The Growing Irrelevance Of Sri Lanka’s ‘Civil Society’

By Samanmalee Unanthenna

Mahinda Rajapaksa — A hardliner

Last week, I wrote a few words on the capitulation of Sri Lanka’s traditional left parties to the Rajapaksa regime.  As a result, one force that could have potentially checked the Rajapaksa juggernaut and provided an alternative political space has been erased.  This week, I would like to consider yet another potential force which also seems to have lost its way: Sri Lanka’s civil society.
Let me first clarify what I mean by Sri Lanka’s civil society; I am using the term ‘civil society’ to describe a certain type of non-governmental organisation and movement.  These are mainly Colombo based, primarily foreign funded organisations.  The heads and majority of staff of these organisations are comfortable in an English speaking environment and among international donor agencies.  Education (sometimes foreign higher education), international contacts and links with Sri Lanka’s social elites have enabled them to maintain a certain cosmopolitan culture amongst them.
These organisations engage mainly in research, policy development, advocacy and training on a range of issues such as human rights, peace building, conflict resolution, child rights and women’s rights.   They were in varying degrees of intensity critical of a military solution to the ethnic problem, advocated for and supported the peace process and were particularly concerned about the impact of the war on civilians.
I am aware that such a definition of ‘civil society’ is bound to be somewhat controversial.  However, I am proposing this definition with a particular purpose. That is, to draw attention to the changes which have taken place within Sri Lanka’s civil society in the last two to three decades.  These changes can be traced to two main factors: one being the growing role of NGOs within a neoliberal economic framework where international development aid began to be increasingly channelled through NGOs.  Consequently, development too has undergone significant changes and its subject area has expanded considerably to include issues which can be described as assessing and changing the behaviour of individuals and states according to globally sanctioned policies and frameworks.
This means that the mandate of NGOs shifted from addressing the basic needs of people to addressing the causes of poverty and injustice.  This has also meant that NGOs have moved into areas traditionally considered to be the responsibility of the state, political movements, trade unions and citizens groups.  Not only has this meant that the mandate of NGOs has grown broader but also that political movements and trade unions in particular have become ‘NGO-ised’.
Secondly, the reliance on international funding and the need to keep up with rapidly changing international development discourse and frameworks has meant that the space for civil society movements to evolve according to local needs, on long term plans and based on grassroots social mobilisation has been considerably reduced.  Organisations that attempt to do so are severely constrained by lack of funding.  It is within this specific context that I identify Sri Lankan civil society primarily as NGOs.
These factors have also led to certain homogenisation of civil society in Sri Lanka: culturally as well as ideologically, the diversity that was a characteristic of civil society movements in the 1950s and 1960s has been erased.  It has become easier to caricature civil society organisations and personnel as a ‘foreign funded’, kurta-clad, culturally alien subspecies whose ‘causes’ are limited to occasional gatherings at Lipton Circus and more frequent gatherings in the five star circuit.  This caricature is not wholly inaccurate.  While I do not agree with or want to join the bandwagon that is braying for the blood of civil society organisations on the charges of ‘betrayal’ and lack of ‘patriotism’, what I do want to consider in this article is the relevance of civil society in the Age of the Rajapaksas.
Given that the mandate of many of these organisations involves the protection of human rights, good governance and anti-corruption, their relevance in the current context should be unquestionable.  But rather than a highly energised, pro-active and visible civil society, what we have today is a dispirited, pessimistic and more dangerously, cynical one.  No doubt the repressive actions of the regime contributed to this but I would like to explore the general listlessness of civil society from a slightly different angle as well.
