THE PROBLEM WITH THE OPINION POLL
(1998 October 14)
As soon as the results of the opinion poll carried out by the centre for anthropological and sociological studies
at the University of Kolomba were released, the peace merchants went to town with the conclusion that the Sinhala
people want to stop the "war". 'Yukthiya', a Sinhala tabloid, funded by an NGO, in an editorial claimed
that the people have rejected the "militarists" (yudavadin). Presumably what Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya,
the editor, who makes an annual pilgrimage to Toronto, meant was that the people had rejected those who advocate
that the LTTE should be defeated militarily. As there was no question in the opinion poll as to the rejection or
otherwise of the so-called yudavadin it is difficult to understand how the editor came to this conclusion. Then
Mr. Jehan Perera, the director of research at the Sarvodaya, which is the biggest NGO in the country, in an article
in "The Island" said that the Sinhala people did not 'war' meaning military action.
However there are more serious problems that are connected with the opinion poll conducted by the centre for anthropological and sociological studies. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung ( FES ) that has provided technical and financial assistance is linked with the Christian Democratic Party in Germany. The FES, as mentioned in the article on "The Role of the NGO's ", which quoted a paper read at the round table organised by the African Association of Public administration and the UN Economic Commission for Africa Special Action Programme in Administration and Management, in Nigeria, in December 1990, 'tends generally to push the social democratic perspective on Africa'. It cannot be assumed that the FES is very impartial in its activities in Asia in general and in Sri Lanka in particular. The NGO bandwagon in Colombo including the editors, the research directors and the others of newspapers and organisations financed by the donors in the west were overjoyed by the results of the opinion poll.
On the other hand the University of Kolomba has centres and institutes financed by foreign agencies. I am aware of such organisations proposed and established during the tenure of Dr. G. L. Peiris's vice chancellorship. In any case the universities in Sri Lanka are not that autonomous, as we all know.
No opinion poll is unbiased and objective. If there is no objective Physics it cannot be imagined that there is an objective Sociology. The so-called methodologies adopted cannot eliminate the subjective factor that comes into these surveys. The formulation of questions, the opinions of those who interview the people, the relationship between the 'educated' interviewer and the person who is interviewed, especially if that person is 'uneducated and village type', all these come into the picture.
In Sri Lanka especially among the Sinhala Buddhists there is another very important factor that has to be considered. They tend to give answers that please the interviewer, even if it is only a case of writing down the answers or ticking boxes. Of course, I have not conducted a survey to come to this conclusion but this is something that I have observed over the years. The moment the interviewer says the 'janavargika prashnaya' (ethnic problem) most of the people know by instinct the answers they have to give. An extreme form of this behaviour of the Sinhala people can be observed during the elections when the voter will vow that 'api mahaththayata/nonata thamai' (we are with you) and vote for somebody else!
Let us look at some of the questions that have been asked in this survey. One of the questions was "do you know about the government proposals on the devolution of power?" 55.9 percent have answered yes and 44.0 percent have said no to this question. With all the government propaganda using the state media, which includes two television channels, a number of radio frequencies and the Lake House newspapers, the state schools, the sudu nelum movement, dharma yathras, a special unit set up in the ministry of Justice, etc., and after more than three years, 44.0 percent of the people (assuming that the survey is correct) are ignorant of the proposals. We would like to know how much public money was spent on this exercise and how much did the government get from the foreign agencies as donations. It is now well known that the Norway government has contributed financially to take the 'package' to the people. When one considers the fact that on many occasions even the Rupavahini news bulletin was used for this purpose one realises the inefficiency of the government propaganda machinery.
Another question that has been asked is "will the proposals help to solve the problem?" The problem is presumed to be the so-called ethnic problem that the government proposals on devolution of power envisage to solve. The most curious feature is that 32.6 percent of the people have said yes while 49.0 percent have stated no. In other words 81.6 percent of the people, according to the opinion poll, have formed their opinion on whether the government proposals would solve the problem or not. But if we are to go by the answers given to the previous question only 55.9 percent know about the government proposals on devolution of power. How did the other 25.7 percent come to any conclusion on the government proposals without knowing about them?
