Young people, particularly young men, were central to the anti-communal violence that took place in the Gampaha District and North Western Province last week. Videos and eye witness accounts show that youth make up a significant part of the well-organised groups that rampaged through these regions attacking Muslim businesses and homes. The wide use of social media is another element that points to their youth and it is worth considering why these youth have become so brainwashed as to attack Muslim communities.
Several experts had warned the Government since the end of the war that extremist Sinhala Buddhist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Mahason Balakaya and Sinha-le were specifically targeting Sri Lanka’s youth and spreading intolerance of non-Sinhala Buddhist communities.
Prof. Rohan Gunaratna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University (NTU), in Singapore had also spoken of the growing phenomenon and called on the Government to find a way to deal with these groups as they posed the biggest risk to Sri Lanka in the long term. That warning has now come to pass with a number of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian attacks taking place in different parts of Sri Lanka.
Even though Sri Lanka is commonly categorised as a country with an ageing population given the seriousness of the situation it is pertinent to consider whether youth dissatisfaction is fuelling inter-communal tensions in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government over the past 10 years or more has not actively promoted inter-communal harmony. In addition job creation led economic growth has been sluggish and growth sectors such as construction do not meet the aspirational goal of many youth.
One point emerging from reports is the economic tensions between communities and this could be fuelled through the perception that another community is more economically prosperous than the majority. Is it possible that this perception, preyed on by extremist organisations, is pushing youth towards intolerance? Is that one facet of the growing communal tensions in Sri Lanka?
Youth unemployment in Sri Lanka is high. Last year, it was estimated that 21.8% of males between 15 and 24 years was unemployed, and 6.9% between the ages of 25 to 29. In comparison, only 0.8% of those over 30 were unemployed. Sri Lanka’s youth normally enter the workforce later as completing degrees in local public universities tends to be a longer process than elsewhere in the world, but even taking this into consideration, youth unemployment has remained stubbornly higher than the 4.4% national unemployment rate.
A World Bank report released in 2014 estimated that annually around 140,000 students complete general education in Sri Lanka without acquiring job-related skills. Many of these young people then struggle to find well-paying jobs, which has been seen in the high demand for public sector employment.
A comprehensive approach is required to integrate young women and men in the labour market, including relevant and quality skills training, labour market information, career guidance and employment services, recognition of prior learning, incorporating entrepreneurship with training and effective skills forecasting. Improved basic education and core work skills are particularly important to enable youth to engage in lifelong learning as well as transition to the labour market. Employability entails much more than the ability to get that first job. It is having the capacity to network and market oneself, navigate through a career and remain employable throughout life. Perceptions of economic inequality should not be allowed to push Sri Lanka more towards violence that will further undermine economic development.