Tuesday, July 3, 2018

"Counter-radicalization; conversations that work- observations by Sri Lanka Unites"

     SLU at the “International Conference on Trends in Youth Radicalization in South Asia” 

In June this year, Sri Lanka Unites was honored to be given an opportunity to share lessons learnt from our work with youth peace building at the
“ International Conference on Trends in Youth Radicalization in South Asia”  organized by the Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS) and Global partnership for the prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). We thank RCSS, GPPAC and especially UNOY (United Network for Young Peace-builders) for giving us a platform to share our learnings.

Since the conference was on tends in youth radicalization, the following points were presented by Neluni Tillekeratne, Co-National Director of Sri Lanka Unites at this event as comments to support the conversation. The points which were raised on behalf of SLU at the event are elaborated in this blogpost.


Upon understanding reasons for youth radicalization, SLU tried and tested three catalysts for reconciliation.

The transformative process of a racist student is one which we have been studying for a while now, and we have invested a lot of time understanding what it really takes for a young person to reconcile along ethnic and religious lines. In Sri Lanka where the war ravaged across the country for three decades, it is not surprising that Reconciliation does not happen overnight. Based on our experience, there are numerous factors that we must be cautious about when designing modules on peace building for young people.

The following are three factors that facilitate counter-radicalization. Young people are less prone to be radicalized when the following three factors are experienced and understood 

1.      Closure through forgiving and being forgiven
It is extremely important for SLU to share this belief of ours with everyone because we do believe that forgiveness should be mainstreamed as a crucial pillar of youth reconciliation. SLU has been practicing this approach since 2007 and it is by far one of the most powerful turning points in a young person’s journey towards healing and reconciliation. In our experience, we see that forgiving another community for what they have done to your community, while simultaneously asking forgiveness for what your community has done to theirs in the past gives young people new hope and a blank slate to start with. Its easier said that done, requiring hours of very deep, reflective, emotional conversations, but it is possible.  SLU facilitates these conversations at events throughout the year.

In the context of Sinhalese and Tamil youth, after the war, we observed observed that the act of forgiveness becomes some sort of a “truce”, that the older generation failed to come to. However, the inclusion of forgiveness in as an approach to reconciliation does not by any means undervalue or ignore the need for conversations on justice, unanswered questions or addressing on-going grievances. Forgiveness is observed as a means of merging two groups of young people into agreement, giving them a platform off which they could launch to take up each others causes and do what they can to correct the faults and mistakes of the previous generation.

2.      The next most important factor is for young people is to understand the manner in which identity politics fuels conflict
We have observed that a vast majority of young people urgently need to learn how to read politics better and to understand for themselves, of the spill over of politics into religious and ethnic conflict.  We explain to young people how many atrocities and injustices in the past are rooted in the power struggles of politicians and not in the genuine hate of one community towards, another. This is also where we bring in an element if inter-generational dialogue where the older community explains the history of our conflict, by analyzing the role of politicians in brewing it. When young people come to understand the role of political influence in politics, it allows them to breakdown stereo types and prejudices that they hold against an entire group of people just because they mistrust politicians who represent this group.
(Original cartoonist unknown)

3.      The third factor is when they envision a future together and see the possibilities of shared economic prosperity

Reconciliation among youth is extremely different to how older people reconcile, based on our observations in Sri Lanka. We believe, the older generations looks at memorialization and the need for justice as a core-requirement for reconciliation while youth, especially the vast majority in rural areas, seek the assurance of security as they move into the future They question if their counter parts of the same age, of other ethnic/religious groups, could ensure and promise to never allow Sri Lanka to go back into a dark era of conflict We do believe that young people want to trust other young people, and this trust is where hope stems from. 

Racist young people of all religious and ethnic groups share their believes with us. Racist students fear that they are in competition with other racial/religious groups for economic success. They find reason to block the economic prosperity of others given their own insecurities for the future. The rising cost of living in Sri Lanka fuels young people, who in many instances are bread winners for their families, to find someone to blame. Politicians allow the blame to be transferred to other groups instead of to the government.  

