Tuesday, 21 January 2014




By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran agreeing for direct negotiations under Norwegian facilitation in February, 2002, Norway launched a major NGO initiative to support the peace process.

The expensive NGO project was meant to ensure the success of the peace process. Norway obviously felt that a strong well-funded NGO grouping would be nothing but a necessity to support the peace initiative.

The multifaceted NGO project was geared to prop up the government and LTTE dialogue, overwhelm those critical of the peace process as well as to discourage nationalist sentiments among the majority community. The project also depicted the armed forces in a bad light. Norway brought together a powerful grouping to back the operation. The local media was inundated with articles supportive of the peace project. The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) too, accommodated NGO agenda. The SLBC went to the extent of closing down the Vavuniya-based Vanni Sevaya radio operated for the benefit of the armed forces deployed in the Northern Province. In fact, the Wickremesinghe government put out Vanni Sevaya out of action within weeks after a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) came into operation during the third week of February 2002 (Vanni Sevaya closed down ‘The Island’ April 7, 2002 edition). The government ignored a request made by the military to restore the services (Military wants Vanni Sevaya restored ‘The Island’ April 19, 2002). Instead the Defence Ministry directed the army not to issue daily situation reports, hence effectively depriving the people of knowing what was going on the ground behind the pretence of making peace.

The NGO grouping cleverly manipulated the media at the expense of national interests. A section of the state-owned media went to the extent of targeting the military. The then Eastern Naval Commander Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda was ridiculed by the Independent Television Network (ITN) at the behest of the political leadership. Karannagoda earned the wrath of the government for what the political leadership felt was the Eastern Commander’s hostility towards the peace initiative.

Norway lavishly poured funds in support of the NGOs pursuing its agenda. Norway was clearly of the opinion that positive coverage for the peace process would be helpful. Those driving the peace initiative bombarded the media with propaganda aimed at obscuring what was really happening on the ground. The Norwegian approach caused irreparable damage to the peace process. Co-chairs to the peace process, namely the US, Japan and the EU too, blundered by failing to rectify the doubtful Norwegian approach. The NGO grouping too did absolutely nothing to change the rapidly deteriorating situation. Those spearheading the NGO project turned a blind eye to the crisis. They felt no need to voice concerns as long as Norway periodically released funds. They continued to praise the peacemakers in spite of the rapid deterioration of the ground situation. Had they been frank in their assessments, perhaps the LTTE wouldn’t have behaved so aggressively. Norway too, continued to mollycoddle the LTTE, which flaunted its military capability to those visiting the Vanni.

Culpability of NGOs

With a section of the international community pushing for an international war crimes probe over accountability issues unless the government addressed them ahead of the March UNHRC confab in Geneva, it would be relevant to discuss the culpability of the NGO sector in the eelam episode. The NGO project went awry due to those responsible for its implementation being only interested in safeguarding the interests of their sponsors and the LTTE. The Colombo based foreign news agencies and an influential section of the local media contributed to this faulty strategy. The ‘side events’ at Geneva would give Sri Lanka an opportunity to highlight the blundering NGO role, which also contributed to the collapse of the Norwegian initiative.

In Sept. 2011, Norway released a comprehensive report titled Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 2009. The report shed light on the NGO project.

Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) based in Bergen, a major recipient of Norwegian funds, led the evaluation of four separate peace efforts by Norway from 1997 to 2009. A nine-member evaluation team comprised CMI’s Gunnar Sorbo, Jonathan Goodhand of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and seven others, including four Sri Lankans. SOAS is part of London University (UK).The joint bid by the CMI and SOAS was chosen out of six international organisations which sought to secure the lucrative project. The CMI receives funding through the Research Council of Norway (NFR), which in turn is funded by the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. Gunnar M. Sorbo, who had held several positions in several Norwegian institutions, including NFR and the Agency for International Development, now heads the CMI.

