Colombo Telegraph

“Sri Lanka Transforming Into A ‘Crypto Military And Authoritarian State’” Says BASL

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has condemned the circular issued by the National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations that has already come under heavy criticisms due to the restrictions it has imposed on civil society groups active in Sri Lanka.

Upul Jayasuriya -BASL President

In a media release issued last night following the Executive Committee meeting, the BASL has asserted the communiqué issued by the Secretariat for NGOs that operates under the purview of the Ministry of Defense, as a ‘gross violation of the fundamental rights of the polity’ and has urged the authorities to revoke the circular immediately.

Pointing out the circular may have far reaching impacts on a free and democratic society; the BASL has stated that it is another extension of Sri Lanka’s transformation into a ‘crypto military and authoritarian state’.

The statement quoting the Global Military Index statistics issued by the Bonn International Center points out that Sri Lanka has been ranked as the most militarised country in the region at 36, following by Pakistan (47) and Afghanistan (58).

The BASL Executive Committee meeting has gone on to say the situation has been further deteriorated due to a regulation imposed under section 12 of the Public Security Ordinances that transferred Police powers to the Army, Navy and Air Forces, covering the entire country.

They state the deteriorating levels of right to dissent, freedom of expression, freedom of association and media freedom in Sri Lanka have been reflected in the Worldwide Governance Indicators in which Sri Lanka’s position has dropped from 0.15 negative in 2002 up to 0.60 negative by 2012.

The following facts were also listed to further underpin their concerns over the shrinking democratic space in Sri Lanka:

·         Lack of action over approximately 33 deaths that took place whilst in Police custody – no steps implemented so far to take action against accused Police officials or to declare them as justifiable homicides

·         Nearly 75 -80 houses being heavily damaged by rioters during the anti-Muslim violence that erupted in Southern Sri Lanka while officials of the Special Task Force looked on and evidence of the violence being destroyed with the help of the same forces.

·         Tampering of independent commissions that have been appointed to curb bribery and corruption

·         Independence of the judiciary being compromised due to unsuitable appointees

·         Lack of transparency in multi-million dollar development projects due to awarding them to foreign contractors without following protocols

The BASL has pointed out that the solution to the present plight in the country is not stifling media freedom but to take action against those responsible.

Pointing out Sri Lanka is ranking in 165th in the global index by Reporters Sans Frontiers on press freedom, out of a total of 175 countries including Libya, Rwanda and Uzbekistan, the BASL has pointed out that the recently issued circular pertaining to NGO activity is a further oppression of the freedom of expression in the country.

“We observe that this attempt is nothing but yet another effort to silence the alternative public opinion of the society through inculcating fear psychosis among the section of the society enhancing the autocratic writ to a fearful height,” the statement further reads.

We publish below the statement in full;

Communiqué has been issued On July 7 2014, the National Secretariat for NGOs, under the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development, to all NGOs preventing them from “conducting press conferences, workshops, journalism training and dissemination of press releases”. The authority claimed such activities are beyond the mandate of NGOs. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka is appalled by this communiqué and considers that the repercussions of the said circular may have far reaching impact on a free and  democratic society.

We observe that the post war Sri Lankan society is increasingly precipitating into a crypto military and authoritarian state.

Sri Lanka emerges as the most militarized country in the region ranked at 36 followed by Pakistan at 47, Afghanistan, 58 and India at 74. Nepal and Bangladesh occupy the 86 and 123 positions respectively while China comes at 84. These are the findings of the Global Militarization Index (GMI) 2013 published by Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC) that is based on the data for 2012.

This situation is further strengthened by the fact that since the lapse of emergency a regulation has been issued under section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance vesting Police powers on the Army, Navy and Air force covering the entire Country. We also of the opinion that the said regulation illegal, unjustified and ultravires. This gazette has been opposed by the BASL from its inception having foreseen the danger faced by the people.

According to the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI), a good governance template with regard to voice and accountability, Sri Lanka’s position in 2012 is at negative 0.60, a fast deterioration from 2002 where Sri Lanka was at negative 0.15. Similarly in percentile ranking, Sri Lanka has fallen from 42 in 2002 to 30 in 2012. This indicates our level of, lost right to dissent, freedom of expression, freedom of association and media freedom.

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death”.Bertrand Russell

We as the Principal Body representing the legal fraternity in Sri Lanka and committed to uphold rule of law in the country, come forward to issue this statement with dismay and frustration over the deteriorating trend that has been continuing within our society without any check and balance.

We consider it fitting to be reminded that;

#. in a series of deaths approximately 33 in number that have taken place whilst in Police custody, No steps have been taken against those Police Officers responsible and the taking of steps to pass them off as justifiable homicides,

#. In another spate of killings by Police officers and forces with the full glare of public scrutiny, the officers responsible have not even been arrested and produced before a court of law,

#.  In Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga town in the presence of large contingencies of the Special Task Force nearly 75-80 houses, shops, factories and places of worship have been burnt and steps were initiated to destroy even the evidence available with the help of the same forces,

#. Independent commissions set up to curb Bribery and corruption are being interfered and tampered with, including transfers and appointments having been made in and out of the commission, arbitrarily and capriciously,

#.  Independence of the Judiciary has been compromised with unsuitable appointees over looking time tested criteria of seniority and eminence,

#.  Multi Million dollar contracts which are far in excess of the international norms are awarded to foreign Contractors on the basis of unsolicited bids arbitrarily.

The answer to these issues that have caused grave concern to the society is not to curb the media freedom in a shameless  manner but to put the system right and take action against those responsible.

According to Reporters sans Frontiers, in the world ranking, Sri Lanka stands 165th out of 175 countries in terms of press freedom, behind Uzbekistan, Rwanda and Libya. As far as Asia goes Si Lanka is the 35th out of the 40 Asian countries listed. This is on the basis of known data and reported facts.

This was the situation prior to the issuance of this circular.

The impugned circular that has been issued under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense stifling the freedom of expression further with chilling effect is of no avail to our country to reach the standing of “the Miracle of Asia”  !

One of the former Presidents of the USA, Thomas Jefferson himself suffered greatly by the press during his presidency. He was a great believer in the ultimate triumph of truth in the free marketplace of ideas, and looked to that for his final vindication.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” -Thomas Jefferson – so he said in 1787.

We observe that the post war Sri Lankan polity has been in an acute and deepening crisis. The decline of democratic institutions and practices have become a reality of the day.

Edmund Burke an Irish Philosopher in the 17th Century said, ” The Triumph of the Evil is for good men to do nothing.”

The effort of the National Secretariat for NGOs, under the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development, according to our opinion is a living testimony for this impending crypto military and authoritarian tendency of the country.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka wish to state that the said circular violates fundamental principles that govern our free and democratic society, which is guaranteed by our constitution and it is completely militating against the rule of law principles of the country.

The contents as well as the implications of the said circular is against the directive principles of state policy enshrined in the Chapter VI of the constitution as well as violation of freedom of Expression and Speech, freedom of Assembly and Association, Freedom of occupation as guaranteed by the Article 14 of the Sri Lankan Constitution.

We observe that this attempt is nothing but yet another effort to silence the alternative public opinion of the society through inculcating fear psychosis among the section of the society enhancing the autocratic writ to a fearful height.

Therefore we condemn this so called circular issued by an officer within the Ministry of Defense in gross violation of the fundamental rights of the polity and urge the authorities to revoke this autocratic circular that has the effect of bringing further damage to the country Nationally and Internationally.

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