This article is written by Dominic Perera. Dominic is currently working with International Alert in the Sri Lanka team, based in London. Dominic also facilitates dialogue amongst 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.
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