SL youth not a part of reconciliation process: Next Generation research

Thursday, 30 May 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Insaaf Bakeer- Marker, Dr. Vinya S Ariyaratne, Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy and Gill Caldicott, among others involved with the program

A section of the audience


  • States majority youth unaware of LLRC, ONUR and OMP
  • Says they have little trust in State reconciliation initiatives
  • Affirms they are proud to be called ‘Sri Lankans’
  • Claims they have no faith in the present political system
  • Highlights war memorials as a dividing factor rather than reconciling ethnic communities


By Shanika Sriyananda

While previous governments and the present Government have poured a colossal amount of money into programs on reconciliation since ending the 26-year-long war 10 years ago, recent research has found that the majority of Sri Lankan youth are unaware about key Government initiatives like the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation

Convener of the proposed youth-led National Task Force Insaaf Bakeer-Marker addressing the gathering

Commission (LLRC), Office of Missing Persons (OMP), Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and or the National Policy on Reconciliation.

The research titled ‘Next Generation,’ which is mainly focused on discovering the attitudes and aspirations of the youth in post-war Sri Lanka, states that the youth are clearly disconnected from the official peace and reconciliation process, with little awareness of actions taken by current and previous Governments. 

“The majority of young Sri Lankans have not heard of key Government initiatives such as the LLRC, ONUR and OMP or the National Policy on Reconciliation,” revealed the research, which is a joint-collaboration between the British Council and Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. 

The main objective of the research was to understand the youth’s aspirations, knowledge, attitudes, behaviour, political participation, engagement with the Government and how they identify themselves in the post-war context and reconciliation process. 

“A majority of youth have not heard about the OMP Act passed in 2018, with 77.9% unaware of the tasks of the OMP. The knowledge of the LLRC was highest in the Districts of Mullaitivu, Batticaloa, Kalutara, Polonnaruwa and Matara, with 80% of respondents from Mullaitivu having heard of the commission. Yet, in the District of Badulla, 86% had not heard of the LLRC,” Peradeniya University Professor Prasanna Perera, who led the research, said.

According to Prof. Perera, even the youth who were aware of these mechanisms had little trust in them. “There is a strong sense of disillusionment towards the Government’s commitment to peace and reconciliation. During the focused group discussions, a Malayaha Tamil female participant said that these initiatives were just show-off programs and were not genuine actions to promote peace and reconciliation,” he said.

The Next Generation Research was launched with the participation of several members of youth organisations at a ceremony held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Studies recently. 

Carried out in 10 focused group discussions, in nine provinces and one at national level, the research was done in mid-2018 with the participation of 2,636 youth aged between 18 and 29.

The seven-member research team attached to the Departments of Economics, Political Science, Psychology and Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Peradeniya had explored how Sri Lanka’s next generation had responded to the changes brought about by the peace and reconciliation process and it adopted a broader approach to obtain the opinions of youth from all communities in the country. 

The researchers believe that Sri Lankan youth have immense potential to shape the future of the country and the views they have expressed in the research will contribute to policies that will address their needs.

Similar ‘Next Generation’ research studies have been carried out in Pakistan, Colombia, Turkey and the UK to explore how young people perceive their lives at times of change and provide them a platform for their voices to be heard. 


Meaning of reconciliation differs

An interesting finding of the research is that the meaning of reconciliation differs from one ethnic group to another, with the majority being of the view that their families and friends had observed peace and reconciliation since the end of the war. 

“For Sri Lankan Tamil youth, who have been directly affected by the war, reconciliation is gaining equal rights, along with compensation or reparations. For Sinhalese youth from villages closer to the north and east, who were also directly affected by the war, it is the ability to move forward with their lives and also to obtain equitable compensation or reparations. For Sinhalese youth in the south, it is with the demand for a separate homeland by the northern Sri Lankan Tamils. For Muslim youth in Mannar, it is getting back their land from the north. For Malayaha youth, it is being accepted in one Tamil identity and achieving economic dignity,” Prof. Perera explained.

When asked about their views on remembrance of war, some youth felt that talking about the past only prolonged animosities and passed them on to the next generation. As for the war memorials built to celebrate the military victory, Sinhalese youth viewed them as a decision to show heroism, but Tamil youth want war memorials to celebrate the LTTE, whom they perceived were fighting for the rights of their community.

However, according to research findings, the majority of youth proposed to have common memorials that could be commemorated by all communities and this majority who took part in the final islandwide discussion suggested not having any memorials, as they believe the war memorials were a dividing factor rather than unifying Sri Lankans.