When SLU was faced with this question, we tested out envisioning activities. After many years, we confirm that when young people envision a future where all proper and thrive, they are far less prone to radicalization. Once we show them the possibilities of a future with shared prosperity and encourage different groups to prosper by working together instead of against each other, their hope is renewed.

Written by
Neluni Tillekeratne
Co-National Director
June 2018

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

SLU's take on a Youth & Peace Policy - shared at NYS 2018

 SLU at NYS2018

On the 21st of April 2018. Sri Lanka Unites was happy to be part of a panel discussion during the 2nd National Youth Summit organized by Sri Lanka Development Journalists Forum. The theme of the forum was to be a Dialogue for Peace and Sustainable Development.

Supporting the dialogue on a policy for youth and peacebuilding

SLU believes that this discussion and forum is  timely initiative for a platform of this nature to be set up and we are also excited about the possibility of the push for a youth and peace-building policy. SLU believes youth and peace building does deserve attention through a policy We are convinced that the investment is worth it, for national security, for economic development, environmental sustainability and many other factors. Sri Lanka sees a cycle of violence every 18 years, where young people are radicalized, blood is shed, and just as we feel feel we have taken one step forward, we take 10 steps back. 

We need young people to pledge that mistakes of the past, where violent conflict was resorted to as an approach to solving communal issues, won’t be repeated again, as we all work towards shared prosperity. In our experience, youth who are trained to see life through a peacebuilding lens, automatically start seeing injustices in the economic system /political system/ social structures in day to day life. 

Since there are many groups addressing the topic now with a favorable political climate, we believe this policy really is an important investment of time and effort.
Sri Lanka Unites is an Implementing organization and we have worked under the radar for a long time because of political uncertainty. We feel a policy would ensure that neither SLU or any other peacebuilding community would have to function under the radar again, so we do endorse and support this idea. 

The following points were recommendations shared by SLU at the panel discussion. We hope these recommendations would be utilized when drafting the details of the policy. The recommendations stem from 11 years of challenges faced by SLU in the youth and peace-building space. We hope the challenges we have faced with our work would also be used to justify the need for a policy on youth and peace building.

Three challenges faced by SLU which should be addressed through the policy

1.   The first key challenge is understanding exactly what it takes for a young person to reconcile and acknowledging that peace-building requires consistent, tough conversations

We believe that that reconciliation does not happen overnight. Each year we host a 5 day long residential conference, and we know for a fact that this is only the beginning of a young persons journey into reconciliation. We have observed that it takes a very long time for someone to truly and fully be accepting of another ethnic group, given the reality of our past and present . We also however genuinely believe that it is possible for a young person to reconcile despite the time it takes. 

In the process of transforming a young person, we are challenged to always be mindful of the  complexities of human emotions. We were challenged to understand how young people questions the ethnic and religious conflict over time

As they grow older, new questions keep coming up, making young people reconsider their stance on reconciliation. For 11 years, SLU has been studying the transformational process of young people and what we feel is there is a need to have young people engaged in tough, open conversations, systematically throughout their years as young adults, where they solidify how they view the world and other ethnic groups.

If we are to see young people truly transform we challenge ourselves to strategically plan out how we engage our students, without letting them go after just one program. So they continuously engage with us in deeper conversations as they get older. SLU has tested this out and designed programs that engage young people consistently for over a period of a year or two with guide-books, school relation tours and social action projects. 
So in terms of the policy, we hope it will consider  looking at youth transformation strategically, starting from the time they are in school, preferably even though technically they aren’t  youth, right unto age 29 where they are constantly and systematically engaged with the topic. 

2.      The second challenge is that youth peace-building cannot not be achieved by just investing in youth.

SLU has engaged with over 300 schools and over 20 universities in the country, but we know that investing in just the young person is not enough. Teachers/principals/parents are all a part of it. Young people are energized at our conference's, but are demotivated from engaging with the conversation once they go back to their schools with principals and teachers who do not understand the value of reconciliation.  

