07 February 2020

And ‘Civil Society’ is distraught over the UNP’s crisis!

A few years ago, while presenting the popular radio show ‘Subharathi,’ Indika Jayaratne made a wry observation: sivil samaajaya janasathu kala yuthui. Civil society ought to be nationalized, he believed. In other words, according to him, there’s a disconnect between ‘civil society’ and ‘nation.’

They are not synonyms of course, but those who would go on as though they and they alone represent civil society certainly presume they do and moreover might even believe that others agree. In truth, the organizations and their key representatives, never represent groups or communities of any significant size. They are not entirely divorced from government or even businesses, as our definitional expectation. 

They have voice though and at times and in certain places even clout. The general population in Sri Lanka are not only disinterested in the term but are probably ignorant of those who are categorized within that term. In short, they are largely an unknown lot. We have seen protests advertised as being organized by 100 civil society organization but which can hardly persuade 50 protestors to turn up. Going by statements made, protests organized and the selectivity in choice and moment of expressing concern and horror, they have compromised independence and integrity. It is almost as if the Sri Lankan civil society, so-called, is nothing more than a front collective for the United National Party (UNP).

Now just the other day, a bunch of such organizations wrote a letter to Maithre Wickremesinghe, wife of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe [‘An open letter to Maithree Wickramasinghe,’ published in the website www.colombotelegraph.com].

The letter, starts will salaams, appeals to the lady’s credentials as a feminist and an advocate of gender equality, acknowledging her efforts to promote ‘the participation of women in politics and ideology’ to promote social change. There is the issue of whether or not anyone can ‘participate’ in ideology, but let’s leave that aside. 

The reason for flagging such credentials is simple. They want her to intervene. Intervene in resolving what they believe are critical matters pertaining to the UNP. They believe that the UNP is ‘unequivocally the only party that can ensure a thriving democracy, unity between the people, diversity, religious pluralism and peaceful co-existence and promote the rights and equality of women, in Sri Lanka.’ Highly debatable, but let’s leave that aside as well. 

‘The unity of the party is paramount,’ they claim. Well, any member or loyalist of any political organization would most certainly be pleased with party-unity. That’s a given. What’s strange is that these organizations are not necessarily affiliated with the UNP. Check out their names.

There is the ‘Concerned Women Activists of Sri Lanka’. We don’t know if that’s a real organization registered in some relevant state institution or whether it’s  just a group of women activists who are, well, ‘concerned’. Concerned about the UNP? Concerned about ‘a thriving democracy, unity, diversity, religious pluralism etc etc.,’ or concerned about both because, as the collective appeal indicates because such things are the preserve of the UNP or only the UNP shares or could share the concerns? We don’t know. 

Moving on, there’s ‘Soraya M. Deen & Priyadharshini Ariyaratne for Jathika Sanvidhana Ekamuthuwa.’ At first glance it looks like a law firm but they are probably two individuals. Are they representing the ‘Jathika Sanvidhana Ekamuthuwa’ as indicated by the way they’ve identified themselves or are they two individuals who happen to be members of this organization? We don’t know. 

There’s ‘Secure Sri Lanka.’ Nice name. Securing Sri Lanka is hardly what the UNP has done, but let’s leave that aside. It would be interesting to find out what this outfit has done and assess worth against the promise of that name. 

Social Democratic Solidarity. Overused word. A tad boring compared to ‘Secure Sri Lanka,’ but it’s god ‘civil society’ oozing out of letter and syllable. The same could be said of ‘Democratic People Forum.’ Then we have ‘Women for Democratic Governance.’ How do they come up with these names? Is there some ‘Civil Society Lexicon’ from which anyone can draw random words and randomly put them together? A name-generator of sorts?

There’s also ‘Muslim Women Speakers.’ Speakers like Karu Jayasuriya? Speakers as opposed to ‘the silent’? Strange. Interesting.  

Perhaps ‘civil society’ knows these names. I certainly don’t. Perhaps that’s my ignorance. And that’s not important. What’s key here is the use of names that have no party tag. Baloo-balmata they indicate broad and non-partisan interests. Baloo-balmata they are new to the business. Seasoned operators use better discretion. In comparison, these outfits are probably more honest and innocent, even though they are not averse to humbuggery as evidenced by name-choice. They’ve revealed all in a final careless flourish.

‘Your husband (they tell Ms Wickremesinghe) has served the UNP for decades. His legacy must always be remembered and honored. But today the party needs a different direction and vision. Despite blemishes, ups and downs, the UNP has a rich history of which it can be extremely proud of. We must come together to ensure that this legacy continues. Let’s send a powerful message to the country and to the ruling party- we are the United, UNP and we will come together for our country and her future….’

‘We must come together,’ they claim. For what? ‘To ensure that this (so-called) legacy continues.’ That rich legacy includes the killing of over 60,000 people at the end of the eighties, the unleashing of union goons on Tamil civilians in July 1983, breaking unions and pushing dozens of striking workers to suicide, gross human rights violations in operations against the LTTE, selling national assets, entrenching the culture of cronyism, rigging elections and a deliberate wrecking of democratic structures. They don’t know or pretend they don’t know that there’s nothing in all this to be proud of. That’s fine. The problem is one of affiliation. 

‘We are the United, UNP,’ is the claim. That’s acknowledgement. It means that being women, being activists, being concerned women activists, being a ‘corner’ of civil society (whatever that means and wherever that is located), securing Sri Lanka (from what or whom and for what and for whom?), democracy, solidarity, people, governance, speaking etc., etc., are obviously of secondary import. What counts is their true identity. UNP. UNPers batting for the UNP.  

Now should these elements of ‘civil society’ self-painted into a corner be ‘nationalized,’ as Indika suggested a few years ago? No. Neither ‘nation,’ ‘nationalism’ nor ‘nationalization’ need be tainted by the abject servility, lack of imagination and most of all rank buffoonery. No, the UNP, as things stand, is a good enough place. Fellow-travelers should travel together. These people have been coy in that they haven’t put a UNP tag to their names, but they’ve been brave enough to openly identify with that party. Well, maybe they were just not smart and didn’t realize what they were doing. 

So, let’s conclude: civil society should not and cannot be nationalized. That’s ‘civil society’ in terms of groups identified with that term. No problem. How about civil society real (as opposed to ‘fake,’ i.e. UNP adjuncts, pro-UNP or coy-about-affiliation)? Well, if the nation still stands, it is probably because THAT civil society is still part of the nation. Unnamed. Unhonored. Unsung. And yet, alive, vibrant and unpretentious. 

This article was first published in the Sunday Observer [February 2, 2020]