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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2224

Comprador Chicanery - INGO Agents of Neocolonialism

By Sesha Samarajiwa

During the heyday of European imperialism, a class of natives rendered the invaders yeoman service. They were the facilitators of colonial penetration and eventual domination of a vast swathe of the planet, from South America to Africa to Asia. They were well rewarded for their loyalty and services. They were called the compradors. And they are still among us, continuing their work for their paymasters.

The origins of the compradors

A Portuguese word meaning ‘buyer’, compradors (also spelled compradore), was originally used to refer to a local merchant acting as a middleman between foreign producers and a local market. As the Portuguese burst onto the world stage and expanded their power in far flung places, the term took on another, more specific meaning: comprador became the word that described members of the Chinese merchant class who aided Western traders in China in the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Hired by contract, the comprador was responsible for a Chinese staff of currency-exchange specialists, interpreters, coolies, and guardsmen. Many compradors became extremely wealthy and established businesses of their own. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

Portuguese power waned but European imperialism did not; many other Europeans – the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, the Belgians, and the British – scrambled to exploit the world’s wealth, essentially by invading other people’s lands. And generations of native compradors followed in their ancestor’s footsteps as facilitators for the invaders.

Marxists have used the term to refer specifically to those elements of the local bourgeoisie who owe their privileged positions to foreign monopolies and hence maintain a vested interest in colonial occupation. In post-colonial theory the term has evolved a broader use, to include the intelligentsia – academics, creative writers and artists – whose independence may be compromised by a reliance on, and identification with, colonial power.

As Aschcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin explain in Post –Colonial Studies: Key Concepts: “The word continues to be used to describe a relatively privileged, wealthy and educated elite who maintain a more highly developed capacity to engage in international communicative practices introduced by colonial domination, and who may therefore be less inclined to struggle for local and political independence.”(My emphasis.)

Now there’s the rub. I will return to this further down.

How the Colonial Powers Cultivated Compradors

So how did the colonial powers cultivate their compradors? The question is a no-brainer. The one word answer is – rewards. What were these rewards? A three-word answer - money, perks and power.

The compradors’ services to their foreign masters made them very, very rich, rich enough to spawn long dynasties, many going back to contact with the first imperialists from Europe – the Portuguese. In fact, some of the wealthiest families in the ostensibly decolonized world – from East to West beneath the equator boast a comprador lineage. All the European powers who followed simply adopted the financial reward system established by the Portuguese: fees and/or commissions on every deal.

As they established colonies through military might, the colonials consolidated their positions. Now they were omnipotent. Now they were in a position to offer their loyal servants even better perks for their services – land, titles, concessions, monopolies, in some cases even crowns; in other words, virtually unlimited opportunities to enrich themselves. So the compradors made hay while the sun shone and built legendary fortunes – enough to keep several generations in luxury.

Thanks to the money, perks and plum positions in colonial establishments, the compradors consolidated their power and privilege. And so the good times rolled.

I described three temporal rewards. However, invariably the compradors were also seduced by spiritual rewards. That’s where religion came into the picture. Converting to the colonizer’s religion not only brought the compradors rewards in this life, but held out even better promise in the next. The colonizers even colonized their souls! That complete allegiance to the aliens made them what Franz Fanon described as “Black Skin White Masks”, a phenomenon he brilliantly analyzed in the eponymous book. Fanon saw compradors as local elites who had exchanged roles with white colonial dominance; the black skin of these compradors was ‘masked’ by their complicity with the values and, I would add, agendas, of the white colonial powers. Fanon argues that the native intelligentsia must radically restructure their society on the firm foundation of the people and their values.

Don Juan Dharmapala and Dona Catherina

Thirty-eight years after their arrival in Lanka, the Portuguese were well ensconced. They knew the scene well enough to engage in intricate local politics, well led by a canny crew of Catholic priests, all Franciscans. A grand chance to advance their cause came when King Buvanekabahu VII was “accidentally” shot through the heart by a Portuguese, and his grandson, the Sinhala prince Dharmapala, under the ‘protection’ of King Emmanuel of Portugal, was raised to the throne of the Kotte Kingdom as Don Juan Dharmapala and his queen, Kusumasana Devi, was also baptized as Dona Catherina. With the conversion of Dharmapala to Catholicism in 1556, a large number of his bodyguard, troops and their captains were also converted to the Catholic faith. The Portuguese finally had a puppet king in Lanka.

Six years after his accession, Colombo had a Catholic population of 12,000, with two parish churches, Our Lady's and St. Laurence's, four monasteries or convents under the Cordeliers, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Capuchins, and a college conducted by the Jesuits. (Source: New Advent.) The Papal invasion was in top gear.

