Monday, September 17, 2012

From the Conference Book: Message from the President - Sri Lanka Unites

In 2006, as we began this journey towards youth-led grassroots reconciliation many wondered if it was pre-mature or naïve. Most agreed it was ambitious and everyone questioned if it was possible. However, our conviction that the war generation of Sri Lanka needed an opportunity to have a fresh start and space to learn from the mistakes of the past and build a greater future has never dwindled. Each one of us involved with Sri Lanka Unites was born into a Sri Lanka that was ranging with the fires of hatred and the turmoil of war. We as a generation inherited prejudices, hatred and negative stereotypes towards those outside our ethnic group. Our nationalistic duty was to join the ranks of our ethnic and religious groups and insist our people were right and had been wronged and all our actions (however much they challenged our conscience) were justified. Questions were not asked, motives were not questioned, and political manipulations were never detected. Our desire to preserve, promote and enhance our ethnicity at most took dominant prominence over our value for humanity, at the very least that of our fellow Sri Lankans.

Sri Lanka Unites from its inception dared to challenge the narrow parameters of our worldview and our approach to the ethnic conflict. We are pushing the boundaries to seek authentic solutions. Whatever approaches used in the past ranging from war, political bickering, to even peace talks and negotiations have failed time and time again. A solution to the ethnic conflict seemed to be more unrealistic than a snowstorm in a tropical island. The worldview had to change. Fundamental lies, negative generalizations, denial of crimes against each other, justification of blatant violence and silence of the moderate masses needed to be tackled if we were to see lasting change. Where do you begin? Who do you focus on?  The answer was right under our nose. Change was to begin with us. We had to purge ourselves of our own hatred. Weather we admitted it or not we have all been marred by violence and prejudices. None of us were blameless; guilty of prejudice was the verdict. Experiencing change even in our own lives has been longer than we would have liked. Hence we are by no means unaware of the long journey ahead for reconciliation of our generation. Reconciliation is a process, not an event, an emotional experience or an understanding that happens in the vacuum. Reconciliation is neither a tool for retribution nor an excuse for political inaction.
As we often quote the word for reconciliation in Greek, “tickum Olam” means to heal, repair and transform. The healing process is not for the fainthearted, repairing the broken bridges of trust and respect is not a walk in the park and the journey toward transforming the misfortunes and the hurts of the past is most certainly not for the near sighted.

Therefore the journey has just begun. Today we have youth from every district, representing every ethnicity, religion, caste and economic background passionately committed to being the change and bridging the gap of apathy and transforming hate into reconciliation. Swimming against the stream that says end of war = end of conflict = reconciliation on one side, and another stream that says grassroots efforts for reconciliation is not a proper response for grievances. Members of our youth movement that number well over 10,000 representing over 70 chapters (including 6 outside Sri Lanka) continue to make an impact. With a firm conviction that reconciliation is not solely a government mandate but is also equally a civilian endeavor, with over 70 percent of Sri Lankan youth deprived of the richness of a friendship outside their ethnic group, we have seen over a thousand leaders go through the Future Leaders’ Conferences of the past and draw their communities closer to one another breaking generations of prejudice, misconception and fundamental lies about each other. We have seen a spike in interest to pursue tri-lingual skills from the students, our all island speaking tours and workshops have reached over 30,000 students from every district, relief and rebuilding work has seen wheel chairs provided to IDP camps and hospitals in the north, essential school packs to over 2000 students from across the nation, libraries have been built, IT training has been expanded and communities that once hated each other are now aligned for a greater and more inclusive Sri Lanka. Student projects inspired by the Future Leaders’ Conference have impacted communities across Sri Lanka. From drinking wells to medical camps, dengue eradication to reconciliation seminars it has been our joy to see student leaders leading change and working across ethnic lines.  A massive worldview shift from the parameters of their self-centered or ethno-centered lives at best to a commitment to country and all our people has been inspiring transformation and providing a glim
mer of better things to come.

Today we welcome you to Jaffna for the fourth season of the Future Leaders’ Conference. After organizing the conference for three years and being transformed by the experience - students and Sri Lanka Unites chapters of the north have urged us, then impressed us, and today finally host us in all the splendor of the north. We are here in Jaffna for two reasons - celebrate the richness of our Sri Lankan heritage in the form of our very own Sri Lankan Tamil culture and to make a strong positive impact on the rebuilding and reconciliation process in the north. Northern Sri Lanka has been deprived of much due to three decades of violence. We are here to celebrate her identity and interlink it as ours and work towards rebuilding her former glory as a diverse but united generation. May the world know after decades of turmoil a new generation dares to unite and make our beloved nation thrive!

Prashan De Visser
Sri Lanka Unites

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