Colombo Telegraph

Paid NGO Professionals, Volunteer Activism And Rajapaksa’s Advantage In South

By Kusal Perera

Kusal Perera

UNHRC Resolution(s) and People’s Participation in Sri Lanka; What Gives This Regime  The Advantage In Southern Society ?

“Funding has monetized human rights action. NGOs pay— or in their words, compensate—labourers or farmers who attend protests. They give them travel fare, boarding, and minimum wages for the days they miss work. While I don’t blame the participants for accepting such payment, this practise discourages the volunteerism that has driven Indian human rights movements for decades. It has kicked the wind out of sustained participation even in some iconic grass roots movements. People now ask: will you give me a biryani, a folder and a bag? If not compensated or incentivised, sometimes, they do not participate.” – Dr. V. Suresh – National Secretary, PUCL – (“Funds and Civil Liberties” / Open Global Forum – 06 January, 2014

In Southern Sri Lanka, the Resolution adopted at the 25 Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 27 March, 2014 was positioned as against the whole nation (Sinhala by default), by not only this regime, but by those who believe the war ended a 30 year period of ruthless terrorism and rightly so. Any attempt now in trying to dig out skeletons from that war, is anti Sri Lankan, pro LTTE and is an attempt to change the regime by vested(?) international intervention. People in Sri Lanka, as often argued  by the regime, is against such external meddling and they don’t want any regime change. This was proved at every election held, and the most recent elections to the Western and Southern PC’s also endorsed this regime said all government spokesmen and their statements.

The same was said immediately after the resolution was adopted, by Foreign Minister Prof. Peiris. Rejecting the resolution, the minister was quoted in the media as saying, “The fact is some of these people want to see a political change in Sri Lanka. What cannot be done internally through elections they are trying to do internationally.”

The issue of changing regime is certainly the responsibility of the Sri Lankan citizens. In recent past, from Iraq to Libiya, change of regimes with US, British and NATO interventions have brought about unwanted and unnecessary chaos. So has Russian intervention in Ukraine ended, breaking off Crimea. That creation of social and political chaos is undisputed and unnecessary.

BUT, this US sponsoring of the Geneva resolution is not about regime change. After 03 years, the calling for an accountability test comes, with the regime’s stubborn refusal to give its own LLRC Recommendations any serious worth since 2011 December. This government was given time, once every year with both previous resolutions to have its own system of actual and serious redress for the war affected. The third this March came with this government’s callous disregard for its own responsibility in mitigating injustice caused and paving a genuinely committed path for reconciliation. In providing answers for the yet unresolved political conflict.

That in effect justifies the OHCHR interventions to come and the so called “external interventions”. But that does not bring this issue of international attention on Sri Lanka, to any conclusive end. For there remains a question that was never raised on any forum, nor in any media to be answered by the people of Sri Lanka. Why had the Tamil people to rely on the international community and UN agencies for their problems ? Why couldn’t they have their issues sorted out here within Sri Lanka ?

I have heard Tamil political activists of many shades, both here and in the Tamil Diaspora answering this in many ways. The most common of them is, after the elimination of the LTTE, the Colombo regime does not care about innocent Tamil people. Colombo only listens when Tamil people have arms with them. That to an extent, was a force which compelled the Colombo regime to sit for discussions, from Thimpu in 1984 to Oslo in 2002 to Geneva in 2006. But it was not arms and weapons alone that brought about negotiations. There was always for geo political reasons, an external ally who came to play backstage in setting up  negotiations. And all such attempts failed, despite the LTTE and its arms. Arms and fire power with the LTTE did not make that decisive factor effective, on its own.

There is certainly something amiss here. Of them, the most vital factor is not just Tamil political power in the North-East, but the absence of a pluralistic, secular mindset in Southern politics. How far does the South, the Sinhala majority would go for a reasonable and justifiable solution in settling the “national question”? This has always been the major issue for a honourable compromise. The Sinhala factor, which has by now polarised as a “Sinhala-Buddhist” factor. How did that Sinhala social ideology sustain itself, gradually grow and become so rudely dominant as Sinhala-Buddhist ? It evolved against all peace campaigns, awareness and educational programmes for peace building, training in conflict resolution and even with media buying for propaganda on peace, co-existence and power sharing since early 80s, when NGOs were most active with such projects.

If one peeps seriously into the popularly labelled “Geneva campaign” in Sri Lanka over the past 03 years, no political party was involved, either in supporting the international call for reconciliation, accountability and power sharing, nor in offering an alternative to the Southern polity. Thus in Sinhala mainstream politics, it was this regime’s campaign against the UNHRC and its resolutions that was carried over by politically organised extremist groups. The Southern Sinhala opposition was extremely careful in intervening publicly. They never ever took a clearly articulated stand on Geneva resolutions in public campaigns. Their statements were very cautiously worded and nuanced media releases, intended to keep the extreme Sinhala groups unruffled. In short, politics in Sinhala South was only based on “anti Geneva” campaigns. In the media and out on the streets there was no choice to choose from.