Having consolidated their power in the lowlands, the Iberians cast their covetous glance towards the kingdom in the island’s central highlands, Kanda Uda Rata, against which they directed a military onslaught in tandem with high intrigue. The Portuguese briefly captured the hill capital Kandy, upon whose throne they installed a Sinhala noble, Yamasinha Bandara, whom they baptized Don Phillippe. Don Phillippe was soon murdered and the kingdom passed to his cousin, Dona Catherina. Being the daughter of Karaliyadde Bandara, a Sinhala royal, she was the legal heiress to that kingdom. The Portuguese tried hard to install Dona Catherina as empress of the Kandyan kingdom, but another noble contender, Konappu Bandara (who had previously been Christened Don John of Austria) beat them in battle, captured and married Dona Catherina, reverted to Buddhism, and installed himself as king as Vimaladharmasuriya I.

Don Juan Dharmapala entered history as a servile puppet of the invader. His name is a euphemism for cowardice, avarice and treason against the motherland. Don Juan Dharmapala’s soul belonged to the Church of the conquerors, his heart belonged to a European monarch, who had symbolically enthroned an effigy of the Uncle Tom Sinhala prince as a Lankan ruler loyal not to Lanka, but to Portugal.

The comprador king, as you would expect, did much that was detrimental to the interests of his country and advantageous to the colonial power. Space does not permit me to go into details, but for those interested, historical information would not be too hard to find.

Plenty high drama, but that’s just an adjunct to my main narrative, the purpose of which is to show the damage done by comprador kings and commoners of yore and of today.

The Current Crop of Compradors

As their historical forerunners did, so do the contemporary compradors. Then as now, foreign powers need native compradors; there’s is a symbiotic relationship, a relationship that can best be described in colloquial terms: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. And their inducements, their rewards, remain the same – money, perks, power, and now, all-expenses-paid foreign travel, sabbaticals and peace carnivals.

Their modes operandi, however, is more in keeping with the times. Their incursions may be indirect, but the project remains the same. Unlike in the past, when comprador connivance was blatant, now they are more subtle, operating under many guises. They are not called compradors now; they are called INGOs (International Non Governmental Organizations) workers/activists. Nevertheless, they are still facilitators of their master’s agenda – and they are very well looked after.

More insidiously, these compradors have also positioned themselves as the native informants for various foreign authorities. (Derived from the field of anthropology, the native informant is the hired hand foreign anthropologists recruited – and became extremely dependent on – to interpret the alien society in which they had an interest.) Since it’s virtually impossible for an outsider to really get the inside score, the foreign authority depends on the information fed by their native informants. Hence, the local informant holds a privileged position; they have the power to feed the foreign authority their preferred version of the local scene, often masking their personal agendas and imperatives, as the local agents of INGOs often do. When this information is skewed – as it often is – the policy decisions (based on such information) made in the imperial metropolises will inevitably have far-reaching negative consequences on the target country.

A Self-made Halo Cachet

Many International Non Governmental Organization (INGO) operatives, our illustrious new compradors, now go by a cachet designed to give them a halo effect – Human Rights Activists. There are thousands of INGOs operating in Sri Lanka, with alleged missions as diverse as poverty alleviation and water management, to forest conservation to conflict resolution. To be fair, we need to differentiate between INGOs doing genuine good work from those with more sinister agendas, to which, regrettably, most of them belong.

Historically, while some compradors were motivated purely by material gain, undoubtedly some of them believed in the righteousness of their project. In the past, the latter would, in the main, have been people who had adopted the religion of the colonizers; a colonized soul is a slave for life. Likewise, the current crop of compradors, but not all of them would necessarily be motivated by religious imperatives. Some, of course, are. They are just as effective now as then. Indeed, they have gathered power to an extent that they can now consider themselves the New Superpower. In fact, that’s a description they frequently use.

Sleeping with the enemy

The local compradors have no scruples about sleeping with the enemy, when it’s profitable for them to do so. Take for example the Sri Lankan variety, operating under the collective banner of ‘human rights activists’.

These folks have the uncanny acumen to load the deck in favor of the murderous Tamil Tigers of the LTTE and against Sri Lanka. No matter what horrors the Tamil Tigers perpetrate on Tamils, Sinhala and Muslims – ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Sinhala to purify the so-called Tamil Homeland, countless acts of terror, the abuse of children for war, and absolute repression of dissent and democracy – the Pol Potist dictatorship which claims to be the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils can count on the erstwhile homegrown human rights activists to stand by them, justify, downplay or conceal their crimes, and stoutly defend them at home and at various forums abroad, especially abroad.

Sadly, these people, who have nominated themselves to the lofty position of general judge and jury of all they survey, blithely break the cardinal rule of judgment – impartiality. On the contrary, the rule they live by is bias. But then bias has its rewards: the compradors have enjoyed a bull run for the past 30 years.

Oh, to Be in Lanka!

Allow me to digress a bit with this anecdote about an expatriate INGO, in which an English INGO reveals the real McCoy. I bring it in to make a point about what most INGOs are really up to in this sunny isle of ours.

