What Sri Lankans really think

“Seek truth from facts” (Deng Xiaoping)

It is ironic, is it not, that those Western voices and Lankan liberals who believe that there is a democracy wave sweeping the world, that democracy is dying if not dead in Sri Lanka and is in dire need of regime change, do not, for the most part, pause to review or objectively ascertain public opinion in the country? They may not believe that ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei’ –‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’ — but surely, any adherent or advocate of democracy must know and display some respect for public opinion in what remains a multiparty democracy?

There is an extensive survey of public opinion, the results of which will up-end all conventional assumptions about what the Sri Lankan people think and therefore how they are likely to act or react.

This is the Survey on Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka, Topline Report July 2011, conducted and published by the Social Indicators unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), in association with the Friedrich Neumann Stiftung of Germany. Headed by Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a well-known civil society critic of the administration, the CPA is and has been a trenchant critic of government policy. Therefore, its findings cannot be tainted by association with government. Those findings will, to put it colloquially, blow your socks off.

The media release issued by the CPA with the Report notes that the results reveal a divided society, which is however only one way of looking at it. Given that one of the ethnic communities happens to comprise virtually two thirds of the island’s population, the division is quite uneven, and with uneven consequence. Even more significantly, the statistics show a remarkable degree of congruence between Sinhalese and Tamils on key issues, and a surprisingly positive opinion being held by a fairly large percentage of Tamils on the most contentious and polarising issues.

“On the subject of the general security situation in the country, majority of Sri Lankans think that it has got better in the last two years. 68.2% said it has got a lot better while 23.1% said it has got a little better. When comparing the opinions of respondents across the four communities, it is mostly the Sinhala community (77.5%) and Up country Tamil community (57.8%) who said that the security situation has got a lot better. ”

What is interesting is that the results belie a general assumption about Tamil opinion as a whole. Most critics of the Sri Lankan state and/or the government cherish the belief that the vast majority of Sri Lankan Tamils feel that the security situation has worsened with the heavy presence of the military. However, only “13.2% of the Tamil community said that it has got a lot worse”.

While, understandably, “an overwhelming majority from the Southern Province (98.1%) believe that the general security situation in the country has got better in the last two years, with 75.6% saying that it has got a lot better”, a large percentage of respondents from the Northern Province, as large as 63.9% said “the general security situation …has got better”, though only 10.3% in that Province said “it has got a lot better”. “A majority of Sri Lankans are hopeful about the security situation in the future as 56.4% think that it will get a lot better…”

The solid commitment of the Sri Lankan citizenry to democracy as a system, and rejection of any suggestion of military rule as a form of government, comes through unambiguously in the Survey data.  Furthermore, the commitment to democracy is one major issue on which there is NO significant ethnic differentiation, let alone polarisation. In sum, there is a solid nationwide consensus on democracy as a form of rule.  “A majority from all four communities (Sinhala – 68.2%, Tamil – 70.3%, Up country Tamil – 70.8%, Muslim 87.8%) stated that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. 52.7% of Sinhala respondents, 76.3% of Tamil respondents, 71.1% of Up country Tamil respondents and 70.1% of Muslim respondents strongly disagreed with the suggestion of having the army rule a country.”

Interestingly it is the Sinhalese who disagreed most with the notion of a strong, yet undemocratic leader, even if the situation necessitated it. This gives the lie to the Western or Colombo cosmopolitan critique of the Sinhalese, namely that their propensity for authoritarianism and failure to internalise liberal enlightenment values give them a propensity for authoritarian patriarchal leaders , al la Germany in the 1930s, and that this explains the high degree of support for Mahinda Rajapaksa. On the contrary, the statistics show that the Sinhala majority have a strong propensity verging on a vocation, for democracy.

Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections – Respondents from all four communities mostly disagreed with this statement with 50.7% of the Sinhala community, 44.2% of the Tamil community, 41.7% of Up country Tamil community and 40.3% of the Muslim community strongly disagreeing… Having a democratically elected political leader – Around 80% of those from Sinhala and Tamil communities and around 85% from the Up country Tamil and Muslim communities agreed with this type of leader governing a country. 72.7% of urban respondents and 70.5% of rural respondents said that they strongly agreed with having a democratically elected political leader.” (pp 21-22)

Crucially, there is no support for anything remotely akin to a theocracy, or de-facto quasi theocracy, in which religious leaders would play an overriding, hegemonic or determinant role. This too gives the lie to the Western liberal caricature of Sinhalese and Muslims in political thrall to their respective clergies. Politics, decision making and policy making are a largely secular matter for the majority of the Sri Lankan people.

“Having religious leaders rather than politicians make all major decisions about the country – Around 55% – 60% of respondents from the Sinhala, Tamil and Up Country Tamil communities disagreed with this while disagreement for having religious leaders making all major decisions about the country was lowest among the Muslim respondents with around 40% agreeing (out of which includes 10% who strongly agreed) that they should.” (pp. 21-22)

The advanced character of the civic consciousness of the Sri Lankan people is demonstrated by their preference for a non-military, non-theocratic, civilian, elected democratic leadership, with a more meritocratic, expert driven decision making /policy process.

