September 10, 2012
KANDY, SRI LANKA – Kethmi Hettige, 17, is a student from Sri Lanka’s deep south, where the traditions and culture of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority are fiercely protected. But she says she received exposure to the minority Tamil language and culture when she attended the Future Leaders Conference in August in Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka.
“It was the first time I had met a Tamil person of my age,” she says. “When I finally started to communicate with them, I learned they had the same ideas for unity as I did. They had similar goals and plans for their future. There was nothing different about us.”
Organized by Sri Lanka Unites, SLU, a youth movement for hope and reconciliation, the three-day conference gathered young people of various backgrounds from across the country.
Although the island nation recognizes both the Sinhala and Tamil languages as its official languages, Kethmi, like most others of the Sinhalese majority, does not speak Tamil. The conference encouraged her to overcome this barrier.
“Even though I couldn’t speak Tamil, towards the end of the first day, I was forced to communicate,” she says. “Otherwise, I would be alone!”
She says this was just the beginning.
“By the second day, we were friends,” she says. “We started to communicate and began sharing with each other, and we are still sharing about our lives and our cultures.”
A recent conference brought young people from various backgrounds to discuss reconciliation in Sri Lanka, a country that is just moving beyond three decades of civil conflict. SLU, which organized the conference, comprises youth who have taken charge of ensuring a peaceful future for Sri Lanka. The movement has even inspired Sri Lankans living around the world and youth from other countries to start chapters of their own.
Sri Lanka’s nearly three-decade civil conflict officially ended in May 2009. The conflict between government troops – mostly led by the Sinhalese majority – and the minority Tamil rebels ended in a bloody standoff in the country’s north, which the rebels had held since the early 1980s.
During the conflict, more than 80,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives and more than 1 million people were displaced from their homes in the northern and eastern parts of the country, according to government figures released in 2009. Although the military fighting has ended, many acknowledge that deep scars of animosity remain between the Sinhalese and Tamil groups.
The conference brought together around 600 student leaders from all 25 districts of the country. Working in groups of 25 young people each, they listened to thought-provoking speakers, engaged in group tasks and challenges and participated in experiential learning activities.
Participants say the conference challenged them to start thinking about long-held personal prejudices and false impressions of other cultures. They say it also instigated dialogue about how they could play a role in uniting this divided nation.
This was SLU’s third annual Future Leaders Conference. But it’s only the beginning of the journey for participants, a total of 1,500 during the past three years. They say that living closely with young people from other groups for a few days has inspired them to open their minds permanently.
Prashan De Visser, SLU founder and president, says that he and his friends created SLU four years ago after realizing that Sri Lanka was at a unique turning point in its history.
“We were at a point when we could turn a new page and write a new story,” he says. “We had a chance to be reconciled and be one Sri Lanka again.”
SLU seeks to unite the youth of all backgrounds across Sri Lanka in a movement that promotes reconciliation and creates a peaceful and prosperous nation for future generations.
“One dream we’d like to see is that Sri Lanka will go from being one of the most brutal civil conflicts and examples of division and violence, to being the prime example for what reconciliation and celebration of diversity and a true meritocracy is all about,” De Visser says.
Now in his mid-20s, he launched SLU with a few close friends soon after completing his undergraduate studies.
“We said, yes, this is a crisis,” he says. “We’ve had 30 years of war. Yes, it’s been so traumatic for so many people, but what if we can use this opportunity to build something better?”
He says they envision a thriving nation.
“We constantly say ‘from ashes to glory,’” he says. “And we need to be working until our country reaches that point.”
But he says this will take time.
“Reconciliation is a process – it doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “It’s a long-term process, and, for us, it doesn’t end with people being OK with each other. It goes from reduction of animosities across ethnic lines or a reduction of prejudices to a desire to communicate more.”
He says this leads to a series of developments that build on one another.
“Then, as a result of communication, there is more understanding,” he says. “As a result of that understanding, an appreciation of another culture or religion is created. As a result of appreciation, there is more acceptance of who they are as individuals, and then, moving away from that, to a place where they value ethnic diversity.”
Jayanatha Dhanapala, chairman of the Board of Trustees of SLU, writes in an email that the organization is completely driven by the youth.
