Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

DEVELOPMENT-SRI LANKA: NGOs Brace for Tighter Gov’t Control

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Mar 2 2010 (IPS) - Local and foreign non-governmental organisations have had a liberal existence in Sri Lanka, but this may not last for much longer under the government’s plans to amend a 1980 law that would tighten control over them.

But if activists have an ominous feeling about the proposed law, government officials like Newton Perera, additional secretary to the Ministry of Internal Administration that oversees non-government organisations (NGOs), says the amendment would just bring the country’s laws in line with modern developments.

Local and international NGOs have grown to several hundreds from a few dozens in this South Asian island nation, from the time fighting broke out between Tamil rebels and government troops in the early 1980s.

Government officials now say that the 1980 NGO Act does not allow them enough room to deal with accusations that some international NGOs, or INGOs, are involved in political work.

“It is inevitable that the government wants to control the activities of NGOs. But we knew this was going to happen eventually. We will lose our free hand,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council (NPC).

Last week, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake was quoted in the ‘Daily Mirror’ newspaper as saying new measures would rope in ‘errant’ agencies for lack of accountability and political involvement. The minister of Internal administration comes under the Prime Minister.

“INGOs found to be conspiring against the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be banned once investigations are complete,” Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Rishard Bathiudeen also told the ‘Mirror’ on Feb. 22, without giving details.

While most NGO officials treat this as the usual cat-and-mouse, never-ending contest with governments, NPC’s Perera – whose NGO promotes peace as a means of solving ethnic conflict – believes the government is serious in seeking stricter control especially over international NGOs.

“This has nothing to do with the issues relating to defeated presidential opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka. This concern (over NGOs) has been there for a while now,” he said, dismissing speculation that political motives triggered the move to tighten control over NGOs. Most of the attempts to rein in NGOs happen after a political event and in this case, he was referring to the joint opposition backing of former army commander Sarath Fonseka at the Jan. 26 presidential poll, which he lost to incumbent Rajapaksa.

That had led to accusations by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the United States and Norway had been involved in Fonseka’s campaign. The two countries vigorously rejected the claim.

Now and then, the western international community has been seen as extending its influence in Sri Lanka through the INGOs that it funds – although they have repeatedly denied this.

In February, the European Union suspended a crucial trade concession for Sri Lankan exports based on a report by a team of investigators that found the country had not fulfilled its obligations toward U.N. conventions on human and labour rights.

The government rejected the probe and did not allow any investigation in Sri Lanka, compelling the team to receive one-sided evidence and petitions from non-government sources including NGOs, some of which are funded by the U.S. government and other western countries.

Looking back, western governments have had a rocky relationship with Rajapaksa from the time he turned his back on repeated calls to suspend fighting with Tamil separatist rebels.

The U.S. and its allies urged the President and the rebels to call a ceasefire, as civilians deaths mounted in the fighting. But Rajapaksa shifted alliances to countries like India, China, Iran, Libya and Russia, and the armed forces – sans international pressure – crushed the rebels in May 2009 after two to three years of intensive fighting.

“Essentially accountability is about how these groups (NGOs) spend the money here. Our responsibility has been to ensure no one breaks the law,” said Rajiva Wijesinhe, secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights and a critic of INGOs.

Wijesinhe, a former university teacher and politician, said guidelines were already brought in last year. “These are not new measures. Rather, they are an enforcement of what is already there to give us some control as to how money is being spent,” he told IPS. “It is crystal clear that the government didn’t know how and where these (NGO) funds were being used ever since the 2002 peace process, when the rebels were having peace talks with the government,” he said. “The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels) wanted the international community to play a bigger role in the peace process and that’s when the troubles started.”

In that peace process, the rebels and the then government agreed to a ceasefire and began talks aimed at ending the rebel campaign for an independent homeland for minority Tamils. But after a few years, the process broke down and the two sides returned to fighting each other.

During this time, many NGOs undertook different projects in the country, ranging from confidence-building activities to rehabilitation of conflict-affected areas. But the work of some groups drew suspicion from the government, which accused them of being sympathetic to the Tamil cause or the LTTE itself while working in areas the rebels controlled years ago.

Perera said that there has been no strict monitoring of his organisation by the government. “We are asked for quarterly reports and or work plans but there is no comeback on our reports,” he said. “Sri Lankan authorities are liberal toward NGOs and this environment allows NGOs to criticise the government, which could stop if the government gets tough,” he pointed out.

Firzan Hashim, deputy executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), believes the latest criticism of NGOs is the usual rhetoric. “So far, NGOS have not got any queries from the government or the state-run NGO Secretariat, which is responsible for all NGOs. We have also not been asked,” he said.

The CHA is an umbrella group of dozens of INGOs and NGOs and acts as a liaison between the authorities and these organisations.

But over the last 18 months, he says, the monitoring of NGOs has become stricter.

Visas have been issued to foreign nationals based on a security clearance by the Defence Ministry. Foreign staff must be qualified, and explain why their jobs cannot be filled by local workers. Visas are generally given for three years and for U.N. agencies, four years.

“The government is generally not worried about NGO workers from Asian countries. It’s the west and particularly countries like Norway that is some concern,” Hashim said.

Officials are particularly ‘hostile’ toward Norway, which facilitated the 2002 peace talks and which, they say, was partisan toward the Tamil rebels.

Projects in the north and the east, where the Tamil rebels were most active, need the approval of a new presidential task force headed by Basil Rajapaksa, a younger brother of the President, which has overseen those two regions after the war ended last year.

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