‘War and Peace’ and the APRC Proposals

‘War and Peace’ and the APRC Proposals

Friday, 07 May 2010 00:00
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  • The preliminary APRC proposals have gained more Sinhala support after the war so that they are now equally acceptable to the Sinhala, Tamils, Up-Country Tamils and Muslims.
  • Although the majority of Tamils and Muslims across Sri Lanka want a unitary state a significant minority of Tamils from the Northern Province still want to keep the ‘right to secession’. However most of them will give this up for the complete ‘package’ of APRC reforms.
  • The President, political and religious leaders can all influence support for these preliminary APRC proposals but although Eastern Tamils will follow their politicians on this issue Northern Tamils ‘Don’t Know’ how to respond to theirs.
  • Although all communities strongly support language and fundamental rights Tamil concerns about the special status of Buddhism has increased after the war as a political issue.

By Dr.Colin Irwin, University of Liverpool


The President of Sri Lanka established the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to draft a set of constitutional reforms that, following the war, would provide the country and all its citizens with a real opportunity for enduring political stability, increased economic growth and improvements in the quality of life. Critically, when tested against public opinion a year ago these proposals, with some minor reservations were acceptable to a significant majority of both Sinhalese and Tamils. But due to the ongoing conflict the Tamils in the North could not be sampled then. With the end of the war and the defeat of their leadership would they accept the APRC proposals? Additionally 21% of Sinhalese did not know or were unwilling to give an opinion on such important issues at that time.

 With the end of the war would their views change and if so would this be for or against the APRC proposals?

The poll run in March 2009 also indicated that the President then enjoyed unprecedented popularity (93% ‘trust very much or trust quite a bit’ amongst the Sinhala) so it also seemed important to test the effects his support and the support of religious and political leaders could have on the acceptability of the APRC proposals.

This was done by framing the questions in these terms and also by asking if such support would change the views of the person being interviewed in a neutral version of the questionnaire.

A summary of the APRC proposals as they existed in February 2009 is listed in Table 1 as a series of 14 ‘show cards’.

Those being interviewed were asked what they thought of each item on a given card. Was it ‘essential’, ‘desirable’, ‘acceptable’, ‘tolerable’ or ‘unacceptable’? Then they were asked what they thought of the ‘package’ as a whole, if they would support such a ‘package’ and under what circumstances.

The full report and results for all the different communities and political parties are available on the project website at http://www.peacepolls.org.

Sinhala response

The key percentages to consider are the levels of ‘unacceptable’. First of all it should be pointed out that these results are very good when compared to places like Northern Ireland and the Middle East where levels of ‘unacceptable’ of 50 per cent plus had to or have yet to be negotiated. Having said that of course Sri Lanka is not Northern Ireland or Israel and Palestine. The political context in Sri Lanka is very different.

The most important finding to note for the Sinhala is that the level of ‘unacceptable’ has fallen significantly across most of the APRC proposals from a high of 23% ‘unacceptable’ for the ‘The Powers of the President’ in 2009 to only 15% in 2010 (Table 2).

Most significantly the levels of acceptability have risen, while, at the same time the ‘Don’t Knows’ in 2010 are half of what they were in 2009. Perhaps the Sinhala who were reluctant to express their views before the end of the war had, for the most part, positive views of the APRC proposals but were only willing to express those views now that the war is over or, perhaps, post war they have decided to be magnanimous towards their Tamil countrymen and women when they have been faced with military defeat especially in the context of growing confidence that their country will not be divided. Whatever the reason the trend is clear and can be seen across all the results for the Sinhala community.

As to the benefits the top three items in order of priority in 2009 were Religious, Fundamental and Language Rights at 76%, 71% and 68% ‘essential or desirable’. In 2010 the order has changed a little with Fundamental Rights first at 91% (20% up on last year) followed by Religious and Language Rights at 89% and 82% (up 13% and 14% respectively). As one of the top priorities for the Tamil community remains ‘Language Rights’ this result continues to be most encouraging for the prospects of long term peace.

