By Jehan Perera –
The ambiguously worded directive from the government’s NGO Secretariat responsible for monitoring non-governmental organizations, and which calls on NGOs to operate within their mandate, has led to strong criticism from a range of actors. These include the main opposition party, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the international community. The circular issued by the NGO Secretariat that was posted to more than 1400 NGOs throughout the country stated that “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.” This statement has led to the apprehension that NGOs as a sector, and as a whole, are being prohibited from conducting press conferences, training journalists and issuing press releases.
The circular put out by the NGO Secretariat is ambiguously worded. There are two ways in which it can be interpreted, and the common view taken by the NGOs and detractors of the government is that the government meant it for the worst. They have all been very critical of the government and voiced their condemnation of this attempt to restrict the freedom of expression and association of civil society groups. The Bar Association said the NGO Secretariat had violated the fundamental principles that governed a free and democratic society guaranteed by the constitution and it was completely militating against the rule of law principles of 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 government’s response to this criticism has so far been conciliatory. Responding to queries in Parliament as to what its intentions were, Prime Minister D M Jayaratna said, the government was not intending to control Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) but merely reminding them to act in accordance with the mandates they are pledged to. He also said that the letter issued was not an order but an instruction to request NGOs to act within the agreed boundaries and not to engage in any other action outside the original mandates. Defence Ministry spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said that the NGO Secretariat , which presently operates under the Defence Ministry, has been empowered with regulation and administration of NGOs under an Act of Parliament. He said that the NGOs should not go beyond their objectives, mission and vision as outlined by them at the point of registration with the Secretariat. He added that NGOs can conduct press conferences and training for journalists and workshops, if these were within their stated objectives at the time of registration with the NGOs Secretariat.
There is a reason for the negative view being taken by those who have opposed the NGO Secretariat’s directive and take its message negatively. During the past several years, there has been a steady erosion of the space for independent civil society activities. NGOs at large continued to obtain critical media coverage especially in the state sector media. A training by an NGO (the local branch of Transparency International) for Tamil journalists was stopped following protests by a mob calling itself the “Movement for National unity”. When Police intervention was sought organizers were informed by the Police that the mob wanted the program to be stopped. The journalists were then taken to a five-star hotel in Colombo an hour away from the original site, but the group was forced out from this venue too. The offices of NGOs are visited by military intelligence officers especially in the North and East and questions are raised about the nature of their activities.
On the other hand, there appears to be a strong sense of insecurity within the government that Western countries are trying to ensure a change of regime by two means. One is by engineering their defeat at the national elections that are anticipated next year. The other is by pursuing them with an international investigation on the grounds of war crimes. Where elections are concerned, the government appears to be seeing a threat to itself through NGOs that are receiving foreign funding. Government members have referred to what happened in Egypt and Syria and pledge not to permit this to happen in Sri Lanka. But the comparisons they make are an overreaction as it would put Sri Lanka into the same class of dictatorships as Egypt and Syria which is not accurate, as Sri Lanka has a popularly elected government unlike those two countries.
The government’s strong reaction to a call for proposals put out by USAID for voter education is illustrative of the concerns of the government. USAID, which is the development arm of the US government, had put out an advertisement requesting NGOs that are interested in voter education to apply for funds. Voter education programmes are common in democratic countries. They are meant to impress on citizens how important their participation at elections is, and to create awareness amongst them about the standards of free and fair elections. Previously voter education programmes have been permitted by the government. But on this occasion the government took up a confrontational stance that has caused the voter education programme to be called off. It believed that the voter education programme would be used to politically undermine it.
The government’s sense of insecurity at the present time would be exacerbated by the growing momentum of the UN-led international investigation into the last phase of the country’s war. The government’s effort to stall this investigation at the level of the UN has failed, even though it did garner the support of very powerful countries such as China and Russia and also the Muslim countries. But the Western countries that seek accountability led by the United States were able to obtain the majority of votes in the UN Human Rights Council, and so the international investigation that the government tried so hard to avert is now a reality. Having been unable to block the investigation from taking place internationally, the government appears to be trying the futile exercise of limiting the flow of information from Sri Lanka to the world outside. Indeed, this may also account for the circular issued to all NGOs by the NGO Secretariat of the government.
If Sri Lanka is to be respected as a democracy, the government needs to recognize that majority rule, or having a majority in Parliament does not foreclose other opinions that exist in the society at large. The problem is not what the NGOs do or say. The real problem is with the ground realities that they seek to improve through their efforts and which the government ought to be supporting them to do. If they act illegally, there is the general law that is applicable to anyone or any entity that acts illegally, be it a business company or a politician. Those who govern a country need to hear the opinions of the people and not have it filtered for them by those who are around them and have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. This requires a free flow of information, which is what NGOs provide as they work directly with the people at all levels of society and gather information which they analyse and disseminate. The problem arises when the government fails to govern the country according to democratic standards, and the international covenants it has signed, and therefore wishes to suppress NGOs who create awareness about its failings.
The NGO Secretariat which in the past used to be part of the Ministry of Social Welfare has, since the end of the war, been placed under the Ministry of Defence. In healthy democratic societies there is a clear line of separation between the military and civilian affairs which is an intrinsic feature of the system of checks and balances. However, in Sri Lanka this distinction has become increasingly blurred with the military intruding into civilian affairs. In a time of peace it is especially inappropriate for civil society to be placed under any sort of military control. 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. The government needs to create a conducive environment so that NGOs are also willing and happy to engage with it. However, at an emergency meeting of NGOs convened last week to discuss their response to the NGO Secretariat’s circular, there was little or no sign of that such an enabling environment existed