South Africa’s National Council of Provinces Chairman Miniwa Johannes Mahlangu was in Colombo last week for the 58th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Conference at which he was elected as the new President of the CPA. He spoke to Daily Mirror about the development activities he witnessed in the North, the reconciliation process and the international pressure faced by Sri Lanka.
Q:Coming from South African and having extensive experience in the process of reconciliation, how do you view Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process and the pace at which it is progressing?
Let me say that in the short period I have been here, what I have seen is the rapid progress in the reconciliation process. Sri Lanka is in a transitional period, similar to the times faced by South Africa and Rwanda, where people had to face the consequences of a prolonged conflict.
I had the opportunity to travel to Jaffna on September 13 to see the progress there. I was highly impressed by the tremendous commitment that government has put in place, to re-develop the people in Jaffna. I realised that the roads that were so bad during the war are being tarred. The other thing that I realised, was that the question of the schools; they rebuilt a lot of schools that had been bombed and children are now in the classrooms—it was very impressive that this had been done so quickly. The hospitals that were also bombed have been refurbished or rebuilt. The electricity grids have been put up, and I have seen a lot of power has been provided to the people and I found this very exciting.
But the thing that excited me most was the resettlement of the people who had been displaced; they are actually being housed in government built houses—this really heartened me. I think that on that scope Sri Lanka has done very well in putting back life to the people so that they can enjoy dignity as citizens of this country.
It is not easy to build peace in a day; I know this coming from a country that went through apartheid. In South Africa we had to create what we call the “Reconciliation Commission”, that had to get a lot of people who had done wrong things to come and declare before the Commission why they did what they did and the Commission at times pardoned those who told the truth, at times those who did the wrong thing were arrested and are in jail—the good thing is that reconciliation was built and the truth could be told openly. Therefore the victims were happy, they knew what had happened—therefore that is very important.
I must say again that I have been very impressed by the way that Sri Lanka has re-settled the people, in this transitional period.
Q: Many of the aspects you mentioned, that you saw in Jaffna, are related to the rebuilding of infrastructure. However you mentioned that there needs to be more in form of a retributive and investigative function in the reconciliation process- as there was in South Africa. Therefore what is your perception of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, in terms of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and other aspects of reconciliation, unrelated to infrastructure development?
Well the few people that we spoke to in the North were very happy about the developments that were taking place in the North and the work that was being done with the government. I must be honest and say that we did not get complains from the people there, I take it that perhaps the people are happy that they have peace now—because it is not a wonderful thing to be in war. I think that they are happy now and they feel that their dignity has been restored.
Q:You mentioned in your statements about South Africa’s Reconciliation Commission that it had room for those who had done wrong to come before the commission and this gave some consolation to the victims. Criticisms from the international community towards Sri Lanka’s LLRC Report have been that, it was not a credible accountability mechanism. What is your view on Sri Lanka’s achievement on accountability?
Well I may not be in a position to comment on that element, because I am not in touch with Sri Lanka’s politics. However we are here as the Commonwealth to support anything that could bring transformation in the country, that could facilitate peace in the country. The people must be able to live their lives in a democratic country, with freedom of speech, good governance and human rights.
Q: Sri Lanka has been under pressure a number of years now, from the international community. After your visit to the North and after meetings here in Colombo, how will South Africa deal with the Sri Lanka issue at international forums, in the future?
Once development of the people have been put in place and people feel free and they feel there is democracy in the country—I think the international community will also realize it. I think it is best if people come and see and have dialogue with the people and check for themselves.
We are all signatories to peace, democracy and many declarations by the United Nation and the United Nation is also monitoring, what is happening in the country—and it will pronounce for itself whether there is progress, or there is no progress. The United Nation gathers us all together under one roof as nations and they are able to tell the world what is happening.
Criticism is always there but if we can have dialogue and they can see progress I think it will be taken forward.
Q: You mentioned the United Nations, but the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister had asked the Commonwealth, not to emulate the UN. What is your view on this?
I agree with him, because we are not the UN. The Commonwealth is an association that really wants to look into the issues of human rights, good governance and rule of law as part of our objectives. But with regard to the UN, it’s a much senior body and far broader—I think it would not be worthy, therefore, to take over or duplicate the functions of the UN. I think we should leave the powers and functions of the UN, within that framework and the Commonwealth should deal with the powers and functions within its ambit.
Q:There was a debate on the Formation of the Commission on the Rule of Law, Democracy and Human Rights. What has been South Africa’s stance on this and why?
I was in that commission, when the debate took place and there was no agreement on this proposal. I proposed a Commissioner, but some members wanted it to be Commission and not a single Commissioner. Some agreed and others did not want the Commission at all. Many felt that the United Nations should take the lead on that front, because we are all signatories to the peace efforts of the United Nations and it will be revisited in the future.
Q: The US has called for a reduction in the military presence in the North, what was your view of those who are taking part in civilian activities in the North while you were there?
I think it depends again on the country; if the government feels there is a danger that can arise then it may decide to leave the military there to stabilise the situation so long as the military plays the correct role of defending the people and not destroying the people.
Q: At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) last year Canada said it would not attend the CHOGM to be held in Colombo next year. How do you see this?
