18 September, 2021

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The Need To Create A Positive Environment For NGOs To Engage With Government

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

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.

Both Ways

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.

Growing Insecurity

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

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Govt is on a defensive footing. Shoot anything that moves, gung ho, cowboy style. Dont talk, dont train, dont move, dont do anything without the express permission of MOD / GR. Total paralysis of Civil Society other than Gandasara and Co, Sinhala Ravaya and Associates.

  • 1
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    The regime conducted a genocidal war against Tamils without witnesses by banning the media, except its state media, to the war zone.

    It muzzled the media, after killing several media personnel, into a subservient one over several years now.

    It banned or blocked several web sites, and is contemplating the same with the social media.

    Now it is muzzling the NGOs.

    With all these blackouts in place, the lawless regime hopes to continue indefinitely with impunity, and may have something up its sleeve for the Muslim community.

  • 1
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    Jehan,
    You are talking to someone who is really deaf and blind. Not only that, only knows how to speak in your back. All NGOs are not bad as they affraid. But it is very common to see everywhere all the dictators and oppressive regimes are scared of them There main argument is national security. We don reject the claims completely. But in our country, al those are lies. Only solution is to burn those illegal regulations into ashes in front of the people. Ignore unlawful orders. Dont get mess up with new and old promises for ” Suba Anagathayak”. This is sign for facist military dictatorship. Now they are to abolish executive predency.( Big Joke!) We must change this regime for national interest and real development!

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    When we say NGOs, we don’t mean most of those 1400 or so non governmental organisations like ‘maranadara samithi’ Sri Lanka wide; we mean the NGOs that are funded by neocons and operated by anti national cliques.

    Neocons find some local fall guys dish out funds and ask them to form associations called civil society groups that are commonly called NGOs. If so, fundamental question one should ask is; whose freedom of expression NGOs represent? I say NGOs do not represent Sri Lankans. NGOs look after the interest of those who fund them. And NGO activists and chiefs in particular are puppets of neocons.

    Sri Lanka is a democratic and a sovereign country. Hence the government that is elected by the people should govern Sri Lanka for the period it is elected. However, yesteryear colonialists and their buddies do not let Sri Lanka and many other smaller countries exercise that franchise.

    It is no secret that neocons force their will on their former colonies through proxies. Whenever a proxy is not in the helm of a country, neocons use their puppets (NGOs) to help push their proxy to the helm. We have read about Americans doing it in South America through ‘economic hit men’ as well. Whatever the way, aim is the same. As I see it, Jehan’s argument is nothing but the rights of neocons to force their will on us.

    Let’s take Jehan’s point as he says; “… investigation into the last phase of the country’s war.”

    True, mighty neocons have ganged together and forced its dependencies (protectorates or colonies like countries) to vote with them at UNHRC to push their will on Sri Lanka. But the most populated democratic country, India not just abstained at the time but now says that they will not allow neocon agents to conduct their so-called ‘investigations’ in Indian soil. Why?

    India knows that whole issue is country specific and neocons aim it (their wrath) countries that they do not like. Besides, much much more (hundred of thousands) civilians were deliberately targeted and killed in Iraq afghanistan etc. But no vote at UNHRC or investigations. Even the their own report (Chilcot) on Iraq has been hidden under the carpet for more than three years after the conclusion its investigations.

    So, democracy and democratic values have nothing to do with accepting the will of the hypocritical double standards of neocons. If some wants genuflect and worship neocoms, so be it. But in this day and age the country should not bend backwards and accept neocon will.

    I wish all the best for the success of BRICKS talks in Brazil to promote a better world and defeat hypocritical neocon agenda.

  • 1
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    Sri Lanka is not belong to thugs and military dictators. Fake nationalsim and love for the country is only for their own benefit. Majority people sufferng without basic needs. They are developing Colombo for few families. Kiling people everyday, disapearance, kiling minorities, hate speeches and burning minority properites, land grabs and constitutional violations, thuggery and unlawful acts of maffia style rule, jungle law and now talking about UNHRC and rights of a soverign nation! We have no objection for UNHRC probe as it is not for the entire nation and the military. It is only for those who did violations and those who didnt care about international law and national laws. We must change this dictator regime. We must punish anyone who violate the constitution of the country and use military for political purposes.

