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NGOs question tighter access to Sri Lanka's north

Aug 12, 2010 9:16:26 PM- transcurrents.com

by IRIN News

For years, the Tamil Tigers restricted access to the northern areas of Sri Lanka under their control, but after the decades-long civil war ended a year ago, the government relaxed security checkpoints and most NGOs were given access to the war-affected population in the north.


NGOs can play a key role in recovery efforts in the north

However, in the past month, the government has again tightened regulations, hindering access to people in need.

"Even we can't understand the situation - it is so unnecessarily complicated and confusing," said Vinya Ariyaratne, executive director of the Sarvodaya Movement, Sri Lanka's largest NGO. "This is retarding the recovery process significantly."

In mid-July, the government's NGO Secretariat was transferred from the civilian Ministry of Social Services to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Since then, several NGOs have been denied access to the region, pending approval from the MoD.

Lakshman Hulugalle, director-general of the NGO Secretariat, said the government was merely enforcing existing regulations.

"We only want to find out why they are going and where they are going. In recent months, we have not introduced any new laws," Hulugalle told IRIN by phone from Colombo. Hulugalle is also director-general of the government's media centre for national security.

"The law that has been there was not enforced earlier," he said, pointing out that previously, anybody could travel north and some had abused that access.

"Sometimes unwanted people have gone in. Now we are asking them to give a proposal, which will be approved by the Presidential Task Force, then we will give permission."

While some aid workers interviewed by IRIN have not had problems with access, others have been stymied in their work.

"In the last week of June 2010, all agencies working in the north were almost overnight denied access to the north pending approval from the Ministry of Defence," an aid worker from an INGO said on condition of anonymity, echoing the views of several colleagues from other agencies.

The new regulations appear to be in flux, said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, but he is concerned his agency's work will be affected.

"This can lead to delays and also to the government being able to restrict or change the scope of activities," Perera said.

The debate

There has long been a rocky relationship between the government and NGOs, with some agencies accused of being too critical of the government - or too sympathetic to the separatist Tamil Tigers, who were defeated on 18 May 2009.

Some aid workers see regulations as the norm in a country that had been at war since 1983, and is still concerned about national security and safety.

"This is not anything new... The government is concerned about the security of people involved in humanitarian assistance work in the north, as de-mining is yet to be completed," said Menaca Calyaneratne, a spokeswoman for Save the Children.

Calyaneratne said the government for many years has kept watch on NGO activities, and through the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), recently requested NGO input on a monitoring system.

"We see this as a positive move, because it clearly demonstrates government willingness to take more of a participatory approach to the development of effective monitoring systems for NGO work," she said.

Others described the regulations as a hassle.

"One of the most difficult challenges is the ad hoc manner in which new regulations and procedures are introduced and the general lack of clarity around the reasons for these issues, the authority in charge or the process required to be followed in adherence to these new rules," said the INGO worker who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.

Harsha Kumara Navaratne, chairman of the Sewalanka Foundation, said that Basil Rajapaksa, Minister for Economic Development and brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, recently promised some leading NGOs that "he will sort out all of these issues [regarding restricted access] as soon as possible. He will also be looking at solutions to the visa and work permit issues."

Nonetheless, NGOs may have to get used to these new rules.

"Similar changes have all been followed by a period of complaints from the INGO community - because any change inevitably interferes with their operations for a short period and creates uncertainty - until they get used to the new system and it is regularized," said Simon Harris, a visiting research fellow at the Boston-based Feinstein International Centre who worked more than 15 years in the NGO sector in Sri Lanka.

Building trust

Some say the government is particularly concerned about criticism and negative media coverage. It blames a few NGOs, but has lumped all humanitarian agencies together.

"Since October 2009 we have fought to restore, maintain the credibility and integrity of the sector by communicating robustly our intentions and through continuous dialogue," said Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director of CHA.

"INGOs and local partnerships need to show their intent, and seek approval. The bottom line is - no group of persons in need will be denied access to assistance for their recovery."

Sewalanka and CHA have requested a meeting between NGOs, the minister and other senior government officials.

"The country is passing through a very difficult period, so security concerns are still seen as a priority," Navaratne said. "The best way to sort out these issues is to continue this critical dialogue with the government."

Meanwhile, people are returning to dire conditions in an area that has been in the midst of conflict for nearly 30 years.

"As their homes are destroyed, they are living in temporary shacks. They do not have proper toilets or privacy. They depend for their food on rations which are made available by foreign donors for the most part," said Perera of the National Peace Council.

"The war-affected people have [few] resources or ability to restore normality to their lives, and the government does not appear to have either the resources or political will to make a change."