‘A new Generation Dares to Unite the Nation’: Fourth ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ Future Leaders Conference in Jaffna

by Gnana Moonesinghe

I accepted the invitation from Sri Lanka Unites to participate at the Fourth Season of the Future Leader’s Conference to be held in Jaffna with interest but without any notion of what course the meeting on reconciliation will take.

That it turned out to be an invigorating experience, an event that made one proud to be Sri Lankan is not an exaggeration.

Who will not be proud when after all the turmoil “a new generation dares to unite the nation”, in an environment where the leaders have become fractious and complacent and are therefore unable to bring sustainable peace to the country.

The young leaders have taken the initiative to provide leadership to bring together over 500 students in the age group of 15 – 18 years from all over the country and to groom them to be the stakeholders of the vision of Sri Lanka Unites.

The vision of Sri Lanka Unites is to connect the youth from the different ethnic and religious backgrounds in a movement that promotes reconciliation which will in turn foster “a peaceful and prosperous nation for future generations”.

That the fourth season of Future Leaders’ Conference was held in Jaffna and that youth from all parts of the country came together without fear or prejudice to the area that witnessed so much of bloodshed and, has even today, barely moved out of the symbols of the war zone, is a significant achievement in itself.

This is also indicative of a wider coverage that links parents and extended families and friends of the young boys and girls attending the Future Leaders’ Conference in Jaffna. It is obvious that the participation of the youth in the Future Leaders’ Conference was made possible because of the tacit endorsement and support from this extended group of elders to the rationale for organizing the meeting in Jaffna.

The President of SLU in his message for the FLC stated that the conference was planned and sited in Jaffna to celebrate the identity of Jaffna and to “interlink it as ours and work towards rebuilding her former glory as a diverse but united generation.” In short the statement encapsulates two goals.
One, the recognition of the identity of the ethnic minority and two, the interlinking of this and other identities together to make the whole and move towards uniting the country.

It was also a humbling experience to me to find that the fresh new thinking and action has emerged from the youth in an environment where the political leaders and civil society have all but failed to take accelerated steps towards the peace constituency.

The failure of the numerous approaches initiated by the government and others to take constructive steps towards reconciliation, peace and security has made all the exercises a directionless process.

Sri Lanka Unites has mapped out its mission and is therefore able to state without fear or hesitation or apology or ambivalence that the movement is anchored in bringing together all ethnic and religious groups from all over Sri Lanka with the specific purpose of promoting reconciliation and to seek from each other forgiveness for past mistakes and acts of violence.

The delivery of equity and fairness for all its citizens is the expected goal. Words have meaning only when it resonates in action and this is precisely what the SLU movement has undertaken to accomplish. Young boys and girls from the different communities have been inspired to give leadership to solidify the essence of the vision of the SLU amongst the youth scattered all over the country.

They take on the role to become change agents for bringing effective reconciliation to “heal the injury and hurt our nation has suffered” and to work towards sustainable peace rejecting armed conflict for all times.

This message has been infectious amongst the youth and their enthusiastic rejoinders that were loud and clear at the conference were a demonstration of their commitment to lead the SLU movement to certain success. Witnessing their enthusiasm the bystanders became equally enthusiastic to support this monumental task of SLU.

Focused Leadership

The striking feature of this program is the continuous evidence throughout the session of the leadership quality of the President, of the National Director and the host of skilled young men and women who form the backbone of the organization.

They are professionals who give of their time and ‘mind’ as volunteers to this mission at the end of which they all get back to their respective jobs to earn their bread and butter. It was marvelous to see how easily the leaders transited unselfconsciously from Sinhala to Tamil, from English to Sinhala and Tamil to English when they spoke to the students or when they made announcements from the stage.

The leaders could command because they had sincerity and dreams to back their words and most importantly because they are skilled in the ‘tools’ of reconciliation that enable them to reach out to the different ethnic groups and create the necessary camaraderie essential for this exercise. The commanding presence of the leaders is obviously born out of their earnest desire to ease the “bitterness about their war experiences and sentiments of hatred based on it” and get on with their lives.

