27 June, 2022


Freedom Of Expression And Association Of NGOs Under Threat In Sri Lanka

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

The circular ‘order’ issued by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) on 7 July 2014 with the objective of prohibiting the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) conducting “press conferences, workshops, training for journalists and dissemination of press releases” undoubtedly is the most intrusive directive issued so far by any government since independence without any reason of emergency or war (internal or external) in the country.

It is issued without any regard to the country’s Constitution (1978) and particularly the Fundamental Rights accorded to its citizens under Chapter III and Article 14 explicating the ‘Freedom of Expression and Association.’ The circular also directly contravenes the country’s international human rights obligations particularly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), among other conventions that Sri Lanka is party to.

It is quite fitting that a prominent leader of the opposition, Karu Jayasuriya, among other individuals and organizations, has strongly condemned the measure in the following terms.

“The Ministry of Defense that has stamped out civil liberties in unprecedented ways in the post war era, is well on the way to creating a military state in Sri Lanka. It is in such an autocratic set up that the Defense Establishment dictates the limits of an individual or collective right to speech and assembly. It is the Rajapaksa Government’s greatest ruse, to keep telling the public and the world that Sri Lanka is a functioning democracy, while the Defense Ministry runs a parallel administration that is adamant to curb freedoms and build surveillance systems to oppress the citizenry and stamp out dissent against the regime.” (My emphasis).

Violation of Fundamental Rights

Sri Lanka’s still ‘democratic and republication’ Constitution (not the political functioning of the system) stipulates in Article 14 (1) that “Every citizen is entitled to (a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication; (b) the freedom of peaceful assembly; (c) the freedom of association.”

All the activities that the Ministry of Defense intends to prohibit directly come under the above fundamental rights. If the NGOs are prohibited of those rights and thus the legal activities, then that not only amounts to what it means by “the freedom of association” in Article 14 (1) (c) quoted above, but also violates 14 (1) (g) on “the freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise.” It is in consonant with that article that individuals in association with others have formed ‘voluntary social service organizations’ what we popularly call as NGOs.

The reasons attributed to the issue of the circular are that holding of “press conferences, workshops, training of journalists or dissemination of press releases” are “beyond their mandate” and “unauthorized.”

The question arises as to who determines the ‘mandate’ of NGOs and ‘authorizes’ their activities?

It is so obvious that in a democratic country it is the NGOs or such associations that should determine their ‘mandate and activities’ within the constitutional and legal framework of the country. If there is any breach of the Constitution, or any other legislation or legal enactment, then it is up to the Judiciary to determine and not the Ministry of Defense or the Military.

It is only in dictatorships and authoritarian countries, or Fascist States, that the ‘mandates’ and ‘activities’ of NGOs and other civil society associations are determined and authorized by the State or its agencies. The Voluntary Social Services Organizations [Registration and Supervision] Act of 1980 or its Amendment in 1998 in Sri Lanka does not give such powers to the Ministry of Defense or to the National NGO Secretariat or to the Military.

As the Lawyers Collective has correctly asserted in its statement against the circular, “The Ministry of Defense does not enjoy any specific legal authority under any statute whatsoever to control freedom of speech and association of citizens, who act collectively through civil society organizations. In the circumstances, it is clear from the Press Release issued by the Defense Ministry has acted beyond its mandate. (My emphasis).

Role of NGOs

One may agree or not, partially or fully, with one or the other, or all of the NGOs or their activities. However, as Voltaire supposed to have said, disagreement is no matter, but freedom of expression is sacred and sacrosanct for democracy.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

Although the name board ‘NGO’ is of recent origin, perhaps without going beyond late 1960s, such civil society organizations have existed for a very long period. For example, Sanasa organization was first formed in 1906 although it was not called a NGO at that time. Even the Theosophical Society was such a civil society organization formed in 1880, with obvious social and advocacy objectives, which become an incorporated organization only in 1998. YMCA or YWCA were similar, while YMBA and YWBA were then following suit. These were in addition to various community based organizations (CBOs) such as funeral assistance organizations (Marana Adara Samithi). The distinction between NGOs and CBOs is quite thin.

Obviously, there has emerged a strong anti-NGO discourse in Sri Lanka perhaps as a result of the nexus between International NGOs and (some) local NGOs, and more particularly after certain NGOs started to campaign on human rights, minority rights and women’s rights which are not so popular among various political elites, particularly when they come into power. As far as I could remember, the first known local NGO of the present genre was the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) which was formed aftermath of the April 1971 insurrection to look after the humanitarian and human rights interests of the detainees.

