On a first reading of the poll results, what emerges is the gap between what people perceive as the hard realities of the conflict and what they desire as the ideal outcome. What is striking is that in the midst of the contradictions in the responses, the overarching commitment to the fundamental principles of peace is almost universal
By Godfrey Gunatilleke
What are the fundamental principles that should govern a process that seeks to achieve a lasting peace? How does the public view the present military strategy of weakening the LTTE and what are their expectations of the LTTE?
What are the constitutional reforms that are likely to be most acceptable to the Sinhala majority and the Muslim minority? How can peace and normalcy be restored to the north and east?
Around these four issues, the Marga Institute framed four sets of questions and conducted a public opinion survey covering a national sample of 1,800 respondents randomly selected from 18 districts in the country. The survey was sponsored by the National Peace Council and carried in May/June this year, against the backdrop of a heightened public relations campaign run by the state with Toppigala falling back to the hands of the Sri Lankan Army.
A special feature of the survey was that it was designed in the form of a deliberative poll, in which respondents were provided with the background information on the issues in the first round of the survey. This was done through a handout in which the different conflicting positions taken on each set of issues by different parties was presented with complete objectivity, avoiding bias or advocacy.
Respondents were given time to deliberate and reflect on the issues and after a fortnight, their responses were obtained on a structured questionnaire. The Institute reports that the methodology with the element of citizens’ consultation it used was received very positively by the respondents. More than 97% responded to all questions in the handout.
The four set of issues were framed to help respondents to engage in a logical process of reasoning, moving from the principles which they consider essential for peace to the current situation and future desirable outcomes.
The responses that were received provide some very valuable insights to policy makers who are currently engaged in seeking solutions to the conflict. It is not possible to convey the full complexity of the findings in this brief summary. What is highlighted here are some of the most important conclusions.
On a first reading of the poll results, what emerges is the gap between what people perceive as the hard realities of the conflict and what they desire as the ideal outcome. This conflict runs throughout the four sets of questions. What is striking is that in the midst of the contradictions in the responses, the overarching commitment to the fundamental principles of peace is almost universal.
â€¢ 99.7 % want the war to end as soon as possible and peace and security restored in all parts of the country
â€¢ 72% state that there has to be a political solution regardless of the military operations
â€¢ 95 % agree that such a solution must be fair and just to all communities and that all Sri Lankans should enjoy equal rights and opportunities as citizens in all parts of the country
â€¢ 78 % state that resources should be distributed equitably among all communities proportional to their size
â€¢ 86% state that there should be devolution of power that empowers people below the national level and reaches out to the local level
The respondents are, however, sharply divided on the current strategy:
â€¢ More than two-thirds (68%) support the strategy aimed at weakening the LTTE militarily
â€¢ Nevertheless, a majority 57 % want government to offer a political solution while pursuing the military strategy
â€¢ However, a majority (55%) oppose an immediate cessation of the hostilities and commencement of negotiations
â€¢ In the present circumstances, 77 % do not expect the LTTE to give up its demand of eelam and enter the democratic process
â€¢ Only 43% think that LTTE might give up eelam if a reasonable political solution is offered
â€¢ Apparently, based on these expectations, the large majority (84%) favour a total military defeat of the LTTE and recapture of the territory presently held by it
â€¢ But, even with this outcome, the large majority (89 %) think that the LTTE will continue as a guerrilla force and threaten peace and security in all parts of the island
This appears to lead the respondents (72.4%) to conclude that the best solution would be one which includes the LTTE and makes it abandon the demand for eelam and brings it into the democratic peace. This desire seems consistent with the responses to the first set of questions and the almost universal commitment to the pre-conditions for lasting peace.
The responses seem to indicate that a dramatic change in the situation is possible if the LTTE can make an unequivocal commitment to abandon its demand for eelam and enter the democratic process.
The responses to constitutional reforms point to two vital concerns â€“ the fear of separation as against empowerment of the people and bringing government closest to the people. First, the respondents appear to be approaching a system of power sharing in relation to the scope it provides for separation and its adequacy to protect the unity and territorial integrity of the country.
â€¢ While only 22 % approved a federal solution about 49% supported the Indian model, which provided greater powers to the centre
â€¢ Most of the respondents (87 %) were in favour of the provincial council system.
â€¢ 70.4 % were ready to support a three-tiered system of devolution which gave adequate power to the third tier, bringing government closest to the people. In such a system, the distribution of power between the centre and province, which is close to the federal system, becomes acceptable.
Finally, respondents were almost equally divided on the issue of the merger:
â€¢ 51% wanted the two provinces to be de-merged and continue as separate provinces
â€¢ The large majority (82%) were against the re-demarcation of the Eastern Province. It should be noted that these are primarily the responses of the Sinhala and Muslim community
â€¢ The large majority of respondents (85%) were in favour of elections being held as early as possible to restore the democratic rights of the people
â€¢ 64% regarded that as a means of accelerating the peace process and as many as 53% were in favour of seeking international assistance for the purpose.
When assessed as a whole, the survey provides considerable space for a constructive process of building consensus and taking the peace process forward. The responses to the first set of questions, with almost universal acceptance of the fundamental principles essential for peace, provide a clear frame of reference for resolving the conflicts and building consensus on the three sets of key issues that follow.
The points of entry for peace-building in the responses to the other three sets of questions are as follows:
â€¢ The search of the respondents for the lasting solution through a negotiated settlement that includes the LTTE
â€¢ A three-tiered system of devolution that brings government close to the federal system
â€¢ The high degree of support for the restoration of democratic rights as the means of accelerating peace in the north and east.