Language constraints no bar to reconciliation

The youth who came to the conference were mostly monolingual, therefore reliance on the spoken word tended to be limited. It was through personal interactions that they were able to communicate and create confidence in each other and build lasting friendships. This experience is what will energize them to go back to their villages and cities and “become leaders of reconciliation inspiring others to follow in this path towards change”.

At the end of the earlier three conferences those representing the different ethnicities did not return home, unpack their bags and get back to their earlier routine in their daily schedule. On the contrary they were able to get together and investigate into the “needs and problems of their communities” and to collectively seek solutions. This knitting process continues enriched by the growth of new members, of new chapters and by the bubbling enthusiasm of the young leaders and the new additions to the movement.

A noteworthy feature that needs to be highlighted in the organizational make up of SLU is that it is mandated that the leaders have a life span of, age 30-years, to be at the helm of this movement.

Once the ripe ‘old age’ of 30 is reached those at the helm have to bow out making room for more young persons to take over. Leadership thus becomes a rotational experience and not a permanent position. There is a conscious effort to groom new leaders to fill the vacuum in leadership when it arises. This is in sharp contrast to the prevailing conditions in the politics of our times as well as in many civil society associations.

The impressive outreach in three years

In the three years of their existence the extent of SLU’s reach to the youth in this country across the ethno religious and spatial divide is impressive as it is encouraging. The young leaders have successfully co-opted over 10,000 members to the movement representing over 70 chapters of which seven are based in other countries giving the movement an international outreach.

Youth from the different districts particularly from the North and the East who have had very little or no previous interaction at all with the rest of the country have been brought together not only to dispel past misunderstandings and prejudices but also to empower them to be masters of their destiny; the direction of the destiny of which they should be in charge so that they will never again be misled to take hostile positions, brother against brother and sister against sister.

This corrective approach can emerge only from persons who are cleansed of prejudices and mistrust and are willing to take a fresh look at the war scenario and the disastrous results in terms of lives lost, disabled, traumatized; look at the disastrous effect on the land, farming and other forms of livelihood; look at the disastrous effect on the internally and externally displaced refugees; look at the shocking state of the education, health and the lack of overall development in the conflict areas and the bordering villages as well as in the rest of the rural areas in the country.

It is invigorating to know that SLU is reaching out to the youth to give the first lesson in community living cleansed of the physical and mental barriers of the troubled period which clouded almost all of the years since independence.

It is truly amazing that even though they did not have the ‘language’ to talk to each other the youth have successfully ‘spoken’ through the language of empathy and understood each other sufficiently to be able to move forward to lay the bricks for a united Sri Lanka.

It is now up to the political leaders and civil society to provide the added impetus to make things work at the state level and give the country an overview of a peaceful Serendipity- a united country for all.

Perhaps it is not out of place at this point to refer to the empathy march by the Tamil business community from Pettah who showed solidarity with their Sinhala brethren when they as pilgrims faced hostility in South India. This must be recognized as a significant step in building bridges across what once remained inaccessible thought waves that never saw the light of day.

A serious study to inquire into the needs and aspirations of the people will surely indicate that the present ‘conversation’ with the focus on power relations, is indeed very low on the scale of needs and wants of the people in the country.

The youth have demonstrated their potential in leadership, their commitment to their chosen mission and the splendid quality of voluntarism for public service. The leaders have had imagination and the ability to dream of the ideal of cohabitation among people drawn from different ethno- religious groups.

In fact, through this movement’s unifying approach SLU is slowly but surely dismantling the man made combat element from ethnicity and is striving to reduce the citizenry to one single entity, that of humanity and humanism.

The leaders of SLU and their cohorts they have accessed as change agents have with great discernment understood that the culture of peace is not a spontaneous fall out from the end of war but that very positive structural steps must be taken to stabilize the process in which establishing interactions and links between and among once hostile persons and positions must receive foremost attention.

Serious intent to focus on this aspect has been the missing aspect in the negotiations conducted by the political leaders. This gap the youth of this country have undertaken to fill through the advocacy of their mission to bring about reconciliation and peace and prevent a return to a war embargo.

The country must salute Sri Lanka Unites for taking on the task of the political leadership and providing the direction for the future well being of the country. That they can and will be the future leaders and decision makers of this country is clearly a hopeful silver lining in the dismal realism around us. Courtesy: Sunday Island