Sri Lanka has recently announced that all NGOs – international and local – will have to register with the Ministry of Defence.[1] This Ministry is the official fiefdom of the ultra hard-line brother of the President, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. And now the Red Cross has even been ordered to quit the former war zone. [2]

This latest action against NGOs illuminates the schizophrenia of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and, sadly, the complicity of the majority of Sri Lankans.

On one hand Sri Lankans like to be seen as cheerful, educated citizens of the modern world and also deserving recipients of charity or special treatment. Sri Lankans delight in the fact that they are hosts to the Galle literary festival (to which many progressive writers come), Bollywood extravaganzas, the Commonwealth Games and up-market tourists. And they feel aggrieved that the EU should have dared to withdraw the special trading rights given after the Tsunami [3]. And it is a matter of great pride that a Sri Lankan – the founder of the powerful NGO Sarvodya – is described as Asia’s “little Gandhi”.

But simultaneously, these Sri Lankans are in denial, or at least silent, that their country is now following closely the norms set by its new allies – China, Iran, Russia, Burma, Israel and Pakistan. Since tyrants rarely transform spontaneously, what can Sri Lankans expect if their collective denial continues and these trends take their logical course?

Given below are some of recent news stories from Sri Lanka’s new international friends.

In Russia, a journalist who works for a paper popular with Moscow’s elite was assaulted so badly (including broken fingers) that he had to be put into a medically induced coma.[4] Why? Because he dared to cover corrupt government practices. Co-incidentally last week also saw a Sri Lankan journalist – Poddala Jayantha – receive a global integrity award for his courageous efforts.[5] He was also attacked sustaining serious head and leg injuries and this is far from an isolated case – Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places for independent journalists, listed 18 places below Russia on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.[6]

In Iran, the Government keep threatening to variously stone to death or hang a woman who seems innocent of the charges of adultery. Whilst some of Iran’s political allies – Brazil included [7] – have spoken out about this case, the Rajapaksa government has been conspicuously silent. This despite the fact that Sri Lanka chairs the G15 group of countries from which Iran and Sri Lanka both derive much support.[8]

In China, a father of one of the baby victims of the poisoned milk debacle was imprisoned for daring to organise a support group.[9] And the same week the lawyer representing the Chinese Nobel prize winner was himself barred from leaving the country allegedly because the Government feared he was going to collect the Prize on behalf of his client.[10] A former spokesman for President Rajapaksa speaks about the parallels to Sri Lanka, but in very carefully coded language.[11]

In Burma the generals who put on civilian clothes announced they had “won” the election. How? By preventing the hugely popular opposition leader Aung San Sui Kyi from taking part! Whilst not noted for his non violence, Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, the former war hero General Fonseka also finds himself in jail.

“Don’t be idiotic”, some Sri Lankans might say, “these things could never happen here!”. Really? The lack of Sri Lankan media coverage for these events, especially in the Sinhalese media, is the most telling answer. Self-censorship is now so deeply rooted that the media ignore these worrying events, and almost no one comments.

In a country which has seen three episodes of mass killings in as many decades, one of the most violent separatist movements the world has ever seen, numerous state sponsored killings and a ferocious clampdown on independent media and civil society, who can be sure that things can’t get even worse?

There is no doubt that’s Sri Lanka is blessed with sun, sea, good food and smiling faces with many educated minds. But Nazi Germany also had its tourist attractions and many cultural and intellectual stars. What is now known is that millions of ordinary German citizens were relatively well informed, willing, and frequently active participants in the horrors that happened in their own country.[12]

If you are a Sri Lankan or indeed a non Sri Lankan who happens to care and are wondering what you can do, you have come to the right place!

One answer is do anything to avoid paralysis by analysis and despair. Of course, pick something that doesn’t cause you to be paralysed by fear. Sign the petition on the Campaign site, talk to a trusted friend abroad about how things really are in Sri Lanka, join a local Sri Lanka organisation that is active on one of the many problems the country now faces. New actions stimulate new mindsets and bring you into contact with like-minded people.
Another answer is to become crystal clear about the fact that you want to see change and especially why you want to see change. The “how” questions will be much easier to answer once your commitment is solid.
In a future blog we will also list the many different ways that ordinary Sri Lankans are doing extra-ordinary things to help. If you have suggestions about what to include, ideally based on your experience or that of people you know well, please email us at [email protected]


[1] Lanka tightens grip on foreign aid workers

[2] Sri Lanka orders Red Cross to quit former war zone

[3] Duty free treatment from EU: Lanka`s efforts bear fruit

[4] Russian journalist beaten in Moscow

[5] Assaulted Lankan journalist receives global award

[6] Press Freedom Index 2010,1034.html

[7] Latin America’s duty to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

[8] President Rajapaksa meets Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khumenei and Iranian leaders

[9] China jails father of tainted milk victim

[10] Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo’s lawyer ‘to sue China’

[11] Our friends the Chinese and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize

[12] Robert Gellately, one of the leading historians of modern Europe, has conducted a widely respected survey of the German media before and during the war and concludes that there was “substantial consent and active participation of large numbers of ordinary Germans in aspects of the Holocaust”. He documents that the sight of the columns of slave labourers were common, and that the basics of the concentration camps, if not the details of the extermination camps, were widely known.