“Having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the countryAgreement was high for this form of governance, with more than 62% of respondents from all four communities agreeing with this statement.” (pp 21-22)

The bulk of the citizenry seem to have no issues with a constructive civilian role of a distributive-development sort, for the military. “Since the end of war, the role of the forces has expanded to include civilian tasks, such as selling vegetables and other economic and recreation activities. More than 55% of the Sinhala, Up country Tamil and Muslim communities approve of this, with 25.3% of the Sinhala community, 28.1% of the Up country Tamil community and 10% of the Muslim community stating their strong approval.” As will be mentioned later, the statistics show a high level of trust among the majority, for the armed forces as an institution.

Contrary to the opinion of critics of Sri Lanka, the people, irrespective of ethnic identities, feel that Sri Lanka is more, not less democratic in the post war period. “Most respondents from all four communities believe that Sri Lanka is now more democratic, with 31.2% of Sinhala, 20.8% of Tamil, 32.8% of Up country Tamil and 33.8% of Muslim respondents stating that Sri Lanka is much more democratic.” Furthermore, the people of all ethnic communities believe that their vote counts, irrespective of all propaganda about vote rigging and stolen elections. The Survey says that “It is noteworthy that most respondents from all four communities believe that their vote has an impact on the outcome of an election.”

Notwithstanding a noteworthy degree of alienation among the Tamil citizens of the Hill Country — most respondents in the Up Country Tamil community (41.2%) believe that they have no say in what the government does—“most in the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities disagreed and believe that they do have a say in what the government does”.

What about the freedom of expression, which most critics yell is being throttled as we speak, or in this case, write? “When asked if in Sri Lanka they are free to express their feelings about politics, irrespective of where they are and who they are with, most of those from the Sinhala community (50%) and Up country Tamil community (38.8%) believe that they are completely free to do so, while a much smaller percentage of the Tamil and Muslim communities believe the same.”

Now, here’s the kicker folks. What do the majority of our citizens say about democracy during the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa? Do they believe the view of the local liberals and dissidents that democracy died with the introduction of the 18th amendment which abolished the two term limit? Hardly: “58.8% of Sri Lankans think that the country has been the most democratic under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s period. This view is shared by 69.9% of Sinhalese respondents. On the other hand, only 23.6% of Tamil respondents, 13.1% of Up country Tamil respondents and 21.9% of Muslim respondents concur.”

A fairly significant portion of the citizens seemed not to have a problem with the abolition of the two term limit either. “42.4% of Sinhalese respondents said that there should be no constitutional limit on how many terms the President can serve – in order to allow strong Presidents to serve the country. 15.2% of Tamil, 21.4% of Up country Tamil and 26.6% of Muslim respondents agreed with the same.”

Let’s get to perhaps the most newsworthy part. Which political party do most Sri Lankans feel closest to? What are the respective strengths of the parties, especially the ruling party and the main Opposition? What are the chances in the foreseeable future of the Opposition? What is the picture in the South and north respectively? The results are striking, stark and massive. There is only one game in town, when it comes to state power, and only one in terms of a North-South dialogue.

“Respondents were asked about which political party (specific party, not alliance) they felt that they are close to. 74% of Sinhalese respondents said the Sri Lanka Freedom Party while 19.8% said the United National Party. 53.9% of Tamil respondents said they felt close to the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi party while 22.4% said the United National Party.”

Thus the inescapable conclusion is that the SLFP under Mahinda Rajapaksa has an unassailable position of support from two thirds of the community that comprises two thirds of the country’s populace, while the UNP under Ranil Wickremasinghe has plummeted to 20% of that community which constitutes the overwhelmingly preponderant majority.

Meanwhile the TNA is not as hegemonic among the Tamils as the SLFP is among the Sinhalese, but it has emerged clearly ahead, and is far more popular among the Tamils than the UNP is among the Sinhalese.


On the problem of a political solution and reconciliation, social opinion does seem divided.  “On the topic of a political solution for Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem, 29.7% of Sinhala, 59.1% of Tamil, 30.8% of Up country Tamil and 53.5% of Muslim communities agreed that the Constitution should be changed based on recommendations made by an all party committee to produce a political solution to the country’s ethnic problem. However, 17.6% Sinhala, 4% Tamil, 11.1% Up country Tamil and 14.2% Muslim communities said that there is no need for a political solution as the LTTE was completely defeated militarily. Most respondents from the Tamil (40.9%), Up country Tamil (32.5%) and Muslim (42.9%) communities agree that power needs to be devolved to the Provincial Councils while reducing the power of the central government. Only 15.3% of the Sinhala community concur…On the topic of reconciliation, 32.3% of people from the Tamil community are of the opinion that the government has done nothing with regard to addressing the root causes of the conflict which resulted in thirty years of war. On the other hand, 41.1% of people from the Sinhala community believe that the government has done a lot.”

