Sri Lanka’s Civil Society Organizations: Shady Techniques and Bribes to the Tigers? - 26th November 2007

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When Prof Uyangoda’s criticism of the government Peace Secretariat was brought to my attention a couple of weeks ago, my initial reaction was surprise. I have known him as a balanced intellectual, slow to blame let alone hurl invective; not the Prince Hamlet of the peace industry but more an attendant lord perhaps, as he was during President Kumaratunga’s peace negotiations in Jaffna, kindly and avuncular.

What then had upset him so much, not only to call us a War Secretariat, but to declare, with condescension unusual in one generally modest and circumspect, that we wrote ‘reasonably good combative English’?


Why the unusual adjective? What had we done?


A grant of 20 million rupees to the LTTE

I am still not sure, but some glimmerings of an answer came to me when I finally received the accounts of one of the many funding operations arranged by the last government in connection with the peace process. This was a UNDP grant, signed for by Bradman Weerakoon, Secretary to the Prime Minister and Commissioner General for the Coordination of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation, and also by our External Resources Department. The agreement was signed on 19th December 2003, and in critiquing it I should make it crystal clear that I do not blame the UNDP for signing or acting on such an agreement, since it was clearly a project that had government approval.

It is odd however that this project was signed in December 2003, when the political situation was volatile, when compromise between the President and the Prime Minister seemed unlikely, and when the fruits of intransigence were likely to be a General Election. Why then was Bradman so anxious to sign an agreement designed to ‘Strengthen Information Capacities for the Peace Process’?

The answer may be connected with a mindset that has tried to declare that Mahinda Rajapakse won the Presidential election only by offering millions to the Tigers.

I have long believed that, when people make outrageous charges, whether or not in good faith, this is generally because the practices they highlight are those they themselves are used to. And here, to my mind, was proof of this, for what Bradman Weerakoon was signing for, presumably on behalf of the Prime Minister who had appointed him to such exalted positions, was a project designed to provide over 20 million rupees worth of goods and services to the LTTE Peace Secretariat. The whole project was for $600,000 (c. 60 million rupees), of which over a third was for the LTTE Secretariat.

The same amount was in theory for the government Peace Secretariat, but nearly two thirds of that was for civil society organizations.

There was also about 9 million for a Muslim Peace Advisory Unit, which then seems to have been housed in the Prime Minister’s office, 4 million for joint activities, and the rest for management.

Whether the initiative came from Bradman or his master or someone else, it was a masterly stroke. Not only do you in effect give Rs 20 million to the LTTE just before an election, you make the poor UN do this so that you suffer no loss yourself.

I should note that I say advisedly that these funds were given in effect to the LTTE. The project document claims that the LTTE planned to set up regional and district Peace Secretariats, a claim also repeated to SCOPP even later, in requesting SCOPP assistance with providing vehicles. We have no record of such Secretariats, and the UN indeed now notes that ‘this activity has not taken place to-date’.

However I have been told by the SLMM, though without certainty, that they believe one or two such secretariats were set up, but functioned as such only briefly before being turned into political offices. And leaving that aside, as has been made crystal clear in many instances, the LTTE simply did not bother to maintain any distinction between its various agencies or claim that any of them were independent. In a dispensation in which all law are made with the approval of the National Leader, there can be no doubt that the various institutions that benefited from this grant were under the direct control of the LTTE and its leader.

Further information is currently being sought re the modalities of distribution, but before the project ground to a halt basically over $133,000 worth of goods and services were provided to the LTTE Peace Secretariat or to institutions functioning under its aegis. Amongst services rendered was the development of its website, the website that now features suicide squads posing proudly with the Leader before being sent out on missions of destruction. I can only hope that the UN, like other donors, will at least indicate that this is unacceptable, and such militaristic propaganda should be removed from a website supposedly promoting peace, not war.


Beneficiaries in the south

But what has all this to do with nice, gentle Prof Uyangoda? The point is, I believe he too was a beneficiary of this wonderful project. Not him personally, for I believe he is not the sort to derive personal benefits from the various projects he administers. He, like me, and unlike so many others, probably never claims compensation for the time and effort he puts into the management or administration of the many projects he has led in his time.

But certainly the organization he led at one stage, with which he is still closely associated, the Social Scientists Association of Sri Lanka, seems to have received a Service Contract for over $14,000 for the principal joint activity of 2004.

I may be wrong, but I hope soon to find out more about what this was, and which other institutions and individuals benefited from the project.