The heads of states have decided that they want to come here and it is their right to decide, where they want to hold the meeting. May be it is good for them to come, so that they can see the progress that has or has not been made.
Govt. needs to be more transparent about its work
British Delegation Head Roberta Blackman
Parliamentarian Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods, who headed the British Delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Conference, spoke to Daily Mirror about the need for transparency from the side of the government, reduction in the military presence in the north and dialogue on reconciliation.
Q:What was your impression of the development process taking place in the North?
You have to understand that our visit was quite limited and we only saw projects that the government had directed us to. But what we did see was that substantial progress has been made with regards to road building and electric cabling—I was impressed by the new housing projects and the hospital that we visited was really growing and expanding and that was very good.
I think that the other thing that really struck me was the scale of the problem that the government was dealing with. Because it is a huge area that has to be rebuilt and regenerated and it is clearly going to take sometime for real progress to be made in some areas, that being said, they have done a lot already.
I think perhaps more could be done, because it is a huge task and given that the conflict only ceased a few years ago they really have made a great deal of progress. People were saying that, we were mainly talking to people about schools that are being rebuilt and about new schools and they were pleased about investment coming to the area. Obviously not everybody was happy, there was a lot more to be done and I would really want that point to be made.
Q: What about the military presence in the North, did you feel they were too involved in civilian life?
Yes I do think there was a heavy military presence there. But I think it was quite hard for us to work out whether the military presence was so strong because we were there as a big group of people or whether it was always like that. A couple of people I asked said “yes, it is generally like this and it is quite heavy”.
Therefore I think it needs to be reduced and the whole situation needs to be stabilised, with some sense of devolution of power and responsibility to local people there.
I think that does have to happen, but certainly we did think there was a heavy military presence and it needed to be reduced.
Q: You mentioned that there had been infrastructure development, but what was your impression of development and reconciliation in terms of the political rights of the people?
I was brought up in Northern Ireland and so I know what it is like to deal with the intermingling of two communities in a post-conflict situation—and it takes time. It is more difficult, when memories are fairly raw and therefore you do need a period of stability and peace—and I would have thought that now, three years after the conflict, it would be time for the government to be making strenuous efforts to engage in some sort of reconciliation—how do they win the hearts and minds of the people, it seems to me that is the part they have not done.
To get this done there is a need for dialogue—it is a demanding and long term process, but you can’t leave it too long either. Because if you leave it too long then people think nothing is going to happen.
Q: Before you came to Sri Lanka, what was your view of the situation here and how has it changed?
My view of the North was that there had been conflict and the area had been damaged. I knew that some reconstruction was happening, because students in my constituency had come and volunteered there. What I didn’t realise was what a big area has been effected and the severity of the damage and therefore how huge the task of rebuilding was going to be. Also quite a lot has been achieved in three years and I wouldn’t have thought this much has been done.
I think the government needs to be more open and transparent about what has been done and what is left to do and be more confident in their own ability to deliver.
Q:From the international community, there has been a push for accountability, how do you view the process of accountability?
Britain’s view is that there should be accountability and they obviously want to see peace and stability and that is my view too. I think that the government needs to be transparent, because they have a good story to tell, I think and they need to be honest about what they have to do. They need to be confident that they can achieve this, because under current projections they can.
The other thing that my colleagues and I had not realised was the de-mining that needed to be done. This is a huge and very dangerous task and this has obviously slowed down resettlement. This is an issue that needs to be given more prominence and we will ensure that this happens when we get back.
Q:Do you think that now that you have all seen the work being carried out here that Britain’s stand on Sri Lanka will change with regard to the international arena?
We will take these comments back to our Foreign Minister who is going to meet us at some stage. I cannot speak for Britain, but I am definitely going to do that.
Q:Britain recently issued a travel warning to those visiting Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan government took up this issue claiming it did not reflect the correct ground situation. One specific mention was that large crowds needed to be avoided, because they could turn violent or attract violence.
I think that is an issue that needs to be discussed between the two governments and some proper understanding needs to be arrived at. I think the two governments need to use their diplomatic services to resolve.
Q: The majority of the delegates at the CPA Conference opposed the appointment of a Commission or Commissioner for Human Rights, the rule of law and democracy.
We are in favour of this proposition and we would obviously like to see more focus been given to human rights within the CPA, this is not a Sri Lanka issue; it involves the whole of the Commonwealth.
Q: There is some question of whether Canada will attend the CHOGM to be held in Sri Lanka next year. Do you think its decision not to participate is correct?
That is an issue for Canada, but in general I think that a country can stay out. In an ideal world they would not do that, but they have their reasons—I personally think that is unfortunate, but I think that is a matter for Canada. I suppose you have to always give people a choice about attendance, but I think it should be discouraged.
Q: Members of the Sri Lankan delegation have stated that it is important that the Commonwealth not follow in the steps of the UN. How do you view this statement?
I don’t see how that follows, because we can work in a complementary manner with the UN. We can maybe get more information from them or concentrate on Commonwealth countries and free up resources elsewhere for the UN and work in this complementary manner.
We need to all work together to make our parliaments accountable and that should be high up in the CPA’s agenda.