South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Nimalka Fernando
Filed under: Colombo Telegraph,Opinion

The MOD & The NGO Surveillance Secretariat, Keep Your Letter In Your Archives As A Document To Remind You Of Your Collective Shame!

The Rajapakse regime has either become completely retarded or imbued with a deep sense of paraplegic paranoia. It seems as though the Defense Secretary has become so “high and mighty” that he has once again forgotten that his motherland has citizens like us with a strong backbone. 

I was totally baffled to see the letter signed by a “Mr. D.M.S Dissanayake” who is supposed to be the Director/Registrar of the National Secretariat for Non Governmental Organizations on a Ministry of Defence and Urban Development letterhead addressed to all Non-Governmental Organizations. The main part of this letter focuses on ‘Non-Governmental Organizations acting beyond their mandate’  with emphasis on “It has been revealed that certain Non Government Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, training for journalists and dissemination of press releases which is beyond their mandate.  We reiterate that all Non Government Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect”. I can only laugh at this document since while trying to take away our freedom of expression I do not think the person who signed this letter understood what he was writing or expressing.

The activities of the NGOs are defined and conducted under the statutes developed by members of an organization. In simple language this is what we call “a Constitution”. The Constitution in most NGOs will encompass a vision and mission statement in very general terms. The NGO’s objectives and activities are broadly drawn up and an action plan is evolved in consultation with the people that the NGO works with.  A work plan is then drawn up by the members of an NGO and approved at relevant meetings. All of this is based on the vision and mission of an NGO. The vision and mission is our mandate. Among the many strategies adopted by NGOs holding workshops, press briefings, training and disseminating information about our activities through press releases form the core of action. It is through such activities we share our vision our mission and our ideas. As an example of implementing our vision we can even walk around on the streets along the beautified gardens of Colombo or hold a workshop somewhere  promoting our vision for peace and against religious extremism. We do this to raise awareness on serious issues. This is an activity we implement within the mandate given to us by our constituency from all over Sri Lanka. It is our constituency that gives us this mandate and not the State, the ruling class or a political party as popularly believed by archaic political buffoons frozen in the 1970’s and 80’s. I’m sure they haven’t even read Chapter 3 of Sri Lanka’s present constitution. When Mahinda Rajapakse went to Geneva with files tucked  inside his brief case did the then regime ever asked him whether he had a mandate to do so. He went to Geneva remember wearing an INGO badge. Inside that building he was representing an INGO.

Further we must remind you that in the contemporary world our activities are broadly defined based on the principles of the various UN Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We as NGOs view poverty eradication not merely as a developmental issue but as a struggle to enhance our entitlements. The NGO Secretariat has also forgotten this fundamental principle.

Now according to this circular sent by the person who is heading the NGO Secretariat all these activities become prohibited forthwith. He has acquired powers from “somewhere” to say that such activities are `unauthorized’. Mr. Dissanayake this is truly a disappointment and if you are a senior civil servant you should have known better than this. To me, this document does not look like a document drafted by a civil servant. Instead it looks like a document drafted by a military person who believes that they are operating a police state. You have in fact signed a document which threatens the very core of democratic life and norms in Sri Lanka.  This is what makes me wonder whether the NGO secretariat consists of respected civil servants or persons drawn from the military establishment to serve a retired Colonel.

Surely Mr. Dissanayake you cannot be serious?  How can you without giving reasons nor explaining the term “unauthorized” make our legitimate activities “unauthorized”? Who decided what is unauthorized an under what circumstances? Who deemed that the NGOs cannot hold press conferences? By issuing this circular you have chosen to make a complete mockery of law and order because you have relegated our government and defense establishment to an institution that takes ‘pot shots’ at NGO’s while turning a blind eye to the Gnasara’s of this world spreading hatred and violence. What would be even more worrying is that you were fully aware of the implications of your actions and in the spirit in which your amalgamated ministry chose to breakdown “unauthorized structures” in the Colombo city and elsewhere you now presume that NGOs can also be bulldozed into oblivion.