“Over 70% youth say that they see a slight improvement in equal rights, the Judiciary and freedom after the end of the war but they have strongly criticised the behaviour of the Police and lack of rule of law. While they say that access to resources such as food, clean water, electricity and basic services has improved following the end of the war, they are critical of the ad hoc development projects introduced by politicians and feel that the requirements and resources of the local communities have been ignored,” he noted.

Meanwhile, the majority of youth, who are highly disappointed with the political crisis that took place on 26 October 2018, said that they opposed the appointing of a new prime minister, which resulted in a constitutional crisis. “They noted that trust in the democratic system had been greatly undermined and saw the crisis as further deterioration of political stability and wanted to know how the principles of checks and balances in a democracy would work out,” Prof. Perera said, adding that 50.1% youth had disagreed with the need for constitutional reforms to share power among all national communities.

“Nearly 70 % of them said that they were not happy with the much-publicised constitutional reform process; 43% of youth in Sinhalese-majority areas said that they believed in the idea of a unitary state while 14.5% of youth in Tamil majority areas prefer the federal system,” he said. 

However, according to the research most of the youth in the country consider themselves as Sri Lankan citizens and are proud of their Sri Lankan identity, while having no faith in the political system.

Over 71% of the youth are happy to be identified as Sri Lankans and 20.5% said that they belonged to the human race. Only 8% of youth have stated that their identity is based on religion and ethnicity. Interestingly, the majority of Sri Lankan Tamil youth have stated that their identity is in their caste and ethnicity. For Malayaha Tamil youth, their region was important and some of the Sri Lankan youth during the focus groups discussions acknowledged their multiple identities, which describe their life experiences in changing circumstances. 

“When asked whether all citizens of the country should identify themselves as Sri Lankan, 86.9 % of youth like to be identified as Sri Lankans. Among the total, 94% were Muslim, 91% were Sri Lankan Tamils, 89% were Malayaha Tamils and 85% were Sinhalese youth,” Prof. Perera said.

One important finding of the research is only a few Tamil youth from the north expressed pride about their Sri Lankan identity. The research states, “There was visible discomfort about stating that they are Sri Lankans, but after the war, enhanced security, freedom and social welfare services to facilitate Sri Lankan citizenship appears to have enhanced their sense of pride in being Sri Lankan.”

“Some youth stated that moving and living in different places after the war had made them feel that they were Sri Lankan. Among those who took part in the survey, the majority of youth have a close friend whom they trust from a different religion (78.5%), from a different ethnic group (69.9%) and from a different part of the country (77.7%),” he explained.

Monolingual education

However, the majority of youth said that they were not familiar with the cultures of different ethnic and religious groups due to language barriers created by monolingual education and segregated education systems.

According to the research findings, providing equal opportunity to find employment without political discrimination, reducing poverty among young people and eradicating discrimination against ethnicity, caste, gender and religion, prevalence of corruption and nepotism have been identified as key areas needing solutions.

Interestingly, 73.7% of young Sri Lankans, both male and female, do not believe that Sri Lanka is heading in the right direction. They have identified the inability to complete education due to economic hardship, unemployment, discrimination in finding a job in the State sector, the high cost of higher education, and corruption in public institutions as the core problems faced by the next generation in Sri Lanka.

Prof. Perera said that bringing people and communities together was a key requirement to reconcile communities.

It was found that nearly 50% of youth, the majority from the Mannar, Kilinochchi, Nuwara Eliya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts, were comfortable when talking to other ethnic groups.

“It is interesting to note that youth from the north who were directly involved in the civil war are more comfortable interacting with other ethnic groups than the predominantly Sinhalese areas. They said that it was easy for them to understand youth from other communities, their cultures and religions when they interact with them,” he explained.

The youth had complained that due to the school system that segregates them ethnically, they had little chance to get to know other communities and. They added that history textbooks that have divided histories, language and segregated schooling were impediments to peace and reconciliation.

Former Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and internationally-known human rights advocate Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy said that the research had given views and opinions of the youth on important matters and focused especially on the issue of reconciliation. 

“The findings give us reasons for optimism – for example, that Sri Lankan youth identify as Sri Lankans first, but also point to areas of concern. Their views express their sense of frustration with the way things are in society, yet also a belief that their generation can do things for the better,” she said, adding that sadly a vast majority of the youth interviewed were unaware of any reconciliation programs run by the Government or NGOs, and very few had taken part in any related project or activity

She said that despite their opinions on reconciliation and identity, it appeared that for most, youth education and employment seemed the key issues as they affected their everyday life the most.

“Their tales of discrimination and frustration must be a clarion call to any government to prioritise this area as one of the most important aspects of a future agenda,” she said. “Sri Lanka has had two youth insurrections in the 1970s and the 1980s. It is unlikely that youth will take to open violence again, but their anger may unfold in other ways, unless their concerns are dealt with and met by the authorities and society as a whole.”

