Recovering from the scars of the past is an ongoing process for any nation that went through a protracted civil war; Sri Lanka is no exception to this. Ensuring sustainable peace calls for communal reconciliation; we have made progress in rebuilding relationships between individuals and within our communities. However, this is not sufficient. We now have an even greater challenge to overcome in the coming years: the need to work together as one nation.
Reconciliation and nation building is not a task that falls upon a Government alone. In fact, it is upon all of us to take part in the process of reconciliation. The Government, the private sector, NGOs and individuals should all work together, hand in hand, to build a sustainable peace in any country. Working in cooperation with one another rather than in isolation is what will enable all of us, as stakeholders for peace, to establish a stronger foundation for mutual understanding, solidarity and ultimately harmony in a country.
In this essence young people can play a dramatic role in today’s peace building efforts. They can be active catalysts in many peace building processes. Their involvement in social, political and economic transformations is vital. Unfortunately there is a lack of recognition of young people. In many countries they are not part of policy formulation and other layers of society where decision making takes place to tackle local, regional and global issues.
Today we live in a society where conflicts have become a common term. In Syria we witness barrel bombs being dropped on innocent civilians. Every 10 minutes a civilian dies in Syria and so far 11, 420 children were killed in the conflict. We also see similar conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and North- West Pakistan. We say that we are connected through this globalized world, but have failed to recognize the problems of another nation as our own problems. The sovereignty of any nation should not be used as a shield to engage in unlawful cruel activities within their boundaries. We need to empathize with each other’s problems and welcome ideas to engage with the rest of the world to find solutions to our problems.
Twenty years ago when 800,000 Rwandans were massacred, during this massacre the world was silent. Right now we witness similar situations in other parts of the world. Three weeks ago 276 school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in Chibok, Nigeria; yet the world is silent and we can see that most of the world leaders are inactive. This should not be the situation. Youth can play a pivotal role to solve many problems in the world.
Sri Lanka after fighting three decades of war got an amazing opportunity to rebuild the nation recognizing reconciliation, rehabilitation and peace building mechanisms. The greatest achievement I could say is the recent Northern and Eastern Provincial Council elections which were conducted after so many years. During the LTTE insurgencies civilians were not allowed to vote and they prohibited the elections even by making death threats. As such in Afghanistan seven million voted despite many threats by the Taliban in the recent Presidential elections. Today we see countries are transitioning to democratization having elections such as these are vital when it comes to creating peace and reconciliation.
Youth, women and children are the most vulnerable groups who bear the brunt of any conflict. As a Young Global Leader I have witnessed in Mexico, San. Pancho how youth have lack of access for education due to many social issues including drug carters. Next, in South Africa, Khayelitsha I witnessed many youth who are addicted to drugs, most of them live below the poverty line and have less access for education. Just outside in New Delhi, Anganwadi I have seen young children holding their plates for their daily meal which lacks the supplementary nutrition in those social centers. I have seen youth in Moscow who fight corruption and raise their voice but do not have many platforms. In Cuba I witnessed young people who are eagerly looking to have access to internet and Social Media platforms. We need to address the root causes of these problems to open the platforms for youth to actively engage in the process to find solutions.
In the spirit of realizing peace and reconciliation the first and foremost thing that needs to be addressed are the challenges followed by a post- conflict. In Sri Lanka I see reconciliation itself as the biggest challenge; it is not only for the war victims but also for all the Sri Lankans. As a war victim, I have experienced the pain of terrorism. I lost my father to the LTTE at the age of sixteen. I cannot forget and forgive the lost done to me and my family by the LTTE. Reconciliation can be fruitful if only people can forgive those who are responsible for their plights. I personally believe if perpetrators can admit what they have done and apologize to those victims irrespective of ethnicity, then reconciliation will be much possible.
Changing the mindset of the war affected people is another biggest social challenge that now needs to be addressed. In Sri Lanka there are 594 ex- child combatants who consist of 364 boys and 230 girls surrendered for rehabilitation. 272 were successfully given formal education where 322 were given vocational education as a part of re-integration. It is commendable that within a very short time Sri Lankan government was able to rehabilitate 10, 790 ex- combatants out of 300, 000 IDPs.
Youth can play an immense role to provide peace education to the ex-child combatants. There are 300, 000 child soldiers all around the world and the best guess report from DRC, Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, Sierra Leone and 21 other countries.
Widows and their futures remain as another challenge. There are nearly 40,000 widows in the North and the East of Sri Lanka. These victimized groups of widows should be redirected into the correct means of living.
Sri Lanka’s major external challenge is the engagement of its Diaspora. The country needs the engagement and the involvement of the Diaspora community not to depict a wrongful image of the country, but to enhance the reconciliation process. Their engagement outside the country is critical and directly impacts the global image of the country. Therefore, it remains a big challenge for Sri Lanka to recollect the scattered Diaspora communities all over the world to rebuild and reconcile the country.
World Conference on Youth 2014’s Cross-cutting theme is ‘mainstreaming Youth in the Post-2015 Development Agenda’. Realizing peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence is one of the thematic areas which youth need to review. Peace Education is the primary concern and youth can be the champions of this peace education. They also can be a part of this peace education process.
Today, youth is coming forward to build reconciliation and ultimately a better future for Sri Lanka. In this regard, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute conducted a National Conference on the role of youth in reconciliation; the keynote speech was delivered by Hon. Namal Rajapaksa, which furthered the importance of youth engagement. The challenge remains for the youth to make their voice heard in the society. I am happy that Sri Lanka has mainstreamed youth in its post 2015- development agenda to enhance the youth engagement. I see Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Youth Forum 2013 and World Conference on Youth 2014 as the greatest achievements. Likewise, youth should be given more priorities and their concerns should be addressed. Youth needs to actively participate and engage in international conferences. Today’s youth will be tomorrow’s leaders. They are the life blood of a country and their perceptions will determine the peace and stability of a nation.
Let me end my speech by a quote from Robert F. Kennedy “This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease, it is young people who must take the lead”.
*Speech delivered by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the Executive Director Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute – on the 8th of May 2014, at the World Conference on Youth 2014