The Sunday Leader

The Perennial Claim That NGOs Are A Threat To National Security

By Dr Jehan Perera

The role of NGOs, which are a part of civil society, has now become a major national issue.  There are media headlines and editorials on the allegedly anti national impact of their work.  They are being condemned for working hand in glove with the international community to investigate the last phase of the war.  The latest critique of them has come through the comment of Ministry of Finance Secretary Dr P B Jayasundera.  Usually it is his comments on the economy that are read and analysed to gain a better understanding of the country’s economy and future prospects.  But delivering the keynote address at the opening session of the three day Defence Seminar 2014, which is an international conference organised by the Sri Lanka Army, held for the fourth consecutive year, he ventured beyond the economy to state that “the operation of NGOs in non regulated environments has become a threat to financial management, inclusive development and law and order itself.”

As a result of this mental construction of NGOs being a security threat within the highest levels of government, NGO activities have now become a subject of strict security monitoring. There are also efforts to restrict their ability to work through various governmental regulations.  The issue of security forces personnel in uniform and intelligence officers in plain clothes performing surveillance of civil society activities in the North and East has been widely reported in the post-war period.   Civil society and NGOs do more than looks for war crimes.  There are reports that this surveillance includes social functions such as weddings, puberty ceremonies, memorial services in addition to seminars and workshops organised by NGOs in the North and East.  This is a source of resentment to those who are subjected to surveillance and have to self censor what they say.  However, the practice of surveillance appears to be expanding.

Expanding surveillance

On three occasions in the past month, inter-religious reconciliation work conducted by the National Peace Council was subjected to surveillance by the security forces. Two of these events were outside the former war zones of the North and East, which suggests that the practice of surveillance is encompassing the entire country.  This inter-religious work is meant to promote reconciliation and strengthen relations between the different ethnic and religious communities.  Similarly motivated government officials are invited to join in this work, and in those committees.  There is nothing secret or surreptitious about this work, which the government itself has pledged to implement with the support of civil society as recommended both by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and by the National Human Rights Action Plan.

However, in Kandy, where an inter-religious dialogue was being conducted inside a private hall of a reputed civil society organisation of long standing, intelligence personnel had entered the hall in civvies and were recording the discussion. In Galle, where a programme that brought children and their parents together from all communities was held, the local police had also been invited to attend.  However, another police team came to investigate the programme.  They left after the local police explained the programme to them.  In Addalaichenai in the East, where a youth amity camp was held, the local police and local government authorities had been informed in advance and took part in the opening ceremony.  But despite their presence, uniformed military personnel with weapons had come and questioned the organisers of the programme on three separate occasions over a two day period.


Bad times

However, times have been bad for civil society even in the past.  The contest between government and civil society is not new, and this will not be the last time it will occur.   The desire for free space within society to engage in issues of governance has to become internalised within the general population if the encroachment of that free space by the government is to be stopped.  The apprehension of the government leadership is that a section of civil society poses a threat to the political hegemony of the government.  Of particular relevance to CSOs today is the manner in which the Sarvodaya Movement faced up to the challenge of governmental hostility during the period of the Premadasa presidency.  The newly released Volumes 3 and 4 of the autobiography of Sarvodaya leader Dr A T Ariyaratne will be an encouragement to civil society organisations today that feel themselves to be under siege from the government.

As a sector, NGOs work very closely with the larger community.  Those working in NGOs come from all strata of society, and include government politicians who have set up their own foundations often in their own name.  They go into the midst of poor and powerless communities, to provide the people living there with vocational training, livelihood assistance and emergency aid, where necessary.  They increase the level of knowledge of people on their legal rights, on best practices in health and in sustainable agriculture practice, to mention but a few of their constructive activities.  They promote relationships between communities by promoting face-to-face interaction and inter-religious societies

Instead of viewing the NGOs as a potential security threat the government needs to see them as part and parcel of democratic society and engage constructively with them.   It appears that the main problem that the government has is with those NGOs that seek to assist families whose loved ones went missing in the war.  The government appears to fear that the evidence they produce could be used against it in international forums.   The government needs to create a conducive environment, and effective national institutions, so that NGOs are also willing and happy to engage with it to solve the problems of the people they have committed themselves to assist.  This is the way forward to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka.

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