By Jehan Perera –
The government’s inability or unwillingness to provide the international community with the quantum of evidence required to ban the 16 Tamil Diaspora groups and 424 individuals it listed under a UN anti terrorism resolution has led to both the United States and Canada refusing to ban them. The government spokesperson on the issue had stated that it banned them all following extensive investigations in which 65 arrests had been made. But the government also weakened its case by stating that the compelling evidence it had found could only be provided after the investigations had been completed. It would have been more appropriate to list the organizations and persons it suspected, but only ban them after getting more solid information. The reluctance that the government has shown in convincing the international community about the threat posed to the country’s national security by those Diaspora groups and individuals it has banned will only serve to further undermine its credibility.
The government is also releasing some of those it had arrested in the recent past alleging threats to national security. The first two who were released were well known human rights defenders, Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan, whose arrests led to protests by international and local human rights organizations who had a personal knowledge of them and their work. These two human rights defenders were fortunate as they had many in the human rights field who were prepared to vouch for their commitment to non-violence. However, in the case of many of the others who have been arrested, and for whose human rights they have worked, there have been no similar interventions on their behalf. Both Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan were personally known to many of those who lobbied on their behalf whereas those others who have been arrested in the North on similar charges have no such personal relations with more influential persons.
The fact that the lesser known persons who were arrested in the anti-LTTE crackdown are now being released, even though after several weeks of incarceration and interrogation, is to be welcomed. It shows that there is a sense of justice within the security establishment that does not wish to see innocent persons being kept in detention just to make a political point. However, the problem with these arrests is that there is little or no judicial supervision or review over their arrests and subsequent detentions. It looks like the security forces have the discretion to arrest and detain, and the discretion to release them after interrogation, while the judiciary is like a passive postbox for whatever comes in and goes out. It very much appears that there is no check and balance where it comes to arrests and detentions in regard to national security especially in the North and East. The credibility of the government suffers as a result in comparison with international standards.
It is not surprising that in these circumstances, the government’s credibility is at a low ebb, internationally and locally. This is both with regard to its confrontation with the Tamil Diaspora and its strategy to contain the revival of the LTTE. What can be seen is the government engaging in a number of activities, but not in a coherent manner that would take it to conflict resolution. It is implementing sections of the National Human Rights Action Plan and of the LLRC Action Plan. It has launched a National Unity Charter at a Convention by the same name organized by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration. It has released those persons arrested on unsustainable charges of having aided and abetted the LTTE. But what it is doing is disjointed and not of one piece.
As a result, 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.”
The anticipated South African facilitation effort offers the Sri Lankan government an opportunity to restore its credibility and come up with an integrated plan for conflict resolution. The South African side has always taken the position that they were invited by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but now that they have accepted the offer, they appear to be taking it most seriously. This can only be to Sri Lanka’s benefit, as South Africa is a country that has credibility with both the Western and Non-Western sections of the international community. From what the South Africans have been saying, whether it is Special Envoy Ramaphosa or High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Geoff Doidge, they want the Sri Lankan parties to be the decision makers and to be the owners of the process of national conflict resolution.
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 approach to governance is to make all systems of democracy work, with separation of powers, checks and balances and rule of law given priority. Speaking on the occasion of South African National Day last week, High Commissioner Doidge said that the South African government is presently 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 Sri Lankan government and TNA which are essential to any process of reconciliation within Sri Lanka.
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. It is important therefore 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. Changing the fear psychosis in the North of the country, where over 65 were arrested in recent weeks and the targeting of the Muslim community by extremist groups who act with impunity would set the stage for the restoration of the government’s credibility. The South African intervention must be seen as a process during which the government will get all systems of governance going, which is the best way to restore credibility.