Though this is an extract from the CPA’s ‘Key Points’ summary, the body of the main text provides the real ‘key’ to the solution: “…On the other hand, 31.3% of Sinhala and around 20% of Tamil, Up country Tamil and Muslim communities stated that it is alright to decentralise certain powers but powers of the central government should not be reduced. Once again, 37% of Sinhala and around 20% of Tamil, Up country Tamil and Muslim respondents said that they have no opinion regarding this.” (pp.23-24)

Paradoxically, the CPA statistics make it easier to formulate a political settlement, because the parameters of the possible are brought into sharp relief. Given the statistics of Sinhala opinion, it is evident that any solution, even one that emanates from a Parliamentary Select Committee, cannot stand the test of public opinion at a national referendum. Such a referendum will become imperative if a proposed solution exceeds the framework of the Constitution. Almost equally clearly, a majority of the majority either support or do not oppose a decentralisation of powers provided those of the central government remain undiminished.

The cold, hard facts revealed by the CPA Survey prescribe the avoidance of Constitutional change drastic enough to reduce, or be credibly perceived (before the Supreme Court, in the first instance) as reducing the powers of the centre and therefore necessitating a referendum. Logic and reality combine to dictate that any political settlement must be limited to that which averts a Sinhala veto at a referendum, i.e. it must remain within the overall framework of the Constitution and must be limited to the actual implementation of its existing provisions for devolution of power to the provinces with perhaps a degree of ‘stretching’ by way of re-adjustment in the list of powers shared concurrently between centre and provinces.

In another surprising development, there is a broad consensus cross cutting ethnic fault lines, and belying the critique by oppositional economists, that the Rajapaksa administration is doing a good job on the macro economy. This of course narrows the political space for the UNP, whose strong suit has been economic growth and development. The Survey states that “Looking at the assessment of the economy, most of the respondents from all four communities believe that the government is doing a good job…50.4% of Sinhala, 49.2% of Tamil, 54.4% of Up country Tamil and 60.6% of Muslim communities agree that the government is doing a good job in managing public services. 71.7% of Sinhala, 74.4% of Tamil, 55.9% of Up country Tamil and 64% of Tamil respondents who said that the Government is doing a good job in managing public services also stated that this favourable opinion increased since the end of war. 5.5% of Sinhala, 2.3 of Tamil, 20.3% of Up country Tamil and 7.9% of Muslim respondents said that it has decreased.”

What of the civic consciousness of the citizenry? What of the levels of social/public trust in institutions? Despite three decades of war, the atrophy of some institutions and the hypertrophy of others, the Survey reveals that “With regard to the level of trust that they have in key institutions, most people from all four communities have some trust in the Central/ National government, their Provincial government, their Local government, civil service, police, parliament and political parties. Most Sinhalese people have a great deal of trust in the army while most of those from the other three communities have some trust. However, 32.8% of people from the Tamil community stated that they have no trust in the army.”

This does not however, mean that the people, including the Sinhala people have no clearly identifiable problems, criticism and grievances. The big issues are those of Human Development or Physical Quality of Life including unemployment, inflation and poverty. The big three are the Cost of living, corruption and unemployment. “65% of Sri Lankans, mostly from the Sinhala community, do not think that corruption can be ignored…According to a majority of the respondents, the most important area the Government needs to pay attention to is the cost of living. When it comes to the second most important area, respondents in the Tamil and Up country Tamil communities said it should be reducing poverty while the Sinhala community said agriculture and the Muslim community said unemployment. When asked about the main results that people would like to see from the current development process, once again cost of living ranks as the top priority for respondents in all four communities. For the Sinhala community, improved infrastructure is the second result they would like to see while for the other three communities it is addressing unemployment and the creation of more jobs. ”

Public opinion is enlightened, across the ethnic communities on the need to prioritise the development of the former conflict areas. “Most respondents from all four communities believe that priority should be given to rebuilding conflict affected areas, with the Tamil (73.6%) and Up country Tamil (65.2%) being the highest among the four communities who think so when compared to the 49.6% of Sinhala respondents and 46.1% of Muslim respondents who believe the same.”The Sri Lankan citizenry displays the same pragmatic enlightenment on two important civic issues, namely women’s representation and the role of the news media. “72.6% said that the news media should constantly investigate and report on corruption and the mistakes made by the government while only 5.6% said that too much reporting on negative events, like corruption, only harms the country… Support for the idea of allocating a fixed quota for women candidates per district at the elections was high among respondents from all four communities.”

Lenin once said that “serious politics begins where tens of millions of people are”. It is therefore very difficult to take seriously, those who try to do serious politics or urge serious political change with no awareness of or respect for the opinions of tens of millions of Sri Lankan people. Perhaps things are simpler still. The best known injunction of the man who launched China’s economic miracle, Chairman Deng Xiaoping, was ‘seek truth from facts’.