Again the key percentages to consider are the levels of ‘unacceptable’ and again the results are very good. However, unlike the results for the Sinhala there is little change between 2009 and 2010 with one notable exception. The one serious potential difficulty here is ‘Religious Rights’ at 28% ‘unacceptable’ in 2009 rising to 50% ‘unacceptable’ in 2010 (Table 3).

To be continued

Contd from yesterday

By Dr. Colin Irwin University of Liverpool

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the way the question was asked. In the summary proposals ‘Religious Rights’ was drafted as, ‘Buddhism shall have ‘pride of place’ with religious freedom for all citizens being guaranteed.’ It seems very likely that those Tamils who considered this proposal to be ‘unacceptable’ were focusing on the suggestion that ‘Buddhism shall have ‘pride of place’ while those who considered this proposal to be ‘essential’ were focused on ‘with religious freedom for all citizens being guaranteed.’ The problem here seems to be a matter of education, understanding and or some sort of good or bad previous experience in this regard. Clearly this item requires some explanation or clarification to make sure there are no misunderstandings in the Tamil community and that their religious freedom will be effectively guaranteed by a new Sri Lanka constitution. Unfortunately, with the end of the war and the defeat of the Tamil insurgency in the North of the country more Tamils are now concerned about the implications of this provision than they were before the end of the war. Perhaps a certain amount of ‘triumphalism’ on the part of the Sinhala community or some sense of not knowing their own position in a newly united Sri Lanka has aggravated this problem. The Government may wish to consider what steps it can take to address this issue before it becomes a cause for disaffection. Fortunately the end of a season of electoral politics and the formation of a new Parliament will provide the people of Sri Lanka with a new opportunity for reconciliation.

With regards to the benefits of the APRC proposals the top items for the Tamils are ‘Language Rights’ at 85% ‘essential or desirable’, ‘Fundamental Rights’ at 76% and ‘The Judiciary’ at 73% in 2009 and ‘Fundamental Rights’ at 87%, ‘Language Rights’ at 86% and ‘The Judiciary’ at 84% in 2010. Fortunately the Sinhala also welcome these reforms so there should be no political difficulty with each community’s top priorities. In other conflicts around the world such a result is most unusual. Top priorities generally require a degree of ‘horse trading’. It is perhaps a mark of the understanding of each community’s needs by the other community that has produced this unusual but most welcome result and/or the careful drafting of the All Party Representative Committee.

In 2009 it was not possible to undertake this research in the Northern Province. However in 2010 this was now possible so that the results for the APRC proposals could be broken down for the Tamil response in the Eastern Province and Northern Province separately and also for the rest of Sri Lanka without these Provinces included - ‘Other Sri Lanka’.

There is little difference between these three samples with one exception. Again all three groups of Tamils reject the ‘Religious Rights’ proposal at 52%, 49% and 49% ‘unacceptable’ in the Eastern, Northern and ‘Other’ Provinces respectively. But Northern Tamils also reject the proposal for ‘Safeguards against secession’ at 28% ‘unacceptable’ although 52% believe it is ‘essential or desirable’, 18% ‘acceptable’, 7% ‘tolerable’ and only 9% ‘don’t know’. So like the other Tamils in Sri Lanka this group remain a minority which is reduced further to only 7% ‘unacceptable’ for Northern Tamils and 3% for all Sri Lanka Tamils providing the other provisions of the APRC proposals are implemented together as a ‘package’.

Up-Country Tamil response

Although the recent war has largely been viewed as a conflict arising from Tamil grievances the APRC proposals have been drafted for the benefit of all the communities in Sri Lanka. Like other Tamils the Up-Country Tamils share an increasing concern about the ‘Religious Rights’ provision rising to 60% ‘unacceptable’ in 2010 from 46% in 2009. Their top priority remains ‘Language Rights’ at 91% ‘essential or desirable’ in 2009 and 94% in 2010. So like other Tamils they will accept the reforms proposed by the APRC as a package (only 2% ‘unacceptable’ in 2010) providing their major concerns are dealt with.

Muslim response

Although the Muslim community were also split on ‘Religious Rights’ at 30% ‘essential’ and 17% ‘unacceptable’ in 2009 this concern, unlike their Tamil countrymen and women, seems to have diminished at only 10% ‘unacceptable’ in 2010. Perhaps then it is not the ‘Religious Rights’ as such that is the problem here but the special place Buddhism is given in the APRC proposals, the Tamil defeat and a degree of associated Sinhala triumphalism?

