“Our sense of security comes from our generation, not our parents’…we are going to be with each other for the next fifty years. Our parents will soon be gone, and we will need to turn to our friends, which is why youth activism and young people speaking to each other is so important. Because our sense of security comes from each other”.
In this interview, we hear from Neluni Tillekeratne, Co-National Director of Sri Lanka Unites, a youth movement for hope and peace. The organization was set up after the end of the 25-year- long civil war in post-independent Sri Lanka as a way of promoting peace and reconciliation with a focus on the youth. This article was carved from a conversation between Tawa and Neluni.
Why the movement Sri Lanka Unites?
It has been ten years since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, but there are still deep divisions along ethnic, religious and socioeconomic lines. Ours is a generation bequeathed with prejudice, mistrust and suspicion of the other, mainly fuelled by the older generation who lived through the conflict. Recent pockets of violence along religious lines give an indication of the fragile state of the peace we enjoy. The strong, unwavering attachment people have to their ethno-religious identities over national inclusion is a threat to the reconciliation we all need in order to heal.
This is why Sri Lanka Unites (SLU) exists! It is a youth movement seeking to foster hope and reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka. The organisation motivates and trains young leaders in schools across the country to be ambassadors of reconciliation and a critical part of the solution. These young ones are empowered to champion inter-community reconciliation initiatives in their own local areas. SLU also has the mandate to create resistance against the cycle of violence by countering the radicalization of the youth. We have been working with Sri Lankan youth for over a decade now in 300 schools across all 25 districts in the country.
Strategic peace education for youth
To achieve the tall order we set for ourselves, we have begun implementing a project we call “Strategic Peace Education for Youth”. As part of this project, we are partnering with peacebuilding experts to develop a curriculum and teaching manual with translations in the two national languages, Sinhala and Tamil. This guidebook seeks to give young people an understanding of the root causes of radicalization, which may include inequality and how communities are made to oppose each other for political gains.
The manual also focuses on the history of conflicts, be it colonization and the identity crisis left in its wake or the legal changes in the constitution in the ‘50s that placed one ethnic group above others. What this course tries to do is to create awareness about the historical context that led to violent conflicts, their impact on our generation, how to identify them in the present context, and how to avoid radicalization in the future. Although it might be tempting to choose the familiar route of violence when issues arise, there are young people who envision a future without violence and are beginning to appreciate the roles they must play to make that future real for themselves and generations unborn. That is the very basis of the global citizenship education that we look at.
Apart from this guidebook, we have also taken at least 45 young people from various provinces in the country through training-of-trainers courses. The aim of this is to equip them with the needed skills and knowledge to teach the peacebuilding curriculum through SLU clubs in their communities. We have also set up an education department under the organization which is the focal point in the dissemination of the peacebuilding curriculum across 200 schools this year.
We have come to believe that one of the main reasons why negative narratives about the ‘other’ thrive is because of how our schools are structured. Most schools in the country are divided along religions, ethnic, socioeconomic and, in some cases, gender lines. This is a fundamental challenge, because young people spend the first eighteen years of their lives interacting only with people from similar backgrounds, creating room for prejudice, ignorance and mistrust about other communities to fester.
Future Leaders’ Conference
Since the launch of Sri Lanka Unites, we have sought to break that cycle through the Future Leaders Conference. Every year, we bring together students from the different schools across the country for this five-day conference. Through the creation of a safe environment and fun activities, these young people can see through negative stereotypes and challenge inherited hate towards other communities. Over the past decade, the conference catered for at least 4000 student leaders and has led to the establishment of more than 150 SLU chapters in schools. These clubs follow the SLU guidebooks and facilitate events focused on awareness creation and reconciliation.
We have also created reconciliation centres in various districts, because we believe that a widespread approach is needed if reconciliation, justice and equality are to be attained in Sri Lanka. These centres ensure grassroots participation in the peace process and serve as a hub for educating young people in English, IT and Entrepreneurship. Through these centres, we also engage students in peace-building training, and they are therefore encouraged to take on active roles within their communities in promoting peace and reconciliation.
Easter Sunday attacks
After the horrific events of Easter Sunday, many of our students put to the test the training and knowledge they had acquired over the years. To non-Muslims within the organization, it was clear that these attacks were carried out by terrorist groups, and that majority of moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka are not members of these organizations and do not support such extreme radicalization. The Muslim students who felt everyone blamed and hated them for the attacks also realized that not all non-Muslim were against them and that there were people from outside their community fighting for them. So, they had a sense of security because of how other students within SLU made them feel; they knew they could still trust their own friends. What we have done is to create lots of friendships that help in bringing about stability in a period such as this without these young ones being radicalized.
However, outside the organization, there still exists a growing Islamophobia among the non-Muslim community. There were boycotts of Muslim businesses, but what the boycotters did not realize was that their own businesses were affected, too. You see, we are all interconnected as a society; our country is too small and the economy too fragile for us to isolate each other. We only end up hurting ourselves.
The common enemy
The 2019 Global Climate Risk Index ranked Sri Lanka as one of the top five countries worst affected by climate change over the last couple of years. Agriculture patterns are changing and so is the weather pattern, and, very soon, there is going to be a conflict in Sri Lanka over resources: over who gets the water and the land for agriculture. That is why it is important that we realize we need to come together to fight something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our religious, ethnic and political differences.
These differences pale in the face of the danger posed by climate change. We the youth will be more affected by this than our parents, who will soon be gone. This is why youth activism is important, as is the interaction of young people across religious, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. We at Sri Lanka Unites are trying to establish multiple cross-racial conversations with an aim of creating global citizens who represent a Sri Lankan identity that is bigger and stronger than we have it today.
Ms. Neluni Tillekeratne has trained hundreds of students over the last eight years on the need for reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka, with many having gone on to be dynamic youth peace activists. Through financial support provided by UNAOC under the Youth Solidarity Fund 2018 Edition, Sri Lanka Unites developed a peace education curriculum that they expect to roll out in 200 schools in their network during 2019. Sri Lanka Unites is currently in conversation with the Ministry of Education to gain access to all schools in the country.