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The Portrait of a People

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“It shows that something is wrong with the system of government that injures the felicity by which society is to be preserved”.
Paine (Rights of Man)

( November 16, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A majority of Sinhalese are less extremist, more rational and more humane than their Rajapaksa-saviours, according to the latest opinion survey by the Centre of Policy Alternatives (CPA) . They are also becoming increasingly discommoded by and therefore disaffected with the existing regimen.

‘Top Line Survey: Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka’ contains many expected and unexpected insights into the collective thinking of the Lankan people. One of the most politically portentous and (helpful) findings is that an absolute majority of Sinhalese (59.1%) think that ‘the government should give priority to allocating resources to rebuild the conflict afflicted areas, even if this means that less money is spent in the rest of the country’. Only a miniscule 7.9% of Sinhalese think that ‘rebuilding the conflict affected areas should not be given priority over the needs of the rest of the country’.

This shows a spirit of generosity and solidarity which augers well for Sri Lanka and badly for the Rajapaksas.

“Making the community more fanatical and exploiting the resultant fanatics” , a key instrument of Rajapaksa rule, is clearly not achieving the expected success.

According to another fascinating finding, just 15.9% of Sinhalese believe that only Buddhism should be given a special place in the Constitution while assuring the freedom of other religions (status quo). Only a miniscule 6.6% of Sinhalese support the more extreme (JHU/BBS) position that ‘Only Buddhism should be given a special place in the Lankan Constitution’. 45.5% of Sinhalese and 50% of Lankans think that the Constitution should guarantee religious freedom as a fundamental right (without giving primacy to Buddhism). Interestingly, the stance closest to secularism (making no mention of religion in the constitution) is more popular with Upcountry Tamils (49%) and Muslims (29.1%).

Clearly the Sinhala public is far less majoritarian supremacist than their rulers want/need them to be, even after years of concerted fear-cum-hate mongering by the Rajapaksas and their more rabid proxies. And that cannot but be bad news for the Siblings because their political project depends on inter-communal disharmony. Without terrifying enemies and potent threats Familial Rule and Dynastic Succession cannot survive.

The CPA survey paints the picture of a people who are open to logic, reason and ordinary kindness, a people capable of drawing closer together on the basis of common problems, shared interests and human sympathy. The divides do exist; but they are not unbridgeable.

And the best bridge between the communities is their growing dissatisfaction with the present and their increasing pessimism about the future.

‘The Economy, Stupid’

50.5% of Lankans and 45.4% of Sinhalese think that current national economic situation is somewhat bad/very bad. Of this category the absolute majority (70.5% of Lankans and 66.6% of Sinhalese) believe that the government is responsible for this unhappy state of affairs.
Only 30% of Lankans think that their own financial situation improved in the last two years while 52.7% of Lankans think that their own financial situation deteriorated. Only 44.3% of Lankans think that the general economic situation improved in the last two years. Just 35.2% of Lankans believe that the general economic situation will get better in the next two years.

Comparing the results of the 2013 survey with a similar survey by the CPA in 2011 provides some interesting insights into the trajectory of public opinion. There is a country-wide decrease in wellbeing/security and in future expectations. A growing number of Lankans believe they live less well and less safely today than they did two years ago; a growing number of Lankans are less hopeful about the future than they were two years ago.
The Sinhalese are no exceptions to this general trend.

In 2011, just 35.2% of Sinhalese thought their financial situation got worse in the two preceding years; in 2013, almost a half of Sinhalese (49.3%) think that their financial situation deteriorated in the two previous years.

In 2011, 53.9% of Sinhalese believed that the general economic situation improved in the two previous years. But by 2013, this figure has crossed the key 50% mark; only 49% of Sinhalese think that the general economic situation improved in the two preceding years.

In 2011, a mammoth 70% of Sinhalese thought that the general economic situation will get better in the next two years. In 2013 only 38.5% of Sinhalese think that the general economic situation will improve in the next two years – a decrease of 45%, in just two years!

The reason for this drastic increase in pessimism is sourced in the yawning gap between popular priorities and Rajapaksa priorities.

Expressways, ports, airports, convention centres, sports complexes and other mega infrastructure projects, so beloved by the Rajapaksas, do not figure on the spending priorities of ordinary people. Most Lankans think that education, health and agriculture should be prioritised in spending national wealth.

The Sinhalese prioritise health (40.4%), education (39.7%) and agriculture (35.4%). Education is the greatest priority of the minority communities (Tamil - 73.7%; Upcountry Tamil - 63.7%; Muslim - 63.7%).

Most Lankans believe that government should focus on cost-of-living, poverty and education issues. Sinhalese believe that cost-of-living (58.5%), health (33.1%) and reducing poverty (33%) should be primary government concerns. Tamils think that education (52.3%), jobs (46.5%) and reducing poverty (33%) should be government priorities. Upcountry Tamils think government should prioritise education (50.9%), unemployment (43.4%) and cost-of-living (40.1%). Muslims want government to focus on cost-of-living (72.4%), education (39.9%) and reducing poverty (37.9%).
What do Lankans hope for from the current development process? Not hubs, miracles or international renown; just reduction in living costs (78.3%), employment generation (56.5%) and better education facilities (38.4%). The Sinhalese hope for reduction in living costs (78.5%), employment generation (52.7%) and developing agriculture (40.7%); Tamils want reduction in cost-of-living (73.2%); job creation (67.8%) and education (54.2%); Upcountry Tamils hope for reduction in living costs (70%), jobs (58.5%) and education (50.5%); for Muslims, the desired results are decrease in cost-of-living (88.3%), employment generation (67.5%) and education (51.8%).

The priorities of most Lankans and most Sinhalese accurately reflect the national reality of a developing country beset by ordinary livelihood issues. The Rajapaksas are trying to impose the superstructure of a developed country on an economically struggling land. Their pretentious policies are dangerous, unsustainable – and obviously unpopular.

Politically too a sense of disenchantment is visible, both nationally and among Sinhalese.
In 2011, 96.1% of Sinhalese thought the security situation got better in the previous two years; currently only 87% of Sinhalese think so – a decrease of 9.5%.

In 2011, 78.6% of Sinhalese believed that the security situation will improve in the next two years. In 2013, only 59.7% of Sinhalese believe in a more secure future, a drop of 24%.

The potential to win over a majority of Sinhalese without succumbing to the lure of Sinhala/Buddhist-supremacism (masquerading as ‘nationalism’ or ‘patriotism’) does exist. The Siblings have not succeeded in turning most Sinhalese into automatons, willing to march towards any disaster, on command. 

The people can be weaned away from the Rajapaksas with reason, information, education and knowledge. 

Is the Opposition up to the task?