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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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]