By Kamaya Jayatissa –
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address tonight’s gathering. I cannot highlight enough the importance of this initiative which gives a platform to Sri Lankan youth from all around the country and mostly from all communities to express themselves and share their views on a much needed topic which is peace.
Before I start, I shall introduce myself briefly to you so that you understand what might have or might not have influenced and shaped the perspective I am going to share with you this evening. I am a PhD student in Public International Law from the Sorbonne University and I formerly worked as a Research Officer at the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Paris. I currently write as a columnist, for the local newspaper Ceylon Today on matters pertaining to reconciliation and am also the President of a French-Sri Lankan Youth Forum that is based in Paris. Like most of you, I was born in Sri Lanka during the war but unlike the most of you I experienced the war from distance. I was indeed educated in France and only came back to Sri Lanka for good a few months ago.
Though the war is now over I realized that the country which I came back to is not at peace; at least not yet. Now, given my “Diaspora background” or “post-Diaspora background” if you like, you must all be wondering what legitimacy I have to speak about Sri Lanka, about war, peace or even reconciliation and I cannot blame you for that. Like I said, I only experienced the war from distance or at worse just a couple months a year whenever I came down to visit my family. Yet, I believe that being born and/or raised abroad does not make you less Sri Lankan. Comparatively, being born in Sri Lanka or being part of the Sinhala Buddhist majority does not make you more Sri Lankan. So I guess that my perspective is just the one of a 25 year old Sri Lankan who is still considered or seen as a member of the Diaspora but who also happens to “belong” to both the ethnic and religious majority of the island.
Yet though I always considered myself, first and foremost, as a Sri Lankan, how many times was I asked whether I was a Sinhalese, a Muslim or a Tamil? Though I never really understood why, I realized that people gave a tremendous importance to this ONE question and I kept on wondering “…but aren’t we all Sri Lankans? Or does my Sinhalese and Buddhist legacy gives me a legitimacy that my Tamil, Muslim or Burgher friends do not seem to have? ” If so, I still wonder how. How comes that in such a small island, people do not feel as if they belonged to one nation, to one Sri Lanka? How come that members of the Diaspora, especially the second and third generation are most of the time considered as non-Sri Lankan in their country of origin? The fact is that most of us will identify themselves according to their ethnicity, some according to their religion, beliefs and aspirations and some according to their country of birth. Yet, the fact is that we do not belong to just one category or another. We are different from each other and at the same time we carry diversity within ourselves. Each of us is a unique combination of various identifications that are not equally significant to us. So how does one define the schizophrenic notion of identity?
One cannot talk about reconciliation without talking about identity issues, equality or discrimination. This is especially true if we consider the fact that our country came out of a protracted civil war, a war between its own constituents, citizens. Studies show that today: “No other factor in this century has caused so much misery to so many people as religious and ethnic intolerance. No other single factor is responsible for such extensive and protracted violation of rights as ethnic conflict”. (The Right to a Culture of Tolerance, Report of the Advisory Commission, The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, chaired by Dr. Kamal Hossain, 1997, p.18) While some might perceive our diversity as our vulnerability, I see it as our strength. The more diverse we are the better understanding and more complete we get to be.
The struggle for identity is something we all experience at some point of our life; either as individuals or as a nation. Depending on each individual or group, there will multiple (Sri Lankan) identities. I for one believe that future generations, both in Sri Lanka and within the Diaspora, have the ability to build a more united country, one that will incorporate socio-economic disparities but also our religious beliefs, political affiliations, cultural similarities and differences; one that will give us a broader, therefore stronger sense of belonging –including national belonging- through solidarity and appreciation of cultural diversity.
Now as you know, while the recent post-war efforts have been commendable, much effort remains to be done in terms of ethnic reconciliation, in conjunction with both political and socio-economic reconciliation.
From the outside, there is no doubt that Sri Lanka, as many other countries today, will appear as an internally diverse society. Whether it is through its history, its literature, its architecture or even its landscapes, one cannot deny the cultural diversity our country gained throughout the centuries. But when digging a little deeper, one can only wonder whether our mosaic remains undamaged. Indeed, how much do we exactly know about each other’s culture, religion, language? How much do we share with each other? Do we even respect, leave alone celebrate our differences?
Unfortunately, as it has often been the case, we tend to forget that this Rainbow Nation of ours is way more than just a few communities living side by side. Too frequently do we tend to forget that, as a nation, we need to cultivate not only our commonalities but also our differences in order to foster respect, develop mutual understanding and mostly create a platform for open dialogue between our people so that no individual or community feels marginalized to the point of being considered as strangers in their own soil. The end of the war should have been the best occasion for such a platform to be restored. Instead, what emerged these past few months is an additional form of extremism, based this time on religious intolerance and racism, which juxtaposes itself onto the current socio-political and socioeconomic crises.
So far, one of our biggest mistakes was to fight solely for the end of the war rather than also for a positive, participatory peace. We forgot to forgive each other in the process and we are now facing the consequences of our own omissions by repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Mostly, we forgot that our diversity is also part of our culture and that it is our responsibility to preserve it as much as our communal traditions and beliefs; only then will we achieve lasting peace.