There was hostility from the beginning. However, the government NGO relations have changed over time. After Tsunami in December 2004, for example, there was a close cooperation between the government and the NGO/INGO sector. Even before, both the Janasaviya and Samurdhi programs invited NGO participation. No major political leader including the present President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, cannot easily deny their affiliations with INGOs or NGOs particularly when they were in the opposition.

One reason why many of the NGOs have to depend largely on external funding is the restricted economic capacity in Sri Lanka for voluntary and/or charity fundraising as a poor and now a lower middle income country. This is the same for the government and the public sector institutions. They depend largely on external funding sources from the West or the East. If the objectives are the same or similar, and if no unlawful activities are conducted, there cannot be any impediment to the country’s or the societal interests as a result of these external connections. Under the conditions of globalization, the external and internal links of the NGOs are natural and unavoidable.

The NGO Commission in 1993 estimated nearly 3,000 NGOs and over 25,000 CBOs. The numbers definitely are larger by now on both counts. However, the registered number of NGOs with the National Secretariat is given as 1,426 today. That also means there are so many organizations which are not registered or registered only at district levels. These organizations are a great potential for the resurrection of democracy in the country.

Military Dictates

It is so obvious that any government which is rapidly moving away from the democratic path wants to curtail the freedom of association of citizens and their freedom of expression directly and indirectly in any country. The meaning of the recent circular by the Ministry of Defense should be understood in that context. This measure has not been taken in isolation, but after a series of measures and orchestrated events to curtail the freedom of religion of minorities in the country since the end of the war in May 2009. The next onslaught perhaps would be on the trade union movement in the country.

It is not by accident that the leader of the attacks on religious minorities, the so-called thero, Galagoda Attte Gnanasara, was the same person who had launched physical attacks on NGOs prior to the 2009 period. The connection between his Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the Ministry of Defense is also an open secret, although formally denied by the Defense Secretary.

It is possible that there will be efforts in the near future to divide the NGO movement and vilify certain leaders/activists of the NGOs by the government and the government controlled media. The campaign has already started in conjunction with the said circular. A usual division made is between what they might call the ‘political NGOs’ and social ‘welfare NGOs.’ What they call ‘political’ NGOs are by and large the advocacy NGOs campaigning on human rights, democracy and justice issues. There is no question that the role of both types of organizations are crucially important for a society like Sri Lanka particularly at this stage where both development and democracy are at issue and at stake. Even for both types or for any other type of NGOs, workshops and training whether for journalists or others, press conferences and dissemination of information are important.

The said circular is issued purportedly under the Voluntary Social Services Organizations [Registration and Supervision] Act 1980, as amended in 1998. However, it is highly controversial whether that circular is consistent with the Act. If the circular is consistent, it is questionable why such a circular was not issued before! In addition to the circular, the Defense Ministry spokesman, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, has come to repeat the strictures even exacerbating them in a press conference (Daily News, 9 July 2014).

When the registration procedure was initiated, the process was conducted under the Ministry of Social Services. The purpose was to streamline the procedure of NGO financial accountability and enquire into any financial misappropriation or fraud in an event if there is any bona fide complaints. Even after the National NGO Secretariat was formed in 1999, that Secretariat was under the same ministry and not the Ministry of Defense. Therefore, it is completely misleading for Brigadier Wanigasooriya to say that “the NGO Secretariat operating under the Defense Ministry has been empowered with regulation and administration of NGOs under an Act of Parliament.” Perhaps he was dictated to say so. It is completely incorrect to say that the Secretariat or the Ministry has any powers with respect of the “administration of NGOs.” What the Act says is ‘supervision’ and even that supervision is in respect of mainly financial matters that would finally decide in Courts.

Under the registration procedure of the NGOs, there are 15 objectives stipulated giving flexibility for ‘Any Other’ for the NGOs to pursue. Some of these objectives are not only about ‘Human Rights,’ ‘Protection of Child Rights,’ ‘Gender Equity’ but also about ‘Entrepreneur Development and Training,’ and explicitly on ‘Training and Education’ in general. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to understand under normal reasoning how come that the ‘the press conferences, workshops, training for journalists or dissemination of press releases’ are beyond the mandates of the NGOs.


It appears that there can be a sinister move against a particular NGO or two at this stage, definitely moving against all others in the near future. The immediate danger might not be on well connected, Colombo based or rather ‘sophisticated’ NGOs, but more grassroots based and outspoken ones, working in ‘indigenous languages,’ that expose some of the henious violations going on in the country, while working among the people.