By the use of the word “unauthorized” you make your shameful political objectives clear to me. You are being utilized by a regime which sees NGOs as a form of resistance against fascism. While all the ‘yes men’ in the UPFA stayed silent in the face of injustice it is us who  continued to combat the machinations of the extremist bloc within the UPFA who were deliberately built a militarized political ethos and destroyed the existing checks and balances in our society. With the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake this bloc brought all tiers of the state under its control. This is not the Rajapakse regime anymore, this is theGotabhaya regime. Its most popular word is unauthorized, and it uses this word to describe anything that it does not like and bulldozes it.

There are repeated calls from the CSOs and also by the international community especially during the Universal Periodic review for the removal of the MOD oversight of NGOs.  It is our position that MOD is not our line Ministry.  The incapacity to understand the dynamics of NGOs is well reflected in this letter.  Your letter does not even refer to a law, a regulation or court decision and hence there seems to be no reference to the authority from which you decided to tell us that we cannot hold media briefings and hold training programs.  It is obvious to me that your have exceeded your mandate for surveillance when you decided to heed the request of your boss and send this letter to try and intimidate NGO’s.

Since I believe that the Constitution of Sri Lanka is still valid to us and we still live in a Democratic society we are entitled to form associations and assemblies and engage in democratic activism like training, dissemination of our ideas.  We have always promoted ideas for peace and co-existence, national integration and affirmed equality of all people living in this beautiful country. As a feminist I fight for the day when Sri Lanka will respect its Constitutional obligations and affirm equal status of women.  This is a indicator of democracy – at least one. I do not think the first Lady is my symbol/nor indicator  of equality for all Sri Lankan women.

Truly, do you believe in the vision of the brothers who run this government and have a fancy imagination that we live in North Korea? The city has to be designed to suit the fancy of the `Kurakkan’ design. People have to eat like the `Kurakkan’ family and clad themselves in Kurakkan Satakkas. Women are modeled after the `Kurrakan’ lady. There has to be an extent to this abomination and vulgarity. For our own sanity and your own sanity this has to stop. The world abhorred Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin. I had the privilege of meeting the victim a young human rights defender from North Korea while recently whose life story is depicted in the famous file Camp 14. Even though we do not have such camps I am of the opinion that our minds have been put into camps and our society and social mind sets have been put into camps by the three brothers. Therefore the background to this `order’ has to be viewed with great fear in some sense. But we cannot let this fear get the better of us and we cannot let Sri Lanka suffer the same fate as North Korea or Stalinist Russia.

Mahinda Rajapakse knows the power and impact of the civil society because he worked with us. In fact many people around him who provide strategic planning ideas come from the NGO community and have been trained by the Berghoff Foundation which this government threw out. The consultants who lectured the Members of Parliament during the weekend workshops in Beruwela should be honest enough to agree with me. But I do not expect honesty from theme anymore. The traits of the regime they advise are dishonesty and misinformation. They are now trying to curtail our dynamic engagement with the media as the regime is facing unpopularity.

Mr. Dissanayake, it is only a court of law that could decide whether the work and activities we are engaged in are “unauthorized”. Let there be an adjudication of such. Many people will disagree with me regarding this position since pursuing such a course of action would be like seeking a judgment from the thief’s mother as the highest authority to decide such a matter is held by a Rajapakse stooge. Nonetheless I think the institution requires testing and we should challenge such an authority. We will conduct our work as usual and it is up to you to prove that what we are doing is `unauthorized’. You can choose to draw a line in the sand but we can choose to cross it. Try and stop us.

Civil society and Democratic citizens will defy this nonsensical letter purported to have originated from the Registrar of the NGO Secretariat. If this letter is authentic I can only be saddened by the fact that this civil servant does not know the subject of his task nor is attuned to international norms and standards governing our operations. The government pledged to work in corporation with NGO’s during the Universal Periodic review. Sri Lanka agreed to corporate with civil society. One of the learning experiences for the members of the Human Rights Commission who received some orientations during their visit to Geneva in March 2013 under the Commonwealth assistance program would have been the importance of having a constructive engagement with NGOs undoubtedly.

Therefore I wish to call upon Mr Dissanayake and all those who are behind this circular to withdraw this letter forthwith. I would like to also urge all my colleagues to throw this document into the dustbin. I would like to request the MOD and the NGO surveillance Secretariat to keep your letter in your archives as a document to remind you of your collective shame.