By Salma Yusuf
Walking into the auditorium of Jaffna College Vaddukodai last week was not overwhelming as a sea of smiling faces came way. Rather, what instantly struck us was the effervescence that filled the air in a room of nearly 500 youth from all ethnic and religious communities, who had come together from the 22 districts of the country to the culturally and historically reputed seat of learning, in the hope of playing their part in national reconciliation.
The occasion was the Future Leaders Conference organized by Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), a local-grown youth movement committed to the cause of hope and national reconciliation, mandating itself to gather young people from across the country, empowering them to seek better solutions and be advocates for sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.
BUILDING FRIENDSHIPS, BUT WITH A PURPOSE
The five-day residential conference gave students the opportunity to build friendships with fellow youth from different regions of the island and from the different ethnic and religious communities. For many of those present, such an experience of interaction with the ‘other’ was a first.
However, the conference was not only about people – to – people contact. It was also an occasion to come to terms with the bitter experiences of the past and share stories of tragic loss, which were experienced in some way or the other by all present, albeit to varying degrees. Moreover, students engaged on the very critical issues, as they understood them that need to be dealt with in post – war Sri Lanka.
Each session of the conference was designed to be both an experimental learning process while honing leadership skills and capacity of the youth. Sessions included the sharing of perspectives by civil society leaders, former foreign service personnel, sporting heroes, chief executive officers from leading private sector enterprises and young professionals from Sri Lanka and abroad.
Space was created for interactive sessions and were reflective of the frank and courageous attempts by the participating youth to tackle issues head – on.
Students were exposed to the Sri Lankan conflict from a “Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim-Urban-Rural Diaspora” view points; a deeper understanding of the conflict through the drawing up of timelines based on factual and personal perspectives, the aim of which was to educate the students of the facts of the Sri Lankan conflict and to bring about realisation that all Sri Lankans have all been affected by the war in one way or another and thus it is a collective responsibility to not let history repeat itself; identification of the potential and the role of youth in leading change with particular emphasis on the need for innovation and creative thinking, the aim of which was to set a foundation for understanding the need for good leadership for Sri Lanka’s future; and the utilization of the final report of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission as a basis to identify specific areas for viable contribution at the level of civil society, particularly through youth involvement.
A NEW GENERATION DARES TO UNITE
A highlight of the conference was that students, first hesitantly and thereafter in unison, admitted that they had at some point in their lives been prejudiced by their elders on racial, ethnic and religious fronts. Herein then lies the critical turning point from where the youth can change the course of the future – namely, through resolving to break away from the shackles, shed prejudices and embrace fellow citizens as brethren. Accordingly, the conference sought to be the proverbial microcosm of what the youth of today aspire for the future of the country.
PLEDGES AND SYMBOLIC EXPRESSIONS
Three pledges and symbolic expressions were officiated at the Future Leaders Conference. First, a pledge to unity that was not limited to the five – day residential conference that they had attended, but rather one that would hold until the end of their lives – the symbolic expression entailed a youth from Matara walking towards a youth from Mullaitivu and locking in an embrace; second, a pledge that current social ills against women and children will be actively worked against with the male students pledging their support, care and respect to their female counterparts – the symbolic expression was the male students walking up to their female counterparts and placing their hands in each other; and third, a pledge that every Sri Lankan in the future, despite race, ethnicity or religion should be granted opportunities based on equity and merit – the symbol was the displaying of a picture of a one-month old Tamil child whose dreams for his future will be intertwined with the dreams for his motherland.
NATIONAL YOUTH DECLARATION
The youth that gathered in Jaffna are now eager to go further. A National Youth Declaration for Reconciliation is set to be released on the International Day of Peace, September 21 2012. The document will thereafter be presented to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Tamil National Alliance, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and other major political parties in the country, with the aim of providing the youth's perspective and role in reconciliation, and not to mention, a symbol of the youth’s commitment and desire for a united Sri Lanka. The National Youth Declaration for Reconciliation will encompass the proactive and creative ideas of youth that were generated from the lively discussions and interaction at the Future Leaders Conference held in Jaffna.
THE FUTURE HAS ARRIVED
The Future Leaders Conference is an annual feature in the calendar of SLU, the conference held in Jaffna last week being the fourth of its kind. What is also unique about the movement is that by nature it is a decentralized organization, which encourages leadership in every province and every district of the country. Student leaders from the participating schools have been guided to start their own SLU clubs and have been then encouraged to conduct their own activities without specific management by the central SLU team. There have been examples of clubs in Kurunegala partnering with schools in Jaffna and conducting health camps for the Jaffna community on their own initiative. Furthermore, Diaspora communities have also started SLU chapters in seven major cities across the globe. These Diaspora Chapters are re-defining the role that Diaspora communities can play in Sri Lanka’s future.
The event was iconic for another special reason – it gives the next generation of Sri Lankan youth in the North of the country a feeling of dignity and purpose, and an opportunity to dream of a future for themselves and a country then can truly feel is theirs.
However, much remains to be done to ensure that the momentum for reaching out to the North and East of the country, which has suffered the hardest brunt of the conflict, becomes truly meaningful.
This must necessarily involve a multi – sectorial approach, including but not limited to the provision of livelihoods and income generation activities, strengthening of educational facilities, reviving state structures and mechanisms for citizen support, and improvement of sports initiatives and infrastructure. In a nutshell, approaches ought to involve sustained investment economically, politically, socially and culturally in the most harshly affected parts of the country.
A multi – stakeholder strategy will likely reap the most fruitful dividend for true healing and reconciliation. Such a strategy must necessarily be state – led as it will underscore the commitment of the state while sending out a powerful message, both locally and internationally, that Sri Lanka has chosen a path to a future based upon equity and fairness for all its peoples where there will never again be room for discontent, discrimination or misgiving.
While what we commit to do is important, equally important is what we commit not to do. The report of an Argentine organization created by President Raul Alfonsin on 15 December 1983, shortly after his inauguration and the end of war, is now a best – seller in Latin America. The report was titled ‘Nunca Mas’ which translates to mean ‘Never Again.’
In Sri Lanka, the youth have spoken. It is time that our elders do too. A State plan for Nunca Mas is in order.