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South Africa's peaceful transition a model for Sri Lanka?

By Ruth Wedgwood / January 11, 1999



Nelson Mandela may be headed across the Indian Ocean. South Africa has offered peacemaking services to end the 24-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka, a conflict that has cost 55,000 lives.

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Mr. Mandela's surprising link to the stubborn dispute between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Hindu Tamil separatists, in a tea-growing country of 17 million off the coast of India, stems from the large Indian community in the new South African republic.

Mandela has recently given assurances to Sri Lanka that the so-called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) will not be allowed to relocate their operating base to South Africa, following a British crackdown on London operations. South Africa's peaceful transition may also be a useful model for Sri Lanka's embittered combatants.

A South African parliamentary delegation just returned from a visit to the area, announcing it is prepared to act as facilitators if called upon.

It is not the first time that political traffic has flowed east. Mahatma Gandhi cut his political teeth in South Africa in the early 1900s, seeking greater rights for East Asians in the British colony, before he returned to India to agitate for independence.

Though the Sri Lankan government wants to solve its own problems, South Africa's offer of assistance could push forward a major constitutional reform proposed by Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga. She has called for a transfer of power over domestic affairs to nine regional councils. In the north and east, the councils would be dominated by Tamil majorities. The crucial issue of local land reform would thus pass to Tamil control.

The Indian Tamils were recruited to Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, by the British in the mid-19th century, to labor on tea plantations. Tamils also served the British as colonial administrators. Tamil grievances include a shortage of land for agriculture, perceived ethnic discrimination in jobs and universities, and diminished voice in their own affairs. Just 18 percent of the population, Tamils are consistently outvoted in elections.

Sri Lankan independence in 1948 saw a provocative outbreak of Sinhalese nationalism, refusing voter registration to Indian Tamils, and declaring Sinhalese as the only official language. The Tamils now vote and enjoy co-equal status for their native tongue, and many serve in the national government. But violent clashes between the groups have continued for several decades.

The LTTE claims independence for the so-called state of "Eelam" in the north of Sri Lanka, and has mustered 5,000 to 10,000 guerrilla fighters. Sea and air routes to the Jaffna peninsula remain vulnerable. In one week of fighting this fall, 1,300 troops and rebels were killed.

Indiscriminate attacks against civilians have led the United States to proscribe the Tamil Tigers as a foreign terrorist organization.

Remarkably enough, Sri Lanka's economy is growing - 6 percent per annum - despite the costly war. Sri Lanka has a distinguished diaspora community, including Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient," and Jayantha Dhanapala, chairman of the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Extension Conference, and head of the UN's Department of Disarmament Affairs.

A new federal system, devolving power to Tamil local councils, will require a constitutional amendment, by a two-thirds legislative majority. At the moment, the government doesn't control the vote. Sinhalese opposition is coming from the United National Party, a faction that may be vulnerable to Western pressure, for UNP governments in power have traditionally maintained close US ties, offering the port of Trincomalea, the finest natural harbor in Asia, for US naval activities, and Chilaw as a site for radio broadcasts and electronic facilities.

On Nov. 27, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran offered to reopen talks with the government, under third-party mediation. But one obstacle is the Colombo government's unwillingness to withdraw to earlier military lines.

There never was an Asian miracle in interethnic relations - witness Indonesia's repression of the Timorese and riots against resident Chinese, Japan's slow coming to terms with its wartime record, Beijing's repression of Tibet, and India and Pakistan's rivalry over Kashmir.

It may be that the South African connection can help Sri Lanka establish a better model for resolving ethnic conflicts.

Ruth Wedgwood is a professor of international law at Yale University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations..