By Karu Jayasuriya –
Striking a chilling blow to civil society and the freedom of assembly and free expression in Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Defence has issued a circular to Non Governmental Organisations virtually banning them from expressing views to the public.
The circular that has been sent out to over 1000 NGOs from the National NGO Secretariat, that strangely functions under the Ministry of Defence, even five years after the war ended, has banned the organisations from holding press conferences, workshops and even issuing a simple media release.
Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, any citizen, irrespective of whether they belong to an association, is guaranteed the right of free expression. They are guaranteed the right to peacefully assemble. The Ministry of Defence 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 Defence 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 Defence 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.
It is the argument of the Defence Ministry, completely unsupported in the law books of this country, that these activities would be tantamount to NGOs going beyond their mandate.
Even if the Defence Ministry was basing its proscription in law, it would be laughable in its hypocrisy. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence is one of the most versatile in the world, engaging in activities beyond its mandate in ways that boggle the mind. The military is involved in horticulture, tourism, aviation, dengue prevention. It operates boat rides and barber shops. The Defence Ministry has become the place to resolve every national issue, from economic crisises to religious conflict, because the citizenry is increasingly aware that it is in that building that the true power of this regime resides. The civil administration is losing grip, as the military facet of the regime gains in strength, stature and brutality with each passing day.
The circular clipping the wings of NGOs in the country therefore, is about a much bigger issue.
The time has come for Sri Lankans to question why the Defence Ministry’s shadow intrudes into every aspect of civilian life and governance in this country. As citizens, we must question why we are forced to rely on the military to perform the most perfunctory of tasks, such as collect our garbage or cut our grass. We must open our eyes as to which branch of this Government is creating the perception that it is only the military establishment that is the only functioning system – and why it is necessary to entrench that impression in the minds of the public.
As the country’s main opposition we demand that the Government recognise and uphold civil society and its contribution of civil society to the broader democrtaic framework that it claims commitment to. The Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa demonises every individual and institution that stands in its way to consolidating power and establishing an autocracy. The NGO sector has long been in its cross-hairs.
The UNP demands that the Government and its Ministry of Defence relinquishes its stranglehold on civil society. As Chair of the Commonwealth, which only months ago hosted the Commonwealth Peoples’ Forum and recognised the role of civil society in a democracy, the Government has a moral obligation to keep its hands off peoples movements and NGOs.
*Statement issued by Karu Jayasuriya, Chairman of the Leadership Council, UNP