Dr. Coomaraswamy opined that it was important for State institutions and best minds to put their ideas together to come up with an achievable action plan to meet the needs of today’s youth.

British Council Director Gill Caldicott said that the research had made it clear that despite efforts made since the end of the civil war, young people were still affected by the conflict and its legacy.

“We know that the country continues to suffer from intermittent violence between ethnic and religious groups, that the political situation has remained unstable, and that the economy has not yet offered the growth and prosperity anticipated following the end of the war,” she said, adding that the youth in Sri Lanka speak about their experience of the conflict and their hopes for the reconciliation process.

Cultural and religious biases

“Despite the ongoing tension, most young people across all communities identify themselves as Sri Lankan. They feel they are different from the older generation, whom they feel often hold cultural and religious biases,” she explained.

Caldicott said that the report was a vehicle for the voices of young Sri Lankans, their hopes and fears, and their ambitions for themselves and for their country.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement’s President Dr. Vinya S. Ariyaratne said that it was time for the policymakers to strategically design and implement youth-focused planning and engagements. 

“Some findings are highly-positive and praiseworthy; some are negative and require our immediate attention. Given the level of complexity, it will require different approaches to address these issues holistically and comprehensively,” he said.

Dr. Ariyaratne said that educators could re-design teaching methods to comprehensively address matters of reconciliation and co-existence using more nuanced approaches, adding that it was imperative to get them engaged at all levels of policymaking, advocacy and implementation.

“Let us listen to them and think locally and beyond to co-create their future and ours with the required empathy and compassion,” he said.

Convener of the proposed youth-led National Task Force (NTF) Insaaf Bakeer-Marker delivering the keynote address on ‘Purposeful Leadership’ said that the final recommendation of the report could be a springboard for a National Youth Policy (NYP).

He said that the Government had appointed a youth-led NTF to formulate the NYP, which had also included the views and recommendations of the youth in the north and the east for the next five years.

“We have had lots of leaders in the country who lack purpose and unfortunately they are in positions of power. On the other hand, we have people with purpose but they do not have the mantle of leadership,” he said, adding that the country’s youth needed to be empowered to take the leadership in future.

Catalysts of change

Bakeer-Marker, who is Sri Lanka’s youth delegate to the UN, representing the country’s 4.4 million youth population, said the research highlighted the wants and needs of individuals at grass-root level but as a country we had failed to address them. 

“Young people are often viewed as troublemakers but they are the catalysts of change. It is unfortunate that the usual potential of young people in the country has not been directed in the right way,” he opined.

He invited youth in villages to become Martin Luther Kings to bring change and transform lives.

According to Bakeer-Marker, the main obstacle that Sri Lankans youth face today is their inability to understand each other. “The research findings show that lots of young people in the country are divided on ethnic lines. There are over 10,000 schools in the country and in 9,000 schools the students only speak one language while only 100 are trilingual schools. Without bridging the gaps in our country, we can’t move forward. Our policies and implementations should promote reconciliation,” he explained.

He said that today’s youth were demanding accountability in governance, corruption free-politicians and an organised political system. 

“Sri Lankan youth are more concerned about politics; we need to empower them to be future leaders in society and we need to mould them. The majority of the youth do not want to enter the political system, saying it is corrupt, but I request the young people to step into the system no matter how corrupt it is because they will be able to manoeuvre the system in the right way,” he said.

Next Generation Research Director Christine Wilson said they initiated the research series in countries which were undergoing periods of significant change to ensure the voices of the young people could be heard and their interests would be considered in decision-making.

“We believe that young people are more active in transforming their own lives and they are the agents of change. We also believe it is important to listen to them and engage with them because they have the ability to make changes,” she said, adding that the research recommendations did not represent the British Council but were based on recommendations from the researchers based on data, views, analysis and advice from experts.

Lack of awareness on OMP due to ignorance on MIAs

OMP Chairman Saliya Peiris told Daily FT that he was aware that majority of youth in Sri Lanka did not understand the issue of missing people and many had no concerns about this issue.

“If someone is not personally affected with one of their loved ones being missing, he or she would not strongly feel this agony,” he said, adding that it was due to lack of knowledge on MIAs.

He said that the OMP was trying to educate young people on the issue of MIAs but in a broader way it was the responsibility of the Government to get their contribution to the OMP process.

“On the other hand, this clearly shows their ignorance on the issue of MIAs. The OMP was established to strengthen the reconciliation process. The OMP alone cannot do everything but we are trying our best to bridge the gaps in communication during the given timeframe,” he explained.

Peiris said that they had been trying to communicate with youth since the inception of the OMP but the Government needed to have more propaganda to tap the youth in future.