SLU countered this barrier by setting up a vibrant SLU Teacher’s Department for teachers in-charge of SLU clubs at schools. The teachers act as middle men between the students and the principal, and also the parents. This investment was critical to ensure engagement with schools. We hope the policy would carefully address these barriers. We hope the policy could cover the need to invest in these stakeholders as well.

3.        The third challenge is the need for youth mentors
SLU has observed that once a young person accepts the message of peace building and chooses to reconcile, they are less prone to relapsing when they have a youth mentor, preferably a few years older than them, to look upto. Young people in Sri Lanka don’t have mentors to discus their grievances anywhere in the education system. Through SLU, students who engaged with us have access to trained mentors who were taught to stay in touch with students after conferences and just be their friend. We have seen incredible results. Ex when there is communal tension, the students first instinct is to ask the SLU mentor to explain why tensions take place. The mentors take time to explain to the student of how not to generalize an ethnic group or religious groups based on the actions of a few. This has been an effective buffer because their is constant reinforcement by someone they look unto. We hope the policy in discussion would consider addressing this challenge as well. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

SLU FLC 9 - A Powerful Reflection from Akkaraipattu

The 9th Future Leaders Conference of Sri Lanka Unites was held in December 2017.   Youth Engagement in Governance, Breaking the cycle of violence, Transitional Justice and Reconciliation were the themes of this conference. 
Over the last 10 years of SLU, the greatest motivation for staff and volunteers of the organization to keep committing our efforts for the cause has been the powerful post-conference feedback. We would like to share an excerpt of a note sent to us from a participant, after the conference.

The following is a reflection from Fawaz Ameer from Akkaraipattu

Before this conference I have heard about SLU but not what they are about. So I had no idea what is going to happen at the Future Leaders’ Conference before I got there. I decided to join SLU after the workshop done by the Kalmunai Reconcilation Center of SLU.

I was very nervous when I got registered at the conference and entered my assigned room. Im bit shy to move around with new people, but I always wanted to be a good friend to everyone and wanted to meet new people.When I entered my room a Sinhala friend welcomed me and gave me some sweet snacks. I was little afraid to receive it because I had a mindset that Sinhala people look at us as enemies. He again told me to take it. So I took some.

After that I went to opening ceremony with my friends,we were divided into teams and I met my new team members.I stood alone behind the team members because I was very shy at that moment. Our team mentors were introduced to us and they taught us a simple cheer- we started to cheer for our new formed team. Still I was little shy to shout in front of strangers, so I kept quiet. After that we played the train game and the rope game so we all got introduced to each other. Only few of them remembered the names of all team mates. Me and some other guys couldn’t remember all the names.  

After that we went to have dinner and went to bed. 

The next day we had our breakfast and went for the morning session. Most of the participants didnt talk to each other but this change when we started playing games.We started to talk with each other. Cheered for them by shouting their names. We wished everyone even when they failed at a game. The best thing of that evening game session was, everyone tried beyond their abilities to get points for the team by winning our matches. I thought to myself “each and every team mate is supporting and believing in me, so I should get them some points. I should not disappoint them". When the mentors asked for our thoughts after the games everyone replied the same. 

We had a team challenge for *SLU TV* where we had to prepare a drama at the end of each day about what we learnt that day. It was like adrenaline to us for those 3 days. It brought the best out of us in a critical situation because we had only a small amount of time after our games to perform about what we learned throughout the day. This was a special experience for me. When we discussed about SLU TV on the first day, I was amazed seeing that people coming with different and amazing ideas. For the first time, we all discussed with each other about what we are going to perform. It made us more closer and that was the day I shared my thoughts and ideas with others. The unbelievable thing is, they appreciated my idea. For the first time in my life, my idea was appreciated by the people who I have never met before. Because sometimes if I get a new idea and tell it to my friends or parents, only few of them will support me and others will make fun of me.

