By Somapala Gunadheera –
I was happy to read the news item captioned, “Peace, a subject in school soon”, appearing in the Daily Mirror of the 17th December. It read, “The Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), headed by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, had proposed to introduce a new subject called ‘Peace Education and Conflict Resolution’ to the school curricular.”
The purpose of the move was said to be “to bring about better understanding among different ethnic and religious groups of Sri Lanka”. Although the proposal had been taken up with the Ministry of Education, they had not given the green light for the Project, up to the time of reporting. The reason for the delay may be inferred from the reporter’s observation that currently the subject was taught at graduate and post graduate level at some universities.
What appears to be needed in the present context is a practical approach to the problem by aligning the school curricula to remove the existing compartmentalization of students by race and religion. Students of all ethnic groups and religions should be provided with the widest possible opportunities to eschew, through a process of mutual realization, the prejudices that have been ingrained into them by prophets of doom.
I tried to do this at my level, when I was working in the North as Chairman, RRAN, soon after “Rivirâsa”. I organized a tour for the girls and boys who had obtained top marks at that years A Level exam. In those dark days of terror, it was a highly risky operation. There was no knowing how the Tigers would react to the move. Nor was there a guarantee on the reaction in the South on seeing a tour group from the North which symbolized for them a region that had caused destruction in their own areas.
The children were brought to Trincomalee by ship and thereafter taken around the South by bus. Their first stop was at Anuradhapura. When I met them personally at their Rest, their faces betrayed the tension that was created by the looming double danger. On the tour, they were taken to places where decisions were not taken on ethnicity or faith. One such place was the Supreme Court. President Kumaratunga entertained the group personally at Temple Trees and had a friendly chat with them. The then Minister of Education was waiting in the queue to meet the President at the time. I went up to him and asked him to meet the children. But he declined my invitation summarily He was cross, as his approval had not been obtained for the tour. The Minister failed to see that there was no room for such niceties under the pressures I was facing up in the North. Perhaps, he was not willing to share responsibility, if the project misfired.
As the tour advanced, the children were received so cordially wherever they were taken that their tension relaxed and they progressively mixed up with the environment freely. One of them had confided in my Tamil secretary, “The Sinhalese are not such nasty people that we have been made to believe at home”. My PA told me later, that they were so sad to leave that some of them were in tears when they bade farewell to our facilitation team. The school children’s tour was followed by a tour of govi-rajas. At Monaragala the Jaffna farmers had a meeting with their counterparts where they demonstrated their native methods of banana cultivation. Unfortunately, before I could get down to organizing more goodwill missions to and from the North, I had to come down South to take over the ailing Southern Development Authority. As far as I am aware, no such missions were organized thereafter.
My experiment with the tours is a devise that is bound to create much rapport among school children on both sides. Now that the atmosphere in the North has come to normal, the tours need not be confined to fleeting sightseeing events. The ideal would be to make arrangements for student exchanges under which children on both sides could stay with hosts on the opposite side. I trust many peace loving citizens who could afford it, would be pleased to accommodate children from the opposite side during school holidays. The association of the ONUR with such a project should go a long way to maximize ethnic integration.
Sports is another sector that can generate integration unobtrusively with effect and pleasure. Even at present newspapers occasionally carry reports about such engagements. The need is to increase them to the level of inter-school matches played between leading schools in the southern cities during the season. Creating a tradition of annual matches between schools on both sides, played both in the North and the South, would bring the two sides faster together.
Language which has become the bone of contention can itself be used to link the two cultures. Regular debates between schools on both sides would be an asset in this direction. May be, that initially the debates would have to be conducted in the common English language. But debates between those who are offering a second native language for the A Level exam or a University Degree are likely to increase as the two people come closer together. As the healing process matures, mixed matches and debates should help to break down polarization effectively.
The above are only a few of the ways in which our schools can participate practically in the Nation’s healing process. The ONUR can directly engage in research into such ways and means and make provision to implement the projects found to be relevant and effective. I have no doubt that it has the resources, both financial and personnel and the necessary clout for the purpose. National banks and business houses have a social obligation to facilitate the integration initiatives.