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25 August 2014
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 countrys 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 interreligious 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
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
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.
Posted by Thavam