This is the aftermath of Aluthgama, moving ahead for several elections in the near future, including the Presidential and Parliamentary, in the midst of a sensitive UN inquiry on war crimes and war related human rights violations. Therefore, it is quite correct for the Asian Commission of Human Rights (ACHR) to warn the public and the NGOs about the impending dangers in the following strong terms.

What the Ministry of Defense is trying to tell NGOs is that if they dare to express themselves – by conducting conferences, workshops, training of journalists, and disseminating press releases – is not only that the gates of prison are open for them, but something more: that they face dangers similar to what many other Sri Lankans have faced already.”

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Does Lucksiri want NGO training for our Journos?.

    One would have thought , a Journo is a person who has excelled in literature and language and learned the craft at Uni as well as through a cadetship.

    What training can they get from NGOs who are mostly under employed,or unemployed, foreigners who come to poor countries to feel important and have a bit of fun too on the side at budget rates.

    • 0

      What utter nonsense! One can never stop learning and professionals are always attending workshops or conferences or training sessions whereby they hone their skills. Anyway, judging by the product of a number of writers, in our English language papers at least, some journalists certainly need more training than they seem to have had.

      Do you want all our people to be frogs in the well, unwilling/unable to benefit from opportunities offered to them?

      In fact a few training sessions for our parliamentarisns and bureaucrats on how to uphold the Constitution by some of our NGOs wouldnt go amiss.

    • 5

      “mostly under employed,or unemployed, foreigners”

      Frog in the well attitude!

      When they arrive as employee they have had the training of the latest media trends.

      Most of the web news AP, APP, Sky are carried out by Delhi Journalist (outsourced)

      Even in the west NGO’s give poor folk the opportunity to train and move on-it works.

    • 0

      “a Journo is a person who has excelled in literature and language and learned the craft at Uni as well as through a cadetship.”

      Well he would have learnt mostly the theory from the type of education received above. But learning is a continuous process and the journos could pick up so many useful tips, tricks and hints about journalism from seminars and workshops.

      In any event, whether these activities are useful or not, it is a question of the right to exercise the fundamental rights of citizens, both individually and collectively.

  • 3

    The govt. directive Dr Fdo is refering to is aimed at preventive “outsiders” instigating and fermenting unrest in Sri Lanka. So much blood had been spilled in the middle east by NGO supported “Arab Springs” engineered by foreign Neo-Con agents of death. The motives of “Arab Springs” are clear – Regime Change. Pity, a learned man, Dr Fdo cannot see that or chooses not to see. Or, does Dr Fdo supports death and destruction for he welcomes a change of govt at any cost, as he sees that it cannot be achieved democratically? If Dr Fdo is concerned for democratic rights of journalists is noble indeed. Then, why give into NGO backed Neo-Cons who will trample on the democratic rights of the majority population who have placed their confidence in the government?

    • 1

      What is wrong with regime change? This government came into power through regime change right? Do you want to have one government in power for every and for ever? What kind of donkey are you? Is this a democracy? The basic premise of democracy is that governments can be changed. So if you want to prevent the government from being changed then you are not a democrat but some other kind of rat.

  • 2

    They have long been on the road of China News policy.

    INGO’s and NGO’s in China follow the policy laid out by government.

    Commie, Commie, Commie, & Sihala Buddhist Fascist,Sihala Buddhist Fascist,

    Even Franco could not achieve both

    • 1

      I see your many comments on CT, you have every right to write but could you make them a little more clearer?

  • 0

    Tell this to the [Edited out] DJ.He could not see this coming five years ago – despite the Pee Heich Dee – and probably still does not see that he is in the driving seat now.

  • 4

    The Sri lankan constitution is a document designed by JRJayewardena to satisfy his megalomaniacal fantasies while the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka believed that this constitution being made by their saviour was the best remedy for any future Tamil domination. They were being taken for a long ride while Sri Lankan governance was fast receding into a fascist dictatorship. The Rajapaksa brothers have now taken full advantage of this and the meaningless provisions to further their own personal agenda. The provisions of the constitution have no meaning unless and until meaning is given to them by the Rajapaksas to their advantage in their puerile manner. It is now useless mourning about this. It is tragic that persons with criminal intent and psychopaths have come to administer the constitution and interpret its provisions. Bensen

  • 4

    In sixty six years Sri Lanka has degenerated from colonialism to communalism to religious fanaticism and authoritarianism.

    Have we done any significant creative or innovative contribution to mankind and civilization? I can’t think of any.

    On the other hand we enjoy many innovations produced by talented individuals word wide. I don’t have to name many, but just take the computers and the cell phones for example.

