May 31, 2023

The SLB Launch 2023 and the Road to Reconciliation

Aaranya Rajasingam

This blog reflects on the SLB Launch 2023 event and on what it means to understand people's voices in the context of Sri Lanka's efforts towards lasting reconciliation.

On 8 May 2023, the Sri Lanka Barometer Consortium launched the second iteration of the SLB Public Opinion Survey from the year 2021 and the results of a Snapshot Survey on the 2022 public protests and their impact on public opinion around aspects affecting social cohesion.

The Sri Lanka Barometer is a research initiative aimed at supporting Sri Lankans to understand the progress made in reconciliation in its most salient dimensions as identified by Sri Lankans for Sri Lankans. The unique participatory manner in which the initiative underscores the varied dimensions of reconciliation within the survey (8 in total) is rooted also in the difficulty of pinning reconciliation down to only one aspect. Involving different communities and researchers to come to a shared understanding of what reconciliation really means to Sri Lankans constitutes a process that shows a much-needed recognition of the fact that for many, reconciliation means various things at the same time. Bringing together short-term and long-term processes to understand reconciliation under one umbrella also helps underscore how people may see reconciliation as both as an end goal as well as a process; a narrative of a key journey of a country which is coming to terms with its past and looking to the future.  

Speaking at the event SLB Launch Event 2023, Hon. Min. Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Ministry of Justice, Prisons Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, spoke about how the belief in participatory democracy is very evident in the SLB process. He spoke of how Sri Lanka had embarked on many legal and public reforms as a result of the changes in government in 2015, which had been hampered by the Easter Sunday attacks, Covid 19 pandemic and challenges in governance. He reminded the 160 government representatives, international partners, and civil society gathered for the event of Sri Lanka’s renewed commitments to promoting a united Sri Lanka through multiple endeavours. He also spoke of his admiration of the process in South Africa under the first president and anti-apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela, emphasising that Sri Lanka could learn a lot from its fellow partner.

The SLB Consortium benefits from the partnership with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, which has shaped transitional justice and the discourse around it in South Africa. The Consortium is also joined by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) and the Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE), which is co-financed by the European Union and German Federal Foreign Office as part of the commitments to support Sri Lanka’s continued efforts towards reconciliation and peace.

South Africa’s support was further confirmed by His Excellency, Sandile Edwin Schalk, High Commissioner of South Afrcia to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, who reassured of his full support for this process and Sri Lanka’s other efforts towards this endeavour.

Mr. Mario Ronconi, Head of Unit of South and Southeast Asia, Directorate General for International Partnerships at the European Commission, also emphasised that the support to the SLB was part of the EU's contribution to governance, reconciliation, and post-conflict measures as a key priority of development cooperation between 2021-2027.

His Excellency Olaf Malchow echoed this commitment, citing the 70 years of cooperation between Germany and Sri Lanka. He commended the ambitions of Sri Lanka’s government and people within this process, while underscoring that these efforts are key for accountability and reliable data, in an environment where there are many challenges to do so.

Professor Rajen Govender, Senior Research Fellow at IJR, explained that in such a context, the SLB Public Opinion Survey on reconciliation offered the country an insight into the social dimension, wherein when countries like Sri Lanka struggle under “polycrisis”, i.e. when multiple crises convene together, they need to reconnect with its people to understand how people are really doing, what they really need and what should really be done - helping rebuild the compact between people and states. Despite the challenges of the present economic crisis and its impacts on every aspect of lived realities of Sri Lankans in the areas of social cohesion, governance, and health, it is not surprising that reconciliation emerges yet again as a key priority in public discussions, as diverse communities feel its reverberations when dealing with present day challenges around personal freedoms, right to free speech and association, and need for inclusive policymaking.

Reconciliation has once more taken centre stage as state officials attempt to strengthen a local mechanism towards this process, which has international credibility and recognition. Perhaps this long-standing goal, a key impetus for state measures towards this process, can take a renewed approach when looking at what Sri Lankans themselves are saying about reconciliation. For example, according to some of the findings from the bi-annual SLB Public Opinion Survey, a majority of Sri Lankans continue to maintain their demand for reconciliation, including aspects such as recognising past injustices, and were concerned by a perceived lack of progress and impediments to the process such as lack of political will, nationalism, and divisive politics. This shows more and more how any homegrown solution needs the trust of its own people first.

While the main purpose of the 8 May event lay in presenting key findings from the SLB Survey Report 2021 and SLB Snapshot Survey Report 2022, the SLB further aimed at bringing together different organisations and professionals working with survey data to discuss the practical relevance of such data for public discourse, policymaking, advocacy efforts, and society as a whole.

Going forward, the SLB is planning to exhibit the findings and bring them back to the Sri Lankan public all around Sri Lanka. For example, the findings will be showcased at an event in the Eastern Province in September in a novel way, within a 40 feet refurbished shipping container, with support from the Eastern Medical Faculty (Batticaloa) and the South Eastern University (Ampara), anticipating the participation of students, lecturers and community members. It is hoped that as more such opportunities are created, more partners will join and more conversations, research and independent initiatives will be encouraged among the public.

On the public stage, reconciliation is underscored in Sri Lanka as often necessary for development and growth, but what if it really means more than that for Sri Lankans? What if it stokes our ambitions to dream of a new world order that is free of corruption, that is inclusive, that acknowledges pain and offers protections to people from every walk of life, not seeing it as a cost, but as a better reflection of who we want to become? A world where we can feel like we belong, because we cared to do something about it.

Aaranya Rajasingam is a Senior Advisor for GIZ in the Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE) program.