Colombo Telegraph

Mediating Radicalism Of The Undergraduate Youth Of Sri Lanka

By Piyumani Ranasinghe

Piyumani Ranasinghe

“The main hope of a nation lies in proper education of its youth” ~ Erasmus

Against the backdrop of all 9 faculties of the University of Peradeniya being closed, due to an alleged “crisis” situation at the Engineering Faculty, there is no better time to ponder on the question of undergraduate radicalization and the future of our island nation, than right now. The fact that, the undergraduate youth continue to provide a hotbed for violence and radical politics not only reflect the dysfunctional setting of the entire social structure and our long-revered education system; but also signals at a dying canary in a coal mine. The issue, if not tackled soon, will lead to dire consequences, which can disintegrate the society at large. Mediating radicalism of the undergraduate youth of Sri Lanka is a constructive way forward, not only in peacefully resolving the issue, but also changing the nature in which the youth think and interact in conflict.

The “Crisis”

The current issues within the University system of Sri Lanka in general, is constructed around: politically motivated violence; unemployable graduates; deterioration of academic freedom and the university autonomy; quality and quantity issues of research and innovation; as well as quality of the curriculums. Validating the strong sentiment in society that the university system is at a fix, the “crisis” in the University of Peradeniya emerges a little over two months ago, with the Engineering Student Union boycotting the end-semester examinations of the Faculty due to several reasons. The boycott led to the closing down of the entire University (holidays for over 12,000 students!) for two months, although, all with the exception of the Engineering faculty is to recommence work from the 13th of August onwards. However, the academic curriculum for most faculties starts only after the 20th of August adding into the further delay of the already delayed academic calendar. The Engineering Faculty still remains closed.

A close examination of student protests in Peradeniya shows us the dissatisfaction of the student community as a whole in terms of several issues. Topping the list is the nature in which the 80 percent attendance was calculated (students alleging improper calculation in the aftermath of the non-academic strike which took place at the beginning of 2018); the lack of infrastructure development within the Faculty (the Manufacturing and Industrial Engineering Laboratory which caught on fire two years ago continuing to be under construction till date); affixing CCTV cameras in faculty premises for safety (although the opposition to this hardly makes sense) and industrial training and welfare related issues of the student body. In this context, the alleged politicization of the administration is only firewood to an already flaring fire. The sad reality is that, with the addition and revision of certain slogans, it is apparent that the crisis in Peradeniya is a representation of the quandary of the entire University system. 

However, in sustainably resolving these issues, there are more constructive avenues than merely and completely resorting to boycotting exams, violence and self-destructive harm to one’s education.

The general prescriptions for these problems surrounding the entire university system, by various stakeholders, may seem neutral solutions, although it largely capitalizes the economic pros and cons and certain market objectives. For examples, in addressing the unemployability of undergraduates, the prescription is to develop soft skills alongside a curriculum sufficing the needs of the market.  This is of course is an important aspect of the entire discourse. However, it is equally important to connect the community to the problem, understanding and analyzing the personal discomforts and experiences of those who face the plight of these conflicts (undergraduates, academic staff, non-academic staff, minor staff and third-party service providers). 

Undoubtedly then, tackling the issue of undergraduate youth becomes a complex task. What is important in this case is to understand that wholly market oriented solutions do not serve as a panacea for social problems caused by the radicalized undergraduate youth. Equally, responding to manifestations of the problem rather than the root cause of the issue, only adds more confusion, further meddling an already fragile system. A constructive option that appears to be available to us to tackle the root cause is schooling mediation and peaceful conflict resolution, which is a transformative and formative process of addressing the radicalization of the undergraduate youth of Sri Lanka. 

The Value of Mediating Conflicts

The technical term “mediation”, is an Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) method enabling the parties at conflict to examine all underlying issues and problems in a given dispute reaching far beyond the ‘tip of the iceberg’. According to Saranee Gunathilake, co-founder of UDecideSL, an organization working towards the promotion of mediation practices in Sri Lanka, the ‘tip of the ice berg’ represents the emotions involved in a dispute and not essentially the whole problem, naturally rendering the traditional approaches to conflict resolution suboptimal in assuring that interests of both parties are served. 

