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Rediscovering the youth link in Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation process

May 29, 2010 4:58:47 PM- transcurrents.com

by Sri Lanka Unites

A young boy from a border village in Polonnaruwa had fiercely sworn to hate the Tamil race. Living on the borderlines of the conflict, he lost his mother and father to a brutal LTTE attack in the height of the war.

Rationality not prevailing, he blamed all Tamil people for the loss of his parents, and the pathetic state of his life for years afterwards. A couple of months after the war’s end he decided that this hatred was eating him alive, and in his words said, "it was like you drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die". He is now making small but determined steps towards reconciliation, and has been actively engaging with Tamil youth of his age. He has just completed a Tamil language course, and is fluently conversant in it.

A young student in a prominent Jaffna school was invited to a youth conference in the South. It was his first time out of the North, and the wounds of war were still raw. He had lost relatives to army bombs, his friends had mysteriously disappeared. He was averse to the idea of meeting Sinhalese people, but eventually decided to go. On the long drive down the A-9, he nervously recollected the stories he’d been told, of Sinhalese mobs determined to destroy. But, as he recalls, "I arrived at the youth conference to a very different kind of mob", a mob, he said, of friendly Sinhalese boys and girls who cheered him and his colleagues on, celebrating their arrival after a ground breaking journey from the North. As he recalled, his heart would be forever transformed, and stereotypes firmly broken.

A group of students from Kandy decided that their mono-language classes have divided them for too long, and come together to fight a local dengue outbreak that has killed several and hospitalized dozens more. It is the first time that the students from the Sinhala-speaking stream and Tamil-speaking stream have spent that much time together, let alone work on a massive community service project that the whole town is proud of.

Meanwhile, in a school in the town of Mannar a group of young Tamil boys stay behind for hours after school to help a group of new students who had been recently admitted, and were severely lagging in their work, and were constantly looking uneasy and withdrawn. The new students are ex-LTTE child combatants, recently rehabilitated. The Mannar boys say that before they reconcile with other ethnicities, they need to bridge divisions among their own.

What do these young people have in common? They are all part of the war generation, and have been affected by the conflict in some way or another. Yet, they all have a deep love for their country and a passion to see it achieve greater things. They have all made a firm commitment to never let hatred and war divide Sri Lanka again. They are part of a generation that is intent on taking proactive steps towards reconciliation, responding to needs that they see evident in their daily lives. But would it have been possible before May 2009?

The absence of war

It has been a year since the end of a violent 30 year-long struggle; a struggle that exerted a considerable cost both on our country and its people. The President and his Government must be congratulated for defeating the elements that sought to divide our country, and for ushering in an era conducive for young people like us to believe in a better future. The 19th of May 2009 marked a crucial turning point in Sri Lanka’s history, and provided us with a new window of opportunity to rebuild as one nation. This military defeat of the LTTE saw Sri Lanka standing on the cusp of an era where an all too familiar polarized society could be replaced with one that is determined to correct the wrongs of the past, and commits to heal the wounds of the present. This is not just a task for the state, but for every citizen.

Reconciliation: Paving the way towards a lasting peace

A year ago Sri Lanka looked a very different place. The burdens of war made economic development cumbersome and rapid growth impossible. With the end of the war, however, we see great prospects for rebuilding lives, regaining livelihoods and broad economic progress. Although the conflict has ceased to exist in its violent form, traces of conflict, mistrust and division still remain. The need for reconciliation couldn’t be greater. Since the end of the war last year, ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ Youth Movement for Hope and Reconciliation has championed the cause of reconciliation in the grass-roots of Sri Lanka. It is now encouraging to see national-level attention to the issue moving beyond rhetoric, and ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ welcomes the appointment of a Presidential Commission to report on ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’. We hope that the members of the Commission treats its weighty task as a decisive step in peace-building, allowing us to dig deeper beyond the surface of the conflict, recognize the mistakes of the past and pledge to not repeat them. It must initiate a healing process that enables divided societies to move forward in a spirit of true national reconciliation. Sri Lanka Unites eagerly awaits the results of the Commission’s deliberations, and sincerely hopes that the process is credible, comprehensive and inclusive in nature.

A call to care for all those affected

We commend the ongoing relief and rehabilitation efforts of the governments and donor agencies in the North and East. We urge the government to work closely with donor agencies to ensure that the remaining internally displaced Sri Lankans are resettled swiftly, with their basic needs adequately met, and ensure that those who have been recently resettled are provided adequate means to rebuild their lives. While commending the government and donors in aiding the disarmament, demilitarization and reintegration (DDR) process of ex-combatants, we hope that all civilians affected by war are given adequate psycho-social support and assistance to return to a productive life. The bloody war has left Sri Lanka with an unprecedented number of orphans and widows, who are alone and marginalized, and urgently need caring for. Whether it is the widow of a fallen soldier from Moneragala, or an orphaned child who lost her parents in the crossfire at Puthumatalan, families have been torn apart, and need urgent and careful healing. The disabled and maimed are too numerous, soldier and civilian alike. Only once we have in place a concerted effort to help them all rebuild their lives, can we truly celebrate the end of terror.

Civil Society must play its role

Sri Lankans must recognize that conflict-transformation is not a task exclusive to the government or wholly dependent on State initiatives. Waiting passively for national actors to foster reconciliation singlehandedly is naïve.

Civil society has a valuable and undeniable role in complementing, strengthening and accelerating the Government’s efforts. It is then our responsibility as citizens of this country to abandon our all too familiar ‘wait and see’ approach in favour of a proactive stance in promoting hope and reconciliation. Despite this strong civic role, this work cannot take place in isolation. If the state is not part of the process, there will be no process. We urge the government to actively and open-mindedly engage with organisations such as ours and others, which are taking a bottom-up approach to reconciliation and are supporting, rather than competing with or undermining, the government’s top-down approach.

The New Sri Lanka: Youth leading positive changes

The youth present a viable solution for the country’s post-war future. In fact, as we have seen through our work, youth not only demonstrate strong potential as future leaders, but as leaders and change-makers of today. It is the youth who will engage in reshaping the next decades, giving leadership to the positive changes that must take place if Sri Lanka is to achieve a sustainable peace. Unfortunately, while being worst affected by the conflict, the youth have often been the ‘missing link’ during the numerous peace-building efforts attempted over the years. Sri Lanka Unites seeks to change that.

We are a bold movement that aims to restore this ‘youth voice’ by empowering young people to champion the cause of reconciliation in their schools, homes and communities, adopting a focused effort to nation-building. The movement comprises of an ever-growing countrywide network of dynamic students, intent on fostering the spirit of reconciliation among fellow youth from every race, religion and region. Most young people in our Sri Lanka Unites movement know people who have endured great difficulties on account of the civil war, often having experienced great trials themselves, but they have resolved to take collective responsibility to overcome the violence of the past thirty years.

These young people have already embarked on a number of successful peace-building initiatives across the country. Through these, they are constantly demonstrating the power of young people in championing positive changes in their communities. They have inspired other youth as well as influenced local government and business leaders. These youth will eventually be the new generation of Sri Lankans - moderate and informed citizens who firmly believe in pluralism and collective prosperity. They are united in their pledge to make better choices and seek better solutions. We hope that our nation’s leaders find examples in them, and pledge towards this too.