Recently I met an INGO worker, an English woman. She was enjoying the hospitality of some Sri Lankan friends, the mandatory exotic at society parties. Soon she began to dominate the conversation, regaling us with the heavy duty good she and her outfit were doing for Sri Lanka, in their case, saving our forests. The locals, by and large, were paying her rapt attention: Hark! A Memsahib speaks!

When I was able to get a word in edgeways (while she was refreshing her glass – yet again), I asked her how exactly they have saved our forests, whether we could perhaps see a report giving us a before-their-arrival-and-after-picture, or some sort of graph showing results since they started their mission to save the forests, so that we can see some evidence of actual benefit.

She said: “That’s a very good idea. That’s something we need to do. I’ve been telling our people we need to do exactly that.”

Her tongue loosened by wine, the woman breezily proclaimed that she makes US$7,000 per month, “which is perfectly justified for the valuable work we do”, not taking into account perks and privileges – and the highlife on the island, which she has been enjoying for five years.

This INGO’s story is the story of most of their ilk. They are essentially opportunists and sun seekers living it up in Sri Lanka, writing endless progress reports to satisfy their sponsors. They are adventurers engaged in a big con.

Ironically, Sri Lanka has state and/or private institutions doing the work of virtually every enterprise INGOs are supposed to be engaged in. But come on in, there’s room for everyone, although Sri Lankan government servants have a chance of a cow jumping over the moon of seeing a fraction of the 7000 Ben Franklins the memsahib makes, for doing similar, if not better, work – at least not in this lifetime.

A native NGO wallah and an old friend admitted to me in private: “It’s a racket, but it’s good money. We are well paid in US dollars, we take a lot of overseas holidays, we can give our kids a good education and generally live a good life. So why complain?”

Indeed! Lucre, for my once honorable friend, is dearer than honesty. Honest work is now a silly concept. Their life is a charade, but a profitable charade.

Fit the Profile

It is a hard fact that it’s beyond a small country, especially those dependent of foreign aid, to buck the rich and mighty.

Their power to dictate terms to small, powerless nations is taken for granted. When they say jump, they expect us to ask how high, master? It’s hegemony in practice the way Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci saw it – an insidious power that makes it seem common sense to take it for granted. But we must try to consciously resist that unjust hegemony.

Innumerable International NGOs operate as they please in Sri Lanka, many enjoying full freedom to even subvert us under various guises. For example, the sinister German Berghoff Foundation, whose avowed agenda is to demilitarize Sri Lanka’s military – in other words, to emasculate it.

Many others also work with a vengeance to destabilize Sri Lanka, trying to make it an international pariah state by projecting it as a failed state, on par with the Sudan, Somalia and the Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq. They try their best to bring the country to disrepute by concocting elaborate canards and deliberate exaggerations about human rights abuses by the State. But they are free to do as they please in democratic Sri Lanka, and their foreign handlers enjoy red-carpet treatment and colonial nostalgia. For example, Sri Lankan Immigration has even set up a special channel for INGO personnel, where they are whisked through visa extension formalities (to extend their interference, enrichment and high life on the island), while the natives must endure the laborious process of the passport ordeal.

The local compradors fit the profile of the theorists I quoted above. They are local elites who had exchanged roles with white colonial dominance; the black skin of these compradors is ‘masked’ by their complicity with the values and agendas, of the white colonial powers. They comprise local intelligentsia whose independence has been compromised by a reliance on, and identification with, colonial power. They are a relatively privileged, wealthy and educated elite who command a highly developed capacity to engage in international communicative practices, and “who may therefore be less inclined to struggle for local and political independence.”

To resist incursion and prevent being recolonized by foreign powers, with the able connivance of their agents, the compradors, we need to be aware of the various stratagems they adopt. (It’s beyond the remit of this article to undertake such as expose.) To do that, we need to be alert. We need to make an effort to familiarize ourselves about the INGOs operating among us. We must not hesitate to probe and expose their agendas of native and foreign agents of neocolonialism. We must expose, communicate, resist. We would also be wise to beware of help with strings attached.

A Word to the Wise

The compradors would do well to eschew hypocrisy, greed (for money, perks and foreign trips), bias, their penchant for sleeping with the enemy and serving their agenda, and taking liberties with the truth. Importantly, even if they are, by profession and ethos, “ less inclined to struggle for local and political independence” as post colonial theorists assert, they could at least try and internalize Fanon’s urgent counsel and work to restructure their society on the firm foundation of the people and their values, not from within a bubble of their own making.

But I’m afraid that, like the lice which have clung to humans since the beginning of our species, the INGO agents of neocolonialism/neoimperialism, the treacherous compradors, be they politicians lusting for power or the motley crew of activists hankering for pecuniary rewards, like Don Juan Dharmapala, Dona Catherina and lower level functionaries, will always be among us.

Sesha Samarajiwa is a sharp detective of the manifestations of neocolonialism/neoimperialism. He gives an astute insight into what makes the current crop of INGO compradors – the native agents of neocolonialism – tick.

- Asian Tribune -

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