Monday, July 21, 2014

Sri Lanka: Living ironies and redefining democracy

Activists  protest a government
order limiting the activities of
civil society groups (
Rukshana Nanayakkara
Since the last Presidential election in 2010 there has been no national challenge to the existence of the government. The traditional common enemy, the main Opposition is a docile entity. So the government is losing its common enemy. At present, the credible and reasoned criticism to the government's existence comes mainly from the media and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) who work within the spheres of democracy, governance and human rights.

Indicatively, the 2014 Press Freedom Index ranked Sri Lanka 165th out of 180 countries. We share the tail end of the ranking ribbon with China, Vietnam, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and a few others. The press freedom index is a figurative indicator of media freedom in this country. Most recently, the Tamil language daily, Uthayan, came under organised attacks twice within a short span of 10 days. The office was set on fire causing severe damage to the premises. Two of its employees were nearly killed.
The intended dominance and control is now again moved to NGOs. This reflects the unfortunate understanding of the government the role civil society could play in a democracy. In the backdrop of the investigation to be conducted by the UN, the government is trying to subjugate the NGOs, who at present are the only alternative criticism to the actions and voices of the government.

Civil Society Role 
There are many integral parts to a democracy. It is the civil society which brings out the organized voice of the constituencies as well as helps highlight key issues faced by the voters in between elections. It brings the voices of the often unheard and marginalized to the forefront. It brings an alternative voice to the mainstream to expand horizons. Holders of the power who are often unwilling to move and living in comfort zones become the focus of criticism of the NGOs. In a living democracy, the NGOs play a key role in expanding boundaries.
On the other hand, this is the role that regimes begrudge and resist. If power is moved for the benefit of the vested interest, an alternative voice is what is resented and threatened. In Sri Lanka, our international relations are already being propelled on a path alternate to the championing cause of human rights, democracy and good governance; our development model is coated with secrecy and is politically motivated.

Ironically, the space for NGOs was what was used by the present President when he was in the Opposition, to highlight human rights violations in the country. He armoured his political campaign against the then United National Party (UNP) Government with information he received from the civil society. In fact, it was the civil society which assisted him to go to Geneva to talk about the disappearances in Sri Lanka.

G. L. Peiris theory  
Another living irony is Prof. G. L. Peiris, whose teaching on international law once found its corner stones in democracy. His recent statements have alleged that a large amount of money is flowing into the country at present as funds for NGOs particularly during election times. According to the minister the aim of these programmes was not educating people about citizens' right but to change the regime.

The minister has asked the people of this country to mobilize themselves against these NGOs stating that NGOs lecturing the citizens of this country on voting was an insult to the voters. Unfortunately the government and the political party that the minister represents at present engaged in violating people rights and election regulations during
The party of the government has been accused and proved with evidence of using public property for its election campaign. Unfortunately the honourable minister's statement was only a reflection of paranoia of slowly losing popularity of the government (as echoed in the last provincial council elections) even in the absence of a strong opposition.

The government's attempts to limit NGO activities are clear violation of fundamental rights of freedom of association and assembly. Undoubtedly NGOs themselves are accountable to their actions and money that they receive from donors and people. Nevertheless such accountability and scrutiny should not come from a State apparatus as of the present regime who themselves live in paranoia and frown at the activities of NGOs who often provide an alternate voice to their authoritarian actions.
Ceylon Today