By Indraka Ubeysekara –
Sri Lanka is currently experiencing a renewed form of violence and ethnic tensions heightened aftermath of the April 2019 terror attack. The major segment in question is youth, radicalized and misguided by the extremist fractions which have both local and global roots. Speculations are being made that this extremist ideologies of one religion could create a breeding ground for hard-core radical segments of youth of other religions to propagate their divisive narrow political agendas instigating far costly racial, ethnic and religious divides in the country.
The tensions between youth groups who belong to major ethnic communities in Sri Lanka in the recent past seem to have erupted over an isolated incident that take place in one part of the country but eventually spread out to the areas of multi-ethnic nature. In November 2017, a minor personal incident between two ethnic groups escalated into an ethnic clash in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Gintota, Galle leaving properties of both groups being attacked in several locations. In 2018, the houses, businesses and religious intuitions of a minority religious group were attacked by extremist groups in districts of Kandy and Ampara. After April 2019 attack, minority ethnic groups and refugees have been forced to leave from their residents amid attacks of revenge. A few days ago, the Negambo incidents also demonstrated a clash and mob arose with pure ethnical divides. All such incidents reveal the highly volatile nature of the ethnic co-existence in the country and how vulnerable youth are to be easily deceived by extremist religious/radical forces and resort to violence.
One way to approach this increased level of ethnic tensions and build resilience in ethnic co-existence is to strengthen the skills of diversity management. Diversity management, by and large, is found to be a strategy in human resource management through which it is intended to foster a positive workplace environment by promoting recognition and respect individual differences. The concept, however, over the years has been embedded and adopted by other spectrum of disciplines such as school education, career guidance university curriculum, mostly in the Western context. The concept and the set of skills that the strategy desires to instill are to develop an appreciation for difference in race, gender, background, sexual orientation or any other factor that creates divisions.
Diversity management as a strategy to combat current escalated ethnic tensions yields specific and long-term results. Today in Sri Lanka, the potentially disruptive divisions between communities have been caused along one’s religion or ethnic identity. What this shows us that Sri Lankan majority youth, given the current scenario, are not ready to foster a meaningful engagement with the other religious followers on based on the aspects of religion. At the same time, when analyzing the patterns of youth reactions to the recent incidents of ethnic misunderstanding, unfortunately most of the responses are in the shape of retaliation, hate speech, deliberate act of fake news dissemination, slinging mud; all the reactions that fuel religious violence and divisive sentiments across the country. Therefore, diversity management is found to be a neutral medium that bring the right message to mis-lead youth fractions and inculcate necessary attitude and behavior in the long-run.
We all should be reminded ourselves that diversity in a country is a strength rather than a burden. Characterized by strong relationships across divides, racial equity and social inclusion, it builds a solid foundation to promote unity and reduce differences. It offers society to richness of variety, opportunity of cross learning and ample space for innovation. Especially for youth, in their learning journey and early career development stage, it is a channel to hunt different skills learning from one another who bring different perspectives and views. Singapore, using its multi-cultural strengths and diverse contribution of different ethnocultural groups has been able to turn a poor country to a most developed nation in less than a half a century. Canada, New Zealand and the UK are some other examples who have successfully dealt with majority-minority ethnic relationships and have become healthy places to live.
What is significant today is to enable youth to celebrate diversity and outweigh the divisions. Skills of tolerance, inclusion, accept differences, respect and dignity, understand cultural nuances can make youth to handle ethnic tensions rationally and to be resilient against the forces of extremism and racism. Conflict-ridden history of Sri Lanka has already showcased violent youth uprisals erupted in the form of ethnicity both in North and South Sri Lanka, when youth are sidelined in the mainstream development landscape, thus, the way most of the youth behave today can result in disrupted future in where we all have to pay an unimaginable cost.