Colombo Telegraph

Changing The Regime And The NGO-Led Civil Society

By Udan Fernando

Dr. Udan Fernando

Let me first thank ICES for inviting me to speak on this panel,[1] which I think is a very timely initiative to break the silence of, what I would call, the NGO-led civil society. I am not making a sweeping statement here that the NGO-led civil society has kept mum on the issue of the upcoming Presidential Elections. Some NGOs have been busy, particularly the election monitors. But by and large, I think, this is the first time, a meeting has been convened by a NGO-styled civil society organization to explicitly discuss the perspective of civil society on the Presidential Election. So let me congratulate ICES for the courage it had displayed by sticking out its neck when many others are reluctant or scared to do so for understandable, but not acceptable reasons.

To begin with, I would like to share with you my understanding of civil society as it is such a vague and often loosely understood concept. Don’t worry, I am not going to deliver a long lecture on political philosophy from Fergurson, Locke to Gramsci and Habermas! This is not the forum for it, I understand. What I want to do, instead, is to make it clear that we cannot speak of a civil society. Civil society is NOT a homogenous one. Rather, it is a domain where you see many strands of ideologies, strategies and activisms at play. At times, these strands contradict each other. In that sense, civil society is not a harmonious site; often it is a contradictory and conflict-ridden site. Therefore, I see many strands of civil societies – I underline the plural form – within the broader domain of what lies outside the market and state. But then, the boundaries are fluid and blurred. They overlap.

So what kind of civil society are we talking about?

So what kind of civil society are we talking about?

  • Are we talking about a Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya kind of civil society? Well, if we use the broad definition of the domain outside market and state, BBS is indeed a civil society organization, but their civility is highly problematic and questionable. But let’s leave that ‘normative’ element of civil society aside for a while.
  • Or, is it the NGO-led or ‘NGOized’ civil society that we are talking about? I don’t need to explain much about this strand of civil society because most of you are representing such organizations which are basically well organized, resourced, staffed and even institutionalized.
  • Or else, are we talking about the informal, non-institutionalized, spontaneous, ad hoc citizen groups or civic groups that are relatively independent?

What I am going to talk about are the last two strands – the NGO-led civil society and the relatively independent, informal, spontaneous and ad hoc formations of civic or citizens’ groups.

I am aware that I am supposed to speak on the upcoming presidential elections. But I think it’s useful to take a moment to reflect on the past to understand how civil society groups have dealt with elections. Election monitoring by independent citizens’ groups emerged as a new activity in the early eighties. If my memory serves right, PAFFREL emerged as a response to the infamous Referendum held in 1982. The biggest defining moment for NGO-led and broad-based civil society groups to make an impact on an election, happened in 1994 when the 17-year rule of the UNP came to an end. A variety of civil society groups vehemently and openly supported the SLFP-led Peoples’ Alliance that established a government under Chandrika Bandaranaike. Later, she won the Presidential Elections as well. There were some conditions to the success of the collaboration between civil society groups and the government in 1994:

  1. The NGOs were strong in numbers, human resources (incl. ideas, commitment and political acumen) and funding. In other words, they had a lot of mettle.
  2.  There was a great deal of international support for NGOs.
  3. Many civil society groups had an ideological rift with the UNP. I call this the baggage or the hangover of the then civil society groups. Many of them were anti-UNP. In 1994, they had the perfect enemy (UNP) and the motivation to mobilize against the UNP was pretty strong.
  4. The UNP government attracted a great deal of flack because of its gross human rights violations in the North and East as well as in the South (Second JVP Insurrection).
  5. The strongest binding factor, or the ideological convergence, between civil society groups and the PA was their common conviction to address the ethnic issue and come up with a durable solution based on a due recognition of the cause for conflict. The need for a Constitutional change based on devolution and decentralization was recognized. For me, this is an ideological bond which goes beyond a narrow, pragmatic one, which is simply to change the government.

