August 12 is International Youth day or IYD. It is a day set apart by the United Nations to celebrate the young people of our world and serves to remind us that the young people in our midst are often left out and excluded from decision-making processes that affect them. Ultimately, the lack of youth participation in important decisions is detrimental to all, regardless of age.
In Sri Lanka the non-inclusion of young people’s aspirations led to three armed youth uprisings because young people felt their needs and aspirations were ignored by the rulers of the country. Recognising the need to promote and encourage young people to participate in decision-making processes and draw attention to youth issues worldwide; national and local governments organise concerts, workshops, cultural events, and meetings with national and local government officials as well as intra and inter-country youth exchanges.
The theme of International Youth Day 2017 is dedicated to celebrating young people’s contributions to conflict prevention and transformation as well as inclusion, social justice, and sustainable peace. This year’s theme is especially relevant to Sri Lanka’s youth emerging from the near three-decade-long civil war, which pitted the three major communities against each other and in the end divided our country along racial or exclusivist lines – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim.
As a first step it is therefore necessary to admit that these tensions still exist. The end of the war, stopped the bloodshed, but has not brought an end to heightened exclusivist ethnic tensions, which were heightened during the course of the conflict.
The media and politicians continue to play an ongoing role in heightening differences and sensationalising ordinary, mundane events as terrorist activities. The attacks on the Muslim community of yesteryear, the portrayal of acts of common thieves and thugs in the north, who have accomplices in the south as acts of terrorists, only exacerbate ethnic consciousness’ and suspicion among ethnicities and communities.
It also spreads fear and further divides today’s young people, who grew up traumatised on a diet of ethnic and racial exclusivity during the recent ethnic war in the country.
As described by sociologist Johan Galtung an end to war does not target the roots of the conflict or the protracted ethnic consciousnesses of the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. Thus peace-building, which acknowledges the roots of the conflict and tries to prevent further conflict, is essential in achieving a durable and positive peace
Trauma and experiences endured by ethnic groups become affected by ‘selective forgetting and remembering, for example Muslim children will relive the experiences of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the LTTE whom they equate with Tamils. Similarly, Sinhala children caught up in IED explosions equate the LTTE with Tamils and in like-manner Tamil children subject to military bombardment and aerial attacks equate them with attacks by Sinhalese.
This group identity does not disappear with the end of the armed conflict. The strong ethnic consciousness has been passed down to the children and young people in society, many or most of whom were born after the beginning of the conflict in 1983 and viewed the ‘other’ as an enemy.
Peace-building and achieving a sustainable peace is the core message of this year’s IYD. We need to acknowledge the roots of the conflict to prevent future conflicts and achieve a durable peace.
It is therefore important that young people play a part in drawing up long-term programmes aimed at bringing about reconciliation among the communities. We also need to ensure the ethnic ‘exclusivism’ which kept the older generation apart is not passed on to the young people of today.
Youth the world over are not exclusive, they do not belong to a particular race, religion or ethnicity, what binds them is their youth and the media has a major responsibility in helping them come together as young people. In an effort to involve young people in decision-making processes, Sri Lanka has determined that at the time of elections, political parties must ensure that 10% of the candidates nominated must be young people. This is a good beginning and not an end in itself.
Politicians and media people share an enormous responsibility in helping the traumatised young people of our country to overcome their shared trauma of ‘them’ vs ‘us’ mentality and take the first steps for building our country anew based on values of justice and social equality.
Only then will we meet the goals of International Youth Day 2017.