A plausible answer is that the meaning of the word know is not clear. In the first question it may be argued that the word know means that the people have heard about the package but not necessarily that they know the contents of the proposals. If we accept that interpretation then it could mean that at least 25.7 of the people have made an opinion on the proposals without knowing the contents but relying on the propaganda and the opinion expressed by the others. It is not unreasonable to assume that most of them would have said that the proposals would solve the 'problem', as that is the opinion they would have heard through the one sided propaganda of the radio and the rupavahini.
Also it is possible that many of those people who did not know the contents of the government proposals, along with some others, in order to please the visitors who came with the questionnaire said that the proposals would solve the problem. Even if they did not know the contents they would have heard the words such as the package, the ethnic problem, and the devolution of power and could have easily found out which side the interviewers were on.
Next take the question " Do you see more opportunities for people to solve their problems under the PC system as compared to before?" Now what is meant by 'their problems" in this question? As far as the Sinhala people are concerned there cannot be any "grievances" or "ethnic problem" that the provincial councils would help to solve. They would have thought about their problems such as getting their passports, driving licences, paying certain taxes and fees and nothing else. This question only reinforces the idea that devolution is nothing but decentralisation, among the Sinhala people who formed the majority of the people who were questioned. Some Sinhala people are in favour of the government proposals as they are under the impression that the package only decentralises the administrative powers. In fact on many occasions devolution is translated into Sinhala as 'vimadhyagathakireema' meaning decentralisation.
It should be noted that 23.7 percent of the people have said that the problem in the North could be solved through some kind of military action (yuda hamuda kriya maargayakin) while 9.3 percent have stated categorically that the LTTE has to be defeated. This means that, after all the propaganda by the peace merchants and the inclination to please the visitors, 33.0 percent of the people are definite that the military actions have to continue. Also it cannot be concluded that those who gave the other options in their answers want the military actions to stop forthwith. In fact the options given were not mutually exclusive and many would have liked to give more than one option as their answers. In some cases important options had not been listed.
23.2 percent of those interviewed have said that racism is one of the causes for the 'war' in the north. It is not clear whether this is Tamil racism. This option should have been stated more specifically. Perhaps the members of the centre for anthropological and sociological studies do not think that there is Tamil racism in the country. If racism does not mean Tamil racism then this option overlaps with genuine grievances and it would not be possible to interpret the answers to this particular problem. In spite of all the propaganda and interpretations by the NGO lobby only 29.2 percent think that there are 'genuine grievances' that have caused the problem.
The questions were not only loaded but formulated on the basis of certain assumptions. No question was asked to the effect that the military actions should be stopped immediately and if so how the 'problem' should be solved. Most importantly there was no definition of the 'problem'. It took different forms from one question to the other and there was no consistency. There were questions on the conflict in the north, the war in the north, the ethnic problem, and the problems of the people in their areas etc. Even if one were to assume that there is an ethnic problem the 'war' situation in the north should not be confused with the so-called ethnic problem. The options suggested in these two cases did not bring out this difference and the public would have been baffled. Even if one were to assume that there is an ethnic problem, the options listed in the question on solving the "ethnic problem" should have been clearly distinguished from those given in the question on stopping the 'war' in the north.
However the most important factor regarding the opinion poll, that cannot be overlooked, is the hidden basic assumption that there is an ethnic problem. The people have been fed with this wrong formulation and they are bound to respond in a particular way when an opinion poll is conducted based on this particular hypothesis. The opinion poll conducted has tried to reinforce this assumption and any claim by the administrators of the poll to any objectivity collapses like a pack of cards. In these so-called opinion polls nobody can formulate unbiased questions, as they will be based on certain theories, hidden assumptions or hypotheses. Some of these theories like that of an ethnic problem and grievances are full of contradictions and myths and have to be discarded.
The problem with the opinion poll conducted by the centre for anthropological and sociological studies is that the basic assumption of an ethnic problem is wrong. These opinion polls which ignore that the problem is due to Tamil racism which has evolved over a period of more than a century will not help the country. They will, of course, be an additional item in the curriculum vitae of some of the academics.