Friday, August 21, 2009

War weary Lanka wary of NGOs

A reported five abductions take place daily in Sri Lanka, often perpetrated by government-funded paramilitaries. Reports also suggest that the military escalation has resulted in a corresponding rise in sexual assaults at checkpoints. Doctors and teachers face harassment on their way to work and there is no end to the fatalities in the Tamil refugee camps…

Nearly two months have passed since the military defeat of the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka has done little to ameliorate the situation of the Tamil refugees.

Not that it is not trying enough, but what amuses the world essentially is that at a time when humanitarian assistance is required utmost in Sri Lanka, the government has strangely ordered the ICRC, UN and other INGOs and foreign funded NGOs to scale down their operations.

Also it has refused to extend the visa of foreign professionals working with these humanitarian organizations.

The process in fact started in late 2008 itself. The UN closed several branches in Kilinochi at the government’s request and since then, the activities of the operational UN agencies (UNHCR, Habitat, UNDP and UNICEF) have been directly linked to negotiations by senior officials on broader issues of access and ‘humanitarian pause.’

Why is the war convalescing nation so wary of the NGOs?

NGO penetration occurred in Sri Lanka in the 1980 and the past three years have made Serendip the most attractive place for the NGOs of the world. At present, there are more than 1,000 registered NGOs in the country, with at least 10 percent of that number being INGOs.

There is a rapid increase in the number of NGOs working in the country and the Island nation’s worry stems out from the same. The number of foreign workers per INGO jumped to 50 from just four after the tsunami. A factor, which complicates the estimates are the short-lived NGOs. “These are the ‘Laptop NGOs’ existing only in the hard-drive of a portable computer! They are born during the aftermath of a disaster, with little accountability and quietly fade away without completing their charitable objectives. They tend to be reborn with each fresh natural or man-made disaster,” says a 2006 report in Island.

Meenakshi Iyer takes a close look at what is it about these NGOs that irk Colombo.

Privatizing Foreign Policy
As the Cold War ended, there was a conscious policy change in the Western countries and through them in international agencies to sponsor NGOs in the developing nations. The result – INGOs emerged to challenge and modify the international political system. In the words of Paul Ghils, author of International Civil Society: International NGOs in the International system, “acting autonomously or in competition with the states, these organizations play a major role in shaping public opinion and influencing international laws.”

Sri Lanka maintains that vital sections of foreign policy have been privatized through foreign funded NGOs. The privatization has occurred mainly through the ethnic war in the North. If Susantha Goonatilake, author of Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka, is to be believed, “the calls by the NGOs for foreign intervention have tended to take Sri Lankan decision-making away from its elected government…These NGOs have worked against Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. They wanted to restructure the State and Armed Forces under foreign guidance and wanted the international community to have a stake in Sri Lanka”.

Germany-based Berghof Foundation, for example, has been accused by the Lankan government of bringing the country’s armed forces under foreign control first time since the country’s independence. The Foundation documents, however, term the same as a ‘security sector reform’.

Sections of the government maintain that Sri Lanka was coerced by the NGOs to call countries like India, EU and USA to get involved in the ethnic crisis.

Cooking up facts
President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his nationalist government have accused the INGOs of exaggerating facts and disseminating wrong information to the media on the civil war with Tamil rebels and human rights issues. “Most of these NGOs operate in contravention of the law and the State policies. They function according to their own agendas and have minimum transparency in auditing. They do not have a clear knowledge about the Act on NGOs and they do not prepare the accounts and audit reports in compliance with the accepted standards of Sri Lanka,” says Vijitha Herath, Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on NGOs.

In order to prolong and further their suitability for funding from their respective Government(s), these NGOs are required to prove their work in Sri Lanka. For this, the NGOs have devised an easy cheating mechanism, namely releasing reports. Majority of the NGOs seldom visits the areas that were affected by the war. Yet, their reports give the illusion that they have collected firsthand information from the epicenter.

According to a report in the (Dec 8, 2004), most of these NGO personnel “stay in luxury hotel in Colombo. Infuse a negligible share of the fortune secured from the donor nations to local rogues who themselves have various local NGOs registered in their names. Use Public Relation stunts to create experts out of these local rogues. Using the names of these local NGOs as supporting evidence, they release studies or reports that push fabricated stories which the western readers would accept with less or no scrutiny”.

The international news agencies regularly pick up these fictitious studies or reports released by various NGOs, which play a strong role in shaping the international opinion about Colombo.

Recently, London-based daily Times said about 1,400 people are dying every week at the Manik Farm welfare center in Vavuniya citing a senior international aid source. The news report doesn’t name the source, but strongly rejecting that news item, Sri Lanka Health Secretary pointed out there were only 163 deaths reported from welfare centers in the North during the period between 15th of June and 14th of July.

