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Rethinking Sri Lanka’s Postwar Settlement: Lessons from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

By Srimal Fernando, Global Editor, The Diplomatic Society and Punsara Amarasinghe

 
Nelson Mandela’s victory against apartheid, his democratic upheaval as a champion of South African people has become the fascination of the twentieth century. But the real struggle to heal the wounded society began after Mandela was elected as the first black President of South Africa in 1994.Today, twenty years after the fully representative multicultural elections, South Africa is a cradle of democracy and continues to foster greater understanding among its 53 million people. To heal wounds of the past, Mandela set up the South African Truth Commission: Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (TRC).

This article does not intend to eulogise the process adopted by South Africa regarding peace building, but the main concern of this article is to illustrate how the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be helpful in the peace building process in post conflict Sri Lanka.

 

Photo: South African President Nelson Mandela (l) with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, acknowledges applause after he received a five volumes of Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report from Archbishop Tutu, in Pretoria

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) came into existence in 1995 as a result of the promotion of national unity and reconciliation act no 34. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was intended to be accomplished through three different committees. Mainly the human rights violations committee that investigated human rights abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994, the reparation and rehabilitation committee was charged with restoring the victim’s dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation and thirdly the amnesty committee considered applications from individuals who applied for amnesty in accordance with the provisions of the act.

 
South African President Nelson Mandela and Second Deputy President F.W. de Klerk hold their hands high as they address a huge crowd of people in front of the Union Building after the inauguration ceremony in Pretoria in this May 10, 1994 file photo.

The question is how the South African experience should be absorbed into the Sri Lankan reconciliation process?

It is a fact beyond dispute that both countries have undergone two different forms of internal struggles and also have completely different cultural contexts. As an example confession, repentance and asking for amnesty are imbued with the influence of Christianity as is dominant in South Africa. What should the approach of an ethnically Sinhalese dominant Sri Lankan society be?  To what extent should the South African experience be adopted?

The former Sri Lankan government’s media spokesperson Mr. Keheliya Rambukwella once openly stated that Sri Lanka will follow an indigenous approach on reconciliation rather than embracing the South African model.

By comparing the objectives between the South African Truth Commission and Sri Lanka’s own the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) the differences between the two commissions can be viewed.

Unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) did not become a commission to grant amnesty or repent on the previous acts committed by both parties during the war. The sole objective of LLRC was to investigate the facts which led to the downfall of the ceasefire agreement between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the sequence of events that followed thereafter up to the 19th of May in 2009. Though the hearings were held openly, the proceedings of LLRC were not widely covered by the Sri Lankan media.  

Despite technical differences there is still a demand for the South African standard reconciliation in Sri Lanka, mainly from the Tamil stakeholders.

In 2013, Mr. R. Sampathan, who is the current opposition and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader spoke in favor of the South African model  for reconciliation to be implemented in Sri Lanka during his visit to South Africa as part of a delegation invited by the Government of South Africa.  

Technically, the balance methods used by the frameworks of the TRC will be more appropriate to apply in Sri Lanka. In fact the TRC was empowered to grant amnesty to those who committed abuses during the apartheid period. It is worthy to note that all amnesty applications were not granted. Out of a total of 7112 applications, 5392 amnesty applications were denied and only 849 cases were granted amnesty. This illustration proves that this TRC in South Africa has not gone beyond the extreme. Apart from that the enthusiasm shown by the South African media and locals in South Africa the TRC deserves universal appreciation. The manner in which the South African society worked to accomplish their common goal can be taken as an inspiration for any future reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.

However, there are fundamental lacunae which impede the Sri Lankan reconciliation model from attaining its ultimate objective. Unlike in South Africa, Sri Lanka has not shown a proper understanding relating to working together. After the conflict period in South Africa, the African National Congress and the National Party- the two main political parties that negotiated a truce, worked together in a Government of National Unity. In fact, former South African State President F. W. de Klerk became humble to work as Deputy President under President Nelson Mandela after the first free election in 1994.

Unfortunately, most Sri Lankan politicians representing the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic communities have not been able to come to one platform to obtain a sustainable solution over the national problem.

In conclusion, it is a matter of conjecture to assume to what extent the South African model will suite Sri Lanka’s post conflict reconciliation process.

*Mr .Punsara Amarasinghe is a LL.M. (Master of Laws) student at the South Asian University in New Delhi and a Research Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society

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