And so the project document I have before me now, and the record of disbursements to many institutes and other beneficiaries, suggests why Prof Uyangoda and his ilk find my approach, and that of the present government, so irritating.” But, pending this, I should record other instances of what might be termed peace largesse which has hugely benefited Civil Society Organisations (the CSOs as the UN review puts it). Engaging and engaged Mr Chilcott told me when we first met that their assistance to promote peace was delivered largely through such organizations. Initially these had been, I believe he mentioned, principally the Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Foundation for Co-Existence. They did not work so much with the former now, he said, but work with the latter still continued, and they did a lot too with FLICT. Interestingly, though I believe FLICT is more objective than most, and has proportionately smaller administrative costs, they had not shared with Mr Chilcott a review I had done of their work when, after a preparatory stage, they were moving on to bigger things. That review, which I had been commissioned to do out of the blue, was perhaps more radical in its critique than they were comfortable with, for I was not, as initially envisaged, invited for meetings to develop focuses for new work.

My critique suggested, to put it very simply, that the same people continued to engage in research and advocacy, to what seemed very little purpose.

Awareness raising by itself seemed to me of little use, whereas I thought concerted action with regard say to language development would be more productive. I was pleased to discover that one of my predecessors too as Secretary General of SCOPP was dubious about the value of exercises such as street theatre to promote peace, though that was why perhaps he did not seem to have been consulted in the implementation of Bradman Weerakoon’s little fandango (or, rather, large one, for about 7 million rupees seems, unless there was substantial redeployment, to have been spent on sub contracts for street theatre productions).

But this sort of activity is what our beauties seem to have been engaged in on this side as it were, without much reference to SCOPP itself. The project document refers twice to the “Peace Confidence Index: Survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives’. It refers elsewhere to the ‘information dissemination campaigns on the peace process’ being conducted by civil society groups, and cites the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the National Peace Council, the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies and other grassroots organizations like Sarvodaya (in fairness to Sarvodaya, I should note that I am not sure of the applicability of the word ‘other’ here to the other organizations mentioned in connections with grassroots; in fairness to CHA too I should add that its primary role is that of coordination of various entities, many of which do have a very practical role to play).

Now none of these organizations, and the many others in the field, function for free. They have to raise funds and, in particular for those who deal not in practical outcomes but in unquantifiable abstracts, what might be termed the Bradman Weerakoon mindset was much more favourable. And so the project document I have before me now, and the record of disbursements to many institutes and other beneficiaries, suggests why Prof Uyangoda and his ilk find my approach, and that of the present government, so irritating. But in fact they should be thankful.

To my mind the government has been far too slow to look into the various projects approved with regard to what is termed peace building over the past decade. Norbert Ropers of the Berghof for instance, someone who seems to me comparatively sincere, told me himself about an organization he had helped the LTTE set up in Switzerland, hoping that it would contribute to the peace process. It was that organization, functioning without reference now it seems to the Berghof, that had arranged a Sri Lanka bashing meeting in Geneva to coincide with the last session of the Human Rights Council, a meeting at which the usual suspects, Sunila Abeysekera and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and various LTTE activists had criticized the government, without inviting anyone who might have replied. The irony is that many of the institutions involved, much of the funding for travel of the individuals concerned, had come out of grants approved by our External Resources Department, at the behest of various politicians.


The restrictions of the past

This is all a far cry from what used to happen in the eighties, the period in which there was in fact monolithic government control of everything, though today’s not very clearsighted idealists think of one of the leading lights of that regime as their standard bearer. The principal CSO at the time was the Marga Institute, headed by Godfrey Gunatilleke. Its main interests were socio-economic, and in that respect its thinking coincided generally with that of the government. However it did have a distinguished legal section too, headed I believe by Neelan Tiruchelvam, with Radhika Coomaraswamy also cutting her teeth there initially.

To give Radhika her due, the events of 1983 emboldened her finally, and she brought out with logistic support from ICES a publication that set out very clearly the context of the ethnic violence of the time. Yet again, typically, doubtless to keep the Board happy, the publication was through something called the Committee for Rational Development, and Dayan Jayatilleka had to take the lead. That was when I first met him, and it is the memory of his courage then, albeit courage from a particular political standpoint with which I disagreed, that convinces me that when it comes to standing on principle he is light years ahead of the many who now flaunt themselves at the head of the new human rights industry. But those were the days of the Jayewardene government, when you had many highly intelligent politicians who had bought into authoritarianism. So one word from Lalith Athulathmudali was enough to silence Marga. Dayan himself had to go underground soon after, to emerge again when pluralism became acceptable after the Indian intervention…”That section started a series of seminars on the more oppressive constitutional amendments of the Jayewardene government, and some outspoken critiques were heard.

Then the series suddenly stopped. The hierarchy gave various excuses, but Radhika, who was more frank than most, told us that, after the seminar on the abortive third amendment, Lalith Athulathmudali had asked to see Marga’s articles of association. Godfrey, she said, had panicked, and the legal section was curbed.

Shortly afterwards Neelan and Kingsley de Silva set up the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, and Radhika moved there as Executive Director. To my surprise, ICES did nothing about rising ethnic tensions in the country, not even after the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, the preposterous motion of no-confidence in the then leader of the opposition Mr Amirthalingam, and the attacks on Tamils nationwide (except in Colombo) in which government politicians were involved.

