Courage and Compensation

Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process - Sri Lanka

13th October 2008

One of the reasons I am so concerned about transparency in the affairs of NGOs is that I am fully aware that many of them do very good work. The intentions of their personnel are admirable, and they have done much to alleviate suffering and to assist with sustainable development. Unfortunately, the less altruistic agendas of a few - more often particular individuals rather than organizations - has led sometimes to acts that only do harm to the country as a whole. This brews suspicion that extends to everyone, and the situation is not helped by gallantry which leaps to the defence of the indefensible. As I said recently to a group of NGOs who had come under suspicion due to the activities of a few, they should learn to cut away dead wood, and not allow themselves to be tainted by actions they would not dream of doing themselves.

But human nature tends to take the path of least resistance, to see the good in those with whom one associates regularly, to assume when problems arise that it is those with whom one is not familiar who are at fault. Unfortunately, this often means ignoring evidence.

I was driven to dwell on all this by an interesting article last week by Jehan Perera, which claimed that the 'REMOVAL OF INTERNATIONAL NGOS WORSENS CIVILIAN PLIGHT'. Jehan, unlike some people in NGOs concerned with what is called advocacy, who believe that government has to be attacked at all costs, has tried to look at situations constructively. Thus he recognizes that the government is doing its best for the civilians. His quarrel is not with government intentions, in sending in supplies for instance, but with effectiveness. He is therefore worried about a distribution system that is run by Sri Lankan officials, since he thinks that that would be abused by the LTTE. He believes however that international NGOs would be able to withstand LTTE pressures, and therefore he advocates a greater involvement of international NGOs.

Interestingly, his evidence for this, he mentioned in conversation, was the assessment of a worker for an international NGO. Idealistic as Jehan is, he would not have thought that of course someone working for a particular organization would necessarily assume that that organization was best at any task, rather than the government system which is now clearly seen as the controlling agency.

What Jehan and his informant, and sometimes the international NGOS themselves, forget, is that government was the controlling agency throughout. The Government Agents in the affected districts, together with their staff, and in particular those concerned with health and education, have done a fantastic job in maintaining services throughout this period. Sadly, they got little credit for this, given that the NGOs are much better at advertising themselves. Indeed they have to, for that is how they obtain funds. Thus very few people know that the Commissioner General of Essential Services has ensured regular supplies of food and other requirements to the Wanni for commercial purposes. It is rather the weekly convoys of free food for internally displaced persons that are highlighted, and everyone forgets that the ordinary citizens continue to be supplied by government.

That the LTTE has taken ruthless advantage of this over the years is known to everyone. We know that figures for IDPs were inflated, but government continued to provide supplies as requested, because any reduction would harm the people - the LTTE would make sure that its cadres continued well fed. We know that government servants are under pressure, but at the same time we know that, allowance being made for that, they have worked together with the central government to provide a better service to the people in their charge than in any comparable conflict situation.

Can the same be said for the NGOs? All evidence is that the situation is about the same with them too, the only difference being that they claim an independence and objectivity that can then be used by the LTTE as whitewash. This became obvious last year, when the story finally broke, about the LTTE recruiting one member of each family. This became a problem for the NGOs only when the LTTE started recruiting from the families of those working for such NGOs. When I upbraided one of them, Richard Mawer of Save the Children, for only protesting at that point, his answer was that he thought the government would have welcomed such a protest, since it would not have wanted his staff to be involved with LTTE fighters.

But it was not his protest at that point that I condemned. My condemnation was of his failure, and that of his NGO colleagues, to protest at the manner in which the LTTE had ruthlessly conscripted one member each of families that did not have the privilege of working for the international NGO community.

So, similarly, I upbraided the UNDP representative for not having drawn attention to such problems. His answer was that the UN had done so - but he was new, and having checked, he granted that it had only done so in internal documents.

In short, the so called international community was, with far less reason, as worried about upsetting the LTTE as are our poor officials, so scorned by Jehan's informant. But the problem is that, given this deafening silence, which accompanies a cacophony of complaints about the government by NGOs that work in the freedom of the rest of Sri Lanka, the world has a completely lopsided image of what is going on.

