KANDY, SRI LANKA – Kethmi Hettige, 17, is a student from Sri Lanka’s deep south, where the traditions and culture of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority are fiercely protected. But she says she received exposure to the minority Tamil language and culture when she attended the Future Leaders Conference in August in Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka.
“It was the first time I had met a Tamil person of my age,” she says. “When I finally started to communicate with them, I learned they had the same ideas for unity as I did. They had similar goals and plans for their future. There was nothing different about us.”
Organized by Sri Lanka Unites, SLU, a youth movement for hope and reconciliation, the three-day conference gathered young people of various ethnicities and religions from across the country.
Although the island nation recognizes both the Sinhala and Tamil languages as its official languages, Kethmi, like most others of the Sinhalese majority, does not speak Tamil. The conference encouraged her to overcome this barrier.
“Even though I couldn’t speak Tamil, towards the end of the first day, I was forced to communicate,” she says. “Otherwise, I would be alone!”
She says this was just the beginning.
“By the second day, we were friends,” she says. “We started to communicate and began sharing with each other, and we are still sharing about our lives and our cultures.”
A recent conference brought young people from various backgrounds to discuss reconciliation in Sri Lanka, a country that is just moving beyond three decades of civil conflict. SLU, which organized the conference, comprises youth who have taken charge of ensuring a peaceful future for Sri Lanka. The movement has even inspired Sri Lankans living around the world and youth from other countries to start chapters of their own.
Sri Lanka’s nearly three-decade civil conflict officially ended in May 2009. The conflict between government troops – mostly led by the Sinhalese majority – and the ethnic minority Tamil rebels ended in a bloody standoff in the country’s north, which the rebels had held since the early 1980s.
During the conflict, more than 80,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives and more than 1 million people were displaced from their homes in the northern and eastern parts of the country, according to government figures released in 2009. Although the military fighting has ended, many acknowledge that deep scars of animosity remain between the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups.
The conference brought together around 600 student leaders from all 25 districts of the country. Working in groups of 25 young people each, they listened to thought-provoking speakers, engaged in group tasks and challenges and participated in experiential learning activities.
Participants say the conference challenged them to start thinking about long-held personal prejudices and false impressions of other cultures. They say it also instigated dialogue about how they could play a role in uniting this divided nation.
This was SLU’s third annual Future Leaders Conference. But it’s only the beginning of