by Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - Sri Lanka’s 25-year war is over but aid groups on the Indian Ocean island say strict government controls are hampering their ability to help hundreds of thousands of survivors rebuild their lives.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, more than 70,000 people were killed and over 1 million forced to flee their homes during the civil war between the army and separatist Tamil Tigers rebels.
Asia’s longest-running modern war - which saw the Tigers controlling almost a fifth of the entire country - ended in May 2009 with the government declaring victory. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are now returning to their war-ravaged homes in the north of the country and shelter, food, clean water and sanitation remain pressing needs.
But strict government rules, including on visas for foreign staff, approvals for aid projects and access to the former war zone, mean the provision of such humanitarian relief is often delayed, say aid professionals.
“There is a definite trend to reduce aid agencies to service providers where the government says where, what, when and how. Therefore, it might be more difficult for NGOs to operate in the future according to humanitarian principles or their mandate,” said one relief worker based in Colombo.
It takes up to five months to obtain a visa for a foreign aid worker, longer than before. If approved, visas are generally valid only for one month and have to be renewed.
Relief workers say they often have to wait for months to have a project in the highly militarised north to be approved by the state, adding that the guidelines change constantly.
Aid workers based in Colombo also need to seek clearance from the defence ministry to access the northern parts of the island, adding that they are not permitted to stay overnight and end up wasting time and donor money in the six-hour drive from Colombo to the north and back again.
“The government and army are doing a good job in terms of the big projects such as building roads and other infrastructure, but people still need the basics. We are here to fill that gap,” said one aid worker. “The authorities need to give us more freedom by easing up our access.”
ACCUSATIONS AND SUSPICION
But the Sri Lankan authorities says strict monitoring is necessary, adding that there is a history of mistrust of aid groups, some of which worked in rebel-controlled east and north areas for years.
Officials accuse some aid workers of failing to adhere to principles of neutrality and becoming “too sympathetic” to the Tigers who were fighting against the majority Sinhalese government for a separate state.
“By and large, the NGOs have been doing a good job but there have been instances when they were found to be doing things which were against Sri Lanka’s sovereignty,” Sugeeswara Senadhira, Minister Counsellor at the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi, told AlertNet.
Senadhira said that during the war some drivers working for international aid agencies were found to be smuggling explosive devices for the rebels, carrying banned items such as batteries, wires and firearms or even transporting rebels - a charge denied by the aid organisations.
The government has also accused relief groups of doing work considered “beyond their mandate” such as human rights – a sensitive topic, with activists saying that both the rebels and the army are guilty of war crimes.
In September last year the government expelled James Elder, a spokesman for U.N. children’s fund UNICEF, saying he was spreading propaganda in favour of the rebels.
In statements to the press, Elder had spoken of the poor conditions in the camps where around 280,000 ethnic Tamils displaced by the war were being held by the government, waiting to be resettled.
He had also spoken of the “unimaginable hell” that children went through in the final months of the conflict, when government troops surrounded the rebels together with hundreds of thousands of civilians on a tiny strip of land. The rebels were accused of using civilians as human shields.
PRIDE AND IMAGE
While some observers attribute the tighter regulations on aid work to government paranoia and see it as an attempt to rid the country of any remnants of sympathy towards the rebels, others say it is also about pride, control and the desire to forget the war and move on.
Last month the authorities asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to close down its operations in the former war-zone towns of Jaffna and Vavuniya where it was providing artificial limbs to war victims and helping families visit relatives who were in detention.
Officials said the organisation’s mandate in Sri Lanka had changed since the war ended, but some aid workers say the move was motivated by something else.
“The ICRC is an organisation associated with war and that’s not helpful when the government is trying to promote an image to the world which is aimed at attracting foreign investment as well as to boosting its tourism industry which is a key economic sector,” said one aid worker.
Aid workers fear the tighter controls will continue and predict more agencies will be asked to shut down operations in the coming year, something which most agree should happen eventually.
“I’m not against NGOs scaling down their operations in a country if the work is finished and as long as the needs of the population have been met,” said one aid worker.
“The main question is whether the government will take on those responsibilities in the north and take care of the minority Tamil population, as much as it does with other Sinhalese populations in the south.” ~ courtesy: trust.org (Reuters/Alertnet) ~