Once again it was Radhika who let the cat out of the bag, in saying that ICES had been allowed to set up in Colombo on condition that they kept quiet about the situation in Sri Lanka. I thought this sort of compromise shameful, and said so, direct to Radhika and also in a newspaper article, which drew a strong rebuke from one of the Directors, pointing out that Radhika herself was not a Director on the Board and could not speak for the organization.

To give Radhika her due, the events of 1983 emboldened her finally, and she brought out with logistic support from ICES a publication that set out very clearly the context of the ethnic violence of the time. Yet again, typically, doubtless to keep the Board happy, the publication was through something called the Committee for Rational Development, and Dayan Jayatilleka had to take the lead. That was when I first met him, and it is the memory of his courage then, albeit courage from a particular political standpoint with which I disagreed, that convinces me that when it comes to standing on principle he is light years ahead of the many who now flaunt themselves at the head of the new human rights industry.

But those were the days of the Jayewardene government, when you had many highly intelligent politicians who had bought into authoritarianism. So one word from Lalith Athulathmudali was enough to silence Marga. Dayan himself had to go underground soon after, to emerge again when pluralism became acceptable after the Indian intervention, and Marxists of a different sort became the enemy, to be hunted with even greater ruthlessness than the Tamils had had to endure.

All that is a far cry from today, and we have to be thankful that the monolithic authoritarianism of those days is gone now, with its constitutional amendments at will, preposterous appointments to the Supreme Court and then barracking of judges, a parliament that lasted over eleven years with a party leader able almost without question to throw people out and appoint anyone he wanted to replace them. So the civil society organizations of today have very little to fear from this government. But, as we can see, they also have much more to gain from another, at least those who, unlike Sarvodaya and many other local quietly achieving grassroots entities, do not have a distinctive reputation for practical achievements on behalf of Sri Lankan people. For the proponents of theory, as this project document and I suspect many others will make clear, there is the hope once again of massive funding, thrown into their laps as it were by decision makers.


The Industry’s hopes for the future

So it is scarcely a wonder that they long once again for Bradman, so ceremoniously installed as Chairman too of ICES, to become Prime Minister’s Secretary for the fourth or is it the fifth time. It is not a wonder that they seek to denigrate the current government, hoping for a change that may bring back some elements of the eighties, but elements that now know to use amenable civil society elements instead of engaging in the confrontation of those days. To achieve this end they, some at least I hope for idealistic motives, distort truth, publicize dubious information, inflate statistics.

So doubtless we will over the next few weeks have desperate attempts to kick poor Louise Arbour around in the way this project shows the senior branch of the UN, the UNDP, was kicked around, to drag Dominick Chilcott before he departs to another editorial chair, to expand the list of the President’s relations to include not just the Governor of the Central Bank but the IGP and the army commander and perhaps Justice Bhagwati himself.

And they can do this secure in the knowledge that they will not suffer any adverse reaction, except in words. That I think is why they find my writings, and those of the others Prof Uyangoda thinks capable of writing reasonably good English, so irritating. In the first place, they have been used for the last few years on having a monopoly on constructive use of English, which they have used to obtain vast amounts of funding to continue with their primary task, which is to find even greater amounts of funding, for all the good their surveys and awareness raising and films about dancing butterflies and so on have produced.

Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, our detailed accounts of their shady techniques, together with analysis of their achievements set against the funding proposals, should lead to an inquiry into the manner in which so much money was flung around so loosely during the early years of the Ceasefire. Such an inquiry would show how characters like Bradman flung away money that should have been used for the practical upliftment of our people, for human resource development that could have contributed to the prosperous pluralistic society we want.

Whether he did this foolishly thinking that peace could be bought, or hoping that the people could be maneuvered into accepting the type of agreement his government was proposing, or simply jockeying to command enough votes to return to power, needs to be looked into carefully.

But I suspect there will be no such inquiry, for the simple reason that this government is basically indulgent towards its critics. The single-mindedness of a Lalith Athulathmudali is lacking, and no one particularly cares about the abuse of trust, when funds which should be used to benefit Sri Lankans are used for other purposes. In any other country it would be considered essential that the public should know how much funding all these awareness building institutions have been given, by whom, for what purposes and to what extent those purposes were achieved. But we continue content with endless attacks on the government by some of these institutions, and then counter attacks based on reasons that are not very clear, so that the public cannot distinguish fact from fiction.

But all these monies belong in effect to the Sri Lankan people. The facts should be made clear, and then we will see I hope that most institutions are less culpable than foolish. If there has been abuse, it will be clear who precisely is responsible, and we can then cease to have blame flung around at random. And we might also be saved from ridiculous allegations about money being given to Tigers when, even after they had categorically withdrawn from negotiations, so much was thrust at them by the most senior of government servants.

Rajiva Wijesinha

Secretary-General

Secretariat for Co-Ordinating the Peace Process