Thanks to this regime, North and the Vanni as a Tamil society has taken new life in voicing their own concerns and demands. The regime’s arrogant refusal in offering the war effected their due relief and respect in reconciliation, helped the TNA to re emerge as the strongest democratic Tamil political representation. For the first time this year, justifying their stand in supporting the Geneva resolution on this regime’s arrogance of neglect and disregard, the TNA now calls for an international investigation on war crimes. “We have no other alternative, 05 years after the war” is their simple, straight forward argument.

The Sinhala South sees no such prospect in democratic, secular and pluralistic politics. Southern pro Geneva campaign was a total mismatch to this State sponsored, all covering anti Geneva politics of Gulliverian height. Pro Geneva intervention in South was a slender, isolated effort shouldered by a few Non-governmental Organisations (NGO) restricted very much to the English speaking urban Colombo elite. In the Southern mindset, they lack credibility. They also don’t have the ability and the capacity to reach grass roots for political activism. It is also unfair to expect these NGOs to take over the political responsibility of the Southern political parties in the opposition. NGOs in Sri Lanka are never a political entity, though they do take up principled positions on political issues. That, only as civil society organisations, outside party politics. Therefore, in the absence of alternate political interventions in the South, the regime dominated Sinhala politics, scripted and produced the social ideology and that is Facistly Sinhala racist.

That by itself is no complete answer to the debacle of NGO activism in human rights, peace building, ethnic harmony and power sharing. The first ever Non governmental organisation that came forward to facilitate inter racial justice and equality in society was the “Movement for Inter Racial Justice  and Equality”. This was popularly known as the MIRJE, forged in 1979 after racial riots, pioneered by Rev. Fr. Paul Casperz. The MIRJE brought together numerous social organisations and respected personalities that included “left” political and trade union activists as well. A membership driven movement in its initial life, MIRJE could reach North and South in its hey days. Had small membership driven committees in the provinces and was truly a multi ethnic organisation. It lost its robust presence when MIRJE took more into donor funded programmes and at the same time, the Northern representation lost out with armed groups gradually taking over Tamil politics. By 1990, MIRJE was no more an organisation to talk of.

The other non governmental organisations that emerged during late 80s and early 90s were very much individual centred. This was during the period when international donor agencies were increasing funds for internal conflicts based projects by the “civil society”. Sri Lanka gained importance in conflict resolution especially after the 1983 pogrom that threw huge numbers across the Palk Straits. Rough and unconfirmed estimates of money that came for peace and ethnic conflict related projects in SL during the early 1990 period, totals to about 600 million US dollars per year. This was primarily for civil society organisations, when the State had no tab on money that came for such non State organisations.

The question is, how representative these organisations are, of the civil society. Most unfortunately none of these Colombo centred organisations though non State, are  representatives of civil society.  Camilla Orjuela who had done a study in SL titled “Dilemmas of Civil Society Aid: Donors, NGOs And The Quest For Peace In Sri Lanka” (Peace & Democracy In South Asia, Volume I, Number I, January 2005) notes, “Civil society is thus more than its organisations; it is the sphere of voluntary organisation, in which civil society organisations function.” Bottom line of such assumptions is, civil society activism is all about voluntary participation. They are not collectivism on “per diem” payments.

Almost all organisations that came round to compete for donor assistance were very much middle class professional groupings. They had to maintain a very professional presence to compete for funds and was therefore restricted to projects they designed to attract funds. These Colombo centred NGOs thus turned out as professional organisations that hired civil society representation, for their project activities. They were outsiders who went about training local activists on peace building, who also turned out to be careerists, living out of NGO retentions. This dependency isn’t difficult to understand in the Sri Lankan context that still believes in a welfare State to take care of its responsibilities, free of charge. NGOs have basically removed volunteerism in a society that seeks free services for easy living, despite its shift to a free market, over 35 years ago.

The free market from 1978 had its toll on society. It forced the creation of an elite in Colombo, culturally alien to the majority. Any who could enter this culturally elite society could negotiate funds as civil society representatives. It is they who now dominate the NGO sector. It is also the free market that allowed a free flow of donor funds into the country. [quote] Along with the influx of foreign aid, a professionalisation of civil society organisations has taken place, and the division between paid NGO staff mainly concentrated in Colombo and voluntary based groups in other parts of the country has widened. The gaps between an English speaking middle class  NGO community and volunteers with different (cultural) background make it difficult for the peace NGOs to mobilise the masses.[unquote] writes Camilla Orjuela in the study previously mentioned above. This does not seem to evolve any different to the funded human rights and civil rights organisations in India, from what Dr. Suresh has to say in his article in Open Global Forum with which I would have no qualms, agreeing.

With no political will in either the ruling leadership and in the opposition to reach out for a justifiable, reasonable political solution to the national question in SL, this reasons out why this regime has no opposition even from the civil society. This also reasons out why such a political void can not be filled by a civil society movement through issue based campaigns. NGOs representing not the people but the projects they have been provided with funds to implement can not go out to reach the people with paid staff. These organisations therefore remain as elite organisations that could send representations to Geneva, but not the grassroots. That in fact is the difference between paid professional life and volunteer activism.

The Sinhala opposition not willing to take up any of the Tamil political demands for dialogue in the South, we would have very little opportunity in seeing the South participating in serious dialogue over the Geneva resolution. This regime meanwhile with a passive civil society at home, would take on the international community with greater venom.

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