May 15, 2023

The Case for a Reconciliation Barometer in Sri Lanka

Natasha Palansuriya

This article makes the case for the importance of the Sri Lanka Barometer Survey in the Sri Lankan context, to track reconciliation trends overtime.

Reconciliation is a term that has been used quite liberally, often with limited reflection on the depth or nuances of its true meaning.  In some cases, it has been used for political gain or diluted by overuse.

As a researcher on the topic, I have been studying the depth of reconciliation for the past 10 years. Qualitative research on this topic makes clear that the concept varies in the meaning people derive from it. For Sri Lanka, the concept became better known after the war ended in 2009, when efforts were made to introduce a reconciliation process that would help reconcile a nation ravaged by war and its consequences and that was accepted as a requirement for a country transitioning from war to positive peace.

One of the things the Sri Lanka Barometer (SLB) initiative does is to unpack the complex concept that is reconciliation. The SLB has established a theoretical framework that digs deeper to understand what reconciliation means for Sri Lankans, what they expect from the process itself, and what progress or lack of progress Sri Lanka has made when it comes to reconciliation. With this in mind, the SLB does not subscribe to a narrow definition of reconciliation, but instead, after nation-wide community consultations and coupled with academic discourses on post-war reconciliation, identified 8 domains that constitute reconciliation for Sri Lankans. These are: dealing with the past; justice for all; identity and belonging; interpersonal, social and political trust; equality of opportunity; active citizenship; accountable governance; and security and wellbeing.

The term ‘Barometer’ has gained currency in social sciences as a reference tool and has become a measurement of public opinion across contexts.

Barometer surveys such as the Eurobarometer, the Latinobarómetro, the Afrobarometer, the AmericasBarometer, the South African Reconciliation Barometer, and the Australian Reconciliation Barometer have involved the collection of public opinion data focusing on individuals, mainly by using household surveys.

Why is such a tool useful to understand public opinion on reconciliation in Sri Lanka?

While there is a plethora of qualitative studies analysing and bringing to the fore key issues related to reconciliation – from psychosocial issues, to memorialisation, to legal and political issues, and resettlement, rehabilitation, and land issues – there is no initiative that looks at the overall picture at a macro level. The SLB gives a more holistic insight into where we are as a nation when it comes to dealing with war-time issues. It also looks into contemporary matters that have manifested as a consequences of the country’s past. For example, the survey findings show that barriers continue to exist that prevent Sri Lankans from associating with people from other ethnic groups. These barriers include language, fear/anxiety, and limited opportunities.

A fundamental strength of the SLB survey lies in the rigorous quantitative methodology it employs based on the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB).

The SARB has been implemented by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) for the past 20 years, making it the longest running survey of this kind in the world. While using the SARB as a methodological foundation, the SLB survey has been adapted to the local context to adequately reflect the lived realities of Sri Lankans.

A tool like the SLB allows us to analyse and understand if and how we are progressing as a country towards reconciling a nation that still has a long way to go in patching up the social fabric that has been left torn after the three decade long conflict. Further, by tracking trends in perceptions long-term, the SLB can create a repository that will ensure that people’s experiences in the post-war period, their perceptions on the progress of reconciliation, and their expectations will be systematically documented.

The SLB survey’s ability to point to trends regarding key issues also establishes its relevance for policymaking, advocacy, and other research endeavours.

Understanding trends can support designing policies and responsive decision making that is relevant to people both nationally and at the provincial level. For example, the comparison regarding household wellbeing that was done between the 2020 and 2021 survey showed the deteriorating economic conditions people were already facing, which signposted to the economic crisis that imploded in 2022. Certain provinces such as Northern, Eastern and Uva were showing that people experienced a deepening of lived poverty, and Sri Lankans perceived a decline in equality of opportunity throughout the country.

These and other findings are presented in the Sri Lanka Barometer Public Opinion Survey 2021 and the Sri Lanka Barometer Snapshot Survey ‘Sri Lanka’s 2022 Crisis and Social Cohesion’ that were recently launched at an event in Colombo. Both reports are publicly available – the next iteration of the survey will be conducted in 2023 and is yet to reveal if the 2022 crisis had lasting effects on social cohesion and reconciliation in the country.

Dr. Natasha Palansuriya is an Independent Researcher and is currently leading the research work for the Sri Lanka Barometer initiative for the Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE) program. She holds a PhD in International Politics from City, University of London, where her research focused on the Sri Lankan Tamil transnational engagement in post-war justice. Her areas of research expertise include transitional justice and reconciliation, diasporas and diaspora engagement, transnational activism, governance, and democracy.