With UNDP, post-war Sri Lanka takes a small first step towards inter-ethnic reconciliation


Students of different ethnic groups engage in a game of volleyball

The war in Sri Lanka ended in May 2009 after nearly 27 years, having not only caused tremendous hardship to its people, but also fragmenting the relationships between the country’s Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities. UNDP efforts to support the reconciliation process have helped children throughout the country to understand and accept each other’s traditions, cultures, and ways of life.

Highlights

  • The 20 year-long war in Sri Lanka had restricted opportunities for interaction between people from the North, East and South.
  • The schools twinning has brought together over 1000 children from 54 schools across 12 districts in Sri Lanka.
  • The Ministry of Education is now a formal partner to the schools twinning programme.
  • Schools and larger communities are now initiating and funding their own exchange activities.

Many children growing up in the shadow of the war had never met those from other parts of the country.  For 15 year-old Hashinika Madushanthi from Thihagoda Central School in the Southern district of Matara, all this changed in 2009. Selected to join one of UNDP Sri Lanka’s schools “twinning” programmes Hashinika had a first-time opportunity to meet a Tamil student from the Northern district of Jaffna. Hashinika recalls, “Living in Matara, we had no interaction with members of the Tamil community....and to be truthful we had a lot of wrong impressions in our minds. I am really happy that these misunderstandings were cleared up during UNDP’s activities with us.”

Hashinika is one of nearly 1000 children who have participated in UNDP Sri Lanka’s schools twinning programme which pairs schools from different parts of the country in order to promote exchange as a means of increasing understanding, tolerance and reconciliation between communities. Working with educational authorities, principals, teachers, facilitators and famous sporting personalities, the project uses sports, creative and performance art to help war-affected children and youth to learn the values of teamwork, communication, non-violence and diversity.

Starting in 2006, the first Schools Twinning Programme brought together children from the Tsunami-affected regions in the North, East and South, while in 2008, the second connected children from the conflict-affected Northern, Eastern and adjacent districts. Today, working with a similar group of children from the former conflict-affected districts, the third generation of schools twinning activities are in full swing. Encouragingly, the programme has been supported by the same donor partner, AusAid, over the past five years.

Each “twinning” wave kicks off with a 3-day residential camp which brings all students, teachers and facilitators together. Following on, the schools exchange visits with their twin from a different district. During these exchanges, the students are hosted by families in the area. As part of a larger intervention supported by AusAid, UNDP works with those twin schools to upgrade their sports facilities and equipment. With the aim of reaching more members of the community, UNDP provides support for livelihood activities. Such activities have proved critical, as it helps UNDP to build a rapport with the extended community which in turn builds up community support for the reconciliation initiatives in their neighbourhood.

Sri Lanka is an extremely diverse country and its different ethnic groups share both unique and shared cultural patterns and a long history of interdependence. However, the war eroded this interdependence. The main roadway connecting the North and South remained closed during the hostilities, which in turn literally closed-off opportunities for these populations to have any interaction with each other. By way of example, in a recent baseline study by UNDP, in the relatively ethnically homogenous Northern district of Jaffna 48.1% of people reported having no opportunities to meet people from other ethnicities.

Against this background, UNDP Sri Lanka’s Schools Twinning Programme has proven to be a powerful vehicle for encounter, exchange and understanding between communities. Its impacts are best described by the participants themselves. For 17 year-old Kamsiga originally from Jaffna, who experienced personal loss and displacement during the war, the schools twinning allowed her to mingle with Sinhala students from the South and to slowly but surely let go of some of her long-held perceptions and suspicions. She has picked up some Sinhala words and enjoyed the mixed team sports activities because they helped her to “break the ice” she says.

The programmes are breaking down more than the ethnic divides; they are also encouraging young women to understand and reach their full potential. “Before I came for the camp, I thought there were some sports that only boys could do but during the camp, I learnt that I could do whatever sports I wanted and it was fun”, says a female student from Dimbulagala Maha Vidyala from the district of Polonnaruwa.

The exchanges are influencing the adults as much as they are the children. Mr. Manoj Nanayakkara, a teacher from the South shares, “After interacting with our Tamil colleagues in this environment what we realized was that we had a ‘demonized view’ of the Tamil community. If we had gained this sort of experience as at the age of 10, it would have been really great, since it would have helped us promote more cordial relationships with our brethren.”

The schools twinning programmes are creating momentum towards reconciliation in these communities.  Whereas the first and second waves were only able to formalize relations with state government officials at the provincial and district levels, the Ministry of Education is now formally part of the current wave of twinning activities. After completing UNDP-supported activities, the Karadiyanaru Maha Vidyalaya in the Batticaloa district is independently funding and undertaking additional exchange visits with new batches of students and teachers. Not to be outdone, families of twinned students from Kudaharasgala in the Ampara district, in the East, exchanged visits with host-families in northern Jaffna during the Tamil ‘festival of lights’ last year. The twinned students continue to remain in touch with their friends through letters and phone-calls.

Like in any post-war country, the challenge of reconciliation in Sri Lanka will be long and complicated. Meanwhile, Hashinika and Kamsiga return to their homes in the country’s North and South, with new friends and a better understanding of where they come from – and perhaps where their country is going.