But as Tamil speakers one of their top priorities is ‘Language Rights’ at 82% ‘essential or desirable’ in 2010 and 85% in 2009. Clearly this problem needs to be addressed for the benefit of all the minorities in Sri Lanka.

Support for reform

All these results are very good but if, for example, the people of Sri Lanka were asked to vote for them in a referendum would the results be different? With this point in mind each person being interviewed was asked if they would support this set of proposals as a simple ‘Yes’/ ‘No’ or ‘Don’t Know’ question (Table 4).

For the Sinhala the results are significantly better up from 67% ‘Yes’ in 2009 to 83% ‘Yes’ in 2010 as Sinhala ‘Don’t Knows’ move to the ‘Yes’ column. For the Tamils (86% to 84% ‘Yes’) and Up-Country Tamils (92% to 86% ‘Yes’) the results are a little down in 2010 from 2009 but not significantly so. But the Muslims have dropped ten points from 90% ‘Yes’ in 2009 to 80% ‘Yes’ in 2010 which brings them more in line with other parties included in this poll. Nonetheless a stunning result over all with little or no significant difference between Sinhala, Tamil, Up-Country Tamil and Muslim support for the APRC proposals at an average of 83% ‘Yes’. Subject to some reservations over a couple of items a broad consensus for constitutional reform has been achieved.

The question of leadership was also dealt with by asking, after all the other questions on the APRC proposals had been asked, if the person being interviewed would change their view and switch from ‘No’ or ‘Don’t Know’ to ‘Yes’ if their leaders were for the proposals or if they would switch from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ if they were against them. The results are mixed with no particular leader (President, Religious, Political) having any more significant effect on the outcome than any other leader. However all these leaders do have the ability to influence support for the proposals one way or another but as the ‘No’ and ‘Don’t Knows’ were so low for all the communities at an average of only 17% the impact that they can have to raise support above the average of 83% is not a great deal. They might be able to get above 90% but not much more than that. However, if all the leaders worked together to undermine support for the APRC proposals their efforts would be felt. Together the political elites of Sri Lanka could weaken the present consensus and reduce it to less than a simple majority providing they worked together to this end. With little or no effort political reform is there for the taking with the overwhelming support of the people or, with a concerted effort on the part of all the political elites they could deny the people of Sri Lanka the prise they presently seek. The future of Sri Lanka, as always, is in their hands.

Northern, Eastern and

Tamils in the rest of Sri Lanka
Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and in the rest of Sri Lanka all support the proposals in a range from 77% ‘Yes’ in the North to 89% in the East and 90% in the rest of Sri Lanka. However when asked what impact their respective leaderships might have on their decision the Tamils in the rest of Sri Lanka and East can be significantly moved to change their opinions by as much as 67% from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ with only 2% ‘Don’t Know’ in the East when their politicians are involved in the decision. However the Tamils in the North are not quite so easily moved with 39% from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ and 15% ‘Don’t Know’ when the views of their politicians are taken into account. The lowest turn out in recent elections was in the North suggesting the Tamils in that Province have little confidence in their political parties at this time. Unlike the political elites who led the Tamils in the Eastern Province out of a disastrous war to peace and political influence the Tamils in the North lost their leadership in a bloody defeat and it may take them some years to find new leaders who they can trust. This observation is further supported by the results from another questionnaire where support for the APRC proposals is framed specifically in terms of being supported by the informant’s political party. In this case Eastern Tamil support rises from 89% to 96%. However, when the same question is put to the Northern Tamils support drops from 77% to 32% with a very significant 54% ‘Don’t Know’ which is very probably due to the political parties in the North not yet being firmly established in the post war era. Critically, however, they do support the APRC proposals with only 7% rejecting the package as ‘unacceptable’, but any effort to manipulate their views in this regard may presently have little effect or even be counterproductive.