No one ever tried to make my ideas and thoughts better by helping me and no one ever helped me to execute my ideas. But in *FLC* my team mates made my ideas better with the help of all the team members. They came front to execute each and everyone’s ideas and thought. That moment touched my heart. I decided at that moment, hereafter I should appreciate others thoughts in my life and support them. I should come up speak about my thought in the society and friends circle because someone will be there to join with me and give ideas to make my thoughts useful and successful.

Thanks to SLU for giving me a family beyond religion and language. We are not a team now but we are a family. *Pirate Family*

After the conference, I had a chat with my close family about Sri Lankan communities. He argued against other ethnic groups, about the *Re-emergence function* in the north, and the *Sinhala - Muslim clash* , *1983 clash* and much more. He had wrong opinion about these clashes. As a person who participated in the *FLC* I applied what I was taught in there. The thing I applied is *breaking the cycle of hate*. You know what?, it really worked. And I was so happy even I can build some peace and understanding in my family. If a single person can do this, what if we all get together?. So I have decided to work till the end with *SLU* to change my country.

I always wanted to say *IM a SRILANKAN * .

But I was little afraid to say these days because some people say Muslims are outsiders. They don’t belong here.  But I realized not everyone is like that. The family I got in this conference had Sinhala and Hindu friends. But not even one person hated because of our religion or our language. They just looked and took care of us like their own brothers and sisters. And we realized that youth is the only way to change our country. We had a discussion about these things in our rooms in conference days. A big thanks to *SLU*  for giving us this opportunity to move around with the people beyond religion and language and gave us a mindset that *Change is on its way*

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

My Journey with Sri Lanka Unites…

I’m Jeyaseelan Jenogitha from Mulliyawalai, Mullaitivu. I’m in the final year of my studies at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce. Upon completion, I had planned to get some experience and knowledge somewhere. But suddenly I got to know about the Sri Lanka Unites Reconciliation Center Mulliyawalai, Mullaitivu through my friends, so I thought joining this center would enhance my skills and experiences.

We were the first batch of students from the Reconciliation Center Mulliyawalai. My first involvement with SLU started in 2013 and it was a life changing experience for me. I’m very much thankful to HSBC for providing me the sponsorship to get a free education through SLU. I had already completed my Diploma in Professional English Programme-2013 and Diploma in Information Technology with E-Commerce by Esoft Metro Campus. At that stage these courses were very much helpful to improve my English Knowledge and IT skills. We have a lack of resources to get this knowledge in our region so I hope this knowledge will improve my career and my University studies as well.

During that time, some of us got the opportunity to participate in the Sri Lanka Unites’ Future Leaders Conference-5 that took place in Galle. This was the best opportunity of my life because it was the first opportunity that I had to work with people from different backgrounds in Sri Lanka. This helped me to have a better understanding of how people are in the real world apart from my imagination. My previous thoughts changed as a result of my experience at the FLC.
 I learned about reconciliation, leadership, and how to respect and to accept the values and traditions of different people in Sri Lanka which is important for a person from a diverse country. The leadership qualities that I learned from SLU are helping me in my day to day activities. I’m so thankful to SLU for providing me this opportunity. In addition to that, some of us got another chance to follow the Hairdressing and Beauty Therapy- Certificate level program in Colombo. This was a different experience to improve our Personality skills.

In the more than one and a half years of my journey with SLU, I have met so many different people with different characteristics, who are still role models in my life. Through them I have obtained a wealth of good advice, technical skills, communication skills, languages skills and so much more. These benefits have led me to make better decisions in my life and career and I believe that will continue. I even had the opportunity to work for SLU for 6 months as a kid’s program trainer. This was a very nice experience to have with them.

