Featured image courtesy the Music Project
It can hardly be denied that divisions based on race has proved a major issue for Sri Lanka in the past. Racial discrimination propelled by the emergence of ethno-centric politics fuelled the civil war, and continued in its immediate aftermath as the country took its first tentative steps on the road to reconciliation.
It is important to remember this as March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. To mark this day, Groundviews features the work of some organisations that have worked tirelessly towards reconciliation in the aftermath of the war. This work, much of which focuses on the youth, aims to encourage interaction and thus eliminate the distrust and fear that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the war.
The Music Project
The Music Project is based on a powerful premise – that of using music to link communities together. It also aims to empower youth through music, giving them life skills and alternative career options.
The Project has three main components, as founder Shalini Wickramasuriya explained; the Orchestra Project, the Recorder Project, and Parallel Versing.
The Orchestra Project was actually inspired by El Sistema, a project born in Venezuela to give children alternative aspirations. In essence, music became a tool for social change, as this documentary illustrates:
In Sri Lanka, the Orchestra Project connects schools in Kurunegala and Thunnukai, Mullaitivu. Over 500 students participate in after-school programmes, learning to play the recorder, the violin, melodica and percussion. Twice a year, the students come together for UNITE, a 4 day residential programme which sees children from different areas performing together in a symbolic gesture:
“With the Orchestra Project, we work to provide access for the youth of two deprived farming communities who often do not gain entry to university, despite the Z score being as low as it is. The performances also build confidence, motivation and self esteem,” Wickramasuriya said.
The Urban Recorder Project is an after school project teaching over 1600 children to play the recorder. Currently partnering with the University of Visual and Performing Arts, the Project is conducting classes in Colombo.
At St John’s Vidyalaya, Modara
Parallel Versing meanwhile attempts to link schools in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka digitally.
“The mission of the project is to address sectarianism, foster reconciliation and to gain an understanding of the diverse global community through music… showcasing cultural diversity and enabling youth from both locations to engage in shared performances, despite the barriers of distance and face-to-face interaction,” Wickramasuriya said. The students learn songs and music from Northern Ireland as well as the North and South of Sri Lanka, and record performances.
Unity Mission Trust
Set up in the aftermath of the war in 2009, Unity Mission Trust aimed to help the youth in the North, as well as ease of the suffering of those displaced.
After the immediate suffering caused by the war eased, the Trust’s focus shifted towards reconciliation, attempting to build ‘bridges of friendship’ between youth of the North and South. A large part of this are UMT’s “Unity Camps” which bring together student leaders from all across the country to mingle and learn from each other.
Last year’s Unity Camp was held in Jaffna. Over 500 students from across the island participated in workshops, lectures and sports events together.
UMT is also gearing up for its National Unity and Integration Awards, which rewards members who work towards reconciliation.
Yet apart from these programmes, what speaks louder are the stories from participants in the programmes, as founder Bertal points out. “Specific Tamil youth leaders in the North, who stated that they hated the sinhalese, have because of UMT learnt Sinhala, so that they can become friends with people they consider as brothers and sisters,” he said. “All the main Regional Leaders across Sri Lanka know each other personally and relate and interact with each other regularly… A girl leader from Elpitiya consults a boy leader from Jaffna for advice and guidance, and vice versa.
Over 7000 students have benefited from UMT’s work, spread across 12 regional councils.
Sri Lanka Unites
Driven by youth, Sri Lanka Unites attempts to erase the barriers caused by conflict, bringing people of different areas together. Their Future Leaders Conference brings together student leaders from across the country for a 5 day camp focusing on reconciliation and healing.
Their most recent conference was held in Badulla.
Their Champions of Change programme partners two or more schools from different ethnic, religious and social settings to work together in projects that address as a specific need in the community they live in.
Write To Reconcile
Inaugurated in 2012 by Shyam Selvadurai, Write to Reconcile brings together 25 emerging writers from Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan diaspora who are interested in writing fiction, memoir or poetry on the issues of conflict, peace, reconciliation, memory and trauma. The writers participate in an 8 day residential programme and two three week online forums.
Today, a spirit of distrust still exists, as Groundviews discovered when we visited the North recently. “Peace has come… but not in a proper manner,” one vegetable seller in Jaffna’s bustling market said. “Our problems have not been addressed.”
“I know many people in the Army. They are even my friends. But we cannot look at them without remembering the atrocities we have witnessed. You can never imagine it,” another vendor said.
In this light, the work done by organisations such as those featured become all the more vital to erasing what years of conflict have wrought. It is equally important to look past differences and celebrate instead what makes us all uniquely Sri Lankan.