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Thursday, 17 March 2011






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Time for civil society to recover lost or robbed identity card

Last week, while interviewed Rajpal Abeynayaka and me on City FM, the presenter, Indika Jayaratne came up with a splendid proposal. Sivil samaajaya jana sathu kala yuthuda? he asked. Should ‘civil society’ be nationalized or vested with the people was his question. On the face of it this seems a meaningless idea. It’s like asking ‘should cricket be cricket?’ Well, it is not football and it cannot be rugger, except of course in a metaphorical sense.

The validity of the question arises from the ground reality of the broad category ‘civil society’ and the identity, politics and other operations of those who consider themselves as representatives of ‘civil society’.

First let’s get the definitions out of the way. ‘Civil society’ is a catch-all term taken to refer to all organizations which are not public or for-profit institutions. Thus any voluntary civic or social organization or institution outside of the structures of the State and commercial entities can be called a ‘civil society organization’. A Dayaka Sabhava associated with a Buddhist temple, a maranaadhara samithiya (funeral donation society), or a community based organization such as the hundreds setup by Sarvodaya or the thousands by SANASA could be contained within the parameters of this definition.

Democratic practices

Broadly, however, the term is used by way of self-definition by a prominent set of NGOs principally operating in political spheres, self-mandated in particular to advocate transparency, accountability, good governance, democratic practices and so on. Not only have these organizations assumed the mantle of ‘Spokespersons for civil society’, they carefully exclude around over 95 percent of all organizations that fulfill criteria pertaining to the definition.

It could be said, safely, that for all the democratic strutting around that the we-war-civil-society screamers engage in, they are at best a cartel, arrogant and presumptuous to the extreme and considering the fact that the clubs they form are limited to the near and dear (politically and otherwise), hardly possess the moral authority to talk about things democratic.

National interest

For a long time it has been common knowledge that such organizations and in particular their key personnel have a) received enormous amounts of money from foreign sources with questionable standing and dubious agenda, b) operated as fronts for the LTTE, c) shown suspicious reluctance to disclose who have them money, for what and why and of course who benefited and in what ways and d) advocated policies that are divisive and compromising of the nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

For decades, these organizations had a free hand. They made use of systemic loopholes to operate freely to the detriment of the national interest and this is an indictment of system, controlling mechanism and relevant authorities and personalities. It looks like someone is trying to set things right and this has alarmed these individuals to the point of tears.

Feizal Samath, reports for the IPS that NGOs are facing funding gap and government scrutiny. The body of the story focuses on the plight of the NGO cartel referred to above and not ‘civil society’ as a whole. The quotes included in the story are from such persons.

A ‘veteran aid worker’ is reported to have stated that ‘any NGO involved in governance, post-conflict peace or post-war trauma related work will have a problem with the authorities’. This person laments that authorities not only track the work of such NGOs but also visit their offices. What’s wrong with this, though? Is he/she saying that NGOs should not be monitored?

What he/she leaves out of the story is the well-known complicity of these organizations in operations that have had serious consequences for national security. The authorities are not tracking the other 95 percent of ‘civil society organizations’, are they? While I believe that no organization, big or small, should operate with blanket impunity from scrutiny, there has to be a reason why these particular NGOs have come under investigation.

Post-war trauma

They offer that organizations involved in governance, peace building, conflict-resolution and post-war trauma counseling are targeted because ‘anything that is considered political or empowering people to establish their rights is anathema to the establishment’. That’s opinion and nothing more. Good for project proposals and what not. What is left unsaid is what these organizations have done so far. Under cover of these sweet-sounding democracy-buzzwords, they have worked closely with terrorist organizations and engaged in activities that are not necessarily of a nature congruent with the civil-society definition above.

The National Peace Council and the Centre for Policy Alternatives are made of mutual-backscratchers who occasionally reward each other and frequently sing each other’s praises.

News report

These two organizations and Transparency International have received over Rs 600 million from foreign sources over the past three years. They are the king-pins among those who wave the civil-society flag. They are hardly representative of anyone except the rabidly anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist, Colombo-based, English-educated sections of the population which constitute less than 0.0001 percent of the citizenry.

The claim to be ‘empowering people’ is laughable for many of these organizations were virtually operating as the mouthpieces and brand-managers of the LTTE, an organization that not only disempowered people, but actually butchered them in the thousands.

If the government is cagey about such NGOs, as claimed in the news report, it is something that I would welcome and applaud, not because issues of governance, transparency and accountability are of no relevance (they certainly are) but that these operators need to be investigated thoroughly. It is something that is demanded by their long and dubious history of operating as agents of destabilization.

J Weliamuna, the former director of Transparency International’s Colombo office, has said ‘The Government sees everybody as a challenge and has a phobia against NGOs’.

This is rubbish, unless he believes that the CPA, NPC and TI have the authority to speak for the entirety that is called ‘civil society’. Certain outfits are being scrutinized, yes. It is something that should have been done a long time ago.

Weliamuna says, ‘the government views civil society (again that catch-all term!) its only challenge since the Opposition is weak’.

That’s self-image. The truth is that Weliamuna and his friends cannot get 100 people for a demonstration on any issue.

It is high time that ‘civil society’ stepped forward and demand that the likes of Weliamuna hand back the term.

They do not have the right to use it. They’ve abused it and this is because ‘civil society’ in the main had not known it could be called ‘civil society’ and for this reasons a bunch of self-seeking rogues grabbed it and along with it the ‘rights’ to represent.

Yes, I am all for ‘peoplizing’ the term ‘civil society’. In the interest of democracy and true representation. [email protected]



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