By Jonathan Kay
Like Israel and Rwanda, Sri Lanka serves, for many world-watchers, as a byword for ethno-religious conflict. For almost three decades, the country’s largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority engaged in an on-and-off civil war against a guerrilla insurgency waged by elements from within the country’s largely Hindu Tamil minority.
And yet, despite this bitter legacy of conflict, some surprisingly robust efforts at reconciliation have emerged. One of the most promising comes in the form of Sri Lanka Unites, a group that brings young adults from both sides together for conferences and shared activities.
This August, the group will hold a leadership conference in the city of Jaffna, in the heart of the war-torn north. It is expected to draw 500 top student leaders, including 50 from the diaspora (of whom 15 will be from Canada). It is believed to be the first national event of any kind to be held in Jaffna since the end of the civil war.
Of course, this is hardly the first well-intentioned effort at inter-ethnic bridge-building that the world has witnessed. In Israel, for instance, one constantly hears of Jewish-Arab theatre groups, choirs and such. Despite the best of the intentions, they often founder as soon as the political atmosphere turns violent.
But Sri Lanka Unites has been around for several years now, and has been growing steadily. Indeed, its success offers lessons for similar initiatives in other parts of the world.
Earlier this month, two of the group’s founders sat down with me in Toronto, and told their story.
Kirubakaran Christin Rajah is a Tamil man, born in 1982 in Sri Lanka’s northwestern Mannar district. From an early age, he witnessed the horror of war, and lived among the fevered stirrings of Tamil Tiger insurgency. At one point, his family was forced to flee to India, and then displaced-persons camps across the Sri Lankan north. When he was a teenager, his father sent him to the capital of Colombo, hoping he could escape the hate and violence that permeated Sri Lanka’s northern war zones.
It was in the Colombo area that Christin (as he is called) met Prashan De Visser, a Burgher/Sinhalese neighbour. Prashan was an unlikely friend for a Tamil newcomer: The father of someone Prasha was close to had been killed, along with 14 others, in the 1997 Colombo World Trade Centre bombing. “I decided that all northern Tamils are terrorists,” Prashan told me. “I remembered images of the bombing in the first Gulf War. And I remember thinking ‘Why don’t we just do the same thing to northern Sri Lanka — bomb everyone?’”
Yet the two boys found they had a lot in common. For one thing, they both passionately loved cricket and music. They also had a third, deeper, commonality: religion. Both are Christians, and their attendance at a common church helped their friendship blossom.
Until that point, Prashan recalls, he thought of the conflict with the north as a game: “I used to watch the news and see the casualty figures. It was like keeping score — how many Tigers did we kill versus how many of our soldiers got killed.” His relationship with his new friend from the north changed that: For the first time, he began to see Tamils as human beings.
In time, Prashan went with Christin to visit Christin’s northern hometown of Vauvniya, where he befriended other Tamils — including one teenager who turned out, to Prashan’s shock, to be an LTTE [Tamil Tiger] soldier. “I thought to myself: ‘When I was watching the news, this was the kind of guy I was rooting for the army to kill.’ They were just numbers to me. Now, this number was a human being standing in front of me.”
Out of that trip came the idea of Sri Lanka Unites, whose meetings mix cricket matches with dialogue sessions, in which Tamils and Sinhalese ask each other for forgiveness. “Over 70% of Sri Lankan youth don’t have friends outside their [ethnic] group,” Prashan told me. Sri Lanka United is helping to change that.
The example shows that reconciliation can take root even between the bitterest enemies — but only when there is some germ of commonality to act as a nucleus. In the case of these two peace activists, it was cricket, music, Christianity, and the English language.
But there needs to be several more ingredients as well: goodwill, humility, and the willingness to re-examine old hatreds. Kirubakaran Christin Rajah and Prashan De Visser both possess these qualities. And the organization they have created is a model not only for other Sri Lankans, but the rest of the world besides.
This piece appearing in “Full Comment” of “National Post” was written by Jonathan Kay who is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies