Opinion: Keeping to agenda for change is key, says Jehan Perera

By Jehan Perera

The role that civil society played in the change of government that occurred in January at the presidential elections, and which was reaffirmed at the general elections of August, was celebrated at two events held last week.

One was on World Anti Corruption Day which fell on December 9. This event was actively supported by the newly independent Commission against Bribery and Corruption, and especially by its Director General, which has a giant task before it given the extent to which corrupt practices took place in the past, and whose legacy cannot be immediately terminated.

The other was International Human Rights Day which fell on December 10. Both of these events drew large numbers of civic activists from all parts of the country. They also attended by government leaders, including President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The role of civil society has been a controversial one, and was under serious threat during the period of the former Rajapaksa government. Those who wish to undermine the legitimacy of civil society describe those who act on its behalf as NGOs.

The term NGO crow was in common use by government leaders and has become part of the ordinary language of those who do not agree with the political stands and work done by sections of civil society. The term connotes the alleged characteristic of NGOs to live off any problem in society utilizing foreign funds and engaging in anti national activities. This interpretation was particularly strong within the former government which projected itself to be the sole representative of the national interest.

During the period of the Rajapaksa government the NGOs that spearheaded campaigns for human rights, good governance and peace building obtained publicity that was disproportionate to their size. They were routinely assailed on government platforms and abused in the government media as being anti national money making machines and traitors.

This antipathy to NGOs carried over to sections of the private media which shared the nationalist sentiments of the Rajapaksa government. The crucial role that they played, and which the former government did not wish, was to keep alive an alternative way of looking at the political and social issues that troubled the country. They offered a vision of a different future to that of the former government.


With few exceptions such as the internationally renowned Sarvodaya Movement, which does not describe itself as an NGO, most NGOs are small and consist of less than 10 full time staff members. While there are reported to be a few hundred of them that actually raise funds and do work, it was only a relatively small number of them that came forward during the period of the former government and earned its enmity.

This was on account of their public affirmation of values of universal human rights, good governance practices of rule of law and checks and balances and the peaceful resolution of conflict through dialogue and negotiation. The former government’s response to this was to call them names and restrict the space for their work through police surveillance and not giving permission for their activities. Some were even subjected to physical attack by thugs with the police unwilling to intervene.

However, the mistake made by the former government was to misunderstand what civil society was, and to under estimate its strength. This was on account of their narrow identification of civil society as being limited to NGOs. There is a great amount of academic writing to show that NGOs are only a sub-set of a much wider category of organizations. Civil society also includes other self-organised expressions of people’s social, political, economic and cultural interests. It includes trade unions, associations of artistes and media personnel, groups formed on the basis of religion, such as inter-religious associations, and also chambers of commerce when they come together to promote the collective interests of their own sector or the larger society.

The significance of the last two national elections was that they catalysed a union of this lager civil society grouping, which far exceeded the strength of NGOs working by themselves. The Movement for Social Justice which was headed by the late Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha thero was an umbrella group that brought together university academics, artistes, trade unionists, lawyers and other professionals, in addition to those from NGOs. This was the large collective of organizations and individuals that took to the streets in the months before the presidential election to argue their case for a change of values in the body politic, including a change of government.


However, years before the establishment of the Movement for Social Justice and its emergence as a mass movement for social and political change, there was an earlier initiative which provided the model for what followed. This was the Platform for Freedom in which NGO leaders such as Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr Nimalka Fernando, Brito Fernando and Sudarshana Gunawardena played a key role. When the Rajapaksa government was the height of its power, and abuse of power was widespread, this small group invited opposition political parties to join them on a common platform that transcended narrow politics. In order to maximize their appeal, and minimize their differences, the Platform for Freedom focused on two basic freedoms: the Right to Life, and the Right to Free Speech. With the prevalence of the White Van culture, in which those who dissented could be bundled into them and made to disappear, the relevance of this slogan was compelling.

The two public events held on December 9 and 10 reiterated the commitment of civil society to continue with the struggle that had led them to oppose the former government. The presence of government leaders and the President and Prime Minister at those events was their reaffirmation that they too remained committed to the values of human rights and good governance. The close and friendly relations that existed between the government and civil society are a reversal of what existed in the past. The new media images of the government and civil society partnership in upholding the values of human rights and good governance is important in undoing the years of negative propaganda which prevailed in the past.

Civil society is defined as the “aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens.” Civil society includes the family and the private sphere, referred to as the “third sector” of society, distinct from government and business. Sometimes the term civil society is used in the more general sense of “the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society.” On the other hand, politics is about power which corrupts. Civil society will aware that its role is distinct from that of the government and the two cannot be one.

This however does not preclude the possibility of some of its members from joining the government to undertake specific tasks and achieve specific objectives. US ambassadors the UN, Samantha Power who visited Sri Lanka recently is an example. She was a human rights activist who joined the Obama administration, and after President Obama’s term is over, she is likely to revert to her role of being a human rights defender from civil society again. This may also be the case with some of Sri Lanka’s own civic activists. At the same time it is necessary to keep in mind the distinction between government, business and civil society.