Oblates Promote Social Empowerment in Sri Lanka
December 13th, 2012
“Social inability” is widely recognized and accepted today as a root cause of poverty. Empowering people to think for themselves, and stand on their own, offers a solid and a permanent way out for people from poverty and social misery. The philosophy that it is better to teach a person to catch a fish than to offer him one is the philosophy behind “The Citizen’s Forum”(CF), which is successfully operating in Sri Lanka under the direction and guidance of the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR). CSR is the Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) institution of the Colombo Province of the Missionary of Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI).
Sri Lanka is a small, beautiful island in the Indian Ocean. It hosts just over 21 million people, a population divided into different ethnic/religious groups: Sinhalese (74%), Tamils (18%), Muslims (7%), with 1% unspecified. The economy is predominantly agricultural, but exports of textiles and apparel are important.
The citizens of Sri Lanka suffered the drastic consequences of a civil war that lasted for 30 years. The root cause of this war was an ethnic issue, which grew in intensity out of a nationalist political ideology held by the Sinhalese rulers who took over governance of the country from the British in 1948. The civil war came to a bloody end in May 2009, with the military defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The people expected that the end of the war would bring peace and harmony to their lives, and would result in political stability within a democratic framework that would also be “the permanent solution” for the ethnic problem. Yet three years after the war, people find not only that Sinhalese nationalism is still dominant, but also that it has morphed into a greater threat to genuine democracy. An ideology of ethno-nationalism covers the reality that political decisions are in the hands of a certain group/family that discourages public participation and collective action in the government mechanism. This, unfortunately, is the reality today.
To remedy this unhealthy governance, “The Citizen Forum” was developed through the mediation of the Oblate Centre for Society and Religion. This initiative drew the attention of the citizens of Sri Lanka to a new political ideology that is capable of giving a real impulse to democracy. In its view, a new politics needs to incorporate a multiplicity of democratic demands. There is no denying that one of the crucial requirements of democratic politics is to articulate a public sphere that provides a common platform for collective action and that assures people’s participation irrespective of their petty ethnic, religious and cultural differences.
The Citizen’s Forum (CF)
The aim of CF was to provide a common platform for citizens of the country for their collective actions, especially in areas that concern “the common good”. The CF has thus been a central focus of the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in its effort to develop an alternative strategy among the grassroots. In late 2009, CSR started citizen forums in several districts in Sri Lanka. Moneragala and Badulla were the first to try. At present, the Citizen’s Forum successfully operates in eight, out of eleven, districts in Sri Lanka. These are Moneragala, Badulla, Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Kegale and Polonnaruwa. Aunuradhapura was the latest district to establish a Citizen’s Forum, in early 2012. Aunuradhapura is a district of the northern part of the country with many poor villages, some badly affected by the war over the past thirty years
The vision of the Citizen’s Forum is to empower people and to make them think on their own to act like “citizens”. But HOW to empower people, and WHERE to begin. Those working in the Citizen’s Forum found the answer in a “rights based approach,” an awareness-raising approach that serves as a long-term solution for most of the problems plaguing poor people. The CF Motto became “training people for public actions.”
The point of departure
The starting point of CF is based on an establishment of democratic equivalences. In order to establish democratic equivalences “a new sense of identity” became necessary which would identify different groups of ethnic, religious and cultural nature as ONE so that the demands of each group could be articulated with those of others. It is not a matter of establishing a mere alliance between those interests but of identity between those whose interests are different.
The issues and grievances of people often find roots in their local communities, and thus can be tackled at the level of Local Government. CF therefore creates its structure from the bottom up. For instance, the issues of environment pollution, illegal arrest, land grabbing, a lack of health and sanitary facilities and lack of transport facilities always find common ground at the local level. Thus the public actions organized by people at the local level, such as discussion forums, submission of viable proposals to the local government authorities, public campaigns such as demonstrations and election boycotts, and above all the filing of legal actions in the form of Writ Petitions against the relevant authorities/persons became the modus operandi in addressing issues at the local level. This process always begins at the local level, but now also can extend up to the national level through vibrant public actions until the issues of people are satisfactorily addressed.
The structure of CF operates on 3 levels:
1. Village Citizen Forums (VCF)
Local level issues are considered at the VCF. This is a gathering of village peasants to share their grievances. The villagers themselves determine their leadership team, knowing who among them has an academic background, professional recognition or the acceptance of the majority of villagers as “credible characters.”