    What have we given back to the world which gives us so many new things which make our lives easier? Are we grateful to those creative individuals like Steve Jobs, Bill gates and many others who gave us several gizmos which we enjoy, and can’t live without?

    Don’t we have creative innovative people? Do our lives have to revolve around language, religion, politics and culture?

    Even if we can’t create high tech products, can’t an entrepreneur start a worldwide franchise of fast food roti outlets (or such) like MacDonald? Do all fast food chains have to come from the US?

    Think about it, aren’t we a bunch of fools, while our hard working ‘amude’ wearing farmers produce rice for the fools to eat.

    It’s a shame that instead of progressing and prospering like the world we fight like idiots and destroy the hard earned wealth and properties of minorities which could have helped the economy and the people indirectly?

    Are we civilizing forward or going back to the dark ages?

  • 1

    ” “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    This is a nice sentiment, BUT how many of our own newspapermen/women follow it. There are many Sri Lankan newspapers which would NOT publish any negative sentiment about the US. Why this is, is rather easy to comprehend. Yet, these same entities are at the forefront fighting for ‘freedom of speech’ for foreigners, iNGOs and others whose activities are, lets say, NOT for our benefit.

  • 0

    The ACHR has referred definitely to white vanning!
    The threat is REAL.

    Sengodan. M

  • 3


    Freedom Of Expression And Association Of NGOs Under Threat In Sri Lanka.

    When I posted comment in response to your Article in which I said that the change in Sri Lanka to return the country to civilsed standards which we all crave for is not going to come from within you disagreed. MR is still basking in the glory of bringing the so called war to an end but has replaced it with State Terrorism and his support base is solid.
    I am still confident that the International pressure with the imposition of sanctions which no doubt will hurt the country but will bring the necessary changes. When people realise that MR is a liabilty they wil be forced to swap horses.

    • 1


      I have never denied the importance of ‘international pressure’ (mainly diplomatic and HR) as an essential factor in democratic or human rights development in a country. But I give more importance for internal political mobilization. The latter is also the duty of political parties and civil society organizations. By the way, weighing particularly of these two factors or processes was one purpose of my PhD thesis, taking Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka as case studies. This is just to say that I have done some studies on the subject to come to that conclusion.

      Too much reliance on external factor or one factor could be misleading and even counterproductive. Under certain circumstances, internal potentials for change might be depressing. Nevertheless, they are the most reliable in terms of sustainability and balanced development. That is also what we mean by democracy, demos (people) cracy (power/rule), as a simplified definition. I am a liberal socialist. Sanctions to me is ‘punishing the poor.’ Under the present international balance of power, sanctions even might not work. I also don’t trust the West completely on the issues of democracy or human rights. I am cautiously satisfied with the opposition emerging in Sri Lanka against authoritarian measures and the regime. The question is consolidation and strategy. Waiting completely for outside intervention is like Waiting for Godot!

      • 1

        Dear Prof. Laksiri,

        The foundations that supported this government are crumbling by the day. The government perceives this quite well and is trying to stop this by resorting to every trick imaginable. However, they are not working because they are widely perceived as wrong. The internal factors are steadily, but acceleratingly coalescing to bring about the fall of this government. The combination of these internal factors and the external factors, will make combine to topple the edifice. How soon this will happen cannot be foretold, but it is on the way. Circumstances will determine the timing.

        Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 1


    Countdown: 36 days.

    • 1

      Thanks Grandad:

      Sweet dreams untill woken by a knock on the door from TNA.

  • 3


    1)I give more importance for internal political mobilization.

    In a healthy Democracy elections are won and lost on bread and butter issues but when it is decided on the Issue of Race, olictical mobilization is difficult if not impossible. With all due respct to you personally I am very pesismistic that we can turn Sinhalese electorate to accomodate Tamil Aspirations. It hasnt happened in 64 years and how we expect a change of heart now.

    I am sorry to say but the overwhelming majority are inherently Racist so you have a mountain to climb.

    2)The latter is also the duty of political parties and civil society organizations.

    I am sure you appreciate that duty is different from reality and even with the best will in the World it is a herculean task. I wish you the very best with your endeavours and I commend you for trying but we have no faith and our slavation lies with the International effort.

  • 0

    The Gramasamvardhana (Rural Development) movement movement of the 1930s and 1940s led by the distinguished scholar monk Kalukondayave Pannasekhara of Vidyodaya was, in our terms, a vast NGO, that had smaller scale “branches” in numerous villages throughout the country. The (British) government of the time appreciated and encouraged it.

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