Dynamics of Sinhala Buddhist Ethno-Nationalism in Post-War Sri Lanka

20 April, Colombo, Sri Lanka: Almost seven years have lapsed since the end of the war, yet Sri Lanka continues to remain a deeply divided society. Empirical evidence from the four waves of the ‘Democracy in post-war Sri Lanka’ public opinion survey conducted by Social Indicator (SI), the survey research arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), corroborates this ground reality: Sri Lankans are polarised along ethnic lines on key questions related to governance, and the task of promoting reconciliation between the island’s diverse communities has been identified by the current administration as a key priority. A special Presidential Task Force on Reconciliation, which subsequently metamorphosed into the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) was thus appointed in March 2015, with a specific mandate “to lead, facilitate, support and coordinate matters related to national unity and reconciliation in Sri Lanka”.

Divisive nationalist posturing from the country’s main ethnic communities has presented the singular most formidable challenge to reconciliation, social cohesion, and the vision of creating a united Sri Lanka. This report examines the phenomenon of ethno-nationalism, broadly defined as “the extreme political expression of ethnicity”, among the island’s largest ethno-religious group – the Sinhala Buddhist community, and the dynamics of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism in the post-war context. Contrary to some interpretations that ethnicity has lost its power as a tool for political mobilisation, this report contends that Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism remains a highly potent force. Nationalistic fervour appeared to be on a downward trajectory following the January 2015 presidential election in which Maithripala Sirisena won campaigning on an anti-corruption platform which pulled together a number of divergent political forces. However, the growing disenchantment in the Sinhala-Buddhist community on many fronts, their burgeoning economic woes in particular, at least in part has made it easier for nationalistic political posturing to re-capture its lost appeal.

This report also argues that while the vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists embrace rationalistic values and are amenable to sharing power with the minorities, nationalistic forces within the community continue to subsume moderate voices. As a direct result of their dominance and the centre’s apprehensions of triggering an extremist backlash, arriving at a sustainable political solution to the country’s ethnic question will remain a contentious issue. Therefore, although the government has accorded priority to ‘reconciliation’ as a policy objective, a meaningful reconciliation process which – most critically – includes the formulation of an inclusive political system whereby minorities will have an equitable stake in governance will be extremely challenging in view of this reality.

Download the report here.


Voting in Hate: A study of hate speech on Facebook surrounding Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary Election of 2015



3 March 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) is pleased to release ‘Voting in Hate’ – a study of online hate speech surrounding Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary Election of 2015, authored by Roshini Wickremesinhe and Sanjana Hattotuwa. It is the latest of a series of studies published by CPA exploring the growth and effects of the phenomena of hate and dangerous speech on social media.

The 2015 Parliamentary Election witnessed social media as a key tool for political campaigning and election related activity. Facebook emerged the most used social media platform. Unsurprisingly, the relatively unshackled freedom of expression found in social media also invited unchecked expressions of hateful and defamatory material targeting candidates.

What effect, if any, did such alarming expressions of hate have on the outcome of the election? What effect, if any can it have on our society desperately in need of disentangling itself from the bonds of racist, extremist, and sexist divisions?

CPA’s new report examines 11 Facebook groups appropriated to promote hate speech thinly veiled as political speech, targeting political parties and candidates based on their ethnicity, religion or gender. The study covers a period of one month prior to the date of the 2015 Parliamentary Election on 17th August. English translations of relevant posts and responses as well as the original material posted to the groups (both text and visuals) are included.

It also looks at lessons learned from this experience for the future, in grappling with online spawning of hate speech and its effect on a growing following of youth, as well as challenges and implications of social media driven election campaigning which need to be addressed by the state, candidates and society at large.

Download the report in full here. Download the Executive Summary here.

Translation of the Executive Summary is available in Sinhala. Tamil translation will follow soon.

Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka – December 2015

18 December 2015, Colombo, Sri Lanka: According to the latest ‘Democracy in Post War Sri Lanka’ survey conducted by Social Indicator, the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, 80.6% of Sri Lankans are of the opinion that the Government should find solutions to address the root causes of the conflict. While 48.1% of Sri Lankans state that there should be a credible mechanism to look into accountability during the final stages of the war, 37.7% indicate that there should not be one.

Among those who stated that there should be a credible mechanism, 43.8% prefer an exclusively domestic mechanism, 17.1% prefer an exclusively international mechanism to probe into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed by all parties to the ethnic conflict during the final stages of the war. A majority (61.7%) from the Sinhala community prefer an exclusively domestic mechanism. 47.6% from the Tamil community prefer an exclusively international one and 39.7% prefer a combination of both domestic and international.

On reconciliation, 47% of Sri Lankans believe that the Government is genuinely committed to promoting reconciliation in the country while 22.6% believe that the Government is not genuinely committed.

A majority of Sri Lankans (almost 55%) are satisfied with the current level of democracy in the country, while nearly 16% state that they are not.

On the composition of the new Cabinet of Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers, 31.7% of Sri Lankans state that they are satisfied while 36.7% of Sri Lankans express dissatisfaction with regard to the same.

