27 June, 2022


Education & Reconciliation; The Sri Lanka Case

By S. Sandarasegaram

Prof. S. Sandarasegaram

Prof. S. Sandarasegaram

Education is considered as panacea for most of the social ills. It is also considered as a powerful weapon in ameliorating the problems such as unemployment, pollution, national disintegration, population explosion, increase in crimes, aids and the list is lengthy. Discourse on establishing social cohesion and reconciliation in Sri Lanka is full of suggestions pertaining to educational reforms and strategies and the educational policy makers are very much concerned about focusing their attention on the four million children enrolled in the school system because this target group is easily approachable through the means of state schools and the national curriculum which are almost compulsory for them.

The sixteen million people who are not in schools and a fraction of them are enrolled in higher educational institutions are not very much touched by these educational policies for reconciliation but those 90000 students enrolled in the state university system are to some extent taken into account through social cohesion projects, thanks to the generous funding policies of the international agencies. These projects do not reach thousands of students enrolled as students in the external degree programs conducted by the state universities and the students enrolled in the hundreds of private institutions of higher education providing courses of foreign universities. Apart from these students, the general public are not properly brought within the purview of the educational policies aiming at bringing about reconciliation in the country. As easily said the print and electronic media, agencies for non-formal education and non-governmental organizations working along these lines and even the political parties have the responsibility to promote the gospel of reconciliation and social cohesion among the general public. If we do not have state sponsored educational programmes to reach these out-of school population all attempts at bringing about reconciliation through education will only have limited impact on the realization of the noble objective. But in this paper attention will be paid only to the role of the formal system of school education in promoting reconciliation and social cohesion.

While it is possible to incorporate some principles and material in the school curriculum pertaining to reconciliation and social cohesion and make arrangements for intermingling of students from different ethnic communities in the school system one has to study whether these measures alone could bring about reconciliation in the absence of measures necessary for removing all grievances expressed and experienced by the minority communities. In other words there are serious concerns entertained by the minorities which need to be addressed as an important component of reconciliation. Any member of the Tamil minority will talk about the presence of military in the North, incarceration of unspecified number of Tamil prisoners without any trial, delay in releasing lands to the legitimate owners in the North, non-implementation of language provisions enshrined in the Constitution and reluctance to devolve power to the Provincial Councils. Reforms in school education can inculcate relevant values to live in a multicultural society to the new generation of people who are not fully aware of Implications of the grievances listed above and they (the reforms) would not have any impact on the adult population finding ways of expressing their real or perceived grievances. Whether the values taught by the school system is reaching the family or larger community from which the children come is another question to be studied.

Another area of interest is to find out to what extent the education system imposed during the colonial era and the subsequent reforms which tried to remove the colonial patterns of education contributed to the deterioration of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. It is our view that discriminatory legislations enacted by the new political elite which captured power during the post colonial era was wholly responsible for the undesirable and despicable state of affairs emerged in the ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan academia is well aware of Citizenship Acts, Sinhala Only Act, colonization policies of the then governments, repatriation of Indian origin Tamils/plantation workers without consulting their trade unions/ political leadership and the periodical attacks on the Tamils living in the south which were even dubbed as pogroms. All grievances emerged as a result of these majoritarian actions should be addressed along with launching an educational programme in the schools for promoting ethnic cohesion and reconciliation among the students.

Within this framework or limitations it is possible to undertake an analysis of the educational policies aiming at promoting reconciliation and social cohesion. The proposed analysis would identify the education policies introduced and implemented by the governments after 2000 and an analysis of their effectiveness would also receive some attention. Major policy interventions would include new educational objectives pertaining to social cohesion, teaching of second national language to school students, establishing amity schools, introduction of bilingual education, student exchange programmes and multiculturalism in school curriculum.

  • Promoting social cohesion through education is considered as one of of the most important social benefits of education not only in Sri Lanka but also in other plural societies throughout the world. The whole world is now witnessing a global mobility of culturally and ethnically diverse populations and this has created new challenges in preserving social cohesion and national integration in the host countries on the one hand and preserving the identities of diverse cultural groups on the other hand. In economically advanced countries these minority groups are somewhat tolerant and peaceful in view of the economic benefits they accrue and the high standards of living and welfare measures they enjoy but in developing countries which suffer from poverty, unemployment and other form of disadvantages the minority groups are very articulate and vociferous about their grievances and sufferings. In this context, education is of paramount importance in promoting national integration and social cohesion among different ethnic and cultural groups. Needless to say more integrated and cohesive nations are more successful and impressive in realizing the socio-economic goals. These nations such as Malaysia and Singapore have done better in accommodating diverse ethnic groups in their march to reach the level of highly developed nations.