“Sri Lanka Unites is a spontaneous response of the youth of our country to the challenges presented by the [post-conflict] situation in Sri Lanka,” he writes. “It is entirely self-reliant and directed by the students themselves drawing their vision from their own idealism.”
According to Dhanapala, a former U.N. undersecretary-general for disarmament, the organization has been successful.
“In establishing an island-wide network of relationships among students of all ethnic, religious and social groups within a short period of time, SLU has created unity at the grassroots,” he writes.
SLU believes that peace-building requires knowledge and information, as well as practical action. This has led to the formation of SLU chapters in more than 90 schools around the island. The members of these chapters make a commitment to fostering reconciliation and to creating a united Sri Lanka.
A specially developed 66-week program enables students in each school chapter to learn and study four broad themes: reconciliation and peace-building, leadership, personal development and action. Each SLU chapter has to submit a coursework file illustrating that its members have finished at least 40 weeks of the course.
Practical action complements these academic studies. Each school partners with another school from outside its region and its predominant group. Called Champions of Change, this yearlong program encourages the schools to do projects together and to develop fellowship events so that students from the two schools can get to know each other and build bridges of understanding and acceptance of each other’s culture and religion.
Solomon Rajaram Hariharan is a student leader representing St. John’s College in Jaffna, located in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north.
Hariharan says he learned about SLU when his school selected him to attend the second Future Leaders Conference last year. This year, he served as a student volunteer at the conference.
“The conference has the right atmosphere to make good friends,” he says. “I consider myself privileged to be part of a team that’s working to unite the country.”
He currently serves as the president of his school’s SLU chapter. His school, with predominantly Tamil students, has partnered with Maliyadeva College, a predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist school in the country’s North Western province.
“Working together on community projects, visiting each other’s school, hosting friends from the other school in our own homes have all helped us to get to know each other,” Hariharan says. “We are now really good friends.”
As part of the Champions for Change program, they conducted a medical camp in a remote area of Jaffna.
The Champions for Change program has resulted in a multitude of community-oriented, reconciliation-focused initiatives around the country. Students have initiated flood relief efforts, worked in IDP camps, provided wheelchairs to the disabled, supported students from lower-income schools, provided free classes to students and worked in orphanages. The SLU school chapters plan and implement these projects, even raising the funds and organizing the necessary resources themselves.
The influence of this youth-led movement for peace and reconciliation has even spread beyond the shores of this small island nation. SLU chapters have sprung up in cities around the world among the Sri Lankan diaspora. Currently, there are SLU chapters in Melbourne, Australia; Toronto, Canada; and Washington D.C. and Orlando, United States. There are plans to begin chapters soon in Los Angeles, United States; and Wellington, New Zealand.
“Social media was the key to drawing in young people from the widespread Sri Lanka diaspora around the world,” De Visser says. “As they interacted with us on Facebook and through our website, they were inspired to join us in rebuilding one Sri Lanka.”
Dhanapala writes that their participation enhanced this year’s conference.
“The new features of foreign participation representation from the youth of the Sri Lanka diaspora and the TV coverage were excellent additions,” he writes. “The fact that the conference was held in Kandy during the Perahera was also good because it enabled all to share a common festival.”
Many of these chapters plan to organize Future Leader Conferences in their own diaspora communities around the world during the next year, encouraging reconciliation and celebration of the different cultures.
This year’s conference also drew interested observers from India, South Africa, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have returned home inspired to replicate the concepts they saw in Sri Lanka, De Visser says. Youth leaders in Kenya, for example, are planning to have a Future Leaders Conference next year.
“Kenya’s tribal tensions led to violence in the last elections, and they are very eager to do something before the next elections in 2012 to create a coalition of Kenya Unites that will work to foster reconciliation,” De Visser says.
He says SLU’s community programs have benefited several thousands of people – both the young people implementing them and the Sri Lankans benefiting from them.
Dhanapala writes that the youth movement has even inspired adults like himself.
“I have been inspired myself by the enthusiasm of the members,” he writes.
De Visser says the youth believe that change is up to them.
“We believe that we need to be the change we want to see,” De Visser says. “We can never go back to a time where you just knew someone as a Sinhalese or a Tamil. Now we know their names and faces. We can appreciate a personality. We can judge each other by our character and not by ethnicity or the region we represent. We will not let the hatred of the past control the present and destroy our future.”