Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The Attacks on Civil Society Organizations

Sumanasiri Liyanage

Dr Pradeep Jeganathan’s dinner experience in Delhi with a French anthropologist reminded me a recent meeting I happened to have with a European high level diplomat in Sri Lanka. Referring to the recent events in Sri Lanka, he said: “I would be worried if similar things have happened in Balkans or even in India, but I am not worried at all for what is happening in Sri Lanka”. Is this a difference between an anthropologist who in Dr Jeganathan’s account was superficially worried about Sri Lanka and a diplomat who has been here for quite a long time but least worried about the Sri Lankan events? The diplomat in my story was rather angry as international community failed to tame the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). Did my experience contradict Dr Jeganathan’s dinner experience? I would say no. Two stories, in my view, reveal how the imperialist mind works with regard to the countries in the global South; they worried if they could control the situation and they become angry when they fail to do so. I am fully agree with Dr Jeganathan when he emphasized the need of situating the notion of R2P (a kind of SMS language for Responsibility to Protect) in the global context in order to understand it fully and properly. This is something to be highlighted since many who talked about polyvocalty, diversity and heterogeneity appear to think IINTERNATIONAL as a homogeneous community. Since they cannot see such homogeneity in international community they identify it with the West.

In what context, R2P suddenly grew in importence in Sri Lanka? The GoSL has refused to extend resident visas of Dr Norbert Ropers and Dr Rama Mani for the year 2008. When visas are refused, explanations are not normally given. Although in case of Dr Ropers it was not clear why his visa was not extended, in case of Dr Mani, it appears that she was refused resident visa because of her involvement in R2P and GCR2P (Global Center for R2P). Dr Norbert Ropers is the Director of Colombo-based Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies and Dr Rama Mani was the Director of International Center for Ethnic Studies (Colombo sector). It appears that the two decisions are taken separately, may be, for different reasons. In case of Berghof Foundation, the operation of organization was not questioned and it seems to be a decision only against its director, not against the organization. However, in the case of ICES, it is different. We heard that the state machinery including the CID had begun an investigation on the activities of the organization. Can this action be justified? What does these recent action by the government of Mahinda Rajapakse signify?

Those who are familiar with my writings know that I am a persistent critique not only of Colombo civil society but also of the concept of civil society. I think the idea that a vibrant civil society is imperative to a vibrant democracy is an inflated one. In other words, in this part of the world the presence of vibrant civil society does not ensure democratic governance for two reasons. First, civil society in this part of the word has always been a small and elitist segment so that its influence is not wide-spread or deep-rooted. Secondly, civil society has been subjected to the ‘colonization of power and money’. Hence I always argue that many civil society organizations do have corrupt, non-transparent and undemocratic practices and hierarchical institutional structures. However, this critique does not imply by any means that the presence of civil society organizations is not of any significance. They played an important role in many fields. In this sense, ICES has done a significant contribution to Sri Lankan democratic discourse.

Let me also say something on R2P. After Gareth Evans’s Neelan Thiruchelvam memorial lecture, I browsed through World Wide Web and read about it. This may be relevant to the issue at hand mainly because R2P and the state security happened to be linked in taking an action against Dr Rama Mani and the ICES. This seems ridiculous to me. The notion that the international community should be given right or responsibility to protect people who are subjected to multiple forms of suppression and oppression and whose livelihood is threatened of course consistent with fundamental normative values of humans. In my opinion, the notion of sovereignty should be subordinated to this basic normative value. The presence of such a responsibility may even be interpreted as something that engenders state security in the sense that states would be careful in dealing with its own population. Nonetheless, I propose that the concept of R2P has to be viewed critically. R2P is not an abstract concept; it is suggested to put into practice in the context that is characterized by the global dominance of power and capital. The recent statement of the German Minister of International Development that received so much publicity in Sri Lanka showed the arrogance of global powers and they continue to perceive global south as their backyard. So my criticism of R2P is contextual and what I emphasize is that R2P in practice may be another attempt by global political and economic powers to dominate the world.

In my opinion, there have been two forces at work that people in the global south should seriously take into account. First is the attempt of international capital with its institutions to constantly subjugate the countries that achieved formal political independence after the World War 2. Dr Jeganathan has lucidly and powerfully revealed how these forces operate worldwide developing new institutions bypassing the institutions of the United Nations. I may add that capitalist powers invariably try to use the United Nations and its institutions in order to achieve its own interests. However, we would make serious blunder if we stop at recognizing and understanding the operation of this force while neglecting the second force that is in operation at local level. This second force is the post-colonial state that tries to suppress and oppress constantly its own population. The explanation of non-extension of visa to Dr Ropers and Dr Mani should also include this dimension. I would argue the Sri Lankan state has inflated the issues of R2P and the activities of INGOs for its own strategic reasons. The government of Mahinda Rajapakse wants to silence all kinds of criticism in order to make the Sri Lankan state more authoritarian.

When we look at the issues taking into account these two forces at work, I believe that the attempt to see R2P as a conspiracy sounds satirical and totally out of proportion. So if government or its informants trying paint a picture that an invitation extended to Gareth Evans is part of a big conspiracy to threaten Sri Lanka’s security in the midst armed conflict are not only exaggerating but totally misled.

Secondly, the ICES has its own history. Its founder, late Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam, contributed immensely to understanding the ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka and the nature of Sri Lankan state. He was assassinated by the LTTE mainly because of his contribution to democratic discourse in Sri Lanka. ICES had followed the same tradition throughout its history and there is no sign of deviation from this long tradition. Has it suddenly become a fortress of conspirators? Was Dr Rama Mani made its director to carry out this conspiracy? Rather I prefer to conclude that the conspirators operate on the side of the state.

The Sri Lankan state is in dilemma. It is in a war with the LTTE. It seems that Mahinda Chinthanaya perceives that it is not possible to withstand any kind of criticism while it is waging war against the LTTE. In my opinion this is a mistaken view. The government spokesperson tried give legitimacy to its military engagement with the LTTE saying that it is aimed at liberating the people from LTTE’s authoritarian rule. However, war has pushed the government to deploy the same authoritarian practices. It supports directly and indirectly para military organizations. It is trying to centralize everything in the hands of the President by refusing to appoint the Constitutional Council so that all important appointments can be done by the President himself. The attacks of the government on civil society organization in Colombo are a part of the process towards authoritarianism. The opposition parties have once again showed its impotency in countering this process. We need a social movement similar to what existed in the pre- 1994 period to counter the forces of money and power (using the Mandel’s term to denote capital and the state).

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya. E-mail: [email protected]