While 31.3% of Sri Lankans believe that the general economic situation in the country has got better since the new Government was formed, 30.3% believe that it has got worse. When comparing data across the four main ethnic communities, the Sinhala community is the most skeptical with regard to the general economic situation in the country with 35.3% stating that it has got worse since the new Government was formed.

The respondents were asked to indicate their level of satisfaction in relation to the development initiatives taken thus far under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. While 46.3% of Sri Lankans were satisfied, nearly 30% were not satisfied with the present pace of development in the country.

‘Democracy in post-war Sri Lanka’ sought to record public perspectives on democracy in Sri Lanka today and the findings are presented under five key sections – Economy and Development, Security and Freedom, Perceptions on politics, human rights and reconciliation, and the Government. The first wave was conducted in 2011, the second wave in 2013, the third in 2014 and the fourth in March 2015.

Conducted in the 25 districts of the country, this survey captured the opinion of 2103 Sri Lankans from the four main ethnic groups. The selection of respondents was random across the country except in a few areas in the Northern Province where access was difficult. Fieldwork was conducted from October 20th to November 15th 2015.

Download the report in full here.

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Social Indicator (SI) is the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and was established in September 1999, filling a longstanding vacuum for a permanent, professional and independent polling facility in Sri Lanka on social and political issues. Driven by the strong belief that polling is an instrument that empowers democracy, SI has been conducting polls on a large range of socio-economic and political issues since its inception.

Please contact Iromi Perera at [email protected] for further information.

Saving Sunil: A study of dangerous speech around a Facebook page dedicated to Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake

‘Saving Sunil – a study of dangerous speech around Facebook page dedicated to Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake’ continues the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) study of online discourse, particularly over social media, around dangerous and hate speech, following its first report on the subject ‘Liking Violence: A Study of Hate Speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka’ published in 2014.

The report examines the content of the official Facebook page dedicated to saving Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake, who was, on the 25th of June 2015, sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court for the massacre of 8 civilians in Mirusuvil in 2000. The report contains detailed translations into English of the original posts and comments, including photographic and visual content. The Facebook page was monitored for a period of one month, from the time of the verdict. This period also coincided with the period of political campaigning for the General Election of 2015. Given that context, this report explores how potent the saving Sunil Facebook page is, firstly as an example of online hate and dangerous speech and secondly, as a catalyst for social mobilization.

Clearly, the cause of Sgt. Sunil Rathnayake was politicized and the Facebook page dedicated to him used as a political platform. The content of the Saving Sunil page, liberally augmented by hate and dangerous speech reflects the political rhetoric that only a Rajapakse led government can protect the majority community and war heroes from international interference and witch hunts while the Wickremesinghe led UNFGG (UNP) campaign with its inclusiveness of minorities and war related faux pas of the past would result in minority dominance and criminalizing of war heroes. How effective was the Saving Sunil Facebook page in mobilizing their predominantly young audience; either to save Sgt. Rathnayake or as a political platform? Has the recent decline of radical groups and their power over society diminished opportunities for translating hate rhetoric in to mass physical action? As noted in the final chapter of the report, ‘Online hate speech receptacles such as the saving Sunil Facebook page and hundreds of similar groups will not doubt continue to mushroom on Sri Lanka’s social media fabric. However, this phenomenon by itself, in a political and social context which affords less space for impunity and hate is far less likely to thrive long term or have any significant traction. It is more likely that such Facebook campaigns will emerge from time to time and fade out, forming a pattern of waves of online hate speech’.

Download the full report here.


Liking violence: A study of hate speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka

24 September 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) is pleased to launch ‘Liking violence: A study of hate speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka’, authored by Shilpa Samaratunge and Sanjana Hattotuwa.

  • Download the full report here or read it online here. Download it as a PDF in Sinhala here.
  • Download just the Introduction and Executive Summary here or read it online here.
  • Translations of the Executive Summary of this report are available in Sinhala and Tamil.

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The report is the first in Sri Lanka to focus on hate and dangerous speech in online fora, contextualising the growth of this disturbing digital content with increasing violence against Muslims and other groups in Sri Lanka. As the blurb on the front cover of the report avers,

The growth of online hate speech in Sri Lanka does not guarantee another pogrom. It does however pose a range of other challenges to government and governance around social, ethnic, cultural and religious co-existence, diversity and, ultimately, to the very core of debates around how we see and organise ourselves post-war.

The report looks at 20 Facebook groups in Sri Lanka over a couple of months, focussing on content generated just before, during and immediately after violence against the Muslim community. Detailed translations into English of the original material posted to these groups (including photographic and visual content) and the responses they generated are provided. It is the first time a study has translated into English the qualitative nature of commentary and content published on these Facebook groups, indicative of a larger and growing malaise in post-war Sri Lanka.

More generally, the study looks at the phenomenon of hate speech online – how it occurs and spreads online, what kind of content is produced, by whom and for which audiences. In addition to Sri Lanka, policy frameworks and legislation around online hate speech in Kenya, Rwanda, India, Pakistan, Canada and Australia are also flagged in the report.