By Jehan Perera –
The government has left nothing to chance where it concerns the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which is to commence in the next few days. It invested heavily in CHOGM both in term of its political and financial capital. The government expects the international perspective on Sri Lanka, its economic potential and peaceful climate, to undergo a drastic transformation for the better. In the immediate run-up to the Heads of Government summit, there were three other forums, the Business Forum in Colombo, the Youth Forum in Hambantota and the People’s Forum in Hikkaduwa. In the past the People’s Forum was also known as the NGO Forum, but now it has been widened to include the whole of civil society.
The Role of Civil Society is one of the 16 paragraphs of the Commonwealth Charter which has also been signed by Sri Lanka. It states, “We recognise the important role that civil society plays in our communities and countries as partners in promoting and supporting Commonwealth values and principles, including the freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and in achieving development goals.” Since 1991, it has been the practice for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be accompanied by a Commonwealth People’s Forum that brings civil society leaders from across the Commonwealth to share their experiences with one another.
On this occasion the People’s Forum is to be held in Hikkaduwa. About 400 participants drawn in approximately equal numbers from foreign countries and Sri Lanka are presently attending this official event, which was ceremonially opened by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was evident that meticulous care had gone into the organizing of the People’s Forum. There was a fleet of newly purchased buses painted with the CHOGM symbol to transport the conference delegates to the opening ceremony which was in Galle. The venue was the old Dutch Hospital in the Galle Fort area, which had been re-furbished and reconstructed to be a world-class hospitality centre in a short space of a few months. The cultural aspects of the programme were tasteful and multi ethnic. All announcements were made in Sinhala, Tamil and English, and the dances and cultural items were representative of the different communities living in the country.
The enormous strides forward that Sri Lanka has made since the end of the war four years ago was one of the themes of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s address to the delegates at the People’s Forum. He said that “Sri Lanka is experiencing a time of change, of creativity, and expectations of a bright smiling future for all its citizens.” He showed his love for children by having them lead him to the stage and emphasized the future of the younger generations and the responsibility of the present leaders towards them. However, it was unfortunate that this measured speech of the President was followed by the background announcement that the President who had just spoken was the pragmatic leader who had brought peace to our motherland and was the “Father of the Nation.” This was out of place in a gathering of civil society leaders from across the globe who would invariably question the democratic spirit in such fawning utterances.
Like the more important Heads of Government meeting, the People’s Forum itself had its accompanying controversies. In the run-up to CHOGM, government intelligence sleuths questioned local civil society leaders whether they were planning a huge counter People’s Forum in Galle to be a rival to the official event. There was nothing of the sort. However, an alternative People’s Forum did place in Colombo, and not in Galle, on Thursday, three days prior to the official event in Hikkaduwa, which commenced on Sunday. This alternative event was not meant to rival the official Commonwealth People’s Forum or to disrupt it. Nevertheless, the government appears to have taken the event seriously. The state radio conducted an interview programme with life threatening comments against the organizers of the alternative event. Such a level of impunity indicated approval from the top.
The holding of an alternative people’s forum was perhaps unavoidable. More than 300 activists from all parts of the country attended the alternative People’s Forum in Colombo at the New Town Hall. The issues that were taken up at the alternative event were very much focused on Sri Lanka. The main focus of the alternative event was human rights and rule of law issues. This could not be the case at the official event in Hikkaduwa where the main theme is Equitable Growth and Inclusive Development, and the focus is on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The draft memorandum that was presented for discussion at the alternative People’s Forum in Colombo stated that the Sri Lankan government “is in violation of a host of international covenants and instruments on human rights to which is a signatory, including the Commonwealth Charter and the preceding declarations of the Commonwealth on which the Charter is based.”
It has been unfortunate that instead of there being a strengthening of civil society work in partnership with the government, there has been a weakening of it in Sri Lanka over the past few years. There has been a constriction of the space for many civil society activities in Sri Lanka due to the appearance of government mistrust of these organizations which appears set to continue. This was evident in the need to get security clearance in order to get accreditation. The other was the high cost of registration which is Rs 15,800 and was well out of reach of many civil society activists or their organizations, and which is in addition to having to find accommodation and meals on their own over the four days of the event in a location that primarily caters to foreign tourists. At the last moment a handful of civil society activists, including one or two who attended the alternative People’s Forum were granted fee waivers.
However the problem with security accreditation remained, which required personal intervention at the highest levels of the organizing committee. The reason as to why a security check is needed for a civil society event is left to the imagination. The event is taking place in Hikkaduwa, which is far from Colombo where the Heads of Government, who indeed require tight security, are meeting. Making the distance between the two events even greater is that fact that the People’s Forum ends two days before the Heads of Government meeting commences. In this context, it appears as if the accreditation process, and the need for security clearance, is to show that national security is paramount, and to give pride of place to those who see themselves as the guardians of the nation.
The accreditation process highlights the role of the security forces and intelligence authorities in controlling the free space for civil society actors, and thereby ensuring national security. Sri Lanka is probably the only country in the world where NGOs have to register under the Defence Ministry. The rightful and logical place for civil society groups to be registered is a civilian ministry not the Defence Ministry. When NGOs do work at the community level, the police (both Criminal Investigation Department and Terrorist Investigation Department) come and inquire as to what is going on, and sometimes even sit in on the proceedings, which intimidate the participants into maintaining silence. The free space for free discussion is being constricted in a manner that is not in accordance with Commonwealth Values let alone international standards of human rights.
In modern democracies, NGOs are seen as a necessary institution as they take up unpopular causes that other institutions do not. Some examples are the issues of minorities, be they ethnic, religious or caste. The mainstream political parties may not like to take up these issues for fear of antagonizing the majority of voters. However, civic groups, who do not seek votes like the political parties do, may be more willing to take up these unpopular causes. Indeed, the Commonwealth Charter and values look on NGOs and civil society groups as being partners with the government in promoting human rights and democratic freedoms of the people.
At the alternative event in Colombo, there was a strong representation of participants from the former war zones of the North and East and also from the much neglected Plantation sector which remains the poorest and most underserved in Sri Lanka. Those who spoke on the occasion representing the problems of the North and East, did so with much feeling and emotion. They spoke of their continuing poverty, of their missing loved ones whom they hope are still alive, of lands they have lost and about developments taking place over which they have no control. They appreciated the alternative People’s Forum that had given them a forum to air their longstanding grievances.
There was also the voice from the Plantations, from the people who continue to work on the tea estates even today for which they were brought down from India by the British over 150 years ago. The former colonial rulers cannot disclaim their continuing responsibility, in the manner that Leo Tolstoy highlighted in his great book “Resurrection.” The plantation Tamils continue to remain the poorest and most neglected in Sri Lanka. They too bemoaned their inability to take up these issues at the official People’s Forum to which they would have no access due to registration and fee paying problems. They feared that there would be no one to take up their issues on their behalf. The absence of leading civil society and grassroots activists from Sri Lanka at the official event, and the statement issued at the alternative event, are likely to become issues in a way that its gatekeepers did not anticipate, but ought to have.