Security Concerns
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense website calls NGOs as “savior of LTTE terrorism”. Prominent foreign funded NGOs operating in Sri Lanka such as Centre for Policy Alternatives, International Alert, National Peace Council and International Centre for Ethnic Studies are in the habit of issuing statements and media releases directly and indirectly encouraging and justifying the LTTE agenda.

The Sri Lankan government also alleges that the LTTE used NGO vehicles to construct defense bunds. It also asserts that these NGOs diverted tsunami money to the LTTE. Among these groups were Save the Children, Britain, World Food Program (WFP) and the Swiss-based ZOA. They have all vigorously denied the allegations and said humanitarian aid was meant for affected people.

In some cases, the parliamentary committee cancelled or did not extend the visas of 40 foreign workers for security reasons - implying suspicion of links with the Tigers.

"...They (some NGOs) are even worse than terrorists. At least the terrorists fought for a cause they believed in for which they were prepared to sacrifice their lives. The NGO vocalists sang for their supper for which they were rewarded and now the entire NGO community has to suffer being regulated. The bottom line is that the nationalists have now set rules for the internationalists for being unbalanced and getting their equation bizarre," Colombo’s prominent lawyer Gomin Dayasiri was quoted as saying in a report.

The Berghof Foundation had sent a LTTE delegation to Europe on a study tour. According to the Committee findings, Dr. Norbert Rophers who was in Sri Lanka for six years with the Foundation, accepted that he had direct links with LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham in London and Pulidevan in Kilinochchi.

In essence no one can even ascertain how many NGOs operate in the Third World but over $15 billion is given to them in funding from international financial institutions and Governmental agencies.

Officials say Sri Lanka had received Rs.16.3 billion in foreign funds and Rs.2 billion in local funds since the tsunami for 147 NGOs and INGOs while the action plans implemented exceeded 450 with more than 1,000 various development projects being carried out with these funds.

Sadly, none of these NGOs have to date made any improvement to the living conditions of the very people they've used to secure funds.

To add to the country’s woes, some of these NGOs, say Lankan officials, use these funds for anti-national efforts and are merely a cover for several undesirable activities. Their support to the LTTE is already discussed above.

According to parliamentary committee’s finding, the ILO, Save the Children, Action Aid International and the UNICEF are the organizations that provided aid to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), an LTTE affiliation. These organizations have direct agreements with the TRO which used most of the fund to strengthen the military capabilities of the LTTE. TRO had received US $10 million for post -tsunami activities from the USA in 2006.

NGOs and conversions
The NGOs have also become suspect because of an “externally financed and NGO-fomented spate of forced and induced religious conversions,” to Christianity, according to Goonatilake.

They are accused of targeting the poverty stricken nations of the world and converting them to Christian faith by providing them monetary assistance - this was the practice that colonial rulers adopted and it seems the very same doctrine is being repeated through NGOs. Around 1,000 Evangelical organizations are operating in Lanka today.

“From time to time Norwegian Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) also sponsored studies which resulted in papers drawing up programs on how best Norway could infiltrate key areas like the community of Buddhist monks to push their political line — all in the name of peace, of course,” says Goonatilake.

The Flip Side
Most of the INGOs and NGOs have only refuted these allegations, but pro Tamil groups in Sri Lanka say that the government doesn’t want the world to know about the war crimes committed by its army. The army in refugee camps has been accused of torturing refugees, raping and assaulting refugees. During the war with the LTTE, it was reported that the army shelled civilian camps, hospitals and even no fire zones which they didn’t want the international community to know and hence they restricted NGO and media penetration.

Sri Lanka’s grudge against the NGOs also stems from the fact that it was denied seat in the UN Human Rights Council at the insistence of international rights groups, INGOs and NGOs in 2008.

Despite all these tall claims of ‘recolonisation’ by Sri Lanka, it is indeed surprising to note that Colombo still wants New Delhi to play a role an active role in reconstruction, reconciliation and rehabilitation in Sri Lanka. “I had always urged India to play an active role and to get actively involved in the peace process during the last three years. I again invite India and the world to participate in the reconstruction of the war areas, in the rehabilitation of people,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quoted as saying in a recent Tehelka report.

If Sri Lanka and academicians like Susantha Goonatilake believe that NGOs are inciting a recolonisation project in Lanka, they themselves are to be blamed for it!

According to the findings of the Sri Lankan Committee of Parliament for Investigation of the Operations of NGOs, the country has no proper bodies to monitor these NGOs, the quantum of money brought by them to Sri Lanka and the amount that they have spent for projects are not monitored. The development activities of their projects are not properly evaluated.

