Peacebuilding vs. nation-building

This article is written by Dominic Perera. Dominic worked with International Alert in the Sri Lanka team, based in London. Dominic also facilitated dialogue among second-generation Sri Lankan communities in the UK, working to strengthen inter-community relations and actively promote positive diaspora engagement with Sri Lanka.

Does Sri Lanka offer an instance where peacebuilding and nation-building are conflated in the wake of civil war, or do the two remain separate entities? Can interpersonal relationships be enough to cultivate a cohesive national identity in a society still reeling from conflict?

Over the summer, I participated in a youth-focused reconciliation event held in northern Sri Lanka. The event brought together young student leaders aged 15-18 from different areas of the country to participate in activities designed to foster a greater sense of the national identity.

The social impact of the event was devised to instigate a long-term ripple effect through schools; engagement with student leaders was designed to cultivate pluralistic values of equality. In effect, such initiatives that instil leadership at a grassroots level also nurture positive interaction between younger sections of Sri Lankan society. The focus on this project primarily revolved around developing personal relationships which transcend ethnic, linguistic or geographic divisions.

The task of creating space for personal interaction between different groups is by no means an easy one. The achievement of bringing nearly 500 young people of all ethnicities together in the place where the cry for Tamil separatism first emerged is a great success within itself. Our location provided a silhouette of Sri Lanka’s past, a reminder of a society that was divided by conflict.

When the students arrived, they were split into teams. This deliberately broke pre-existing friendships and encouraged them to bond with other attendees. Through the process of unmasking “the other” through collaboration, communication and integration, these young people reflect a larger struggle within Sri Lankan society. The conference galvanised students under the philosophies of friendship, peace and unity, in a quest for an inclusive national identity.

Watching friendships emerge despite grievances between the young people, illustrated the power of personal interaction. Witnessing young people from all over the country chant ‘Sri Lanka unites’ was indeed a heart-warming sight and a stark contrast to the view of Sri Lankan youth held in the diaspora.

However, despite the social interaction and verbalised cohesion, the relationship between unity and equality for all communities remains undefined. Aside from the chanting and teambuilding, activities which framed dialogue and active listening in a space free of judgement was limited. The space to air and discuss multiple stories and opinion was not seen as the priority.

In the wake of a 30-year separatist conflict, this exercise in nation-building became more of a priority than dialogue. But can these personal relationships and nation-building exercises adequately satisfy a multifaceted approach to peacebuilding? Can friendships sustained for a week under the guise of accepting a national identity really heal the trauma inherent to separatist conflict?

As a member of the diaspora, it can be difficult not to project our own vision for Sri Lanka onto a nation so entwined with our identity. It can be difficult to gauge what people on the ground really want; whether inter-community interaction really is enough to begin to create a cohesive national identity. Will these students sustain their enthusiastic engagement with each other after the conference is over, allowing the spirit of national unity to spill into their adult lives?

One thing I will take from my time in northern Sri Lanka is the feeling that progress is being made. Significant initiatives such as this one go some distance in providing a platform for nation-building between the younger generations. However, whether such activities constitute a larger change in perceptions and mentality is a question to which only time has the answer.

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