Political party response

As the SLFP is the President’s ruling party and has the largest number of seats in the Parliament it is to be expected that their response to the APRC proposals most closely mirrors the response of the Sinhala community in general. This seems to be the case with significant percentages of ‘Don’t Knows’ in 2009 moving to the ‘essential’, ‘desirable’ and ‘acceptable’ columns in 2010 and the overall unacceptability of the package as a whole falling from 8% in 2009 to only 3% in 2010.For the main opposition party, the UNP, there does not seem to be a great deal of difference between the results for this question when asked in 2009 and 2010 with overall resistance to the package at only 3% and 2% ‘unacceptable’ respectively. However, their enthusiasm seems to have waned a little with those who consider the package to be ‘essential’ falling from 39% in 2009 to 29% in 2010. They seem to have moved across to the ‘desirable’ column, which is now up from 29% in 2009 to 36% in 2010. Similarly the JVP support for the APRC proposals has shown a decline from only 4% ‘unacceptable’ in 2009 going up to 9% ‘unacceptable’ in 2010 and like the JVP and UNP the SLMC support for these proposals is also a little down on last year from 0% ‘unacceptable’ in 2009 rising to 3% ‘unacceptable’ in 2010 with significant shifts from the ‘essential’ column to the ‘desirable’ column for all three of these opposition parties.

Perhaps the explanation is quite simple. There has been a great deal of discussion about these proposals since the end of the war particularly during the recent Presidential Election. Also the 2010 poll was taken in March of this year between the Presidential and General Elections at a time when the party in Government and their SLFP supporters felt confident about their future, including constitutional reform, while the opposition parties, and their supporters, are not quite so willing to embrace change when they are less certain about their political influence over the coming years. These results could change again when the elections are all over but it seems very unlikely that they will change a great deal given their stability from a time of war to a time of peace.

However, the results have changed considerably for the TNA up from only 3% ‘unacceptable’ in March 2009 to 11% ‘unacceptable’ in March 2010. Similarly those opposed to ‘Safeguards against secession’ has risen from only 5% in 2009 to 25% in 2010, but then it is also 28% for Tamils in the Northern Province. ‘Religious Rights’ are also up for the TNA supporters from 47% ‘unacceptable’ in 2009 to 66% in 2010 and 49% for Tamils in the Northern Province. Two factors may explain these changes. Firstly that the sample now includes the Northern Province where most of the TNA supports are to be found and secondly that the ‘Religious Rights’ issue, or rather the ‘pride of place’ of Buddhism issue has strong political connotations for TNA supporters.

When asked the constitutional package question again in a simple ‘Yes/No’ format the pattern of responses for the political parties remains much the same. The SLFP come out with the strongest support up from 68% ‘Yes’ in 2009 to 87% ‘Yes’ in 2010 followed by the UNP at 80% ‘Yes (down from 85% in 2009), then the TNA at 78% (down from 90% in 2009), then the SLMC at 74% (down from 88% in 2009) and finally the JVP at 69% ‘Yes’ in 2010 down from 83% in 2009. As before these results are most likely a result of ongoing discourse on constitutional issues, the inclusion of the Northern Province in the sample and government verses opposition electoral politics.

One more observation that was to be expected can be taken from this political party analysis. The SLFP can be significantly moved to change their opinion in favour of the constitutional proposals by their President, religious leaders and party while the UNP are more influenced by their party and not so much by the President. The same goes for the TNA.

The politics of ‘Religious Rights’

If it is the case that the problem with the ‘Religious Rights’ proposal is essentially political rather than religious then it seems very likely that the reaction of Tamil speaking Christians and Sinhala speaking Christians will be different if it is a political/ethnic problem but the same if it is a religious problem. An analysis of these communities on this issue confirms support for the ‘political hypothesis’ with 39% of Tamil speaking Christians considering these proposals to be ‘unacceptable’ and only 14% of Sinhala speaking Christians sharing this view. Additionally, the TNA ‘top’ this list at 66% ‘unacceptable’ suggesting it is a political issue for their supporters.

Before the end of the war in May 2009 all those being interviewed were asked to rate the importance of 51 different problems collected from the different communities of Sri Lanka. However, in March 2010, after the war, it was no longer possible to ask questions about ‘The ongoing war’ or LTTE. Similarly questions about the JVP and JHU in government could not be asked as the government had been dissolved. So these items had to be cut from the questionnaire when it was repeated in March 2010.