As per the existing laws, the registration of NGOs is not obligatory, which explains the burgeoning of ‘laptop NGOs’ and in the absence of a clear regulatory mechanism, these NGOs are controlled by their mother countries.

Nevertheless, the government is waking up and a new bill governing NGOs is set to be tabled in the parliament soon.

As published in the South Asian Times, United States (Pg 9, Op-Ed)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Q and A with Anuj Dhar

'Govt has destroyed evidence about Netaji's death'

Sixty years, and India is still clueless about the man who gave his blood trying to secure freedom for the country. Commission after commission was formed, but there is no single, definitive version of the events that led to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's mysterious death...or disappearance.

Did Netaji die in an air crash in 1945? Or was he alive and escaped to Russia? Did he come back to India in the guise of a sadhu? Numerous theories galore, but at the moment, as debutant writer and journalist Anuj Dhar puts it: "People may or may not like Netaji, but they have a right to know what happened to he died and where."

In the latest book on one of Independent India's enduring mysteries, Back from Dead: Inside the Subhas Bose mystery, Dhar attempts to take the lid off the hypothesis that Netaji died in the 1945 plane crash -- taking away the very foundation of the theory that government pedalled for years.

Dhar even alleges that the government concealed information, destroyed evidence and has been "the most unreliable party in cracking the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose mystery."

How did you stumble upon the piece of information that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was not in the plane that crashed in Taipei on August 18, 1945?
Let's get this straight. There was no "plane crash". It was a subterfuge for Netaji's escape. There were hints thrown by secret papers. So I requested the President of Taiwan and the Mayor of Taipei to confirm whether or not a plane carrying Netaji had crashed in Taipei. The answer was that there was no evidence of any.

Why do you say the Indian government doesn't want the truth to come out?
Our government has never been interested in probing the matter fairly. They concealed information, destroyed crucial evidence and hampered efforts to explore the Taiwanese and Russian angles. How can you trust those who have obstructed justice?It's a myth to say that the Indian government formed commission after commission.

It acted only when it was pressured to do so by public opinion. There is irrefutable evidence to prove that the Government of India is a most unreliable party in the Netaji mystery. When India attained freedom in 1947, one of the things the government should have taken up in earnest was to find out what had become of the man who had played a pivotal part in freedom struggle. It never did.

In your book, you mention Gumnami baba and Bhagwanji as the possible disguises that Netaji donned... Who were they according to you?
Bhagwanji was also known as Gumnami Baba. There is evidence of primary nature linking him to Netaji. Several freedom fighters who had known Netaji intimately took Bhagwanji to be Netaji and served him in total secrecy. This case must be probed further to establish this extraordinary man's identity. The government has information on him.

According to your book, Netaji had supposedly made it to Russia (then the USSR) where he was received by Soviet officials. What did they do to him? Did you speak to anyone from Russia in this regard? What do they say?
I pooled in information from different sources, including some persons who had taken up the matter with the Russians. The assertion that Netaji was detained in a Siberian camp appears to be true.

Did you see Shyam Benegal's film on Subhas Bose? What do you think? Do you feel that it was a well-researched subject?
How I wish I could have met Mr Benegal when he was making the movie.

Do you think that the Mukherjee panel will be able to do something? Will it be able to have conclusive evidence one way or the other?
I certainly hope so. But I have serious doubts about the government's intentions. The Mukherjee commission, formed following a court order, has been running against the government ever since it began functioning. It pains me to hear people saying that Justice Mukherjee has been taking a long time. That's all government's fault. What could he do when even a telephone was not given to him for six months? Justice Mukherjee has often exposed the Government's fishy behaviour. If only media could lend him the ears they have for Laloo Prasad Yadav!

Do you think that the Russian authorities will co-operate? If yes, why didn't they do it around 60 years ago?
Why not? Russia is India's foremost friend. They will surely respect our sentiments if our prime minister requests them to state facts. Media must ask the prime minister to do the needful to end the controversy once and for all.

Why is there so much Nehru bashing in your book?
Is there? My book deals with the circumstances leading to the disappearance of Netaji, and the subsequent controversial developments up to our time. It is rather clear that Netaji did not die in August 1945 and that our government has a lot to hide.

Noted journalist and columnist MV Kamath asked you in his column If Netaji had differences with Gandhi (which a lot of our thinkers and politicians did, as your book says) then why should he hail him as the father of the Nation?
It is beyond the subject matter of my investigation. I am not Netaji's biographer.

Originally published in Daily News and Analysis (2006).