Had General Sarath Fonseka’s army failed on the Vanni front there wouldn’t have been a Norwegian investigation. The report in a special section titled Aid and Peace discussed the NGO costly project. Although NGO representatives had been involved in Norwegian initiatives in Sri Lanka with some receiving the blessings of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry for strategic reasons, none were directly involved in the Feb 2002 peace process at the time it got underway. Let me produce verbatim what the Norwegian investigation said regarding the expanding role of the NGOs: "However, they were invited for occasional meetings in the embassy and the foreign ministry in Oslo and when it became difficult for Norwegian diplomats to access the north, some of them played important roles in providing information about local developments. A Sri Lankan NGO network was established in Norway and the dialogue with the ministry was generally positive and fruitful."

The Norwegian report revealed that those who had been engaged in the peace process and related projects in support of the primary objective were funded to the tune of NOK 210 mn (approximately 28 mn US), between 2001 and 2004. Of the total funding, NOK 200 mn were received by ten organisations, including the Foundation for Co-Existence led by NGO guru the then darling of the Norwegians, Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe. According to the report, Rupesinghe’s outfit received about NOK 35 mn (about 6 mn US between 2004 and 2008). The National Anti-War Front also led by Dr. Rupesinghe received substantial funding. Among the other recipients were the Centre for Policy Alternatives, One Text Initiative and the National Peace Council. Those receiving Norwegian grants were careful not to say anything critical of Norway’s handling of the peace process here. They refrained from being critical of the LTTE for obvious reasons.

The Norwegians even funded the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), in spite it being a front for LTTE operations overseas.

Funding continues

Several other countries as well as organisations poured funds for NGOs during eelam war IV. Funding continued even after the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. However, Norway cut off funds for Dr. Rupesinghe during the war after he switched his allegiance to President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the expense of the Norwegian project. Although Dr. Rupesinghe moved the judiciary demanding compensation from Norway amounting to Rs. 100 mn he couldn’t expect to succeed as Norway enjoyed full diplomatic privileges and the government is unlikely to intervene on his behalf.

August 2006: Norwegian sponsored National Anti-War Movement conducts protest campaign in Colombo a few weeks before the government launched counter offensive in the Eastern Province.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives and National Peace Council which had been at the forefront of the Norwegian peace operation continued to receive substantial funding. Transparency International Sri Lanka is another major recipient of foreign grants during the 2008 to 2010 period. The CPA received Rs. 272.31 mn during the three-year period. The NPC and TI received Rs. 171.23 million and 174.79 million, respectively.

The funding sources included Meyers Norris Penny Ltd RM (Canada), Canadian International Development Agency, Berghof Foundation (Germany), Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation (Germany), Stichting Cortaid (The Netherlands), Norwegian Embassy, Commission Des Communautes (Norway), ICT for Peace Foundation (Switzerland), Dep. F. Auswaert, Angelegenheiten (Switzerland), Swedish Embassy, Swedish International Development Agency, Goldman Sachs Grant (UK), Minority Rights GRP Ltd BCA (UK), European Commission, Transparency International Division (UK), Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (UK), European Union, Diakonia (US), Forum of Federations/Forum Des (US), International Media Support (US), the Ford Foundation (US), Fredskorpset Bergen (US), National Endowment for Democracy (US), Partnership for Transparency Fund (US) and Academy for Educational Development (US).

Of Rs. 618.33 million received by the CPA, NPC and TI during the three-year period, Rs. 111.48 million had been donated by various other sources not named above.

Although the Norwegian Embassy, in response to a query by ‘The Island’ declared that it had launched an initiative to ensure accountability in Norwegian funded projects, a comprehensive report of funding is not yet available. Norway as well as other sponsors nor the recipients had failed to explain how such huge sums of funds were spent to promote the peace process. They had never explained why their projects failed in spite of having unlimited funds.

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) has revealed that of NOK 2.5 billion spent on development cooperation during the period 1997 to 2009 in Sri Lanka, NOK 100 million was allocated for the peace process.

The European Commission (Rs. 55.61 million) and the Swedish International Development Agency (Rs. 43.11 million) are the second and the third major contributors.

