achieving the first of these targets will do much to consolidate a sustainable and long term peace. Success on the second matter will enable the Sri Lankan government to once again become a respected member of the international community and to repair its worsening relations with the Western countries.
The timing of the Sri Lankan government’s implementation of these two components of the South African peace process is, however, likely to differ. The most important matter for the government will be the forthcoming Presidential Elections which is likely to be held at the beginning of next year. The government will certainly not want the South African peace initiative to jeopardize its election prospects. In other words, the government will not want the South African peace initiative to progress too quickly to the controversial issues of a political solution. This is an arena of extreme emotion and controversy that will be best taken out and away from the electoral process.
By way of contrast, the government is more likely to be receptive, at the current juncture, to work with South Africa to reach agreement on the form and substance of a mechanism to ensure accountability for past actions. Such an accountability mechanism could relieve the international pressure on the government. At the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, there was a significant majority of countries that called for the establishment of an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s past, and also called for an update of the situation at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in September. If the South African intervention has become established by then, the international pressure on Sri Lanka on account of an international inquiry is likely to get reduced.
The best case scenario in regard to the South African initiative would be one that sees the Sri Lankan government making a sincere effort to engage in conflict transformation after the next round of national elections is completed. In this scenario, the Sri Lankan government would wait till about the first half of 2015 when the dust has settled after the elections, to take meaningful steps to devolve powers to the provincial councils and also ensure that the devolved system works even better, as envisaged by President Rajapaksa’s war-time and post-war promise of 13th Amendment plus.
This would necessarily be accompanied by measures taken, even commencing in June with the visit of Special Envoy Ramaphosa, to establish a domestic accountability mechanism that meets international standards with the support of South Africa.
However, it is important that the Sri Lankan government concurrently takes immediate measures to improve the situation on the ground, so that its decision to invite South African facilitation is not seen as merely a hard headed decision to ward off the international community in Geneva. The situation in the North of the country, where over 60 have been arrested in recent weeks and some released by the security forces, and the targeting of the Muslim community by extremist groups, has created a climate of fear that is the opposite of reconciliation.