2. District Citizen Forums (DCF)
VCF Leadership Team nominates the members to DCF Leadership team. The DCF is a cluster of several VCFs. This is the bigger forum where the local level issues are surfaced in a collective voice on a broader scale. DCFs also organize study groups in the districts on different topics such as Democracy, Citizenship, Good Governance, and Human/Fundamental Rights to educate the members.
3. National Action Committee (NAC)
Goal: To channel district issues to the national level.
The leadership of DCF nominates their representatives to the leadership of the NAC. This is the largest and forum where the issues are discussed at the national level. NAC is directly responsible and answerable to CSR and they meet at the CSR premises. Every year on 10th December the full day programme of the Human Right Day of CSR is organized by the NAC
Some experiences and achievements:
1. In the District of Moneragala there was an issue of Land grabbing of approximately 600 acres belonged to the forest department. The land was illegally acquired by the central government in order to put up a tourist hotel complex. The local community brought this issue to VCF and they channeled it to the LG officials expecting their intervention. Disaffected by the lukewarm attitude of the LG officials, the VCF brought the issue to the DCF where a series of public protests were organized in different places against it. Legal actions were also undertaken to prevent the land grab. Finally an order was issued by the court to stop the project and reconsider its feasibility.
2. There was another issue regarding an “Elephant Fence” also in the same District. The electric fence, which prevented wild elephants crossing over to the villages from the nearby sanctuary and damaging lives and property, was removed by a minister of the central government as it ran through his agricultural land which he had acquired when he came to power. The DCF of Moneragala brought this to the minister’s attention, publicly campaigned against this, used all possible media to tell this injustice to the country and finally filed a Writ case against the Central Environment Authority and other public officers asking them to do their public duty. The result was that today the villages live without any fear from wild elephants’ attacks, especially during the dry season.
3. There was another issue regarding the lack of health and sanitary facilities for the workers in a plantation sector in the district of Badulla. The local community brought it to the attention of the VCF who then submitted a proposal to the Municipal Council of Badulla to establish an MOH office in that area. The M.C officials admitted their submission, allocated funds and then put up MOH office among the plantation workers, which solved their problem.
4. The government of Sri Lanka operates at three levels: the Central Government level, the Provincial Government level and the Local level. The money to develop local areas has to pass through all three levels before coming into the hands of the LG politicians who often are not sincere and honest in handling them. Their development projects are too often not what the people want, not environmentally friendly and also not transparent. Having made the leaders of VCFs educated on issues of government finance and possible means of corruption, as well as on their legitimate rights as citizens to the use of Public Funds, they were made to sit at the galleries of the Local Government meeting and observe the proceedings, especially on the areas of development projects and their transparency. Then they were encouraged to communicate those observations to the LG officials in writing, along with proposed alternative development projects based on the real and pressing needs of the people of the area. The letters were written on the official letterhead of Citizen’s Forum, signed by them and dispatched in registered post, but with copies to other public officers of the relevant subject/ministry and to higher politicians of the Provincial and the Central Government. At present this system successfully operates in most of the CFs, and yet it is a constant battle between local politicians and villages. This conflict sometime leads to political thuggery, where the villagers are assaulted and their properties are destroyed. But still people have realized this method as very practical in their work for responsible public actions.
Advantages of CFs
• Citizen forums promote self-government through the active participation of local communities. People are inspired to be aware of their own local problems and find solutions to them through collective actions.
• Citizen forums are a good opportunity for people living in a multinational and multi-religious country to articulate and form a common ground where they can be made comfortable as “Sri Lankans” and thereby able to act against the dominant ethno-nationalist culture prevailing at present.
• CF also encourages communities to question their political representatives and Government authorities regarding their public duty, transparency and use of power.
• CF above all gives dignity and pride to people as think and act like “citizens” over their rights.
Challenges face by the CF
• The “client political culture” prevailing in the country is a stumbling block for village communities for their collective activities, which also melts public actions of CF
• The political trend in SL does not encourage citizens to engage in collective action, and rather uses all types of illegal measures to keep people from becoming a threat to the Government/politicians. Thus, attacks on public protests, assaults on individuals and to their properties and illegal arrests are becoming frequent hardships.
• Centralizing power at the hand/s of a single/few person/s becomes a real threat for the self-governing policy of the CF. It is more a tyranny than a democracy with which the CFs have to deal.
Rev Fr. Ashok Stephen OMI
Director, Center for Society and Religion,
Colombo, Sri Lanka