The country’s banking system has no records of the exact amount of funds received by NGOs over the past two to three decades. An enormous amount of funds had been received by NGOs since Feb. 2002, with some countries and the UNDP providing funds to the LTTE Peace Secretariat. The Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) as well as Muslim Peace Secretariat too, received substantial funds. Those dispensing funds here actually didn’t know what they were doing. Some provided funds to the LTTE to carry out de-mining operations, while the UNICEF funded a project to stop the forcible recruitment of child soldiers.

Those receiving Norwegian funding were lavish in their praise for the Norwegians. In May 2002, Dr. Jehan Perera, on behalf of the National Peace Council declared that the peace process would succeed because of Norwegian expertise. Perera stressed that the only difference between the abortive peace bid made by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe’s effort was the commitment of Norway. Perera was appearing on CNN on May 9, 2002 in the wake of his outfit receiving Rs. 2.8 mn from Japan to promote the Norwegian initiative. The NPC conveniently ignored the Norwegian role in 1994-1995. In fact, two Norwegians, Audun Holm and Johan Gabrielson met LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in Jaffna town during the first week of April 1995. They headed two peace monitoring committees out of four, but remained silent when the LTTE resumed hostilities with the sinking of two gunboats anchored at Trincomalee harbour on April 19.

October 2010: UNP chief Ranil Wickremesinghe with former Norwegian peacemaker Erik Solheim in Oslo after having met Dr. Gunnar Sorbo of the Chr. Michelsen Institute. Dr. Sorbo led the investigation into Norwegian peace initiatives in Sri Lanka.

Those promoting peace and negotiations have financially benefited in the other parts of the world. Those engaged in peace project in Sri Lanka being rewarded for their ‘work’ was definitely not an isolated situation. The May 2002 revelation that Norwegian ambassador in Tel Aviv, Mona Juul and her husband, Terje Roed Larsen (Norwegian Middle East envoy) accepted $ 110,000 from an Israeli peace centre for promoting negotiations between Israel and Palestine under the auspices of Norway highlighted the controversial transactions. Did any of Norwegians involved in the Sri Lankan project benefit personally? Did any Sri Lankan politicians and officials receive various perks and privileges for cooperating with NGOs?

Strategic miscalculation

Strangely, the NGO project didn’t change its course even after the LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, much to the discontent of Premier Wickremesinghe. The Norwegians and the NGO community acted as if the peace process was on track, though the LTTE made preparations for war. They did everything to appease the LTTE in accordance with the overall Norwegian plan to continue with the peace process at any cost. Even after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on the night of August 8, 2005, the NGO project asserted that the Norwegian led process should continue, regardless of the killing. The NPC declared that the assassination of Kadirgamar was tragic, but inevitable. The statement highlighted the cavalier attitude of those who had been promoting a negotiated settlement here. For them, Kadirgamar’s assassination meant nothing. The Norwegians remained silent on the issue as they pursued the peace bid. But today, thanks to Wiki Leaks, we know the Norwegians had no doubt about the responsibility of the LTTE for Kadirgamar’s assassination. Wiki Leaks exposed a confidential diplomatic cable that dealt with talks between the Norwegians and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in London, in the wake of Kadirgamar assassination.

In hindsight, it was obvious Western powers, the NGO communities both here and abroad as well as an influential section of the media propagated the myth that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated on the battlefield, hence the GoSL had no option but to seek a negotiated settlement. They propagated the myth that peace at any cost was better than continuing with a costly military campaign. Their strategy remained on track even after the LTTE deprived UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of victory at the November, 2005 presidential election by ordering Tamil speaking people in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Province to shun the vote. The TNA made the announcement on November 10, 2005 on behalf of the LTTE. The LTTE’s strategy was simple. Prabhakaran believed that he had the wherewithal to overwhelm newly elected President Rajapaksa in a conventional military confrontation. Prabhakaran shunned President Rajapaksa’s decision even to meet the LTTE in Geneva, as he was supremely confident of a battlefield victory. The rest is history.