Political Parties, Civil Society Organisations Or NGOs?
By Samanmalee Unanthenna
So the unthinkable has finally happened. The Rajapaksa dynasty has been legally approved. Its totalitarian ambitions are now backed by the Constitution. Not only has the road for President Namal been cleared, but the independence of all democratic institutions has been compromised in one fell swoop.
Yes, there are those amongst us who say that Sri Lanka needs a dictator, or that economic growth requires political stability. But political stability does not require a dictatorship and mere economic growth (as we can see in other countries) is not the panacea for all the problems facing us today. There are others who argue that the judiciary, police, armed forces and the public services were corrupt and politicised anyway – but they fail to understand the tragic consequences of legitimising those anti-democratic and corrupt practices.
We have now legalised the patronage and feudal politics that made Sri Lanka a failed democracy. The extension of presidential terms is the least of the problems: the scrapping of the Constitutional Council (flawed as it was) and replacing it with a Parliamentary Council which only has the power to make its observations to the President, is the most serious component in the 18th Amendment. Tellingly, the President does not have to abide by the Council’s observations. If this isn’t paving the way for a dictatorship, what is?
Ever since the Rajapaksas gained power, and most clearly in the past week, what we have seen is the total failure of the people and institutions that should have protected our democracy, failed as it was. After all, a failed democracy is better than no democracy at all. The judiciary failed us; our elected representatives kicked us in our faces; the media failed us; and most of all we let ourselves down. In this article, I would like to explore some of the reasons for this collective failure – not to join in the chorus of accusations and blame which are ultimately counter-productive, but to see if there are any lessons to be learnt from this debacle, which might help us in what is surely going to be a hard, long and violent fight for our freedoms.
During this week, the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular, have been vilified and berated possibly even more than the Rajapaksas. And the chorus of blame has been led by those of us fighting to protect democracy. The failure of the oldest and possibly largest political party in Sri Lanka to conjure more than a weak effort at opposing the 18th Amendment and the complete incompetence and more alarmingly, indifference, of Ranil Wickremesinghe to this issue has rightly come in for a lot of criticism. I found myself intrigued by this: why is it that despite knowing the past record of the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe, we continue to expect them to show us the way? What is the basis for this enduring and unshakable faith that liberal minded, supposedly progressive and pro-democratic elements have in a political party and leadership which has consistently failed to deliver in the past several years?
This becomes even more amazing when you consider that whatever resistance and agitation against the 18th Amendment, unsuccessful as they were, came not from the UNP or under the leadership of Wickremesinghe. The UNP according to Wickremesinghe did not have the ‘time’ to prepare a challenge in court. The political party with the wealthiest of supporters and the largest network of professionals did not have time to prepare a challenge to what was inarguably the most dangerous piece of legislation to be passed in this country? What kind of an excuse is that?
The JVP managed to put together a challenge; surely the UNP has more resources at its disposal than the JVP? Although Wickremesinghe did not have the time to prepare a legal challenge, he clearly had enough time to attend a meeting organised by members of civil society organisations on Monday evening and to hang around engaging in small talk! The UNP’s puny efforts at mobilising a protest rally didn’t take them too far beyond Sirikotha; the most visible demonstrations came from the JVP (who as usual displayed their organisational skills and the loyalty of party cadres) and disparate groups of individuals and members of civil society organisations.
Some UNP MPs tagged on to these protests – but the fact that the major opposition party was unable to successfully mobilise a public rally against the Amendment is a severe indictment.
Much has been made of the apathy of the Sri Lankan voter. But the joyful scenes of kiribath eating on state television hardly suggested apathy. As a friend remarked, Sri Lankans now seem to have adopted the tradition of eating kiribath at funerals; we marked the end of a bloody war which cost thousands of lives with one kiribath feast and the death of democracy with another. But there are certain requisites for a mobilised and active citizenry (as opposed to those who fawn over leaders who will annihilate them without a moment’s consideration if need be); citizens who will fight to protect their freedoms. These requisites include visionary political leadership, an independent and analytical media, and active and engaged civil society organisations.
Sri Lanka it seems, falls short on all of these. And a fundamental reason for this is that in Sri Lanka, political parties, the media and civil society organisations have been far too cosy with each other. One may argue that in many societies in the world today the relationship between political parties and the media are too cosy; but this cosy relationship that civil society organisations in Sri Lanka have with political parties and the media is quite unique. So much so, that as others have argued, Sri Lanka does not have civil society organisations. Civil society organisations are generally regarded as collectives based on shared values and interests that are theoretically distinct from the state and from the market.
While the boundaries between these entities have always been blurred, in Sri Lanka they are almost non-existent. The ‘NGOisation’ of civil society has meant that organisations are dependent on donor mandates and interests as well as funding; increasingly the funding of NGOs takes place within market relations; even the jargon now is borrowed from the market: NGOs now ‘bid’ for work; compete with each other for funding and have a ‘brand’ that they sell.
But the particular tragedy in Sri Lanka is that the distinction between civil society organisations and the UNP is almost indistinct. Ranil Wickremesinghe behaves more like the Executive Director of a failing NGO than the leader of a political party. And so-called civil society organisations in Sri Lanka have depended far too much on Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP to achieve its objectives. Even the most radical and progressive of civil society organisations are only able to see the UNP as its political messiah. The UNP’s accommodating position with regard to ethnic minorities and its support of the peace process is largely behind this support.
But what these civil society organisations failed to see was that the peace process unleashed by the UNP was doomed to failure because it was primarily based on a neo-liberal understanding of the economic dividends of peace. This is the only kind of peace process that Ranil Wickremesinghe understands and as we now know, it completely failed to grasp the political realities of the South as well as that of the LTTE, much less cope with them. But the blind faith of civil society organisations in the UNP has meant that like the UNP, they are removed, distanced and out of step with the public. So much so that with the failure of the UNP, civil society organisations are unable to see a way forward; like the UNP they are depressed and defeated.
If we are to defeat the Rajapaksas and their totalitarian and dynastic project, then this is the challenge we have to face; because strong and vibrant civil society movements are essential for mobilising and leading the public; to shake the apathy, self-interest and narrow vision that has eviscerated our society. The challenge is for existing civil society organisations to move out of their comfort zones and for new and creative movements and alliances to be built. These movements cannot be, indeed they must not be, dependent on international donor funding and interest. This does not mean that they cannot obtain international funds nor have international links, but that their interests cannot be determined by donors.
It means that they must be driven by social, civic and collective interests, rather than arrogance, personal ambition and wealth. Sri Lanka did have strong and active civil society movements in the past and there is no reason why we cannot have them again. There are already several small initiatives that are beginning to emerge – but we need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes we made in the past. Most of all we need to realise that the strength of civil society organisations come from being embedded within the community.
I can almost hear the hoots of derision and the cynical comments my proposal will provoke, but we cannot afford to be cynical and defeatist at this point in time. Totalitarianism thrives on the cynicism and pessimism of the people it seeks to control. We cannot merely stop at finger-pointing and blaming. We cannot merely blame the apathy of people when we are so much a part of that apathy. We must prevail over the Rajapaksa project. We have no other choice.