SLU gave me a platform to start my University Studies in Colombo, and now I feel very thankful to SLU because if I had not joined the Reconciliation Center, I would have lost many amazing opportunities and experiences. I hope in the future to contribute in various ways to the success of this Reconciliation Center in Mulliyawalai.

I want to thank the management of the SLU for establishing this Reconciliation Center in our region, because they provide opportunities for youth in our community to improve their English, IT and entrepreneurship skills.

I wanted to express my gratitude to the management of SLU and to all who have engaged with SLU. I’m proudly saying that you are the people who have helped us achieve our goals and have helped us to stay in a good position in society.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Public Campaign Against Racism and Social Experiment

"Eka men samadena' a public campaign against racism was held in the central province on the 27th of March in 2016. The campaign was organized by Sri Lanka Unites school chapters of Republican International School Nuwara-Eliya and Zahira College Matale. The project was supported and directed by the 'Champions of Change' department of the organization.

The students used the campaign as an opportunity to engage with the general public and have conversations with them on their views of racism in Sri Lanka. 

It was encouraging to see young and old, Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim Sri Lankans support the cause.A signature board for pledges by the public to stand against racism in Sri Lanka filled up within just an hour. 

The campaign, however, was not meant to be just an event but a social experiment to understand the impact of such campaigns in countering racism. 

Watch the Video Here!
Click Here to Read the full Article!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Heroes to Remember

Here is a picture of a student leader who resides in Mulaithivu, who has been a part of Sri Lanka Unites for over 2 years as a volunteer and now as a staff member. He comes from an ordinary family with enough resources to survive. His life was directly affected by the brutality of war having to live in refugee camps half of his life, with minimum facilities. Family means everything to him, having to be his mom’s favourite son is a privilege according to him. Even though life has settled down with minimum chaos comparing to what it was back then during the war, bitter memories still haunt him every now and then. Beneath this handsome smile in his face there is a glimpse of hurt that cannot be settled overnight. Family that he lost during the war cannot be brought back to life. However, given these challenging circumstances, he strongly believes in his vision of being an agent for change has helped him to realize how important peace is for the country.

Nitharshan has been a key member of the Dream team 5, having the background of personal experience to share about war has been an important learning journey for everyone in the team. His energy and his outgoing personality was an important inclusion for the team to reach out to many communities. As the team went across the island found many leaders like Nitharshan, who were directly affected by war, now having the ability to live a normal-peaceful life.

As the brutalities and the devastation are easily remembered as results of the war, it’s important to recognize our heroes, the ordinary people who survived, having to compromise their livelihood and absorbing so much loss. Like Nitharshan there are many heroes who are true patriots living a meaningful and a peaceful life ensuring that there would be no more war in this country. As we go in this journey of reconciliation, we salute them, the heroes to remember.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Art for Change

‘Peace’ is absence of war, or is it?
Sri Lanka suffered a brutal war for over 3 decades that brought the country’s economy and development to a halt. Sri Lankans were scraping, crawling and fighting for survival but now we have no more war, people happily enjoy the newly born free country.  After six years of no war, yes, it is peaceful, bombs don’t go off in random directions, No more Military check points, no more restrictions to move about. But the real question is whether wounds of the hearts of the people about the past are healed?
At present as we know 'development' is a key objective in the country, people are more focused on earning money and making their children study hard. Thereby the whole country has not really undergone a process to attain true reconciliation. This is why social cohesion is a key subject to make certain that the wounds of the past wouldn’t be reopened.
Sri Lanka Unites’ initiative of visiting schools and conducting leadership workshops is a part of addressing this element of social cohesion through value based leadership.  These workshops consist of understanding war in different perspectives, Leadership development and effective communication. 20 dynamic young leaders representing different parts of the island were chosen to facilitate these workshops, who would share their experiences and their challenges, encouraging students to take action to various social issues.
One of key areas of envisioning their role in society was by painting on the canvass, expressing their views on War and Peace. Few key locations were chosen to present this opportunity to the students, where different interpretations can be compared to understand whether peace is really absence of war.