The NGO-led civil society groups did make an impact on several aspects relating to the ethnic issue. The most significant influence was their engagement in drafting a new constitution which unfortunately did not see the light of day. People who opposed the new constitution dubbed it the ‘GLNeelan Constitution[2]‘. The first round of peace talks after 1994 included two prominent personalities from the civil society. Many civil society leaders and activists were offered positions in government agencies. The government-sponsored peace initiatives were led by civil society representatives. Many left their NGO and academic jobs to join these government initiatives or donor-funded peace projects under the government. It was indeed a honeymoon between civil society and the government. However, the honeymoon was short lived. It came to an end with the PA government’s shift to ‘War for Peace’ (late 1995) and the infamous Wayamba Election (March 1999). However, the NGO-led Civil Society was not as vociferous as they used to be during the UNP era. In my opinion, this happened due to a variety of reasons.

‘At an ideological level, many old NGOs displayed a certain degree of ambivalence about the PA government, which they had worked to bring into power. It was a ‘love-hate’ situation that prevented many NGOs from launching an all-out war against the PA government as they did against the UNP government. The ambivalence was also created by the ‘anti-UNP baggage’ that many NGOs carried. Coincidentally, some old human rights organizations were going through a period of disillusionment created by their difficulty in carving out a new role in the new political environment. It was not as easy as fighting against the traditional enemy, the UNP[3]‘.

Pardon me for taking time over this historical account which I will use to contrast with the current situation.

Let’s focus on the current situation. I have observed a few strands of civil society action in the run up to this Presidential election.

  1. Platform for Freedom: This was formed in early 2009 in the immediate aftermath of Lasantha Wickrematunge‘s killing. PFF is an interesting political experiment where a section of civil society actors has made an alliance with the UNP, TNA, other opposition parties and Trade Unions. The collaboration with the political parties, particularly with the main opposition party, the UNP, took place openly. For me, this was a moment of NGO-led civil society getting rid of their anti-UNP hangover or baggage! The PFF played an explicit political role with political parties in the opposition and established an agenda for what’s commonly known as ‘regime change’. The PFF did not follow a traditional NGO ‘work-shopping strategy’. PFF, in my observation, didn’t mince their words – they boldly and fearlessly voiced their concerns on corruption, impunity, militarization and rule of law and vehemently advocated for a regime change.
  2. Saadhaarana Samaajayak Sandahaa Vyaapaaraya: The Movement for a Just Society mooted the idea of a Common Candidate and initially rallied around Rev. Maduluwawe Sobitha. This movement was not a typical NGO-led coalition. It included political parties, broad civil society groups such as trade unions, academics and political activists. This group’s work gathered momentum and created not only a ground-swell for a change but also generated some fresh ideas for a broader political agenda.
  3. Pivithuru Hetak: Just and Fair Society for a Better Tomorrow was another novel experiment by a political party – the JHU, led by Rev. Athuraliye Rathana – to mobilize civil society perhaps a la Anna Hazare and Arjun Kejriwal in India. Initially, there was some enthusiasm from civil society groups towards this initiative. But it didn’t gather momentum perhaps due to the fact that Rev. Rathana found himself more at home with a political party than in civil society.
  4. Election Monitoring bodies: NGO-styled organizations such as PAFFREL, MFFE, CAFFE and CMEV have started their routine work. The value of election monitoring cannot be discounted. However, I tend to wonder whether these organizations are performing a mere ritualistic role now. Issuing statements to the media on violations and malpractices is useful. But what is important is to put pressure to create an environment for a free and fair election and build voter confidence.
  5. Purawesi Balaya: Citizens’ Power is a coalition initiated by what can be called Left-leaning or progressive artistes, authors, academics, professionals with little or no NGO elements in it. This group successfully organized a rally on 2nd Dec in Colombo which was attended by a large crowd. Another group called the Artists for Democracy emerged as an off-shoot of this group. This group showed a great deal of potential as a broad-based citizens’ movement. However, to some extent their reputation was dented when Somarathne Balasuriya spoke at a media conference convened by the group.
  6. Professional Organizations/Trade Unions: BASL, FMM and FUTA have been active in voicing their concerns on the general crisis of the country as well as particular concerns on their respective sectors – legal, media and education. The Free Media Movement (FMM) pledged their support to the Common candidate. Two days back, the FMM submitted their proposals to the Common Candidate to voice their concern on the Right to Information, Impunity, Independence of Media and Censorship
  7. Interventions of academics and political commentators: This happened mainly by way of writing to the press and using social media such as blogging. Notable examples are Sumanasiri Liyanage, Liyanage Amarakeerthi and Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe.

