The Referendum and the Framing Problem

R. Chandrasoma

There is a problem known to cognitive scientists as the 'framing problem'. The essence of it is that a decision-maker can give a definitive answer 'Yes' or 'No' to a seemingly well-formed question only if a certain background of information can be specified in a way acceptable to all parties. While humans (and animals) are wonderfully adept in navigating faultlessly in a complex environment, even the best-designed robots are clumsy indeed. This is due the computational difficulty of selecting the right cognitive frame within which action should be launched.

A lawyer is (famously) supposed to have asked the accused 'did you beat your wife last week?'
'But I….'began the poor man but he was shouted down. 'No ifs and buts. Just
answer 'yes' or 'no.' This is a classic example of forced decision-making where conditionals and qualifications are swept aside as part of the strategy to get the kind of answer the interrogator wants. The cognitive frame within which answers should be sought is artificially restricted to suit the questioner.

Suppose a referendum is held and the people are called upon to answer 'Yes' or 'No' to the following question -'Do you agree that the time is opportune for a peaceful resolution of the 'ethnic conflict' and that this is ought to be done by a maximal devolution of power under a federal constitution?'

Is this a fair question? All are for a peaceful resolution of what is gratuitously called the 'ethnic problem'- subject to the proviso that our sovereignty is not infringed and that territory is not yielded to armed bandits. All agree that devolution of power is a good thing provided that this does not turn out to be a springboard for separatism. Most good citizens are baffled by the attempt of politicians to declare that Sri Lanka is a better place if the 'unitary state of Sri Lanka' is downgraded to a 'united states of Sri Lanka'. Is this change of status genuinely beneficial or is it a painful imposition to please foreigners and armed terrorists? Is the word 'federalism' a pleasing euphemism to cover defeat and demotion? Lunatics are called 'mental patients' to assuage the hurt feelings of friends and relations. When the Leader of the Opposition declares that 'except for two minor parties, the solid mass of the people of Sri Lanka are for federalism' his statement is in the same class as the declaration that 'all pregnant women in Sri Lanka, except for a few rustics, are in favour of ultrasonic scans'. The point is that most women in Sri Lanka - pregnant or otherwise - do not know what ultrasonic scans are and have no opinion on the subject.

Most people can have no opinion on the merits (or demerits) of federalism unless plain questions are forthrightly answered. Will Prabhakaran's Army be in place in the North-East? Will police stations, courts of law, customs authorities and other paraphernalia of governance be duplicated in the New Federal System? Will foreigners be given powers carte blanche to deal with the new setup in the North-East" Will our National Anthem and our Lion Flag be replaced in the New Territory by the Eelam Anthem and the Koti Flag?

Is it not disingenuous - to put it mildly - for our leaders to back mightily the cause of federalism when its powers and limitations are only hinted at through the outrageous claims of the other side? To Prabhakaran - assuming the man is still alive - federalism is a precursory concession wrested from the oppressor. It is no more than by-station on the road to Eelam. This is understandable - he has killed thousands and, unless he is brought to his knees militarily, it folly indeed to suppose that he is willing at this late stage to exchange his mighty (and sanguinary) accomplishment for a shabby political deal in which he plays the role of State Governor of a Wasteland.

Let us return to the proposed referendum. Answers to the kinds of question that are likely to be asked presuppose deep reflection on the history of this conflict - a framework of understanding that far exceeds the reach of the ordinary ballot-marker and attendee at polling stations. Much of the voting in Sri Lanka is done on the basis of patronage - not on an earnest consideration of issues. The notorious referendum held by JRJ set a benchmark in the farcical use of the people's mandate.
The referendum that the President is reported to favour is fraught with consequences that may be equally irreversible and calamitous. She believes that 'at least 80% of the Sri Lankan voters are for peace'. Except for a few psychopaths, it is safe to say that the entire population yearns for peace. Here is the rub - our all-powerful President interprets 'for peace' as 'for peace with Prbhakaran by agreeing to abandon the unitary state for a form of federalism that makes him the uncontested Overlord of the North and East'.

All will agree that a whole world separates the two positions. Can a referendum of the blanket kind ('Do you favour peace over a continuation of our present confrontational position?') tease out the two positions? It has been a great and singularly successful tactic of the NGO Peace Brigade to conflate the issues and to equate 'for peace' as 'for peace through appeasement and surrender'. Tragically, what we see today is refashioning of this disgraceful obnubilation so artfully practiced by the NGO Peace-Brokers. It is now in the powerful hands of those supposed to be the protectors of the Nation and the State



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