Lists of problems like these have been produced for many different conflicts around the world. Although every list is different they all have one characteristic in common. If the items at the top of each communities list is not addressed and the causes of the conflict remain in place then the conditions required for long-term peace and stability will not be met. For example, in the Middle East the number one priority for Israelis is security and for Palestinians it is a Palestinian state. If Israelis do not get security and if Palestinians do not get a state there will not be peace in the Middle East.

Fortunately for the Sinhala of Sri Lanka their pre-war concerns have all been met. Their top 5 items in March 2009 were ‘Abuse of Human Rights by the LTTE’ 1st at 63% ‘very significant’, followed by ‘The continued violence of the LTTE’ 2nd at 61%, then ‘Vested interests in ongoing conflict’ 3rd at 45%, ‘Violence over the past 30 years’ 4th at 42% and ‘It is not possible to kill the last Tiger’ 5th at 41% ‘very significant’. None of these questions could even be asked in March 2010 as, with the end of the war and defeat of the LTTE none of them were relevant and in this context any attempt to ask these questions was met with incredulity and the interview could not be completed. After the war in March 2010 the top 5 items for the Sinhala were ‘Inflation’ 1st at 68% ‘very significant’ followed by ‘Corrupt politicians’ 2nd at 64% then ‘Unemployment’ 3rd at 62%, ‘The decline of the economy’ 4th at 54% and ‘Politicization of the public service’ 5th at 53% ‘very significant’.  These are all problems of the economy and good governance. If not dealt with the government may lose its popularity and electoral mandate but not much more than that.

In 2009 the top 5 problems for the Tamils were ‘Discrimination after independence’ 1st at 66% ‘very significant’ followed by ‘Failure to provide Sri Lankan Tamils with a constitutional solution to their problems’ 2nd at 63%, then ‘The failure of successive governments to find a political solution’ at 62%, ‘All Tamils being treated like terrorists by the security forces’ 4th at 60% and ‘Failure to implement language rights’ 5th also at 60% ‘very significant’. The government can take comfort from the fact that in 2010 this list has changed a little with ‘Unemployment’ now first on the Tamil list at 66% ‘very significant’ and ‘Inflation’ 4th at 60%. So the government’s policy to stimulate the Sri Lankan economy will go some way to resolving the problems of all Sri Lankans. However, the ‘Failure to provide Sri Lankan Tamils with a constitutional solution to their problems’ at 62% ‘very significant’ and ‘The failure of successive governments to find a political solution’ at 61% remain the 2nd and 3rd priorities for Tamils. Fortunately the government’s policies for constitutional reform as set out in the APRC proposals are acceptable to the vast majority in all the communities of Sri Lanka. If the government were to bring such reforms into law by the end of the year then it seems very likely that the constitutional problem could be resolved and thus provide a political context within which the economic needs of the country can be effectively addressed.

However policy makers should also be aware that there are some regional differences in Tamil priorities and concerns. For the Tamils living in the Northern Province the top priorities remain the issues of constitutional and political reform with ‘Failure to provide Sri Lankan Tamils with a constitutional solution to their problems’ 1st at 71% ‘very significant’ and ‘The failure of successive governments to find a political solution’ 2nd at 69% and ‘Unemployment’ 3rd at 64%. However, in the East the passing of the war has given way to slightly different priorities. For them ‘Violence over the past 30 years’ came 1st at 80% ‘very significant’ followed by ‘All Tamils being treated like terrorists by the security forces’ 2nd also at 80%, then ‘Abuse of Human Rights by Paramilitary groups associated with government forces’ 3rd at 74%, ‘The Armed forces are predominately Sinhalese’ 4th and ‘Dominance of Sinhalese in public sector employment’ 5th both at 70% ‘very significant’. As for the Tamils in the rest of the country their priorities are not so very different to everyone else with an emphasis on issues of the economy and good governance.

Similarly the needs of the Muslim and Up-Country Tamils are a little different, as well as the priorities of those who support the major political parties (SLFP, UNP, JVP, TNA and SLMC) but as would be expected party priorities tend to follow ethnic and regional concerns.

(To be continued)