Participants of a workshop on social cohesion (the writer was also a participant) conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2007 identified the following problems Sri Lanka was facing at that time mainly related to promoting social cohesion and peace education:

  • Intercultural disharmony
  • Lack of or problems in communication and interaction among different cultural groups
  • Not looking at problems with an open mind
  • Lack of respect for others human rights and children’s rights
  • Violent behaviour
  • Unwillingness to share resources, help others and selfishness
  • Mistrust among communities due to ethno-centric ideas
  • Not respecting and following rules and regulations
  • Religious knowledge not transferred to practice in every day life
  • Lack of teamwork, lack of common values among children
  • Lack of gender equity and socio-economic equity
  • Lack of environment awareness and health awareness
  • Lack of public awareness of peace values.

The same workshop concluded that the desired citizen who is a product of education for social cohesion should be able to live in a multicultural society, tolerates other cultures, trusts others, treats others as human beings; he is democratic in decision making; communicates well, in each others’ language etc.

All policy makers in plural societies believe that education is a key instrument in the promotion of social cohesion through the transmission of appropriate knowledge and shaping of attitudes of individuals towards accepting diversity and change. There is no doubt that proper education or carefully formulated curriculum with very positive approach to promote social cohesion could play an important role in the cultivation of a civilized society with respect for democracy, human rights and equitable and united society.

I think we have to focus on how education could contribute towards promoting social cohesion. American educational philosopher John Dewey was of opinion that humanity is divided by innumerable barriers of language, of caste, of nationality, of colour, of religion etc.These barriers hold men in ignorance. They are the cause of stagnation, and they sometimes retard a nation. It is education which according to Dewey, can breakdown these barriers and forge links between Individuals and groups. Then there would be no place for War in the integrated world. According to Heyneman education can contribute towards social cohesion in several ways (quoted in World Bank 2011):

  • By teaching students in the basic principles of good citizenship and the consequences of not adhering to those principles;
  • By providing students with experiences consistent with these principles in the context of ethnic and cultural diversity:
  • By providing equal opportunities to all students:
  • By providing a common understanding of citizenship, while incorporating the interests of diverse communities

Scholars have pointed out that while education can play a positive role in promoting social cohesion and reconciliation among diverse ethnic communities, education could play a negative role in countries where ethno-nationalism dominates in favour of .a particular ethnic group possessing all the political and economic power. Education was used to promote racial superiority in countries like Germany and Japan under powerful fascist and militarist regimes during the 1930s. That is part of history now. Negative education can promote the particular identity and uniqueness of a dominant cultural group ignoring the other powerless cultural groups. In this way education can either promote reconciliation or disharmony, depending on policies of the ruling elite.

In Sri Lanka policy makers are trying to promote Amity Schools in which children from all ethnic communities can study together. As it is there are only 41 schools to teach in Tamil and Sinhala media and only 31 schools to teach in all three languages. Steps are taken to teach Sinhala and Tamil as second national languages and civic education is introduced to teach the principles of democracy and human rights. Extra -curricular activities and student exchange programmes are introduced to provide opportunities for children to mingle and come to know each other. It is understood through research studies that children are better equipped to develop inter- ethnic understanding than adults. Teacher education programmes are focusing on providing training in social cohesion and peace concepts.All these measures have to be strengthened to move forward in this direction of promoting social cohesion and national unity .Napoleon who once said that whatever I want to see in the society I would introduce them in the school system.

*S. Sandarasegaram –Rtd professor of education, Extracts of the keynote address delivered at the International Conference on socio-political dimensions of Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Very good article.Education is what will bring the communities together.
    Is the present government doing anything about it?

  • 0

    Education helps the poor to break out of the poverty cycle.

    British and their followers denied this basic human right to the great majority of the inhabitant population in Srilanka who are the rural and urban poor.

    Until the Sinhala and Tamil only policy came in to effect.

    Tamil Politicians intentionally forget to mention Tamil bit, because it is to their disadvantage when they do lobbying in the International arena.

    Today we have thousands of educated people at all levels because of this unique policy of teaching one in his or her own mother tongue.

    The previous Government which tried to take it to another level by establishing major Schools in every part of the Island, was banished because it certainly didn’t fit in with the people in the current Yahapalanaya, who only want the urban establishment to flourish, and consolidate their power by restricting the opportunities for the rest.

    English serves that purpose well just like in the food old days…

    • 0

      Dear KA Sumanasekera,

      Sri Lanka was never “unique” in teaching in the mother tongue. It still happens in many countries. In terms of the history of Education in Sri Lanka, you do make a valid point: those educated in the Colonial Language enjoyed a very unfair advantage, and the Swabasha languages and culture had to be given the recognition that they deserved. However, there was no need to heap scorn on those using English – unless it was because those amongst them who were naiive and foolish, made much of having acquired the ability to use something that was exotic with ease pretended to have been born of the elephant’s orifice; analogous is the way zoos force chimpanzees to smoke and use cutlery.

