ri Lanka celebrated its 71st Independence Day last week. We remember this day with pride as the day we regained our political autonomy. Indeed, that is surely something to be celebrated. However, where are we as a nation? What kind of imagination do Sri Lankans have for their state? What kind of political system, economic policy, socio-cultural norms and foreign policy do Sri Lankans desire?
A survey conducted by Social Indicator, the survey research arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, provides some interesting insights into the Sri Lankan psyche on many important issues. This descriptive piece shares some interesting findings of the survey to stimulate a candid discussion among the public, advocating a new social contract that will not only prepare the nation for new economic challenges but one that will preserve freedom and equality within a decent society.
Some 2,300 citizens from all major ethnic groups across the 25 districts were interviewed for the survey. Field work was conducted last year from August 10 to October 10. The survey questionnaire captures public opinion on many important issues such as the status of governance, democracy, political ideology, international relations and peace and reconciliation in
People want new development priorities
The survey findings reveal that the development priorities of people are somewhat different to the policies espoused by politicians – be they nationalist, right-wingers or conservative neo-liberalists. Sri Lankans believe that the government, in their budget allocation, should give top priority to the education sector (39.9%), agricultural sector (23.1%) and health sector (16.9%). Irrespective of their age, ethnicity or gender people chose education as the top sector that should be given priority in the budget. Interestingly, youth who are below the 29-year age bracket state that health should be the second priority while those who are above the 29-year age bracket think agriculture should be the second priority. Despite certain political forces emphasising nationalist rhetoric, only 14% of men and 13.6% of women believe national security should be given priority in government budget allocations.
Since the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies to the country, successive governments have overtly and covertly supported private sector involvement in many sectors including education and health. At present, private sector involvement in these two sectors is very significant and continues to expand, shrinking the scope of the welfare state. Currently many groups including university academics have come forward to fight a losing battle to defend state universities and free education. Reflecting this state of affairs, 52% of Sri Lankans disagree with private sector involvement in education, while only 27% agree. Agreement with the private sector involvement in education is four percent higher among the youth (29.8%) than when compared to the adults.
However, a significant majority of Sri Lankans (83.2%) believe that in order to achieve better employment opportunities in the future, a greater focus should be on the English language in the school curriculum. This opinion is shared by all ethnic and age groups from both urban and rural localities. Therefore, it seems that people not only want state education to be preserved but to be reformed as well.
The yahapalana government came to power mainly based on the support of progressive liberalist forces in the country. While people had high expectations of meaningful reconciliation, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also categorically promised prompt action and policies in this regard. Although the government has taken many commendable steps in this direction, it has failed on many other fronts. According to the survey findings, a majority of Sri Lankans (53.3%) indicate that they are not satisfied with the current government’s progress on reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka. It is important to note that it is mostly the youth population (60%) who hold this view, in comparison to the age group above 29 years (49.5%). Dissatisfaction is high among the Sinhala, Tamil and Up-Country Tamil communities. Despite harassment against the Muslims, a majority (61%) of the of the Muslim community states that they are satisfied with the current government’s progress on addressing reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka.
On truth-seeking in post war reconciliation, an overall majority (72.4%) of Sri Lankans believe that it is important, while 18.2% believe that it is not important.It is important to note that it is mostly the youth population (54.8%) and the minority communities who believe it important.
On accountability in post-war reconciliation, a significant majority of Sri Lankans (71.8%) believe that as a means of seeking redress for victims affected by civil unrest in the past, it is necessary to investigate into and hold those accountable before the law. While a majority from the youth population (55.7%) also indicates that it is necessary, it is mostly the minority communities who hold this view.
"Since the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies to the country, successive governments have overtly and covertly supported private sector involvement in many sectors including education and health"
Place of Religion
On the status of religion in the constitution of Sri Lanka – a majority of Sri Lankans believe that it is okay for the majority religion to be given the foremost place in the Constitution, while 36.5% believe that to maintain every citizens’ right to equality, no religion should be given the foremost place in the Constitution. It is important to note that it is mostly the Sinhala community that indicates that it is okay for the majority religion to be given the foremost place in the Constitution – while it is the minority communities who believe that to maintain every citizens’ right to equality, no religion should be given the foremost place in the constitution.
Electoral Democracy that sympathises with authoritarian rule
Sri Lanka is one of the oldest democracies in Asia. Like in many mature democracies, Sri Lankans (74%) too believe that democracy is preferable than to any other form of governance. Despite this strong commitment to democracy, a sizable proportion of Sri Lankans are prepared to accept a ruler who may exhibit an authoritarian, military/technocratic or religious character as long as that person is elected through a free and fair election. According to the findings of the survey, a significant majority (84.2%) believes that the country should be governed by those elected by the people via a free and fair election. However, while 59% supports having a strong leader who can make decisions without having to worry about Parliament and elections, 55% support having an expert governor and make decisions according to what he/she believes is best for the country, without having to worry about Parliament and elections. It is alarming that nearly one-third of Sri Lankan voters support the idea that, ‘All major decisions about the country should be taken by religious leaders, rather than politicians’ while a quarter of them think the ‘military should come in to govern the country’.
These results demonstrate the risk of Sri Lanka backsliding into an illiberal form of government. Unlike in the past, especially at Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the emergence of candidates outside of party structures has become a common phenomenon. On the one hand parties, especially main parties, hardly organize themselves as institutions to mobilize grassroots membership or support bases,while on the other, many non-party institutions – the media, business organizations, religious institutions and military leaders -are actively promoting their candidates at elections. The survey suggests that not only has the political system started shifting towards a weak liberal democracy, but the people have already started embracing these emerging realities.
Across the world Social Media has become a power tool of political articulation and attracted progressive as well as extremist social groups alike. New technological innovations, emerging economic realities and transforming lifestyles have gradually rendered traditional media less effective, especially in political articulation. The survey asked people to indicate as to how often they use various social media platforms. For the benefit of those who were unfamiliar with the term, examples were listed such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Viber and Whats App. The survey shows that about half of Sri Lankans claim that they use various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Viber and Whats App -- about one third of Sri Lankans state that they use such media on a daily basis. The findings of the survey show that usage of social media is significantly higher among the youth who are in the age bracket of 18 to 29 years. The usage of social media is not very different between urban (58%) and rural (47%) residents. Although this survey does not examine social media in great detail, these findings demonstrate its massive potential in influencing public opinion on various socio-political issues at times of elections as well as in between elections.
This article presents only a selected set of findings of the survey to introduce the study to a wider audience. The discussion here provides a brief sketch of Sri Lankans’ imagination about their country and future. The authors intend to produce a more rigorous analysis that would allow a much closer look at the psyche of Sri Lankans after 70 years of independence.