This slide to the irrelevance of Sri Lanka’s civil society can be traced back to its (direct and indirect) allegiance to the UNP and to Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular. The previous occasion when civil society had rallied behind a mainstream political leader was in 1994 with the rise of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.  This relationship however soon soured and turned almost into one of deadly enmity.  The allegiance between the UNP and civil society developed partly as a result of the favourable environment that the UNP created for civil society organisations that conformed with the neo-liberal definition of NGOs and, partly as a result more recently, of the UNP’s liberal peace agenda.  This relationship has been far more enduring.  With the exception of Ranasinghe Premadasa who viewed civil society organisations with suspicion, by and large, the UNP leadership has been accommodating of them.
It fitted in with their idea of reducing the economic burden of the state by shifting the responsibility of welfare on to civil society.  The relationship became cemented over the peace process.  Most civil society organisations were anti-war and advocating for peace talks.  Most civil society organisations were also sensitive to issues facing minority communities.  In Ranil Wickremesinghe they found a leader who shared the same cosmopolitan, liberal, internationalist world view on most issues.
But as we now know, the liberal peace process failed miserably.  The most dangerous consequence of its failure was the strengthening of hard-line positions, which eventually allowed Mahinda Rajapaksa to come into power on a wave of nationalist renewal and patriotic fervour.  What followed was a witch hunt against civil society organisations and representatives who were quickly labelled as ‘traitors’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘betrayers’.  Even civil society organisations that had not explicitly worked on politically sensitive issues engaged in self-censorship through fear of reprisal.  Civil society organisations have been since subject to intimidation and threats which have effectively restricted their work in many areas.  Furthermore, this regime’s equation of development with economic growth and infrastructure development has meant that organisations involved in social and political advocacy have been ruthlessly brushed aside.
The inability of civil society organisations to rally against these threats is not merely an indication of the success of the state’s repression.  The reputation of civil society organisations has been damaged to such an extent that their repression did not draw much public sympathy.  The problem was not  just civil society’s pro-peace, anti-war mandates.  The problem was in their complete reliance on the liberal peace model to deliver a just and peaceful society and in their willingness to overlook the fatal flaws in that model.  It also accommodated the less palatable aspects of the UNP regime in its eagerness to embrace the peace process.
For instance, it turned a blind eye to the  economic reforms that were considered necessary to facilitate the prosperity that peace would bring.  It ignored the growing disenchantment of grassroots UNP supporters with its leadership. Additionally, good governance, transparency and accountability that civil society organisations were preaching so self-righteously to the state were certainly not in evidence within these organisations.  This  meant that like the UNP, civil society  gradually became de-linked from the concerns and more importantly the thinking of those whose interests it was supposed to represent. The dilution of the more radical elements of civil society organisations cannot of course be attributed solely to its willingness to compromise for the sake of peace and a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue.  This dilution was assisted by its growing elitism.
If we consider the new generation of Sri Lanka’s civil society, it consists of those who in an earlier era would have been the elite within Sri Lanka’s public sector. The earlier generation of Sri Lanka’s civil society were often able to straddle two careers – as members of the public sector as well as of civil society.  The gradual Sinhalisation (and to a far lesser extent Tamilisation) of the public sector has meant that the public sector is no longer the coveted career path for the economic and social elites of Sri Lanka.  Nor is the public sector the automatic choice among the highly educated especially those with ambitions.  The private sector is now the career choice for this section of the population and also their familiar cultural space.  The idealistic, public-spirited, socially conscious individuals among this group opted either to make Corporate Social Responsibility or an NGO career their professional path.

