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Restoring peace through unity: embassy in Sri Lanka supports youth programs.

How do two sides overcome entrenched distrust after decades of civil war, especially when there are ethnic and language differences and each side has learned to fear since childhood?

Among the nations grappling with this question is the South Asian island of Sri Lanka, which has been mired in ethnic tension almost since gaining independence in 1948. Conflicts between the majority Sinhala (mostly Buddhist) population and minority Tamil (largely Hindu or Muslim) population led to a bloody civil war and one of the most destructive terrorist organizations of modern times, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or "Tamil Tigers."

Since the war ended in 2009, this nation of 20 million has taken tenuous steps toward repairing more than a quarter century of destruction and an even longer period of mistrust. The U.S. government provided post-war humanitarian assistance, including food and non-food aid and support for residents' livelihoods. It also aided with demining, resettlement of the displaced, reintegration of ex-combatants and economic redevelopment.

These actions were just the beginning. True reconciliation could take place only if there were a real reduction in tensions between the communities and if every Sri Lankan felt a personal stake in the nation's future.

According to the United Nations Development Program, 40 percent of post-conflict countries fall back into conflict within five years after fighting ceases, so there was only a small window of opportunity for U.S. programs to make a difference. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo decided the best chance of success was to invest heavily in youth programs that foster tolerance as a means to lasting peace.

Because two generations of Sri Lankans had never known unity, and entire communities had been cut off from neighbors, simply exposing young people to neighbors of other faiths and ethnicities was seen as a crucial first step. The embassy began partnering with students, leaders of community groups and nongovernmental and civic organizations to provide youth with the training and tools to repair their own communities.


In one effort, the post marked International Peace Day (Sept. 21) by helping undergraduate students from seven universities create Mihasa, an organization dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The founding members had attended the Martin Luther King, Jr. leadership workshops sponsored by the post's public affairs section in 2010 and 2011, which brought hundreds of children together from across the island for interfaith discussions and nonviolence training.

These sessions inspired a core group to make changes in its community. Through Mihasa, these young people are undertaking projects such as providing financial assistance to children in war-affected areas and building a library for a school in an impoverished village.

"We were motivated by the nonviolence philosophy practiced by Dr. King, which inspired us to form Mihasa to take the message of nonviolence to our communities and the society at large," said Mihasa founder Shashika De Silva.

"The MLK workshops provided the stage for us to come together as one single group bridging our ethnic, geographical and social differences. This conference gave us the opportunity to network with students from other universities, including the North and East, to form the Mihasa Foundation."

USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) also played a leading role with young people. The office took note of the importance of religious festivals in Sri Lankan life, and in 2011 it brought together several Tamil youth groups from the former northern war zones and several southern Sinhalese communities for a joint pilgrimage to the city of Katharagama, known for its multi-religious celebration. Prior to the nation's independence, the Katharagama Esala Festival had been multi-ethnic and involved many religions, but, as ethnic division grew, Tamil communities were left off the festival program in this majority Sinhalese area. In July 2011, thanks to OTI's help, Tamil Hindu youth for the first time since independence participated in the parades and street performances at the Katharagama Festival.



"We have always had fear in our minds to interact with Sinhala youth, but now I do not feel any difference between us. They are not different people. We share the same feelings and we are all interested in living together," said Mugunthini, a participant from the former LTTE stronghold of Kilinochchi Now, I really feel we are 'one family' and I am praying to God this continues forever."

A Sinhala youth from the Southern coastal city of Matara offered similar sentiments.

"We gained relationships after many years of being apart," said Vishvanathan. "We shared our pain and realized all of us share similar pain. We really are one nation and one family."

The Katharagama Festival was more than a venue for simply performing together. Workshops, seminars and opportunities helped the two sides see beyond the mistrust and destruction of the conflict and learn about one another as humans. In the end, more than 100,000 people watched the parade that showcased the unity. Thousands of people like Mugunthini and Vishvanathan learned more about Sri Lankan traditions, and both Tamil and Sinhala youth felt pride in their cultures and gained a means to share the island's common heritage.

Meanwhile, the embassy's political section, with grants from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and help from local partners, supported Sri Lankan youths' production of a radio drama that will star young Sri Lankans and air their concerns. The post hopes this will spark a broader discussion of how the nation's communities can work together.

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Patricia Butenis said of the vision, "There is no greater challenge than helping a country come together after more than two decades of war. But we share a conviction with the Sri Lanka people that this can and must be done. To be successful, we have to think long-term. The events leading up to the conflict did not happen overnight and neither will the solution. But we are committed to the long haul and to see Sri Lanka prosper and reach its potential in South Asia."

More such programs are already under way, through youth empowerment grants, regional youth conferences, a local youth forum and social media outreach activities. The embassy will stay engaged over the coming year to build on this successful momentum.

Through these and other programs, Sri Lankan youth--Tamil, Sinhalese, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian--are coming to see diversity as a strength, not a weakness, and are overcoming earlier prejudices. They are the hope for a very different future.

By Christopher Teal, public affairs officer, U.S. Embassy in Colombo
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Author:Teal, Christopher
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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