By Jehan Perera –
This is a very troubled period for civil society. The free space for activism that is outside of the government sphere has shrunk due to the policy of centralization adopted by the government. Institutions of the state that are meant to be relatively independent of the government have come under political control. This has had the effect of weakening the system of checks and balances that ensures good governance. It is not surprising that NGOs, which are part of that larger system of governance, and which focus on issues of governance and human rights should feel themselves to be under siege. The negative comments against NGOs by government leaders are part of a trend that seeks to make them a national security problem that requires a stronger governmental hand to control. Recently there have also been publication of regulations that seek to limit the space for NGOs to function, to interact with the media and to conduct their seminars and workshops.
The role of NGOs, which are a part of civil society, has now become a major national issue. There are media headlines and editorials on the allegedly anti national impact of their work. They are being condemned for working hand in glove with the international community to investigate the last phase of the war. The latest critique of them has come through the comment of Finance Secretary Dr P B Jayasundera. Usually it is his comments on the economy that are read and analysed to gain a better understanding of the country’s economy and future prospects. But delivering the keynote address at the opening session of the three day Defence Seminar 2014, which is an international conference organised by the Sri Lanka Army, held for the fourth consecutive year, he ventured beyond the economy to state that “the operation of NGOs in non regulated environments has become a threat to financial management, inclusive development and law and order itself.”
Over the past several years there have been speculations that the government is preparing new legislation to control the activities of NGOs. The Indian, Ethiopian and Bylorussian in worsening degrees of severity have been mentioned as possible models that the government is drawing inspiration from. In the meantime several issues have surfaced that impact on government-NGO relations. These include the circular sent out by the NGO Secretariat instructing NGOs to function within their mandate, the notice placed by the External Resources Department as an advertisement in many newspapers regarding the funding of NGOs and the implementation of their projects with prior approval, the inability of some NGOs to conduct their events without disruption by mobs and the surveillance of NGO activities in the field.
NGO activities have now become a subject of strict security monitoring. The issue of security forces personnel in uniform and intelligence officers in plain clothes performing surveillance of civil society activities in the North and East has been widely reported in the post-war period. Civil society and NGOs do more than human rights work and providing information on violations. In fact most NGOs are not at all involved in such work where offences of the government are challenged. Nevertheless, surveillance includes social functions such as weddings, puberty ceremonies, memorial services in addition to seminars and workshops organized by NGOs in the North and East. This is a source of resentment to those who are subjected to surveillance and have to self censor what they say and do. However, the practice of surveillance appears to be expanding.
On four occasions in the past month, inter-religious reconciliation work conducted by the National Peace Council was subjected to surveillance by the security forces. Two of these events were outside the former war zones of the North and East, which suggests that the practice of surveillance is encompassing the entire country. This inter-religious work is meant to promote reconciliation and strengthen relations between the different ethnic and religious communities. Similarly motivated government officials are invited to join in this work, and in those committees. There is nothing secret or surreptitious about this work, which the government itself has pledged to implement with the support of civil society as recommended both by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and by the National Human Rights Action Plan.
However, in Kandy, where an inter-religious dialogue was being conducted inside a private hall of a reputed civil society organization of long standing, intelligence personnel had entered the hall in civvies and were recording the discussion. In Galle, where a programme that brought children and their parents together from all communities was held, the local police had also been invited to attend. However, another police team came to investigate the programme. They left after the local police explained the programme to them. In Addalaichenai in the East, where a youth amity camp was held, the local police and local government authorities had been informed in advance and took part in the opening ceremony. But despite their presence, uniformed military personnel with weapons had come and questioned the organizers of the programme on three separate occasions over a two day period. This Monday a programme on promoting cultural values by youth held in Batticaloa led to questioning by two army personnel.
One of the most devastating legacies of violent conflict is the polarization of social relationships. It is in the interest of reconciliation and the cause of promotion of national unity not to isolate the people of the North and East from those in the South who are interested in their problems including those relating to their human rights. The government needs to recognize that the surveillance of civil society activities by members of the security forces strikes fear and resentment in the minds of people, and especially those of the ethnic and religious minorities. It leads to self-censorship and reluctance to voice their grievances which remain bottled up to fester within the hearts of people who feel they are the victims of injustice. Ultimately this will lead to a breakdown in feelings of affection towards the government which will make the reconciliation process harder to achieve.
However, times have been bad for civil society even in the past. The contest between government and civil society is not new, and this will not be the last time it will occur. The desire for free space within society to engage in issues of governance has to become internalized within the general population if the encroachment of that free space by the government is to be stopped. The apprehension of the government leadership could also be that a section of civil society poses a threat to the political hegemony of the government. Of particular relevance to CSOs today is the manner in which the Sarvodaya Movement faced upto the challenge of governmental hostility during the period of the Premadasa presidency. The newly released Volumes 3 and 4 of the autobiography of Sarvodaya leader Dr A T Ariyaratne will be an encouragement to civil society organisations today that feel themselves to be under siege from the government.
Sarvodaya could have become a powerful oppositional political force to confront the government. However, the goal that it envisaged was a change of the system of government and its values, rather than only a change of government leaders. It is unfortunate that then, as now, this was not properly understood by the government leadership which embarked on an unprecedented and undemocratic path to crush the Sarvodaya Movement. It even appointed an NGO Commission to go after the NGOs, and to single out the Sarvodaya Movement for investigation. The NGO Commission and those who harassed Sarvodaya are no more. But the Sarvodaya Movement continues to be in existence with its physical infrastructure intact and more importantly, it resides in the hearts and practices of the people.
In a similar way, accusing the NGO sector of becoming a threat to national security is a charge will not be convincing to those who are beneficiaries of NGO services and who therefore know them. As a sector, NGOs work very closely with the larger community. Those working in NGOs come from all strata of society, and include government politicians who have set up their own foundations often in their own name. They go into the midst of poor and powerless communities, to provide the people living there with vocational training, livelihood assistance and emergency aid, where necessary. They increase the level of knowledge of people on their legal rights, on best practices in health and in sustainable agriculture practice, to mention but a few of their constructive activities. They promote relationships between communities by promoting face-to-face interaction and inter-religious societies.
Today, NGOs have become an institution, like the Sarvodaya Movement, and are woven into the fabric of the Sri Lankan community at the grassroots level. Instead of viewing NGOs as a potential security threat the government needs to see them as part and parcel of democratic society and engage constructively with them. It appears that the main problem that the government has at the present time is with those NGOs that seek to assist families whose family members went missing in the war. The government appears to fear that the evidence they produce could be used against it in international forums. The government needs to create a conducive environment, and effective national institutions, so that NGOs are also willing and happy to engage with it to solve the problems of the people they have committed themselves to assist. This is the way forward to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka.