Early in July, Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry sent out a rather short letter to non-governmental organisations asking them to stop, with immediate effect, engaging in "unauthorised activities".
The July 7 letter, which renewed concerns over freedom of speech, was issued by the National Secretariat for Non Governmental Organisations functioning under the Ministry of Defence. The Secretariat’s unconventional list of unauthorised activities" comprised press conferences, workshops, training for journalists and dissemination of press releases. Earlier a wing of the Ministry of Social Services, the Secretariat was brought under the purview of the Defence Ministry in 2010, a year after the Sri Lankan military defeated the rebel Tigers following a brutal, three-decade-long war.
While several civil society organisations engaged in advocacy in Sri Lanka are registered as not-for-profit entities with the Companies Registrar, the note sent out by the Secretariat is applicable to the 1,421 NGOs listed with it. Understandably, it came as a shock to Sri Lanka’s civil society and evoked much criticism from civil society members who were quick to voice their dissent.
The lawyers’ collective in its statement said that only authoritarian regimes prevented such democratic engagements, and that the Defence Ministry’s note only strengthened the allegation that Sri Lanka had now become an authoritarian state. The controversy also got some political mileage, with key Opposition figure Karu Jayasuriya, of the United National Party, terming it "a chilling blow to civil society and the freedom of assembly and free expression in Sri Lanka".
As the issue began drawing more attention, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry jumped to the government’s defence, releasing an "urgent press statement" that said it was universally accepted for a legal framework to be in place governing the conduct of NGOs and the action by the Government of Sri Lanka was in accordance with such practice.
Though the Defence Ministry’s a letter itself was unexpected, the attack on NGOs did not come out of the blue. In fact, it came exactly a month after a group of young journalists from Jaffna were forced to return after a group disrupted a workshop they were attending in the coastal town of Negombo near Colombo. This was the second time the same workshop, organised by Transparency International, was stalled — the first time by the army itself and later again, by a group of unidentified persons who threatened to attack the participants and organisers if they went ahead.
The incident caused great fear among the young journalists who had come from the North, says a trainer involved in the programme who requested anonymity.
Participants saw the workshop as giving them an opportunity to hone their reporting skills to cover reconciliation efforts. "Now, because they are so scared, they have come back thinking investigative reporting is illegal and that they would have to face severe consequences if they attempted it," the trainer said. The incident also raised the question of why a workshop for Tamil journalists alone was disrupted when similar programmes held for Sinhala-speakers, by the same organiser, went off smoothly. "They [the government] perhaps worry that journalists will give testimonies or information to those involved in the UN probe," the trainer added.
More recently on July 26, a workshop that media rights collective Free Media Movement organised for Tamil journalists in Colombo was disrupted. The journalists said the army had intercepted them on their way to Colombo and questioned them, which the army later said was based on a "tip-off" that the group was allegedly transporting banned narcotics. Responding, the FMM had said the military was behind a new wave of unprecedented intimidation.
At one level, the Sri Lankan army is apparently trying to intimidate activists in the civil society space who are among the few in the country that garner courage to challenge the state and voice dissent, given that much of Sri Lankan media exercises a great degree of self censorship. This is not to say that NGOs cannot be subject to scrutiny, but the letter is hardly about scrutiny, regulation or, as the Foreign Ministry claimed, legal frameworks. It makes no bones of its intent to silence free speech.
Coming from the Defence Ministry, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s powerful younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, it assumes greater significance, connoting that it is much more than an attempt to curb freedom of speech. Seen in the context of an increased role of the Sri Lankan military in the country’s civil affairs this is, unmistakably, part of a larger project of militarisation.
Military presence in institutions
So far, the concern of military presence has remained a concern confined to the island's Northern Province where, five years after the civil war ended, residents are constantly worried about the army’s continued presence in large numbers and involvement in surveillance.
Additionally, thousands of residents are fighting a legal battle to reclaim their land — from where there were displaced during the war — from the army that usurped it for its high security zones. Recently, President Rajapaksa reappointed retired major general G.A. Chandrasiri as governor of the Northern Province, disregarding several appeals made by the Tamil National Alliance — currently in power in the province — for a civilian governor.
While militarisation remains a serious concern in the North, it is no more an issue specific to the former war zones. It has now become very much a national issue. In August last year, three young men were killed in clashes after the Sri Lankan Army clamped down on residents protesting in Weliweriya — about an hour’s drive from Colombo. Even then, many questioned the need to summon the army while responding to a fundamentally civic issue pertaining to contamination of drinking water.
The Sri Lankan army’s role in construction and urban development is also expanding fast — the Urban development Authority functions under the Defence Ministry. Several plush hotels, resorts and restaurants in different parts of the country are run by the army and navy. Army personnel are laying roads, building homes and growing crops.
In the southern coastal towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala where violent anti-Muslim attacks broke out in June claiming four lives and injuring around 80 people, including Sinhalese, it is the army that has taken up the responsibility of reconstruction and repair.
Militarisation has not spared Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service too which has former major generals serving as diplomats in different countries, the widely-read The Sunday Times here reported. The army has been involving itself in the sphere of education and training as well, noted a February 2013 article in the Economic and Political Weekly, which into the question of militarisation in Sri Lanka in the special edition. Also, Sri Lanka’s budgetary allocation for Defence has been growing over the years, currently standing at 20 per cent of the total allocations, the highest share.
However, unlike in countries where the military reigns supreme with a significant degree of autonomy, the army in Sri Lanka appears to have become an instrument for the government to control all spheres. "They [the state] need to militarise their apparatus to sustain state capture," says J.C. Weliamuna, Convenor of the Lawyers’ Collective and chairman of Transparency International, Sri Lanka. He sees Sri Lanka in a situation of "massive state capture" where all state institutions are being controlled by its military which is, in turn, being controlled by the government.
In May this year, Sri Lanka held its fifth 'Victory Day parade' in Matara, along the southern coast bordering parts of the country's Sinhala heartland. It is an annual celebration of the Sri Lankan armed forces having defeated the LTTE, bringing to an end an unrelenting war that claimed an estimated 40,000 lives.
The end of the war was, indeed, what the entire country longed for. However, five years since, Sri Lanka’s army seems reluctant to recover from its victory hangover not realising that the growing fear and anxiety among people is threatening the widespread relief that came at the end of the war.
Under considerable pressure globally, with the UN Human Rights Council in March adopting a resolution that calls for an international probe into its rights records, Sri Lanka may only be inviting further international scrutiny if it marches ahead with its project of aggressive militarisation.
After having survived a civil war, Sri Lanka cannot afford to allow militarisation to tear apart its precious fabric of democracy.