Now, what role can Sri Lankan youth play in all this? Some of you may have heard the following quote “I wish all of you to find your reason for indignation. This is a precious thing.” This was said by Stéphane Hessel in his 32 page pamphlet Indignez-vous! (translated as Time for Outrage!) which remains a source of inspiration to youth around the world. Named one of the world’s top thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, Hessel died in February at age 95, leaving behind him a lesson, which is to never accept any kind of injustice.
French resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, diplomat, human rights advocate, he participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and inspired recent non-violent youth movements such as the Spanish Indignados, the Greek Aganaktismenoi, Occupy Wall Street in New York and beyond. Many around the world took up his call for a “peaceful insurrection” against the growing inequities of global capitalism. When asked during an interview why he believed that indifference among youth was the worst’s of attitudes, Hessel replied:
“I was worried that so many young people in all our countries seem to have forgotten their responsibility for values. They are just responsible to find a flat, to get some money, to have material wealth. And they do not realize that that is going to be jeopardized if the basic democratic values are not fought for. […] You must find the things that you will not accept, that will outrage you. And these things, you must be able to fight against nonviolently, peacefully, but determinedly.”
Hessel, the voice of the voiceless, was one of those who believed that every man is responsible as an individual. He believed that true humanity begins with a sense of responsibility to what has to be done, the responsibility to refuse to accept what is unacceptable.
In the current context, his message appears to be quite relevant to Sri Lanka –especially given the recent incidents that are taking place, both internally and internationally. Indeed, almost four years have gone since the war ended and yet an authentic peace is still longed for in the island. Most importantly, extremism is escalating to the detriment of inter-cultural dialogue, mutual understanding and ultimately reconciliation. One can only wonder where Sri Lankan youth positions itself in all this.
The past decade has seen a growing recognition of the importance of youth participation in decision-making. However, when it comes to the actual involvement of young people in matters pertaining to reconciliation, as in many other countries, Sri Lanka is only engaged in a consultative process at best. In the longer-term, this might potentially have negative consequences on the peace-building process itself as not taking young people’s concerns into account can lead to further frustration within society itself. The implication of youth, their perceptions and expectations are therefore essential in the shaping of a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.
Similarly, one can also witness a loss of enthusiasm, of involvement and commitment among today’s youth in Sri Lanka, a youth which represents one quarter of the population. This can be explained by the fact that young people are often alienated by politics. They see less value in both mainstream politics and in the viability of alternative spaces. Indeed, few are those among the Sri Lankan youth who are voicing out their thoughts and frustrations on the recent socio-political hazards the country is going through. Others remain either indifferent or passive while many have given up hope by saying that this is not the right time and place for change, that the space is not [yet] available to rise up and give a voice to our dreams.
Yet, what better moment than today to develop creative and critical thinking, to find our reason for indignation; for this is the best moment to make a change, right now when our values and principles are falling apart. It is our moral responsibility as youth to make a difference and strive for a better Sri Lanka, one in which extremism will not be accepted, one in which our people will finally gather as a nation.
Our generation has the duty to build and strengthen a sustainable peace in our country so that the next generation does not go through another civil war. Or else, by not fighting for further dialogue, for further unity, we will be as responsible as the ones spreading hatred between our own people. Mostly, by passively accepting injustice we will become the victims of our own indifference.
The role of education also needs to be highlighted in here. Education –not only in its broader sense but mainly the education received at school, the one that should place all children on an equal stage- is here predominant, not to say crucial. I believe that it is the instrument that can provide the opportunity to learn values of respect and appreciation of diversity through the promotion of multiculturalism, pluralism, and ultimately respect for all forms of identities.
The need for an inclusive solidarity between all Sri Lankans is now urgent. This includes solidarity between members of all communities, as well as members of the Diaspora(s). Such social solidarity, which transcends ethnic and religious barriers, can only be generated by meaningful interaction between people (as individual persons) and between peoples. This means building a cohesive society, one in which diversity is mutually appreciated and valued. It may not be a permanent solution for the current clash of identities but it is part of the solution as it can also be developed as an effective approach to economic and social issues. This means not appealing to people depending on their ethno-religious attachment but rather, nurturing their wider, broader sense of truly national belonging. Forging and maintaining such inter-communal solidarity becomes a common and moral responsibility to act, an imperative and commitment towards one another. Diversity becomes then a constitutive element of solidarity among communities.
As I said in my introduction, Sri Lanka did win the war but it still did not win the peace and the harmony that goes with it. With the end of the war, we now have a second chance to build a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. This can only be done through mutual or common understanding, through dialogue and eventually trust between all communities. This requires forging a sense of belonging, a national unity amidst diversity and ultimately a culture of peace (to use the phrase of the former head of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor). Post-war Sri Lanka is the chance for the younger generation to build a better Sri Lanka.
The challenge for the younger generation now remains in creating and maintaining a space for dialogue by strengthening, on a long term basis, their commitment to values such as pluralism and equality; enlightened values that will help forge a more united Sri Lanka.
*Opening Speech delivered at Initiative for Peace: Focus on Sri Lanka organized by World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA, Singapore), in Kundasale, June 20th, 2013.