In the present context, mediation is being used as a means of resolving various disputes ranging from domestic violence to commercial matters across the globe. Hence, as a viable mechanism of dispute resolution, given its distinctive characteristics, it can also serve as a meaningful alternative in the place of traditional dispute resolution mechanism, amongst communities, such as the Universities. 

One key lesson taught by mediation, is the means of resolving conflicts peacefully as well as constructively. In common practice, mediation is managed by a neutral third party intervenient called a mediator. The mediator leads the procedure by managing the process of resolving a conflict, particularly in a way that the disputants are empowered through the process to navigate through the problem and resolve the dispute. In this way, the disputants are in fact the decisive actors designing the outcome and the enforcement of the solution. Since it is forward looking, the solutions aim at evolving the future conduct of the parties, given that mutuality is emphasized in the place of differences. What is important is to espouse these concepts into the conflicts of the radicalized undergraduate youth.

Mediating Youth Radicalization

Here, it is vital to understand conflict as a crisis in human interaction, a view adopted by Dana Costache, a Mediator and the founder of Casa Tianu Mediation in the United States. In terms of Peradeniya, the lack of incentive to mediate the conflict on the part of undergraduate youth as well as the University administration is at the heart of the crisis.  

According to Costache, this view on conflict theoretically underlies the concept of “relational mediation”. She highlights that “conflict causes people to become relatively weak and self-absorbed, thus diminishing their capacity to make decisions or consider others’ perspectives.” This is because the conflict is relational in nature (each person’s own version of the conflict) and represents a challenge to the quality of the interaction among parties. This can validly explain why student unions act in the way they do and continuously struggle to win over their interests, through violent means such as boycotting something as crucial as exams. 

Thus, the fundamental premise of relational understanding of conflicts involves changing the quality of the conflict interaction itself, from destructive to constructive. It believes that human beings are intrinsically capable of both self-determined choice and responsiveness to others, even when confronted with adverse circumstances; and that people have innate needs for advancement of one’s self and connection with others. Hence, as Costache notes, the conflict resolution processes that promote empowerment and recognition provide the opportunity for people to restore their capability to make decisions and consider others’ perspectives. 

The lack of incentive on the part of the undergraduate youth in Peradeniya (more generally, in Sri Lanka), to mediate conflicts and resolve issues sustainably through dialogue, discussion and negotiation is largely debited to the inadequate importance given to mediation and its conceptual significance in school and undergraduate curriculums. Although, praiseworthily non-governmental organizations such as UDecideSL facilitate constructive engagement of young students as well as undergraduates in the subject matter of mediation, through workshops, discussions and driving a dialogue amongst the youth; the government should carry the mammoth of the responsibility in ensuring that the value of mediation is promoted amongst the student population in general. The aim of mediating the radicalized youth starts from, firstly raising awareness of mediation practices in daily conflict resolution between individuals through such initiatives which is also driven by the youth. 

In the context of Peradeniya, promoting mediation within the university, understanding conflict and transforming the nature of interaction in conflict is a way forward for the authorities to tackle the issue of cyclical violence. Both the undergraduates and the administration should embrace meditational practices in resolving issues within the university avoiding violence and other extreme measures. This strategy involves schooling of these practices at a macro level, in primary, secondary as well as tertiary educational institutions in order to educate current as well as future undergraduates. This is not only a sustainable solution for the “crisis,” but also addresses the root cause of student radicalization, because there is an understanding of constructively resolving conflicts. It leaves space to critically examine the way in which radicalization of the undergraduate youth is conceptualized and facilitates a process of decision making in addressing the issue, which hopefully would not curl up in a cycle of political interests. 

*Piyumani Ranasinghe is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). She is a graduate of International Relations from the University of London and is currently reading for her LL.B. degree at the University of Peradeniya.  Her views are independent. 

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