  • 2
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    It is interesting to read a Tamil journalist’s point of view. She is no friend of the Government but she calls a spade a spade.
    http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2014/07/ngos-should-be-watchdogs-and-not.html

    Suckers are born every minute be they political stooges or paid NGOs. It is easy to tear a kitchen towel where there are perforations. Likewise the Western donors who want to spread their tentacles into countries where they have vested interests would target media, think-tanks and professionals who want to further their own interests both economically and intellectually.

    NGOs and independent media say they are being targeted by the government and the latter argue that the former duo are selling the nation for 30 pieces of silver a la Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to King Herod and the High Priests of Jerusalem Temple into crucifying him. The government, NGOs and the media have legitimate grievances.

    The government would argue that its national interest is being jeopardised by paid NGOs and media whereas the latter two justify their stance on stepping in when the government breaches its constitution and its promises to the populace who voted it to power

    There are two sides of argument to the government’s clamping down on NGOs. On the one hand some NGOs are paid generously to carry out their donors’ agenda and on the other they return the favour by acting as watchdogs to keep a check on government and corporate excesses and abuses.

    International NGOS focus on think-tanks, media and other professionals to carry out projects to either further their own interests geopolitically or trying to exert their influence in third world countries they seek to conform to their own ideals ignoring local cultural, ethnic and religious adherence which sustained them without interference from the West.

    This has been proven over centuries when the West invaded countries and while proclaiming civilisation and spreading Christianity to tribes they perceived as uncouth with their belief in ancient traditions they could not comprehend, virtually plundered them of their resources and left them high and dry.

    Western democracy is only a wolf in sheep’s clothing and it takes many avatars and one of them is the latter 20th century proliferation of NGOs. US, UK and Europe poke their noses into countries which have oil, minerals, natural resources or strategic interests in their dominance watching over its own interests more than it portrays that they are being benevolent and acting as saviours.

    When the West says the economy is in downturn it really means they cannot afford a second yacht in the Caribbean or oil-share in off-shore companies in Monaco or South America which are merely PO Box with no actual offices.

    What they do not tell the US citizens is that if they told them the economy is doing well then they would demand a slice of their pie ergo they predict they are going through a rough patch and the fat bureaucrats are really becoming paupers due to credit crunch or the IMF and World Bank or US gold reserves are showing signs of severe rigor mortis.

    And they tell us Third Word morons that we need to get our economy in order or else the IMF would stop lending us with strings attached. They also tell us to grow GM crops to feed the hungry while they resort to organic farming and windmill energy and keep their oil reserves in Texas and Alaska intact until they wage wars in the Middle East and deplete their energy resources.

    UK’s Refugee Council came into a lot of flak a few years ago over its blatant discrimination of Black employees when a top-dog conveniently forgot to invite them to her parties. The court ruled in favour of the aggrieved party. It employs refugees on a voluntary basis while the paid employees are predominantly White. Ironically its major funder is the Home Office.

    This begs the question how it can act independently. One employee confided to this writer that her pay was quite handsome and she was rather embarrassed about it.

    However, they too are bound by the diktat of their funders although their genuine goals are to pinpoint and rectify shortcomings in the governance such as curtailment of free expression, corruption, nepotism, misuse of public funds, politicising and interfering with the judiciary, controlling police powers.

    Civil society, independent media and the intelligentsia are too hamstrung to criticise the regime since to a certain extent they are beholden to genuflect before it willingly or unwittingly. The ordinary citizens who do not fit into the above categories are no fools either and it is the latter group which elects a party into power.

    NGOs are alternative and parallel forces to the government but unlike the government and public bodies, NGOs are accountable to their funders to the last penny at least in the West. Charity Commission in the UK is a stringent body which goes through a fine toothcomb how funds are disbursed. Even purchasing a newspaper with NGO funds should be accounted for.

    The government despite its many flaws has legitimate fears the West would use any ammo to control the island and make it a lackey. The NGOs should not barter the island’s sovereignty for mere personal gains.

    After all, we as a multi-ethnic society, should stick together in lean times and find ways and means to resolve our own problems. The UNHRC is not out to get us but bring some reprieve post 2009. There is so much to be done to bring redress to the war-ravaged nation and it is in the common interest the government co-operates with the UNHRC and listen to the voice of the moderates be they NGOs, civil society or grass roots organisations. Getting all too emotive and het-up would get us nowhere.

  • 1
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    Conditions must be created where the iNGOs whither and die. They serve but one master, an alien one, for which they are paid handsomely, far better than they ever would be doing a real worthwhile job. The damage they do to their kith and kin is no concern of theirs. The government must be held to account for allowing such a plethora of useless iNGOs to take root in Sri Lanka.

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