With that overview of civil society action, let me try to contrast today’s conditions with those of 1994.

  1. As of now, the NGO-led civil society is relatively weak numerically and financially. This is due to a variety of reasons including donor fatigue as well as stringent control, intimidation and surveillance by the government.
  2. The NGO-led civil society has also suffered legitimacy-erosion as a result of a sustained anti-NGO lobby under the patronage of the government and some constituent parties of the alliance that tow a strong anti-NGO line. The legitimacy-erosion was also due to internal reasons – NGOs’ own conduct brought a great deal of disrepute to themselves, particularly in the aftermath of the Tsunami.
  3. The ideological convergence between civil society groups and the opposition, now in the case of Common Candidate’s Campaign, is relatively weak.
  4. The main impulses of the majority of civil society groups are anger, frustration and outrage against the MR Regime, which is indeed responsible for the subversion of the rule of law, prevalence of mass scale corruption, impunity, suppression of dissent and nepotism. There is a sense of desperation among civil society groups to make the change happen. This is partly manifested in accepting anybody who crosses over from the pro-government camp. Accepting Somarathne Dissanayake by Purawesi Balaya is an example. I hope and pray that the desperation will not make civil society groups succumb to embracing even Gnanasara and Mervyn Silva, if they crossover. There was a great deal of pressure by some civil society quarters when there was speculation that Mervyn Silva might cross over. That’s a positive sign. But outrage and desperation continue to dictate the terms of opposition politics.

Let me come to my conclusion.

In such a scenario, the main trigger is ‘defeating the regime’ or ‘changing the regime’. I do understand and empathize with such an impulse and I subscribe to the need for a change myself. However, such a condition of political expediency should be handled with care by civil society groups. While this is an opportune moment for civil society groups to work hard towards a regime change, it should be borne in mind that a lack of a clear perspective and strategy regarding post 8 Jan could send civil society groups on the same trajectory of disillusionment that was experienced in the 1994 era. Civil society, to my understanding, functions best when they are in a mode of opposition rather than collaboration. Conditional and critical support towards a change by civil society is therefore important. Engaging while maintaining a certain degree of independence is indeed a challenging act. That’s the main challenge before civil society groups in this Presidential Election.

Thank you.

[1] Priorities for the President: Civil Society Perspective , 17 Dec 2014 at the ICES Auditorium, Chaired by Mario Gomez. Fellow panelists were Dr. Radhika Kumaraswamy, Global Professor of Law, New York University and Feizal Samat, Editor, Business Times

[2] Alluding that it is a plot of the then Constitutional Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris and the TULF MP, Neelan Thiruchelvam who was the Founder of the International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES).

[3] Fernando, Udan (2007) Uneasy Encounters: Relationships between Dutch Donors and Sri Lankan NGOs. PhD Dissertation. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that; “Accepting Somarathne Balasooriya by Purawesi Balaya is an example”. Mentioning Somarathna Balasooriya instead of Somarathna Dissanayaka had been a mistake on my part. I profusely apologise for the mistake I have committed.

CORRECTION: Re the following remarks in the article; “However, to some extent their reputation was dented when Somarathne Disanayaka spoke at a media conference convened by the group”, Mr. Gamini Viyangoda had pointed out that it is factually incorrect. The media conference mentioned above was not convened by Puravesi Balaya. It was Somarathna Disaanayaka’s press conference to which some of Puravesi Balaya were invited. The author regrets the error and conveys an apology to Puravesi Balaya.

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