I feel greatly honoured and privileged to be invited to make the keynote address at this seminar on youth and reconciliation. That I am being asked to speak at the beginning of a New Year also augurs well because today all of us could resolve to make the ongoing reconciliation process meaningful.
The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations are vigorously being pursued with President Mahinda Rajapaksa having allocated almost a billion rupees for 2013. There is much optimism that bulk of the activities recommended by the LLRC will be completed in 2013.
Being still within the category of youth in Sri Lanka, I believe it is easier for young people like me to understand the importance of reconciliation in the context in which Sri Lanka is placed. Therefore, I wish to thank the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations for giving me this opportunity to share some thoughts on this subject, with this august audience. Maybe, our collective resolve might even help us to take the reconciliatory effort of the Government to a higher level.
United Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, since the defeat of terrorism, the only country to do so, has placed much emphasis, in understanding the concept of reconciliation applicable to our situation. Today, what all Sri Lankans desire is a united Sri Lanka, where all communities live as one nation, under one national flag, and not as distinct ethnic communities. That there is one Sri Lankan nation is the ultimate goal every one of us wants to achieve, in the years to come. Another goal we want to achieve is every Sri Lankan citizen to be treated equally with no discrimination to anyone, whether that citizen is a Sinhalese, a Tamil, a Muslim or from any other ethnic group. In other words, there will not be discrimination against anyone just because a person does not belong to the majority community, Sinhalese. In fact, those who want to discredit Sri Lanka have used this in a vicious manner. Most conflicts are the results of adults contributing to certain misconceptions and in fact creating them. The irony of all these, post conflict reconciliatory effort is that it falls on the shoulders of young people to make it happen. Another unfortunate outcome of any conflict is that it is the youth, women, and children, who have to bear the brunt of the ill effects of conflicts and in fact become the key players when it comes to reconciliation. But what society must understand is that youth who fall victim to ideological campaigns, masterminded by adults, are finally labelled as militants and when they are asked to be agents of peace and reconciliation it becomes extremely difficult, for youth to switch to new paradigms quickly. Post-conflict reconciliation takes a long time to happen on ground and youth need to be patient in being key actors of this national effort.
If one delves into the causes of the three-decade old terrorist conflict, one sees that the LTTE was able to convince the larger Tamil community that the Sinhalese always discriminated the Tamils and that only way to solve their issues was to carve out a separate state for themselves.
It is in this context we need to be looking at reconciliation, as being so important. Let us earnestly ask ourselves whether we, as a nation, have failed to convince every citizen that he or she is not being discriminated?
Young people are the best group to eliminate this misconception for they are the leaders of tomorrow. A Sinhalese youth or a Tamil youth, or for that matter a Muslim youth, should not feel constrained whatsoever to forge links with each other.
As youth, we have a notion in life and that is to be treated equally on matters of life and society. Whether it is access to education, livelihood or any other matter involved with day-to-day life, no youth should feel that he or she is being discriminated. If, as perceived by certain ethnic communities they were discriminated against, then it is time for us to remedy that situation at the earliest.
No preconceived notions
One advantage the young people have, in ensuring that we are a nation that has come to terms with issues connected to reconciliation is that they do not carry baggage. What do I mean by baggage here? We youth do not have preconceived notions about ethnicity, or any other divisive parameter.
Let me take an example close to my heart. In the field of sports, which is fully dominated by young people, we see this noble concept at work. Most, if not all sports, are the exclusive preserve of young people. I cannot think of any discrimination on the lines of ethnicity or such like in my preferred game rugby, a game mostly played by young people. What mattered was whether one was an accomplished player and nothing else. I strongly believe that sports could be a vehicle to inculcate the spirit of reconciliation, among youth. Being nearly 40% of the population, the youth will have an enormous role to play in fostering reconciliation in this battered nation. If there are misconceptions that have been sown by separatist elements, such misconceived ideas need to be eliminated not just by word, but by deed and our actions.
Many young Tamils from the north and east in all probability may have not met their Sinhalese brethren. In my many visits to the north and the east, I experienced this sad situation. To many, it may look very strange and also unbelievable, but my first-hand experience convinces me that there were many Tamil youth who had never met a Sinhalese. That’s what terrorism, perpetrated by the LTTE did to a whole community of Tamil youth.
Of course, there must be a common medium to communicate with each other when a young Tamil meets a young Sinhalese. Either the Sinhalese must learn to speak in Tamil or vice versa. Or else, both communities must learn English, a world language that brings communities together. The younger generation must place more emphasis on learning the national languages of our motherland.
In his vision for this country and its youth, this is the very reason why Mahinda Rajapaksa, our President, declared that by 2021, our nation must be trilingual. I am glad that the Presidential Task Force on the Trilingual Initiative has made much progress, having identified the basics of learning the other National Language, meaning Sinhalese for Tamils and Tamil for Sinhalese. Learning a language for young people is so very important not just for career progress but also as ambassadors of goodwill in a battered nation. To foster brotherhood and the feeling of being one strong resilient nation, young people of different ethnic origins must communicate freely without feeling hampered by the lack of knowledge of the language of the other.
Importance of diversity
It is also my wish that young people of different ethnic origins should have the opportunity to mix with each other, while they are in school. Fortunately, I had my primary and secondary education in a school where children of all communities mixed together in all curricular and extra-curricular activities. That has given me the insights of the value of living in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. Undoubtedly, it has enriched my outlook towards life because diversity always adds to one’s knowledge.
Therefore, rather than having Sinhala or Tamil or Muslim Maha Vidyalas in multi ethnic areas, there must be schools that have children of all communities and there cannot be a better way to forge links among each other. School is the best place to bring about the feeling of being a part of one united nation. Young people of different age groups will grow up together having respect for each other and learning to communicate with each other. There cannot be misunderstandings when they grow up to be adults.
The reason why youth are the best to achieve reconciliation in our country and build one united nation is therefore very clear, needing little explanation or clarification. It is not because they are unencumbered and therefore have more time to devote to building bridges; it is also because they have the best mindsets to reason out and eliminate any discriminatory practices that either destroy reconciliatory effort or foster division among our people.
Talking about bridges being built between communities, what we do here is not understood by many global players. Take examples from many parts of the world where reconciliation is talked about. Rather than building bridges, they would build walls to keep communities apart. On the contrary, our Government has endeavoured through its 3R program – that is, Rebuilding, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation – to win the hearts and minds of people of all ethnic origins living within Sri Lanka. The 3Rs approach has enabled us to build bridges among different ethnic groups.
In conclusion, I wish to emphasise that the youth have an enormous responsibility to ensure that reconciliation becomes a great success in this battered nation and I am certain that our youth will ensure that incidents such as the ones that destroyed our nation will never happen in the future because our youth today are empowered to lead this nation, as one united team. The youth are the lifeblood of a country and the perceptions they carry into their adulthood will determine whether that nation will prosper or not.
Thank you and may the year 2013 be a watershed for the youth of Sri Lanka. All the very best to all of you.