The fifth in our series of guest blogs comes from Prashan De Visser, the president of Sri Lanka Unites, a youth movement working towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Prashan helped us launch the Student Coalition in February 2012. Here he gives us a powerful account of the need for peace and reconciliation in post-civil war Sri Lanka.
In 2006 when we began a journey towards youth led grass root reconciliation many wondered if it was premature or naïve; most agreed it was ambitious. Many questioned whether it was possible. Regardless of this, our conviction that the war generation of Sri Lanka needed an opportunity to have a fresh start, a space to learn from the mistakes of the past, has never dwindled. Each one of us involved with Sri Lanka Unites was born into a Sri Lanka that was consumed with the fires of hatred and the turmoil of war. As a generation, we inherited prejudices and negative stereotypes towards those outside our own ethnic group. Our “nationalistic duty” was to join the ranks of our ethnic and religious groups, insisting only our people were right – that we had been wronged and our actions, despite our better conscience, were justified. Questions were not asked, motives were not questioned, political manipulations were never detected. Our desire to preserve and promote our group identity took prominence over our values for humanity, especially our fellow Sri Lankans.
From its inception, Sri Lanka Unites has dared to challenge the narrow parameters of our worldview and broaden our approach towards the origins, causes and results of ethnic conflict. We were pushing the boundaries, seeking only authentic solutions. Whatever approaches that were used in the past – civil war, political bickering or even the resultant peace talks and negotiations – failed time and time again. A solution to the ethnic conflict seemed more and more unattainable and elusive. But the worldview had to change. The fundamental lies, the negative stereotyping, the denial of crimes against each other, the justification of blatant violence and the silence of the moderate masses had to be tackled if we were to bring about lasting change. But where do you begin? Who do you focus on? Big questions, yes, but the answer emerged simply. Change had to begin with us. We had to purge ourselves of our own hatred. Whether we admitted it or not we have all been marred by violence and prejudices, in some form or another. None of us are completely blameless.
Experiencing change even in our own lives has taken longer than we would have liked. But we are aware of and prepared for the long journey ahead. Reconciliation is a process, not an event. It is an emotional experience or an understanding that does not take place inside a vacuum. The phrase for reconciliation in Greek – “tickum Olam” – means to heal, repair and transform. The healing process is not for the fainthearted, repairing the broken bridged of trust is not easy, and the journey toward transforming the misfortunes of the past is certainly not for the near-sighted or narrow minded.
Therefore, the journey is just beginning. Today we have young people from every district, representing every ethnicity, religion and economic background passionately committed to moving away from apathy or fear and transforming divisions into reconciliation. The end of war does not automatically mean the end of conflict. Reconciliation is not an automatic assumption. But that does not mean we should bow to the cynics that state that grassroots efforts for reconciliation is not a proper response to address grievances. Members of our youth movement that number well over 10,000 representing over 70 chapters (including 6 outside Sri Lanka) continue to make an impact. We have a firm conviction that reconciliation is not solely a government mandate but equally a civilian endeavor. With over 70% of Sri Lankan youths without connections or contact with people outside their own ethnic group, we have seen over a thousand leaders participate in the Future Leaders’ Conference and draw their communities closer together, breaking generations of prejudice and misconceptions. We have seen an increase in student interest to pursue trilingual language training. Our all island speaking tours and workshops have reached over 30,000 students from every district. Relief and rebuilding work has provided wheel chairs to IDP camps and hospitals in the North and essential school packs to over 2000 students from across the nation. Student-led projects have been inspired through the Future Leaders Conference, and have impacted communities across Sri Lanka – from building drinking wells and setting up medical camps, to conducting dengue eradication drives and reconciliation seminars. But our proudest achievement has been seeing student leaders leading change in their communities.
We are eager to make a positive impact on the rebuilding and reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. Northern Sri Lanka has suffered much, through three decades of violence. We hope to spread the message to the world that after decades of turmoil and division a new generation dares to unite – putting Sri Lanka back on the map as a nation that has transformed from conflict through the power of the country’s youth.
For more information check out: www.srilankaunites.org
Prashan De Visser
President, Sri Lanka Unites