      In which context, RIP, poor Harambe, in Cincinnati, USA.

      As usual, you betray yourself by becoming a Jarapaksa politician yourself. The Northern Tamils had, on average, higher academic attainment than the rest of the country because they worked harder. The poor Upcountry Tamils had virtually nothing by way of education, except such as would ensure that they would remain in their “thottams” for eternity. Even things that should have been allowed, like taking part in sports was denied them at local level by racists like you. I know this from personal experience, having tried to fight the system around 1972, for the workers of Sarnia Group, the Sinhalese village being Kandegedera, Badulla District.

      Look, KA Sumanasekera, could you please stop stirring the racist pot and allow us who want to bring about reconcilliation do what we can?

  • 2

    Dear Prof. S. Sandarasegaram

    In uncertain times, your essay towers like a colossus over the political landscape filled with petty politicks and finger pointing, and most of all, a lack of imagination only met by lack of truthfulness. There are some bright spots, however.

    Much more needs to be done in the area of education to prevent conflict, and these sorts of ideas need to enter the political discourse.

    Just as the floods were seen as a common enemy by all Sri Lankans, who rose to the occasion with a flood of humanity and caring we need to also frame the war, causes for the war, and
    all our other serious problems in terms of a common enemy that we all agree to vanquish.

    So we hope that the language of parliament will be one of education and enlightenment of the other party, and not attack and subjugation. Education will help us all see the truth.

    “People like to say that the conflict is between good and evil. The real conflict is between truth and lies. “

    Don Miguel Ruiz

  • 3

    Yes, certainly when we were growing up we had Sinhalease and Tamil students attending the same school. We also had English as the common language. Teaching of Tamil and Sinhalese is a must in schools. Many fears are born of the unknown. As a nation and people we are very hospitable and charitable. The magnanimous response of citizens from all walks of life and ethinicity to the flooding and landslide response is a testament.
    Most of the enimity in my mind is due to ignorance and scare mongering by cheap politicians. According to Prof.Sandrasekaarm everything is inplace or should I say everything should be in place, to coexist, respecting each other, understanding one and other. Why these measures are not implemented. I dare say it suits certain quarters. With the backward thinking leaders, the country and its citizens are the losers.Divide and rule seems to be the policy and prefered option of our short sighted patriarchs.”United we stand divided we fall”.
    The notion of amity schools should be encouraged at all cost to bring about friendship and and brotherhood amomg diverse communities. It should be a priority to the current government in power. If they can successfully implement this programme, it will be a legacy that would stand supreme in the annals of SriLankan polity.

    • 0


      Your reference to how we breakout of our ethnic and communal cocoons and reach out to each other during the recent calamities grabbed my attention. This has happened many times before. The most significant was how almost every Sinhala village reached out to help the IDPs after the war.

      The same thing happened before in the aftermath of the Tsunami. I remarked to many at that time that we should have regular Tsunamies to bring us together as peoples of this country!


  • 2

    As Sinhalese we should have learned Tamil and you should have learned Sinhalese. Then we could reconcile.

    • 1

      The Tamils of the North for long made an effort to learn Sinhala.
      But as a stupid political response to the Sinhala Only Act, pressure was brought on schools not to teach Sinhala.
      Interestingly the political leaders who asked Tamils not to learn sinhala didn’t or couldn’t stop their own children learning Sinhalk to advance their careers.

  • 0

    Srinath Gunaratne,

    & both should have learned English to broaden their horizon, and know the world better.


  • 0

    Social cohesion and reconciliation through education seems to be a very good concept at the outset, but, implementing this in a society like ours will be a
    gigantic task. Our society is not an open minded one to accept all the changes comes in their way. they are rooted to their traditional values taught at home by their parents like being oblivion to accept the injustice done to a fellow citizen just because he comes from a minority community. Therefore the social cohesion and reconciliation should be taught from the beginning to a child.so that when he comes to school attending age he would realize the true value of learning another language (Tamil or Sinhala) and discovering another culture.I feel anything imposed on a person will only yield animosity but learning something from the heart will bring peace and reconciliation.

  • 0

    As usual Prof.S.S has written a good article on reconciliation which is an eye-opener for relevant people particularly our political leaders.The list of issues arrived at the Ministry workshop are the real barriers to build up national reconciliation and ethnic cohesion.For example reasonable allocation of resources ! If we can adopt a policy of recruitment to transform the government service to reflect the national demographic pattern, I think lots of issues could be solved and it will create a sense of belongingness among the minorities.As the first step the government should publish this information namely the percentage of minorities in 25 or so public services .It might give us a chance to start a national dialogue on recruitment policy for government service.Until we get the courage to see the realities and take appropriate actions, school projects on national reconciliation will not result in expected outcomes.

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