By Pat Lawrence –
The place was quiet and removed, surrounded by nature, yet for two very full days in early April it overflowed with creative energy of drama and theatre, visual arts, transitional justice theory and practice, youth leadership through community mobilization, and skills for writing historical biography. A profound and gripping drama about endemic violence was performed by youth at the end. The honor of being part of this transformative workshop has left me with fresh appreciation for the strength and vision of Sri Lanka’s new generation. Their shared thoughts about justice, the value of open sharing and listening, and the importance of compatibility and understanding across all communities on the island was uplifting.
Remembering the Past and Protecting the Future was the title of this workshop that brought members of Youth for a Shared Future from Anuradhapura, Ampara, Killinochi and Jaffna together at a retreat center in Thannamunai, Batticaloa. The Social Architects team orchestrated the workshop for 180 attendees; bringing together Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim youth between the ages of 18 to 27 who are in accordance about the need for positive transformation of communal relationships.
Ms. Navaranjini Nadarajah taught the workshop theme on “Transitional Justice Theory and Practice” with Father Elilrajan, to youth that chose to be in that particular thematic group. Afterward she reflected on what happened, “The youth have such positive energy; their energy can transform the country for a brighter future. Their combined attitude, creativity, and love become a common language that is beyond the language barriers. It is important to connect them (from all communities) and to build a bridge to shared truth about the past and fear about the future.”
The workshop leaders learned an attitude of optimism from the participants: Mr. Sornalingham reflected on his experience of leading the group theme, “Youth Mobilization to Promote Transitional Justice” with these words:
The process I went through as a group leader was first a struggle, then it was challenging, and gradually the youths and I began to see the Light and then it was inspiring for all of us – the workshop brought Light for the future. The youths’ involvement and engagement was inspiring. So I came away from the experience with the thought, “Don’t be fearful when you have to walk in the dark, eventually you will come into the Light.”
The theme of the workshop I taught with Ms. Sherine Xavier was “Re-writing History through Shared Memory” in which we taught writing skills relevant to historical biographies that will be published by The Social Architects. They are preparing to interview their grandparents, uncles and aunts, parents, and other elders. As we worked on writing skills together, I began to understand that there was some underlying discomfort in generational relationships between youth and elders. They expressed an earnest wish to know about past events during the war and the preceding post-independence period and they were acutely aware that the older generation has kept much of the past enshrouded in silence, or they chose to tell a version of the past that may not have been real truth. The younger generation that attended the workshop wants this history out in the open. A young Tamil man from Jaffna with strong motivation to become a journalist stood up during the writing workshop and stated emphatically into the microphone, “Everyone has a right to know about the past. Wounds turn into scars, and when you are able to look at the scar, you don’t want to be wounded again.” It was necessary for the older generation to conceal what they knew about events because it was safest ‘not to know,’ particularly in neighborhoods that became places where violence and loss of life was a way of life. For those who were caught in-between gun-carrying groups, it became critically necessary not draw attention, to live very quietly and to learn to self-censor conversation and speech in order to protect family members, friends, neighbors, and themselves. At times they simply struggled for bare survival – times when they lost any sense of future. During a debate presented by those participating in “Transitional Justice, Theory and Practice,” participants raised the question, “Is the older generation trying to protect the past or the future?” The young generation aspires to facing the future with knowledge from the past, which will create both a past and a future with shared understanding.
During the workshop for “Transitional Justice Theory and Practice,” a young Sinhala woman from Keppithigollawa in Anuradapura District, stated,
“I want to live with Tamil and Muslim communities to know their feelings and their loss. We don’t call the LTTE “Terrorists,” we call them “Freedom Fighters” (Satanigkami). Earlier, I had little understanding about what Tamil youth were thinking about us (Sinhalese community members). During this workshop I could feel the Tamil youth’s true emotions – I found them so friendly and at the same time, they have lost so much and they have their grievances. They want reconciliation and peace, and they want to live in dignity with all three communities.”
Her statement about overcoming lack of understanding across different ethnic communities speaks to the main purpose of the workshop. Can the country support communication across different communities and create connections where there has been divisiveness? While Father Elilrajan was discussing the topic of ‘justice,’ a young Sinhalese man commented, “We need justice. All of us, whether we are Tamil or Singhalese or Muslim. All of us need justice for all forms of loss inflicted by others.” Can the government move forward in affirming diversity, responding to reparations, and facilitating shared understanding?
Discussion with the youth revealed a lack of historical knowledge, for example, while working collectively on writing about an event in 1988, their descriptions of clothing worn during that period was from a much earlier period, the late 1800’s, not 1988! The younger generation has huge gaps in historical knowledge, so they must do careful research when they write stories about an earlier period; they must ask many questions of their storytellers so they can provide detail and include accurate historical contextualization.
I was taken aback when the debate on “Truth &Reconciliation vs Truth, Justice and Reconciliation where youth from all three communities represented each of these themes for debate. The way the youth openly talked about the need for whole truth and quest for justice so that the county can forward. They were very clear about what they wanted.
The last youth performance was a powerful outdoor drama about the injury and power of political violence and the militarization of Sri Lankan society. The performance was held at 11:30 pm outdoors with lights illuminating the actors and coconut palms around them. The ‘minimalist’ stage set had a screen showing film footage of a person swimming in the ocean where the surf was breaking, struggling in the waves to keep his head out of the water, with the camera looking down from above. The only props were simply long, thick broken palmyra branch stems, with the palm leaves stripped off, held as weapons. Ten actors in the roles of angry villagers marched-danced across the stage, holding their weapons at chest height, wanting justice. They wanted justice but they also wanted weapons in their hands. From “backstage,” in the dark behind the coconut palms, the sound of drumming reached the audience. Taken from a true story about a murder of a mentally unsound boy on October 28, 2009, actors were cast in the roles of the victim’s family. The family members in turn voiced their despair, finally the mother came front stage, questioning their sense of justice, “How many years have I been expecting justice for my son’s murder? My son is a Tamil boy and that’s why they killed him. They would not kill a Sinhalese.” All actors formed a curtain call line under the stars and bowed to us in that place on the ground surrounded by palm trees in the dark. It was a ground where orphans play basketball that they had transformed into a deeply moving and powerful play. To me, the play said: if there is an enemy, it is not another community, but instead it is the waves of violence in which people were awash, that crashed over them and took from them any control they had over their lives.
Mr. Nalinda Premarathne, who led the “Sighting Memory through Visual Arts and Drama” workshop with Mr. Daramasiri Bandaranayake and Mr. Godwin Anandh, thought about how the workshop was designed and stated, “This may be the first time the youth from different communities could come together. For example, the youth from Anaradhapura are from two border villages that were still completely socially segregated and never travelled to the otherside. However these young people worked very closely together the others and produced a single script for the play. We should create many more opportunities to allow the new generation to come together like this. The new generation only has to remember and carry the lesson, they don’t have to carry the other baggage that is still with their elders.”
Although it was a challenging task to bring together so many young people from around the island, the participants created a force of very positive energy. They concentrated on awareness of similarities, common ground, and common aspirations in a workshop that was the very first of its kind. This cutting edge endeavor continues to be developed by the Social Architects.