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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Sri Lanka: Plan to shut down civic space continues apace

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been indicating the government’s intention to conduct both presidential and parliamentary elections this year. He is reported to have made this same declaration during his visit to Australia last week. This would be viewed positively by those who are waiting for elections that would ensure a government with a people’s mandate for the difficult road ahead.

The most powerful post in the country, the presidency, is devoid of such a mandate though it presides over a most decisive period when the country is mired in international bankruptcy.  The two intermediate levels of government, provincial and local, are without elected representation. Governing without a people’s mandate may be empowering to those who are making the decisions, but those at the receiving end are likely to revolt in the longer term.

Ranil’s history of meddling with elections 

Unfortunately, there remains more than an undercurrent of doubt about the government’s actual intentions with regard to elections. The president has been a member of three government’s stretching across decades that did not hold elections when they were due.

In 1981, he was the minister of education when the government held a referendum to postpone general elections by six years.

In 2017, he was prime minister when the government embarked upon a course of electoral reform that left the electoral system for provincial councils in a state of limbo which continues.

Again, in 2022, he was president when the government announced it had no money to hold the local government elections which remain postponed to this day.

Adding to the doubts, Cabinet Co-Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena has noted that “Balancing the revenue and expenses of a fiscal year is the most daunting task of the Government. We are in the process of finding mechanisms to address the long-term budget deficits incurred and amidst that we have managed to allocate Rs. 10 billion to conduct the presidential and general elections this year.”

No Money Mantra 

The figure of Rs 10 billion was the sum that the Election Commission sought to hold local government elections in 2022.  The question is whether this same amount would be sufficient to meet the costs of both national elections when there has been high inflation in the intervening two years. With the recovery of the economy, finding Rs 20 billion for both elections should be easier today than finding the Rs 10 billion was in 2022.

In 2024, the indications are that elections will indeed take place. The government has taken major initiatives that would deliver economic benefits to the people that have been long denied to them.  The government has decided to provide two million farmer families with ownership rights to the plots of land on which they and their families have cultivated crops for decades on renewable government permits.

Election Goodies 

In the estate sector, the hitherto landless wage earners who have toiled on the tea and rubber estates for decades would be given land ownership to build their own houses and home gardens. The transfer of ownership of land to the people would empower them to either invest in it or sell it even to multinational companies interested in large scale agribusiness.  But this land should not be sold at low prices due to current poverty.  There may need to be restrictions on sale of the land for at least five years if the outcome is to be beneficial to the farmers.

The president has also been speaking of the possibility of reducing taxes that burden the poorer sections of the population as macro-economic data indicates the economy is picking up.  The restoration and improvement of living standards would be the surest way for the government to prevail at the elections to come.  The president’s speech to parliament at the inaugural session following its prorogation referred to a V-shaped recovery (in terms of a graph) which would counter the more grim news and social media messages that speak of increased poverty, malnutrition, school dropouts and general desperation that the masses of people are said to be suffering from. The president said “Our economy, which initially plummeted with unprecedented speed, has undergone a remarkable turnaround at rocket speed, resembling a V-shaped recovery igniting hope.”

Criminalising Dissent

In addition to providing for the people’s economic needs the government is seeking to strengthen its position in the public debate by ensuring that other points of view, especially those that are in opposition to it, are restricted if not suppressed entirely.   This has taken the form of new laws that seek to outlaw and even criminalise dissenting opinions. The Online Safety Act represents the first of a triad of draconian new laws that will give power to members of the government to load the public debate in its favour by silencing critical voices that utilise social media.  The OSA was passed under controversial circumstances in parliament.  There are two other draconian laws that are pending- the Anti-Terrorism Bill which is near finalization and the Broadcasting Authority Bill which will threaten mainstream media. It is ironic that those same political leaders who led the country to the present crisis seem determined to silence voices that make criticisms and suggest alternatives in public.

NGO Registration and Supervision

The latest threat to civic space to emerge is the draft law for NGO Registration and Supervision which will replace the Voluntary Social Services Organisations Act of 1980 which has been used by civic organisations to gain legal status for the work they do.  But it is not a compulsory registration as its name suggests.  Organisations that wish to register have a range of options according to the common law tradition that Sri Lanka is heir to from the British colonial period.  Organisations can register also under the Companies Act if they wish to have legal personality or register at the local level at the government’s district and divisional secretariats. Even presently, funds that come to NGOs come through banks who do due diligence based on the Central Bank. They are subject to audit by donors. That NGOs not registered with the National NGO secretariat are supervised by other state bodies. The proposed new law is different in that it compels civic organisations to register in one place, be they micro-finance organisations or trusts or even those incorporated by parliament.  In terms of the new law they will all be required to register with the National NGO Secretariat which is currently under the Ministry of Public Security.  There is a recurring pattern of the government trying to control civil society through the registration and supervision process.

NGO Secretariat Under the Ministry of Public Security

The Ministry of Public Security, under which the police function, is currently in the national and international spotlight on account of its anti-drug campaign that has led to tens of thousands of police raids and arrests under questionable circumstances.

The location of the NGO Secretariat under the Ministry of Public Security itself sends a negative message that the government considers civic organisations within the framework of this law and order.  The draconian new law will open them to criminal prosecution and imprisonment. They can also be suspended or shut down for going against “core cultural values.”  In terms of this restriction, calling for a secular state, or for gay and lesbian rights, or for the right to abortion might be construed as going against core cultural values.  Given the manner in which governments have used the laws to persecute those they see as their opponents or those who do not fall in line, this is a frightening proposition.

In 2018, the then government in which the present president was prime minister came up with a similar law.  At that time the National NGO Secretariat was under the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation. When appeals to the ministry fell on deaf ears, a group of concerned civil society leaders met with then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and made their appeal to him.  Within days the draft law was withdrawn and those civic leaders who had made the representations were requested by the prime minister to come up with their own recommended framework for civil society.  This was done after two years of consultation with a wide swathe of civil society and led to the formulation of guiding principles for a legal framework for the not-for-profit sector.

These guidelines were also submitted to the government a year ago but neither their content nor spirit is in the present draft law.  In these circumstances, the hope will be to meet the president as in 2018, when he was prime minister. It may be the same wheel that has to turn for the betterment of the community and country at large.

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