Why social reconciliation through cultural exchanges is important, and more is better
by Shakya Lahiru Pathmalal
Two years after the war the importance of social reconciliation among different communities is more important than ever. Reconciliation, as John Paul Lederach puts it, is ‘the restoring and healing of torn-apart relationships’, For some of us in cosmopolitan cities such as Colombo, Galle and Kandy, the interaction between individuals from different communities is a daily occurrence. But a large portion of Sri Lankans do not, in an entire life-time, interact with individuals from different communities. The lack of such intermingling of communities would be an obstacle to reconciliation and a meaningful peace after a 30 year war.
In the recent past a few organizations have brought individuals from north to south so that there would be some form of cultural exchange between the two communities. One such organization is Sri Lanka Unites (SLU). The SLU mission is ‘To unite the youth of all ethnic and religious groups across Sri Lanka, in a movement which provides hope and promotes reconciliation, creating a peaceful and prosperous nation for future generations’. SLU has tried to attain this goal primarily through bringing young school goers from across the island together for a retreat aimed at developing better understanding between all communities and developing leadership skills. Institutes such as the International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES), too have played a role in bringing people together. During August 18-21 this year in what was termed an Exposure Visit Tamil youth from Manthai West in Mannar and Nedunkerni in Vavniya came to meet Sinhalese villagers in the Kurunagala district. The idea was to immerse both communities in a cultural exchange to see pastr differences and glimpse similarities the mingling of the communities led to the development of bondsbetween them. It played a major role in destroying some of the major negative stereotypes shaped by the war. While working with SLU, I would regularly hear accounts from Sinhalese and Tamil students of being given incredibly negative portrayal of the ‘other’ by their families and friends. These views when not countered through better information and actual meetings can solidify. However, after even brief encounters with their peers during the conference, these negative stereotypes are destroyed.
However, much more needs to be done. As it stands now, individuals are brought from north to south for cultural and educational programs, but we rarely hear of programmes taking people the other way. And there has rarely been meaningful follow up programmes to build on the good work that is being done. Cultural exchanges have to be done more coherently, with traffic moving both ways and more meaningful follow-up strategy has to be put in place for the advances made during brief visits to solidify and grow. Reconciliation will not only be important for future peace, but for our own future strength as a nation.
Anyone interested in contributing to further such exchanges should get in touch with Lahiru at email@example.com or Pushpi at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Reconciliation Office is not in a position to implement projects but its Youth Forum will help to find active Civil Society Partners to assist with further activity.