Sri Lanka's post-colonial history is a fascinating but troubled journey. From undergoing colonization three times to enduring a 30-year-long war, the country has overcome hardship and is now finding itself. However, there is still much that the government and civil society must act on to bring about coexistence among the many communities that call this island their home.
Project 72 is a documentary project aimed at educating Sri Lanka’s youth on the key events that have shaped the country’s politics, culture, and society since its independence in 1948. Developed by researcher Sarah Kabir and media platform Roar Media, the project involved months of historical research and interviews with various stakeholders. The result is a 90-120 minute documentary that seeks reconciliation and encourages active efforts towards harmony and coexistence by learning from and never repeating past mistakes.
In March 2023, Roar Media and lead archivist for Project 72, Ramla Wahab, conducted a survey among Sri Lankans aged 15-35 to understand their perceptions on the accurate dissemination of information and promotion of social harmony. It also aimed to explore ways of preventing misinformation while presenting historical knowledge in an honest and engaging manner, specifically for youth, who are the target audience for the documentary.
The survey results strengthened the project’s purpose: to develop a historically accurate, unbiased timeline of events that will educate Sri Lankan youth while serving as an important reminder that in order to move forward, we must learn from the past.
The first part of the survey focused on social cohesion in Sri Lanka. For the frame and purpose of this survey and the interpretation of its results, the term ‘social harmony’ was used to mean communities living together peacefully. When asked, “Do you think Sri Lanka can achieve social harmony?”, 57.3% of respondents, a majority of them males from the Western and Central Provinces, responded positively. 42.7%, representing women more generally, responded negatively.
This was followed by the question that pointed to possible reasons as to why social harmony has not been achieved yet. To this, 68.5% responded that the path to social harmony has been thwarted by politics, followed by religion (11.3%) and economics (8.9%). No respondents selected civil war or terrorism as a reason, which is worth examining in the production process of ‘72’.
Over the last 10 years, Sri Lanka has seen firsthand the real world consequences of online misinformation and disinformation. Hate speech targeting minorities has resulted in riots and other incidents of violence. To gauge how youth feel about this, the next part of the survey focused on hate speech and misinformation.
Respondents were asked to rate, on a scale of one to 10, the volume of hate speech available online. 88.7% of the respondents rated hate speech as being more than five. The majority of the respondents believed that at its highest rate, hate speech existed at eight. Interestingly, the survey also found that levels of hate speech online differ depending on the language spoken by the users. While first language Sinhala and English speakers see the volume of hate speech as high, Tamil speakers believe it to be moderate or less.
Next, respondents prioritized actions for future coexistence in Sri Lanka. Misinformation curbing was rated highest by 75% of them; followed by historical education, which 49.1% of respondents believe is very important. Education was identified as a key priority to promote coexistence and social harmony. Project 72 has long understood this.
The survey also aimed to understand the level of historical knowledge among youth. 55% of male respondents recorded themselves as possessing a very good knowledge of history, while 43.5% of female respondents believe their understanding to be average.
Out of 97 respondents, 33 saw the civil war as the most significant event and turning point in Sri Lankan history, between 1948 and 2009, 33 saw the civil war as the most significant event in Sri Lankan history, with the Sinhala Only policy and Black July anti-Tamil pogrom as the next most important. Other responses noted ethnic tensions and violence towards minority groups such as Tamils, Muslims and Catholics.
When it comes to historyl documentaries, accuracy and trustworthiness were expected by 50% of respondents. The younger age groups, particularly those aged 15-20, valued a genuine and factual approach to history. Authenticity and honesty while also keeping the content interesting was a priority for those between 21-30 and 31-35. Reconciliation was only somewhat of a priority for this group.
92% of respondents were interested in watching a historical documentary that challenges their existing knowledge. Interestingly, the young age group showed the most openness to it. However, university students seemed to be more apprehensive towards such documentaries.
'72' is a trilingual documentary that aims to educate, raise awareness, and promote harmony and social cohesion in Sri Lanka. By capturing the arc of Sri Lanka's post-independence history, the documentary provides balanced coverage of the socio-political changes that have influenced the fabric of society today. It also serves as an exposition of the events that have impacted Sri Lanka's present — positively or negatively — while briefly discussing the context of events before independence. The film includes authentic witness accounts and experiences to help bridge knowledge gaps and aims to be an excellent media resource and repository that could be useful for educational purposes.
Sri Lanka is an island nation with a strong and diverse ethnic and cultural identity. Its rich heritage and deep historical roots present a great potential for creativity, cohesion, innovation, and progressiveness. However, understanding Sri Lanka's history is crucial to achieve these: from the formation of its communities and the progression of its politics post-independence to its insurrections and uprisings, protracted conflict and development of language, education, and policy reforms.
This first-of-its-kind documentary, guided by top academics and experts, archives crucial events and presents them in a simplified and engaging manner. Using animations, graphics, archives, and narration, the documentary analyzes key socio-political events and explores the diversity of Sri Lanka's origins. By doing so, the documentary hopes to inspire the youth to create a future free from intolerance, injustice, and violence, and encourage development and prosperity.
Sarah Kabir is a peacebuilding and reconciliation specialist, author, and researcher. Her work covers areas such as governance, post-war development, philanthropy, remittances, and humanitarianism. She published ‘Voices of Peace’, which explores the lives and choices of ten former rebel fighters and ten Sri Lankan military personnel.
The digital producer of ‘72’, Roar Media is a new-age media platform and documentary storytelling studio. It has pioneered world-class media ecosystems for a South Asian audience with its focus on creating insightful, credible and entertaining content. From content that inspires to solutions that transform, their media experience across languages and cultures brings stories to life.