Dialogue through culture

George Alagiah speaking at the eventIn October, our partner organisation Voices for Reconciliation brought together people from Sri Lanka’s diaspora communities to talk about how their personal identities influence their opinions and understanding of Sri Lanka’s history, and how such identities are shaping the country’s post-war future.

The event, which was run in partnership with International Alert and the Royal Commonwealth Society, was the first in a series of forums to use arts and culture to encourage people to reflect on issues affecting conflict and peace.

The evening was chaired by journalist, newsreader and writer George Alagiah (pictured right). Guest speakers included documentary filmmaker, photographer and journalist Kannan Arunasalam, literary fiction author Roshi Fernando and actor, director and playwright Prasanna Puwanarajah. The artists, all of Sri Lankan heritage, kick started the discussion with presentations of their art, which in different ways tackle the theme of identity.

The panel discussion which followed further highlighted the significance of identity to the day-to-day interactions of Sri Lankan diaspora communities, in particular interactions that touch on the conflict history of Sri Lanka.

It is personal

In the storm of advocacy, celebrations, accusations, debates, conflicting information, politics and policy formation, personal stories are easily forgotten and replaced with the “headline”.

People in Sri Lanka’s diaspora communities interact with each other across ethnic and religious groups. But asked how often they touch on issues relating to the conflict history and post-war history, the answer is not very. People don’t want to delve into what they think is a political and divisive debate.

The question for International Alert, and the reason why we believe it is crucial to open up and maintain safe and open spaces for dialogue such as this, is how can you not discuss “the personal”? How can a community begin to heal and find common ground without the space for respectful, non-judgemental conversations about the conflict and the impact of the conflict on the lives of those that lived through it, either in Sri Lanka or outside?

In fact, it was clear in the smaller group discussions during the event that people appreciated how the art opened up debate on these issues. It allowed people to talk about their own experiences and opinions, and how these influence how they relate to one another, how they judge a situation, and how they choose to advocate, or in some cases why they actively refuse to engage in debates and advocacy that touch on the conflict.

The panel of speakers were incredibly generous in not only sharing their work with the audience, but also their personal stories; how their identities as individuals in the diaspora and as individuals living in Sri Lanka influence their work, and what about their identity and the conflict they find difficult to address and why. The debate also encouraged the audience to explore their own personal stories.

As a peacebuilding organisation, our goal is long lasting and inclusive peace in Sri Lanka. We believe that one of the first steps in achieving this goal is for people to break down barriers between them by talking in this way and collaborating toward peace.

We hope that if you are part of the Sri Lankan community, whatever your ethnic, religious or regional identity, that you will be able to join us at the next forum to share your personal story.