This growing divide between the public and private sectors in Sri Lanka is more than a professional divide. It represents a cultural and ideological divide as well. The ability of an earlier generation to traverse between these two sectors and more importantly between the different cultures and ideologies that the two sectors represented made the divide less significant. Civil society’s alignment with the culture and ideology of the private sector has essentially erased its importance as providing an alternative culture and ideology to both the private and the public sectors. This means that rather than being able to influence change through public mobilisation, civil society organisations have had to act more as interest groups lobbying for influence among ruling governments.
So what does this mean in the Age of the Rajapaksas? Civil society is currently politically adrift. It has few choices. Its faith in Ranil Wickremesinghe has been shaken and has yielded few benefits or spaces for influence. It can choose to have faith in a reformed UNP under the leadership of Sajith Premadasa. This will not be an easy choice given that Sajith is sounding more and more like a UNP version of Mahinda Rajapaksa and does not seem able to provide an alternative to the existing governance model.
Civil society might as well then resign itself to working with Mahinda Rajapaksa (like some already have) who at least unlike Sajith has proved that he is effective at what he has set himself out to do.  Another trend has also emerged – the search for a UNP-like (or pro-UNP) alternative political movement, one which can accommodate economic liberalism, democracy and good governance. But these movements are scrabbling for support and recognition beyond a select circle of individuals and will ultimately follow the destiny of myriad such alternative political movements which have no popular support.
Interestingly, civil society organisations find all these options more palatable than a strategic alliance with the JVP which is currently the only political movement that is systematically opposing this regime and taking up issues which civil society organisations have so far been unable or unwilling to raise.  The position of the JVP with regard to the military solution to the ethnic problem and its violence (some of which was directed against some of these civil society movements) in ‘88/89 are the most obvious barriers to this alliance.
There are some other reasons as well: the JVP unlike other political parties is not influenced easily.  They cannot be won over merely with invitations to ‘workshops,’ ‘exposure visits’ and cosy chats in the cocktail circuit. Influencing the JVP agenda would require more sustained and committed work. Most importantly (and this is what hurts civil society organisations most deeply) the JVP would require proof of effectiveness, commitment and would also look for ideological commonalities. None of this fits particularly well into a project proposal.
However, if we consider the issues around which the JVP is currently agitating: the rising cost of living, salary increases, privatisation of education, the treatment of Tamil political prisoners, conditions of IDPs, media and student suppression, corruption, it is evident that some kind of strategic alliance would be mutually beneficial. Given the fact that the state has clearly signalled its intentions of suppressing the JVP and any JVP inspired movements it is also clear that it has identified the JVP as the greatest threat to the stability of this regime.  In fact, the Defence Secretary has already stated that the rise in defence expenditure despite the end of the war is in order to ward off any future threat from the JVP and the TNA. This means that more violations of human rights and of democratic processes are due to occur and the need for civil society organisations to be active and organised is very evident.
This unfortunately, is where the cultural and ideological isolation of civil society becomes evident. Their ‘NGOisation’ and reliance on international funding, their distance from the everyday issues and concerns of people stand in the way of any kind of grassroots mobilisation and movement.  Of course, civil society has other alternatives.  One is to not hitch itself to any explicit political party but to create spaces where citizens can engage meaningfully on issues that affect them. This engagement can be based on the multiple identities we hold as citizens of this country: as professionals, as artists, as consumers, as members of particular groups, as individuals affected by a particular initiative of the public or private sector, as women and men with common interests and concerns.  However, this too requires civil society to divest itself of particular organisational identities, to start thinking not in terms of project proposals and funding cycles but as intelligent and socially conscious citizens fighting for the space to be heard and to be counted.  It also requires a degree of humility to recognise that speaking to each other and to the like-minded does not amount to a political or social movement.   Another option would be to provide support issue by issue to political movements such as the JVP again without explicitly linking itself to the JVP political agenda.
Whether Sri Lanka’s civil society is ready to make this transition remains to be seen.  The fact that it needs to do so or otherwise fade into further irrelevance is indisputable.  The irrelevance of civil society organisations has already contributed to enough bloodshed and tragedy – if they fail to avert yet more tragedies, their very existence will be called into question.

2 Comments for “The Growing Irrelevance Of Sri Lanka’s ‘Civil Society’”

  1. Realist

    A rather confused analysis. Civil society organizations that stand for liberal democracy cannot support JVP which is a Marxist totalitarian party- it will be like jumping from the frying pan to the fire. As for Sajith Premadasa he is a miniature version of the President says the writer. If he becomes the party leader he may mobilize more support from the masses than Ranil but where will it lead to . did we have peace of mind to talk of liberal values under his father.I was warned for writing about the burnt corpses I saw in roadside in Nagoda. Liberal values will triumph eventually as the world is moving towards them. The dictators of this world have only a short tenure.

  2. Sri Lankan

    What I don’t understand is why the “civil society” is so arrogant not to make compromises to work with the present realities, which is ironically not much when compared to the compromises they were pushing during the peace talks.

    As the writer correctly points out, the future is not very different be it Rajapaksa or Premadasa.

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