Civil society and democratic rights and liberties

by Shanie in his Notebooks of a Nobody in the Island, 12 February 2011

The Citizen’s Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) is one of the few civil society organisations in Sri Lanka which has consistently stood up for civil rights and good governance in our country. Earlier this week, CIMOGG sponsored a public lecture by Jayantha Dhanapala at the auditorium of the Organisation of Professional Associations on energising the civil society in Sri Lanka. In his lecture, Dhanapala contended that civil society had an important role to play but was not doing enough, even though there were mechanisms available that allowed for civil society to intervene in promoting good governance.

Dhanapala argued that Sri Lanka had traditionally been a closely integrated society with inbuilt social security systems that helped less fortunate relatives and friends. A bereavement in a neighbour’s family, the financial distress of a friend or accommodation for a poor or elderly relative met with spontaneously generous responses even among the poorest. Our society’s responses to the tsunami and now to the floods have been exemplary. Likewise the concept of shramadana and voluntary work in public projects has been a traditional feature embedded in our culture for centuries. It is but a step from this charitable concern for our fellow citizens and constructive community action to civic, non-partisan involvement in issues that impact on the welfare of our society as a whole and our rights as citizens.

Dhanapala then went on to examine what he thought were the reasons for the civil society not being more effective in the good governance of our country. He thought the reason lay firstly, in the confusion between non-governmental-organizations or NGOs and civil society. Secondly, there was a conviction that civil society and NGOs are both concepts imported from the West and financed by foreign sources which invariably work against the sovereignty of our country and our national interest. Thirdly, there was such a heavy politicization of society over six decades of the practice of partisan politics that every participant in public life and every opinion expressed is viewed through the prism of party politics. We no longer appreciate the fact that honest men and women can disagree and that dissent is a necessary feature in democratic society. Successive governments have adopted the posture that “If you are not for us; you are against us”.

Dhanapala then went to expand on the mechanisms that were available to the civil society to intervene to ensure good governance – the Ombudsman, the Parliamentary Committee for High Posts and public interest litigation. But this columnist is not convinced that these mechanisms provide effective protection of democratic rights and liberties. As far as the Ombudsman is concerned, we are aware that certain individual cases of injustice have been redressed by appeal to the Ombudsman. But it seems unlikely that the Ombudsman will be able to put right general abuse of power by individuals and agencies of the political establishment. It also appears that the Parliamentary Committee for High Posts is largely ineffective and/or non-functional. Public interest litigation is costly and probably will prove ineffective in the current highly politicised environment. Dhanapala hints at the more effective role that has been played and could be played by organisations like the Civil Rights Movement, which since 1971, has been committed to the protection and promotion of the civil rights and liberties of the people at all times.


Although Dhanapala does not refer to it, another organisation which, like the Civil Rights Movement, has consistently over the years focussed on the trampling of people’s rights by various actors on the political scene and called for a restoration of these rights has been the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR). It was formed in 1988 on the initiative of three academics of the University of Jaffna – Drs Rajini Thiranagama, Rajan Hoole and K Sritharan. Writing in 2001 in his ‘Sri Lanka – The Arrogance of Power’, Rajan Hoole states that their intention in founding the UTHR was, in the wake of the Indian Army’s advance in Jaffna at that time, not to let the Indian Army or any other power sort out the future of the people. “We must act not by pushing ourselves to heroic mantles but by creating an institutional framework, whereby the attitudes of different individuals will find their rightful place and so help the community to determine its own future. It was within this organisational framework that any attack on the rights and dignity of the people could be resisted firmly.”

 Pic chosen so as not to reveeal Rajan Hoole’s identity — from

Hoole continues, “It was a remarkable experiment in the University of Jaffna. It required patient and exhausting political work, talking to people and persuading them to take on responsibility. Rajini (Thiranagama) and Sritharan were at the forefront of this effort. Its strength was that no individual was unduly exposed, because a large number of people from the Vice Chancellor to the students and non-academic staff were part of the effort. The LTTE found this self-assertion on the part of the University striking at the very heart of its totalitarian claims. It set about identifying individuals to put an end to the University’s activism and murdered Rajini on 21st September 1989.”

Dhanapala concluded his lecture by stating that the concept of the ruler ruling in harmony with the people was an ancient one. ‘Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign that forced the British Raj to quit India, the Filipino people’s power that toppled the Marcos regime and what we have seen in Tahrir Square in Cairo is civil society in action when that harmony is out of joint. In democracies people do not abdicate their role between elections. Governments do not have a monopoly over the interpretation and implementation of the aspirations of the people and the national interest. Engaging with civil society is not an option for Governments. It is a necessity.’

Violence is counter-productive

Kandiah Kanthasamy was a lawyer and human rights activist in Jaffna who was abducted and presumably killed by one of the many militant groups then operating in Jaffna in 1988. In a lecture to commemorate that sad event, Regi Siriwardena stated: “I think everything we have gone through in the last decade confirms the wisdom of those who ruled out assassination as a legitimate method of pursuing liberation of any kind. You may start by killing unpopular politicians or oppressive agents of the State, and claim that their killing is just retribution for their crimes, and perhaps few people will shed tears for the victims. But once you have started on this slippery slope, there is no possibility of stopping anywhere.” And Siriwardena goes on to state that this self-conviction that only you are right will lead to killing anyone who who is an obstacle in your way, all those who disagree with you, labelling them as traitors who needed to be eliminated.

In the course of the same lecture, Siriwardena also referred to the manner in which peaceful Tamil satyagrahis protesting against the Sinhala Only Bill in 1956 had been attacked by thugs while the Police looked on. In the late 1970s, striking and picketing workers and demonstrating university students were attacked by thugs, sometimes with extreme brutality. What was the thinking, asked Siriwardena, behind those in power when they dealt in this manner with minority satyagrahis, workers and students. Perhaps they said to themselves, “We’ll teach them a lesson they won’t forget!” But the lesson learnt was one very different from the one intended. By crushing democratic and peaceful opposition, it promoted the belief that that the only effective weapon against a State ready to resort to violence was counter-violence. Thus, both in the North and South, State violence actually promoted extremism and strengthened those whose methods of dissent were the AK-47 and the T-56.

Recent events give one the uneasy feeling that we have come a full circle and are now on the verge of going through the same cycle once more. It is now nearly two years since the crushing of the Tamil insurgency and there has been no evidence of any LTTE activities since then. There have been incidents of violence, white van abductions, etc in the North and East and the people of the area know that this has not been by any ex- or pro-LTTE elements, despite tendentious reporting to that effect. The violence in the south has been by elements who, the people believe, can similarly be controlled by the State agencies. It is the government’s duty to restore and safeguard the democratic rights and and liberties of the people. That is the only way the ordinary man and woman can live without fear. And it is the civil society’s duty to stand up and fight for the restoration and protection of those democratic rights and liberties.


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Filed under citizen journalism, historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

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