Thus far I have been talking about the pusillanimity of foreigners working in the Wanni, not daring to talk about LTTE militarization, about child soldiers, about forced labour whilst foreigners were entertained in state. There is however also a more sinister element, represented by those who permitted the LTTE to take away heavy equipment, and by the gentleman who defied his employers and the government by declaring that he would stay in the Wanni despite orders to withdraw. It would be nice to think that all this was totally innocent, that there was no subordination or commitment to the LTTE in any of those involved, but that would require naïveté of a sort that cannot be afforded with the track record of the LTTE.

The bottom line after all was apparent in the pictures on the Defence Ministry website of sophisticated backoes building up the Great Wall of Kilinochchi, a wall it took so much time and so many lives to breach, lives of our soldiers and also poor Tamil youths, boys and girls, forced to fight, fed with myths about the enormous support the LTTE enjoyed in the world at large. Those hyperactive backoes have much to answer for, and it would be appropriate for Norwegian People's Aid to think of paying some sort of compensation for what they allowed to happen. They have granted that their mechanisms were inadequate, and while one would like to forgive the organization itself for what happened when clearly inappropriate people were in charge in Kilinochchi, they should consider at least a massive programme of assistance for all those who have suffered physically because of the horrendous wall.

The cost in physical suffering might be quantifiable. What cannot be quantified is the inspiration given to the LTTE leadership by the myths they constructed over the last seven years, myths sustained by the extravagant hospitality offered to foreigners who were presented as paying their respects to the Great Leader. What was construed as international support by the brilliant propaganda machine the LTTE has established serves sadly now to protract the suffering of our fellow citizens in the Wanni, the girls now being forced to man the frontlines, the families compelled to flee into ever more crowded spaces, in the hope that something will turn up, perhaps Gareth Evans on the sturdy white steed he has named R2P, his trusty Tontoes who crafted such a tearful appeal to the UN Secretary General riding valiantly at his side.

Gareth himself does not really know the Sri Lankan situation, as was clear when he did not know what he had referred to as ethnic cleansing in his dramatic speech last year. But even if he himself now knows better, about this country at least, the myth continues to be supported by the pusillanimity or worse of those who have actual working experience of the situation. Thus it is sometimes claimed that the suffering civilians in the Wanni do not wish to flee to government controlled territory. Yet the International NGOs make no bones about the fact that their workers were not given permission to leave, even though requests have been made. Again I can only say what I said before, when they kept quiet about the LTTE conscripting one member of every family, now it seems two or even three - why can't they ask loud and clear that the LTTE release not only the International NGO workers, but also all the others. It is all very well to say they do not want to come, but then why not prove it by allowing them free movement?

Jehan, thoughtful as ever, said he had asked for free movement, but admitted that what he had said seemed ambiguous, for he had still been playing at the balancing act that the so called international community deemed necessary, an act that even Sir John Holmes realized had tilted the other way in the pronouncements of the so-called Inter Agency Standing Committee. Now Jehan at least has realized that that sort of balance makes no sense, and the call must be loud and clear, but I have still not heard it. I have not heard the NGOs say loud and clear that the surest way to prevent the catastrophe everyone seems to take a ghoulish delight in predicting, without doing much to avert it, is for the LTTE to let our people go.

Humanitarian concerns must remain paramount, and the Sri Lankan forces have managed thus far to abide by these far more successfully than any other force in the world fighting against terror. The Sri Lankan government has managed to ensure supplies for the needy, with the support of relevant UN agencies and concerned NGOs that have laid down clear guidelines for assistance. But the best way of ensuring that things do not get worse is to insist that the LTTE let the people go. Even better, to save their combatants, and ours, would be a clarion call to them to lay down their arms and at least now join the democratic pluralistic Tamils in talks to ensure a political solution for the political problems that need so urgently to be resolved.

It would be good if all those concerned with the situation in the Wanni, like Jehan, accepted the need to be forthright at least now. But I would suggest that there is a special obligation on those NGOs who have realized how damaging the behaviour of those who represented them there was. To compensate the people of Sri Lanka for the support they gave, unwittingly or otherwise, to the LTTE, the least the institutions they belonged to can do is ensure a swift end to the suspense and suffering of all Sri Lankans because of protracted terror.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretary General
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process

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